Tag Archives: james longstreet

Vague Orders, Vanity, and the Need for Redemption: JEB Stuart’s Ride at Gettysburg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am going back to the archives and re-posting an edited version of something that is part of my unpublished Gettysburg Campaign text. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart is legendary in American military history. A young cavalry officer from Virginia he was like a son to Robert E. Lee and was a man whose military accomplishments were matched by his unbridled vanity, which during the most critical moment in the history of the Confederacy led him to embark on an operation that left his commander in the lurch and helped doom the Confederacy. The story picks up following Stuart being surprised by Federal Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station in June of 1863 as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving north in an attempt to bring the Army of the Potomac to Battle, destroy it, and end the war. Both Stuart and Lee had much to do with the failure of this plan, but I hope that you enjoy this account. 


Padre Steve+

While the embattled “Fighting Joe” Hooker slowly pursued Lee with the Army of the Potomac, a drama of major significance to the battle Robert E. Lee’s own making was beginning to engulf his operations and leave him blind to the movements of the Federal Army. It involved Lee and his Cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart and would be the first of a number of mistakes that would characterize Lee’s campaign. All of these failures dealt with Lee’s singular inability to get his commanders to understand his intent for the campaign and his inability to clearly communicate his wishes.

The necessity of subordinate commanders understanding the intent of their superior is essential to the success of any military operation. During the Gettysburg campaign Lee failed miserably to communicate his operational plan and desire to his commanders. The episode with Stuart was one of several that paint a portrait of Lee not being as good of General as the myth surrounding him.

After the surprise at Brandy Station Stuart’s troopers screened the right flank of the army as it moved north, defending the gaps in the Blue Ridge to keep Alfred Pleasanton’s Federal Cavalry Corps from interdicting the march of the Army of Northern Virginia, or discovering the location of Lee’s three infantry corps which were moving north behind the cover of the Blue Ridge.

In this Stuart was successful, but frustrated. Between June 17th and June 21st his troopers fought a series of engagements against the aggressive Federal Cavalry at Ashby’s Gap, Middleburg and Upperville in Northern Virginia. While Stuart’s troopers had held off Pleasanton’s confident troopers the “running combats were taking a toll on the Southern mounted arm, however. Stuart had already suffered several hundred casualties defending gaps and passes.” [1] Much to their dismay the Confederates noted the improvements in the Federal cavalry during these battles. Captain William Blackford, who served as an engineer on Stuart’s staff noted:

“the improvement of enemy cavalry was enormous, mainly in the heavy fire from long range carbines, and horse artillery that was a match for Stuart’s own These cavalrymen fought as if they had been taken from infantry regiments, for they knew how to fight with horses left behind.” [2]

Unlike the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia that was marching like victors into Pennsylvania and Maryland, Stuart’s Cavalry Division had little cause to rejoice. They had been surprised at Brandy Station and Stuart had been humiliated in the Southern press. The Federal cavalry under Pleasanton gave him no opportunity to redeem himself. While Pleasanton’s troopers never broke through Stuart’s screen, they had pressed him hard, and his division was “really fought out during those two weeks from June 9 until the misty morning of June 22…. Not only had Stuart’s cavalry been pressed on the defensive as never before, but also they had not been able to gain a spot of information about the enemy.” [3] Pleasanton’s troopers and proven that the days of “easy Confederate cavalry triumphs were gone,” [4] and Stuart, now “smarting over the cuts to his ego, refused to read the portents” [5] of future disaster.

Stuart had been fighting defensively the entire campaign, but desperately wanted to go on the offensive. As his troops battled at Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, Stuart formulated a plan that he submitted to Lee. Stuart reasoned since now that “all the infantry were west of the Blue Ridge…that it would be possible to leave one or two brigades of cavalry to defend the gaps and with the remaining three to descend on the enemy and harass Hooker in any advance into Pennsylvania.” [6] For him the plan was designed for personal glory and redemption after the embarrassment at Brandy Station.

On the morning of the 22nd of June Stuart noticed that the Federal cavalry that had engaged him at Upperville the previous day was no longer present. That morning he also received an order from Lee; an order that was the first of a series of vague, poorly written and contradictory orders that was to plague Lee throughout the campaign.

Unlike his new infantry corps commanders, Ewell and Hill, Stuart was very familiar with Robert E. Lee’s method of command, and Lee had “so much faith in Stuart’s judgment and ability to make the right moves that after indicating his wishes he gave him considerable latitude in carrying them out. His orders were more suggestions than commands….” [7] However well that may have worked for Lee in the past with Jackson and Stuart, the nature of Lee’s orders to Stuart, being conditional, needed to clearly address “the conditions upon which they are based.” [8] This Lee did not do. His order read:

“I judge the efforts of the enemy yesterday were to arrest our progress and ascertain our whereabouts. Perhaps he is satisfied. Do you know where he is and what he is doing? I fear he will steal a march on us and get across the Potomac before we are aware. If you find that he is moving northward and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into Maryland and take position on General Ewell’s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of the enemy’s movements and collect all the supplies you can….” [9]

James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate First Corps who Stuart was cooperating with on the northward march, added his own comments to Lee’s instructions which even further clouded the order:

General Lee has enclosed this letter for you, to be forwarded to you, provided you can be spared from my front, and provided I think that you can move across the Potomac without disclosing our plans. He speaks of your leaving via the Hopewell Gap and passing by the rear of the enemy. If you can get through by that route I think that you will be less likely to indicate what our plans are than if you should be passing to our rear. I forward the letter of instructions with these suggestions. Please advise me of the condition of affairs before you leave, and order General Hampton, whom I suppose will leave here in command, to report to me at Millwood, either by letter or in person, as may be most agreeable to him.” [10]  

But even without an order from Lee, Stuart was already planning his offensive that he believed would restore his glory. He had sent Major John Mosby with a small detachment of troops to reconnoiter behind the Union lines. Mosby reported the location of all the infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac. Mosby reported to Stuart on June 23rd that the Federal corps were stationary and “were so widely separated…that a column of cavalry could easily get between them.” [11] It was news that Stuart was delighted to hear. Mosby painted a glowing picture of how an operation using the Hopewell Gap could create havoc in the Federal rear and cause panic in Washington as he could “severe communications between Hooker and Pleasanton, destroy a “large portion” of Hooker’s transportation, and take some of the pressure off Lee by creating a diversion for the Union cavalry.” [12]

The inactivity of the Federal army reported by Mosby was exactly the news Stuart wanted to hear, and he asked Lee for permission to plunge into the Federal rear, and in his after action report wrote:

“I submitted to the commanding general the plan of leaving a brigade or so in my present front, and passing through Hopewell, or some other gap in Bull Run Mountain, attaining the enemy’s rear, and passing between his main body and Washington, to cross into Maryland and joining our army north of the Potomac.” [13]

Lee was rather cryptic in his after action report and wrote “Upon the suggestion of the former officer (General Stuart) that he could damage the enemy and delay his passage of the river by getting to his rear, he was authorized to do so.” [14] In that same report of the campaign Lee wrote:

“General Stuart was left to guard the passes of the mountains and observe the movements of the enemy, whom he was instructed to impede and harass as much as possible, should he attempt to cross the Potomac. In that event, General Stuart was directed to move into Maryland, crossing the Potomac east or west of the Blue Ridge, as, in his judgment, should be best, and take position on the right of our column as it advanced.” [15]

That night, during a heavy rainstorm Stuart’s chief of staff Major McClellan received Lee’s reply to his superior’s request. When he received it he immediately delivered to Stuart. Lee’s instruction stated:

“If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountains tomorrow night, cross as Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Frederickstown.

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions, etc.” [16]

However, Stuart does not deserve the entirety of the blame for what happened. The orders or suggestions that he received from Lee and Longstreet gave Stuart were “so badly worded that it is difficult to make sense of them.” [17] Lee implicitly trusted Stuart but he was wrong in assuming that the young officer should be able to divine his intent after Brandy Station without taking into account the effect the negative press of that battle had on his subordinate. Lee should have “established that Stuart’s most important task was to guard Ewell’s right and report on the direction of Hooker’s advance once Lee crossed the Potomac.” [18] This he did not do. Instead, Stuart was given several conflicting instructions. Lee directed that Stuart maintain contact with Ewell, screen the Blue Ridge gaps, collect information, “raiding around the rear of Hooker’s forces” [19] damaging the enemy and collecting supplies. Stuart could have done any of these tasks, but not all of them, and the smorgasbord offered by Lee played directly into Stuart’s need to redeem himself after the beating that he took in the Confederate Press after Brandy Station.

Specifically, Lee’s lack of clarity and vagueness allowed to Stuart interpret the order in a manner that benefited him. The order could easily be interpreted as getting Stuart and his men into Pennsylvania as quickly as possible to guard Ewell’s flank and discern the intentions of the enemy, which in hindsight appears to be Lee’s intent, or as permission to conduct a raid “roam in the enemy’s rear for an unpredictable period of time, raising havoc with his communications, supplies, and isolated commands” and then “seek out Ewell’s corps and use it as a place of refuge from an aroused enemy.” [20]

The fact is that as they are today that different standards apply to each course of action laid out by a commander and that orders must be clear, otherwise subordinates may interpret them in a far different manner that intended. Such vague orders can have far reaching effects, often contrary to the intent of the commander who issued them; this was the case here.

By giving Stuart the latitude to go around the Federal army Lee undercut his own preference that Stuart cross into Maryland via Shepherdstown and Frederick on June 24th. Lee had provided Stuart an opportunity for something that “Longstreet half-apologetically called “something better than the drudgery of a march around our flank.” [21] It was a critical mistake, which was then further compounded by Stuart and the movement of the Army of the Potomac.

Stung by the criticism of his conduct of the Battle of Brandy Station in the Southern press and frustrated by Pleasanton’s constant thrusts at his troopers screening Lee’s flank on the Blue Ridge Stuart interpreted the orders in the manner that appealed to Stuart’s sense of glory. He would repeat his triumph of the previous year when he rode around the Army of the Potomac. For Stuart this was a chance to regain the limelight and add to his luster. Stuart “summed up his interpretation of his orders when he said later: …it was deemed practicable to move entirely in the enemy’s rear, intercepting his communications with his base (Washington), and, inflicting damage upon his rear, to rejoin the army in Pennsylvania in time to participate in its actual conflicts.”[22]

Historians have long wondered why Lee was not more explicit in his orders to Stuart and why Stuart conducted an operation that left Lee blind and had no obvious advantages, except to allow Stuart to recover his tarnished reputation. Stephen Sears noted in his book Gettysburg that: “The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level.” [23] In a sense the decision harkens back to the hubris of Lee and others about the superiority of his army, and Lee’s distain for the capabilities of Army of the Potomac and Federal troops in general.

In organizing his movement around the Army of the Potomac, Stuart decided to take his three best cavalry brigades with him, and leave the brigades of “Grumble” Jones and Beverly Robertson to defend gaps and screen the rear of the army. The choice was unfortunate; Robertson was unpredictable but was “senior to the dependable Jones” [24] who was considered the “best outpost officer in his command.” [25] The choice ridded Stuart of Robertson, who he did not trust in battle and Jones “whose antipathy for Stuart at least equaled Stuart’s for him.” [26] The intent was that Robertson would screen the army and follow it into Maryland, in fact Stuart gave Robertson “explicit instructions” [27] to do so, but instead “the two brigades would remain fixed, as if planted there, in an inanition of command which immobilized the men for whom Lee in Pennsylvania was anxiously watching.” [28] Longstreet had requested the industrious and dependable Hampton command the remainder of the cavalry, but Stuart disregarded his counsel and took Hampton with him.

Stuart set off with his three best brigades, Wade Hampton’s, Fitzhugh Lee’s, and Rooney Lee’s, the latter now with Rooney Lee having been wounded was under the command of Colonel John R. Chambliss. Chambliss was another former West Pointer who had retired from the old army but had responded to the call to secession.

Almost immediately after setting off Stuart and his brigades encountered a situation that should have immediately stopped movement to the Federal rear and instead brought Stuart to move back to the west of the Blue Ridge. Moving through Glasscock’s Gap Stuart’s troopers  “bumped unexpectedly into “an immense wagon train,” which happened to be the tail end of Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps, blocking the road in exactly the fashion Lee had described as a hindrance.” [29] Instead of going back when he had the chance Stuart elected to continue with his “plan to go around the Federal army. It was a crucial decision, for he still could have turned back without losing any more time.” [30] Even so, Stuart had to spend a day grazing his horses since he had no grain with him, delaying his advance north and east, placing him a day behind schedule. Though Stuart and his brigades made better time on the 26th, advancing twenty-five miles, he had to again stop to graze his horses at the Occoquan River. It had “taken forty-eight hours to march thirty-five miles.” [31]

Stuart continued on past the outskirts of Washington on June 27th and was again delayed when attempting to cross the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford where the “water level was two feet higher than normal.” [32] Upon crossing the river he then encountered a large Federal wagon train not far from Washington capturing over 100 wagons and 600 mules. He reveled in that feat and boasted that “he had taken more than one hundred and twenty-five best United States model wagons and splendid teams and gay caparisons,” containing “foodstuffs, oats, hay…bacon, ham, crackers and bread” but his progress was slowed by his enormous wagon train of captured supplies…” [33] He and briefly wondered “whether it might be worth “our entering Washington City” [34] before determining that the effort might be too costly.

On June 28th Stuart received word that Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were across the Potomac. Likewise, Stuart “knew nothing of Lee’s position,” [35] and instead of abandoning the wagon train he sacrificed the speed and mobility of his brigades to keep it. This was a direct consequence of how badly Lee had written his order to Stuart. Now, “far from guarding Ewell’s right, he was now moving away from Ewell, with no idea where Hooker’s army might be and no communication with Lee, who frequently inquiring of his aides, “Can you tell me where General Stuart is?” [36]

On the wrong side of the federal army, encumbered by the captured wagon train, “Stuart would have to make a half circle of more than fifty miles around Gettysburg before arriving there about noon on the second day of battle with most of his troopers, his artillery, and his wagon train lumbering far behind him.” [37] On June 30th his men were engaged by Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal near cavalry division near Hanover, and “his men never fought more poorly…and General Stuart and his staff were nearly captured.” [38] By the time Stuart’s troopers arrived in Gettysburg, the once proud outfit was “exhausted and too late to be of any service.” [39] His arrival at Gettysburg was not a moment of triumph, but was humiliating. Instead of reporting to his commander with information that Lee needed, it was Lee who informed him of the position of his own army and the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s words to his much beloved subordinate were painful. He asked him “General Stuart, where have you been?” [40] Stuart seemed to wilt at his mentor’s words, and attempted to put the best face forward, and told Lee “I have brought you 125 wagons and their teams, General,” to which Lee replied “Yes, General, but they are an impediment to me now.” [41]

Stuart’s raid was disastrous for Lee. Until July 2nd, Lee was blind and had no idea where the Federal army was. He learned some when he told of the location of the Army of the Potomac by Longstreet’s scout Harrison on June 28th, but even then he had no clear idea of the Federal Army’s location, strength, or intentions until the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Stuart’s ride was “an act of folly – ill-planned, badly conducted, and (until the very end) executed with an almost total disregard for anything for any interest other than the self-promotion of J.E.B. Stuart.” [42]

To be clear, a number of important military factors important to those involved in planning campaigns are clear: Deception, commander’s intent, and unity of command. Lee successfully used deception to prevent the Federals from discerning his purposes, but that initial success was compromised by his lack of clarity in communicating his intent for the campaign to Stuart, and by Stuart’s careless disregard of any other consideration but his own reputation and vanity.

Both Stuart and Lee share culpability for the failure of the Confederate campaign at the operational and tactical level. Of course they were not the only ones, Longstreet, Ewell, A.P. Hill, Harry Heth, and Jubal Early and many others had a share in the defeat, but Lee in his orders, and his protégé Stuart in trying to redeem his reputation were most culpable in the defeat at Gettysburg.


[1] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.41

[2] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 pp.319-320

[3] 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 p.57

[4] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.553

[5] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.57

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.553

[7] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.108

[8] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.108

[9] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.321

[10] Oates, Willam C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.61

[11] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[12] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[13] McClellan, Henry Brainerd The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia 1885. Digital edition copyright 2011 Strait Gate Publications, Charlotte NC Location 6087

[14] Ibid. McClellan The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart location 6106

[15] Lee, Robert E. Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 285

[16] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[17] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.226

[18] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.540

[19] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.540

[20] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.110

[21] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.96

[22] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.555

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.106

[24] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[25] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[26] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[29] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.96

[30] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[31] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[32] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[33] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98

[35] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[36] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[37] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[38] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.73

[39] Ibid. Fuller Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 p.227

[40] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[41] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[42] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98


Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military, us army

The Largest Cavalry Battle in North America: The Battle Of Brandy Station

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I continue my rest so I can read and relax. take a look back at the battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle every fought on the North American continent. This is a section of my draft Gettysburg campaign text.

