Daily Archives: July 4, 2022

July 4th 1863 at Gettysburg, the Somber Most Glorious Fourth

gburg retreat

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tried to lick its wounds and regroup following its last disastrous attacks on 3 July 1863. It prepared hasty fortifications on Seminary Ridge in case Meade’s Army of the Potomac attempted to attack on July 4th, but that attack would not come. Meade had no inclination of allowing the Confederates to do to his forces what his did to Lee’s during Pickett’s Charge.

Between the two armies lay tens of thousands or dead, dying, and grievously wounded and maimed soldiers. I will write about that tomorrow.

A Union soldier, Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) wrote of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” 

Long after the Battle Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine in its defense of Little Round Top said:

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” [2]

The ground was consecrated by the blood of the men who fell there, and like Chamberlain whenever I visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg I have a sense that the spirits of those men still linger.

On the morning of July 4th, “The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Meade attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans.

Early in the morning of July 4th, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and how many of Lee’s decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates, but the fault did not lay with his subordinates, but rather with his inability to clearly communicate his orders and expectations in detail to his new Corps commanders, Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill who had never served directly under his command, and James Longstreet who constantly opposed what he believed would lead to disaster.

Lee was finally aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] 

Across the valley that separated the armies, Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on July 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of July 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quiet. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

00844v-lc_confederate-graves-on-rose-farm_detail

Confederate Dead 

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. Of course Lee had a direct hand in that debacle as well by rejecting all attempts to send significant forces from his army to defeat Grant and save Vicksburg.

It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.”[23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River.  Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on July 14th as his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought a delaying action against Union forces in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863.  Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East.  In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.

Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.

The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive. When Grant came east at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of his grip.

Notes

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

[4] Wert, Jeffry DGeneral James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

[11] Dowdy, CliffordLee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 198

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A Legacy of Hubris, Disaster, and Betrayal: The Cost of Robert E. Lee’s Final Assault, Pickett’s Charge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For the past three days I have critiqued the myth about Robert E. Lee being a great commander. I have written about his inability to comprehend the strategic situation of the Confederacy as he rejected all the counsel to send reinforcements to the west to defeat Grant before he could capture Vicksburg in order to prevent the Union from cutting the Confederacy in half and opening the door to Grant’s armies from advancing across Tennessee to Georgia, where they posed a threat to Atlanta and the heart of the Confederacy.

However, with his myopic view and obsession with the defense of Virginia, ignored the warnings, and convinced Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Cabinet to support his ill-advised invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. While Commandant of Cadets at West Point, Lee studied Napoleon through the lens of Dennis Hart Mahan, the first military theorist of the United States, and learned all the wrong lessons. Lee believed in climactic battle of annihilation, but in an invasion of the North in the hopes of annihilating the Army of the Potomac was an irrational gamble. Lee had just lost the one subordinate who better than anyone else in his army who understood his vague discretionary orders, Thomas ”Stonewall” Jackson, whose corpse was barely cold when Lee met with Davis and his cabinet. Likewise, he had just reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia promoting many officers to positions that they were not qualified to hold, units that had never operated together or under their new commanders. Lee knew just how starved his army was for competent commanders, remarking to John Bell Hood, “this army would be invincible if it could be properly organized and officered.”

Instead for following logic Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania thinking that he annihilate the Army of the Potomac over 200 miles from his nearest railhead, with no hope of reinforcements or supplies of ammunition, that even if he was victorious, he would not have enough troops or artillery ammunition to continue his campaign. The Union was not short of troops and even if Lee had triumphed at Gettysburg, Grant’s experienced army, fresh from its victory at Vicksburg would have been moved east within weeks, joined with a large part of the Army of the Potomac, as well as with other Federal forces protecting Washington, DC and being moved from Hampton Roads and the Carolinas. Had he continued, Lee’s army would have been destroyed North of the Potomac, thereby ending the war.

