Pickett's Charge : Battle of Gettysburg

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Pickett's Charge
Battle of Gettysburg

Pickett's Charge and Battle of Gettysburg
"Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" George Pickett

Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge
Spangler Woods from Cemetery Ridge.jpg
(Gettysburg NMP)

Pickett's Charge
These fields are where "Pickett's Charge", the last Confederate attack of the battle occurred. Almost one mile of open ground lay between Seminary Ridge in the distance and Cemetery Ridge in the foreground. Confederate soldiers of General A.P. Hill's corps and General James Longstreet's corps occupied the distant woods on July 2, the trees screening the movement of artillery and infantry into position to prepare for the afternoon's assault on the Union left flank on Cemetery Ridge, which began at 4 PM. Only Confederate skirmishers were observed in these fields until 7 PM when General Ambrose Wright's Georgia brigade advanced from the woods across this wide plain, striking Union troops centered around the Codori House on the Emmitsburg Road. Though initially successful, Wright's men could not penetrate the Union line and were thrown back with severe losses. At dawn of July 3, these fields and pastures were full of troops from both armies engaged in heavy skirmish fighting that lasted throughout the morning.

Promptly at 1 o'clock, two Confederate cannon of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans were fired as a signal to begin the artillery bombardment prior to the infantry assault. Approximately 120 southern cannon suddenly came to life, sending shot and shell into the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Colonel Edward P. Alexander recalled, "In another minute every gun was at work. The enemy were not slow in coming back at us, and the grand roar of nearly the whole artillery of both armies burst in on the silence, almost as suddenly as the full notes of an organ would fill a church. The enemy's position seemed to have broken out with guns everywhere and from Round Top to Cemetery Hill was blazing like a volcano. The air seemed full of missiles from every direction." For forty minutes the deadly duel with Union cannoneers on Cemetery Ridge continued with no let up in the volume of shells or ear-splitting blasts. The sound of the cannonade was so loud that it could be heard as far away as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a distance of 40 miles.

Pickett's Charge
Pickett's Charge.jpg
Battle of Gettysburg concludes with Pickett's Charge on third day.

Pickett's Charge Map
Pickett's Charge.jpg
Pickett's Charge at Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

(Right) Enhanced map showing action at Gettysburg on the third and final day of the fight.

Gen. Longstreet
General James Longstreet.jpg
(Generals In Gray)

General James Longstreet was tasked with command of the infantry in the last great charge of the battle. General George Pickett's Division of Virginia soldiers, General Heth's Division (commanded by General J.J Pettigrew), and two brigades of General Pender's Division (commanded by General Isaac Trimble), approximately 12,000 infantrymen, would make the initial charge. The troops would be followed by reinforcements including General Cadmus Wilcox's Alabama brigade and Colonel David Lang's brigade of three Florida regiments. General Lee's last gamble for victory at Gettysburg now rested in the hands and hearts of these southern infantrymen, about to enter into one of the most desperate and famous charges in American history. After forty minutes of cannonading many of the Union guns fell silent by order of General Henry Hunt, artillery chief of the Army of the Potomac. The slackening of fire was mistaken by Alexander for a general withdrawal and he scribbled a note to General Pickett: "For God's sake, come quick... come quick, or my ammunition won't let me support you properly." Pickett carried the message to General Longstreet, seated on a fence in Spangler's Woods near the location of the Virginia Monument. Sad and bitter, Longstreet could barely a nod a reply. The dashing Pickett rode off to order his men forward while Longstreet remained on his fence, preferring not to watch the disaster about to befall his troops.

