American Civil War
Friday, 3 July 1863Army of the Potomac under George Meade: approx. 9,400 engaged in the defense, 122 guns (in range)
Army of Northern Virgina under Robert E. Lee: approx. 12,000 engaged in the charge, 164 guns (in range).
Weather: Clear, still. 87 degrees (30 C) at 15:00.
Sunset: 19:41 End of Twilight: 20:13
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from date and location)
Geo Coordinates: 39° 48′ 7″ N, 77° 14′ 10″ W
My sand table diorama of Pickett's Charge. View west from Cemetery Ridge. Models are 5mm (1:300 scale), groundscale- 1:1500. (Image protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying).
The Great American Banzai Charge
This is about as far from being an obscure incident in an obscure battle as it's possible to get. Pickett's Charge, in fact, ranks right up there with D-Day as one of the most famous military events in American military history. So why is it a post in my increasingly misnamed blog, Obscure Battles? Because I have the urge to talk about some of the more obscure but important aspects of this battle-within-a-battle that, in my and several of my resources' opinions, had a direct bearing on how it turned out. In playing this as a wargame innumerable times, those aspects have turned out--at least in laboratory--to be critical factors. And there are some obscure details of this charge that may explain the inevitability of its failure.
Also, the real reason is that I just had to get some things off my chest. So the theme of this post will be obscure in its point of view. Not to say downright revisionist. To inveterate Confederates what I'm going to write here may be considered Yankee propaganda and heresy. But I was never a Confederate in sympathy; my ancestors all fought for the Union--on my mom's side, at least.
Because it's probably the most written-about battle in American history, I'm not going to spend any time on the buildup to Gettysburg, or even on the events of the first two days of that three day battle. I'm only going to reflect on what I imagine was the strategic mindset of Robert E. Lee as he conceived of this doomed attack on this third day of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
For orientation, here is what the battlefield looked like at about midday on 3 July 1863. The Confederate artillery had been massing all morning and are in their final positions before their bombardment of the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Confederate infantry are shown in their waiting positions prior to the attack. All units are represented in the actual footprint that would have been occupied by the regiment or battery given its reported strength on July 3. The map details only the area around the Union center and does not include the action around Culp's Hill to the northwest, Ewell's troops north of the town of Gettysburg, or the forces around Little and Big Round Tops to the south. (Note that this map is protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying).
What was Lee thinking?When I was ten, my family visited Gettysburg one Sunday. As my dad and I stood at the Angle, where Webb's Pennsylvanians stood a century before, looking across to Seminary Ridge, it struck both of us as insane that 10,000 men, all upright and shoulder-to-shoulder, would walk across that open thousand yards into what must have seemed certain death to them. I was in awe of the courage of those men, knowing they were going to die horribly in the next twenty minutes, who marched on anyway, holding on to each others' sleeves. My dad (inveterate Civil War nut that he was) only said, "Incredible." Then, for dramatic effect, muttered it again, "Incredible." My dad was such a ham.
The whole point of Lee's second invasion of the North in the summer of 1863 was to end the war. The Confederacy was not doing well. Virtually the entire Mississippi River was cut and the last railroad link to the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy at Vicksburg was about to fall to U.S.Grant (the day after Pickett's Charge, in fact). The South was starving from the Anaconda strategy of the North, with nearly every seaport blockaded by the U.S. Navy. No foreign power had recognized the Confederacy since its creation and both Lee and Jefferson Davis realized that they needed a decisive military victory to have any chance of help from Britain or France. In fact, there were representatives of the European powers riding with Lee's staff, observing this battle closely, ready to advise their respective governments as to whether the Confederacy had a chance of surviving.
In spite of uninterrupted battlefield victories by the Army of Northern Virginia over the Union Army of the Potomac for the preceding two years (with the singular exception of Antietam the summer before), Lee was growing weary of the war. How many times did he have to beat "these people" (as he called them) before they saw their cause was hopeless? Gettysburg was intended to be the final battle. Once he crushed the Army of the Potomac on its own ground, north of Washington, he was sure that the Lincoln administration would be forced by Congress to sue for peace.
But after two days of intense combat, Lee's army had been unable to force Meade to recognize defeat and to retreat like his predecessors would have done. The supposedly whipped Yankees had held off furious attacks on their right at Culp's Hill, on their left at Little Round Top, and in the center at the Peach Orchard and on Cemetery Ridge. But by the third day, they had refused to recognize defeat and remained infuriatingly present.
So Lee, having spent a sleepless night (he had been, according to memoirists, suffering from a stomach flu the previous two days), saw that the only thing for it was to launch a massive attack on the Federal center at Cemetery Ridge. He reasoned that Meade, having had to reinforce both his left and right wings from the previous days' fighting, would have had to weaken his center. He also thought the Yankees were on the verge of moral collapse, having sustained such horrific casualties since Wednesday. That he didn't reach that same conclusion of the moral status of his own army, who had also sustained terrible losses, betrays his introspective blindness.
This, too, was another example of success-induced failure (see my articles on Lobositz and Blenheim); the Army of Northern Virginia was full of itself after having enjoyed one glorious victory over the Army of the Potomac after another since Lee took command. Lee felt his army was invincible. There was a common belief among the soldiers of that army that one Reb could whip three Yankees. But what neither Lee nor his men seemed to notice was that the Yankees kept fighting--and giving as good as they got. It had been, up to now, the courage of the top leadership of the Army of the Potomac that had been lacking, not of the troops themselves (the Seven Days Battles at the end of the Peninsula Campaign the previous summer, had all been tactical Union victories, which the then-C-in-C McClellan had retreated from). And, reading the recollections of the men on Cemetery Ridge that morning, they certainly didn't sound defeated. Many of them had been itching for another fight with the "arrogant people" as the Confederates were known.
Several participants on both sides at Pickett's Charge remembered those Seven Days Battles, not to mention the suicidal assaults by the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg seven months earlier, and saw the 1000 yards of open field over which the Confederates would have to come as a chilling replay of those slaughters. Longstreet himself, whom Lee had tasked with organizing this assault, thought it was suicidal (at least in his own memoirs).
