To any American with even a rudimentary knowledge of military history, that word speaks volumes. The battle itself, its historical impact, the heroism, the second-guessing . . . . all of these are legendary. Literally hundreds of books have been written concerning various aspects of the battle and its aftermath.
Yet certain parts of the battle remain under-appreciated today. That’s true even of some that are well-known.
In fact, that’s true for one of the great acts of heroism which occurred at Gettysburg. IMO, it’s one of the greatest acts of collective heroism in military history – ranking with Gideon’s Band, the Spartans at Themopylae, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Yet it is an action for which none of the participants received any substantial personal recognition other than after-the-fact praise. The human cost was extreme. And it remains controversial even today.
But that’s to be expected. Any military operation involving 52+% casualties should be expected to have both heroic and controversial aspects. That’s especially true when it involves roughly 12,500 men.
I’m referring to Pickett’s Charge.
Gettysburg – and the US Civil War – came at a time where technology had provided the means to change the nature of ground combat. However, doctrine and tactics had not yet caught up with changed technology. The result was a war fought often with old-style tactics using more modern weapons.
Predictably, the results were horrific.
Napoleonic-era formations and tactics largely persisted. This was true in spite of the continued advances in artillery (dramatically more accurate, with better anti-personnel capability) and the mass adoption of rifles vice smoothbore muskets by infantry. Between those two recent developments, troops could now accurately engage and kill each other at ranges of hundreds of yards vice only at close range. Further, additional technical developments – such as repeating rifles and fused shells – added to the vulnerability of exposed soldiers and the potential lethality of a prepared defender.
In short: war had transitioned from an era favoring elan and offense (the Napoleonic era) to one favoring preparation and defense. The defender could now kill at long range, from a concealed position. And if/when attackers massed, they could be killed on an industrial scale - quickly.
Leadership on both sides seemed slow to recognize or embrace these changes. A brief look at the Confederate leadership is illustrative. After a brief bit of defensive orientation early in the war – and after being derided as the “King of Spades” for same – Lee reverted to the Napoleonic model of the attack. Jackson focused on speed and audacious maneuver – and reportedly requisitioned pikes for at least some of his troops. The same was true of most other senior Confederate generals.
Longstreet seemed to understand the magnitude and impact of the changes, as well as grasping how they dictated the beginnings of modern small-unit infantry tactics (coordinated combination of fire and maneuver by small elements; use of field fortifications and trenching; and the inherent advantage offered the defense given the weapons of his day). But Longstreet was not an eloquent speaker, and was unable to persuade.
Longstreet was also not in overall command of Confederate forces at Gettysburg; that was Lee. But in an ironic twist of fate, it was Longstreet who was fated to give the final approval for Pickett’s charge.
I won’t rehash the entire 3-day battle in detail here; various works do so far better than can I. But a summary may be helpful to set the stage.
Day 1 was the meeting engagement that began the battle. Buford’s inspired early defense east of Gettysburg forced a premature Confederate deployment, buying time for Union reinforcements to arrive, and later to occupy the vital ground of Cemetery Ridge. Early Union reinforcements initially defended north and east of the town. These Union forces at first held; however, subsequent Confederate attacks in greater strength forced Union defenders to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. They did so to positions on the northern end of Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill, which eventually formed the extreme Union right.
Day 2 included continued arrival of reinforcements for both sides; adjustments/extensions in positions; and Ewell’s demonstration against the northern part of the Union position (Culp’s Hill) as well as secondary attacks against the Union center by Hill. It ended with Longstreet’s afternoon attack against the Union left – including the famous and desperate fighting at the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Wheat Field, and (most critically) Little Round Top. But at the end of the day, the Union lines – though badly battered – still held.
Day 3 of the battle started with an attack on the far right of the Union line (Culp’s Hill and the northern end of Cemetery Ridge) , with savage fighting for several hours. Then in the early afternoon came the battle’s culmination: a multi-division infantry attack on the Union center.
Map Depicting Pickett’s Charge (courtesy Wikipedia Commons ); Little Round Top is off the map to the south of the southern end of Cemetery Ridge)
The plan for the assault was simple: Confederate artillery would bombard a small part of the Union center with all available guns, battering it severely. Massed Confederate infantry would then assault that Union center, breaking it – and with it, the Army of the Potomac.
The infantry attack would begin from the present day locations of the North Carolina and Virginia Memorials on or near Seminary Ridge, attacking towards the center-right of the Union line. (The precise locations of these memorials are shown on this NPS map – it’s PDF, and It’s fairly large. They’re generally near the starting positions of Pettigrew’s and Pickett’s divisions on the above map.) The Confederate infantry would stay concealed as long as possible. It would then form, and assault the Union Center. The attack would involve three full divisions – roughly 12,500 men.
The precise location of the objective of the charge is in dispute. Suffice it to say that the area called “The Angle” – so named because it was formed by a right-angle of two stone fences – is close enough if not exact.
In their assault, the Confederate infantry would cross approximately 1,200 meters – about 3/4 mile – of open, gently rolling terrain. It would then assault, uphill, into a fortified Union line.