Have a great day,


Padre Steve+

Movement to attain operational reach and maneuver are two critical factors in joint operations. In the time since the American Civil War the distances that forces move to engage the enemy, or maneuver to employ fires to destroy his forces have greatly increased. Movement may be part of an existing Campaign Plan or Contingency Plan developed at Phase 0; it also may be part of a crisis action plan developed in the midst of a campaign. Lee’s movement to get to Gettysburg serves as an example of the former, however, since his forces were already in contact with the Army of the Potomac along the Rappahannock and he was reacting to what he felt was a strategic situation that could not be changed but by going on the offensive that it has the feel of a Crisis Action Plan. Within either context other factors come into play: clarity of communications and orders, security, intelligence, logistics and even more importantly the connection between operational movement and maneuver; the Center of Gravity of the enemy, and national strategy. Since we have already discussed how Lee and the national command authority of the Confederacy got to this point we will now discuss the how that decision played in the operational and tactical decisions of Lee and his commanders as the Army of Northern Virginia began the summer campaign and the corresponding actions of Joseph Hooker and the his superiors in Washington.

“One of the fine arts of the military craft is disengaging one’s army from a guarding army without striking sparks and igniting battle.” [1] On June 3rd 1863 Robert E. Lee began to move his units west, away from Fredericksburg to begin his campaign to take the war to the North. He began his exfiltration moving Second Corps under Richard Ewell and First Corps under James Longstreet west “up the south bank of the Rappahannock to Culpepper, near which Hood and Pickett had been halted on their return from Suffolk.” [2]Rodes’ division of Second Corps followed on June 4th with Anderson and Early on June 5th. Lee left the three divisions of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps at Fredericksburg to guard against any sudden advance by Hooker’s Army of the Potomac toward Richmond. Lee instructed Hill to “do everything possible “to deceive the enemy, and keep him in ignorance of any change in the disposition of the army.” [3]

The army was tremendously confident as it marched away from the war ravaged, dreary and desolate battlefields along the Rappahannock “A Captain in the 1st Virginia averred, “Never before has the army been in such a fine condition, so well disciplined and under such complete control.” [4]Porter Alexander wrote that he felt “pride and confidence…in my splendid battalion, as it filed out of the field into the road, with every chest & and ammunition wagon filled, & and every horse in fair order, & every detail fit for a campaign.” [5] Another officer wrote to his father, “I believe there is a general feeling of gratification in the army at the prospect of active operations.” [6]

Lee’s plan was to “shift two-thirds of his army to the northwest and past Hooker’s flank, while A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained entrenched at Fredericksburg to observe Hooker and perhaps fix him in place long enough for the army to gain several marches on the Federals.” [7] In an organizational and operational sense that Lee’s army after as major of battle as Chancellorsville “was able to embark on such an ambitious flanking march to the west and north around the right of the army of the Potomac….” [8]

However, Lee’s movement did not go unnoticed; Hooker’s aerial observers in their hot air balloons “were up and apparently spotted the movement.” [9] But Hooker was unsure what it meant. He initially suspected that “Lee intended to turn the right flank of the Union army as he had done in the Second Bull Run Campaign, either by interposing his army between Washington and the Federals or by crossing the Potomac River.” [10] Lee halted at Culpepper from which he “could either march westward over the Blue Ridge or, if Hooker moved, recontract at the Rappahannock River.” [11]

Hooker telegraphed Lincoln and Halleck on June 5th and requested permission to advance cross the river and told Lincoln that “I am of opinion that it is my duty to pitch into his rear” [12]possibly threatening Richmond. Lincoln ordered Hooker to put the matter to Halleck, with whom Hooker was on the worst possible terms. Hooker “pressed Halleck to allow him to cross the Rappahannock in force, overwhelming whatever rebel force had been left at Fredericksburg, and then lunging down the line of the Virginia Central toward an almost undefended Richmond.” [13] On the morning of June 6th Hooker ordered pontoon bridges thrown across the river and sent a division of Sedgwick’s VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force against Hill.

Lincoln and Halleck immediately rejected Hooker’s request. Lincoln “saw the flaw in Hooker’s plan at once” [14] and replied in a very blunt manner: “In one word,” he wrote “I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick another.” [15] Halleck replied to Hooker shortly after Lincoln that it would “seem perilous to permit Lee’s main force to move upon the Potomac [River] while your army is attacking an intrenched position on the other side of the Rappahannock.” [16] Lincoln, demonstrating a keen regard for the actual center of gravity of the campaign, told Hooker plainly that “I think Lee’s army and not Richmond, is your objective point.” [17]

The fears of Lincoln and Halleck were well founded. In stopping at Culpepper Lee retained the option of continuing his march to the Shenandoah and the Potomac, or he could rapidly “recall his advanced columns, hammer at Hooker’s right flank, and very possibly administer another defeat even more demoralizing than the one he suffered at Chancellorsville.” [18] Hooker heeded the order and while Hooker maintained his bridgehead over the Rappahannock he made no further move against Hill’s well dug in divisions.

Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart and his Cavalry Corps had been at Brandy Station near Culpepper for two weeks. Culpepper in June was a paradise for the cavalry, and with nearly 10,000 troopers gathered Stuart ordered a celebration, many dignitaries were invited and on June 4th Stuart hosted a grand ball in the county courthouse. On the 5th Stuart staged a grand review of five of his brigades. Bands played as each regiment passed in review and one soldier wrote that it was “One grand magnificent pageant, inspiring enough to make even an old woman feel fightish.” [19] The review ended with a mock charge by the cavalry against the guns of the horse artillery which were firing blank rounds. According to witnesses it was a spectacular event, so realistic and grand that during the final charge that “several ladies fainted, or pretended to faint, in the grandstand which Jeb Stuart had had set up for them along one side of the field.” [20]That was followed by an outdoor ball “lit by soft moonlight and bright bonfires.” [21] Stuart gave an encore performance when Lee arrived on June 8th, minus the grand finale and afterward Lee wrote to his wife that “Stuart was in all his glory.” [22]

Hooker received word from the always vigilant John Buford, of the First Cavalry Division on the night of June 6th that “Lee’s “movable column” was located near Culpepper Court House and that it consisted of Stuart’s three brigades heavily reinforced by Robertson’s, “Grumble” Jones’s, and Jenkins’ brigades.” [23] Hooker digested the information and believed that Stuart’s intent was to raid his own rear areas to disrupt the Army of the Potomac’s logistics and communications. The next day Hooker ordered his newly appointed Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton to attack Stuart.

After Chancellorsville, Hooker had reorganized the Union cavalry under Pleasanton into three divisions and under three aggressive division commanders, all West Pointers, Brigadier General John Buford, Brigadier General David Gregg and Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. While Stuart conducted his second grand review for Lee Pleasanton quietly massed his cavalry “opposite Beverly Ford and Kelly’s Ford so as to cross the river in the early morning hours of June 9th and carry out Hooker’s crisp orders “to disperse and destroy” the rebel cavalry reported to be “assembled in the vicinity of Culpepper….”[24] Pleasanton’s cavalry was joined by two mixed brigades of infantry “who had the reputation of being among the best marchers and fighters in the army.” [25] One brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames consisted of five regiments drawn from XI Corps, XII Corps, and III Corps was attached to Buford’s division. The other brigade, under the command of Brigadier General David Russell was composed of seven regiments drawn from I Corps, II Corps and VI Corps. [26]

Stuart’s orders for June 9th were to “lead his cavalry division across the Rappahannock to screen the northward march of the infantry.” [27] The last thing that Stuart expected was to be surprised by the Federal cavalry which he had grown to treat with distain. Stuart who was at his headquarters “woke to the sound of fighting” [28] as Pleasanton’s divisions crossed the river and moved against the unsuspecting Confederate cavalry brigades.

The resultant action was the largest cavalry engagement of the war. Over 20,000 troopers engaged in an inconclusive see-saw battle that lasted most of the day. Though a draw “the rebels might have been swept from the field had Colonel Alfred N. Duffie, at the head of the Second Division acted aggressively and moved to the sounds of battle.” [29] The “Yankees came with a newfound grit and gave as good as they took.” [30]Porter Alexander wrote that Pleasanton’s troopers “but for bad luck in the killing of Col. Davis, leading the advance, would have probably surprised and captured most of Stuart’s artillery.” [31]Stuart had lost “over 500 men, including two colonels dead,” [32] and a brigade commander, Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, General Lee’s son, badly wounded. While recuperating at his wife’s home a few weeks later Lee “was captured by the enemy.” [33]Stuart claimed victory as he lost fewer troops and had taken close to 500 prisoners and maintained control of the battlefield.

But even Confederate officers were critical. Lafayette McLaws of First Corps wrote “our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day… As you will perceive from General Lee’s dispatch that the enemy were driven across the river again. All this is not true because the enemy retired at their leisure, having accomplished what I suppose what they intended.” [34] Captain Charles Blackford of Longtreet’s staff wrote: “The fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised, but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and men… it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace….” The Chief of the Bureau of War in Richmond, Robert H.G. Kean wrote “Stuart is so conceited that he got careless- his officers were having a frolic…” [35] Brigadier General Wade Hampton had the never to criticize his chief in his after action report and after the war recalled “Stuart managed badly that day, but I would not say so publicly.” [36]

The Confederate press was even more damning in its criticism of Stuart papers called it “a disastrous fight,” a “needless slaughter,” [37]and the Richmond Examiner scolded Stuart in words that cut deeply into Stuart’s pride and vanity:

The more the circumstances of the late affair at Brandy Station are considered, the less pleasant do they appear. If this was an isolated case, it might be excused under the convenient head of accident or chance. But the puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia has twice, if not three times, surprised since the battles of December, and such repeated accidents can be regarded as nothing but the necessary consequences of negligence and bad management. If the war was a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure of a few vain and weak-headed officers, these disasters might be dismissed with compassion, But the country pays dearly for the blunders which encourage the enemy to overrun and devastate the land, with a cavalry which is daily learning to despise the mounted troops of the Confederacy…” [38]

But the battle was more significant than the number of casualties inflicted or who controlled the battlefield at the end of the day. Stuart had been surprised by an aggressively led Union Cavalry force. The Union troopers fought a stubborn and fierce battle and retired in good order. Stuart did not appreciate it but the battle was a watershed, it ended the previous dominance of the Confederate Cavalry arm. It was something that in less than a years’ time would cost him his life.


[1] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.59

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.436

[3] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.25

[4] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.218

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.221

[6] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.219

[7] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.60

[8] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.530

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.436

[10] Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2005 p.260

[11] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee 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 p.37

[12] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.61

[13] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.50

[14] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.260

[15] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.223

[16] Ibid Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.26

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.50

[18] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.53

[19] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.304

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.437

[21] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.63

[22] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[23] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[24] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[26] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.7

[27] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[28] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.306

[29] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.261

[30] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p. 251

[31] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.223

[32] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[33] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[34] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.59

[35] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[36] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.60

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.57

[38] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.311-312

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, us army

Mahan, Halleck, and the Beginning of American Military Thought

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Something a bit different. Again this is a part of one of the chapters of my Gettysburg and Civil War text, but this time dealing with two men who were the first American military theorists, Dennis Hart Mahan, the father of Alfred Thayer Mahan the great naval strategist and Henry Wager Hillock. Both men contributed to American military thought for over a century until they and their French-Swiss mentor Henri Jomini’s theories were overtaken by those of the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz. 

They both are interesting characters and both had an influence on American history today ion large part due to their influence on the education of most of the generals who conducted the Civil War, and in the case of Halleck in advising Abraham Lincoln during the war. 

I hope that you enjoy


Padre Steve+



As we continue to examine the Civil War as the first modern war we have to see it as a time of great transition and change for military and political leaders. As such we have to look at the education, culture and experience of the men who fought the war, as well as the various advances in technology and how that technology changed tactics, which in turn influenced the operational and strategic choices that defined the characteristics of the Civil War and wars to come.

The leaders who organized the vast armies that fought during the war were influenced more than military factors. Social, political, economic, scientific and even religious factors influenced their conduct of the war. The officers that commanded the armies on both sides grew up during the Jacksonian opposition to professional militaries, and for that matter even somewhat trained militias. The Jacksonian period impacted how officers were appointed and advanced. Samuel Huntington wrote:

“West Point was the principal target of Jacksonian hostility, the criticism centering not on the curriculum and methods of the Academy but rather upon the manner of how cadets were appointed and the extent to which Academy graduates preempted junior officer positions in the Army. In Jacksonian eyes, not only was specialized skill unnecessary for a military officer, but every man had the right to pursue the vocation of his choice….Jackson himself had an undisguised antipathy for the Academy which symbolized such a different conception of officership from that which he himself embodied. During his administration disciple faltered at West Point, and eventually Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent and molder of the West Point educational methods, resigned in disgust at the intrusion of the spoils system.” [1]

This is particularly important because of how many officers who served in the Civil War were products of the Jacksonian system and what followed over the next two decades. Under the Jackson administration many more officers were appointed directly from civilian sources than from West Point, often based on political connections. “In 1836 when four additional regiments of dragoons were formed, thirty officers were appointed from civilian life and four from West Point graduates.” [2]

While this in itself was a problem, it was made worse by a promotion system based on seniority, not merit. There was no retirement system so officers who did not return to the civilian world hung on to their careers until they quite literally died with their boots on. The turnover in the highest ranks was quite low, “as late as 1860, 20 of the 32 men at or above the rank of full colonel held commissions in the war of 1812.” [3] This held up the advancement of outstanding junior officers who merited promotion and created a system where “able officers spent decades in the lower ranks, and all officers who had normal or supernormal longevity were assured of reaching higher the higher ranks.” [4]

Robert E. Lee was typical of many officers who stayed in the Army. Despite his success Lee was constantly haunted by his lack of advancement. While he was still serving in Mexico having gained great laurels, including a brevet promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, the “intrigues, pettiness and politics…provoked Lee to question his career.” He wrote, “I wish I was out of the Army myself.” [5]

In 1860 on the brink of the war, Lee was “a fifty-three year-old man and felt he had little to show for it, and small hope for promotion.” [6] Lee’s discouragement was not unwarranted, for despite his exemplary service, there was little hope for promotion and to add to it, Lee knew that “of the Army’s thirty-seven generals from 1802 to 1861, not one was a West Pointer.” [7]

The careers of other exemplary officers including Winfield Scott Hancock, James Longstreet, and John Reynolds languished with long waits between promotions between the Mexican War and the Civil War. The long waits for promotion and the duty in often-desolate duty stations on the western frontier, coupled with family separations caused many officers to leave the Army. A good number of these men would volunteer for service in 1861 a go on to become prominent leaders in both the Union and Confederate armies. Among these officers were such notables as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Henry Halleck, George McClellan and Jubal Early.

The military education of these officers at West Point was based very technical and focused on engineering, civil, and topographic, disciplines that had a direct contribution to the expanding American nation. What little in the way of formal higher level military education West Point cadets received was focused the Napoleonic tactics and methods espoused by Henri Jomini as Clausewitz’s works had yet to make their way to America. Dennis Hart Mahan taught most military theory and tactics courses being taught at the academy in the formative years of so many of the men who would lead the armies that fought the American Civil War.

Many Americans looked on the French, who had been the allies of the United States in the American Revolution, favorably during the ante-bellum period. This was especially true of the fledgling United States Army, which had just fought a second war with Great Britain between 1812 and 1815, and “outstanding Academy graduates in the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Halleck and Mahan, were sent to France and Prussia to continue their education. Jomini was considered as the final word on the larger aspects of military operations, and American infantry, cavalry, and artillery tactics imitated those of the French Army.” [8]


Respected but Never Loved: Dennis Hart Mahan

Mahan, who graduated at the top of the West Point class of 1824 was recognized as having a brilliant mind very early in his career, as a third classman that “he was appointed an acting assistant professor of mathematics.” [9] Following his graduation the brilliant young officer was sent by the army to France, where he spent four years as a student and observer at the “School of Engineering and Artillery at Metz” [10] before returning to the academy where “he was appointed professor of military and civil engineering and of the science of war.” [11] It was a position that the young professor excelled as subjected “the cadets…to his unparalleled knowledge and acid disposition.” [12]

Mahan spent nearly fifty years of his life at West Point, including nearly forty years as a faculty member he could not imagine living life without it. Thus he became “morbid when the Academy’s Board of Visitors recommended his mandatory retirement from the West Point Faculty” and on September 16th 1871 the elderly Mahan “committed suicide by leaping into the paddlewheel of a Hudson River steamer.” [13]

While he was in France Mahan studied the prevailing orthodoxy of Henri Jomini who along with Clausewitz was the foremost interpreter of Napoleon and Napoleon’s former Chief of Staff Marshal Ney. When we look at Mahan’s body of work in his years at West Point, Jomini’s influence cannot be underestimated. Some have noted, and correctly so, that “Napoleon was the god of war and Jomini was his prophet” [14] and in America the prophet found a new voice in that of Dennis Hart Mahan.

Thus, if one wants to understand the underlying issues of military strategy and tactics employed by the leaders of the Civil War armies, the professional soldiers, as well as those who learned their trade on the battlefield of America, one has to understand Jomini and his American interpreter Mahan.

Unlike the Prussian Clausewitz, whose writings were still unknown in America, Jomini saw the conduct of war apart from its human element and controlled by certain scientific principles. The focus in principles versus the human element is one of the great weaknesses of traditional Jominian thought.

