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The Mistake of All Mistakes
by Phil Andrade

This is how Shelby Foote, pre-eminent among historians of the American Civil War, describes Lee’s insistence on committing his Army of Northern Virginia to the infantry assault forever after known as “Pickett’s Charge”. Foote elaborates “...And that was the mistake he made, the mistake of all mistakes....and there was scarcely a trained soldier who didn’t know it was a mistake at the time, except possibly Pickett himself...”

Gettysburg, Foote surmises, was the price the South paid for having R.E.Lee.

Even more uncompromising is the account of James Longstreet. Writing his memoirs years after the war, he recalls his attempt to dissaude Lee from embarking on the assault of July 3rd “...I have been a soldier, I may say, from the ranks up to the position I now hold.I have been in pretty much all kinds of skirmishes, from those of two or three soldiers up to those of an army corps, and I think I can safely say there never was a body of fifteeen thousand men who could make that attack successfully...”

Alongside the bloody repulses of Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor and Franklin, this is the action that is cited as an assault that should never have been made, doomed to failure ..... a sanguinary testimony of the prevalence of firepower over gallantry.

The purpose of this essay is to contend that Lee had greater justification for his belief that the assault might succeed than is generally allowed, and that the popular perception of that notorious action should be re-assessed in a light more favourable to Lee’s judgement . Given the comments cited above, it takes some hardihood to attempt this. On the other hand, bearing in mind the offensive prowess of Lee’s soldiers as demonstrated on previous occassions, and, indeed, at Gettysburg itself during the previous two days of combat, the attempt to break the Union Centre by a massive infantry assault, well supported by artillery, cannot be dismissed as the result of recklesness or wishful thinking on the part of Lee.

As for the Battle of Gettysburg itself, this can only be properly understood if the strategic situation of the war as a whole is taken into consideration.The Confederacy faced a serious crisis in April/May 1863, the fundamental weakness of its position being due to failure in the West.

The threat to Vicksburg was the principal danger.Grant had successfully moved down the West bank of the Mississippi, below the rebel fortress, crossed to the opposite bank, and was now in a position to attack from the South.Control of the Mississippi was vital to the Confederacy, and this was now in jeopardy.The earlier part of the war in the Western theatres had seen the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River, the capture of New Orleans, and failure to stem the Union tide at the bloody Battle of Shiloh.The track record of Confederate command in the West was as dismal as its counterpart in the East was brilliant.General Johnston and President Davis hated each other, General Bragg and his subordinates were locked in antagonism and there was a chronic display of jealousy and suspicion between the commanders of the various Western departments.These defects, bad enough in themselves, were compounded by logistical problems.The yankees were able to exploit the advantage of river communications as they won success in the West, while the Rebels were faced with desperately vulnerable and deteriorating railroad systems that denied their outnumbered forces food and supplies, let alone reinforcements.

Confederate soldiers at Shiloh, Perryville,Murfreesboro and other Western battles proved themselves as brave and effective fighters, but they were let down by bickering commanders.

If the Confederacy was to be ruined in the West, it might be saved in the East.

As a proponent of an offensive in the East, Lee was not ignoring the importance of the West. Far from it.....he realised only too well that time was running out, and that an attempt to reinforce Johnston in Mississippi or Bragg in Tennessee would entail painfully slow transport of troops and supplies, and that their eventual deployment might yet fail to surmount the political and personal problems that existed between Bragg and his subordinates, and between Johnston and Davis. Events several months later at Chickamauga were to prove how right Lee was.

A successful foray into Maryland and/or Pennsylvania provided the most effective and timely riposte that the Confedracy could aspire to in the crisis of May 1863. Here, in the Eastern Theatre where the rival Capitals of Richmond and Washington were so close, was where success for the South had already been proven, and where a necessarily risky initiative might prevail. This was the propitious moment...consider the criteria - an abundance of desperately needed food for rebel soldiers and forage for the horses available in Pennsylvania, shorter distances to travel, a numerical disparity between the opposing armies that was at its lowest since July 1862, and, above all, an army that was in “the habit of victory”. This was also regarded as the “Cockpit”of the war. A major Confederate success in the East, particularly on Northern soil, might yet attain the longed for foreign recognition. At this point, after the Northern debacle at Chancellorsville, another significant reverse for the Union must increase the chances of Anglo- French support for the Confederacy.Imagine the effect of such a defeat in political, let alone military, terms. After he received news of Hooker’s defeat , Lincoln is reported to have groaned “..My God! What will the Country say?”