The field of Pickett's Charge
The field of Pickett's Charge.jpg
(Gettysburg NMP)

(Left) Photo of the field of Pickett's Charge. Pickett's, Pettigrew's, and Trimble's commands marched from the distant line of trees to Cemetery Ridge, breaking the Union line at the Angle and "High Water Mark" in the foreground. Courtesy Gettysburg NMP.
"Up men and to your posts," shouted a joyous General Pickett. "Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" His men cheered as they rushed into formation. "Before us lay bright fields and fair landscape," a Confederate staff officer remembered as the southern infantry stood in perfect order, prepared to cross the mile of open farmland. At the command of "forward, march!", the huge formations moved, each regiment distinguishable by the red cloth battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. This massive parade was suddenly rained upon by a shower of artillery shells as Union guns came back to life. Explosions ripped through the Confederate ranks. Officers waved swords and shouted above the noise for the men to close the gaps. Guided by their flags, the southerners continued on toward Cemetery Ridge.

Gen. Pickett
General George E. Pickett.jpg
(Generals In Gray)

It was over within an hour. These fields were soon covered with the survivors of "Pickett's Charge", some staggering from wounds and shock, some walking quietly with little reaction to the chaos around them, and some near panic. Accompanied by Sir Arthur Fremantle, an observer from the British Army, General Longstreet rode among them and spoke kindly to both officers and men. Fremantle also saw General Lee speak to the shocked survivors of the charge. "All this will come out right in the end," the general said. "We'll talk it over afterwards; but in the meantime, all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now."

Today these quiet fields are traversed by hundreds of park visitors eager to walk the same historic line of march where so many tramped to their deaths on that hot July afternoon. The trail begins at Spangler Woods near the Virginia Monument and takes visitors across the mile of open field, across the Emmitsburg Road and up to the "Angle", the central piece of contested ground. Here stands the small grove of trees- a mere clump of scrubby trees and brush in 1863- that forever after has borne the name of the "High Water Mark".

The Virginia Monument
Virginia Civil War Monument.jpg
(Gettysburg NMP)

The Virginia Monument
Located near the center of Seminary Ridge, the Virginia Monument is one of the largest southern monuments in the park and features a heroic-size equestrian statue of General Lee atop Traveller, his favorite mount. On the base of the monument is a grouping of bronze figures representing the various backgrounds of the soldiers who served under Virginia's flag. All of the figures are the work of sculptor F. William Sievers (1872-1966), whose outdoor artistic work also includes two monuments in Richmond. The monument was unveiled and formally dedicated on June 8, 1917.

This location for the monument, overlooking the fields of Pickett's Charge, was selected because it was here that General Lee witnessed the disastrous charge. Even in defeat, Lee was magnanimous. Rising to the greatness that has symbolized him throughout history, the general placed full blame for the failure squarely on himself. To a distraught General Pickett, Lee spoke words of comfort: "Come, General Pickett, this has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before." It is no wonder that the Confederate soldiers who served under Lee gave him their undying loyalty and many historians feel that this day at Gettysburg, as tragic as it was, may have been his finest hour.

Credit: Gettysburg National Military Park

Recommended Reading: Pickett's Charge--The Last Attack at Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: Pickett's Charge is probably the best-known military engagement of the Civil War, widely regarded as the defining moment of the battle of Gettysburg and celebrated as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But as Earl Hess notes, the epic stature of Pickett's Charge has grown at the expense of reality, and the facts of the attack have been obscured or distorted by the legend that surrounds them. With this book, Hess sweeps away the accumulated myths about Pickett's Charge to provide the definitive history of the engagement. Continued below.

Drawing on exhaustive research, especially in unpublished personal accounts, he creates a moving narrative of the attack from both Union and Confederate perspectives, analyzing its planning, execution, aftermath, and legacy. He also examines the history of the units involved, their state of readiness, how they maneuvered under fire, and what the men who marched in the ranks thought about their participation in the assault. Ultimately, Hess explains, such an approach reveals Pickett's Charge both as a case study in how soldiers deal with combat and as a dramatic example of heroism, failure, and fate on the battlefield.


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Recommended Reading: Pickett's Charge, by George Stewart. Description: The author has written an eminently readable, thoroughly enjoyable, and well-researched book on the third day of the Gettysburg battle, July 3, 1863. An especially rewarding read if one has toured, or plans to visit, the battlefield site. The author's unpretentious, conversational style of writing succeeds in putting the reader on the ground occupied by both the Confederate and Union forces before, during and after Pickett's and Pettigrew's famous assault on Meade's Second Corps. Continued below...