The basic elements of Jominian orthodoxy were that: “Strategy is the key to warfare; That all strategy is controlled by invariable scientific principles; and That these principles prescribe offensive action to mass forces against weaker enemy forces at some defensive point if strategy is to lead to victory.” [15] Like Clausewitz, Jomini interpreted “the Napoleonic era as the beginning of a new method of all out wars between nations, he recognized that future wars would be total wars in every sense of the word.” [16] In his thesis Jomini laid out a number of principles of war including elements that we know well today: operations on interior and exterior lines, bases of operations, and lines of operation. Jomini understood the importance of logistics in war, envisioned the future of amphibious operations and his thought would be taken to a new level by Alfred Thayer Mahan, the son of Dennis Hart Mahan in his book The Influence of Sea Power on History.

To be fair, Jomini foresaw the horrific nature of the coming wars, but he could not embrace them, nor the concepts that his Prussian counterpart Carl von Clausewitz regarding the base human elements that made up war. “Born in 1779, Jomini missed the fervor of the Revolutionary generation and the romantic world view that inspired its greatest theorist, Jacques Antoine Guibert. He came to intellectual maturity during a period of codification and quest for stability in all spheres of life, including the waging of war.” [17] Jomini expressed his revulsion for the revolutionary aspects of war, and his desire to return to the limited wars of the eighteenth century:

“I acknowledge that my prejudices are in favor of the good old times when the French and English guards courteously invited each other to fire first as at Fontenoy, preferring them to the frightful epoch when priests, women. And children throughout Spain plotted the murder of individual soldiers.” [18]

Jomini’s influence was great throughout Europe and was brought back to the United States by Mahan who principally “transmitted French interpretations of Napoleonic war” [19] especially the interpretation given to it by Henri Jomini. However, when Mahan returned from France he was somewhat dissatisfied with some of what he learned. This is because he understood that much of what he learned was impractical in the United States where a tiny professional army and the vast expenses of territory were nothing like European conditions in which Napoleon waged war and Jomini developed his doctrine of war.

It was Mahan’s belief that the prevailing military doctrine as espoused by Jomini:

“was acceptable for a professional army on the European model, organized and fighting under European conditions. But for the United States, which in case of war would have to depend upon a civilian army held together by a small professional nucleus, the French tactical system was unrealistic.” [20]

Mahan set about rectifying this immediately upon his return to West Point, and though he was now steeped in French thought, he was acutely sensitive to the American conditions that in his lectures and later writings had to find a home. As a result he modified Jominian orthodoxy by rejecting one of its central tenants-primary reliance on offensive assault tactics.” [21] Mahan wrote, “If the offensive is attempted against a strongly positioned enemy… it should be an offensive not of direct assault but of the indirect approach, of maneuver and deception. Victories should not be purchased by the sacrifice of one’s own army….To do the greatest damage to our enemy with the least exposure of ourselves,” said Mahan, “is a military axiom lost sight of only by ignorance to the true ends of victory.” [22]

However, Mahan had to contend with the aura of Napoleon, which affected the beliefs of many of his students and those who later served with him at West Point, including Robert E. Lee. “So strong was the attraction of Napoleon to nineteenth-century soldiers that American military experience, including the generalship of Washington, was almost ignored in military studies here.” [23] It was something that many American soldiers, Union and Confederate would pay with their lives as commanders steeped in Napoleon and Jomini threw them into attacks against well positioned and dug in opponents well supported by artillery. Lee’s assault on Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd1863 showed how little he had learned from Mahan regarding the futility of such attacks, and instead trusted in his own interpretation of Napoleon’s dictums of the offense.

Thus there was a tension in American military thought between the followers of Jomini and Mahan. The conservative Jominian interpretation of Napoleonic warfare predominated much of the officer corps of the Army, and within the army “Mahan’s decrees failed to win universal applause.” [24] However, much of this may have been due in part to the large number of officers accessed directly from civilian life into the army during the Jacksonian period. Despite this, it was Dennis Hart Mahan who more than any other man “taught the professional soldiers who became the generals of the Civil War most of what they knew through the systematic study of war.” [25]

When Mahan returned from France and took up his professorship he became what Samuel Huntington the “American Military Enlightenment” and he “expounded the gospel of professionalism to successive generations of cadets for forty years.” [26]Some historians have described Mahan by the “star professor” of the Military Academy during the ante-bellum era. [27] Mahan’s influence on the future leaders of the Union and Confederate armies went beyond the formal classroom setting. Mahan established the “Napoleon Club,” a military round table at West Point.[28] In addition to his writing and teaching, Mahan was one of the preeminent influences on the development of the army and army leadership during the ante-bellum period.

However, Mahan and those who followed him such as Henry Halleck, Emory Upton and John Bigelow who were the intellectual leaders of the army had to contend with an army culture which evidenced “a distain for overt intellectual activities by its officers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries….Hard fighting, hard riding, and hard drinking elicited far more appreciation from an officer’s peers that the perusal of books.” [29]

Mahan dominated the academy in many ways. For the most part Mahan ran the academic board, an institution that ran the academy, and “no one was more influential than Mahan in the transition of officership from a craft into a profession.”[30] Mahan was a unique presence at West Point who all students had to face in their final year before they could graduate and become a commissioned officer. “His Engineering and Science of War course was the seedbed of strategy and tactics for scores of cadets who later became Civil War Generals.” [31] That being said most of what Mahan taught was the science of engineering related to war and he “went heavy on the military engineering and light on strategy” [32] relying primarily on Jomini’s work with his modifications for the latter.

The prickly professor was “respected by his students but never loved.” One student described him as “the most particular, crabbed, exacting man that I ever saw. He is a slim little skeleton of a man and is always nervous and cross.” [33] As a teacher Mahan was exceptional, but he was exceptionally demanding of his students. Those cadets who had survived the first three years at the academy were confronted by this “irritable, erudite, captious soldier-professional who had never seen combat” yet who was “America’s leading military mind.” [34]

Mahan was “aloof and relentlessly demanding, he detested sloppy thinking, sloppy posture, and a sloppy attitude toward duty…Mahan would demand that they not only learn engineering and tactics, but that every manner and habit that characterizes an officer gentlemanly deportment, strict integrity, devotion to duty, chivalric honor, and genuine loyalty be pounded into them. His aim was to “rear soldiers worthy of the Republic.” [35] Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, us army

The Deadliest Battle on American Soil: The Human Cost at Gettysburg


gburg dead2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am a career military officer who suffers from PTSD, TBI and other afflictions after serving in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008.  I have seen firsthand the terrible effects of war. I am also a historian and I  have served as Assistant Professor at a major military staff college which helps educate senior military officers from this country and other countries. In that capacity I taught ethics as well as led the Gettysburg Staff ride, or study of the Battle of Gettysburg. When teaching I always attempted to deal with the human cost of war.

Gettysburg was the most costly battle ever fought on the American continent. Around 50,000 men were killed or wounded there in three days of battle. William Tecumseh Sherman noted that “war is hell.” I agree, there is nothing romantic about it. The effects of war last generations and though we have been at war for the last seventeen and a half years, war itself is an abstract concept to most Americans. It is fought by professionals and only experienced by most Americans on the news, movies or most the banal manner, video games; thus the cost in human terms is not fully appreciated, and nor can it be, we are far too insulated from it. Over the past forty plus years our politicians have insulated the public from war, and in doing so they have ensured that we remain in perpetual war which benefits no one. That is a big reason why I write so much about it, not to glorify or romanticize it, but to try in some war to help make it real  to my readers. This is a another draft chapter from my Gettysburg text. 


Padre Steve+

Walt Whitman Wrote:

“Ashes of soldiers South or North, As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies. Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves, In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

Too often we look at distant battles and campaigns in terms of strategy, operations, tactics, leadership and the weaponry employed. Likewise we might become more analytical and look at the impact of the battle or campaign in the context of the war it was fought, or in the manner in which the tactics or weapons used revolutionized warfare. Sometimes in our more reflective moments we might look at individual bravery or sacrifice, often missing in our analysis is the cost in flesh and blood.

Admittedly the subject is somewhat macabre. But with the reality being that very few people in the United States, Canada or Western Europe have experienced the terrible brutality of war it is something that we should carefully consider any time the nation commits itself to war. By we, I mean all citizens, including the many soldiers, sailors and airmen who never see the personally see people they kill, or walk among the devastation caused by the highly advanced, precision weapons that they employ from a great distance, sometimes thousands of miles. In some parts of our military we have men and women who have the mission of targeting and killing enemies and then walking home to their families, but in the Civil War killing in combat “remained essentially intimate; soldiers were able to see each other’s faces and to know whom they had killed.” [1]

While the words of William Tecumseh Sherman that “War is Hell” are as true as when he spoke them; the tragic fact is that for most people war is an abstract concept, antiseptic and unreal; except for the occasional beheading of a hostage by Islamic militants or the videos shot by the perpetrators of crimes against humanity on the internet. Thus the cost of war and its attendant cost in lives, treasure and to the environment are not real to most people in the West.

We use words to describe the business of war which dehumanize the enemy, and we describe their deaths in words more palatable to us. Dave Grossman, the army infantry officer who has spent his post military life writing about the psychology of war and killing wrote:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.” [2]

We can now add the terms Haji and Raghead to Grossman’s list of dehumanizing terms for our opponents from our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The words of Guy Sager in his classic work The Forgotten Soldier about World War Two on the Eastern front is lost on many that study war:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!” [3]

In an age where so few have served in the military and even few have seen combat in some way shape or form many who study war are comfortable experts who learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. When I hear men and women, the pundits, politicians and preachers, that Trinity of Evil who constantly exhort governments and peoples to go to war for causes, places or conflicts that they have little understanding of from the comfort of their living rooms or television studios I grow weary. I fully comprehend the words of Otto Von Bismarck who said: “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” [4]

As a historian who also is a military chaplain who has seen war I struggle with what Sager said. Thus when I read military history, study and write about particular battles or engagements, or conduct staff rides as like the Gettysburg trip that we are embarking on, the human cost is always present in my mind. The fact that I still suffer the effects of PTSD including night terrors and chronic insomnia keeps what I do in good focus, and prevents me from being a comfortable expert.

Thus, it is my view, to conduct a staff ride, to walk the battlefield; especially in somewhat uncomfortable weather is a good thing. It connects us more in at least a small way to the men that fought there, died there, or brought home wounds that changed them forever.

To walk a battlefield where tens of thousands of men were killed and wounded is for me a visit to hallowed ground. I have felt that at Waterloo, Verdun, Arnhem, Normandy, the Bulge, the West Wall, the Shuri Line on Okinawa, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Stone’s River, and of course the battlefield which I have visited more than any in my life, Gettysburg. There are times when I walk these fields that I am overcome with emotion. This I think is a good thing, for as an American who has family ties to the Civil War, Gettysburg in particular is hallowed ground.

In doing this I try to be dispassionate in how I teach and while dealing with big issues that my students will face as Joint Staff Officers. Some of them will become Flag or General Officers, with the responsibility of advising our nation’s leaders as well planning and conducting the military operations on which the lives of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of people depend. Thus I do feel a certain responsibility to teach not only the strategy and other important military aspects of this campaign, but also the cost in human lives and ethical considerations. I take this work seriously because it forces us to remember what war is about and its nature, which Clausewitz wrote is “a paradoxical trinity-composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…” [5]which William Tecumseh Sherman so rightly understood without the euphemisms that we so frequently use to describe it: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it….”

As the sun set on the evening of July 3rd 1863 the battered Army of Northern Virginia and the battered but victorious Army of the Potomac tended their wounds, buried their dead and prepared for what might happen next. On that afternoon it was as if “the doors of Hell had shut” and the next day, the Glorious 4th of July “The heavens opened, and a thunderstorm of biblical proprotions drenched the battlefield, soaking dead, wounded and able-bodied men equally.” [6]

Following the disastrous attack aimed at the Union center, Lee and his surviving commanders prepared for an expected Union counter attack. However, George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac who had correctly anticipated Lee’s assault decided not to gamble on a counter attack, though it was tempting. He knew too well the tenacity and skill of the Confederate commanders and soldiers on the defense and did not want to risk a setback that might give Lee another chance, thus “the two sides stared at each other, each waiting for the other to resume the fighting, neither did.” [7]

As the Confederate army retreated and Meade’s army pursued another army remained at Gettysburg, “an army of the wounded, some 20,350 in number, a third of them Confederate….” Just 106 surgeons were spared from the Army of the Potomac and “the comparatively few overburdened surgeons and attendants now on duty still labored every day to the point of exhaustion.” [8] These overworked men were aided by local volunteers as well as members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission and the Sisters of Charity. These men and women “brought organization to the hospitals, relief to the medical staffs and the local volunteers, and immense comfort to the wounded, whether blue or butternut.” [9]

The dead and wounded littered the battlefield and the sights and smells were ghastly:

“Wherever men gazed, they saw dead bodies. A New Yorker thought they “lay as thick as the stones that is on father’s farm.” A stench smothered the field, moving John Geary to tell his wife, “My very clothes smell of death.” A Regular Army veteran exclaimed, “I have seen many a big battle, most of the big ones of the war, and I never saw the like.” [10] A resident of Gettysburg walked up to Little Round top and wrote of what she observed from the peak of that rocky hill:

“surrounded by the wrecks of battle, we gazed upon the valley of death beneath. The view there spread out before us was terrible to contemplate! It was an awful spectacle! Dead soldiers, bloated horses, shattered cannon and caissons, thousands of small arms. In fact everything belonging to army equipments was there in one confused and indescribable mass.” [11]

At Joseph Sherfy’s farm, scene of some of the heaviest fighting on the second day, his barn “which had been used as a field hospital, was left a burnt ruin, with “crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies” clearly visible.” [12] When the rains came, the wounded suffered terribly. Many of the field aid stations were set up next to the creeks that crisscrossed the battlefield, and those streams quickly flooded as torrents of rain water caused them to overflow their banks. “A New Jersey soldier watched in horror as the flood waters washed over and carried away badly wounded men unable to move to safety….” [13]

Oliver Howard took his escort to do a reconnaissance of the town on July 4th, one of the cavalry troopers described the scene:

“The battle field was the Awfulest sight I ever saw…The woods in front of our men the trees were riddled with Cannon ball and bullets evry limb shot off 20 feet high. Some say the Rebel dead lay six deep in the grave yard where we lay. Nearly every grave stone was shattered by shots and everything was torn to pieces. I went through the town on the 4th of July with the General. The streets were covered with dead. Evry frame house were riddled with balls the brick ones dented thick where shot had hit.” [14]

Field hospitals were often little more than butcher shops where arms and legs were amputated by overworked surgeons and attendants while those with abdominal wounds that could not be easily repaired were made as comfortable as possible. Triage was simple. If a casualty was thought to have a reasonable chance at survival he was treated, if not they were set aside in little groups and allowed to die as peacefully as possible. Churches were requisition for use of the surgeons. A volunteer nurse noted: “Every pew was full; some sitting, some lying, some leaning on others. They cut off the legs and arms and threw them out the windows. Every morning the dead were laid on the platform in a sheet or blanket and carried away.” [15]

Chaplains were usually found with the doctors, caring for the physical as well as the spiritual needs of the wounded. Protestant chaplains might ensure that their soldiers “knew Jesus” and Catholics administered the Last Rites, often working together across denominational lines to care for their soldiers.

A Union chaplain described the ministry in the field hospitals and aid stations:

“Some of the surgeons were posted well up toward the front to give first aid. More of them were in the large field hospitals of division in more secure places at the rear. The chaplain might be at either place or at both by turns. Some made a point of watching for any wounded man who might be straggling back, who perhaps could be helped up into the saddle and ride back to the hospital. When the demand for help became urgent the chaplains were nurses. As the rows of wounded men grew longer, chaplains went from man to man to see what could be done to relieve their pain, perhaps to take a message or letter. All day into the night this work would continue. A drink of water, a loosened bandage on a swollen limb, a question answered, a surgeon summoned, a whispered word of comfort marked their course. Each night at sundown the men who died during the day were buried, with a short prayer, side by side in a common grave, each in his uniform with canvas wrapped around his face and a strip of paper giving his name and regiment in a bottle buttoned under his blouse.” [16]

The war would challenge the theology of the clergy who served as chaplains on both sides, as “individuals found themselves in a new and different moral universe, one in which unimaginable destruction had become a daily experience. Where could God belong in such a world? How could a benevolent deity countenance such cruelty and suffering? Doubt threatened to overpower faith….” [17] That sense of bewilderment is not lacking today among those of faith who return from war.

Some men, clergy and laity alike would attempt to find a theological meaning to the suffering. Many would do so in the theology of John Calvin which emphasized the Providence and foreknowledge of God. That theological frame of reference, of the results of battles and the death or wounding of men in war and the attendant suffering was found in the will, or providence of God was quite common among men of both sides who grew up during the Second Great Awakening, as it is today; and for some it was carried to fatalistic extremes. However, others like Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama, who considered himself a believing Christian, wrote that he believed God:

“endowed men with the power of acting for themselves and with responsibility for their acts. When we went to war it was a matter of business, of difference of opinion among men about their temporal affairs. God had nothing to do with it. He never diverted a bullet from one man, or caused it to hit another, nor directed who should fall or who should escape, nor how the battle should terminate. If I believed in such intervention of Providence I would be a fatalist….”[18]

The carnage around the battlefield was horrifying to most observers. Corporal Horatio Chapman of the 20th Connecticut Volunteers wrote about the sight on Cemetery Ridge on the night of July 3rd following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge:

But in front of our breastworks, where the confederates were massed in large numbers, the sight was truly awful and appalling. The shells from our batteries had told with fearful and terrible effect upon them and the dead in some places were piled upon each other, and the groans and moans of the wounded were truly saddening to hear. Some were just alive and gasping, but unconscious. Others were mortally wounded and were conscious of the fact that they could not live long; and there were others wounded, how bad they could not tell, whether mortal or otherwise, and so it was they would linger on some longer and some for a shorter time-without the sight or consolation of wife, mother, sister or friend. I saw a letter sticking out of the breast pocket of one of the confederate dead, a young man apparently about twenty-four. Curiosity prompted me to read it. It was from his young wife away down in the state of Louisiana. She was hoping and longing that this cruel war would end and he could come home, and she says, “Our little boy gets into my lap and says, `Now, Mama, I will give you a kiss for Papa.’ But oh how I wish you could come home and kiss me for yourself.” But this is only one in a thousand. But such is war and we are getting used to it and can look on scenes of war, carnage and suffering with but very little feeling and without a shudder.” [19]

Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama whose brave troopers assaulted Little Round Top on July 2nd wrote:

“My dead and wounded were nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.” [20]

Another 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.” [21]

The burial of the dead was too much for the soldier’s alone to accomplish. “Civilians joined the burial of the dead out of both sympathy and necessity. Fifty Confederates lay on George Rose’s fields; seventy-nine North Carolinians had fallen on a perfect line on John Forney’s farm.” [22]

Those tending the wounded recalled how many of the wounded selflessly asked medical personnel to tend others more badly wounded than themselves; a volunteer nurse wrote her sister: “More Christian fortitude was never witnessed than they exhibit, always say-‘Help my neighbor first, he is worse.’” [23] The Confederate wounded were the lowest priority for the badly overwhelmed Union surgeons and Lee had not done much to help, leaving just a few surgeons and attendants to care for the Confederates left on the battlefield. The Confederate wounded housed in the classrooms of Pennsylvania College were left in dire straits:

“All the rooms, halls and hallways were occupied with the poor deluded sons of the South,” and “the moans prayers, and shrieks of the wounded and dying were everywhere.” Between 500 and 700 wounded Confederates were jammed in with “five of our surgeons” and “no nurses, no medicines no kinds of food proper for men in our condition….” [24]

Across the battlefield the wounded were being treated in a variety of makeshift aid stations and field hospitals:

“Sergeant Major David E. Johnson of the Seventh Virginia was taken to the Myers house after the bombardment, suffering from a shrapnel wound to his left side and arm. “The shed in which I was placed,” he recalled, “was filled with the wounded and dying….I spoke to no one, and no one to me, never closed my eyes to sleep; the surgeons close by being engaged in removing the limbs of those nearby to be amputated….I heard nothing but the cries of the wounded and the groans of the dying, the agonies of General Kemper, who lay nearby, frequently being heard.” [25]

The suffering was not confined to the hospitals; John Imboden commanding the cavalry brigade protecting the Confederate wounded being transported home and supply trains described the horror of that movement:

“Scarcely one in a hundred had received adequate surgical aid, owning to the demands on the hard working surgeons from still far worse cases tat had to be left behind. Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for thirty-six hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds….From nearly every wagon as the teams trotted on, urged by whip and shout came such cries and shrieks as these:

“My God! Why can’t I die?” “My God! Will no one have mercy and kill me?” “Stop! Oh! For God’s sake stop for just one minute; take me out and leave me to die on the roadside.” “I am dying! I am dying! My poor wife, my dear children, what will become of you?” [26]

Eventually, by July 22nd with most of the wounded evacuated a proper general hospital was set up east of the town and the remaining wounded taken there. That hospital, named Camp Letterman grew into “a hundred –acre village of cots and tents, with its own morgue and cemetery, and served more than 3,000 wounded before it was finally closed in November.” [27]

As for the families of the dead, many never found out the details of their loved one’s deaths, which caused their losses to be “in some sense unreal and thus “unrealized,” as the bereaved described them, recognizing the inhibition of mourning that such uncertainty imposed.” [28] Much was because of how overwhelmed the field hospital staffs were, and how inadequate their records of treatment and the dispositions of bodies were sketchy at best. “Reports from field hospitals were riddled with errors and omissions, often lacked dates, and were frequently illegible, “written with the faintest lead pencil.” [29]

Among the killed and wounded were the great and the small. John Reynolds who died on day one, Winfield Scott Hancock, the valiant commander of the Union II Corps was severely wounded during Pickett’s Charge. Dan Sickles, the commander of Third Corps who had nearly brought disaster on the Federal lines by advancing to the Peach Orchard on July 2nd had his leg amputated after being grazed by a cannon ball at the Trostle Farm. Sickles, who survived the wound and the war, would visit the leg, which had carefully ordered his surgeons to preserve. The leg is now displayed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C.

The Army of the Potomac lost a large number of brigade and regimental commanders including Strong Vincent, the young and gallant brigade commander who helped save Little Round Top; George Willard who brought redemption to his Harper’s Ferry brigade on Cemetery Ridge stopping Barksdale’s charge on July 2nd; Colonel Augustus Van Horne Ellis who before being killed at Devil’s Den told his staff “the men must see us today;” and the young Elon Farnsworth, who had been promoted from Captain to Brigadier General just days before his death in a senseless ordered by his division commander Judson “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick, against Hood and McLaws dug in divisions as the battle ended.

The Confederates suffered grievous losses. Divisional commanders like Dorsey Pender and Johnston Pettigrew were mortally wounded, John Bell Hood was severely wounded, Isaac Trimble, wounded and captured while Harry Heth was wounded. Casualties were even higher for commanders and the brigade and regiment level, the list included excellent commanders such as Paul Semmes and William Barksdale, while Wade Hampton, Stuart’s best brigade commander was seriously wounded and would be out of action for months. The toll of brigade and regimental commanders who were killed or wounded was fearful. “At the regimental level approximately 150 colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors had been killed, wounded or captured. Of that number nineteen colonels had been slain, the most in any single battle in which the army had been engaged. Captains now led regiments.”[30]

In Picket’s division alone all three brigade commanders, Kemper, Armistead and Garnett were killed or wounded while twenty-six of forty Field Grade officers were casualties. Forty-six percent (78 of 171) of the regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia suffered casualties at the command level. The Confederate casualties, especially among the best leaders were irreplaceable and Lee’s Army never recovered from the loss of seasoned leaders who were already in short supply.

For some like Private Wesley Culp of the 2nd Virginia it was a final trip home. Culp had grown up in Gettysburg and had taken a job in Virginia prior to the war. In 1861 he enlisted to serve among his friends and neighbors. He was killed on the morning of July 3rd on Culp’s Hill on the very property owned by his uncle where he grew up and had learned to hunt.

One witness, Frank Haskell looked in at a field hospital in the Union II Corps area and wrote:

“The Surgeons with coats off and sleeves rolled up…are about their work,… “and their faces and clothes are spattered with blood; and though they look weary and tired, their work goes systematically and steadily on- how much and how long they have worked, the piles of legs, arms, feet, hands, fingers…partially tell.” [31]

All told between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were killed or wounded during the three days of Gettysburg. Busey and Martin’s Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg list the following casualty figures, other accounts list higher numbers, some as many as 53,000. One also has to remember that many of the missing soldiers were killed in action, but their bodies were simply never found.

                           Killed               wounded         missing         total

Union                    3,155                14,531             5,369           23,055

Confederate         4,708                12,693             5,830            23,231

Total                     7,863               27,224            11,199          46,286

To provide a reference point we need to remember that in 8 years of war in Iraq the United States suffered fewer casualties than during the three days of Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest single battle in American history, and it was a battle between brothers not against foreign enemies. To put it another perspective, even at the lowest estimates “the “army of Northern Virginia suffered something comparable to two sinkings of the Titanic, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ten repetitions of the Great Blizzard of 1888, and two Pearl Harbors.” [32]Robert E Lee testified to Congress following the war “the war… was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.” [33]  Lee’s “Old Warhorse” James Longstreet asked “Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?” [34]

The carnage and death witnessed by survivors of Gettysburg and the other battles of the war changed Civil War soldiers as much as war has before or after. James Garfield, who served as a general in the Union army and went on to become President of the United States noted: “at the sight of these dead men whom other men killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.” [35]

Others, like veterans of today had trouble adjusting to life after the war. “Civil War veterans had trouble finding employment and were accused of being drug addicts. Our word “hobo” supposedly comes from homeless Civil War veterans- called “hoe boys” – who roamed the lanes of rural America with hoes on their shoulders, looking for work.” [36] Following the war, during the turmoil of Reconstruction and the massive social change brought about by the industrialization of society and rise of “industrial feudalism” numerous veterans organizations were founded, for those that belonged to them they were “one of the principle refuges for old soldiers who had fought for a very different world than the one they found around them.” The Grand Army of the Republic was the most prominent of these organizations. “In more than 7,000 GAR posts across the United States, former soldiers could immerse themselves in a bath of sentimental memory; there, they established a ritualized camp geography, rekindled devotion to emancipation and preached the glories of manly independence.” [37]

At the end of the war, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top who was well acquainted with the carnage of war suffered immensely. His wounds never healed fully, and he struggled to climb out of “an emotional abyss” in the years after the war. Part was caused by his wounds which included wounds to his sexual organs, shattering his sexuality and caused his marriage to deteriorate. He wrote his wife about the “widening gulf between them, one created at least in part by his physical limitations: “There is not much left in me to love. I feel that all too well.” [38]

Gouverneur Warren, who had helped save the Union at Little Round Top wrote to his wife while on Engineering duty after the war: He wrote in 1866 “Indeed the past year…was one of great despondency for me…I somehow don’t wonder that persons often remark how seldom I laugh, but it is really seldom that I do.” He wrote again in 1867 “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” [39]

The killing at Gettysburg and so many other battles “produced transformations that were not readily reversible; the living into the dead, most obviously, but the survivors into different men as well, men required to deny, to numb basic human feelings at costs they may have paid for decades after the war ended, as we know twentieth and twenty-first-century soldiers from Vietnam to Iraq continue to do; men who like James Garfield, were never quite the same again after seeing fields of slaughtered bodies destroyed by me just like themselves.” [40]

Joshua Chamberlain asked the most difficult questions when viewing the devastation around Petersburg in the final days of the war:

“…men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?” [41]


Chamberlain’s questions should always be in our minds as we send young men and women to war.

[1] Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 2008 p.41

[2] Grossman, Dave On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company New York 1995, 1996 p.92

[3] Sager, Guy The Forgotten Soldier originally published as Le Soldat Oublie Editions Robert Laffont 1967, Translation Harper and Row Inc 1971, Brasey’s Washington D.C 2000 p.223

[4] Bismarck, Otto von Speech, August 1867

[5] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.89

[6] Wittenberg, Eric J, Petruzzi, David and Nugent, Michael F. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia July 4-14 1863 Savas Beatie LLC New York NY and El Dorado Hills CA 2008,2001 p.27

[7] Ibid. Wittenberg One Continuous Fight p.28

[8] Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.508

[9] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.510

[10] Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2005 p.303

[11] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.357

[12] Faust This Republic of Suffering p.81

[13] Ibid. Wittenberg One Continuous Fight p.30

[14] Ibid. Wittenberg One Continuous Fight pp.32-33

[15] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg. p.508

[16] Brinsfield, John W. et. al. Editor, Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2003 pp.121-122

[17] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.267

[18] Oates, Willam C. and Haskell, Frank AGettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.138

[19] Chapman, Horatio Civil War Diary of a Forty-niner pp.22-24 Retrieved from http://www.dbappdev.com/vpp/ct20/hdc/HDC630703.htm 8 April 2014

[20] Oates, William C. Southern Historical Papers, April 6th, 1878 retrieved from http://www.brotherswar.com/Civil_War_Quotes_4h.htm 18 July 2014

[21] _________ 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

[22] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.81

[23] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.333

[24] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.469

[25] Brown, Kent Masterson Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics and the Gettysburg Campaign University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005 p.56

[26] Imboden, John D. The Confederate Retreat from Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.424

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.469-470

[28] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.267

[29] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.113

[30] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.444

[31] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.466


[33] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Lee: The Last Years Houghton Books, New York 1981 p.124

[34] Longstreet, James in New York Times, July 24, 1885, retrieved from the Longstreet Society http://www.longstreetsociety.org/Longstreet_Quotes.html18 July 2014

[35] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.55

[36] Shay, Jonathan Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming Scribner, New York and London 2002 p.155

[37] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.523

[38] Longacre, Edward Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the ManCombined Publishing Conshohocken PA 1999 p.259

[39] Jordan, David M. Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 2001 pp.248-249

[40] Ibid. Faust. This Republic of Suffering p.60

[41] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence, The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based on the Personal Reminisces of the Fifth Corps G.P Putnam’s Son’s 1915, Bantam Books, New York 1993 Amazon Kindle Edition p.41

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, ethics, Gettysburg, History, Military, us army

George Pickett and the Great Charge: The Terrible Price of Immortality


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been posting articles from my text and hopefully one day books about the Battle of Gettysburg since the end of last month. 

Have a great day.


Padre Steve+

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 enterbut 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 projectilesThe sun, but a few minutes before so brilliant, was now darkened. Through this smoky darkness came the missiles of deaththe scene beggars descriptionMany a fellow thought his time had comeGreat 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 chargeit 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 mens 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 Souths self concept. [45]

The Romantic Rebel: George Pickett

George Pickett was born to wealth and privilege in a Neo-feudal society [46] and came from an old and distinguished Virginia family with a long military heritage dating to the Revolution and the War of 1812. He attended the Richmond Academy until he was sixteen and had to withdraw due to the financial losses his parents had suffered during the panic of 1837.

This led to the young Pickett being sent to live with and study law under his mother’s older brother, the future President, Andrew Johnston in Quincy Illinois. The family’s continued financial distress led them to get George to consider the free education provided by West Point. His mother asked Johnston to assist and Johnston set about obtaining an appointment for his nephew. As befit an up-and-coming politician, his quest was short and successful. His Springfield acquaintances included a United States Congressman who happened to be a fellow Southerner and brother Whig, Kentucky native John T. Stuart. [47] There is a long running myth that connects Pickett’s appointment to West Point to Abraham Lincoln, but it is fiction, fabricated by Pickett’s widow Sallie long after her husband and Lincoln’s death. [48]

Pickett entered West Point in 1842 where he was described by a fellow cadet thought a jolly good fellow with fine natural gifts sadly neglected[49] through his tendency to demonstrate in word and deed that henhouse neither to authority nor submit to what’re considered the Academys narrow, arbitrary, unrealistic, harshly punitive, and inconsistently applied code of conduct [50] became a loyal patron of Benny Havens tavern where he was stealing away regularly now to life his glass in good fellowship…” [51]

Pickett’s academic performance, as well as his record of disciplinary infractions at West Point was exceptionally undistinguished. He racked up vast amounts of demerits for everything from being late to class, chapel and drill, uniform violations and pranks on the drill field where he mocked those who observed proper drill and ceremonies. Pickett graduated last in the class of 1846, something that his vast amount of demerits contributed.

His widow Sallie wrote after his death that he accumulated them so long as he could afford the black marks and punishments they entailed. He curbed his harmful behavior, however, when he found himself approaching the magic number of 200 demerits per year that constituted grounds for dismissal. [52] Pickett finally graduated only five behavioral demerits short of expulsion. [53] The graduating class included George McClellan, A.P. Hill, Thomas, later “Stonewall” Jackson as well as a number of other cadets, most of whom who went on to distinguished military and other careers. At West Point Pickett was considered to be the class clown by many of his classmates was the most popular and prominent young man in the class. [54] Among the many friends that he made was an upperclassman named Ulysses S. Grant and their friendship would span decades and would survive the fire of a war that placed them at swords point. [55]

Pickett was commissioned into the infantry and served alongside James Longstreet in the Mexican War where they fought valiantly in a number of battles, including Contreras, Churubusco, El Molino Del Rey. [56]Pickett distinguished himself at Chapultepec where he had been the first American to scale the ramparts of Chapultepec, where he planted the flag before the admiring gaze of his friend Longstreet. [57]During that assault Longstreet was wounded and Pickett had snatched the colors and planted them on the castle heights for all to see and cheer. [58] For his actions he received a brevet promotion to First Lieutenant.

Following the war Pickett married but was widowed less than two years later when his wife Sally Minge Pickett died during childbirth along with their infant son in 1852. The loss was devastating to the young officer. He went into a deep depression caused by grief and considered leaving the army. He was persuaded by friends, peers and understanding commanding officers to remain.

