The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was the
thundering climax of Lee's second invasion of the North in less than a year. A
portion of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had stumbled upon a cavalry detachment of
Union general George G.
Meade's Army of the
Potomac near the small Pennsylvania crossroads on July 1. There troops
under A. P. Hill and Jubal A. Early routed hastily
called-up Union reinforcements and sent them scurrying back through town and onto
a fishhook-shaped line of hills to the south and southwest. This first day of
fighting resulted in heavy losses for both sides, but it was Lee's best chance for
victory and he failed to capitalize on it. By the next day, much of the Army of
the Potomac had arrived and Lee's odds were longer. He simultaneously hurled James Longstreet's corps
against the Union left and Richard
S. Ewell's against the right, on Culp's Hill. In vicious fighting, which included the
desperate defense of the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, Union troops held
firm, but barely. On July 3, Lee was determined to launch one last attack, this
time against the center.
He pinned his hopes on the last fresh
division in his army, which consisted of three Virginia brigades—James L. Kemper's, Richard B. Garnett's, and
Armistead's—commanded by the long-locked and martial-looking Pickett, a
largely untested general who in 1846 had graduated last in his class at the U.S.
Military Academy at West Point, New York. These Virginians would be joined by a
division that had been commanded by the now-wounded Henry Heth and was currently the responsibility of
James J. Pettigrew. In this division, a North Carolina brigade was led by James K.
Marshall, a brigade of Tennessee and Alabama troops by Birkett D. Fry, a brigade
of Mississippians by Joseph R. Davis, and a small Virginia brigade by John M.
Brockenbrough. In addition, Isaac R. Trimble's division provided two North
Carolina brigades, commanded by William L. J. Lowrance and James H. Lane.
Five thousand or so Union troops, mostly from Winfield Scott Hancock's Second
Corps, awaited these Confederates behind a low stone fence and atop the shallow,
open slopes of Cemetery Ridge. (Men from
Newton's First Corps were also there.) Lee believed that Meade had
critically weakened the center of his line in order to reinforce the flanks the
day before, and he entrusted Longstreet with achieving a breakthrough. Longstreet
doubted the wisdom of Lee's plan—"I believe it will fail," he told his artillery
chief—preferring to send his troops wide around the Union left. In the end,
though, Lee's jaw was set.
The Confederates amassed approximately 135
cannon and at one o'clock in the afternoon unleashed about an hour-long
bombardment of the Union position. The Confederate infantry marched at around two
o'clock, emerging from the woods below Seminary Ridge and urged on by Pickett's
cry, "Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" According to one Union
observer it made for an awesome sight: "None on that crest now need be told that
the enemy is advancing," he wrote. "Every eye could see
his legions, an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping
upon us! … Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without
impediment of ditch, or wall, or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard,
and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible." This tableau later
would be frozen into myth.
The bombardment had caused terrible noise
and substantial damage, but toward the goal of knocking out the Union guns, it had
been a failure. As a result, Confederate casualties were high from the start. (The
picture-book war faded fast. John Dooley, an officer in the 1st Virginia Regiment,
said that once he came under fire, "instead of burning to avenge the insults of
our country, families and altars and firesides, the thought is most frequently,
Oh, if I could just come out of this charge safely how thankful would I be!") Pickett's men struggled to move to their left and close the
four hundred-yard gap that had separated their left flank from Pettigrew's right
at the start of the advance. Both flanks would meet opposite what some would later
claim to be the agreed-upon target: a corner in the stone wall that came to be
known as the Bloody Angle and a "copse" of trees just behind it. In everyone's
way, meanwhile, was the sunken Emmitsburg Road, covered on the west by a
post-and-rail fence and on the east by post and board.
While many Tennesseans and North Carolinians surged well beyond the road, about
half of Pettigrew's men stopped there. In contrast, Pickett's Virginians were
fresh troops, not having endured the bloodshed of the previous two days, and they
managed to maintain their formation, executing that left oblique under fire and
closing with Pettigrew's men near the road. Meanwhile, on the Union side of the
stone fence, the 71st Pennsylvania saw the Virginians headed their way and
abandoned the Angle, leaving behind two pieces of artillery. The 72nd Pennsylvania
rushed to cover the gap from eighty yards behind the line, while the 69th
Pennsylvania held on at the wall. When Pickett's men arrived, they halted and
exchanged fire with the Pennsylvanians at close range.
