Today, July 3, 2008, is the 145th Anniversary of the third and last day of the battle of Gettysburg in Southern Pennsylvania. It was a hot day on July 3, 1863 when Confederate commander Robert E Lee Ordered his Army to attack the center of the Yankee line on higher ground across an open field. A few years ago I had an opportunity to go to Gettysburg and tour the battle field as it is preserved today. The last point I visited is where the remnants of Pickett's forces attacked the Union Line after they had been decimated in the long charge across the open field by Union cannon fire and the fire of the Union infantry. It has become known at the "high tide of the Confederacy" and some have said "the South never smiled again" after that terrible fateful charge. The Union line held and the Confederates were forced to retreat back to the South.
The war then continued for two bloody years in which the United States paid in blood for the evil stain of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address:
"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Those words are carved in stone on the side of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC so we will never forget them.
The following is the Wikipedia description of that fateful charge edited by me:
"Pickett's Charge was an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility was predicted by the charge's commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been nicknamed the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
After Confederate attacks on both Union flanks had failed the day and night before, Lee was determined to strike the Union center on the third day. On the night of July 2, General Meade correctly predicted at a council of war that Lee would try an attack on his lines in the center the following morning.
The infantry assault was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment by 150 to 170 Confederate cannons.The largest artillery bombardment in the history of the North American Continent. It was meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but it was largely ineffective. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields for three quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. Although some Confederates were able to breach the low stone wall that shielded many of the Union defenders, they could not maintain their hold and were repulsed with over 50% casualties, a decisive defeat that ended the three-day battle and Lee's campaign into Pennsylvania. When asked, years afterward, why his charge at Gettysburg failed, General Pickett said: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."
The charge was planned for three Confederate divisions, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Pickett, Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, consisting of troops from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's Third Corps.
The target of the Confederate assault was the center of the Union Army of the Potomac's II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.
The specific objective of the assault has been the source of historical controversy. Traditionally, the "copse of trees" on Cemetery Ridge has been cited as the visual landmark for the attacking force. Historical treatments such as the 1993 film Gettysburg continue to popularize this view, which originated in the work of Gettysburg Battlefield historian John B. Bachelder in the 1880s. However, recent scholarship, including published works by some Gettysburg National Military Park historians, has suggested that Lee's goal was actually Ziegler's Grove on Cemetery Hill, a more prominent and highly visible grouping of trees about 300 yards (300 m) north of the copse.
Although the assault is known to popular history as Pickett's Charge, overall command was given to James Longstreet, and Pickett was one of his divisional commanders. Lee did tell Longstreet that Pickett's fresh division should lead the assault, so the name is appropriate.
Despite Lee's hope for an early start, it took all morning to arrange the infantry assault force.
The infantry charge was preceded by what General Lee hoped would be a powerful and well-concentrated cannonade of the Union center, destroying the Union artillery batteries that could defeat the assault and demoralize the Union infantry. But a combination of inept artillery leadership and defective equipment doomed the barrage from the beginning.There was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective.
The July 3 bombardment was likely the largest of the war, with hundreds of cannons from both sides firing along the lines for almost two hours, starting around 1 p.m. Confederate guns numbered between 150 and 170 and fired from a line over two miles long, starting in the south at the Peach Orchard and running roughly parallel to the Emmitsburg Road. Confederate Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law wrote, "The cannonade in the center ... presented one of the most magnificent battle-scenes witnessed during the war. Looking up the valley towards Gettysburg, the hills on either side were capped with crowns of flame and smoke, as 300 guns, about equally divided between the two ridges, vomited their iron hail upon each other."
Despite its ferocity, the fire was mostly ineffectual. Confederate shells often overshot the infantry front lines, and the smoke covering the battlefield concealed that fact from the gunners.
The day was hot, 87 °F by one account and humid, and the Confederates suffered under the hot sun and from the Union counter-battery fire as they awaited the order to advance. When Union cannoneers overshot their targets, they often hit the massed infantry waiting in the woods of Seminary Ridge or in the shallow depressions just behind Alexander's guns, causing significant casualties before the charge began.
From the beginning, Longstreet opposed the charge, preferring his own plan for a strategic movement around the Union left flank. He claims 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 arranged for battle can take that position. ”
Cemetery RidgeThe entire force that stepped off toward the Union positions consisted of about 12,500 men. Although the attack is popularly called a "charge", the men marched deliberately in line with Pettigrew and Trimble on the left, and Pickett to the right. The nine brigades of men stretched over a mile-long front. The Confederates encountered heavy artillery fire while advancing across open fields nearly a mile to reach the Union line. The ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge is slightly undulating, and the advancing troops periodically disappeared from the view of the Union cannoneers. As the three Confederate divisions advanced, awaiting Union soldiers began shouting "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" in reference to the disastrous Union advance on the Confederate line during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Fire from Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery's concealed artillery positions north of Little Round Top raked the Confederate right flank, while the artillery fire from Cemetery Hill hit the left. Shell and solid shot in the beginning turned to canister and musket fire as the Confederates came within 400 yards of the Union line. The mile-long front shrank to less than half a mile as the men filled in gaps that appeared throughout the line and followed the natural tendency to move away from the flanking fire.