While on leave following Sally’s death, he was at Fort Monroe, laying under an umbrella at Point Comfort when a child approached him and took pity on him. The child was the nine year old La Salle “Sallie” Corbell and she broke through his emotional defenses by persistently, as only a child can do asking what the source of his grief was. Pickett told the child that his heart had been broken by a sorrow almost too great to bear. When the child asked how ones heart could break, he replied that God broke it when he took from him his loved ones and left him so lonely. [59] While Pickett may not have thought much of the meeting, he did give the little girl a ring and a golden heart bearing his wife’s name. He likely expected never to see her again but though she was a child she was a willful and determined one. She knew her own mind and heart, both told her that one day she would marry George Pickett. [60]

Pickett returned to Texas to serve with the 8th Infantry and was promoted to Captain and ordered to take command of the newly raised Company “D” 9thInfantry at Fort Monroe. Transferred to the Pacific Northwest he married. Widowed after that war he served in the Pacific Northwest where he took a Native American wife who bore him a son, however she did not survive childbirth and when she died in early 1858 Pickett was again widowed. In 1859 Captain Pickett faced down British troops from the Hudson Bay Company in an incident now known at the Pig War which at its heart was a dispute about whether the British or the Americans own San Juan Island. The dispute, which brought the two nations to the brink of war, was settled without bloodshed, save for the unfortunate pig, and Pickett became a minor celebrity in the United States and anathema to the British.

When Virginia seceded from the Union, Pickett like many other southern officers was conflicted in his feelings and loyalties and hoped to the last that he would have to take up arms against neither state nor country. [61]Pickett resigned his commission on June 25th 1861. He wrote to Sallie with who he now maintained a frequent correspondence about his decision and decidedly mixed feelings as he:

Always strenuously opposed disunion…” But While I love my neighbor, i.e., my country, I love my household, i.e., my state, more, and I could not be an infidel and lift my sword against my own kith and kin, even though I do believethat the measure of American greatness can be achieved only under one flag. [62]

Pickett returned to Virginia by a circuitous route where he was commissioned as a Captain in the new Confederate army on September 14th and two weeks later was promoted to Colonel and assigned to command forces along the Rappahannock. Though he had as yet seen no combat serving in the Confederate army, Pickett was promoted to brigadier General and assigned to command a Virginia brigade belonging to Longstreet’s division.

Pickett led his brigade well on the peninsula and at Williamsburg was instrumental in routing an advancing Federal force, and at Seven Pines had helped repel a dire threat to the Confederate position. At Gaines Mill Pickett was wounded in the shoulder during the assault put out of action and placed on convalescent leave to recover from his wounds. During his convalescence he fell in love with an old acquaintance; La Salle Corbell, who as a young girl had cheered him after the loss of his wife now a beautiful young woman nursed him back to health and started a chain reaction that would nearly engulf the Confederate officer. [63]

Pickett was promoted to Major General in October 1862 and was assigned command of the division formerly commanded by David R. Jones, which was assigned to Longstreet’s First Corps. The division was sent to peripheral areas and took no part in the battles of late 1862 or Chancellorsville serving instead in the Tidewater with Longstreet’s corps. The corps took part in a series of operations against Union forces in the Hampton Roads area and Pickett’s division bested a Federal force at Suffolk on April 24th 1863, though it was hardly a true test of his ability to command the division in combat. During this time Pickett spent much time visiting La Salle, much to the concern of some of his officers and Longstreet’s staff, and by the time the corps left the area the two were engaged to be married.

When the Division returned to the Army of Northern Virginia after Chancellorsville, it was among the forces considered by Jefferson Davis to be sent west for the relief of Vicksburg. Since that operation never materialized, the division was assigned to accompany First Corps with the army during the upcoming Pennsylvania campaign. However, much to the consternation of Lee, Longstreet and Pickett, two of its brigades were detached by the order of Jefferson Davis to protect Richmond from any Federal incursion.

During the advance into Pennsylvania the division, now composed of the brigades of James Kemper, Lewis Armistead and Richard Garnett was the trail division in Longstreet’s corps and often, in the absence of cavalry assigned to guard the corps and army trains. Due to its late release from these duties at Chambersburg, Pickett’s Division did not arrive at Gettysburg until late afternoon on July 2nd. Lee decided that they would not be needed that day and Longstreet placed that the division in bivouac at Marsh Creek for the night, sending word by messenger to tell Pickett I will have work for him tomorrow. [64]


The Price of Immortality

Pickett spent the night with his soldiers and woke them about 3 a.m. After a quick breakfast Pickett moved the division to Seminary Ridge marshaling his troops in Spangler’s Woods where there was a modicum of protection from Federal fires and observation. However, despite these advantages it placed his division about 1000 yards from the extreme right of Pettigrew’s division with which he would have to coordinate his attack that fateful day.

Pickett scribbled a final note to Sallie as his troops prepared to attack. Oh, may God in his mercy help me as He never has helped me beforeremember always that I love you with all my heart and soul That now and forever I am yours. [65]

When Pickett’s division as well as those of Pettigrew and Trimble swept out of the wood to begin the attack, the last chance for anyone to stop it ended. Robert E. Lee’s final die was cast and nearly thirteen-thousand men began to advance into what Longstreet called “a cul de sac of death.”

As Pickett’s brigades moved out, Pickett galloped up, as debonair as if he had been riding through the streets of the Richmond under the eye of his affianced [66] and every soldier within hearing was stirred by Picketts appeal [67] as he shouted Remember Old Virginia! or to Garnett’s men Up, men, and to your posts! Dont forget today that you are from Old Virginia! [68] But when Garnett asked if there were any final instructions Pickett was told I advise you to make the best kind of time in crossing the valley; its a hell of an ugly looking place over yonder. [69]

Armistead called out to his soldiers, Men, remember who you are fighting for! Your homes, your firesides, and your sweethearts! Follow Me! [70]Armistead’s example had a major impact on his brigade. His men were inspired, as one later wrote They saw his determination, and they were resolved to follow their heroic leader until the enemys bullets stopped them. [71] About 500 yards to Pickett’s left Pettigrew exhorted his men for the honor of the good old North State, forward.” [72]

Pickett’s division showed the full length of its long gray ranks and shining bayonets, as grand as a sight as ever a man looked on.” [73]The sight was impressive on both sides of the line, a Confederate Captain recalling the glittering forest of bayonets” the two half mile wide formations bearing down in superb alignment. [74] The sight of the amassed Confederates moving forward even impressed the Federals. Colonel Philippe Regis de Trobriand, a veteran of many battles in Europe and the United States recalled it was a splendid sight, [75] and another recalled that the Confederate line gave their line an appearance of being irresistible.[76]

But the Federals were confident. Having withstood the Confederates for two days and having survived the artillery bombardment the Union men on Cemetery Ridge eagerly awaited the advancing Confederates. Directly facing the Confederate advance in the center of the Union line was the division of Pickett’s West Point Classmate and North Carolina native who remained with the Union, John Gibbon. The cry went out Here they come! Here they come! Here comes the infantry! [77] To the left of Gibbon Alexander Hays called to his men Now boys look outnow you will see some fun! [78]

The Confederates faced difficulties as they advanced, and not just from the Union artillery which now was already taking a terrible toll on the advancing Confederates. Stuck by the massed enfilade fire coming from Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, they continued their steady grim advance. Carl Schurz from his vantage point on Cemetery Hill recalled:

Through our field-glasses we could distinctly see the gaps torn in their ranks, the grass dotted with dark spots- their dead and wounded.But the brave rebels promptly filled the gaps from behind or by closing up on their colors, and unasked and unhesitatingly they continued with their onward march.” [79]


The 8th Ohio 

Pettigrew’s division was met by fire which enveloped them obliquely from Osborne’s thirty-nine guns emplaced on Cemetery Hill. On their left flank a small Federal regiment, the 8th Ohio lay in wait unnoticed by the advancing Confederates. Seeing an opportunity the regiment’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer deployed his 160 men in a single line, took aim at Brockenbrough’s Virginia brigade some two hundred yards ahead of the Emmitsburg Road, and opened a devastating fire. Above the boiling clouds the Union men could see a ghastly debris of guns, knapsacks, blanket rolls, severed human heads, and arms and legs and parts of bodies tossed into the air by the impact of the shot. [80] So sudden and unexpected was this that the Confederates panicked and fled in confusion… to the rear where they created more chaos in Trimble’s advancing lines as one observed they Came tearing through our ranks, which caused many men to break. [81] The effect on Confederate morale was very important, for the Army of Northern Virginia was not used to seeing a brigade, even a small one, go streaming off to the rear, with all its flags.Even Picketts men sensed that something disastrous had happened on the left. [82]

In one fell swoop Pettigrew was minus four regiments. Brockenbrough was singularly ineffective in leading his men, he was a nonentity who did not know how to control his recalcitrant rank and file; nor did he have the presence to impress his subordinate officers and encourage them to do his bidding. [83] The disaster that had overtaken Brockenbrough’s brigade now threatened another important component of Lee’s plan- protecting the left flank of the assaulting force. As Brockenbrough’s brigade collapsed, the vital protection of the left flank collapsed with it.

Pettigrew’s division continued its advance after Brockenbrough’s brigade collapsed, but the Confederate left was already beginning to crumble. Sawyer changed front, putting his men behind a fence, and the regiment began firing into the Confederate flank. [84] Now Davis’s brigade was taking the full brunt of the storm of artillery shells from Osborne’s guns. This brigade had suffered terribly at the railroad cut on July 1st. The brigade, especially in terms of field and company grade officers was virtually leaderless, and the inexperienced Joe Davis was helpless to control them. [85]To escape the devastating fire Davis ordered his brigade to advance at the double quick which brought them across the Emmitsburg Road ahead of the rest of the division, where they were confronted by enfilade canister fire from Woodruff’s battery to its left, as well as several regiments of Federal infantry and from the 12th New Jersey directly in their front. A New Jersey soldier recalled We opened on them and they fell like grain before the reaper, which nearly annihilated them. [86] Davis noted that the enemy’s fire commanded our front and left with fatal effect. [87] Davis saw that further continuing was hopeless and ordered his decimated brigade to retire to the position originally held.” [88]

Pettigrew’s remain two brigades continued grimly on to the Emmitsburg Road, now completely devoid of support on their left flank. Under converging fire from Hay’s Federal troops the remaining troops of Pettigrew’s command were slaughtered. Hay’s recalled As soon as the enemy got within range we poured into them and the cannon opened with grape and canister [, and] we mowed them down in heaps.” [89] The combination of shot, shell, canister and massed musket fire simply erased the North Carolinians ranks. [90] Pettigrew was wounded, Colonel Charles Marshall was killed fifty yards from the stone wall and only remnants of companies and regiments remained unscathed. Soon the assault of Pettigrew’s division was broken:

Suddenly Pettigrews men passed the limit of human endurance and the lines broke apart and the hillside covered with men running for cover, and the Federal gunners burned the ground with shell and canister. On the field, among the dead and wounded, prostrate men could be seen holding up handkerchiefs in sign of surrender. [91]

Trimble’s two brigades fared no better. Scales brigade, now under the command of Colonel W. Lee Lowrence never crossed the Emmitsburg Road but instead took position along it to fire at the enemy on the hill. The soldiers from North Carolina who two days before had marched without flinching into the maw of Wainwrights cannon on Seminary Ridge could not repeat the performance.” [92] Trimble was severely wounded in the leg and sent a message to Lane to take command of the division. The order written in the third person added a compliment to his troops: He also directs me to say that if the troops he had the honor to command today for the first time couldnt take that position, all hell cant take it. [93] Lane attempted to rally the troops for one last charge when one of his regimental commanders exploded telling him My God, General, do you intend rushing your men into such a place unsupported, when the troops on the right are falling back?” [94] Lane looked at the broken remains of Pettigrew’s division retiring from the field and ordered a retreat. Seeing the broken remnants of the command retreating, an aide asked Trimble if the troops should be rallied. Trimble nearly faint from loss of blood replied: No Charley the best these brave fellows can do is to get out of this,” so let them get out of this, its all over. [95] The great charge was now over on the Confederate left.

The concentrated Federal fire was just as effective and deadly on the Confederate right. Kemper’s brigade, on the right of Pickett’s advance was mauled by the artillery of Rittenhouse on Little Round Top, which tracked their victims with cruel precision of marksmen in a monstrous shooting gallery” and the overs landed their shots on Garnetts ranks with fearful effect.” [96]

As the Confederates advanced Pickett was forced to attempt to shift his division to the left to cover the gap between his and Pettigrew’s division. The move involved a forty-five degree oblique and the fences, which had been discounted by Lee as an obstacle which along the Emmitsburg Road virtually stopped all forward movement as men climbed over them or crowed through the few openings. [97] Pickett’s division’s oblique movements to join with Pettigrew’s had presented the flank of his division to McGilvery’s massed battery. The movement itself had been masterful, the execution of it under heavy fire impressive; however it meant the slaughter of his men who were without support on their right flank.

Pickett himself was doing his best to direct the movements of his Division. Placing himself just behind his Division he “kept his staff busy carrying messages to various generals and performing other duties on the field. At different times he sent his aides back to Confederate lines to inform Longstreet of his need for reinforcements, or to direct Wilcox when to advance his troops, or to ask Major James Dearing for artillery support.” [98] While some of Pickett’s detractors attempt to accuse him of cowardice, including inventing fables about him drinking behind the lines, the facts do not substantiate the accusations. Likewise, Pickett’s position about one hundred yards behind his advancing troops was optimal for command and control purposes.

Though he did not have operational control of Pettigrew’s division, “when he saw it beginning to falter, he ordered Captains E.R. Baird and W. Stuart Symington to help rally them. Then Pickett himself galloped to the left in an effort to steady the men.” [99]

As Pickett’s division advanced into the Plum Run Valley they were met by the artillery of Freeman McGilvery, who wrote that the execution of the fire must have been terrible, as it was over a level plain, and the effect was plain to be seen. In a few minutes, instead of a well-ordered line of battle, there were broken and confused masses, and fugitives fleeing in every direction. [100]

Kemper’s brigade which had the furthest to go and the most complicated maneuvering to do under the massed artillery fire suffered more damage. The swale created by Plum Run was a “natural bowling alley for the projectiles fired by Rittenhouse and McGilvery” [101] was now flanked by Federal infantry as it passed the Condori farm. The Federal troops were those of the Vermont brigade commanded by Brigadier General George Stannard. These troops were nine month volunteers recruited in the fall of 1862 and due to muster our in a few days. They were new to combat, but one of the largest brigades in the army and 13th Vermont had performed with veteran like precision the day before [102] leading Hancock to use them to assault the Confederate right. The Vermonters were positioned to pour fire into the Confederate flank, adding to the carnage created by the artillery, and the 13thand 16th Vermont pivoted ninety degrees to the right and fired a succession of volleys at pistol range on the right of Picketts flank.[103]

Kemper had not expected this, assuming that the Brigades of Wilcox and Perry would be providing support on the flank. As he asked a wounded officer of Garnett’s brigade if his wound was serious, the officer replied that he soon expected to be a prisoner and asked Kemper Dont you see those flanking columns the enemy are throwing on our right to sweep the field?[104] Kemper was stunned but ordered his troops to rush the federal guns, however they were torn to pieces first by the artillery and then by the successive musketry of three and a half brigades of Yankee infantry. [105] Kemper was fearfully wounded in the groin and no longer capable of command. His brigade was decimated and parts of two regiments had to refuse their line to protect the flank, and those that continued to advance had hardly any strength left with which to succeed, meaning that the Confederate left and right were for all intents and purposes out of the fight.

This left Armistead and Garnett’s grimly advancing brigades to carry on the fight as they crossed the Emmitsburg Road and approached the stone wall. The brigades where now bunched together and at the point of attack and for a few minutes outnumbered the Federal defenders at the stone wall and the Angle, as one regiment of Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade, the 71st Pennsylvania had bolted to the rear.

This left the decimated remains of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing’s battery of artillery alone to face the advancing Confederates. Cushing who had already received multiple wounds in his shoulder and groin was desperately wounded. A number of his guns had been disabled and his battery had taken significant numbers of casualties during the Confederate bombardment. Cushing was another of the young West Point graduates who directed batteries at key points during the battle who was not only a skilled artilleryman, but a gifted leader and a warrior who won the respect of his men. One corporal said that Cushing was the best fighting man I ever saw while another recollected He was so cool and calm as I ever saw him, talking to the boys between shots with the glass constantly to his eyes, watching the effect of our shots. [106]

He received permission from the commander of the Philadelphia Brigade, Alexander Webb, among whose regiments his battery was sited to advance his guns to the wall. Though wounded Cushing remained with his gunners and when a subordinate suggested that he go to the rear he replied I will stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt. [107]


When Webb came to his battery and told Cushing that he believed that the Confederate infantry was about to assault their position Cushing replied I had better run my guns right up to the stone fence and bring all my canister alongside each piece. [108] From the stone fence the young officer directed the fire of his remaining guns. His gunners rammed in more loads of double canister when the Confederates were less than seventy yards away. [109] When the Garnett and Armistead’s survivors were just a hundred yards away from the wall, Cushing ordered triple canister. He was hit a third time, this time in his mouth killing him instantly.” [110] The surviving gunners, now commanded by a sergeant fought hand to hand against the Confederates as they were overrun.