Suddenly one of Pickett's brigade leaders, Lewis Armistead, led a hundred
Virginians over the wall, exhorting his men, "Come forward, Virginians! Come on,
boys, we must give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?" They grabbed the
abandoned guns and even wheeled one around, but they couldn't fire it for lack of
ammunition. Armistead, whose best friend before the war had been the Union corps
commander Hancock, was shot and later died. His fellow brigade commanders James
Marshall and Richard Garnett—the latter once court-martialed by Thomas J. "Stonewall"
Jackson and conspicuously in search of redemption—also were killed.
Pettigrew and Lowrance were wounded, and Trimble, Kemper, and Fry wounded and
captured—all in a charge that reached this far but no farther. By day's end,
Pickett's casualties, including killed,
wounded, and captured, numbered 2,655, or about 42 percent of his men. Pettigrew
lost 2,700 men (62 percent) and Trimble 885 (52 percent).
[John Imboden] recalled Lee
saying that evening, "I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett's
division of Virginians did today in that grand charge." He then expressed
confusion as to why the day had not been won. Still, he told another general that
"this has all been my fault." An observer remembered Pickett "weeping bitterly,"
and John Singleton
Mosby later claimed that Pickett blamed Lee for the disaster: "That old
man destroyed my division." Some historians are skeptical of this last line, but
it holds a prominent place in The Killer Angels, Michael
Shaara's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about Gettysburg (1974) and its film
High Water Mark
Lee's description of "that grand charge"
foreshadowed the way in which Pickett's Charge would be transformed from a
disaster to a moment of high glory. "In less than one half century," the historian
Carol Reardon has written, "Pickett's Charge became both historical event and
emotional touchstone—history and memory—with the demarcation between the two often
imperceptible." The symbolic meeting point of history and memory became the Bloody
Angle and the trees behind it, a place that in 1870 John B. Bachelder—a painter
who turned himself into the unofficial historian of the Gettysburg battle—famously
described as "the 'High Water Mark' of the rebellion."
Bachelder also coined the use of "copse" to describe the trees, a brilliant piece
of branding according to the historian Thomas A. Desjardin, but it is also faulty
history. There is no evidence that the stone fence or the trees behind it played
any part in the planning of the charge. In fact, there is no evidence that before
1870, historians or battlefield tourists paid any attention at all to the Bloody
Angle or the "copse of trees." Regardless, the idea of a "High Water Mark" served
Bachelder's twin purposes of proving that Gettysburg was the war's decisive
battle—so he could paint its definitive pictures—and convincing people to visit
the battlefield. It also captivated survivors of Pickett's division. By 1870, they
were immersed in the postwar ideal of the Lost Cause, wherein the late war had
been an honorable fight that failed through no fault of their own. The Bloody
Angle served as the glorious climax of that narrative—the moment just before
triumph turned into tragedy.
One of the remarkable accomplishments of the Lost Cause narrative of Pickett's
Charge is that it manages to obscure the fierce controversy that attended initial
remembrances of the event. For instance, survivors of the attack argued for
decades over who could claim bragging rights for advancing farthest. Pickett's men
ignored the accomplishments of other troops and pointed out that Armistead and his
group of one hundred Virginians were the only Confederates to have penetrated the
Union line. But two angles in the stone wall meant that the Union troops who
confronted Pettigrew and Trimble were actually eighty yards farther east than were
the Pennsylvanians who stopped Pickett. Even if they never penetrated the enemy's
line, some of Pettigrew's and Trimble's men advanced within twelve yards of the
wall, farther forward than Armistead's men.