This rather sketchy resume of the strategic crisis that faced the Confederacy in the early Summer of 1863 should dispel the notion that Gettysburg was the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. It was not.That title more properly belongs to the September and October of 1862, when Southern Armies invaded Union soil almost simultaneously in Maryland and Kentucky, and another offensive was mounted in Mississippi.In this respect Antietam, Perryville, Iuka and Corinth represented the true Confederate High Water Mark.

The Gettysburg campaign might be compared with Nazi Germany’s 1943 offensive against the Soviet Union, codenamed “Operation Citadel”, which, almost exactly eighty years to the day after Gettysburg, brought on the Battle of Kursk.In this case, Adolf Hitler recognised that the ring was closing around Germany....collapse in North Africa and Allied invasion of Sicily making it imperative that some additional mighty blow be struck against the main enemy - the Soviet Union - before it was too late. This analogy between Kursk and Gettysburg should be viewed with circumspection, but it is compelling all the same!

These strategic criteria were enough to convince Lee, and Davis and his entourage, that an invasion of the North, however hazardous, was less risky than remaining on the defensive. Chancellorsville had been a crushing victory, but , in stategic terms, a defensive one.Time was running out. What was required was another victory, within striking distance of Washington, Baltimore or even New York. Moreover, this victory must be overwhelming, smashing and decisive, enough in itself to convince people in North America and Europe that the South could win, and deserved to win, its independence.Earlier in the war the Confederacy could afford to remain on the defensive...it had been enough to repulse the Yankee invaders. The stakes were too high for that now. The Emancipation Proclomation had changed the direction and tempo of the conflict - it was now a war to the death. Battles such as Chancellorsville, a superb Southern victory, were not enough to end the conflict.They were, however, extremely costly in lives (especially when a leader of Stonewall Jackson’s calibre perished), the Confederacy could not afford this attrition for very long,and the best chance the South had was for Lee to win in the East before Johnston, Pemberton and Bragg lost it in the West.

And who better than Lee and his heroes could undertake this epic? Outnumbered, starved and sometimes barefoot, the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia had fought superbly and triumphed on every occassion save one....and even then, at Antietam, they had fought double their numbers to a standstill, and then offered battle the following day before withdrawing into Virginia.

All these considerations must have impinged on Lee’s conscious and subconscious mind during his invasion of Pennsylvania. Apart from explaining the strategic impetus of his Generalship in that campaign, they motivated him to fight a battle of epic proportions, which may fairly be described as perhaps the closest fought of modern times.

Should anyone be in doubt as to the closeness of the outcome of this engagement, a survey of the casualty statistics will suffice to convince. While Confederate losses, as officially reported, were very incomplete, a meticulous investigation of the regimental losses of the Army of Northern Virginia, based on the individual service records of the soldiers themselves, has indicated that the Southern casualty total at Gettysburg was astonishingly close to that of the Federal army. The Army of the Potomac’s Gettysburg casualties were officially recorded as 23,049, of whom 3,155 were posted as killed in action, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 missing. A thourough research of the muster rolls susequently revealed that the actual number of fatalities rose to 5,291, as more than 2,000 of the wounded died, three quarters of them within a week of the battle. The Confederate losses,using estimates based on extrapolation from the most reliable and complete reports, may be reckoned at a total of about 24,500, of whom an estimated 19,000 were killed or wounded.The names of 5,425 unwounded Confederate prisoners were recorded by their Federal captors. Assessed in terms of bloodshed, it is apparent from these statistics that 93 Northerners were killed or wounded for every 100 Southerners.

