Pickett’s Charge — The Last Attack at Gettysburg

A review of Pickett’s Charge – The Last Attack at Gettysburg by Earl J. Hess (UNC Press, 2001).

When I was still on active duty with the U.S. Army, the true “Gettysburg” book was Professor Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968). But his book was about the entire battle and command and not the attack.

Hess mentions several others, such as George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959) (“who failed to analyze the attack as a military event”); Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997) (“many differing perspectives on the attack, accumulated by veterans who had axes to grind and who indulged their highly selective memories”), with whom he disagrees; and John Michael Priest’s Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (1998) (“little explanation for why it took place, how the assault was organized or planned, or what factors affected its outcome”).

Thus he wrote this book as a “battle book”, a “narrative account of the attack with new interpretations of how it took place, blending storytelling with analysis.” Since huge amounts of new information from primary sources has become available, not to mention articles from Gettysburg magazine and others, I would say he has succeeded.

On July 3, 1863, there were two different ideas for the fight at Gettysburg. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet wanted the Confederates to have Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell disengage on the left and shift right, have the rest of the army shift to the right to get behind the Yankee line and into a good defensive position, and let the Yankees attack and be slaughtered. Longstreet looked upon the attack of July 2nd as proof something new should be tried. His proposed maneuver “would have been a slow process, probably, but I think not very difficult.”

Union commander Gen. Meade feared this move the most. He welcomed a frontal assault, but moving to the rear to catch up with the Confederates was a more complex and risky prospect. The Army of the Potomac was fully prepared to evacuate its position and retire to a new position along Pipe Creek in Maryland. Meade even called a council of war to determine if the army should remain or fall back.

General Robert E. Lee, however, saw the series of battles over July 1 – 2 as steps along the correct line of approach. “The enemy is there [on Cemetery Ridge], and I am going to strike him.” Lee suggested 15,000 men should be enough, to which Longstreet replied, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for Battle can take that position.” Hess calls Longstreet one of the most able tacticians in the Confederate army, with a discerning eye for terrain, and a keen appreciation for the role of artillery. But Lee was the commander and Longstreet went to obey orders.

Hess notes this attack would be a complex and difficult attack to organize because it involved parts of two army corps and dozens of support troops. Before the attack there would be an extensive artillery preparation by most of the artillery units of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was quite a plan to be organized by Longstreet in the short time before it stepped off.

But Hess says, “Longstreet did not give all of his considerable talents to making sure the attack had every chance of success.” First, Longstreet designated Maj. Gen. George Pickett as the guide for the attack. To its left was Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s troops and Longstreet selected Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division to go forward with Pickett, even though it had fought heavily on July 1st. Then Longstreet simply instructed Pickett to find a spot for his men to ride out the artillery barrage somewhere in the vicinity of the Union center. When the attack stepped off, Pickett was instructed to join his left flank with the right flank of Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew, 400 yards away. Hess says Longstreet failed to see that all his troops were informed of what they could encounter during the attack, and Longstreet also failed to send more support troops along with the attack; Anderson’s division was available to cover both flanks but  not used. Lee had contemplated that part of Law’s or McLaws’ commands of Hill’s Corps would be sent forward; Longstreet instead used them to secure his right flank. What he sent forward were the small brigades of Col. David Lang and Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox “to protect [Pickett] from any force that the enemy might attempt to move against it.” Thus, according to Hess, “Pickett’s Charge neatly falls into the middle ground between the haphazard design of the Seven Days and the meticulous preparation [by Gen. John B. Gordon] of the assault on Fort Stedman.”

Longstreet and Hill had formally quit feuding about their actions during the Seven Days battles, but Hill was still smarting and exercised no control over the placement of the troops; issued no instructions or advice to any of the commanders; and failed to play the role of an effective corps commander cooperating with other corps.

The most effective commander on the battlefield that day was Col. Edward P. Alexander. His instructions were “First, to give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not meant simply to make a noise but to try & cripple him – to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” After that, “advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack.”

But about noon Alexander received a message from Longstreet, “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.” Alexander now realized Longstreet was making him responsible for starting the attack and replied, “When our artillery fire is at its best I shall order Gen. Pickett to charge.”

Hess points out that all the units selected for this assault were chosen by happenstance, not upon deep reflection. As Pickett’s division had not yet seen action, it was a logical choice. Pettigrew’s division, although in the fight July 1st, had regrouped. But the supporting brigades right and left were those that happened to be there.

The Confederate artillery did its part. Noncombatants, wagons, reserve units, etc. quickly left the scene, what Hess called, “the appearance that a defeated and demoralized army was retreating. Cemetery Ridge quickly became bare as the nonessential men fled and the fighting soldiers hunkered down for cover.”

Yankees wrote after the battle they were “astonished at its volume, extent and duration. We were not unfamiliar with artillery fire but this proved to be something far beyond all previous experience, or conception, and the scene was terrific beyond description. It began fiercely, increased rapidly and continued persistently.”

Those retreating from the front found themselves still under fire as the Confederates overshot the lines, killing men and horses and destroying buildings. Up front Union artillery was being destroyed and had to be manned by infantry. A Union artillery officer watched as a Confederate battery “raked the whole line of batteries, killed and wounded the men and horses and blew up the caissons rapidly.”

