Almost Unbearable: Waiting for Pickett’s Charge

gettysburgpickettscharge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A couple of weeks ago I led a group of my students from the Staff College to Gettysburg. One thing that an observant person will do when they go to such a location is to imagine what was going through the minds of the people who were there. At Gettysburg this is very possible because the battlefield is in such good shape, thus when you stand in the wood line on Seminary Ridge looking out at the federal positions as did the Confederates on July 3rd 1863, or on Cemetery Ridge looking to the west as the Union troops did you can get a sense of what these men were face. The Confederates were to advance across an open field in the face of concentrated artillery, much of which they could not even see before they came into range. I think that when we look at events like this that there is always a current application simply because people are people and no-matter how much technology changes, it is the actions of people that are important, be it in a military setting or not. To go to a place such as Gettysburg and to take in the sites while reading and imagining what those men were thinking, both those in command as well as those being ordered to their deaths.

Anyway, this a a part of my Gettysburg text and I do hope that it helps you understand the plight of those invested with command as well as those whose only real option based on their society and culture is to obey their orders.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Pickett

Major General George Pickett C.S.A.

While James Longstreet was depressed and doubted whether any assault could break the Federal line, as were many other Confederate commanders who had seen the great cost in lives of attacking the entrenched Federal army on July 2nd, Robert E. Lee held on to the hope that one more assault would carry the day. It had to Lee had staked everything on a decisive battle, “the importance with which his whole strategy had invested in this battle and the stubbornness which had driven him on at Gainess Mill, Malvern Hill, and Antietam, impelled Lee to still try another major attack on July 3.” [1]

However, Robert E. Lee was encouraged by the partial success of his forces on July 2nd and he was now confident “that with the proper coordination and support of artillery, it was still possible to assault and break through Meades front.” [2] Convinced that his men could conquer the Federal position, and encouraged by the small successes of the second day, “the general plan of attack was unchanged.” [3]

Lee’s tactical problem remained the same as it had on July 2nd, when the power of the rifled musket and massed artillery of the Federal defenders had cut his assaulting troops to ribbons. True his troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Federal army, especially on Sickles’ badly exposed III Corps in the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard, but the Federal position was unbroken. His problem was how to break the enemy’s line and then exploit the breakthrough in order to gain not only a victory, but destroy the Army of the Potomac as a fighting force in the process. Some of his troops had pierced the Federal line on July 2nd but unsupported with Federal reinforcements flowing in were forced to withdraw. Thus Lee’s real problem was not breaking through the Federal line, but “how to stay there and exploit the advantage once the enemys line was pierced.” [4] Lee’s solution was a grand frontal attack on the center of the Federal position, something that he had absolute faith that his troops could accomplish.

As we have already discussed, the new battlefield of the Civil War was one where the killing power of entrenched troops on the defense had grown exponentially as compared to the Napoleonic era or even the Mexican War, of which Lee and so many commanders were veterans. Troops on the offense assaulting an entrenched enemy had few advantages. As Russell Weigley noted that by the time an attacking force was able to breach a prepared defensive position, “almost invariably, by that time the attacker had lost so heavily, and his reserves were so distant, that he could not hold on against a counterattack by the defending armys nearby reserves.” [5] Like Lee’s costly assaults at Gaines’s Mill, Malvern Hill and those at Gettysburg on July 2nd, the assault of July 3rd by the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble were facing a similar bloody repulse; only Lee refused to accept it.

Colonel Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s corps artillery noted that “even if the attack was “entirely successful, it can be only be at a very bloody cost” [6] while Brigadier General A.R. Wright, whose brigade had actually reached Cemetery Ridge on the afternoon of July 2nd told Alexander “The trouble is not going in there…the problem is to stay there after you get there.” [7]

With a fresh army, or perhaps a number of fresh divisions, Lee’s plan might have had a chance to success. But Lee had already lost heavily on July 1st and July 2nd and in the process shattered the divisions of Heth, Pender, Rodes, Johnson, Hood and McLaws and suffered serious casualties to the divisions of Early and Anderson. As far as infantry he had very little left, only Pickett’s shorthanded division which was missing two of its five brigades, with which to mount a frontal assault. An assault, that even if it was successful in driving Meade from his position on Cemetery Ridge would further decimate his army, deplete its ammunition, encumber it with wounded and render it incapable of further offensive operations.