The survivors of Garnett’s brigade, led by their courageous but injured commander, who rode fully exposed to Federal fire on his horse, crossed the Emmitsburg Road and pushed forward, overwhelming the few Federals remaining at the wall. They reached the outer area of the Angle “which had been abandoned by the 71st Pennsylvania” and some of his men stood on the stones yelling triumphantly at their foes.” [111]

Dick Garnett, was still leading his troops mounted upon his horse, miraculously un-hit until he was almost to the wall. There, Garnett, “muffled in his dark overcoat, cheered his troops, waving a black hat with a silver cord” [112] and still seeking redemption from the scurrilous accusations of Stonewall Jackson was shot down, in a blast of musket fire and canister. His now rider less and frightened horse, now alone, ran off the battlefield, a symbol of the disaster which had befallen Pickett’s division.


Armistead and his decimated brigade continued their grim advance into the fiery cauldron of death, their commander, sword raised with his hat still on it, climbed over the wall shouting to his men Come on boys! Give them the cold steel”…and holding his saber high, still with the black hat balanced on its tip for a guidon, he stepped over the wall yelling as he did so: Follow me! [113] It would be a moment that those that survived would remember for the rest of their lives.

Now, Armistead and his remaining soldiers, maybe about one hundred in total of the approximately 1570 who had advanced out of the woods on Seminary Ridge just twenty minutes before when the order was given to advance. [114] The survivors waded into the wreckage of Cushing’s battery and some began to attempt to turn the guns on the Federals. For a few moments there was a sense of supreme exultation as the rebels swarmed over the fence, forced back two Federal companies, and swallowed up a third. Armistead was the first to reach Cushings two guns, placing a hand on one of them and yelling, The day is ours men, come turn this artillery upon them. [115]


However, the triumph of Armistead and his band was short lived; the 72ndPennsylvania was rushed into the gap by the brigade commander Brigadier General Alexander Webb. The climax of the battle was now at hand and the next few minutes would tell the story, and what that story would be would all depend on whether these blue-coated soldiers really meant it. Right here there were more Confederates than Federals, and every man was firing in a wild, feverish haste, with smoke settling down thicker and thicker. [116] The 69th Pennsylvania, an Irish regiment under Colonel Dennis O’Kane stood fast and their fire slaughtered many Confederates. Other Federal regiments poured into the fight, famous veteran regiments like the 19th and 20th Massachusetts, the 7th Michigan and the valiant remnants of the 1st Minnesota who had helped stop the final Confederate assault on July 2nd at such fearful cost. Major Rice of the 19th Massachusetts wrote:

The grove was fairly jammed with Picketts men. In all positions, lying and kneeling. Back from the edge were many standing and firing over those in front.Every foot of ground was occupied by men engaged in mortal combat, who were in every possible position which can be taken while under arms, or lying wounded or dead.[117]

As his troops battled the Federals hand to hand, using muskets as clubs, and the bayonet Armistead, standing by one of Cushing’s cannon was he was hit by several bullets and collapsed, mortally wounded. Armistead had been the driving force behind the last effort, there was no one else on hand to take the initiative. Almost as quickly as it had come crashing in, the Rebel tide inside the outer angle ebbed back to the wall. [118]

For a time the Confederate survivors engaged Webb’s men in a battle at the wall itself in a stubborn contest with men battling in some places within rifle-length of each other and other places hopelessly mingled. [119] A Federal regimental commander wrote The opposing lines were standing as if rooted, dealing death into each other.” [120] The Federals launched a local counterattack and many Confederates elected to surrender rather than face the prospect of retiring across the battlefield that was still swept by Federal fire.

Webb had performed brilliantly in repulsing the final Confederate charge andgained for himself an undying reputation. Faced with defeat, he accepted the challenge and held his men together through great personal exertion and a willingness to risk his life.” [121] For his efforts he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor.

Webb, like John Buford on July 1st, Strong Vincent, Freeman McGilvery and George Sears Greene on July 2nd, was instrumental in the Union victory. Hancock said of Webb:

In every battle and on every important field there is one spot to which every army [officer] would wish to be assigned- the spot upon which centers the fortunes of the field. There was but one such spot at Gettysburg and it fell to the lot of Genl Webb to have it and to hold it and for holding it he must receive the credit due him. [122]

The surviving Confederates of Pickett’s division who had not surrendered at the Angle retreated without order [123] and as they drew nearer to the safety of their own lines the survivors of Picketts division soon turned into a sullen mob intent on getting as far as possible from the bloody battlefield. [124] Some commanders attempted to restore order but their efforts were in vain as Pickett’s defeated and shell shocked men realized the enormity of their defeat and the terrible cost.

As the survivors of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble’s shattered divisions retreated from the killing field Robert E. Lee did not yet understand that his great assault had been defeated. However, the sullen James Longstreet, who was in a position to observe the horror, did. Longstreet was approached by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British observer from the Coldstream Guards. Fremantle did not realize that the attack had been repulsed, having just seen one of Longstreet’s regiments advancing through the woods in good order” and unwisely bubbled I would not have missed this for anything.” [125] Longstreet replied with a sarcastic laugh The devil you wouldnt” barked Longstreet. I would have liked to have missed this very much; weve attacked and been repulsed. Look there. [126]

Fremantle looked out and for the first time I then had a view of the open space between the two positions, and saw it covered with Confederates slowly and sulkily returning towards us in small broken parties, under a heavy fire of artillery. [127] Henry Owen of the 18th Virginia wrote that the retreating men without distinction of rank, officers and privates side by side, pushed, poured and rushed in a continuous stream, throwing away guns, blankets, and haversacks as they hurried on in confusion to the rear. [128]

It was a vision of utter defeat. Pickett, who had seen his division destroyed and had been unable to get it additional support was distraught. An aide noted that Pickett was greatly affected and to some extent unnerved [129] by the defeat. He found Longstreet and poured out his heart in terrible agonyGeneral, I am ruined; my division is gone- it is destroyed.[130] Lee had come up by now and attempted to comfort Pickett grasping his hand and telling him: General, your men have done all that they could do, the fault is entirely my own and instructed him that he should place his division in the rear of this hill, and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.” [131]The anguished Pickett replied, General Lee, I have no division now. Armistead is down, Garnett is down and Kemper is mortally wounded. [132] Lee missed the point of Picketts anguish completely and attempted to console Pickett again and told the distraught General, General Pickettyou and your men have covered themselves in glory. [133]

Pickett, the romantic true believer in the cause refused to be consoled and told Lee not all the glory in the world, General Lee, can atone for the widows and orphans this day has made. [134] Pickett’s bitterness toward Lee over the loss of his division would redound through the remainder of his life. While Longstreet and Lee maintained their composure, Pickett felt an overpowering sense of helplessness as he observed the high tide from Emmitsburg Road and the subsequent retreat of his shattered division. It was too much for the mercurial romantic to absorb.[135] But Pickett was not alone. Cadmus Wilcox told Lee as he returned from the assault that he came into Pennsylvania with one of the finest brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia and now all my people are gone. [136]

When others attempted to stop the flight of his men, Pickett countermanded them and ordered his survivors to return to the site where they had bivouacked the previous night. A soldier from the 18th Virginia who saw the retreat noted that at Willoughby Run:

The fugitives, without distinction of rank, officers and privates side by side pushed, poured and rushed in a continuous stream, throwing away guns, blankets, and haversacks as they hurried in confusion toward the rear. Before long there was another attempt to restore order, but again Pickett intervened. Don’t stop any of my men! he cried. Tell them to come to the camp we occupied last night. As he said this he was weeping bitterly, and then he rode on alone toward the rear. [137]

When the survivors finally assembled the next morning, they numbered less than 1000 out of the approximately 5000 troops Pickett led into the attack. “Four out of every five of Picketts men had been either killed, wounded, or captured. Two of his three brigadiers were gone, probably dead, the third perhaps mortally wounded. Every one of his regimental commanders had been killed, wounded or captured.[138]

During the retreat Pickett and his remaining soldiers would be assigned to the task of being the Provost Guard for the army, escorting Federal prisoners back during the long retreat back to Virginia. For them, it was a humiliating experience.

Pickett was never the same after the charge of July 3rd 1863. Pickett’s after action report which complained about the lack of support his division received was suppressed and destroyed by Lee who wrote Pickett You and your men have crowned yourselves in glory But we have an enemy to fight, and must carefully, at this critical moment, guard against dissections which the reflections in your report will create. [139]

Pickett married La Salle “Sallie” Corbell in September of 1863, and the marriage would last until his death in 1875. Sallie, impoverished by the death of “her soldier” took up writing as well as speaking tours in both the South and the North. Sallie was a stalwart defender of her husband, who she said had the keenest sense of justice, most sensitive consciousness of right, and the highest moral courage but also opposing hatred, sectionalism and strife. [140] Though much of her work was panned by historians and shunned by established magazines and periodicals; her writing were published by newer popular magazines. Her book The Heart of a Soldier, as Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George Pickett, C.S.A. was for the most part fabrications authored by her, but she found a niche in newer popular magazines and journals, including Cosmopolitan for which she authored a ten part serial of the Pickett family story on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. Sallie Pickett’s:

idealized portrait of her husband made him a Confederate hero. He never reached the status of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but his association with the famed but futile charge at Gettysburg helped. Virginia veterans and newspapers began romanticizing Picketts all-Virginia divisions role soon after the battle; it was almost by association that George too would share in this idolization…” [141]

Pickett retained command of his division which was reconstituted after Gettysburg and shipped off to North Carolina where he and it performed adequately but without marked distinction. Pickett had one moment of glory when reacting to a Federal Army under Benjamin Butler advancing on Petersburg he threw a scratch force together which preserved Petersburg and its vital rail line in early May 1864. This allowed General P.T.G. Beauregard to bring up more troops to hold the city.

The division performed adequately in the defensive battles around Richmond and Petersburg, though it suffered terribly from the lack of rations, medicines, clothing and equipmentaggravated by the rigors of life in the trenches. [142] Morale and desertion was a terrible problem in Pickett’s division and Lee was concerned enough to bring enough to bring the matter to Longstreet. Lee used terms like unsoldierly and unmilitary, lax in discipline, loose in military instruction [143] to describe the division. Though he was fully cognizant of the conditions of the trenches Lee identified the source of the problem as Pickett and his officers who were not sufficiently attentive to the men,not informed as to their condition and he told Longstreet: I desire you to correct the evils in Picketts divisionby every means in your power… I beg that you will insist upon these points. [144]

During the Richmond and Petersburg campaign, Pickett was often sick, and at several intervals he was unable to exercise command, and the poor state of his general health, aggravated by the unusually stressful conditions of the past year, age him beyond his years. [145]

The end came at the battle at Five Forks where Pickett’s division was deployed on the far right of the Confederate line, was overwhelmed by a massive assault by Sheridan’s cavalry and the Fifth Corps which destroyed it as a fighting formation. Pickett, for unknown reasons did not put much effort into the defense of Five Forks. He successfully repulsed an attack by Sheridan on March 31st but evidently did not expect an attack the following day. On the afternoon of April 1stPickett was away from his division at a Shad bake with Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas Rosser when the attack came and destroyed his division as a fighting unit. No cowardice was involved; Pickett simply misjudged the situation by assuming that no attack was imminent, yet it left a bad taste in everyones mouth. [146] That being said Picketts lackadaisical effort in holding Five Forks is indefensible. So to is his incredible derelict behavior late on the morning of April 1st when he slipped away from his command to the shad bake not even informing the next senior officer, Rooney Lee that he was gone. [147]

Whether cowardice was involved or not, Pickett’s decision to be away from his division with a very aggressive Federal army at his front was ill-advised and demonstrated to Lee that Pickett was unfit for command. Two days later Pickett and two other generals, including Richard Anderson were relieved of their duties and dismissed by Lee. However Pickett remained with his division until the end and at Appomattox Lee was heard to remark in what some believed was a disparaging manner Is that man still with this army? [148]

George Pickett attempted to rebuild his life after the war and the task was not easy, for though he applied for amnesty, his case was complicated by an incident where he had ordered the execution of twenty-two former North Carolina militiamen who had defected to the Union and been re-captured by the Confederates. Pickett’s action was no different than many Confederate commanders who followed the Richmond government’s decision to take ruthless measures to suppress Unionist sentiments and secession of areas of the Confederacy where Union sympathies ran high. The area of Pickett’s operation was a haven for Tories who openly supported U.S. troops. What was worse, hundreds of local Unionists engaged in the most violent guerrilla activities, shooting and burning out their secessionist neighbors, waylaying Confederate supply trains, attacking outposts. [149]

In a sense Pickett was now engaged in counter-insurgency operations, and like many commanders involved in such operations descend into the same type of barbaric actions of those they are fighting. By early 186 the war was turning into a grim, hate-filled struggle that knew few rules and niceties, and Pickett was changing to the pattern. [150] When Pickett captured the former militiamen he refused to treat them as prisoners of war and instead he court-martialed them and hanged them all. [151] He established a military court composed of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia officers, hauled the deserters-in-arms before it, and approved the death sentences. [152] When the prisoners went to the gallows Pickett reportedly told each of them God damn you, I reckon you will ever hardly go back there again, you damned rascals; Ill have you shot, and all the other damned rascals who desert. [153]

Federal authorities thought about charging him with war crimes which resulted in Pickett fleeing to Canada. It took the intervention of Pickett’s faithful friend Ulysses S. Grant to have the charges dismissed and for Pickett to be granted amnesty by President Johnson in 1868. Grant admitted that the punishment was harsh, however, Grant’s judgment was steeped in the fact that many Northern commanders had resorted to similar actions in combating insurgents and deserters. Grant wrote in his friend’s defense:

But it was in time of war and when the enemy no doubt it necessary to retain, by some power, the services of every man within their reach. Gen. Pickett I know personally to be an honorable man but in this case his judgement [sic] prompted him to do what can not well be sustained though I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now. [154]

Even so, Pickett’s life was difficult. Health difficulties plagued him and employment was scarce, even for a man of Pickett’s stature in Virginia. He refused employment which would take him away from Sallie and his children and finally took a job as an insurance agent in Richmond. It was a job which he felt demeaning, requiring that he attempt to sell insurance policies to destitute and out of work Confederate veterans and their families. Sallie wrote that he could not come to terms with a profession that made its profits through what one colleague called gall, gall, old man, gall and grub. [155] Distinctly unhappy the dejected old soldier told her Id sooner face a canon,than to take out a policy with me. [156]

In 1870 he was convinced by John Singleton Mosby to visit Lee when the latter was visiting Richmond as Lee was making a final tour of battlefields and other sites. For Pickett the visit only reinforced his resentment that he felt for Lee, who he felt blamed him for the defeat at Five Forks and had ostracized him. The meeting occurred in Lees room at the Ballard Hotel was icy and lasted only two or three minutes. [157]

Mosby realized quickly that the meeting was not going well and Sensing the unpleasantness of the meeting, Mosby got up in a few moments and Pickett followed him. Once outside the room, Pickett broke out bitterly against that old man who, he said, had my division massacred at Gettysburg. [158] Mosby attempted to assuage his friend’s feelings but Pickett was not mollified by Mosbys rejoinder that it made you immortal. [159]


George and Sallie

George Pickett was a romantic as well as a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy. Pickett was vain, often self-serving and even irresponsible. He certainly as Porter Alexander noted was a better brigade commander than division commander, a position that he desired but at which never excelled. He was a poor administrator, and in the campaigns of 1864 and 1865 demonstrated exceptionally poor leadership.

His temperament, especially his seeming inability to function in a hierarchical structure, and the rebellious streak that he had as a cadet at West Point was never exercised: He resented authority and chafed at deferring to any man as his superiorPickett never understood his place in the hierarchy. He considered himself part of the cream of the Army of Northern Virginia, but without being willing to shoulder all the responsibilities and sacrifices that entailed. [160]

All that being said, in the matter of Pickett’s conduct during the charge that bears his name; the charges of cowardice or incompetence that some leveled at him are certainly not true. The fact that Pickett retained command after the battle indicates that Lee did not believe that he had acted with cowardice, or that Lee questioned the manner in which Pickett led the assault. Lee had many concerns about Pickett and reservations about his leadership but those stand apart from Pickett’s conduct on July 3rd 1863.