Interspersed with humor and down-to-earth observations concerning battlefield conditions, the author conscientiously describes all aspects of the battle, from massing of the assault columns and pre-assault artillery barrage to the last shots and the flight of the surviving rebels back to the safety of their lines… Having visited Gettysburg several years ago, this superb volume makes me want to go again.


Recommended Reading: Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--And Why It Failed (Hardcover). Description: A fascinating narrative-and a bold new thesis in the study of the Civil War-that suggests Robert E. Lee had a heretofore undiscovered strategy at Gettysburg that, if successful, could have crushed the Union forces and changed the outcome of the war. The Battle of Gettysburg is the pivotal moment when the Union forces repelled perhaps America's greatest commander-the brilliant Robert E. Lee, who had already thrashed a long line of Federal opponents-just as he was poised at the back door of Washington, D.C. It is the moment in which the fortunes of Lee, Lincoln, the Confederacy, and the Union hung precariously in the balance. Conventional wisdom has held to date, almost without exception, that on the third day of the battle, Lee made one profoundly wrong decision. Continued below...

But how do we reconcile Lee the high-risk warrior with Lee the general who launched "Pickett's Charge," employing only a fifth of his total forces, across an open field, up a hill, against the heart of the Union defenses? Most history books have reported that Lee just had one very bad day. But there is much more to the story, which Tom Carhart addresses for the first time. With meticulous detail and startling clarity, Carhart revisits the historic battles Lee taught at West Point and believed were the essential lessons in the art of war-the victories of Napoleon at Austerlitz, Frederick the Great at Leuthen, and Hannibal at Cannae-and reveals what they can tell us about Lee's real strategy. What Carhart finds will thrill all students of history: Lee's plan for an electrifying rear assault by Jeb Stuart that, combined with the frontal assault, could have broken the Union forces in half. Only in the final hours of the battle was the attack reversed through the daring of an unproven young general-George Armstrong Custer. About the Author: Tom Carhart has been a lawyer and a historian for the Department of the Army in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of West Point, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and has earned a Ph.D. in American and military history from Princeton University. He is the author of four books of military history and teaches at Mary Washington College near his home in the Washington, D.C. area.


Recommended Reading: The Artillery of Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: The battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the apex of the Confederacy's final major invasion of the North, was a devastating defeat that also marked the end of the South's offensive strategy against the North. From this battle until the end of the war, the Confederate armies largely remained defensive. The Artillery of Gettysburg is a thought-provoking look at the role of the artillery during the July 1-3, 1863 conflict. Continued below...

During the Gettysburg campaign, artillery had already gained the respect in both armies. Used defensively, it could break up attacking formations and change the outcomes of battle. On the offense, it could soften up enemy positions prior to attack. And even if the results were not immediately obvious, the psychological effects to strong artillery support could bolster the infantry and discourage the enemy. Ultimately, infantry and artillery branches became codependent, for the artillery needed infantry support lest it be decimated by enemy infantry or captured. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had modified its codependent command system in February 1863. Prior to that, batteries were allocated to brigades, but now they were assigned to each infantry division, thus decentralizing its command structure and making it more difficult for Gen. Robert E. Lee and his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William Pendleton, to control their deployment on the battlefield. The Union Army of the Potomac had superior artillery capabilities in numerous ways. At Gettysburg, the Federal artillery had 372 cannons and the Confederates 283. To make matters worse, the Confederate artillery frequently was hindered by the quality of the fuses, which caused the shells to explode too early, too late, or not at all. When combined with a command structure that gave Union Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt more direct control--than his Southern counterpart had over his forces--the Federal army enjoyed a decided advantage in the countryside around Gettysburg. Bradley M. Gottfried provides insight into how the two armies employed their artillery, how the different kinds of weapons functioned in battle, and the strategies for using each of them. He shows how artillery affected the “ebb and flow” of battle for both armies and thus provides a unique way of understanding the strategies of the Federal and Union commanders.