Not Lee, though. He may have just been depressed. As aggressive and successful as he was, by 1863 he was also weary of the carnage and wanted it to end. So maybe this was just a Hail Mary Pass, an act of desperation.
Lee liked to flatter himself of his ability to read his opponents, and he'd been up against such a chorus line of unworthy opposite-numbers for the past year (McClellan, Pope, Hooker, Burnside) that he grew to have contempt for them. George Meade, who had only had command of the Army of the Potomac for four days, was someone Lee had known from the Old Army and he wrote him off, too, as "cautious"--not a compliment from Lee. So, he saw himself on the third day of Gettysburg as fighting just one man, Meade, and not ninety-some thousand veteran fighters dug in on the high ground with enfilading fields of fire.
Meade, as it would turn out, would not be much of a factor in this closing act of Gettysburg. He had, the night before, anticipated that Lee, having tried both his flanks the previous two days, would try hitting his center on Friday. His role, as he saw it as Potomac's new commander, was to manage its assets and make sure each sector had enough force to protect its front. Lee was right about him; he was, by nature, cautious--not an aggressive leader--and, unlike his failed predecessor, "Fightin'" Joe Hooker, had no thought of attacking. Meade had a clearly superior position, superior numbers, plenty of ammo, and interior lines. As a native Pennsylvanian, he was also fighting on his home ground, as were several of his brigades. All he had to do was not make a mistake. That was for Lee to make.
The real Union leaders who would make a difference on Cemetery Ridge were the corps, division and brigade commanders, like Hancock, Gibbon, and Webb.
And of course there were the troops of Potomac's First and Second Corps, who definitely didn't see themselves as defeated on that Friday afternoon before the big Fourth of July weekend.
"No fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position."
Lee had originally planned a joint assault at dawn, with Ewell attacking up Culp's Hill again while Longstreet simultaneously hit the Union center. But it was taking Pickett's fresh division so long to get onto the battlefield that this plan fell apart. Ewell had gone ahead anyway on the morning of 3 July and made a final attempt to take Culp's Hill on the Union right, ultimately to no effect. Lee, let this unsupported attack go ahead for several hours, either thinking that Meade would move reinforcements to that sector away from his center, or due to the Army of Northern Virginia's sloppy staff work. Ewell said he'd never got a message to the change of plans. This seems likely.
Meanwhile, Lee and Longstreet spent the morning riding around the south and west side of the battlefield, planning the big assault. Longstreet, if we are to believe his post-war explanation, spent this time trying to persuade Lee to move the Army further around to the south and go up the south flank of Round Top instead, coming between the enemy and Washington. Lee supposedly ruled this out, saying that it would take too long, that it would demoralize the Army to disengage and maneuver around to the south, and, besides, "the enemy is there" (pointing to Cemetery Ridge). More than once, according to Longstreet, he protested having to make the attack. He writes that he told General Lee, "General,...It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." In reality, Longstreet didn't even have that many, but General Lee had made up his mind.
The plan called for an initial "softening" bombardment by as many as 160 guns, arrayed in a crossfire arc focusing on Cemetery Ridge (see map above). To this end, batteries from both Longstreet's and A.P. Hill's corps spent the hours of the morning tip-toeing into position so as not to draw attention to themselves. The mass movement, though, was noticed by Union lookouts from their high ground all over the field, from Round Top to Cemetery Hill. So everybody knew a big attack was coming on the center. Eyewitnesses said the morning was very quiet and you could hear the heavy traffic rumbling and clanking from clear across the valley. So much for surprise. Who did the Rebs think they were fooling?
The southern half of the bombardment was to be made with all of Longstreet's artillery under Porter Alexander, a rising young artillery genius in the A.N.V. who had been on everyone's radar. The northern half (roughly) was to be made by all of A.P. Hill's guns plus some of Ewell's corps artillery, all under Hill's chief of artillery, Lindsay Walker. The whole shootin' match was under the titular direction of a doddering William Pendleton, who, though well-liked by Lee and everyone, had been brow-beaten by his congregation to leave the ministry and return to his pre-retirement profession as an artillery officer. Pendleton, though well-meaning, hadn't been on active duty for years, during which time artillery technology had advanced considerably. His role in the upcoming bombardment was to be largely unhelpful.
When all the batteries were finally in place, the deployment occupied a shallow arc roughly a mile and two-thirds wide (2.7 km) and constituted 164 tubes. It was to be the largest concentration of artillery ever assembled on any battlefield to date. In addition to these, another two dozen guns of Ewell's, northeast of Culp's Hill, were intended to fire on the Yankees in an enfilading role. Nine short range howitzers, otherwise useless in this thousand yard bombardment, were withdrawn to a safe place behind the line to be used for close support once the actual charge had begun.
Originally, Lee wanted all three of Longstreet's divisions (McLaws, Hood, and Pickett) to make the charge. But Longstreet argued that the first two, which had been fighting the previous two days, were in no shape, and besides, they were holding down the southern flank opposite the Round Tops. So Lee assigned Longstreet two of A.P.Hill's divisions (Pender's and Heth's). Of course, these two divisions had been fighting the previous two days, as well, and were no better shape to make the attack than McLaws' and Hood's. But Lee, thanks to his amateurish staff, seems to have been unaware of the relative combat readiness of his various units. Hill, for his part, washed his hands of the whole affair and passive-aggressively retired from the discussion.
In total, with Pickett's three brigades and Pender's and Heth's six (Pender and Heth had both been wounded and were replaced in command by Trimble and Pettigrew), the assaulting infantry force constituted from 12-13,000 men (see OOB below), a huge force. Lee had no clue as to the size of the Union force on Cemetery Ridge, but from what he could make out through his field glasses it seemed like just Hancock's II Corps, plus some ad hoc brigades from I Corps (now under Newton). In total he estimated that there were only 5-6,000 troops thinly holding the low ridge. He also counted only 18 guns that he could see. The actual number of Union infantry on Cemetery ridge was over 7,000 and the total number of guns covering the position was closer to 100, not including all the batteries in reserve. Meade, enjoying interior lines, also had quite a few extra divisions in reserve (from the fresh VI Corps as well as V and III Corps), out of sight on the reverse slopes and in the woods.