In the matter of Pickett not going far enough forward, it is unlikely that such any such action on Pickett’s part to charge further into the maelstrom would have done little more than add yet another name to the list of Confederate general officers killed or wounded at Gettysburg. The question of how Pickett survived without a scratch, when his three brigadiers and all of his field officers but one went down. This could be done by the brief explanation that his escape was miraculous. [161] Edwin Coddington wrote that it would have been better for his reputation if had been called to give his life or if the attack had been known for what it was, Longstreets Second Assault. [162]

Bitter and discouraged at the end of his life he uttered his last words to Sallie’s uncle who had also served in the Army of Northern Virginia Well, Colonel, the enemy is too strong for me againmy ammunition is all out He closed his eyes, and settled back as if at peace for the first time in his life. Sallie never left his side; two hours after his death they gently pried her hands from his. [163]

Pickett’s charge was over, except for the blame, the stories and the legends, especially in the South. The failure of this disastrous tactical assault that bears Pickett’s name placed the final nail in Lee’s operational plan to take the war to the North and defeat the Federal army on its own territory. Lees plan was almost Burnside-like in its simplicity, and it produced a Fredericksburg with the roles reversed. [164] James McPherson made the very succinct observation that Picketts charge represented the Confederate war effort in microcosm: matchless valor, apparent initial success, and ultimate disaster. [165]

That tactical and operational failure had strategic implications for the Confederacy; it ensured the loss of Vicksburg and forced Lee to assume the defensive in the east. Lee and his men would go on to further laurels. But they never again possessed the power and reputation that they carried into Pennsylvania those palmy midsummer days of 1863.[166] The repulse ended the campaign that Lee had hoped would secure the independence of the Confederacy. The Battle of Gettysburg was and it was much more than a military defeat, but a political one as well, for with it went the slightest hope remaining of foreign intervention. As J.F.C. Fuller wrote It began as a political move and it had ended in a political fiasco.” [167]


[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.114

[2] Ibid. Clausewitz On War p.108

[3] Dempsey, Martin Mission Command White Paper 3 April 2012 p.5 retrieved ( July 2014 from http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/white_papers/cjcs_wp_missioncommand.pdf

[4] ___________. The Armed forces Officer U.S. Department of Defense Publication, Washington DC. January 2006 p.18

[5] Ibid. The Armed Forces Officer p.18

[6] Ibid. Clausewitz On War p.101

[7] Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3rd 1863 Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1959 p.94

[8] Hess, Earl JPickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p. 55

[9] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History p.94

[10] Wert, Jeffery D. Gettysburg Day Three A Touchstone Book, New York 2001 p.110

[11] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.548

[12] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.548

[13] Gottfried, Bradley The Artillery of Gettysburg Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville TN 2008 p.206

[14] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.193

[15] Longacre, Edward G. Pickett: Leader of the Charge White Mane Publishing Company, Shippensburg PA 1995 p.121

[16] Reardon, Carol The Convergence of History and Myth in the Southern Past: Pickett’s Charge in The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond edited by Gallagher, Gary W. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1994 p.83

[17] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.297

[18] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.387

[19] Ibid. Stewart Picketts Charge: A Micro-History p.39

[20] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.153

[21] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.181

[22] 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 p.294

[23] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.179

[24] Ibid. Stewart Picketts Charge p.132

[25] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.496

[26] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.496

[27] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.171

[28] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.163

[29] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.499

[30] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.459

[31] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.500

[32] Alexander, Edward Porter Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gallagher, Gary The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1989 p.258

[33] 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.374

[34] Alexander, Edwin 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.364

[35] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.297

[36] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.291

[37] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.501

[38] Ibid. Alexander The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg p.365

[39] Ibid. Alexander The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg p.365

[40] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage pp.474-475

[41] Ibid. Alexander The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg p.365

[42] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.261

[43] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.313

[44] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.109

[45] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.264

[46] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.4

[47] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.6

[48] See Longacre Pickett pp.6-7. The myth was quite successful and it endures in some accounts of Pickett’s life and in a number of military histories including Larry Tagg’s The Generals of Gettysburg

[49] Waugh, John C. The Class of 1846 from West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and their Brothers A Ballantine Book, New York 1994 pp.38-39

[50] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.7

[51] Ibid. Waugh The Class of 1846 from West Point to Appomattox p.39

[52] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.12

[53] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.378

[54] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.378

[55] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.20

[56] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.37

[57] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.264

[58] Ibid. Waugh The Class of 1846 p.457

[59] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.32

[60] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.33

[61] Ibid. Longacre Pickett pp.50-51

[62] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.51

[63] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.38

[64] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.47

[65] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and his Men at Gettysburg p.296

[66] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.338

[67] Freeman, Douglas Southall Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command abridged in one volume by Stephen Sears, Scribner Books, Simon and Schuster, New York 1998 p.594

[68] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.408

[69] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.166

[70] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.167

[71] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.167

[72] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.483

[73] Ibid. Alexander The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg p.365

[74] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.553

[75] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.407

[76] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.193

[77] Ibid. Hess Picketts Charge p.193

[78] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.411

[79] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.422

[80] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.318

[81] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.423

[82] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg pp.193-194

[83] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.187

[84] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg p.193

[85] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.311

[86] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.494

[87] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.425

[88] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.494

[89] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.502

[90] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.216

[91] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.318

[92] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.504

[93] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg pp.238-239

[94] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.504

[95] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.425

[96] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.555

[97] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.503

[98] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.505

[99] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.505

[100] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.217

[101] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.220

[102] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.515

[103] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.515

[104] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.502

[105] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.448

[106] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.200

[107] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.221

[108] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.208

[109] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.211

[110] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.221

[111] Ibid. Trudeau. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.505

[112] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.317

[113] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.562

[114] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg p.172

[115] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.262

[116] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.319

[117] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg pp.235-236

[118] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg p.508

[119] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg p.236

[120] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.451

[121] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.528

[122] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.528

[123] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg p.248

[124] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.309

[125] Fremantle, Arthur Three Months in the Southern States, April- June 1863 William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London 1863 Amazon Kindle edition p.285

[126] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier p.292

[127] Ibid. Fremantle Three Months in the Southern States p.287

[128] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.456

[129] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.326

[130] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.428

[131] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.428

[132] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.326

[133] Ibid Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.428

[134] ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.428-429

[135] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.325

[136] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.429

[137] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.456

[138] Ibid. Waugh The Class of 1846 p.489

[139] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.354

[140] Ibid. Reardon The Convergence of History and Myth in the Southern Past: Pickett’s Charge p.76

[141] Gordon, Lesley J. “Let the People See the Old Life as it Was” La Salle Corbell Pickett and the Myth of the Lost Cause in The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History edited by Gallagher, Gary W. and Nolan, Alan T. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 2000 p.170

[142] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.160

[143] Selcer, Richard F. Lee vs. Pickett: Two Divided by War Thomas Publications, Gettysburg PA 1998 p.66

[144] Ibid. Selcer Lee vs. Pickett p.66

[145] Ibid. Longacre Pickett pp.160-161

[146] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.375

[147] Ibid. Longacre Pickett pp.166-167

[148] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.375

[149] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.137

[150] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.141

[151] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.368

[152] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.140

[153] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.368

[154] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.175

[155] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.178

[156] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.178

[157] Ibid. Hess Pickett’s Charge p.377

[158] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.569

[159] Ibid. Waugh The Class of 1846 p.529

[160] Ibid. Selcer Lee vs. Pickett p.101

[161] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History p.287

[162] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.528

[163] Ibid. Longacre Pickett p.180

[164] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States The Free Press a Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, 1984 p.206

[165] McPherson, James The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.662

[166] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.665

[167] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957 pp.200-201

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military, us army

Winfield Hancock and Lewis Armistead: Friends Separated by War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been posting a number of articles based on my yet to be published book on the Battle of Gettysburg. This one deals with the relationships of close friends in war. In this case, these men were friends who had served together for many years then ended up fighting each other at Gettysburg. Their story is tragic, because none of them hated each other, or held any animosity towards each other, but instead had followed what they believed to be their duty.  Some like Winfield Scott in the continued service of the Union, and others like Lewis Armistead to that of their home states.

Even so the bonds of friendship were never severed. Of course, unless you have served with people in war and in the military it it hard to comprehend such a fate. Even now, I know men that I consider friends, men who now hold very different political and social beliefs than me, and if God forbid there was ever another civil war, we would most likely be on opposite sides, but they would still be friends, and I would grieve the fact that we would be fighting. 

Have a great day,


Padre Steve+

The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere.  For American military professionals those bonds are formed in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military. They are formed in war and peace, and are marked by years of deployments, isolated duty and combat. They are part of a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society. That is the case now as it was in 1860.

When the Southern States seceded from the Union men who had spent much of their adult lives serving together discovered had to say goodbye and prepare to fight each other. Most did so with a heavy heart even though many had strong convictions about the rightness of their region’s cause. Those who left the army to serve the Confederate states were often torn by doubt and questions of where their loyalty lay.

Robert E. Lee was a good example of the conflict that many Southern officers faced. “The Southern professional officer in 1861 was confronted with a cruel choice symbolized by Lee’s anguished pacing at Arlington. On one hand, the Southern officer’s political allegiances drew him to the Confederacy; on the other his professional responsibility drew him to the Union.” [1] They wrestled with their oath of office and the costs of perhaps having to face their dearest friends on future battlefields. Lee’s letter to his sister Ann Marshall, who remained a supporter of the Union, after he resigned from the army he had served for 32 years reflects that anguish, torn between his loyalties Lee wrote “With all my devotion to the Union, and the dear feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” [2] He added: “I know you will blame me…but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I think right.” [3] 

These career officers were different from the mass levies of civilian volunteers who rallied to the flags of the Union and Confederacy in 1861. The volunteers, most of whom did not have the deep and abiding friendships of the professionals were often motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred of the other and went to war with great aplomb. However, the professionals for the most part went to war against former comrades with heavy heart, “old army colleagues found themselves wrenched from the normal course of their lives when their states joined the Confederacy.” [4]

The American Civil War has many such tales. Porter Alexander wrote of his final words with his superior James B. McPherson, who later went on to be a highly successful corps commander under Grant and Sherman before being killed outside Atlanta in 1864. McPherson desired that Alexander remain in California as an Engineering officer. He warned Alexander about the nature of the coming war and gave him his counsel, not as a superior, but as a friend:

“Now this is not going to be any 90 day or six months affair as some of the politicians are predicting. Both sides are in deadly earnest & it is long & desperate & fought to the bitter end. ..God only knows what may happen to you individually, but for your cause there can be but one possible result. It must be lost….” [5]

Alexander  realized the implications of his friends words but his loyalty to his state and people was more than his loyalty to the Union, and he feared what friends and family at home would think of him more than the illogic of what he was about to do. He wrote of their parting visit and how it shook him:

“Nothing could exceed the kindness & real affection with which McPherson urged these views on me…. His earnest talk impressed me deeply & made me realize that a crisis in my life was at hand. But I felt helpless to avert it or even to debate the question what I should do. I could not controvert one of McPhersons’ statements or arguments; I could only answer this: “Mac, My people are going to war, & and for their liberty. If I don’t come & bear my part they will believe me a coward…” [6]

However perhaps the most remembered of these interrupted friendships is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. For many people their friendship is best recalled in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels which was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg. 

                                         Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA

Hancock is an interesting character. He was a West Point Graduate from Pennsylvania and like many Army officers of his day he was a Democrat as they were then the conservative party. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by leaders in the party establishments of both parties; Republicans for being a Democrat, and Democrats for serving under Lincoln. As such, despite his immense talent and accomplishments he never was given independent command of an Army but remained the beloved commander of the Union Second Corps.

As the nation split and friends went their separate ways Hancock gave some advice to his best friend, Lewis Armistead and their commander, Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861. In response to the states rights arguments of his friends he made himself clear. He fully believed in the principal of states rights, but he could not compromise his faithfulness to the Union. He told his friends as they departed company on their way to their destinies during the Civil War:

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” 

During the war Hancock served with distinction. At Gettysburg he was influential in determining the choice of the Union defense, in helping to repel the Rebel attacks on July 2nd 1863 and the final repulse of Pickett’s Charge where he was severely wounded and his friend Armistead died. After he recovered from his wounds he continued to lead Second Corps until the end of the war. Ulysses Grant wrote of him:

“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

After the war Hancock supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Following that duty he served in various postings in the occupied South and attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance against African Americans as well as others who tried to exploit the defeated Confederates for political or economic gain. His balanced attempt at justice was not appreciated by many people in the North or the South.

The Interrupted Friendship 

In 1861 Hancock was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston with the Sixth Infantry Regiment. One of his fellow officers was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command, and Richard Garnett commanding a company at Fort Yuma. Hancock and his wife Almira became fast friends with the widowed Virginian.

Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812. Armistead had academic and personal difficulties at West Point and “was bounced out, not once but twice.” [7] His troubles included an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head.  Between his academic difficulties and the fight with Early he resigned from the Academy. However, his father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer in 1839. Armistead’s career from that point on was similar to many other officers of his day. He served with distinction in Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.

As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers from the South were torn between their oath, their friendships and their deep loyalty to their home states and families. In the end most Southern officers resigned their commissions, many with mixed feelings and quite often sadness. A large minority, some “40 to 50 per cent of Southern West Point graduates on active duty in 1860 held on to their posts and remained faithful to the Union.” [8] The most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Likewise Union Brigadier General John Buford’s family in Kentucky supported the Confederacy.

For those southern officers who remained loyal to the Union to was often at a great personal cost. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. He and others were pilloried and demonized in the basest ways by many in the South. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when they were captured. George Pickett, who called for his fellow Virginian Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians who he captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina to be executed. Pickett was not alone in such sentiments.

                                          Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA

A Parting of Ways

However, for most it was different. As talk of secession and war heated up officers stationed on the frontier debated the issues and asked each other what they would do if war came. In California Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat and not openly hostile to the South, advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided” [9]

The parting came in 1861. When it was apparent that many officers would be resigning and heading home to join their state’s forces the Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends. Almira Hancock wrote of the party that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.” [10]

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s wife Eliza went to a piano and sang sentimental songs such as Mary of Argyle and the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen[11] Almira Hancock wrote “Those songs…will ever be remembered by survivors of that mournful gathering.” [12]

“Mavourneen, Mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, 

to think that from Erin and thee I must part!

It may be for years, and it may be forever, 

Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?

The parting was especially emotional for Armistead who had been a friend of the Hancocks for seventeen years. They had helped in following the death of both of his wives and children, in a way they had become family. Armistead was tearful. He put his arm on his friend’s shoulder as he said: “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.” [13] As he departed Armistead gave a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to Almira Hancock, in case of his death, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.” [14]

Armistead took a commission in the Confederate Army and quickly was appointed to command a brigade. He led his brigade during the Peninsula campaign and battles around Richmond. During that campaign his brigade was decimated in Lee’s failed assault on prepared Federal positions at Malvern Hill. Armistead was a proud professional soldier and did suffer fools or incompetents. As such he not endear himself to many of the volunteer officers who served in the Confederate ranks. One of his Colonels resigned over Armistead’s supposedly harsh treatment to which Armistead replied: “I have felt obliged to speak to him as one military man would to another and as I have passed nearly all my life in camps my manner may not be understood or appreciated by one who has been all his life a civilian.” [15] Armistead’s words can easily be understood by military professionals whose lives have been shaped in a different manner than their civilian counterparts.

“I Hope God Will Strike Me Dead…”

At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears about the charge to his comrades. One was Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of Armistead and Hancock’s comrades from the California days on the night of July 2nd. Garnett’s career had paralleled that Armistead, the same age Garnett struggled at West Point in his third year “he failed and withdrew. Taking the same courses again during the next term, he finished fourteenth among his new classmates, then graduated in 1841 standing 29th of fifty-two graduates.” [16]

Armistead and Garnett served together in the Sixth Infantry for most of their careers. They were promoted at similar times, a pattern of promotion that continued into their Confederate service. The next afternoon, the two friends who had served together so long and whose careers were so similar led their brigades of Pickett’s Division across the valley between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge against their friend and comrade Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.

Garnett had to lead his brigade on horseback, having been injured during the army’s march to Gettysburg. During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, lead the remnants of his decimated brigade to the Stone Wall, near the Copse of Trees. He rallied his troops fearing that some were faltering calling out: “Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” [17]

His troops breached the Union line and his black hat atop his sword led his troops forward. He reached the now unmanned artillery of Cushing’s battery and called to his remaining men “The day is ours men, come and turn this artillery on them.” [18] It was then that he met more Federal troops who unleashed a volley of musket fire that cut down many of the survivors. Armistead was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.

As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff. Bingham, a Mason noticed that Armistead was making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Say to General Hancock for me that I have done him, and you all, an injury, which I shall always regret.” [19]

The meaning of those words is debated, especially by Southerners who cherish the myth of the Lost Cause. However, based on Armistead’s conduct and behavior in the time before he left California, it is not unreasonable to assume that as he lay dying he truly regretted what he had done. Armistead died from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. A Union surgeon described him as: “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited.” [20]

Garnett’s body was never found and was probably buried in a mass grave with other Confederate soldiers and was likely taken after the war to his native Virginia “together with thousands of unidentified bodies from Gettysburg, for burial in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.” [21]Armistead was buried by a member of the 107th Ohio near the XI Corps field hospital. About a month later a physician from Philadelphia tracked down the soldier and “dug up the “Rough box” containing the body and embalmed poor Armistead’s remains for sale to grieving family members.” [22] Armistead’s family buried the remains in Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore.

Robert Krick wrote: “Death on adjacent bits of blood soaked ground in Adams County, Pennsylvania, yielded a final common thread, that of indignity: Lewis Armistead’s corpse wound up a hostage to petty human greed, while Dick Garnett’s entirely disappeared.” [23]

Hancock’s injuries were severe, but he recovered. He would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war.

In 1880 Hancock was the Democratic nominee for President. He lost a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by fewer than 40,000 votes. It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures viewed favorably for his integrity. Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” [24]

A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.” [25]

The story of Hancock, Armistead and Garnett is one that reminds us of the depth of friendships that many military professionals develop and cherish. It is also a story that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and uses their ideology to slander, demean or even enslave and brutalize their political opponents.