This no doubt reveals that, proportionately , the South suffered more heavily. In general terms, Lee lost a third of his army, while Meade lost a quarter of his. Apparently the Army of Northern Virginia engaged somewhere between seventy and seventy five thousand men, against Federal forces that numbered rather more than ninety thousand . To put this in perspective, however, it should be noted that, with the exception of the Seven Days Battles which had been fought almost exactly a year before, this was the smallest disparity in numbers that Lee ever had to contend with. While Lee was probably unaware of the smallness of his numerical disadvantage, the numbers as cited should help to dispel the view that Lee was excessively audacious in this battle - indeed, the risks he took here pale beside those he took at Second Mannassas, Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville. Another aspect of the statistical record of Gettysburg should be considered.....the casualty reports indicate that the burden of loss was distributed fairly evenly throughout Lee’s army, Longstreet’s, Ewell’s and Hill’s corps suffering approximately 8,000, 7,000 and 9,000 casualties respectively. This shows that Lee made good use of all the men he had on the field. In the Union army the loss was borne unequally - the First Corps suffered almost 50% casualties, and the Second, Third and Eleventh about 40%, the Fifth about 20%, the Twelfth about 11% and the Sixth less than 2%. This might not be a valid criterion to use as a basis for comparing the relative tactical skills of the opposing commanders. The Union Twelfth Corps, for example, suffered relatively low casualties, and yet played an extremely effective role in the fighting. Be that as it may, it is apparent that Lee fought his army to the utmost, an achievement in its own right.

A closely fought battle is almost certainly bound to engender controversy.There will be speculation on the “might have beens”, an awareness of lost opportunity and bungled commands. The closeness of Gettysburg is extraordinary, the controvery correspondingly heated. This is not the place to reflect on the details. The absence of Stuart and most of his cavalry - Lee’s “eyes and ears” - for the earlier part of the fighting, depriving the Southern commander of vital information, the tardiness of Ewell and the acrimonious allegations of his subordinate, Early, and the alleged sulleness, amounting to virtual insubordination, of Longstreet have all to be reckoned with in any account of this momentous battle. No less significant is the controversy on the other side.Who picked the crucial high ground, Howard or Hancock? Was Meade prepared to advocate withdrawal at the Council of War on the night of July 2nd? Should Meade be blamed for not pressing his advantage after the repulse of the Confederates on July 3rd? Above all, there is the Meade Sickles controversy......it is arguable that Sickles, by moving his corps forward to an exposed position, jeopardised the outcome of the battle and raised the Union casualty list to a far higher level than necessary. This, an act of insubordination, might well be cited as “ the mistake of all mistakes”.

It has been argued that Confederate victory at Gettsburg would not have made any difference even to the outcome of the campaign, let alone of the war, since the Federals could have pulled back to another strong position in the rear. This seems a complacent judgement, given the effect that another shattering defeat, especially on Union soil, would have had on the political, in addition to the military, ability of the Lincoln administration to continue the struggle.The Draft Riots in New York, within two weeks of the Battle of Gettysburg, attest how serious a threat civil unrest might become.... in the Battle,New York troops, it should be noted, suffered higher casualties than those of any other State in the Union.

For all the controversies, it is incontestably the case that Lee had not sought to fight the kind of battle that subsequently developed at Gettysburg.He had planned a strategy that would entail strategic offense and tactical defense. This would entail the Army of Northern Virginia positioning itself such as to threaten Washington, Baltimore or Philadelphia, and forcing the Army of the Potomac to attack his (Lee’s) army.In positional warfare, the firepower of entrenched infantry gave defending soldiers the advantage, as had been demonstrated at Fredericksburg.

It is said that in war, the first casualty is the Plan.

Gettysburg was an encounter battle, neither designed nor desired by either side, in which chance collision precipitated a struggle. The ensuing fighting required opportunistic generalship, which depended on prompt and accurate reporting and the ability of commanders to communicate with subordinates and effect concert of action.Here is where Lee suffered his greatest disadvantage, he did not possess a staff sufficient to keep him in touch with what was happening....it was a battle that, more than normally, developed beyond control of the Commander-in-Chief. Herein lies the key to understanding how and why events culminated in Pickett’s Charge, and to why Lee, who was so willing to bear the blame, was not guilty of reckless disregard of tactical realities, but acted to seize what appeared to be an opportunity to break Meade’s line in the Centre.