Longstreet had all of the nine infantry brigades he was going to use in the assault line up and lie down behind the gun lines (see deployment in map above). Most were hidden back in the woods on the forward slope of the Seminary Ridge, but Kemper's and Garnett's brigades of Pickett's division were made to lie down out in the open in a slight depression right behind Alexander's batteries, hidden from view from at least Cemetery Ridge (but not Little Round Top). In support of these Longstreet had been assigned four other brigades from Hill's corps (Wilcox, Lang, Posey, and Mahone), though there was no formal arrangement. Rode's division from Ewell's corps was supposed to anchor the left flank of the charge and was lying down in a sunken road northwest of Cemetery Hill. But, except for Wilcox and Lang, none of these troops lifted their heads to help when it was needed.
Alexander had told Longstreet he thought it would take a quarter to half-an-hour to destroy the 18 guns he could see on Cemetery Ridge. Apparently, neither he nor anyone else noticed all of the guns to the north and south of that ridge. Longstreet, who didn't want to make the attack at all and was looking for any excuse to avoid it, told Alexander to let him know, in his judgement, when and if he had suppressed the Union artillery and whether he thought Pickett should step off. This put Alexander, a mere brevet colonel, in a awkward position. He didn't want to the responsibility for cancelling an attack that Robert E. Lee had ordered, and he told Longstreet as much. Longstreet took the buck back...temporarily.
It was both Alexander's and Longstreet's opinion that the charge would fail. Alexander wasn't going to let Longstreet off the hook, though. He was the one getting the general's salary. The only commander who seemed enthusiastic for it was George Pickett, who had been out of action for nearly a year and was champing at the bit to show what his division could do.
A damn fine fireworks display
Lee had given everyone a target for the attack. It was to be a clump of trees on the northern side of the long, low slope hereafter known as Cemetery Ridge. At the time it wasn't called that as it was barely a ridge that sloped gently south of Cemetery Hill (site of the Gettysburg cemetery, naturally). But it was the center of the Meade's army. So all of the Confederate artillery was zeroed in on this area. And when they stepped off, the divisions of Pickett and Pettigrew were to head for that clump, about a thousand yards away; the left flank of Pickett's brigades linking up, somehow, with the right flank of Pettigrew's, which was several hundred yards behind and north of Pickett.
At precisely 1:07, according to the obsessive compulsive record keeper Prof. Michael Jacobs of Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg, the first two of Alexander's guns fired, signalling the beginning of the cannonade. (He also recorded the temperature as 87 degrees.) This time was corroborated by several witnesses on the Union side. According to A.N.V. records (the few that survived), the order to start the cannonade was delivered at 1:30. But, for some reason, everyone in the Confederate Army was on a different time zone than the rest of the country, evidently 23 minutes faster than EST. Supposedly, a surgeon in Pettigrew's division, who, like everybody else, also knew the thing was supposed to start at 1:30, looked at his own watch ("Yup, 1:30 on the dot.") and took it upon himself to walk out to tell Walker (Hill's artillery chief) to start firing.
The fire started from the southern extremity and rolled its way north in series like a fuze.
Detail of sand table model. Alexander's batteries around the Peach Orchard and the Trostle Farm. Wilcox's brigade is in the background.
The troops of Hancock's II Corps had just settled in to eating their midday meal when the first shells hit, and scrambled like bugs to find cover. The first few rounds were accurate and took some lives or blew up a caisson or two. But as the smoke started to envelope both the target and the Confederate guns (there was no breeze to carry it away), the accuracy fell off. Confederate gunners tended to be pretty sloppy and shoot high, so the subsequent shot and shell mostly flew over the top of Cemetery Ridge, landing in the rear areas.
Also, Confederate ammunition was extremely faulty. Numerous reports on the receiving end that day indicated that as many as three out of four Confederate shell and shrapnel rounds were duds, landing in the rear areas as inert round shot. Confederate fuzes were known to be so slipshod, in fact (either exploding prematurely or not at all) that there was doctrine in their own artillery not to fire over the heads of infantry. So, while they were seeming to pulverize the Yankees, in fact, their fire had much less effect than could be seen from Alexander's vantage.
Throughout the bombardment, there turned out to be very few casualties among the Union infantry, who were able to hug the ground behind the walls, rocks and entrenchments they had dug that morning. In fact, the farther forward they were, the safer they turned out to be. General Gibbon and his aide, realizing this, went all the way forward past the wall and sat down under the shade of a tree to enjoy the fireworks show in safety.
Obeying Union artillery commander General Hunt's orders, the II Corps batteries on Cemetery Ridge withheld their fire for fifteen minutes, though they were taking the worst of the pounding. Hunt was concerned to conserve his artillery's long range ammunition for the expected infantry assault and not have it wasted on counter-battery duels. One of Osborne's XI Corps batteries on Cemetery Hill did open up at once, and took out a few Confederate guns, but it was soon stopped by Osborne. Nevertheless, while the infantry were not being much hurt, the bombardment was rattling his men and Hancock began galloping around ordering the batteries under this command to start replying. Hunt, in his wake, himself went around counseling his gunners to fire slowly and deliberately, so as not to waste ammunition.
When Hancock got to the southern end of the center position he ordered the nearest three batteries of McGilvery's batteries to open fire. They did but as soon as Hancock left, McGilvery himself, whose direct boss was Hunt, galloped over and ordered them to cease fire. The Confederate artillery could not see McGilvery's 34 guns from their vantage and McGilvery wanted to lie in ambush for the infantry assault. His six batteries were in an excellent enfilade position.
1:1500 scale sand table model during pre-charge bombardment, looking south. Cemetery Ridge is on the left and the arc of Confederate artillery is on right. Photo taken about 2006.
So the only Union artillery firing back during the Confederate bombardment was that of II Corps' 31 guns. And it was they who took the harshest pounding, losing almost half their guns. Some of the batteries were hit so hard that they barely had enough men left to man the guns that were left.
