Daily Archives: April 26, 2014

Indescribably Grand… a Mere Waste of Ammunition: The Confederate Artillery at Pickett’s Charge

Edwin_Forbes_Pickett's_Charge

Many times battles are won or lost due to organizational failures as much as they are by tactical decisions. One of the issues that plagued Robert E Lee at Gettysburg was the effects of the army reorganization prior to and after Chancellorsville. While much attention is given to the reorganization of the Second Corps following the death of Stonewall Jackson and its division between A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell, less attention is given to the reorganization of the artillery.

Following Chancellorsville Lee abolished his artillery reserve and split all artillery between the three corps of his army. Each corps now had its own artillery reserve while divisions maintained control of their own organic batteries. Each corps had its own artillery reserve commander. The reorganization had been delegated by Pendleton to Porter Alexander and Jackson’s Corps Artillery Chief Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield. 1 The initial reorganization approved by Lee on April 16th 1863 retained a 36 gun general reserve was retained, but after Chancellorsville the battalions assigned to it were distributed to the corps. 2 While the reorganization did give the corps commanders more firepower it took away the ability of the army commander to have a ready reserve of firepower that could be used at when he needed.

At Gettysburg the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia was assigned to each of the three army corps. First Corps under James Longstreet was assigned 5 battalions with 21 total batteries of 84 guns. Longstreet’s artillery chief was Colonel James B Walton, though during the battle Longstreet would come to rely on Lieutenant Colonel Edward Porter Alexander as his de facto artillery chief. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps also had five battalions of artillery, again with 21 assigned batteries totaling 84 guns. The chief of Second Corps artillery was Colonel J. Thomson Brown. Lastly A. P. Hill’s Third Corps had five battalions composed of 20 batteries with 80 guns under direction of Colonel Lindsey Walker. 3

It was an idea the Union army had experimented with but Henry Hunt had the wisdom to retain the reserve. 4 The actions of the union artillery reserve on the second day were in large measure responsible for breaking the back of Confederate assaults on both flanks of July 2nd. The the fact Meade and his artillery Chief Henry Hunt had this reserve available and not split up among the various army corps gave them a flexibility in employing massed firepower at critical points throughout the battle.

The head of the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery Brigadier General William Pendleton, given the inflated title of “General in Chief Artillery” had his actual role “deflated to purely advisory.” 5 However as Lee’s advisor he was still the senior artilleryman in the army and Lee issued orders regarding the employment of the artillery through him. Pendleton was a 1830 graduate of West Point but had left the army to enter the Episcopal Priesthood. A “well meaning bumbler” 6 he owed his appointment to his “friendship with both Lee and Davis.” 7 He had no combat experience prior to the war, had missed the war with Mexico, shared in the responsibility for the disaster at Malvern Hill and he “lacked any instinct for the battlefield.” 8

At Gettysburg Pendleton was especially ineffectual and his role on July 3rd was to sow confusion in Confederate artillery units as he “sought to supervise the whole artillery operation.” 9 Though his administrative skills should have made him effective in the advisory role he contributed to the failure of the attack.

Since the Confederates were more than 200 miles from their nearest artillery depot the amount of ammunition for the operation was always an issue. This became critical after the first two days of battle because Pendleton did not keep track of his ammunition expenditure and failed to let Lee know of ammunition shortages, information that might have made Lee reconsider the ill-fated attack of July 3rd.

During the day of July 3rd without a real job of his own to do Pendleton moved batteries on his own authority without coordination with the commanders to which they belonged. Even more importantly he placed the artillery ammunition supply trains too far to the rear to resupply the guns. This was discovered by Alexander during the great artillery barrage when his ammunition ran low and he had to tell Longstreet and Pickett at a critical point that he could not maintain his fire much longer. Pendleton who should have ensured that the ammunition was located where it needed to be instead “lurked about the artillery corps commanders and gave them the impression that he was exercising the supervisory control implied by his title.” 10 As a result “some of the guns remained mute and their gunners stood help’ess during the cannonade and charge.” 11

With Longstreet’s First Corps given the assignment of breaking the center of the Federal line priority of fires was given to him. Lee had high expectations of the artillery. Alexander recorded that Lee’s intent was “First, to give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try to cripple him-to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible….” 12 Lee wanted the artillery from all of his corps to concentrate on the Federal position. In theory the exterior lines that his army occupied which were such a disadvantage to him in the attack should have allowed Ewell’s and some of Hill’s batteries to enfilade the Federal position, in a sense creating a cross fire.

This should have been the job of Pendleton as the General in Chief of Artillery, but as noted he was not effective in coordinating anything. It was the biggest artillery operation ever attempted by the Army of Northern Virginia and it required a great deal of coordination, “assigning or approving the best firing positions, specifying targets, ordering and coordinating the fire of a dozen artillery battalions of three army corps” 13 and a host of other important details, which Pendleton, though he claimed to have given “earnest attention” to all of these matters fell short. Alexander noted “our line was so extended that all of it was not well studied, and the officers of the different corps had no opportunity to examine each other’s ground for chances to cooperate.” 14

Instead the real responsibility for the artillery battle fell upon the shoulders of three corps artillery commanders, each unaware of what the other was doing. “Alexander did not know what Lindsey Walker was doing with Hill’s artillery and Walker was apparently not even sure of what he was doing himself.” 15 While Porter Alexander attempted to provide what Lee and Longstreet required Ewell’s artillery took almost no part in the battle and Hill’s artillery under Walker was largely ineffectual in large part because it had spent much of its ammunition supporting a meaningless skirmish prior to Pickett’s attack. Likewise, Second Corps artillery badly needed supervision as Crutchfield was now wounded and out of action. 16

As a result “two thirds of Lee’s guns were idle or improperly employed.” Instead of shattering Meade’s lines as Lee intended “the guns achieved little beyond adding to the terrifying noise, and overshooting, scaring the men in Meade’s noncombatant services…” 17 In all at least 58 guns assigned to support the attack never fired a shot.

When the bombardment began at 1:07 P.M. Henry Hunt described the sight as “indescribably grand.” but he noted that “most of the enemy’s projectiles passed overhead, the effect being to sweep all the open ground in our rear, which was of little benefit to the Confederates – a mere waste of ammunition.” 18 Their target, a thin infantry and gun line was hard to hit and complicating matters was the smoke which obscured their view and “the inferior quality of their fuzes.” 19

Command, control, logistics and organization helped make the largest artillery attack on American soil fall far short of what Robert E. Lee expected. As Lee stood by Alexander watching the battered remnants of Pickett’s division return from the assault Alexander noted that “at this moment he must have foreseen Appomattox.” 20

1. Golay, Michael To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander Crown Publishers Inc. New York 1994 p.1552

2. Coco, Gregory A. A Concise Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg Colcraft Industries Ortanna PA 1998 p.43

3 Ibid.

4 Dowdey, Clifford Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation, Skyhorse Publishing New York 1958 p.284

5 Sears Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York 2004 p.377

6 Ibid Dowdey, p.284

7 Ibid. Sears p.377

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. Dowdey p.285

10 Ibid. p.286

11 Coddington, Edwin The Gettysburg Campaign, a Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York 1968 p.499

12 Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg A Testing of Courage Harper Collins New York 2002 pp.444-445

13 Ibid. Sears p.379

14 Alexander, Edward Porter The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Bradford, Neil Meridian Press New York 1989 p.395

15 Ibid. Dowdey p.286

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Hunt, Henry The Third Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Bradford, Neil Meridian Press, New York 1989 p.386

19 Ibid. Sears p.381

20 Ibid. Alexander p.397

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