The Third Day at Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge

This entry is part 17 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

When people think of the Battle of Gettysburg, they usually identify the three day battle with its final action, Pickett’s Charge. One of the most iconic actions in the American Civil War, it encompasses almost everything that we relate to the Civil War: frienship across the lines, a futile assault, massive casualties and finally, regret.

Pickett’s Charge was a massive frontal infantry assault ordered by General Robert E. Lee against the fixed defenses of General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Approximately 12,500 Confederates in 9 infantry brigades marched three-quarters of a mile over open fields under Union artillery and rifle fire. Their objective was an angled stone wall and a “clump of trees” where it was hoped that they could split the Union line and defeat the Union army in detail.

Gettysburg, Third Day, Pickett's ChargeSome historians define a timeline of the American Civil War as before Pickett’s Charge and after Pickett’s Charge. Certainly, there is some validity to this when one limits it to the Eastern Theater. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg is clearly a delineating line for the conflict in the East but one needs to take into account all of the fighting in the Western Theater, also.

The fighting at Gettysburg had gone on for 2 1/2 days before the charge. The Confederates had a clear advantage on the First Day of combat. On the Second Day, Lee had ordered punishing attacks on either flank of the Union defensive line in the hope that the enemy would thin out their defenses in the center along Cemetary Ridge.

On the morning of the Third Day, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps prematurely attacked the extreme right of the Union line at Culp’s Hill. Lee had planned for a later demonstration at Culp’s Hill in order to draw off more Union troops from the center.

General Lee had assigned the attack to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, the First Corps commander and his trusted second-in-command. Longstreet was clearly opposed to the frontal assault and argued that the Army of Northern Virginia should march around either flank of the enemy. They could interpose themselves between the Union army and Washington. They would then be able to fight on ground of their own choosing.

Longstreet was supposed to have told Lee, “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”

Lee realized that if his army withdrew after two days of hard fighting, their morale would be affected. He also knew that they didn’t have enough supplies to sustain an extended campaign in Pennsylvania. After all, one of the reasons for their invasion of the North was to collect supplies and material.

Longstreet ordered that he only had one fresh division, Maj. Gen. George Pickett‘s, for the coming attack since his other two divisions, Hood’s and McLaws’, had suffered serious losses in the previous day’s attacks against Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top and Cemetary Ridge. Hood had been severely injured and both divisions had lost a significant number of field grade officers.

Lee ordered Pender’s Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble after Pender’s mortal wounding, and Heth’s Division, led by Brig. Gen.  James Johnston Pettigrew after Henry Heth’s wounding on the First Day of the battle. Both of these formations were from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps.

Trimble had the brigades of Brig. Gens. Alfred M. Scales (temporarily commanded by Col. William Lee J. Lowrance) and James H. Lane. Pettigrew General George Pickettcommanded brigades under Col. Birkett D. Fry (Archer’s Brigade), Col. James K. Marshall(Pettigrew’s Brigade), Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis, and Col. John M. Brockenbrough.

Two brigades from Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division (Hill’s Corps) were to support the attack on the right flank: Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox and Col. David Lang (Perry’s brigade). These latter two are not generally counted in the total of soldiers participating in the attack. They added almost 2,500 men to the assault.

Opposing the attack was the II Corps under Maj. Gen. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. The center was defended by  the division of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon with the brigades of Brig. Gen. William Harrow, Col. Norman J. Hall, and Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb. The night before at the council of war, General Meade had correctly predicted to Gibbon that his division would be the main point of a Confederate assault.

To the north of this position were brigades from the division of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, and to the south was Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday‘s division of the I Corps, including the 2nd Vermont Brigade of Brig. Gen. George J. Stannard and the 121st Pennsylvania under the command of Col. Chapman Biddle. General Meade’s headquarters were just behind the II Corps line, in the small house owned by the widow Lydia Leister.

Over the intervening years there is some discussion over the naming of the assault for the general who commanded only one-third of the troops on the field. Some say that it should be called Longstreet’s Assault or the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault but since Pickett’s Division was to lead the attack the name has remained Pickett’s Charge.

Lee’s plan called for an early start to the attack but it was not to be. The long distances that Hill’s troops needed to march precluded that. There are others in the “Lost Cause” community that blame Longstreet for the delay because of his reluctance to attack here.

Pickett's Charge from Union linesStarting at about 1:00 PM, a massive artillery battle commenced. The Confederate artillery was under the command of 28-year old Col. Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery chief. Lee’s artillery chief, Maj. Gen.William N. Pendleton, played little role other than to obstruct the effective placement of artillery from the other two corps. Despite Alexander’s efforts, there was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective, that being the Union artillery on Cemetary Ridge.

The artillery bombardment on July 3rd was perhaps the largest of the war. Confederate guns numbers between 150 and 170 while the Union gunners had something less than that. The Confederate fire was somewhat ineffective with many of the shells overshooting their targets. The smoke that covered the battlefield masked the Union batteries and Alexander fell for Union artillery chief Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt‘s ruse.