The other consequence of the Confederate pounding (though unintentional) was that all the overshot rounds landed on the rear areas behind Cemetery Hill and the Taneytown Road, where a lot of reserve formations, cooks, dressing stations, war correspondents, and sutlers were relaxing. The infantry on the front line, when they heard the telltale scream of one of the Confederate rifle bolts fly over, called them "Quartermaster Hunters" since it was all the rear area support personnel who were getting the worst of it. But a brigade of VI Corps infantry, marching down the Taneytown Road from Culp's Hill to rejoin its parent division behind Round Top (Eustis' brigade), found itself caught in the open by the bounding roundshot and dud shells (which could still kill like a cannon ball if they hit anyone), and quickened its pace to a run.
One of these collateral targets was the Leicester house, where Meade had set up his headquarters. So many shots came crashing through the light frame farmhouse, and had killed so many of the horses lucklessly tethered in the front yard, that Meade and his staff were forced to move their operations a few hundred yards south to barn on the Taneytown Road. But this, too, was taking a lot of overshot shells and cannon balls. So they were forced to move once again further northwest, to Power's Hill. The result of this was that nobody could find Meade's headquarters (the lucky orderly he had left at Leicester house as a human forwarding address took it upon himself to leave, as well).
But the biggest unintended consequence of the incompetent Confederate gunnery was that rounds were finding their way back to Hunt's artillery reserve, as well as the army's ammunition park. Ferguson, the acting commander of the park at the time, moved the five reserve batteries as well as all the ammunition caissons south into the shadow of Little Round Top. This was prudent but it had the consequence of putting the reserve artillery and ammunition several hundred yards (and vital minutes) further away from Cemetery Ridge. When Hunt rode back to retrieve a battery to shove into the fight, he was disconcerted to find an empty field and a lone artilleryman who had been left to tell him where everybody had gone.
For the most part, except for roughing up the II Corps artillery batteries, the results of the Confederate cannonade were negligible. Very few Union infantry were killed, and as the bombardment dragged on it became somewhat of a joke to these battle-hardened, cynical Yankees. One of McGilvery battery commanders sarcastically complimented it as an excellently produced fireworks display but otherwise was "the humbug of the season."A Prussian military observer on the Confederate side, Hauptman Schiebert, pronounced it "Pulververschwendung", roughly translated as a waste of powder (and with an emphasis on the last syllable). To the Confederates, however, it seemed like they were delivering magnificent shock and awe.
The effectiveness of the Union counter fire, however, was somewhat greater on the Confederates. Though the three dozen guns on Cemetery Ridge also had a tendency to overshoot their intended targets in the Confederate gun line, their shells were not nearly so defective and landed with devastating effect among the waiting formations of Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions behind. Kemper's brigade, lying in in the open on the Confederate right, was particularly hard hit. Hugging the ground in the deceptive safety of the woods behind Kemper and Garnett, Armistead's men were suffering from the added danger of shells exploding in the trees and raining branches and splinters on them, amplifying the effect. Though Confederate record keeping was sloppy (and certainly nobody was walking around with a spreadsheet, ticking off casualties during the bombardment), it's been estimated that Pickett's division alone took between 350 and 500 casualties before they even got up to start their charge (between 8 and 11% casualty rate).
The afternoon wears on...
Rather than the initial fifteen minutes Alexander had optimistically estimated it would take him to silence all the Union artillery in the Union center, the bombardment continued for about an hour-and-three-quarters. It was hard for Alexander and his gunners to tell through the smoke how effective their rounds were, but with the continued bright flashes of the Yankee batteries continuing to return fire through the fog, his batteries kept it up. His guns, though firing slowly and deliberately (probably about one round per gun every 90 seconds or so), eventually started to run out of ammunition. Each piece had gone into action with a regulation 108 long range rounds in its chests (not including 12 rounds of short range canister), and, as the chests emptied, men sent back to find resupply were unable to find the army's own artillery park.
General Pendleton, Lee's incompetent but well-meaning artillery chief, had ordered the park to be moved farther to the rear for safety after the Yankees started firing back. But he told no one where it had gone. He had also unhelpfully removed Alexander's reserve howitzers out of harms way, so that these wouldn't be available for close artillery support of the infantry when the charge got underway. It's just hard to imagine what Pendleton saw as his role as the army's artillery chief.
Meanwhile, across the valley, starting about 14:45, the Union guns apparently started to retreat.
It was about this time that General Hunt and Major Osborne, commander of the XI Corps batteries on Cemetery Hill, were having a conversation and came to the mutual conclusion that the Confederates were indeed about to launch a major attack on the center and that they should probably stop the counter-fire, for two reasons: the first, obviously, to conserve ammunition for the infantry attack, and the second, to actually entice that attack. The two officers reasoned that if an attack was coming, the sooner the better, and that the best way to provoke it was to make Lee think his bombardment was working in suppressing the Union guns.
So Osborne rode from battery to battery to order them to cease fire. Hunt rode off to pass the order along to II and I Corps batteries on Cemetery Ridge. Coincidentally he ran into an aide from General Meade, whose boss had reached the same conclusion and sent his thoughts to General Hunt. Great minds were thinking alike. At least that's what all of these officers reported later in their memoirs and to the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Gradually, as Hunt rode south and visited each battery in turn, the Union guns gradually stopped firing. Indeed, those of II Corps (Arnold, Cushing, Brown, Rorty, Thomas) had already run out of long range ammunition and were going silent because of that. Brown's battery was also the most badly cut up, with just three guns left and barely enough men to man two. Hunt ordered them to the rear and sent for replacement batteries from the Artillery Reserve.
As Brown's three guns were limbered up and driven off, and as the fire from the Union position started to slacken and stop, Alexander, watching through the smoke, came to the conclusion that his long bombardment had at last paid off. He sent off a message to Pickett:
"The 18 guns have been driven off. For God's sake, come quick, or we cannot support you. Ammunition nearly out."
Alexander was mistaken. The "18 guns" in the Union center were not driven off (there were far more than 18, but he, apparently, could only make out that many), but the dwindling fire and the retreating guns from Brown's battery that Alexander could dimly make out through this binoculars convinced him that the whole Union artillery was in mass flight. Incredibly, though he had first estimated the suppressing fire would only take 15-30 minutes to drive off the Yankees, it had taken almost two hours. The Confederate guns had been firing slowly and deliberately all that time, but most of Alexanders batteries had pretty much shot away all of their long range ammunition as well. Walker's batteries, in the northern half of the Confederate line, had not shot so much and had fired even more slowly. Poague's 16 guns, for instance, had fired only 657 rounds in those 105 minutes, averaging a leisurely rate of fire of only one round every 2.5 minutes per piece.
