Pickett’s Charge

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge.  It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.

913-004-2f9debccExcept, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett.  His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance.  Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg.  Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders.  But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.

Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces.  The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers.  It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated.  The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War.  It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement.  It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive.  Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.

The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.

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Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

July 3, 1863 dawned hot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The soldiers of the two huge armies groaned in the stifling overnight heat, and then Union forces began another day of fighting with an artillery barrage that started at 4:30 a.m.  The rebel forces responded by attacking, and the sound of battle drifted over the countryside.

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had spent the night reflecting on the day before, when the rebels had come close to breaking the Union lines and winning a devastating victory.  Lee concluded that another assault on the Army of the Potomac might produce a breakthrough.  This time, he planned on a direct attack on the center of the Union position.

Lieutenant General Longstreet, whose troops were to carry out the assault, adamantly opposed Lee’s announced plan.  Longstreet believed that no forces, however capable, could successfully carry out a direct attack on the prepared enemy positions.  But Lee was not to be dissuaded, and the duty to carry out the assault was given to Confederate General George Pickett and his fresh force of Virginians.

At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery began shelling the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge, hoping the soften the lines so that Pickett could break through.  But the barrage was ineffective, and when Pickett’s 12,000 men began their famous charge across the field toward Cemetery Ridge later that afternoon the Union forces were ready.  The Federals poured cannon fire and rifle volleys into Pickett’s troops, tearing huge holes in their lines and leaving thousands dead and dying.

Amazingly, some rebel troops reached the Union lines, and the soldiers fought hand to hand.  Union reinforcements soon appeared, and ultimately the rebel losses proved to be too great.  The Confederates recognized that the charge could not succeed, and then the living remnants of Pickett’s decimated brigade retreated over the bloody ground.

Lee knew that he had blundered and accepted full blame for the carnage inflicted on Pickett’s brigade.  But the tide had turned, and the die had been cast.  The fighting ended, with the Southern forces suffering 28,000 dead, wounded, and missing over the three days of clashes compared to 23,000 casualties for the Army of the Potomac.

The numbers, however, did not tell the full story.  The Confederate invasion of the North had been repulsed, and the Army of the Potomac had finally won a real victory against the seemingly unbeatable Robert E. Lee.  Rather than inflicting a blow that might cause the North to sue for peace, Lee’s plan had given the Union a great, if bloody, victory that stiffened its resolve to fight on.