For all his audacity and willingness to take the offensive, Lee was a commander who also attained striking success on the defensive. This had been evident at Fredericksburg, and was to be proved again at the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Earlier in the war he had been nicknamed “King of Spades”, on account of his predisposition to constructing earthworks, a skill he had acquired as an engineer in the Regular Army. His plan to invade Pennsylvania demonstrates his prudent regard for defensive firepower as an adjunct to offensive strategy.This is an important rebuttal to the view that Lee was so intent on attacking that he imposed a needless and fatal attrition on his own army. In the eyes of historians who criticise Lee for being prodigal in his offensive tactics, Pickett’s Charge stands as the supreme example of “Marse Robert’s” fatal hold over the South.

The previous year of fighting must have imparted to Lee an awareness that bold offensive action was preferable to surrendering the initiative, especially when confronted by ever growing enemy preponderance in numbers and resources.On certain occassions Cofederate attacks were pressed home against extremely strong Federal defences, and had prevailed.This was especially so at Gaines Mill, on June 27th 1862, when a resolute and disciplined bayonet charge by Hood and Law’s brigades carried a yankee position, despite the fact that a single regiment, the 4th Texas, lost 44 killed and 206 wounded. The two brigades, in all, lost over a thousand killed and wounded in a single action. The acievement was spectacular, however, and an inspiration to all those who witnessed it. Two months later, these same Texans spearheaded a collosal attack by Longstreet’s corps, which, attacking in echelon, devestated the Union army at Second Mannassas. It was at Chancellorsville on May 3rd 1863 that Confederate elan surmounted Federal firepower with the most momentous results.

Chancellorsville is regarded as Lee’s supreme victory, won by bold manoeuvre in the face of tremendous odds.It was also, on the 3rd of May at any rate, a series of murderous frontal assaults in which strongly entrenched and numerically superior Federal forces inflicted terrible casualties on Lee’s infantry. Let E.P.Alexander, one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s foremost artillerymen, tell the story “..The battle..on the 3d..has rarely been surpassed, measured either by the strength of the lines carried or by the casualties suffered in so brief a period....Our brigades rarely came to the field 2000strong.....Here within six hours, five of the 15 brigades lost over 600 in killed and wounded...” And this is regarded as Lee’s most dazzling victory, while Pickett’s Charge is remembered as his most sanguinary repulse. It is tempting to speculate that the Confederate infantry assault of July 3rd at Gettysburg was no more “doomed” to failure than were those of May 3rd at Chancellorsville. Incidentally, on that very same day in the Chancellorsville campaign, Federal troops stormed Confederate defenses at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, at the very place where Northern troops had been massacred on December 13th 1862. This time a particularly resolute and skillful bayonet charge captured the rebel defenses, although over a thousand of the attackers were killed or wounded in a few minutes, according to the Federal Sixth Corps Commander, General Sedgwick. Here again is an example of infantry assault succeeding instead of suffering an overwhelming repulse. To argue that the July3rd assault of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble’s divisions was bound to fail is to fly in the face of these examples from the Chancellorsville fighting, which must have been very fresh in Lee’s mind at Gettysburg.

Another significant result of Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville, which is not given much prominence, was the huge haul of captured weapons that fell into Confederate hands.According to Alexander, after Chancellorsville 90% of Lee’s infantrymen were equipped with rifles instead of smoothbores, an important development that must have increased confidence in the effectiveness of rebel infantry. Now not only was the numerical disparity between the two armies at its smallest for a year - the expiration of Federal enlistments had reduced the size of Meade’s army - the rebels now enjoyed a comparable, perhaps even superior, quality of infantry firepower. The marksmanship of Southern soldiers was to prove deadly at Gettysburg, attested by the remarkable loss of life of Federal officers of high rank in that battle.