Hess says the Confederates needed to reduce Union artillery power significantly. They did so at the focal point of attack, but they did not do so on any other part of the line. The Yankees still had many batteries in reserve ready to go into action. They also needed to demoralize, kill, and wound as many Union infantrymen as possible. But the vast majority of Union foot soldiers survived and were eager to fight. Hess shows that “The [Confederate] infantry stood up and prepared to go into an assault with few more advantages than they had an hour earlier. It was all up to them now.” When the Virginians passed through the artillery line, many gunners uncovered their heads and raised a cheer. Hess called this “an encouragement and a farewell.”

As the attack stepped off, the all-important alignment was immediately off. Pettigrew had only two brigades start on time; the third (Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis) started late but caught up. Since Davis was the focal point of a fourth brigade, Col. John M. Brockenbrough’s, the fourth brigade gave up on catching Davis and conducted its own, poorly coordinated and lightly pressed attack.

Hess points out the gap between Pickett and Pettigrew took quite a while to make up, and they did not finally get together until crossing Emmitsburg Road. As Pettigrew paused to redress his line, those to the rear thought they were wavering; this was corrected as Brig. Gen. Richard Garnett’s left aligned with Pettigrew. Davis, who had started late, led a disorganized attack with Pettigrew. Brockenbrough, unused to command, divided his 500-man brigade into two wings, but never caught up with Davis on his right. When the Yankees fired into him from the front, his troops fled all the way back to Seminary Ridge.

Davis halted at the road and then broke for the rear. Only Col. Birkett Fry and Col. James K. Marshall were in hand and doing all that was humanly feasible in this situation. Hess notes that of 4500 men Pettigrew threw 1000 into the area between the road and the Yankees, “far too low for the Rebels to have a real chance of taking the stone fence.”

Hess notes, “Even though Pettigrew had lost the use of one brigade and could not rely on the steadiness of another, the rest of his men were solid and moving forward.” While Pettigrew’s men struggled to make any progress east of Emmitsburg Road, Pickett’s brigade commanders were launching his division like a juggernaut across the pike and on to the stone fence. The Virginians were able to bring many more men closer to the Union position than Pettigrew could and would not be so readily repulsed. Garnett finally closed with the right flank of Fry’s brigade, making connection with Pettigrew.

The actual charge Hess leaves to the chapter entitled “To The Stone Fence”. The Confederates were receiving terrific fire from the Yankee lines by this time. Remaining Union artillery at the focal point fired their last rounds point-blank. Then Union infantry rose and fired. Confederate Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper, still mounted, shouted, “There are the guns, boys, go for them!” Pvt. William G. Monte, G/9th Virginia, pulled out his watch and said, “We have been just nineteen minutes coming.” It would be a longer retreat.

Pickett’s Charge ended at the stone wall, where it halted. According to Hess, this steadied the Federals and gave them an opportunity to stand firm. “The long, steady momentum that Pickett’s division had maintained all the way across the valley under the punishing artillery fire and through the storm of musketry had decisively broken.”

So now the Confederates conducted a desperate holding action with uncertain prospects of success. Finally, without orders from anywhere, the men began to retreat, called a retrograde movement in the military. All along the line the Confederates began to fall back in small groups. Those who felt they could not safely make it to the Confederate line surrendered. While this was going on, the brigades of Lang and Wilcox attacked to the south and were repulsed. They retreated, harassed by the Union artillery.

In the chapter “The Repulse” Hess discussed the aftermath and the losses. Pickett lost 498 killed, 833 wounded and captured, 681 captured (42%). Pettigrew’s losses were estimated to be 470 killed, 1893 wounded, and 337 wounded taken on the battlefield (62%). Wilcox reported losing 200; Lang reported 115. Davis (44% loss) and Brockenbrough (17% loss) had reports covering both days’ fighting. Marshall (67%) and Frye (57%) lost accordingly.

As an example of these losses, the University Greys of the 11th Mississippi lost every man in the attack; Capt. Edmund R. Cocke claimed his E/18th Virginia lost every one of its 23 officers and men, killed, wounded, or captured. Nor were the Confederates the only victims. All of Cushing’s guns at the focal point were unserviceable or needed repairs; he lost 65 of 115 battery horses and 40 personnel. Arnold’s Rhode Island battery lost 36 men and 56 horses; of the infantry who volunteered to fire the guns, all were lost. Their loss was 24% to 30%.

Hess says Pickett’s Charge was “the best day of fighting by Pickett’s division … and the most famous day for the rest of the Confederate attacking column as well.”

Hess concludes that, “win or lose, those Rebels who tried to break the Second Corps line came to be admired by people on both sides of the valley that symbolically separated North and South for a few hours in July 1863.”

But one Confederate had another view, “If Old Jack [Stonewall Jackson] had been here, it wouldn’t have been like this.”

About John C. Whatley

John C. Whatley is a retired USArmy Field Artillery Officer and an adjunct professor of business law. He is the author of over 200 by-lined articles on the War Between the States in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, and is the author of the Typical Confederate series [Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama so far]. He also speaks on The War to historic groups in various States. When he has time, he also works as a business and tax consultant.

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