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.
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.
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
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 Carolinians.
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
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.
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."
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Hess, E. J., & Wolfe, B. Pickett's Charge. (2015, October 28). 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 Humanities, 28 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 8, 2009 | Last modified: October 28, 2015
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 editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.