Pickett's Charge

Numbers at Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge, which might be better understood either as Longstreet's assault or the Trimble-Pickett-Pettigrew Charge, was a failed Confederate frontal assault on July 3, 1863, on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although it is the most famous attack of the war, many of its basic facts remain unclear. "For a pivotal moment in military history replete with eyewitnesses," the historian Carol Reardon has written, "consensus on many aspects of the afternoon's events is surprisingly hard to reach." In particular, historians continue to disagree on the following: a) how many Confederate artillery pieces participated in the pre-attack bombardment, b) how long the artillery fired, c) how many Confederate troops participated in the attack, and d) how far they marched to reach the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. MORE...

 

Confederate general Robert E. Lee ordered a massive artillery bombardment of the center of the Union line prior to the attack that Friday afternoon. The responsibility for lining up the guns fell to Colonel Porter Alexander, who poached cannons from wherever he could find them. "Nothing remotely like it had been seen before in this war," the historian Stephen W. Sears has written, continuing:

With their crews hidden from sight, the guns stood silent in their long ranks like deadly, solitary sentinels. Heat waves radiated off the black iron Parrott and Rodman rifles; the bronze Napoleons gleamed brightly in the sunlight. On Little Round Top an awed Major Thomas Hyde, viewing this array "seemingly directed toward the centre of our line," counted 100 guns visible just from his vantage point.

But how many guns were there in total? Historians' numbers have varied. Sears claimed 163, while others, such as Douglas Southall Freeman, have cited Alexander's postwar memoir in concluding that there were 140 guns altogether, 56 of which went unused. In two different books, the British historian Brian Holden Reid has provided two different numbers: 164 in one, 172 in the other (while noting that 56 of those went unused).

Whatever the truth, the bombardment began at one o'clock in the afternoon by Alexander's clock or at 1:07 according to Michael Jacobs, a professor at nearby Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) who also meticulously recorded weather conditions during the day (clouds in the early morning, with mostly clear skies by two, and a high temperature of 87 degrees). Depending on the source, the thunderous fire lasted anywhere from one to two hours, with the consensus landing on a little more than an hour. At first, Porter had intended only to fire his guns for about twenty-five minutes but then realized that the damage done in this time was insufficient. He worried, though, that if the bombardment went on for too long, he would run out of ammunition and the Confederate infantry would be forced to advance without any artillery support. When the Union artillery's counter fire began to fall off, Alexander took it as a sign that the enemy guns had been knocked out—just as the Union artillery chief hoped he would.

Ultimately, the bombardment caused terrible damage and killed perhaps as many as two hundred Union troops in the area that would come to be known as the Bloody Angle—but the Confederates may have lost even more than that from Union guns. An infantryman in the 18th Virginia recalled that "shrill shot overhead or bounding madly across the field would alike dip through a line of prostrate men and rush on with a wail to the rear leaving a wide track of blood behind."

The infantry attack finally began between 2:00 and 3:00 (again, depending on the source) and the number of Confederate troops seems to have been between 12,000 and 13,000. Early historians traditionally argued that there were 15,000 troops, a portion of which were in Confederate general George E. Pickett's division (of James Longstreet's First Corps), and some in divisions belonging to J. Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac R. Trimble (of A. P. Hill's Third Corps). That number—15,000—first belonged to Longstreet and was revised to 10,500 in 1957 by George R. Stewart, author of Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Since then, however, the total has crept back up. According to Carol Reardon, the disputes have centered on Pickett's division of Virginians, the veterans of which claimed to have numbered fewer than 5,000 but who actually had numbered anywhere from 5,800 to 6,200 (depending on the source).

Of course, one of the central facts of Pickett's Charge is that once these men did begin their advance—arrayed in a mile-long arc, their regimental flags unfurled so that they awed the Union troops nervously waiting for them behind a low stone wall atop Cemetery Ridge—they were forced to march across a valley of wide-open ground. Historians have disagreed about the distance of this hellish march, which left the Virginians and North Carolinians and Mississippians and Alabamans and Tennesseans completely exposed to enemy fire. Most state that it was between three-quarters of a mile and a mile—ground that can be covered in about twenty minutes, according to Stephen Sears, "marching at 'common time,' with perhaps a pause or two for realignment along the way."

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the Confederate line at the foot of Seminary Ridge was not parallel to the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, meaning that Trimble and Pettigrew's men on the Confederate left had farther to go than Pickett's, while Pickett's men were forced to execute what was called a left oblique—a difficult maneuver under murderous musket fire—in order to line up properly with Trimble and Pettigrew. In the meantime, the Emmitsburg Road represented a substantial logistical problem, as it cut across the valley from the southwest to the northeast and was covered on both sides by sturdy fencing that needed to be climbed or broken through somehow.

Whatever the distance, only a handful of infantrymen, a hundred Virginians led by Confederate general Lewis A. Armistead, ever made it to the Union lines and they were quickly repulsed. Historians agree on this and on the fact that Pickett's Charge, in the end, failed. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was forced to retreat from Pennsylvania two days later, in "thunder and lightning," according to Professor Jacobs, "torrents of rain, the road knee-deep in mud and water."

Further Reading
Alexander, Edward Porter. Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1907.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (one-volume abridgment by Stephen W. Sears). New York: Touchstone, 1998.
Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge—The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Reardon, Carol. Pickett's Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Reid, Brian Holden. America's Civil War: The Operational Battlefield, 1861–1863. New York: Prometheus Books, 2008.
Reid, Brian Holden. Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Stewart, George R. Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Wolfe, B. Numbers at Pickett's Charge. (2012, December 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Numbers_at_Pickett_s_Charge.

  • MLA Citation:

    Wolfe, Brendan. "Numbers at Pickett's Charge." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 29, 2009 | Last modified: December 4, 2012


Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.