Recommended Reading: General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. Review: You cannot say that University of North Carolina professor Glatthaar (Partners in Command) did not do his homework in this massive examination of the Civil War–era lives of the men in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Glatthaar spent nearly 20 years examining and ordering primary source material to ferret out why Lee's men fought, how they lived during the war, how they came close to winning, and why they lost. Glatthaar marshals convincing evidence to challenge the often-expressed notion that the war in the South was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight and that support for slavery was concentrated among the Southern upper class. Continued below...

Lee's army included the rich, poor and middle-class, according to the author, who contends that there was broad support for the war in all economic strata of Confederate society. He also challenges the myth that because Union forces outnumbered and materially outmatched the Confederates, the rebel cause was lost, and articulates Lee and his army's acumen and achievements in the face of this overwhelming opposition. This well-written work provides much food for thought for all Civil War buffs.


Recommended Reading: ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (Hardcover) (June 2008). Description: The titanic three-day battle of Gettysburg left 50,000 casualties in its wake, a battered Southern army far from its base of supplies, and a rich historiographic legacy. Thousands of books and articles cover nearly every aspect of the battle, but not a single volume focuses on the military aspects of the monumentally important movements of the armies to and across the Potomac River. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 is the first detailed military history of Lee's retreat and the Union effort to catch and destroy the wounded Army of Northern Virginia. Against steep odds and encumbered with thousands of casualties, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's post-battle task was to successfully withdraw his army across the Potomac River. Union commander George G. Meade's equally difficult assignment was to intercept the effort and destroy his enemy. The responsibility for defending the exposed Southern columns belonged to cavalry chieftain James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart. If Stuart fumbled his famous ride north to Gettysburg, his generalship during the retreat more than redeemed his flagging reputation. The ten days of retreat triggered nearly two dozen skirmishes and major engagements, including fighting at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, Williamsport, Funkstown, Boonsboro, and Falling Waters. Continued below...

President Abraham Lincoln was thankful for the early July battlefield victory, but disappointed that General Meade was unable to surround and crush the Confederates before they found safety on the far side of the Potomac. Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study. One Continuous Fight draws upon a massive array of documents, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. These long-ignored foundational sources allow the authors, each widely known for their expertise in Civil War cavalry operations, to describe carefully each engagement. The result is a rich and comprehensive study loaded with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern and Northern cavalry, and fresh insights on every engagement, large and small, fought during the retreat. The retreat from Gettysburg was so punctuated with fighting that a soldier felt compelled to describe it as "One Continuous Fight." Until now, few students fully realized the accuracy of that description. Complimented with 18 original maps, dozens of photos, and a complete driving tour with GPS coordinates of the entire retreat, One Continuous Fight is an essential book for every student of the American Civil War in general, and for the student of Gettysburg in particular. About the Authors: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio. J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys." A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.


Recommended Reading: Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: In a groundbreaking, comprehensive history of the Army of Northern Virginia's retreat from Gettysburg in July 1863, Kent Masterson Brown draws on previously unused materials to chronicle the massive effort of General Robert E. Lee and his command as they sought to expeditiously move people, equipment, and scavenged supplies through hostile territory and plan the army's next moves. More than fifty-seven miles of wagon and ambulance trains and tens of thousands of livestock accompanied the army back to Virginia. Continued below...

The movement of supplies and troops over the challenging terrain of mountain passes and in the adverse conditions of driving rain and muddy quagmires is described in depth, as are General George G. Meade's attempts to attack the trains along the South Mountain range and at Hagerstown and Williamsport, Maryland. Lee's deliberate pace, skillful use of terrain, and constant positioning of the army behind defenses so as to invite attack caused Union forces to delay their own movements at critical times. Brown concludes that even though the battle of Gettysburg was a defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee's successful retreat maintained the balance of power in the eastern theater and left his army with enough forage, stores, and fresh meat to ensure its continued existence as an effective force.

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