“Many claim that the South never fully recovered from the slaughter it suffered during Pickett’s Charge.”
Named for Major General George Pickett, a flamboyant 38-year-old West Pointer from Virginia, the disastrous July 3, 1863 assault saw as many as 15,000 Confederate soldiers advance nearly a mile up Cemetery Ridge in a final go-for-broke bid to shatter the Union army and end the war. It was an unmitigated disaster. In less than an hour, Federal artillery and musket fire decimated the Rebels leaving the field littered with bleeding and mutilated bodies. Many claim that the South never fully recovered from the slaughter it suffered during Pickett’s Charge. And while the war would continue for another two years, the Confederacy had reached a symbolic “high water mark” at that fateful afternoon – never again would the Rebellion be presented with such a chance to achieve victory.
Here are 12 essential facts about this legendary and disastrous attack.
It Was Supposed to Win the War
Pickett’s Charge took place on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. After 48 hours of bloody stalemate, the commander of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee, ordered a massive assault on Yankee center to force an end the contest. The charge would be carried out by three full divisions of infantry – between 12,500 and 15,000 men, all of which would converge on an area surrounding small cluster of trees just behind the Union line. At the appointed hour, the attackers would break from cover along Seminary Ridge and advance steadily and in perfect formation across nearly a mile of open country to drive the Northern army from the high ground. Once the Federal line was split, Lee would be free to take Washington D.C. from the rear thus ending the war.
It Shouldn’t Be Called “Pickett’s Charge”
Despite the fact that Pickett commanded only a third of the attacking force, the charge bears his name. Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew and Major General Isaac Trimble also led divisions that took part. As such, a number of historians refer to the operation as the “Pettigrew, Pickett and Trimble Charge.” And considering that all three generals were assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia’s First Corps, which was commanded by the redoubtable James Longstreet, others believe the “Longstreet Assault” is an even more fitting name.
Longstreet Hoped to Talk Lee Out of the Attack
Although it was Longstreet’s corps that carried out the charge, the 42-year-old South Carolina native considered the assault foolhardy and vigorously lobbied Lee to rethink the plan. “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position,” he supposedly told his illustrious superior. Undeterred, Lee insisted the orders be carried out. Longstreet was so distraught over the plan, when Pickett finally sought permission to sound the advance, the general couldn’t bring himself to speak. “I could only indicate it by an affirmative bow,” Longstreet later recalled.
Delays Cost the Attackers Dearly
Despite Lee’s instructions that the charge take place in the early morning, orders to have the divisions assemble weren’t issued until well after daybreak. Even then, it would take until the afternoon for the First Corps to finish massing, by which point the Rebel army was baking in the hot July sun. Lee hoped a diversionary maneuver on the northern flank of the Federal line would confuse the enemy, but that foray, which took place at Culp’s Hill, was already spent by the time Pettigrew, Pickett and Trimble had their divisions ready. Worse, the commander of Union forces at Gettysburg, George Meade, anticipated Lee’s plan and massed his numerically superior forces on Cemetery Ridge.
It Began With a Record-Breaking Artillery Barrage
Just prior to the assault, Lee ordered a massive artillery bombardment – the largest in the history of the Western Hemisphere. More than 150 guns took part in the hour-long cannonade, which was intended to wear down the Yankee defences. Despite its size and ferocity, the barrage had little effect. Most of the shells flew over the Union line to explode harmlessly in the rear, although one round did nearly kill Meade at his headquarters while he and his adjutants were having lunch. An orderly serving the officers was sliced in two by the stray shot. At first, 75 Union guns returned fire, but the Northern commanders soon ordered their batteries to cease and desist – partly to conserve ammo for the expected infantry onslaught, but also to lull Lee into thinking that the Federal artillery had been destroyed.
Six Southern States Took Part
At 2 p.m., the guns fell silent and Longstreet’s generals signalled to their divisions to advance. “Up men and to your posts,” cried Pickett. “Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia.” Interestingly, at least five other Confederate states committed troops to the assault: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. Once on the move, the line of infantry stretched more than a mile across. Union soldiers looked on with a mix of fear and amazement as the Southern legions came on. One described it as “an ocean of men sweeping upon us.” Another recalled it being “the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” As the Rebel troops strode forward in parade-square precision with bayonets fixed, Union batteries from across the battlefield began directing their fire onto their enemy. The advancing regiments struggled to keep in formation as shells and round shot ripped through their orderly ranks. Casualties began to mount, but the worst was yet to come.