As it was, Lee ignored his senior commanders and in his last desperate attempt to win a decisive battle, lost thousands more troops and experienced commanders by attacking the Union Center in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge. This is the story of that attack, the unfortunate George Pickett, and an unforgiving and vindictive Robert E. Lee.

The great German theoretician of war Carl von Clausewitz had an exceptionally keen understanding of the human element in war and its importance in setting policy, deciding on operations, and especially in what men face on the battlefield. Clausewitz wrote, “Danger is part of the friction of war. Without an accurate conception of danger we cannot understand war. That is why I have dealt with it here.” [1] This is an important understanding because it brings the human element to the fore, thus, when commanders send their troops into battle to execute the plans of their staff, they cannot forget, as Clausewitz so succinctly that War is the province of danger and, “In the dreadful presence of suffering and danger, emotion can easily overwhelm intellectual conviction, and in the psychological fog it is so hard to form clear and complete insights that changes in view become more understandable and excusable….No degree of calm can provide enough protection: new impressions are too powerful, too vivid, and always assault the emotions as well as the intellect.” [2] The memories of the men who fight in such conditions are vivid and seldom forgotten.

However, in the more modern wars of today, many soldiers of developed nations with modern high-tech militaries are not exposed to the same type of danger. Thus it is important to examine the issue in light of history and understand that no-matter how much technology advances that the human element remains the same. Understanding the element of danger is important, for leaders, as General Martin Dempsey noted, Understanding equips decision makers at all levels with the insight and foresight to make effective decisions, to manage the associated risks, and to consider second and subsequent order effects. [3] The fact is that many current and recent wars fought by the United States and its NATO and coalition allies have shielded many military professionals from this aspect of war. But the realm of danger it is still present and should not be ignored. As noted in the 2006 edition of the Armed Forces Officer:

The same technology that yields unparalleled success on the battlefield can also detach the warrior from the traditional ethos of the profession by insulating him or her from many of the human realities of war. [4]

However, The nature of the warrior leader is driven by the requirements of combat [5] and courage, both courage in the face of the danger, and the courage to accept responsibility [6] are of paramount importance. That is why the study of history is never a waste, and in fact should be given more importance in general education, but even more so in the education of those who are to lead men and women in combat.

Both Pickett’s Charge and the life of George Pickett provide excellent case studies in courage and responsibility. We live in a time where the numbers of soldiers that actually experience combat or served in true combat conditions where the element of danger is present is shrinking. As such the Battle of Gettysburg and the climactic event of Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd is a good place to reimagine the element of danger from the point of view of the soldiers, but also the commanders involved in the action.

Gettysburg is also a place that we can look to find the end of dreams, the shattering of legacies, the emergence of myth as history, and the terrible effects ill-conceived of plans gone awry.

Major General George Pickett’s men’s opinions varied as they anticipate the approaching battle. Some in Richard Garnett’s brigade were “in splendid spirits and confident of sweeping everything before them;…never was there anything like the same enthusiasm entering battle.” [7]Others were not so confident. In Armistead’s brigade, Lieutenant James F. Crocker of the 9th Virginia ,who had been wounded at Malvern Hill surveyed the ridge before them and told a number of officers that the attack “was going to be another Malvern Hill, another costly day to Virginia and Virginians,” [8] while a Colonel in Pickett’s division noted that when the men were told of the attack that they went “being unusually merry and hilarious that they on a sudden had become as still and thoughtful as Quakers at a love feast.” [9] Their commander, George Pickett received the plan of attack from James Longstreet who later noted that Pickett “seemed to appreciate the severity of the contest he was about to enter…but was quite hopeful of success.” [10]

A member of Pickett’s staff noted years later that It is said, that the condemned, in going to execution, the moments fly.To the good soldier, about to go into action, I am sure the moments linger. Let us not dare say, that with him, either individually, or collectively, is that mythical love of fighting, poetical but fabulous; but rather, that it is the nervous anxiety to solve the great issue as speedily as possible, without stopping to count the cost. [11]

Porter Alexander’s artillery began its bombardment at 1:07 p.m. As it did, the Union artillery commenced a deliberate counter-fire, in which the Confederate infantry behind Seminary Ridge began to take a beating. Unlike the Confederate barrage which had mainly sailed over the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge causing few causalities, a large proportion” of the Union long shots landed squarely in the ranks of the gray soldiers drawn up to await the order to advance. [12] Estimates vary, but the waiting Confederates lost 300 to 500 men killed and wounded during the Union counter-barrage. The most affected was Kemper’s brigade of Pickett’s division which lost about 250 men or fifteen percent of its strength. [13] Other units lost significant numbers, with those inflicted on Pettigrew’s brigades further depleting their already sparse numbers.

The Union counter fire had an effect on many of the Confederates including Pickett. As the artillery duel continued Porter Alexander found Pickett in a very positive and excited frame of mind. [14] There are conflicting opinions of Pickett’s state of mind; supporters tending to believe the best about him and his conduct on the battlefield, while detractors, both his contemporaries and current historians allege that he was afraid and quite possibly minimizing his exposure to enemy fire due to his obsession with his young fiancée La Salle “Sallie” Corbell. Edwin Longacre wrote: While not himself under fire, Pickett appears not to have taken the barrage too calmly. Aware that Longstreet had asked Alexander recommend the most opportune time for our attack based on the enemys response to his cannonade, Pickett at least twice sent couriers to as the colonel if they should go in. [15]

Like in any historical account, the truth probably lies in the middle of the extreme viewpoints and while we think that we know much about the greatest charge in the history of the United States, we are hindered by the lack of written accounts by most of the senior Confederate officers who took part in Pickett’s Charge. This complicates the task of attempting to separate the true from the false and the truth from a judgment or verdict rendered by a less than impartial judge. Lee, Hill and Longstreet “treated the charge as just one episode in long campaign reports, and modern readers, like some of the participants, can wonder how much of any of the three generals really saw once the firing started.” [16]

Since no reports of the Confederate division commanders are available, Pickett’s was suppressed because of how critical it was toward other commanders. Pettigrew and Pender were dead, Trimble was wounded and in a Federal prison and Harry Heth, Pickett’s cousin limited his report to the action of July 1st 1863. Likewise, only two of the nine brigade commanders filed reports and none of them were from Pickett’s division, so it is hard to get a complete and accurate view from official sources. Longstreet discussed Pickett’s report and said that it was not so strong against the attack as mine before the attack was made but his was made in writing and of official record. [17] Pickett was reportedly furious at being forced to destroy his report and refused to submit an edited report. So what we are left with on the Confederate side are the reports of two corps commanders and an army commander who were far away from the scene of the action, after action reports of regiments, many of which had lost their commander’s and most of their senior officers, and the recollections from men with axes to grind and or reputations to defend; some Longstreet, some Pickett, some Pettigrew.

                                                        Picketts Charge

The assault force was composed of Pickett’s fresh division from First Corps, Harry Heth’s battered division now under Johnston Pettigrew which had already taken close to 40% casualties and two brigades of Pender’s division now commanded by Isaac Trimble. Of these two brigades, only Lane’s was fresh while Scales brigade, now under command of Colonel William Lowrence had suffered greatly on July 1st; its “casualty rate was 63% and it had lost its commander and no fewer than fifty-five field and company grade officers. [18] And now, these battered units began to take casualties from well directed Federal fire. George Stewart wrote: In most armies, such a battered unit would have been sent to the rear for reorganization, but here it was being selected for a climactic attack! [19]