If Lee placed excessive confidence in the offensive prowess of his army, then the events of Chancellorsville might almost be said to have justified him in this. The impact of that battle must not be underrated in its effect on the Gettysburg fighting.Here again the hapless Federal Eleventh Corps was routed by bold rebel attacks.The second day of fighting was equally portentious, although this was to large degree influenced by Sickle’s conduct in deploying his corps in an advanced and vulnerable salient at the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road.Incidentally, this indicates that Chancellorsville experience impinged on the Federals, too, at Gettysburg.Sickles was perhaps remembering the fatal effect of his being ordered to withdraw from the Hazel Grove position, which gave the Confederates the chance of deploying guns there and supporting their ensuing attacks. Alexander referred to this incident in his account of Chancellorsville “...There has rarely been a more gratuitous gift of a battlefield...”
Sickles saw the plateau of high ground around the Peach Orchard area as potentially another Hazel Grove, and was eager to deny its use to the enemy. If the spell of Chancellorsville caused mistakes to be made, it was not on the Confederate side only.

The battle of the second day at Gettysburg did much to enhance Lee’s belief that his army was able to overwhelm the enemy through relentless and resolute attack. Despite the outrageous move forward by Sickles, which so jeopardised the ability of Meade’s army to contain the Confederate attack, the Federal army enjoyed significant advantages: interior lines of communication, superior numbers and an admirably served and well sited artillery which did very effective work in counter battery fire.The Confederate artillery arrayed against the Federals in the Culps Hill sector was badly smashed up, and on the Confederate right, as Alexander witnessed, Southern gunners suffered one of their worst poundings of the war. With their artillery support diminished, and despite excruciating slowness in deploying by Longstreet and lack of concerted action by Ewell, the Confederate infantry achieved one of the most remarkable feats in American military history. On the Confederate right, in the fighting that raged along the Emmitsburg Road, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Plum Run and Little Round Top, eleven Southern infantry brigades - four each from the divisions of Hood and McLaw’s in Longstreet’s corps and three from Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps - attacked in echelon style and practically demolished Sickle’s corps, as well as engaging and punishing Sykes’s and Hancock’s corps. Moreover, Wright’s Georgia brigade from Anderson’s division actually advanced up Cemetery Ridge and pierced the Union centre, and was only ejected by a suicidal counter attack in which a Federal regiment from Minnesota was almost literally annihilated. Further to the Confederate right, the attack by Barksdale’s Mississippians has been described as the most effective of the entire war.The statistics for this terrible fighting are revealing.  According to one authority, Southern casualties in this advance against the Union left and centre amounted to 6,679, against a total of 8,738 for the North....a reversal of the usual tendency for the attacker to suffer the heavier losses. While 140 artillery pieces were engaged by the Federals in this struggle, the Confederates were only able to put 69 on the field. On the Confederate left, the fighting was on a smaller scale, but was nonetheless significant, because here too the Southern infantry attacked boldly and entered the Federal works on Cemetery Hill before being ejected by a counter attack.

It is worthwhile reiterating the disadvantages under which the Southern assaults of July 2nd laboured.The attacks were delivered piecemeal .This compounded the numerical disadvantage that Lee had to contend with.The lack of concert was exacerbated by an inadequate staff.There was a degree of sulleness on Longstreet’s part that made his notorious slowness yet more apparent, and Ewell simply did not possess the necessary drive to do justice to his appointment.The exterior lines held by the Confederates enormously increased their difficulty in communicating, let alone in deploying troops swiftly and effectively, especially in the stultifying heat that afflicted the battlefield.Thirst and the need to procure water for exhausted soldiers slowed down the attacks, even to the point of compromising the attempt to wrest Little Round Top from the yankees. The artillery support was outgunned and dangerously exposed to counter-battery fire, especially in the Culps Hill sector.The absence of Stuart meant that Lee’s reconnaisance was insufficient, and that the means of exploitation was not at hand if any breakthrough occurred.

With all these difficulties and deficiencies to contend with, the Army of Northern Virginia had yet managed to come close to winning the battle on each Union flank, and had inflicted enormous damage on its enemy. Well might Lee reflect that on the morrow, given a concerted attack with massive artillery support, and with Stuart’s cavalry now at hand to exploit any success, there was a crucial chance to smash Meade’s centre.

