Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge
General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia entered the Battle of Gettysburg at the height of its power. “There never were such men in an army before,” wrote Lee. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.” After two days of fighting around the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lee’s army had come close to winning its greatest glory. The Army of the Potomac had valiantly resisted the Army of Northern Virginia’s best efforts, but with one more push, Lee believed that his invincible troops would finish the job, just like they had always done. General Lee had come to Pennsylvania in quest of a decisive victory. On July 3, 1863, he was determined to achieve it.
Lee believed that the opposing commander, General George Meade had weakened his center to reinforce the flanks that were attacked on July 2. With General George Pickett’s fresh division as a spearhead, Lee decided to attack the center of the Federal line. When this position was struck, General Richard Ewell would renew his assault on the Union right, and J.E.B. Stuart would curl far around the enemy’s right and disrupt the Federal rear. With proper coordination and leadership, Lee did not think that his army could fail, but early that morning, the Army of the Potomac took fate into its own hands.
The Union breastworks on Culp's Hill on the morning of July 3, 1863. (Photo: Library of Congress)
Around 4:30 A.M. on July 3, Union troops opened up the fighting again at Culp’s Hill, on the right of the Federal line. The struggle lasted until 11:00 A.M., and following the relentless firefight, Ewell’s troops were forced to pull back. One part of Lee’s plan had already failed. At about 1:00 P.M., Stuart’s horseman set out to complete their objective. They would clash with Federal cavalry and inevitably failed to fulfill another part of Lee’s strategy. If the Army of Northern Virginia was going to triumph at the Battle of Gettysburg, everything depended on the attack that would forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge.”
The clash between Union and Confederate cavalry to the east of Gettysburg. Painting by Mort Kunstler. (Photo: mortkunstler.com)
To break through the Union center, Lee ordered General James Longstreet to prepare Pickett’s fresh division and most of the brigades in A.P. Hill’s two divisions that had fought on July 1. Altogether, this force numbered about twelve thousand men. Longstreet was at odds with his commander over this strategy. The man that Lee called “My Old War Horse” simply did not believe that the proposed attack would succeed. “General Lee,” Longstreet later reported himself to have said, “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 anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” Lee was irritated by this near-insubordination, replying that the army had overcome similar odds before and could do it again. “My heart was heavy,” Longstreet recalled. “I could see the desperate and hopeless nature of the charge and the cruel slaughter it would cause. That day at Gettysburg was the saddest of my life.”
General James Longstreet. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Before the attackers made their assault, Lee ordered 150 confederate cannon to soften up the point of attack near a copse of woods on Cemetery Ridge. At 1:07 P.M., the Rebel guns opened up and Union cannon quickly replied. For almost two hours, more than 250 cannon across both sides traded fire and shook the countryside. The bombardment was so intense that several people in the Pittsburg area, 150 miles to the west, heard the artillery barrage. Lieutenant Franklin Haskell was one of the Union soldiers in the thick of the action. He later wrote, “To say that it was like a summer storm, with the crash of thunder, the glare of lightning, the shrieking of the wind, and the clatter of hailstones, would be weak.” Despite the intensity of the bombardment, the majority of Rebel gunners fired too high. Most of the Confederate shells went too far before exploding, causing havoc in the Union rear, but leaving the Federal infantry and artillery at the front relatively unscathed. The furious artillery barrage did not quite work out the way Lee had hoped it would, and his infantry would suffer horribly because of it.
How the Union center might have appeared as the Confederate assault force attempted to break through on July 3, 1863. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As Generals Richard Garnett and Lewis Armistead gazed across the fields at the blazing cannons on the ridge they were ordered to assault, they immediately recognized the difficulty of the task before them. Garnett commented, “This is a desperate thing to attempt.” “It is,” agreed Armistead. “But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in his hands.” General Longstreet certainly did not want to make the attack. When Pickett came up to him and asked if he should advance, all Longstreet could do was nod. He later wrote that “my feelings had so overcome me that I could not speak, for the fear of betraying my want of confidence.” With the order to attack confirmed, line after line of Confederate soldiers prepared to advance towards the final fury.
After receiving the go-ahead, Pickett rushed back to his men and offered words of encouragement: “Up men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia.” Painting by Mort Künstler. (Photo: mortkunstler.com)
The whole Rebel line was a mile wide and as soon as it emerged from the woods along Seminary Ridge, Federal artillery began to find its range. The attacking force had to advance nearly a mile and the odds were against them. When Union artillery fired, many Confederates disappeared in boiling clouds of dust and smoke. From behind stone walls, Federal infantrymen unleashed devastating volleys against the attackers. Some Confederate troops managed to breach the Union line, but they were unable to hold on. By 4:00 P.M., it was all over. Barely half of the Confederates who made the attack survived, and Pickett’s division lost two-thirds of its men. “We gained nothing but glory,” a Virginia captain wrote home, “and lost our bravest men.”
All fifteen regimental commanders in Pickett's division went down; nine of them were killed. Thirteen of Pickett's regiments suffered the humility of having their flags captured by the enemy. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo: Breitbart News)
“It’s all my fault,” General Lee reportedly said to the wounded survivors who made the charge. “It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” The Army of Northern Virginia did rally, eventually escaping back across the Potomac River, but the invasion of the North had failed, once and for all. Lee’s defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor. "It's all my fault. I thought my men were invincible," Lee professed to Longstreet. Nothing would ever be the same again for the Army of Northern Virginia.
Gettysburg: A Lovely Summer Morning by Frank A. Haskell.
Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.
Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson.
History.com: Battle of Gettysburg.
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign by Shelby Foote.