Hunt had only about 80 guns available to conduct counter-battery fire; the geographic features of the Union line had limited areas for effective gun emplacement. He also ordered that firing cease to conserve ammunition, but to fool Alexander, Hunt ordered his cannons to cease fire slowly to create the illusion that they were being destroyed one by one.

Alexander notified Pickett that he was running out of ammunition, “Come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you properly”. When Pickett asked Longstreet if he should attack, Longstreet, fearing the outcome, could only nod agreement.

Pickett’s Division was on the Confederate right. It consisted of three brigades led Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper on the right and Brig. Gen. Richard B. General Armistead at the Stone WallGarnett on the left; Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead‘s brigade followed behind in support. Pettigrew’s Division was on the left with Trimble behind him.

The infantry assault began at about 2:00 PM when the Confederates stepped off and began to march into the face of the Union defenders. Their line of attack was over a mile wide, some say as wide as a mile and a half. The ground was slightly undulating with swales and dips. At many points in the march, the Confederate attackers would disappear from the defenders’ view.

Traversing the battlefield was the Emmitsburg Road with fence lines on either side. This obstacle forced the attackers halt and climb the fences, disrupting their lines. Union artillery on either flank raked the advancing Confederates causing further disruption. As the line advanced it shrank to about 800 yards wide as men filled in the thinning ranks. More than 1,600 rounds were fired at Pettigrew’s men during the assault. This portion of the assault never advanced much farther than the sturdy fence at the Emmitsburg Road.

As Pickett’s men approached the Union line, they came under raking artillery fire into their right flank. Stannard’s Vermont Brigade marched forward, faced north, and delivered withering fire into the rear of Kemper’s brigade.

It was at this point in the attack that General Hancock was severely wounded in the right thigh. He refused to be taken from the field until the attack was over. Across the line was his best friend, Brig. General Lewis A. Armistead, who led one of Pickett’s Virginians.

Defending the low stone wall at “The Angle” was Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb‘s Philadelphia Brigade. Supporting them were the two remaining guns of Lt. Alonzo Cushing‘s Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery. Cushing was mortally wounded and it has been said that the 19-year old battery commander pulled the lanyard with his dying breath. It was more likely his 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger. Cushing was killed when a bullet entered his mouth and exited through the back of his skull. He died on the field at the height of the assault.

As the Confederates pressed forward, the Union defenders gradually gave ground, some were even routed. It one point Captain Andrew Cowan and his 1st New York Independent artillery battery were left to face the oncoming infantry. Assisted personally by artillery chief Henry Hunt, Cowan ordered five guns to fire double canister simultaneously. His fire cut large swathes in the attacking infantry.

The 72nd Pennsylvania counterattacked and stabilized the Union defensive line. This was the “High Tide of the Confederacy”. Confederates began to slip away individually, with no senior officers remaining to call a formal retreat. The attack lasted less than an hour. The supporting attack by Wilcox and Lang on Pickett’s right was never a factor; they did not approach the Union line until after Pickett was defeated, and their advance was quickly broken up by McGilvery’s guns and by the Vermont Brigade.

The Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded. However, the Confederate casualty rate was over 50%. Pickett’s division suffered 2,655 casualties (498 killed, 643 wounded, 833 wounded and captured, and 681 captured, unwounded). Pettigrew’s losses are estimated to be about 2,700 (470 killed, 1,893 wounded, 337 captured). Trimble’s two brigades lost 885 (155 killed, 650 wounded, and 80 captured). Wilcox’s brigade reported losses of 200, Lang’s about 400.

Thus, total losses during the attack were 6,555, of which at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and a goodIt's all my fault number of the injured were also captured. Confederate prisoner totals are difficult to estimate from their reports; Union reports indicated that 3,750 men were captured.

Pickett lost all three of his brigade commanders with Garnett killed on the field, Armistead mortally wounded and captured and Kemper severely wounded. In his division, 26 of the 40 field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) were casualties, 12 killed or mortally wounded, nine wounded, four wounded and captured, and one captured.

The night before the battle Armistead had asked General Longstreet to deliver his bible and other personal effects to Almira Hancock, the wife of his best friend. After the war, Longstreet accomplished his task.

Perhaps, the most poignant moment after the battle was Pickett’s meeting with Lee on the field. When Lee directed him to see to his division, Pickett responded, “General Lee, I have no division.” Pickett never forgave Lee for ordering the attack. How painful was it for Lee when he realized that he had nearly destroyed a division of his fellow Divisions.

General Lee told his returning troops, “It’s all my fault.” He later reiterated his statement in a letter to President Jefferson Davis in which he offered his resignation.

William Faulkner, the quintessential Southern author summed up the memory of Pickett’s Charge,

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

— William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust





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