One of the best histories written about Gettysburg, or any battle for that matter, is George R.Stewart’s “Pickett’s Charge”. Let Stewart describe the predicament that the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had to deal with “.....Lee faced the inevitable three possibilities for a general - to attack, to retreat, to stand still.The last had nothing to recommend it; Meade, with his lines of communication open, could win at a waiting game.Similarly to retreat after two days of what could be counted success was unthinkable.Such action would present the North with victory on a silver platter. Besides, the prospect of a long and harassed retreat was not pleasant.Therefore, for a fighting general in command of a fighting army, there was only one choice - attack!..Faced with the situation, having the inescapable three choices, any good soldier would - in some way or other - have attacked........Now he could plan for the final day. First, the devestating and demoralizing bombardment;then the grand assault! The Union line crushed at that critical point; a third of Meade’s army surrounded and captured; the rest of it streaming down to Baltimore in irretrievable rout, harried by Stuart’s cavalry! A great and war-ending stroke, in the Napoleonic tradition of Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram!...”

If Lee hoped to mount a massive Napoleonic type assault, employing, in his own words, “proper concert” of action between the two wings of his army, this hope was dispelled by a Northern counter attack in the early hours of July 3rd. This took place in the Culp’s Hill sector, and resulted in Ewell’s men being pushed back. The Federals here enjoyed crucial artillery superiority, and the infantry of Slocum’s Twelfth corps fought a superb battle. The conflict was a desperate pell-mell affair of attack and counter attack which lasted until late morning, by which time the rebels had lost 2,500 men and their foothold on Culp’s Hill. This action, in which Northern casualties were fewer than half those of the Confederates, was crucial in stabilising the Union “Fish Hook” defensive line that defined the battlefield, and was distinguished by very competent management of the fighting by the Federals.

The Southern cavalry was also thwarted in its attempt to harry the rear of Meade’s army and exploit any imminent breakthrough. The failure of Stuart’s men to overcome Gregg and Custer’s cavalry in a hard fought engagement to the North East of the main battlefield was another blow to Lee’s aspirations for crushing victory.

There remained, however, the main affair of Pickett’s Charge - obviously a misnomer, since there were two other divisions apart from Pickett’s deployed for the attack.This was, indeed, truly Napoleonic in its grandeur....an advance of three infantry divisions supported by a massive artillery bombardment, aimed at breaking the Union centre. Well might this be compared with the advance of d’Erlon’s columns at Waterloo, or with the more celebrated affair of Napoleon’s Old Guard in that battle. If there is any suggestion that Meade resembled Wellington, this should be tempered with the realisation that, although Meade, in his midnight Council of War, had correctly predicted that Lee’s main attack would be directed against his centre - on Gibbon’s section of the line on Cemetery Ridge - he then failed to reinforce that sector and bolstered up his left wing instead!

There is relatively little controversy about the actual event of Pickett’s Charge itself. The outcome is so notorious that it is now the stuff of legend. Let it be said , however, that Lee was far from imprudent in his approach to this venture. It is on record that, when A.P.Hill expressed a wish that his entire corps should be comitted to the assault, instead of just two of his divisions, Lee insisted that a division be held in reserve in case the attack should fail and Meade counter-attack. The artillery preparation was stupendous by previous Confederate standards, Alexander maintaining that 172 guns were used in the preliminary bombardment. While this canonnade was flawed by firing high, or “over shooting”, it still represented a significant development in infantry - artillery cooperation and would have been more successful if Pendleton, Lee’s artillery chief, had adopted the more rigorous approach of Alexander in moving guns forward to support the infantry.It must be conceeded, though, that the Union artillery was superbly handled by Hunt throughout the battle, in both its counter battery role and its ability to punish Southern infantry. Hunt subsequently maintained that he could have broken up Pickett’s attack with artillery alone, if he had been allowed to use his guns the way he wanted to. This is a tall boast, but one that demands reflection.

The terrain selected by Lee for the advance was notable for two topographical features that afforded some protection to the advancing troops.There was a rise running parallel to the Emmitsburg road and also a slight rise running out from the stone wall which delineated the Union position.The first of these two rises provided a degree of cover for the right hand part of the attacking force, while the second rise intersected the line of advance, thereby providing a degree of protection for Hill’s two divisions from artillery fire from the right, and to Pickett’s from being enfiladed from the left. Lee had a keen eye for terrain, and was as meticulous as possible in deploying both men and cannon in the tense morning hours before the assault.