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But Robert E. Lee was not deterred, as over the past year of action, involving many large battles “Lee had developed extremely high expectations of his enlisted men.” [8] He had seen them overcome adversity as well as defeat far larger forces. Unlike his doubting Lieutenant Longstreet, Lee was never in awe “of the formidable character of the Union position…and he felt sure his incomparable infantry if properly handled could take any height.” [9]But this time the terrain with all of its advantages to the defense, the superiority of the Federal artillery, the excellent position that Meade’s army occupied and his own lack of fresh troops and scarcity of artillery ammunition, combined with poor staff work and bad organization ensured that this assault would be more than his superb troops could handle.

Porter Alexander, like most in the Army, held Lee in such esteem that regardless of the situation that he implicitly trusted Lee’s judgment. As the preparations were made in the morning initially “believed that it would come out right, because General Lee had planned it.” [10] But as he weighed the matter more fully Alexander began to have his doubts and told Longstreet “if there is any alternative to this attack, it should be carefully considered before opening our fire, for it will take all the artillery ammunition we have left to test this one thoroughly, and if the result is unfavorable, we will have none left for another effort.” [11]

While Lee was certainly determined to reengage the Federals and defeat them, his lack of clarity and vagueness in his orders combined with the reluctance of a subordinate to carry them out hindered his plan. Lee again had not published a written plan of attack and relied on verbal instructions, which were vague, and more importantly he and Longstreet “had not reached a clear understanding on the nature, extent, and direction of his offensive operations.” [12] The misunderstandings and disagreement between the two men had not gotten better over the course of the battle, and somehow, in “the strange, undeclared conflict of wills that had begun thirty-six hours before, neither general was thinking clearly. As Longstreet would now do anything to avoid assuming responsibility for a full-scale attack, Lee would do anything to get him to move out.” [13]

Pickett’s division had arrived at Marsh Creek was of Gettysburg after a long and tiring forced march from Chambersburg on July 2nd at about 4 p.m.. Lee informed Pickett that his division would not be needed that day and ordered him to rest his troops. Thereafter, for whatever reason, they remained in that position until about 4 in the morning on July 3rd. Neither Lee nor Longstreet ordered them up earlier, which would have allowed them to be in position for an earlier assault on the Federal center, an attack that might have been coordinated with Ewell’s attack on Culp’s Hill which went off about 4 a.m.

Some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Longstreet, who still determined to find a way to turn the Federal left flank had his staff planning throughout the night for a way to execute that attack, but Lee was remiss in not clearly communicating his intent to his subordinate, to include what he expected him to do as well as when and where he expected him to do it. These questions were not cleared up until after sunrise on July 3rd, when Lee reiterated his plans to Longstreet and A.P. Hill.

Lee decided to attack the Federal center, where Cemetery Ridge was less commanding than Cemetery Hill, or the Round Tops which had been so costly to attack on the first two days of battle. All of Pickett’s division arrived behind Seminary Ridge between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on the morning of July 3rd. There it joined the other units assigned to the attack by Lee. Those units, apart from Pickett all came from A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, Longstreet having convinced Lee that the badly cut up divisions of Hood and McLaws should remain in place on the south end of the battlefield to protect the flank. Longstreet was of the opinion, and gained Lee’s concurrence that if those units joined the assault that the flank would be exposed to the well dug in and reinforced Federal units on and around the Round Tops, as Longstreet explained, “To have rushed forward with my two divisions, then carrying bloody noses from their terrible conflict the day before, would have been madness.” [14]

The decision to leave these two divisions in place resulted in a change of plan as to where the Confederate assault would be directed. Lee initially planned for Longstreet’s corps to continue its push in the south, from the positions they had taken near Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field. In that attack Hood’s division now lead by Evander Law, would be on the extreme right, McLaws division in the center attacking from the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard and Pickett on the left, supported by some of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps. Their target would be the south center of Cemetery Ridge, where Wright’s brigade had made it the day before.