The veterans engaged in other, more important arguments, such as over who was to
blame for the attack's defeat. Someone once asked Pickett that question and he
famously replied, "I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it." This
was sensible enough and carried with it the additional advantage of not blaming
the revered Lee, but Confederate veterans preferred to turn on each other. The
villains were either Pickett's men or Pettigrew's, Virginians or North
Richmond newspapers immediately spread the
report that the North Carolinians had retreated too soon, preventing Pickett's
Virginians from breaking the Union line. Pettigrew's and Trimble's men had indeed
retired a bit before the Virginians, but there were many other reasons why
Pickett's division was stopped, which the Virginians conveniently ignored. The
back and forth continued after the war, with many Tar Heels making their cases in
North Carolina newspapers during the 1870s, and prominent figures such as South
Carolina–born James Longstreet—himself under fierce attack by Virginian Jubal
Early and other Lost Cause advocates for his actions at Gettysburg—argued that
Pettigrew's men had done all that could be expected of anyone under similar
circumstances. A Virginian who served in Brockenbrough's brigade of Pettigrew's
(originally Heth's) division pleaded for understanding by both sides when he
wrote, "There was 'Glory enough in that service for all.'"
This may have been true, but, ultimately, language has proved to be the final
arbiter of this dispute. That this glorious disaster has come to be known as
"Pickett's Charge"—when Pickett commanded only half the men and did not plan the
assault—suggests that the Virginians had the upper hand. And if all the men of
Pickett's Charge were not always Pickett's men, they are now.
Pickett's Charge Lives On
Pickett himself died in 1875, but his
third and final wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, soon took to reinventing herself as
an author, lecturer, and Lost Cause apologist, traveling the country to spread the
good news of her husband's "grand charge." In Pickett and His
Men (1913), she described the division's march across that open field:
"Friend and foe looked on in wondering awe," she wrote. "A thrill of admiration
held the waiting enemy silent and motionless as they watched this grand and
unsurpassable display of Virginia's valor." Much of what she wrote about the man
she called "my hero-soldier" has been shown either to have been plagiarized or
fabricated; what mattered to her adoring audiences, however, was that she told a
story that flattered all sides. "Virginia's valor" is acknowledged and appreciated
by the Union men's "wondering awe." The North won, but in an act of reconciliation
that only the story makes possible, the South is also redeemed. When LaSalle
Corbell Pickett came to Boston in 1919, the band played "Dixie" and two thousand
northerners, remarkably, stood out of respect. (African Americans were largely
left out of this national reconciliation.)
The Lost Cause view of Pickett's Charge has survived, more or less, for the last
hundred years. Ken Burns's 1990 public television documentary, The Civil War, left "uninformed viewers with the impression that George
E. Pickett's division of Virginians made up all, rather than considerably less
than half, of the assaulting column," the historian Gary W. Gallagher has written,
"and that Pickett, rather than James Longstreet, oversaw the Confederate effort."
Gallagher then adds a wry, parenthetical aside: "(LaSalle Corbell Pickett would no
doubt cheer Burns's decision to make her husband the central figure of the famous
assault.)" Shaara's novel and the subsequent film adaptation also tell a heroic
tale, with Shaara (and Burns) relying in part on letters between Pickett and his
wife that Gallagher has helped to prove that she largely fabricated.
Just as late in the twentieth century the
Lost Cause lost most of its academic support, so did historians begin to challenge
the traditional narrative of Pickett's Charge. Pickett's Charge
in History and Memory (1997) by Carol Reardon and Pickett's Charge—The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001) by Earl J. Hess
attempted to untangle history and memory. They argued that the struggle to shape
the memory of Pickett's Charge obscured its history, devalued the role of
non-Virginians, and exaggerated the attack's importance in the context of the war.
In a 1991 essay on Lee, the historian James M. McPherson noted that the high Union
casualty rate at the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor—where Union general Ulysses S.
Grant's frontal attacks have led to charges that he was a butcher—was basically
the same as at Pickett's Charge. "Yet Pickett's Charge has been celebrated in
legend and history as the ultimate act of Southern honor and courage against the
Yankee Goliath, while Cold Harbor symbolizes callous stupidity," McPherson wrote.
"The Lee legend has indeed romanticized some harsh realities."