As the Union guns fell silent, so did the Confederates. And by 14:55 (or 15:17, Confederate Standard Time--see above), the battlefield fell silent again.
When Pickett got Alexander's message, he galloped eagerly up to Longstreet to get his "go" order. Longstreet said nothing but reportedly just shook and bowed his head, which Pickett took as a grudging "yes".
Finally, the Great Charge begins
The men on both sides were relieved that the nearly two-hour cannonade was finally over. Even though the mutual bombardment had hurt the Confederate infantry far more than the Union, the Yankees were glad it was finally done and now eager for the Rebs to start their walk across the valley.
Both the artillery commander Hunt and II Corps commander Hancock hustled to move troops up and get fresh batteries and ammunition positioned. Every second counted; the Confederate attack could come at any time. Exhausted batteries were withdrawn or replenished and fresh batteries from the artillery were hurried to bolster the line. Infantry lying behind low walls were moved up, sometimes four deep. Men collected discarded rifles, loaded and stacked them against the walls, ready to pick up.
On the Confederate line, Pickett's, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions stood up and aligned ranks. Battle flags whipped upward, Bonny Blue for the Virginia regiments, red Confederate Stars-n-Bars for all the others. At 15:10, roughly 15 minutes after the artillery fell silent, the lines started to move.
The regiments were somewhat smaller than before the Union counter-bombardment. Pickett's division was particularly hit hard, with between 350 and 500 casualties of his original 4,900. This probably owing to the fact that, while the Union gunners also overshot their targets, the rounds that landed on the prone infantry behind the guns nearly all exploded like they were supposed to, killing and maiming in the process.
As if on cue, a light breeze picked up and whisked away the acrid gunsmoke, revealing the Confederate line moving out of the woods. It must have been a breathtaking sight, spanning a front of over a mile. From the Confederate point of view, too, they could now clearly see their aiming point, the clump of trees on the north end of the low ridge.
A complicated plan
The target was simple, but the plan to get there was not. While there had been some attempt at coordination earlier in the day between Garnett (Pickett's lefthand brigade commander) and Fry (Pettigrew's righthand brigadier), Pettigrew's men had to come from much farther back and to the north. So, initially, the two divisions were separated by a few hundred yards. Moreover, Pickett's division was blocked on the left by a stubborn post fence, thickly overgrown with trees and bushes. So the left of Garnett's and Armistead's brigades were forced to march slightly southwest, away from Pettigrew, before they could get around this barrier. The idea was that when they passed the end of the separating fence and reached the Emmitsburg Road, they'd oblique march northward to join up with Pettigrew.
From the Union line only McGilvery's guns on the south end of Cemetery Ridge, Osborne's XI Corps batteries on Cemetery Hill, and Rittenhouse's rifles on Little Round Top (see map) opened up with shell and shrapnel on the advancing lines. All of Hancock's II Corps batteries in the center had used up their long range ammunition and the replacement batteries from the Artillery Reserve hadn't quite arrived yet. But the Confederate infantry started to hurt from the long range flanking fire early on. It must have been a shock to them that two hours of their own bombardment, in fact, hadn't seemed to have made a dent on the Union artillery after all. Alexander must have felt his stomach drop since it was on his urging that Pickett started his charge. But the grey infantry took hits, closed up ranks and marched on. They had over a thousand yards of open ground to go yet.
Witnesses on the Union side say that initially the charge was silent. There were no customary Rebel Yells. Some enthusiastic, solitary Yankee began a chant, "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" soon taken up by hundreds more, referencing that terrible battle seven months before in which the tables had been turned and it had been they who were forced to cross open ground in the face of certain death. Now it was the Army of the Potomac's time for payback. This chant could not have been cheering to the Confederates. Here was no broken gaggle of contemptible "blue-bellies" they were advancing toward but thousands of bloodthirsty Yankees eager to kill them.
Yet the grey brigades moved on at a steady pace of 80 steps a minute, trying to keep their tight order under the rain of artillery shells.
As the Rebels crossed their own gun line, they received some somber encouragement from the gunners. But the artillerymen didn't follow them as they had promised. Nor could they give them fire support from the rear as standing orders in the A.N.V. forbade artillery firing over troops; the result of too many friendly-fire incidents with the faulty Confederate fuzes. Col. Alexander, galloped up and down the line, trying to find batteries with any ammunition left to follow and support the advancing infantry. The nine howitzers Alexander had earlier positioned in reserve to serve as close support during the charge had been sent to the rear by the ever-unhelpful Pendleton. Alexander found only 18 guns with ammunition and ordered them, one by one, to limber up and follow the right flank of Kemper's brigade. They set off one-by-one, but they were, one-by-one, picked off in short order by McGilvery's 34 guns and Rittenhouse's 3" rifles on Little Round Top. A few managed to move forward, unlimber and try to fire back, only to have whole crews mowed down, and most guns that weren't hit were abandoned by their crews. So the infantry proceeded without any artillery close support.
Pickett's men were involved in a series of oblique marches and wheels to both link up with Pettigrew's division and to head for their aiming point, the copse of trees. These parade-ground evolutions would have been difficult enough on a Saturday afternoon football field, but with the undulating terrain, the frequent fences, and the constant bombardment by McGilvery's and Rittenhouse's guns, the tidy formations were soon driven together into one, gigantic, close-packed mob.
At one point, past the Emmitsburg Road, Kemper's brigade had to make a hard left to move north toward the "Copse". In doing so it exposed its right flank to enfilade fire from both McGilvery's artillery and also the musketry from Doubleday's division (see map below). The men fell in bunches and bunched together more. Many started making for the rear, and not all of them were wounded.They came to a swale on the east side of the road which gave them momentary cover from McGilvery's guns (but not Rittenhouse's on Little Round Top, who could follow them every step) and they dressed their ranks before moving northeast again.
The realignment didn't last long. As Kemper's brigade emerged from the swale and hurried to catch up with Garnett's brigade, all semblance of serried ranks fell apart again and both brigades merged into a disorganized herd. As they moved northward, they exposed their flank to raking fire from the Union infantry of Harrow's brigade.