It Was a Bloody Mess
As the foremost units closed to within a few hundred yards of the Yankee lines, Union batteries switched from exploding shells to canister shot — cylindrical rounds packed with hundreds of lethal anti-personnel projectiles. The fearsome ammunition transformed the cannons into oversized shotguns that could easily shred whole platoons in a single blast. Federal infantry, some of which were behind the cover of a long stone wall, joined in the conflagration as volley after volley of hot lead pulverized the advancing army. “They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust,” recalled a Union officer who witnessed the fusillade. “Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were tossed into the clear air.” The Confederate line narrowed to less than a mile across as soldiers closed ranks in the face of increasing losses. Over the ear-splitting din of battle could be heard Union infantry chanting “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” To many of those in blue, Pickett’s Charge offered the chance to repay the South for the casualties inflicted during the horrific Federal assault the previous December in Virginia.
Many Called it the ‘High Water Mark of the Confederacy’
Only a handful of Confederate units ever reached the Union positions. Rebel troops led by one of Pickett’s brigade commanders, Lewis Armistead, chased the Yankees from a protruding corner of a stone wall near the centre of the Federal line dubbed “the Angle.” One stubborn group of artillerymen refused to give ground and fired canister shot at point blank range into the faces of the attackers while Northern infantry rallied to retake the position. The South’s forlorn fight to take the Angle is often referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” – many saw the brief but savage struggle there as the turning point of Pickett’s Charge — and by extension the Battle of Gettysburg and even the entire war. Ironically, Armistead, who was mortally wounded in the assault’s dying moments, was close friends with Union general Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps, whose troops defended the Angle. Hancock himself was injured minutes earlier.
Lee Accepted the Blame
Unable to dislodge the Federal troops, the Confederate attack melted away. In less than an hour, half of those who’d made the charge were dead, wounded or missing. In fact, nearly 7,000 men (a quarter of all Confederate casualties suffered at Gettysburg) were felled during Pickett’s Charge. Division commanders Trimble and Pettigrew were both hit by enemy fire, the former having lost a leg and the latter having sustained a wound to his hand. Dozens of other officers were slain and whole regiments, like the University of Mississippi “Greys,” ceased to exist. With the attack beaten back, cheers erupted from across the entire Yankee line “making the very heavens throb,” recalled one Union soldier. Lee met his dazed soldiers as they hobbled to the rear. “It’s all my fault,” he cried. Later he would offer Jefferson Davis his resignation; it was refused. Pickett was less charitable claiming that “[the] old man had my division slaughtered.” Longstreet called it the saddest day of his life. It was a bloody afternoon for the Union too — 1,500 men were lost repulsing the Rebel attack.
Union Troops Missed a Chance to End the War
The following day, the bloodied Rebel army limped home. To President Lincoln’s frustration, the triumphant Meade mounted no counter attack nor did he try to force a follow-up battle to destroy the Confederates. Critics blasted the Union general for passing up an opportunity to crush the Army of Northern Virginia once and for all; others have maintained that after three days of hard fighting his soldiers needed time to recover.
Pickett Would Have Other Misfortunes
Despite having failed to break the Union line at Gettysburg, many Southerners heaped praise on Pickett’s division for having advanced the farthest across the field that day. Virginia newspapers referred to the assault as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ and the name stuck. But not everyone was convinced the general was a hero. Some questioned why with so many other Confederate officers wounded or killed in the attack did Pickett himself emerge unscathed? Unfortunately, the abortive assault at Gettysburg would not be the last humiliation he’d suffer. During the Battle of Five Forks, which saw Federal troops advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond, the 40-year-old Virginian was enjoying a picnic far in the rear when the Union army pushed through the Confederate lines. More than 90 percent of his 10,000-man army was killed, wounded or captured in the onslaught. Pickett was unaware the battle was even taking place until it was largely over. The day was April 1, 1865 (April Fools’ Day). Even after the war, Pickett supposedly held a grudge against Lee for ordering the infamous charge at Gettysburg. Yet shortly before his death of liver disease in 1875, a journalist asked the general whom he blamed for the disaster. “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it,” he quipped.
Vets Refought Pickett’s Charge 50 Years Later
Thousands of survivors of Pickett’s Charge would return to the infamous killing ground in 1913 as part of a reunion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg. More than 53,000 veterans of the battle, most in their 70s, gathered at the site of the legendary clash. The three-day reunion ended with a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge in which the aging Southerners advanced once more up Cemetery Ridge. This time they marched not to the rattle of musketry and the crash of cannon fire but to the sound of the cheers and applause of their former foes. Upon reaching the Angle both groups met to embrace.