They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were thrown and tossed in to the clear air. ... A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle.
Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, 8th Ohio
On the left flank of the attack, Brockenbrough's brigade was decimated by artillery fire from Cemetery Hill. They were also subjected to a surprise musket fusillade from the 8th Ohio Infantry regiment. The 160 Ohioans, firing from a single line, so surprised Brockenbrough's Virginians—already demoralized by their losses to artillery fire—that they panicked and fled back to Seminary Ridge, crashing through Trimble's division and causing many of his men to bolt as well. The Ohioans followed up with a successful flanking attack on Davis's brigade of Mississippians and North Carolinians, which was now the left flank of Pettigrew's division. The survivors were subjected to increasing artillery fire from Cemetery Hill. 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. By this time, the Confederates were close enough to be fired on by artillery canister and Alexander Hays's division unleashed very effective musketry fire from behind 260 yards of stone wall, with every rifleman of the division lined up as many as four deep, exchanging places in line as they fired and then fell back to reload.
Trimble's division of two brigades followed Pettigrew's, but made poor progress. Confusing orders from Trimble caused Lane to send only 3 1/2 of his North Carolina regiments forward. Renewed fire from the 8th Ohio and the onslaught of Hays's riflemen prevented most of these men from getting past the Emmitsburg Road. Scales's North Carolina brigade, led by Col. William L. J. Lowrance, started with a heavier disadvantage—they had lost almost two thirds of their men on July 1. They were also driven back and Lowrance was wounded. The Union defenders also took casualties, but Hays encouraged his men by riding back and forth just behind the battle line, shouting "Hurrah! Boys, we're giving them hell!".
Two gaps opened up in the Union line: the commander of the 71st Pennsylvania ordered his men to retreat when the Confederates came too close to the Angle; south of the copse of trees, the men of the 59th New York (Hall's brigade) inexplicably bolted for the rear. In the latter case, this left Captain Andrew Cowan and his 1st New York Independent artillery battery to face the oncoming infantry. Assisted personally by artillery chief Henry Hunt, Cowan ordered five guns to fire double canister simultaneously. The entire Confederate line to his front disappeared. The gap vacated by most of the 71st Pennsylvania, however, was more serious, leaving only a handful of the 71st, 268 men of the 69th Pennsylvania, and Cushing's two guns to receive the 2,500 to 3,000 men of Garnett's and Armistead's brigades as they began to cross the stone fence. The Irishmen of the 69th Pennsylvania resisted fiercely in a melee of rifle fire, bayonets, and fists. Webb, mortified that the 71st had retreated, brought the 72nd Pennsylvania (a Zouave regiment) forward, stabilizing the line. During the fight, the severely wounded Cushing was killed as he shouted to his men, three bullets striking him, the third in his mouth. The Confederates seized his guns and turned them to face the Union troops, but they had no ammunition to fire. As more Union reinforcements arrived, the defensive line became impregnable and the Confederates began to slip away individually, with no senior officers remaining to call a formal retreat.
("High Water Mark")
The infantry assault lasted less than an hour.
Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath. While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, 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 good 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.
The casualties were also high among the commanders of the charge. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all thirteen of his regimental commanders were casualties.
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers and Gen. Wilcox that the failure was "all my fault." General Pickett was inconsolable for the rest of the day and never forgave Lee for ordering the charge. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division."
The Union counteroffensive never came; the Army of the Potomac was exhausted and nearly as damaged at the end of the three days as the Army of Northern Virginia. Meade was content to hold the field. On July 4, the armies observed an informal truce and collected their dead and wounded. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Vicksburg garrison along the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two. These two Union victories are generally considered the turning point of the Civil War.
History may never know the true story of Lee's intentions at Gettysburg. He never published memoirs, and his after-action report from the battle was cursory. Most of the senior commanders of the charge were casualties and did not write reports. Pickett's report was apparently so bitter that Lee ordered him to destroy it, and no copy has been found.
Pickett's Charge became one of the iconic symbols of the literary and cultural movement known as the Lost Cause. William Faulkner, the quintessential Southern novelist, summed up the picture in Southern memory of this gallant but futile episode:
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.
The day after the battle ended was , July 4th 1863, the 87th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
(To read more click on the title for a link)
As brave as the Confederate soldiers were we must never forget they were fighting to persevere the evil of slavery and it was good that the charge failed and the Union preserved and slavery ended! That is why I love the following verse of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic":
"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching"