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.”  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.”  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.”  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.” 
However, “The nature of the warrior leader is driven by the requirements of combat”  and courage, both “courage in the face of the danger, and the courage to accept responsibility”  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.” 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,”  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.”  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.” 
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.” 
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.”  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.  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.”  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 enemy’s response to his cannonade, Pickett at least twice sent couriers to as the colonel if they should go in.” 
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.” 
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.”  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.
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.”  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!” 
“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.”  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.”  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….”  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.” 
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,”  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.”  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.” 
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, don’t you know you are no safer there than anywhere else?” The driver responded, “I don’t suppose I am general, but it kind of feels so.” 
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 a“Pulververschwindung,”…a waste of powder.  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.” 
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 enemy’s fire has not slackened and there are still 18 guns firing from the cemetery.” 
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 God’s sake come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you.” 
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.”  He had also decided to conserve ammunition by ordering an “immediate cessation and preparation for the assault to follow.”
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.”  Sadly, Pickett “had no inkling that his corps commander was immovably opposed to the charge”  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.”  The news took him aback enough that he “seemed momentarily stunned”  by it. Longstreet told Alexander: “Stop Pickett immediately and replenish your ammunition.”  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.”  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 don’t 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.”  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.” 
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.” 
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.”  Pickett was “an unforgettable man at first sight”  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. 
2 responses to “A Legacy of Hubris, Disaster, and Betrayal: The Cost of Robert E. Lee’s Final Assault, Pickett’s Charge”
Steve. Great stuff. I have been to Gettysburg a dozen times. It is one of my favorite places. Appropriate reverence required. Are you familiar with the possibility that theConfederate cavalry, which had circled around behind Union lines to the east was supposed to attack the Union rear simultaneously as The Confederates marched across the field toward the Angle from the west. As you know the CSA cavalry as let was stopped by Union cavalry some of which was commanded by Custer. I had always thought that it was just a diversion but I have read that the plan was actually a pincher to hit the Union lines from both sides. Your thoughts.
There was no real plan for them. Lee imagined that they might be able to get behind the Union lines and ordered Stuart to do so, but as usual Lee did not account for what Meade might do. Meade was ready and a division and a half of well trained and now experienced Union Cavalry awaited Stuart’s exhausted troopers who had spent themselves in Stuart’s ill-fated ride where they fought multiple small engagements against Federal Cavalry detachments, spent a lot of ammunition, and got no rest. Their mounts wer exhausted, they were exhausted and they were defeated. It was another of Lee’s bad decisions. It had no effect on what happened to Pickett’s attack.