“Up men and to your posts! Remember today that you are from old Virginia!!”
– General George Pickett
“Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee.”
– Shelby Foote
On today’s date, July 3, in 1863 — 150 years ago — took place the third and final day of Gettysburg, the climactic battle of the American Civil War. The main event that day was the charge of General George Pickett’s Division right into the teeth of the Federal infantry on the other side of Cemetery Ridge. Despite the full-throated bravado displayed by General Pickett (quoted above), it was a mistake. As Shelby Foote said it was the price the South had to pay for the brilliance of her leader.
General Lee and General Longstreet
As said yesterday General Robert E. Lee was convinced that the first two days of fighting at Gettysburg had been successful at least insofar as it had set him up for the Third Day. He was certain
that the attack on the Yankee positions on their left at the Little Round Top, and on their right at Culp’s Hill, had taken a serious toll. Having had to move men to support these positions, Lee was certain that Meade must have weakened his position in the center. His main Lieutenant, General James Longstreet (above) disagreed. He wanted to quit Gettysburg altogether, and move to more favorable ground elsewhere. He tried to convince Lee that this was like Mareye’s Heights at Fredricksburg, only this time they would be advancing over open ground towards Yankees well entrenched behind stone walls. Years later Longstreet would write that Lee “…seemed to be under a subdued excitement which occasionally took possession of him when ‘the hunt was up’ and threatened his superb equipoise.”
Well with or without his “equipoise“, Lee was determined to attack the Union troops on the other side of Cemetery Ridge. First he planned a massive artillery barrage upon the Union lines, which he was certain would soften up and disorganize their units. Then he wanted Longstreet to send in his Corps with the division under the command of General
George Pickett (above), which had not yet seen battle, and was therefore well-rested, leading the way. Dashing, daring, and always using a strong cologne, General Pickett was very pleased with this chance to gain martial glory, and accepted the assignment without hesitation. The artillery barrage was launched beginning at 1:00 p.m.. It did cause serious damage, but because the cannons were aiming a few degrees too high, most of this damage was to the rear of the intended targets in the front line. N.Y. Times Correspondent Samuel Wilkeson described this event:
“1:00… a shell screamed over the house, instantly followed by another and another, and in a moment the air was full of the most complete artillery prelude to an infantry battle that was ever exhibited. Every size and form of shell known to British and to American gunnery shrieked, moaned, whirled and whistled and wrathfully fluttered over our ground… during this fire the houses at twenty and thirty feet distant were receiving their death, and soldiers in the Federal blue were torn to pieces in the road and died with the peculiar yells that blend the extorted cries of pain with horror and despair.”
This went on for about two hours with the Union returning some fire from it’s guns, but mostly reserving their ordinance for the attack itself. When it came time for the troops to jump off, Pickett came to Longstreet and asked him for the order. Longstreet, who was certain that the attack would be a blood bath, couldn’t bring himself to say the word. So he just nodded his assent.
The “Universe of Battle”….
A Union Officer, Frank Haskell (below) described what happened next:
“Over all the valley the smoke, a sulphury arch, stretched its lurid span; and through it always, shrieking on their unseen courses, thickly flew a myriad iron deaths. With our grim horizon on all sides round toothed thick with battery flame, under that dissonant canopy of warring shells, we sat and heard in silence. What other expression had we that was not mean, for such as awful universe of battle?”
“Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelming resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us! Regiment after regiment, and brigade after brigade, move from the woods and rapidly take their places in the lines forming the assault. More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the arms of eighteen thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”
Major Henry Livermore Abbot (below) then describes the effect when the union opened fire:
“The moment I saw them I knew we should give them Fredericksburg. So did every body. We let the regiment in front of us get within 100 feet of us, & then bowled them over like nine pins, picking out the colors first. In two minutes there were only groups of two or three men running round wildly, like chickens with their heads off. We were cheering like mad…”
Captain Henry Thweatt Owen (below), of the 18’th Virginia Infantry described the carnage from the other side:
“The time was too precious, too serious for a cheer; they (the veteran soldiers) buckled down to the heavy task in silence, and fought with a
feeling like despair. On swept the column over ground covered with dead and dying men, where the earth seemed to be on fire, the smoke dense and suffocating, the stun shut out, flames blazing on every side, friend could hardly be distinguished from foe, but the division, in the shape of an inverted V, with the point flattened, pushed forward, fighting, falling and melting away, till half way up the hill they were met by a powerful body of fresh troops, charging down upon them, and this remnant of about a thousand men was hurled back-out into the clover field. Brave Armistead was down among the enemy’s guns, mortally wounded.”
Pickett’s Charge had indeed turned out the bloodbath which General Longstreet had feared. While Union casualties had been about 1,500, roughly 5,600 of the more than 18,000 rebels who made the charge were lost. Pickett himself was horrified at the annihilation of his of his men. When General Lee ordered him to rally his division for a possible Union counter-attack, he replied “General Lee, I no longer have a division.” Although he survived the war to great glory, he never got over his bitterness about Gettysburg. Captain Owen above recorded the wounding of General Lewis Armistead, which did indeed prove fatal. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, a close friend of Armistead’s from before the war was also wounded during Pickett’s Charge, but would survive. Quite a large number of officers, including Generals were killed or wounded on both sides. General Lee rode out to meet the men as they staggered back following the charge, and said “This has all been my fault. I asked more of you than I should have.” He repeated this when he wrote to Jefferson Davis offering to resign. His resignation was not accepted, but Pickett’s Charge had indeed been the “High Water” point for the Confederacy. Never again would they penetrate so far north.
Above: the view of Gettysburg today looking out from Little Round Top
Pickett’s Charge (top):
General Pickett :
Abbot, Owen :
“Eyewitness to History” Ed. by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987.
“The Civil War” Dir. by Ken Burns, 1989 PBS Home Video, Episode Five:
“The Battle of Gettysburg” by Harry Pfanz National Parks Civil War Series, 1994
“The American Civil War” by Earl Schenck Miers, Golden Press, New York, 1961.