As it turns out, the Confederate infantry would also attack largely without artillery support once preparatory fires had been completed. Though the Confederate artillery preparation was massive – 150 to 170 guns, reputedly the largest artillery concentration of the war to that date – the Confederate Army was short on artillery ammunition. It fired most of its ammunition during the preparatory fires.
The attacking Confederate infantry would pass in and out of view of both the enemy and their comrades as they crossed undulating ground.
They would cross a significant obstacle – a fenced, sunken road (Emmitsburg Road) – at about the time they came into rifle range of the enemy.
They would assault while receiving heavy fire from both Union artillery and infantry – firing largely from covered and at least partially-concealed positions – from both flank and front. As it turns out, the Confederate preparatory fires were not particularly effective. Moreover, much of the Union artillery deliberately ceased fire during the Confederate preparatory fires, feigning destruction – until after the Confederate preparatory fires were over and the infantry assault had begun.
Should you want an overview of what the average Confederate infantry soldier in Pickett’s charge saw as he assaulted the Union lines on that fateful day, Andrew Weigel has an excellent site that details both main assault routes in photographs. On a pleasant day, either route is about a 1/2 hour one-way stroll. Since the first part of the “charge” was at a route-step march, it likely didn’t take all that much less time on 3 July 1863 either – probably about 20 minutes or so).
But that’s 20 minutes or so while in the open, exposed – and under murderous enemy fire. In other words: it was about a 20 minute stroll through hell. Each way.
Here’s the terrain the Confederate infantry would cross, as seen in 2009 from the Virginia Memorial (from Weigel’s site):
And here’s the view from the North Carolina Memorial – again, courtesy of Weigel’s site:
Here’s the view from the center of the Union line, near The Angle:
(image from Wikipedia commons)
A photograph of what the Union forces on Little Round Top saw, looking northward at the right flank of the Confederate assault, may be found here; more photographs of the battlefield may be found at the same site here. (These are actual photographs taken during or shortly after the battle.)
Cross that, under fire? Even in the 1860s, that would be close to suicide.
For many, it was. Yet they still tried.
Union artillery raked the Confederate flank from Little Round Top during Pickett’s Charge with murderous effect, probably using both solid shot and canister. Union artillery on Cemetery Hill to the north of the Union center (no photos available) similarly pounded the left flank of the Confederate attack. Union artillery in the line raked the troops from the front. And when they came within range, the Union infantry deployed along Cemetery Ridge engaged them with rifle fire.
The Confederate infantry crossed the fenced road (Emmitsburg Road), then assaulted uphill. Some reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge north of The Angle, briefly causing a small break in the Union line. But only a few from Armistead’s Brigade of Pickett’s Division made it that far. And Union reinforcements quickly arrived to seal the breach.
The Confederates were then forced to retreat. And retreat they did, under fire, over the same 1,200 meters (3/4 mile) they’d crossed shortly before.
The culmination of Pickett’s charge is often referred to as “the high water mark of the Confederacy”. A monument so named is found at Gettysburg on this spot.
The name is apt. After Gettysburg – and after the Pyrrhic tactical victory but strategic failure at Chickamauga a bit over two months later – the Confederacy would never again have the capability to threaten the Union seriously.
Pickett’s Charge Considered.
The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava occurred less than 9 years before Pickett’s Charge. It was (and still is) renowned for both its high casualty rate and the extreme courage shown by the attackers. Casualties among the Light Brigade (killed/wounded/missing) were approximately 40% – 287 casualties in approximately 670 participants.
So what, then, are we to make of Pickett’s Charge?
At the beginning, the participants in Pickett’s Charge numbered 12,500. Less than 6,000 made it back uninjured.
The total casualty rate among all Confederate forces in Pickett’s Charge was roughly 52% – 6,551 casualties out of approximately 12,500 participants. Less than half of those who began the attack returned whole.
Among the Confederate attackers, Pickett’s division fared the worst (this sad fact likely led to the name for this action). In Pickett’s division, total casualties exceeded 60%. And as a group, the senior officers in Pickett’s division fared as badly – or in some cases, worse – as did their men.
- All 3 of Pickett’s brigade commanders were casualties: 2 were mortally wounded (Armistad, Garnett), while one (Kemper) was wounded and captured.
- All 13 of Pickett’s regimental commanders (100%) were casualties.
- Of the 40 field grade officers (MAJ-LTC-COL) in Pickett’s division, 26 were casualties (65%).
At Balaclava, the charge was made by mounted cavalry. Presumably most of the survivors departed the battlefield relatively quickly.
Pickett’s Charge was an infantry engagement; it was done on foot. Including the fighting, it took the best part of an hour – not counting the artillery preparatory fires. And it also included a withdrawal -but slower and on foot – while under enemy fire.
A massed infantry attack, over 3/4 mile of open country, into the teeth of a prepared position, largely without support, while under fire. When you think about that, it sounds . . . . unbelievable. Simply unbelievable.
Yet that day, the unbelievable happened. And it came within a whisker of success.
Should you have the chance, it’s worth your while to visit Gettysburg. I have twice before, and I plan to do so again next summer. But next time, if I can I believe I’ll walk both routes of Pickett’s charge – if for no other reason than to honor the memory and bravery of those who did the same nearly 150 years ago.