In one crucial sense Lee was indeed mistaken - he was apparently unaware of the terrible casualties that some of the brigades in Hill’s corps had suffered on the first day of the battle. It is on record that, when he was reconnoitering the position of Scales’s brigade, of Pender’s division, Lee was shocked to see large numbers of men wearing bandages “...Many of these poor boys should go to the rear; they are not able for duty...” he said.In fact, this brigade had lost its leader, nearly all its officers and perhaps half its men in the fierce fighting of the first day.The same or even worse could be said of some of the units in Heth’s division, now commanded by Pettigrew because Heth himself was also hurt. Indeed, one of the regiments in Heth’s division, the 26th North Carolina, had lost more than 500 of its 800 men, killed or wounded, in the fighting on July 1st. Herein lies a major reason for the failure of Lee’s men to win the battle of Gettysburg - the staff system was inadequate, important information was not being reported. Despite the convincing Confederate triumph of the first day, it is apparent that its cost in blood was much higher than Lee realised.

Five of the six brigades that comprised the left wing of the attacking formation had been punished in the battle of July 1st. On the other hand, all were close to the “jumping off point” and had therefore not to be put through the exhaustive marches that had so characterised the deployment of Longstreet’s men the previous day. This fact would also make it easier to hide intentions from an enemy denied the chance of observing protracted preliminary movements. As for Picketts men, the three brigades of Armistead, Garnett and Kemper were fresh and unbloodied, and could be expected to assume the role of “shock troops”.

The deployment of these nine brigades was standard for Civil War manoeuvres. The “column of assault”, as it has been described, was really a series of linear formations, extending over a front of close to a mile.Each line was actually double ranked, supported in front by skirmishers and in the rear by file closers. The terrain that the attacking infantry had to negotiate meant that the line of advance was not parallel with the Union line, but converged upon it toward the North in an oblique manner.This would necessitate a complex maneouvre whereby Pickett’s men, advancing on the right, would have to move to their left and converge on to the right of Heth’s troops.The idea was for the whole body to end up being more or less parallel to the enemy line, so that the final charge would have the required “concert of action”, without the impact being lessened by the brigades coming up piecemeal. Lee had correctly identified a clear objective for the advancing troops to aim for....the fabled “clump of trees”. This was to enable the advancing troops to unite their forces by a converging process, and showed that Lee was well aware of the difficulties of directing the advance and took steps to solve the problems.

There is disagreement about the numbers of troops who took part in the attack.Since there were three divisions involved, Longstreet apparently used a rule of thumb whereby each division approximated five thousand men, and surmised that fifteen thousand men would advance.While Picket’s division, albeit a small one, certainly mustered 5,000 or more for the assault, Heth’s division had taken thirty to forty percent casualties in the first day’s fight and was down to nearer 4,500. The other division, under the command of Trimble - Pender had been mortally wounded - deployed only two brigades amounting to fewer than 2,000 men. This implied a maximum of twelve thousand, or thirteen and a half thousand of if the two additional brigades which were sent up later in support are included in the count.

There is more certain evidence for the number of Union troops arrayed against them. In his history of this action, Stewart carefully estimates that 5,750 Federal infantry were in position to defend the line against the Southern assault.This implies odds of two to one in favour of the attackers.....insufficient to overcome the advantage enjoyed by defence in that war, when it was generally reckoned that three men advancing in the open were required to deal with one man entrenched. As far as Lee could judge, however, unaware as he was about the damage sustained by two of the three advancing divisions, the odds were not so bad. There had been unprecedented artillery fire to soften up the enemy, the men had been rested, the terrain carefully surveyed, and the objective of the advance clearly defined.These soldiers had overcome more daunting tasks at Gaines Mill, Sharpsburg and Chancellorsville, and the previous two days of combat had demonstrated that the fighting quality of his troops had never been better. Here was the chance to win the war.

As to the event of Pickett’s Charge, an event described by Stewart as ....“ the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history”...the outcome depended largely on the success or otherwise of the artillery preparation.

