Map of Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and one of the most famous infantry attacks of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Lasting about an hour on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, it pitted 12,000 Confederates—including three brigades of Virginians under George E. Pickett—against half that number of Union troops. On July 2, Robert E. Lee had unsuccessfully attacked the Union flanks; in what even some of his own men perceived as a desperate gambit, he now attacked the center, asking his troops to cross an open field nearly three-quarters of a mile long. They were bloodily repulsed, losing half their number. Controversy resulted, as Confederate veterans struggled to lay claim to honor and glory, pitting Virginians against North Carolinians in efforts to explain why the attack had failed. Many Southerners came to believe the charge represented the "High Water Mark" of Confederate hopes for independence, a view cultivated by proponents of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Meanwhile, twentieth-century popular culture transformed Pickett into a soldier as "gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament," in the words of his wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett. And films like Gettysburg (1993) glorified the attack even while historians continued to debate Lee's decision, sometimes comparing it to Union general Ulysses S. Grant's equally futile attacks at Cold Harbor in Hanover County in 1864. MORE...

 

Background

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 Lewis A. 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 Norfolk-native John 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 Attack

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 adaptation, Gettysburg.

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.

Controversy

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 Carolinians.

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."

Further Reading
Desjardin, Thomas A. These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Gallagher, Gary W. Lee and His Generals in War and Memory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge—The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
McPherson, James M. Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Pickett, LaSalle Corbell. Pickett and His Men. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott Co., 1913.
Reardon, Carol. Pickett's Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels: A Novel About the Four Days of Gettysburg. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1974.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Hess, E. J., & Wolfe, B. Pickett's Charge. (2012, December 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Pickett_s_Charge.

  • MLA Citation:

    Hess, Earl J. and Brendan Wolfe. "Pickett's Charge." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 8, 2009 | Last modified: December 4, 2012


Contributed by Earl J. Hess and Brendan Wolfe. Earl J. Hess is an associate professor of history and the Stewart McClelland Distinguished Professor in Humanities at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. He is the author of Pickett's Charge:The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001). Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia