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."
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."
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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 Humanities, 4 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 29, 2009 | Last modified: December 4, 2012
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.