“The Confederate losses mounted at an alarming rate. The psychological impact of artillery casualties was great, for the big guns not only killed but mangled bodies, tore them apart, or disintegrated them.” [20] A survivor wrote his wife days later: “If the crash of worlds and all things combustible had been coming in collision with each other, it could not have surpassed it seemingly. To me it was like the “Magazine of Vengeance” blown up.” [21] A soldier of Kemper’s brigade recalled that “The atmosphere was rent and broken by the rust and crash of projectiles…The sun, but a few minutes before so brilliant, was now darkened. Through this smoky darkness came the missiles of death…the scene beggars description…Many a fellow thought his time had come…Great big, stout hearted men prayed, loudly too….” [22] Colonel Joseph Mayo of the 3rd Virginia regiment was heavily hit. One of its survivors wrote: “when the line rose up to charge…it appeared that as many were left dead and wounded as got up.” [23]

On the opposite ridge, Union forces were experiencing the same kind of intense artillery fire. But these effects were minimized due to the prevalent overshooting of the Confederate artillery as well as the poor quality of ammunition. This resulted in few infantry casualties with the worst damage being taken by a few batteries of artillery at “the Angle.” Soldiers behind the lines took the worst beating, but the routing of these non-combatants was of no military significance, [24] This did create some problems for the Federals as Meade was forced to abandon their headquarters and the Artillery Reserve was forced to relocate a little over a half mile to the rear.” [25] The effects of this on operations were minimal as Brigadier General Robert Tyler commanding the Artillery Reserve posted couriers at the abandoned position, should Hunt want to get in touch with him. [26]

Despite the fusillade Meade maintained his humor and as some members of his staff tried to find cover on the far side of the little farmhouse quipped:

Gentlemen, are you trying to find a safe place?…You remind me of the man who drove the oxen team which took ammunition for the heavy guns to the field at Palo Alto. Finding himself in range, he tipped up his cart and hid behind it. Just then General Taylor came along and shouted You damned fool, dont you know you are no safer there than anywhere else?” The driver responded, I dont suppose I am general, but it kind of feels so. [27]

A bombardment of this magnitude had never been seen on the American continent, but despite its apparent awesome power, the Confederate artillery barrage had little actual effect on the charge. The Prussian observer traveling with Lee’s headquarters dismissed the barrage as aPulververschwindung,”…a waste of powder. [28] The Federal infantry remained in place behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge ready to meet the assault. Henry Hunt replaced his damaged artillery batteries on Cemetery Ridge. But even more importantly Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s massive battery was lying undetected where it could deliver devastating enfilade fire as the Confederate infantry neared their objective. Likewise, Rittenhouse’s batteries on Little Round Top and Osborne’s on Cemetery Hill were unaffected by the Confederate bombardment were poised to wreak destruction on the men of the three Confederate divisions.

Unlike the Federal Army which had a large pool of artillery battalions in the Artillery Reserve with which to replace batteries that had taken casualties or were running low on ammunition, Porter Alexander had no fresh artillery batteries and suffered a want of ammunition. The manifestation of the effect of this was not long in coming: “soon the drivers of the caissons found that the heavy fire had exhausted their supply of shot and shell, and they had to go even farther to get it from the reserve train. As a result some of the guns remained mute and their gunners stood helpless during the cannonade and charge, for Alexander had no batteries in reserve to replace them.” [29]

There were two reasons for this. First was that Lee had reorganized the artillery before Chancellorsville. He eliminated the artillery reserve and assigned all artillery battalions and batteries directly to the three infantry corps. This meant that Alexander could only draw upon the battalions assigned to First Corps and had no operational control over the batteries of Ewell’s Second Corps or Hill’s Third Corps.

The second was due to the meddling of Brigadier General William Pendleton, Lee’s senior artilleryman who as a staff officer had no command authority over any of the guns in the army. Pendleton relocated the artillery trains of First Corps further to the rear without informing Alexander or Longstreet. Likewise, Pendleton also ordered the eight guns of the Richardson’s artillery away without notifying anyone. These were guns that Alexander was counting on to provide direct support to the attack by advancing them to provide close support to the infantry.

