US Civil War
Battle of Gettysburg

What was Pickett's charge?

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March 26, 2013 12:19AM

Pickett's Charge (also know as the Pickett-

Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, or Longstreet's Assault), was the final major attack by Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg. After crushing Union forces, but not taking the high ground, on the first day of battle, and nearly winning the second day of battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided that the center of the Union lines had to be weak (a natural assumption, since he had tested both Union flanks the previous day and found them reinforced. A smaller attack by Wright's Georgia Brigade the same day momentarily pierced the Federal center, but fell back.) The Confederate artillery was to disable or drive away the Federal artillery in the center, and hopefully some of the infantry as well. When the massive bombardment began at just after 1:00 PM on July 3rd, 1863, it did neither of these. Every time a Federal battery was disabled or ran out of ammunition, it was skillfully replaced.

Aftera bombardment of an 1 and a half hours to two hours, Confederate General James Longstreet reluctantly sent forward Major General George E. Pickett's Virginia Division, Harry Heth's Division now under Johnston Pettigrew, and two brigades of Major General Dorsey Pender's "Light Division" under the command of Issac Trimble. If the Federal artillery had been driven away as planned, the attack might have stood a significantly greater chance of success. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Union artillery was very much intact. The Federals defending the center were primarily II Corp units under Major General Winfield Scott "the Superb" Hancock. When the 12, 500 Confederates began the advance across a mile wide stretch of open ground, the Federal artillery still in action afflicted tremendous casualties on the oncoming Confederates. Perhaps 9,000 of these men reached the Emmitsburg Road, which divided the battlefield, when they were blasted by volleys of small arms fire from Federals firing from behind a stone wall. Most Confederates, especially those in Pettigrew's and Trimble's Divisions, never passed the Emmitsburg Road. No one in those two divisions reached the stone wall at that sector, despite several illegitimate post-war claims. Pickett's Division, however, advanced many of its men past the road. When a regiment of Federals defending a sharp corner of the stone wall, now known as "The Angle" broke under the mounting Confederate pressure, perhaps 1,000 Confederates surged to withing just yards of the wall. With most of their commanders down, the men advanced no further and blasted away at their Federal tormentors. Seeing that nothing could be gained by staying in place and firing, Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead raised his hat on the tip of his sword, swung it high over his head, and shouted, "Give them the cold steel, boys! Who will follow me?" and rushed over the abandoned section of the stone wall. Perhaps 200 Confederates followed him over the wall, in what is now considered the "High Water Mark" of the Confederate Cause. Federal reinforcements rushed forward to fill the breakthrough, and fierce hand to hand fighting developed. Confederate General Armistead was mortally wounded within 200 yards of where his good prewar friend, Federal General Hancock "the Superb" was severely wounded. Outnumbered and outflanked, the remaining Confederates retreated back across the field, and the Battle of Gettysburg was effectively over, although several cavalry actions occurred through dusk. The disastrous attack cost Lee over 6,000 men, and the next evening the Confederates would begin their retreat to Virginia. Although heavily criticized for ordering the apparently suicidal attack, the plan actually had a good chance of success, had all gone according to plan. As with the other days at Gettysburg, however, everything that could have gone wrong for the Confederates went wrong: ammunition was mistakenly moved far to the rear, resulting in the artillery not being able to deliver their maximum rate of fire; two brigades advanced late, one broke and fled without firing a shot; Union artillery was at its very best; the bombardment did little damage to the Federals, physical or morale; Union General George G. Meade correctly predicted Lee's intentions; Federal troops performed heroically; Federal officers took the initiative and were nearly flawless, etc. Therefore, although the charge may have seemed impossible to succeed to the untrained eye, it was in reality little more risky than the smashing Confederate victory at Gaines' Mill, in which Lee advanced his entire army uphill and smashed through Federal lines (in this battle, however, everything went according to plan, which is why

itsucceeded.