However, with the change of plan Pickett’s division was now on the left of the attack, while Heth’s division, now commanded by Johnston Pettigrew would be in the center supported by Lane’s and Scales’ brigades of Dorsey Pender’s division, now commanded by Isaac Trimble, who had taken command only that morning. The selection of Heth’s division to join the attack now “provided a focal point for the attack, since it was roughly opposite the Federal center; then, too, there was a concealed position to the right of Heths line that offered room enough for Picketts men.” [15] This necessitated a change to the intended target of the attack, which Lee now identified as the “small clump of trees” visible in the center of the Federal position.

Lee discounted the terrain as a factor, thinking that the fences that crisscrossed the open field between the two opponents were of little concern. The open ground lent itself to the “massive attack on the scale that Lee visualized” but would “expose his men to a raking fire from enemy muskets and artillery.” [16] Lee hoped to reduce this danger with an overwhelming artillery barrage as we have already discussed.

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While Longstreet had opposed the attack opposed the attack and finally consented to Lee’s wishes, and other Confederate commanders such as Armistead and Garnett realized the near hopelessness of the attack but maintained their silence, William Mahone, whose brigade was part of Anderson’s division and not assigned to the attack was mortified. Mahone begged Anderson to observe the battlefield and told him his honest opinion of the coming attack: “That no troops ever formed a line of battle that could cross the plain of fire to which the attacking force would be subjected, and…that I could not believe that General Lee would insist on such an assault after he had seen the ground.” [17] But Lee was determined and Anderson refused to confront Lee, saying “in substance, that we had nothing to do but to obey the orders.” [18]

Mahone was right both about the ground and the fires from the Federal army that the attacking Confederates would encounter. While the fences along the Emmitsburg road in Pickett’s area were not much of a factor, they were on Pettigrew’s front. The Plum Run Valley which cut across the battlefield was a wide swale which “was truly a valley of death; Union artillery placed on Little Round Top could easily fire up its shallow groove as if it were a bowling alley, and Federal infantry could easily counterattack into it.” [19] In front of Pettigrew the ground formed “a natural glacis. In short, it naturally sloped at a steeper angle, forcing the attacker to literally walk up directly into the muzzles of the defending infantrymen.” [20] Whether Lee recognized it or not the ground itself offered major obstacles that the attacking Confederates would have to negotiate under heavy artillery and musket fire.

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From a command, control and coordination aspect there was little to be commended in Lee’s plan. The artillery support, nominally to be conducted by all the Confederate artillery from all three corps was not well coordinated and lacked an overall commander, this ensured that the “corps artillery commanders acted independently, without a firm understanding of the crucial importance of their roles.” [21] Porter Alexander, who had the heaviest responsibility during the attack, and on whose recommendation the attack would proceed, only had operational control of the batteries of First Corps and a few from Third Corps, the rest of the artillery battalions remained under their respective corps artillery commanders.

Additionally, to further complicate the artillery plan, the senior artilleryman present, Brigadier General William Pendleton, despite his lack of command authority muddled the artillery preparations by batteries committed to Alexander and the infantry assault without telling him. He also moved the artillery trains from their location near the batteries, far to the rear where the ammunition needed to sustain an attack was out of reach when needed. Lacking central control the batteries of Third Corps did not conserve their limited ammunition and became involved in a long battle over the Bliss farmhouse between the lines which limited their ability to take part in the attack. Likewise the guns of Second Corps, some of which could have had good enfilade fire on Cemetery Hill took little part in the action.