Meanwhile, Stannard, commanding the Vermont brigade, saw a golden opportunity and led his 13th and 16th Vermont regiments into a flanking position to the south of Kemper and started pouring in fire on the rear and right of the Virginians. While he was doing this, Hancock was said to have galloped up and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. Stannard told Hancock he was going to hit the Confederates in the flank and Hancock said, "Well, hurry up." (Or words to that effect. We have to take all of these stirring battlefield speeches with a grain of salt since they were remembered mostly by old men decades later). The rightmost regiment of Kemper's, the 24th Virginia, stopped advancing with the others and turned southeast in an attempt to shoot back at this new threat. But the fire from the Vermonters and Harrow's men proved too much.
Sand table model halfway during the charge. On the left is Pettigrew's division, which has just passed the burning Bliss farm, supported by Trimble's division. To the right is Pickett's division, which has begun its wide turn toward the Copse and Angle in the middle distance (upper left). (Image protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying.)
Pettigrew has enough to worry about himself.
Meanwhile, a thousand yards to the north, Pettigrew's men were having their own hell of a time getting across the open ground. His lefthand brigade of Virginians, commanded jointly by Brockenbrough and Mayo (for some inexplicable reason), got off to a late start, following the other brigades of the division several minutes later. This brigade had been fought out the previous two days and as they started to climb over the fences and make their way forward to catch up with Davis' brigade, they were blasted by Osborne's batteries from Cemetery Hill. Then, to make matters worse, out of the blue (so to speak), a regiment of Yankees popped up prematurely on their flank and hit them with a volley.
This was the 8th Ohio, who's enterprising commander, Lt.Col. Franklin Sawyer, had seen a similar opportunity that Stannard had to the south to outflank the oncoming Confederates. He hustled his 150 Ohioans, and the skirmishing company of the 126th New York, over the Emmitsburg Road and lined them up against the fence flanking the oncoming Confederates, spreading them out into a single-rank firing line. As Brockenbrough's men started climbing over a fence perpendicular, Sawyer unleashed a regimental volley into their left flank. The Virginians, not expecting to meet such a strong line of Yankees so soon, and especially not from the flank, panicked and broke. All 900 men of Brockenbrough's brigade began running as fast as they could back toward the woods on Seminary Ridge.
Having brushed away one entire brigade with his little band, Sawyer now turned his attention on the exposed flank of the next Confederate brigade, Davis'. These weren't so skittish as Brockenbrough's Virginians and kept on in spite of the flanking fire. But half-way across the field, they came under fire first from the canister of the up-to-now silent batteries of Woodruff, Arnold and Cushing in Ziegler's Grove and around the Copse, adding to those from Osborne. Three hundred yards from their target, Pettigrew's men also first started to feel the massed volleys of Hays's infantry, who were now packed four deep against the wall, and firing as fast as they could, some with modern breechloading Sharps rifles and others with muskets loaded by men behind them and passed forward. After the battle, one amateur statistician found one 16' x 6" wooden plank in the Emmitsburg Road fence to have around 1,800 bullet holes in it, giving some idea of the hailstorm the Confederates were facing.
Sand table model. The "Angle" and the "Copse"
Besides wreaking carnage, all this increasing fire from the front and flank further degenerated the organization of Pettigrew's regiments, so that by the time they reached the first fence on the Emmitsburg Road, they stopped to catch their breath and tried to reorganize. Though ordered not to fire during the advance, once they'd reached the illusion of cover of the fence on the highway, many Confederates started to fire through the slats. Once that started, it took herculean efforts on the part of the field officers to get their men up and moving forward again. Flag after flag went down as color parties attempted to climb over the fence, some regiments lost as many as eight successive flag bearers. And once the men climbed over the first fence, they ran only twelve yards to huddle behind the second fence along the road (the one on the southeast side). This latter, at least provided a little more cover to Pettigrew's men since the road was slightly sunken at this point. But the double fences of the road proved to be a major impediment to any more forward movement.
In the face of devastating fire from the front and left flank, some men incredibly managed to climb over this second fence and race closer to the Union line, only to run up against yet a third fence, adding insult to injury. Some huddled behind Ziegler's farm buildings to take ducking pot shots at the massed Yankees. Trimble's supporting division (Lane's and Lowrence's brigades), rather than providing more impetuous, just piled up against the huddling mob in Emmitsburg Road.
It was about 15:30. The charge had been underway for only twenty minutes, and the northern wing of it under Pettigrew had ground to a halt before reaching the stone wall. Regiments were all mixed up and melting away. (See map below)
Situation about 15:30, just prior to contact with the Angle. Confederate regiments had ceased to have any cohesion and all three divisions had degenerated into a mob. (map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
Armistead gets over the wall...just
Meanwhile, to the south, Pickett's disordered division was having slightly better luck. No fence had impeded their crossing of the Emmitsburg Road (Confederate skirmishers had been able to remove the planks as the Union skirmishers fell back there). But they had farther to go.
Kemper's brigade, when we left them last, were crowding against the right of Garnett's people to get away from the Union flanking fire on their right. So all regimental and command cohesion had fallen apart. Battle flags were falling and rising as color parties were cut down repeatedly, so it was hard for individual soldiers to keep track of where their own companies or regiments were. By this time it was just one, roiling mob of huffing men.
A patch of rough ground of fallen logs and boulders spread out in front of Hall's brigade and many of Pickett's men took the opportunity to seek cover here and shoot back at the Yankee line, going no further. Others, further to the left pressed on to reach the target, the clump of trees. Armistead's big brigade had caught up with Garnett's and Kemper's and were pushing through them, struggling to reach the copse that had been their goal. And some finally reached the wall.
It wasn't much of a wall (see photo below). Apparently it was only knee high and served as more of a boundary marker than a defensive position. Armistead, when he lead the final push, just stepped over it like it was a curb. The 71st Pennsylvania, holding the right of Webb's line at the awkward angle where the wall jogged eastward for a few dozen yards, panicked as the Confederates got close and finally let out their Rebel Yell. They ran. Fortunately for Webb, his own supporting 72nd Pennsylvania, still wearing their quaint Zouave uniforms, came to the rescue and set up a firing line to stop the further advance of Armistead's men.