The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the tragedy of war, especially war that forces the dearest of friends to fight and even kill one another.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1957 p.212

[2] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 p.188

[3] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.230-231

[4] Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.33

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.24

[6] Ibid. Alexander. Fighting for the Confederacy p.25

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.379

[8] Ibid. Huntington The Soldier and the State p.213

[9] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.33

[10] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[11] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[12] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[13] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[14] Krick, Robert K. The Parallel Lives of Two Virginia Soldiers Armistead and Garnett in The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond edited by Gary Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1994 p.112

[15] Tagg, Larry The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle Da Capo Press Cambridge MA 1998 Amazon Kindle Edition p.244


[16] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.101

[17] Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3rd 1863 Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1959 pp.216-217

[18] Hess, Earl JPickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.262

[19] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254-255

[20] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254

[21] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[22] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[23] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[24] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.319

[25] Stone, Irving They Also Ran Doubleday, New York 1943 and 1981 pg. 188

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, life, Military

A Spirit of Unbelief: Confederates Before Gettysburg

Lieutenant General A. P. Hill

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m hoping to take a few days off from writing about current events and spend a few days reposting some of my writings about the Battle of Gettysburg.


Padre Steve+

When Robert E. Lee learned of the Army of the Potomac’s presence north of the Potomac River he ordered his widely dispersed army concentrate near Cashtown and Gettysburg. It was a complicated movement that involved at least five major operations: the shift of the bulk of Ewell’s Second Corps from its planned attack on Harrisburg, the redirection of Early’s division east from its position on the Susquehanna to the west, the movement of Hill’s Third Corps from the area around Cashtown to a position east of Gettysburg, Longstreet’s First Corps north to Chambersburg and Cashtown and the cavalry brigades of Beverly Robertson, Grumble Jones and John Imboden which were to join the army in Pennsylvania. The movement “would take at least two days – the 29th and the 30th of June – and perhaps more…the complete its concentration, especially since the rains had “made the roads very muddy,” forcing “the infantry” to march off the roads….” [1]

Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps that was nearest of Lee’s major units to Cashtown and Gettysburg. Major General Harry Heth’s division led the corps and arrived at Cashtown on June 29th. His division was followed by that of Major General Dorsey Pender which arrived on the 30th. Hill ordered his last division under the command of Major General Richard Anderson to remain behind at “Fayetteville until July 1, when he would join the rest at Cashtown.” [2]

Cashtown was important as a road junction and because it “was situated at one of the few gaps in the Pennsylvania Mountains” and because one of the roads emanating from it “snaked eight miles to another community called Gettysburg.” [3] However the order to concentrate the army at Cashtown presented its own problems. First was the matter of forage. There was not enough room for all the units ordered to Cashtown to have adequate areas to forage, as:

“each division would (by the standard required of nineteenth-century armies) require a circle twelve and a half miles around its encampments to forage (for water, firewood, and feed for men and horses); one single regiment could denuded an acre of woodland just for firewood every three days.” [4]

Likewise, because of the limited road network, Cashtown was becoming a choke point which as his units closed in slowed their movement and created massive traffic problems and confusion. Hill ordered Heth’s division to take the lead and advance to Cashtown on the 29th. The units of Hill’s corps had to endure heavy rains on the 29th which slowed their march and Heth halted at Cashtown knowing that the army would concentrate there while Pender’s division moved into the area his division had vacated.

Early in the morning of June 30th Harry Heth decided to undertake a foraging expedition to Gettysburg to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and to return the same day.” [5] It was the first in a series of miscalculations that brought Lee’s army into a general engagement that Lee wished to avoid and it is hard to comprehend in light of Lee’s orders not to precipitate a fight.

However, the expedition had taken a toll on the soldiers, especially in terms of shoes, clothes and equipment. The “long march over the hard macadam roads of the North had played havoc with the scraggly foot coverings of Lee’s men.” [6] After muster on the morning of June 30th Heth ordered Johnston Pettigrew’s “brigade to Gettysburg in search of supplies, especially badly needed shoes, which were badly needed by his the men of his division.” Heth, for a reason he never elaborated on decided that there must be shoes in Gettysburg. Perhaps he did not know that the town had been picked clean by John Gordon’s brigade of Jubal Early’s division just a few days before, but for whatever reason he believed this to be the case.

Hill’s Third Corps had been formed as part of the reorganization of the army following Stonewall Jackson’s death after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Hill had a stellar reputation as a division commander; his “Light Division” had distinguished itself on numerous occasions, especially at Antietam where its timely arrival after a hard forced march from Harper’s Ferry helped save Lee’s army late in the battle. At Chancellorsville Hill briefly succeeded Jackson until he too was wounded.

Hill was recommended for promotion to Lieutenant General and command of the new Third Corps by Lee on May 24th 1863. He was promoted over the heads of both Harvey Hill and Lafayette McLaws. The move displeased Longstreet who considered Lafayette McLaws “better qualified for the job.” Likewise there were others who felt that the command should have gone to Harvey Hill, now commanding the Department of North Carolina who’s “record was as good as that of Stonewall Jackson…but, not being a Virginian, he was not so well advertised.” [7]

Ambrose Powell Hill was slightly built and high strung. “Intense about everything” Hill was “one of the army’s intense disbelievers in slavery.” [8] Hill was an 1847 graduate of West Point and briefly served in Mexico but saw no combat. He spent some time in the Seminole wars but due to frequent bouts of ill-health he spent much of his career in garrison duty along the East Coast. Since he was prone to sickness he was assigned to the office of Coastal Survey, a Navy command from 1855 through 1861. Despite pleas from his superiors and his own opposition to secession and slavery, Hill resigned his commission just before Virginia’s secession.

At the outbreak of the war he “received his commission as colonel, and soon trained one of Johnston’s best regiments in the Valley.” [9] He commanded a brigade under Longstreet on the Peninsula and was promoted to Major General and command of the Light Division in May 1862, leading it with distinction, especially at Antietam where his march from Harper’s Ferry and timely arrival on the afternoon of September 17th saved the army of Northern Virginia from utter and complete destruction. He was plagued by health problems which had even delayed his graduation from West Point, health issues that would arise on the first day at Gettysburg.

Hill’s Third Corps was emblematic of the “makeshift nature of the reorganization of the whole army.” [10] It was composed of three divisions. His best and most experienced division was that of the recently promoted and hard fighting Major General Dorsey Pender. Pender’s division was built around four excellent brigades from Hill’s old “Light Division” one of which Pender had commanded before his promotion. Hill had strongly recommended Pender’s promotion during the reorganization, a proposal which was accepted by Lee. Pender, though a fierce fighter and excellent leader, found command of a division to be a heavy burden. He was “an intelligent, reflective man, deeply religious and guided by a strong sense of duty….” [11]

Hill’s second experienced division was that of Major General Richard Anderson. This division had been transferred from Longstreet’s First Corps during the reorganization. Longstreet resented losing the division to Hill, with who he had previously run afoul and this was yet another issue which failed to endear Hill to Longstreet. [12]

The unassuming Anderson had distinguished himself as a brigade and division commander in Longstreet’s corps, but in “an army of prima donnas, he was a self-effacing man, neither seeking praise for himself nor winning support by bestowing it on others.” [13] At Chancellorsville Anderson fought admirably and Lee wrote that Anderson was “distinguished for the promptness, courage and skill with which he and his division executed every order.” [14] With four seasoned brigades under excellent commanders it was a good addition to the corps, although the transition from Longstreet’s stolid and cautious style of command to Hill’s impetuous style introduced “another incalculable of the reshuffled army.” [15]

Major General Harry Heth’s division was the final infantry division assigned to Third Corps. The division was new and had was cobbled together from two brigades of Hill’s old Light Division and “the two new brigades that Jefferson Davis had forced on an already disrupted army organization.” [16] The organization of this division as well as its leadership would be problematic in the days to come, especially on June 30th and July 1st 1863. The hasty and makeshift organization under leaders who had not served together, many of who were new to command, as well as units which had not fought together spelled trouble.

Harry Heth, like Dorsey Pender was also newly promoted to his grade and the action at Gettysburg would be his first test in division command. Heth was a native Virginian. He came from a family that well connected both socially and politically. He had a social charm had “many friends and bound new acquaintances to him” readily. [17] Heth was a cousin of George Pickett. He was a West Point graduate and classmate of Hill. At West Point Heth had an undistinguished academic career and graduated last in the class of 1847. His career in the ante-bellum army was typical of many officers, he served “credibly in an 1855 fight with Sioux Indians” but his real claim to fame was in authoring the army’s marksmanship manual which was published in 1858. [18]

Major General Harry Heth

Heth’s career with the Confederate army serving in western Virginia was undistinguished but he was a protégé of Robert E. Lee who recommended him as a brigade commander to Jackson before Chancellorsville. Tradition states that of all his generals that Heth was the only one “whom Lee called by his first name.” [19] A.P. Hill when writing Lee about the choice of a successor for the Light Division noted that Heth was “a most excellent officer and gallant soldier” but in the coming campaign “my division under him, will not be half as effective as under Pender.” [20] Douglas Southall Freeman noted that Heth was “doomed to be one of those good soldiers…who consistently have bad luck.” [21]

Heth’s division was composed of two depleted brigades from the Light Division which had taken heavy casualties at Chancellorsville. One brigade, commanded by the hard fighting former regular army officer Brigadier General James Archer. Archer was from Maryland and a graduate of Princeton University who had given up a law practice to join the army. Described as a “little gamecock” who “had no sense of fear” [22] Archer had saved the Confederate line at Fredericksburg leading a desperate counterattack at Prospect Hill. The brigade was composed of four veteran regiments, but was now down to barely 1200 soldiers in the ranks by the time it arrived at Cashtown. However, the brigade which was recruited from Alabama and Tennessee was “well led and had a fine combat reputation.”

But the second brigade was more problematic. This was the Virginia brigade under the command of “the plodding, uninspiring Colonel John Brockenbrough.” [23] Brockenbrough was an “1850 of the Virginia Military Institute and a farmer,” who had “entered the Confederate service as Colonel of the 40th (Virginia) in May 1861.” [24] The brigade had once been considered one of the best in the army had deteriorated in quality following the wounding of its first commander Brigadier General Charles Field. Heth took command of it at Chancellorsville where both he and the brigade performed well. The brigade had taken very heavy casualties and now was reduced to under 1000 effectives. When Heth was promoted the lack of qualified officers left it under the command of its senior colonel, John Brockenbrough.[25] Lee did not consider Brockenbrough “suited for promotion” but “could be counted on to keep together a command sadly reduced in numbers.” [26]

Heth’s  third brigade came from Mississippi and North Carolina and was commanded by the “stuffy and ambitious” [27] Brigadier General Joe Davis.  Davis’s uncle was President Jefferson Davis. Davis served on his uncle’s staff for months during the early part of the war but had no combat experience, never leading as much as a company. [28] One author noted that Davis’s promotion to Brigadier General was  “as unadulterated an instance of nepotism as the record of the Confederacy offers.” [29] Davis’s subordinate commanders were no better; one of them, William Magruder was so incompetent that J.E.B. Stuart suggested that “he have his commission revoked.” In Magruder’s outfit only one of the nine field grade officers in his brigade had military training, and that was because he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, hardly fitting for service in the infantry. [30] This brigade was also a makeshift operation with two veteran regiments including the 11th Mississippi which had “gone through blood and fire together on the Peninsula through Antietam.” [31] After Antietam, these units were then paired with two new regiments and a new politically connected commander and sent to the backwater of North Carolina where they saw no action. The veteran regiments “mistrusted not only their commander, but the reliability of its yet untested units.” [32]

Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew

Heth’s largest brigade was new to the army. Commanded by the North Carolina academic Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew it had no combat experience. Pettigrew himself was considered a strong leader. He had been badly wounded at Seven Pines and thinking his wound mortal “he refused to permit his men to leave the ranks to carry him to the rear.” [33] He was captured but later paroled and returned to the army to command a brigade later in the year.

Hill was under the impression that Meade’s army was still miles away, having just come from meeting Lee who assured him that “the enemy are still at Middleburg,” (Maryland) “and have not yet struck their tents.” [34] With that assurance Heth decided to use June 30th to send Pettigrew’s brigade on the foraging expedition to Gettysburg. An officer present noted that Heth instructed Pettigrew “to go to Gettysburg with three of his regiments present…and a number of wagons for the purpose of collecting commissary and quartermaster stores for the use of the army.[35]

However Heth did instruct Pettigrew in no uncertain terms not to “precipitate a fight” should he encounter “organized troops” of the Army of the Potomac. [36] Heth was specific in his report that “It was told to Pettigrew that he might find in the town in possession of a home guard,…but if, contrary to expectations, he should find any organized troops capable of making resistance., or any part of the Army of the Potomac, he should not attack it.” [37]

That in mind anyone with the slightest experience in handling troops has to ask the question as to why Heth would employ “so many men on a long, tiring march, especially as without a cavalry escort he took the risk of sending them into a trap” when his “objects hardly justified” using such a large force. [38] Edwin Coddington is particularly critical of Heth in this regard.

Likewise it has to be asked why the next day in light of Lee’s standing orders not to provoke an engagement that Hill would send two divisions, two thirds of his corps on what was supposedly reconnaissance mission. Some have said that Hill would have had to move to Gettysburg on July 1st anyway due to forage needs of the army, [39] but this is not indicated in any of Hill or Heth’s reports.

As his troops neared Gettysburg Pettigrew observed the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division as they neared the town. He received another report “indicating that drumming could be heard in the distance – which might mean infantry nearby, since generally cavalry generally used only bugles.” [40] He then prudently and in accordance with his orders not to precipitate a fight “elected to withdraw rather than risk battle with a foe of unknown size and composition.” [41] His troops began their retrograde at 11 a.m. leaving Buford’s cavalry to occupy the town at ridges. One Confederate wrote “in coming in contact with the enemy, had quite a little brush, but being under orders not to bring a general engagement fell back, followed by the enemy.” [42]

Upon returning Pettigrew told Hill and Heth that “he was sure that the force occupying Gettysburg was a part of the Army of the Potomac” but Hill and Heth discounted Pettigrew’s report. [43] “Heth did not think highly of such wariness” and “Hill agreed with Heth” [44] Hill believed that nothing was in Gettysburg “except possibly a cavalry vedette.” [45] Hill was not persuaded by Pettigrew or Pettigrew’s aide Lieutenant Louis Young who had previously served under both Hill and Pender. Young reported that the “troops that he saw were veterans rather than Home Guards.” [46] Hill reiterated to both that he did not believe “that any portion of the Army of the Potomac was up” but then according to Young Hill “expressed the hope that it was, as this was the place he wanted it to be.” [47] 

Part of the issue was related to the fact that Pettigrew, though highly intelligent, and who had been an observer of wars in Europe was not a professional soldier. Likewise, since had was new to the Army of the Northern Virginia he was an unknown to both Hill and Heth. As such they dismissed his report. In their casual dismissal of Pettigrew’s report, the West Point Graduates Hill and Heth may have manifested an often typical “distain for citizen soldiers…a professional questioning a talented amateur’s observations” [48]

Pettigrew was “aghast at Hill’s nonchalant attitude” [49] while Young was dismayed and later recalled that “a spirit of unbelief” seemed to cloud the thinking of Hill and Heth. [50] In later years Young wrote that the “blindness in part seems to have come over our commanders, who slow to believe in the presence of an organized army of the enemy, thought that there must be a mistake in the report taken back by General Pettigrew.” [51]

Since neither man believed Pettigrew’s report, Heth asked Hill “whether Hill would have any objection to taking his division to Gettysburg again to get those shoes.” Hill replied “none in the world.” [52] It was to be a fateful decision, a decision that brought about a series of events which in turn led to the greatest battle even fought on the American continent.

Lee’s biographer and apologist Douglas Southall Freeman wrote “On those four words fate hung” [53] and in “that incautious spirit, Hill launched Harry Heth’s division down the Chambersburg Pike and into battle at Gettysburg.” [54]


[1] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.128

[2] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Shuster New York 1968 p.194

[3] Robertson, James I. Jr. General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior Random House, New York 1987

[4] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.128

[5] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[6] Ibid. Robertson A.P. Hill p.205

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.453

[8] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.79

[9] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.109

[10] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.88

[11] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.85

[12] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[13] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.512

[15] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[16] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.87

[17] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.527

[18] Krick, Robert K. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge: Failures of Brigade Leadership on the First Day of Gettysburg in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.96

[19] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.96

[20] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.527

[21] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.46

[22] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.55

[24] Pfanz Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.118

[25] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.87

[26] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.529

[27] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.133

[28] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.533

[29] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.99

[30] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.101

[31] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[32] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[33] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.136

[34] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131

[35] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.128

[36] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.136

[37] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.129

[38] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[39] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131 This argument does have merit based on the considerations Guelzo lists but neither Hill, Heth or Lee make any mention of that need in their post battle reports.

[40] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.130

[41] Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg: A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell in a Difficult Debut in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.42

[42] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.135

[43] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command pp. 263-264

[44] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.465

[45] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[46] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.42

[47] Ibid. Pfanz. Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[48] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.42

[49] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131

[50] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

[51] Ibid Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[52] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

[53] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p. 563

[54] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.94


Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military, us army