Of the three infantry divisions allotted to the attack, only one, Pickett’s actually belonged to Longstreet, the corps commander leading the attack, while the two divisions from Third Corps were badly cut up from the battle on July 1st and commanded by new commanders, neither who had commanded a division, and one of who, Trimble had never worked with or even met his subordinate commanders until that morning. The two brigades assigned to Trimble from Pender’s division were units that had been heavily engaged on July 1st, while two other brigades, those of Mahone and Posey from Anderson’s division, had “yet to see serious action” and were “just as fresh as Picketts division, yet they were overlooked and not even assigned a supporting role.” [22]

Despite his objections to it and the challenges posed by the attack, James Longstreet earnestly worked to make it succeed. Longstreet, Pickett and Pettigrew attempted to smooth out communications to “avoid mistakes and secure proper coordination between various units.” [23] However, despite his good intentions, Longstreet made a number of mistakes which could be best described as “lapses of thought.” He failed to “explain the details of the attack to all levels of command in all units…he failed to communicate effectively with anyone outside of First Corps, even though Third Corps troops would make up more than half of the attackers.” He left the artillery plan to Alexander and failed to develop a detailed plan that would determine if the artillery bombardment had weakened the Federals enough “to justify sending in the infantry.” He also did not appreciate the weakened condition of the attached Third Corps units and more importantly seemed to give little thought to the placement of Pickett’s troops in relationship to Pettigrew. This left a 400 yard gap between the Pickett and Pettigrew’s divisions, a gap that would cause problems during the attack, as it necessitated “a significant and difficult left oblique movement by the Virginians across the valley, under artillery fire.” [24]

Despite Longstreet’s lapses he was not solely responsible for the outcome of the attack. The fact was that Lee reviewed the plans, and troop dispositions late in the morning. Lee had ridden up and down the line inspecting it and receiving the accolades of his devoted soldiers, but somehow despite his keen eye and battlefield prowess, he too “did not detect the hidden flaws in the deployment of his troops and the layout of its batteries.” [25] Likewise Lee seemed to continue the passive role that he had maintained throughout the battle. Alexander spelled this out in a private letter noting that “The arrangement of all the troops… must have been apparent to Gen Lee when he was going about the lines between 11 & 12, & his not interfering with it stamps of his approval.” [26]

About noon the approximately 13,000 troops in the three attacking divisions continued to make their individual preparations for the attack. As they did this “a great stillness came down over the field and over the two armies on their ridges…the Confederates maintaining their mile wide formation along the wooded slope and in the swale, the heat was oppressive.” [27] Pickett wrote his young fiancée “the suffering and waiting are almost unbearable.” [28]

Notes

[1] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1973 p.117

[2] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Command Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1957 pp. 198-199

[3] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.375

[4] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.117

[5] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.117

[6] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E Lee Harper Collins Books, New York 2014 p.591

[7] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, New York, 1968 p.459

[8] Hess, Earl J. Picketts Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.13

[9] Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.457

[10] Golay, Michael To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel Lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander Crown Publishers, New York 1994 p.167

[11] Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lees Lieutenants: A Study in Command One Volume Abridgment by Stephen Sears, Scribner New York 1998 p.592

[12] Ibid. Coddington Gettysburg: A Study in Command p.454

[13] Dowdy, Clifford Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation originally published as Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing New York 1958 p.258

[14] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg a Testing of Courage Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.441

[15] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.441

[16] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.459

[17] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.458

[18] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.458

[19] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.79

[20] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.81

[21] Wert, Jeffery D. Gettysburg Day Three A Touchstone Book, New York 2001 p.126

[22] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.462

[23] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.491

[24] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.32

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.492

[26] Ibid. Wert. Gettysburg Day Three p.128

[27] Foote, Shelby The Civil War a Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1963 p.539

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.281

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