A few hundred Virginians (and some Tennesseans from Fry's brigade) clambered over the wall and raced toward the copse of trees, capturing s couple of Cushing's guns (which had run out of ammunition after having blasted their last canister in the face of the Confederates). It seemed, for a moment, like the charge had succeeded. One Yankee regiment had fled and some of Armistead's men had penetrated the Union line.
But the lone, fled 71st Pennsylvania was being replaced by many more as Hancock hurried more and more troops up to plug the breech. More gun batteries, too, were being unlimbered and firing into the swarming Rebels. On the left of the section vacated by the 71st, the 69th Pennsylvania refused to budge and swung its right companies to enfilade the Confederates as they came over the wall. And the 1st Delaware on the north side of that gap also faced south to fire at the breakthrough from that side. And the 72nd Pennsylvania, a Zouave regiment, continued to pour in volleys from the front. Soon those Virginians who were left were being blasted from all sides as they tried to hang onto their position. It was during this time that Armistead went down with a fatal wound (Garnett and Kemper had already fallen before they got to the wall). Nearly all regimental commanders had been killed or wounded and nobody seemed to be in command any more. Pickett himself had not gone further than the Codori farm, far back on the Emmitsburg Road, from where he could observe the success of the charge and presumably direct reinforcements. So he was not there to rally his exhausted, butchered men...or really do anything useful.
There were no reinforcements coming. Longstreet had assigned Pickett two of Anderson's brigades (Wilcox and Lang) in support, and these two started a half-hearted advance after the initial charge had ground to a halt. But this attempt was soon stopped in turn by McGilvery's massed guns and Stannard's Vermonters. Wilcox's men came to a halt several hundred yards short of Cemetery Ridge and fell back without doing any damage.
Up at the Angle, after a few more minutes of butchery, the Confederates who had managed to make it over the wall either surrendered or crawled back over. Pickett's charged had failed. Spectacularly.
Sand table model, 1:1500 scale. Smyth's and Webb's brigades at the Angle.
Lee has a lot to answer for.
Pickett's Charge ranks up there as one of the bloodiest and most useless charges in history, right with the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea nine years before; with the last charge of Napoleon's Old Guard at Waterloo; and certainly with many other equally stupid charges from the Civil War (no less Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, and the Crater at Petersburg). But Pickett's Charge, in terms of losses alone, was far greater than any of these. The Charge of the Light Brigade cost roughly 37% in casualties. Hancock's division at Fredericksburg lost about 42%.
But George Stewart, in his seminal study of the Charge, estimates about 62% casualties on Pickett's, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions, or 6,497 men. This includes casualties taken during the bombardment prior to the charge, during the charge, at the wall and those captured at the wall. This is a staggering number by 19th century standards, ranking up there with the suicidal banzai charges of desperate Japanese during WWII. Specific regiments and units sustained even higher casualties; some regiments in Pickett's division took 80-92% casualties, and were virtually exterminated. Several companies were annihilated to a man. Since many companies had been recruited from small towns and fought together as brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, and best friends...entire towns and families across the South were wiped out in those twenty minutes.
Lee did that.
Naturally, the noble Lee did not shirk his responsibility and the legends describe him as meeting the few survivors as they limped back to their start line, telling them, "It is not your fault. It is all my fault." Yes it was. Nevertheless, the memoirs continue, many men shouted back to him to let them try again. They felt like they had let him down. He told them they had done enough today. Yes they had.
The casualties for Pickett's Charge on the Union side were considerably less, even though the three days of battle had severely mauled the Army of the Potomac. Stewart, in his study, estimates that Hancock's and Newton's Corps sustained about 1,500 casualties during the bombardment and charge on the 3rd, or less than a quarter of those of the Confederates, but about 16% of all those engaged. But they had held the line and stopped Lee cold at the copse of trees, which would become known thereafter as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. This was the first clear, major victory of the often whipped Army of the Potomac in the war. They had proven their mettle, that they could decisively defeat the fire-eating Rebs and the invincible Lee. And they had done it while outnumbered.
The question that too many historians and apologists have tried to answer, and the one with which I began this post, was, What was Lee thinking?
Was he a victim of his own hubris? Of success-induced failure? Or did he see the reality of how the war was going and felt compelled to try this one, last, desperate charge? However, had it succeeded, it is still doubtful that it would have ended the war. The North was not on the verge of collapse as Lee had estimated. Union success in other theaters (on the Mississippi, the Tennessee, the Gulf, the Atlantic coast) was bringing the South to its knees. Had Lee managed to break into the Union center and force Meade to retreat, the latter, who still had seventy-thousand men (with the huge Sixth Corps not even committed), would merely have fallen back toward Washington to regroup and fight again. And with the final fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi the very next day, the Confederacy was effectively cut in two. There is no indication that either Britain or France was about to recognize the new nation, or put any pressure on Lincoln to sue for peace. So even a victory for the Confederates at Gettysburg would have had doubtful effect; it would just have been one more setback for the Army of the Potomac.
The tragic thing, at least for the South, was that Lee did not see the inevitable after Gettysburg and spare his "country," as he called it, two more years of devastation and death. He could have brought his considerable influence to bear on Jefferson Davis and his administration in Richmond to start negotiating for re-union, and, at the very least, have resigned his command. But that was not in his nature. He was stubborn. A noble gentleman, a brilliant commander, and an inspiring leader. But stubborn.
It's just my opinion, but I have another, more human, theory of why Lee ordered the suicidal charge. He was physically sick. Historians have noted that he was suffering from dysentery the previous two days. He had probably picked up some gastro-intestinal bug and it was probably taking him off his edge; particularly riding around on that his horse, Traveler, all day. He had initially been drawn into the battle around Gettysburg against his will, and, distracted by his upset tummy, was not at his best those three days. There was also published back in 1992 by an historical forensic team at NIH that Lee had suffered a heart attack just prior to Gettysburg. It was the opinion of this team of medical historians that this may have contributed to his lack of attention at the battle.