At about 2:20 p.m. Alexander, knowing that he was running short of ammunition sent a note to Picket and Pettigrew advising them:

General: If you are to advance at all, you must come at once or we will not be able to support you as we ought. But the enemys fire has not slackened and there are still 18 guns firing from the cemetery.” [30]

About twenty minutes later Alexander saw some of the Federal guns along Cemetery Ridge begin to limber up and depart. He also noticed a considerable drop off in Federal fire. He interpreted this to mean that his guns had broken the Federal resistance, and at 2:40 Alexander sent word to Pickett For Gods sake come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you. [31]

However, what Alexander did not realize was that what was happening on Cemetery Ridge had little to do with his bombardment but instead was directed by Henry Hunt. Hunt ordered batteries low on ammunition or that had sustained damage to withdraw and was replacing them with fresh batteries that Alexander could not see, Although he assumed that such might be the case, he noted that the withdraw of batteries was new, for the Federals had never done anything of that sort before, & I did not believe that they were doing it now. [32] He had also decided to conserve ammunition by ordering an immediate cessation and preparation for the assault to follow.[33]

Alexander’s message reached Pickett and Pickett immediately rode off to confer with Longstreet. Pickett gave the message to Longstreet who read it and said nothing. Pickett said, “General, shall I advance!” Longstreet, knowing it had to be, but unwilling to give the word, turned his face away. Pickett saluted and said “I am going to move forward, sir” galloped off to his division and immediately put it in motion.” [34] Sadly, Pickett “had no inkling that his corps commander was immovably opposed to the charge” [35] and Pickett, caught up in the moment with the excitement of leading his Division into battle did not notice his friend’s mood.

A few minutes later Longstreet rode to find Alexander. Meeting him at 2:45 Alexander informed him of the shortage of ammunition. The news was surprising to Longstreet as neither he nor Lee had checked on the supply of ammunition during the morning. [36] The news took him aback enough that he seemed momentarily stunned [37] by it. Longstreet told Alexander: Stop Pickett immediately and replenish your ammunition. [38] But Alexander now had to give Longstreet even worse news telling him I explained that it would take too long, and the enemy would recover from the effect of our fire was then having, and too that we had, moreover, very little to replenish it with. [39] Longstreet continued to ride with Alexander and again eyed the Federal positions on Cemetery Ridge with his binoculars. As he looked at the Federal position he slowly spoke and said I dont want to make this attack,” pausing between sentences as if thinking aloud. I believe it will fail- I do not know how it can succeed- I would not make it even now, but Gen. Lee has ordered it and expects it. [40] Alexander, who as a battalion commander now in charge of First Corps artillery was very uncomfortable, he later wrote:

I had the feeling that he was on the verge of stopping the charge, & that with even slight encouragement he would do it. But that very feeling kept me from saying a word, or either assent I would not willingly take any responsibility in so grave a matter & I had almost a morbid fear of causing any loss of time. So I stood by, & looked on, in silence almost embarrassing. [41]

While Longstreet was still speaking Pickett’s division swept out of the woods to begin the assault. Alexander wrote that the battle was lost if we stopped. Ammunition was too low to try anything else, for we had been fighting for three days. There was a chance, and it was not my part to interfere.” [42]

Despite this Pickett and many of his soldiers were confident of success, and: “no officer reflected the men’s confidence better than George Pickett. There was no fatalism in him. Believing that his hour of destiny had come and expecting to take fortune at its flood, he rode down the slope like a knight in a tournament.” [43] Pickett was “an unforgettable man at first sight” [44] Pickett wore a “dark mustache drooping and curled at the ends, a thin goatee, and hair worn long and curled in ringlets. His hair was brown, and in the morning sunlight it reflected auburn hints. George Pickett stood slender and graceful at the middle height, and carried himself with an air. Dandified in dress, he was the most romantic looking of all Confederates, the physical image of that gallantry implicit in the South’s self concept. [45]

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