I've worked sick with a bug myself. And I know my judgement hasn't been its best when that happens. I just want the day to end so I can get home and curl up in a fetal position. I imagine Lee, too, just wanted the day to end, the battle to end, the war to end, and go home to curl up in a fetal position. This lack of resolve communicated all the way down the chain of command on that third day; through Longstreet and Hill, to Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble, to the brigade commanders, and the regimental field officers. Eyewitnesses described seeing hordes of men heading back from the advancing Confederate brigades even before they'd gotten halfway. Everybody, apparently, knew what the outcome was going to be.
The sloppy coordination of the artillery bombardment, of Ewell's simultaneous attack from Culp's Hill, of the two wings of the charge itself, and of Stewart's intended rear attack could partly be explained by amateurish Confederate staff work. But the buck really stopped at Lee. He had started off on the back foot and been unable to regain the initiative. And his health that day may have been a decisive factor.
Wargaming Pickett's ChargeAside from this incident in military history being one of the least obscure I could have picked, it has also probably been wargamed more than most other battles but Waterloo. I myself have run numerous wargames of Pickett's Charge (and other incidents of Gettysburg) over the years as I've developed my own gaming algorithm and rules. Because of the wealth of detail on this battle, it has proven to be a very good test of the verisimilitude of any wargaming system.
There are a number of variables to experiment with in Pickett's Charge. The following are certainly not an exhaustive list.
I have long been interested in the controversy surrounding the efficacy of Confederate artillery ammunition. Numerous historians have described it as so badly made that it was almost useless for anything else but round shot and canister. I have run Pickett's Charge through at least a dozen games using my own algorithm, varying the effectiveness factor of Southern shellfire on the Union line, trying to see if it would have made a difference in the success of the infantry charge following the bombardment. In all of those games, whether the Confederate fire effect was as good as the Union or not, the outcome was always the same; it was the concentrated musketry of Hancock's and Newton's brigades that stopped Pickett's Charge. Also, given the fact that the Confederates were firing uphill, their accuracy, regardless of the quality of their fuzes, would have suffered anyway.
But you are welcome to try yourselves to vary the fire effect of the Rebel guns, using your own game rules.
One wonders what would have happened had Lee managed to coordinate a combined attack on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge simultaneously. That he let Ewell go up Culp's Hill hours too early on the morning of the 3rd always puzzled me. Bad Confederate staff work apparently (or his own ill-health, as I've mentioned above). But an interesting wargame variant in which the Confederate side could coordinate simultaneous attacks on both positions might reveal that it was, indeed, possible for Lee to have pulled off a victory.
Another variant would provide the charge with closer support from Anderson's division (on both ends of the attack), to see if that would have allowed Pickett to follow through with his penetration at the Angle with fresh reinforcements. I often wondered, too, what all of Rode's men were doing lying inertly in that sunken road, letting Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions just walk past them to their doom.
Part of Lee's complicated plan was for his cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, to swing wide around the back of Meade's rear and charge in for the kill at the moment Pickett's brigades achieved their breakthrough. Of course, neither Stuart nor Lee anticipated the stiff resistance the Union cavalry would put up in intercepting Stuart. So the double envelopment never happened and serves as a footnote to the Battle of Gettysburg (one in which George Armstrong Custer was to first make his fame).
But a wargame scenario might allow for Stuart's cavalry to achieve their breakthrough and hit the Union line from the east...say at 15:30.
Lincoln was highly critical of Meade for not finishing off Lee after the disastrous charge, prolonging the war another two years. Meade's defense was that, after three of the bloodiest days in American history, the Army of the Potomac was itself pretty much spent. Certainly Hancock's men in the center, who had taken the brunt of the charge, were fought out by the end of it and were in no shape to launch a counter attack. Meade, also, was not sure what kind of force was held in reserve by Lee on Seminary Ridge; he might have subjected the rest of his own army to what he just inflicted on Lee's; a suicidal charge across open ground. As it was, Meade allowed Lee to slip away and back across the Potomac to safety, following half-heartedly the next day to see him off.
But, one simulation scenario might test the feasibility of Meade launching his almost uncommitted 15,000 men of his vast VI Corps to administer the coup de grace against what was left of Lee's exhausted army later in the afternoon of the 3rd, before Lee could recover from the shock of his failed charge. It might have ended the war (helped a little by the fall of Vicksburg, too) on the 4th of July, 1863. And changed American, if not world, history.
Orders of BattleThe following orders of battle are derived primarily from Scott Bowden's detailed OOB, Armies at Gettysburg. Since nearly all of the units except for Pickett's division had taken casualties over the previous two days, I have reduced these from Bowden according to the percentage of losses reported by George Stewart's and Stephen Sears' detailed histories of the charge and battle. The %Cas represents an approximation of the casualties sustained by each unit from the previous two days. I have also listed the artillery for each side in a group following the infantry formations.
|5th AL Bn||57||32%||4||Rifles|
|James H. Lane||1,202||20%|
|Moody||44||4||1||24 pdr How.|
|3rd Div - Hays||2,582|
|2nd Div - Gibbon||2,776|
|106th PA, coys A & B||55||16%||2||Flintlock|
|1st MA Sharpshooters||35||17%||1||BL|
|19th ME skirmishers||182||18%||4||Rifles|
|3rd Div - Doubleday||1,826||16%|
The primary references I used in putting this post together were Stephen Sears' Gettysburg, George Stewart's 1959 study, Pickett's Charge, A Microhistory. For a minute by minute narrative of every little detail of the Charge, Stewart's account is unparalleled. Other references below were also used extensively.
Bowden, Scott, Armies at Gettysburg, 1988, Empire Games Press, ISBN: 0-913037-06-0
Coddington, Edwin, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968, Scribners, ISBN: 0-684-18152-5
Griffith, Paddy, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, 1987, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0-300-04247-7
Hess, Earl J., The Union Soldier in Battle, 1997, University of Kansas Press, ISBN: 0-7006-0837-0
Naisawald, L. Van Loan, Grape and Canister:The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac 1861-1865, 1960, Oxford University Press,
Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg, 2003, Mariner Books, ISBN: 0-618-48538-4
Stewart, George R., Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
1959, Houghton Mifflin, 1987 ISBN: 0-395-59772-2
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