According to a distinguished Gettysburg resident - The Reverend Dr.M.Jacobs , Professor of Mathematics and Chemistry at Pennsylvania College, the Confederate bombardment started at 1.07 P.M. and ended at 15.50 P.M. Although protracted and thunderous, being heard as far away as Baltimore, the cannonade was a failure. The quantity and quality of Confederate ammunition was not up to the job, and the Southern gunners often fired too high. This made havoc among the Union personnel and artillery trains assembled on the reverse of Cemetery Ridge, killing many men and horses. Some of the Northern batteries along the front line were frightfully punished, but the overall effect was to leave the Union gun line intact and in command of the field, with ammunition conserved to inflict maximum damage on the advancing enemy.This was to have calamitous results for the men in Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s divisions. As for the Federal infantry, the propensity of the Confederate guns to overshoot meant that they escaped heavy punishment.Only about 200 of the 5750 infantrymen deployed in this sector were killed or wounded in the bombardment, although their ordeal was frightening. The Union gunners, limiting their counter fire to conserve ammunition, were effective in their response, killing or wounding several hundred of the Southernern infantry who were waiting to attack, most of them in Pickett’s division.

The discipline of the advancing Confederate troops, faced with the task of covering a mile of open ground, was superb, and excited the admiration of friend and foe. The men moved forward at between 85 and 110 steps to the minute, preserving magnificent alignment until they reached the Emmitsburg Road. Despite a degree of protection offered by those two rises in the ground, the Union artillery, brilliantly cited by Hunt, was able to mount crossfire with horrific effect.When yankee infantry - Ohioans on the rebel left, Vermonters on the right - boldly moved forward and enfiladed the advancing lines with heavy musketry, the Southerners found themselves in the situation that all soldiers dread....out in the open, in dense formation, being shredded by enemy fire from front and flank. One of Heth’s brigades, Virginians under the command of Mayo, could not stand the pressure and broke, but the rest endured the nightmare sufficiently to press on towards the stonewall and the clump of trees that marked the objective. Pickett’s men had converged with Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s, and the frontage of attack was now reduced to 540 yards as the final rush was made. Now began what Hancock, who was himself desperately wounded, described as “..A very terrific contest at close quarters...” This was no “walk over”, but a furious struggle in which the defending Northern soldiers also suffered heavy casualties. Confederate infantry pierced the Union line and fought hand to hand. The deepest penetration was made by the 11th Mississippi of Davis’s brigade from Heth’s division, not, as is often supposed, by Armistead and his Virginians from Pickett’s division. The effects of the flanking fire from Stannard’s Vermonters, along with the murderous close range canister blasts from Union artillery, had still not prevented the Southerners from reaching their objective. The additional two brigades of Wilcox and Lang were sent forward in support, but Longstreet, who, despite his protest, was in nominal command of this attack, withheld any further support. The overall result was catastrophe for the Army of Northern Virginia. The unsupported troops who had achieved the break in the Union gun line were mostly killed or captured, and the attack decisively and bloodily repulsed.

Pickett’s division suffered some three thousand casualties, and the losses in Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s commands were in proportion.Overall, more than five thousand of the attackers had been killed or wounded, many of the latter being taken prisoner, and in addition fifteen hundred unwounded prisoners had been taken. At least six and a half thousand men, about half the troops deployed in the action, had been lost, and ninety per cent of the casualties had been sustained in half an hour. The loss of life among those of higher rank was incredible.Pickett lost all three of his brigadier generals, two dead and one grievously wounded, and of his thirteen colonels eight were killed and all the rest wounded. Of the 35 officers in his division above the rank of captain, only one escaped unhurt.

Union casualties, including the support troops in the rear who fell under artillery fire, amounted to 2,220 killed and wounded and 112 missing. The regiments which took the brunt of the Confederate attack suffered heavily...for example, the 69th Pennsylvania lost 40 killed, 80 wounded and 17 missing, the 72nd Pennsylvania 44 killed, 146 wounded and 2 missing, in each case about half the regimental strength. The very high proportion of killed to wounded attests the severity of the close quarters fighting, since there were usually about five wounded to every one killed in action in Civil War battles.It should be noted, that in addition to the 84 killed outright in these two regiments, 39 more died from their wounds. The fatality rate among the Confederate casualties was also high, with Pickett’s division losing 498 killed and 233 died from wounds. In Heth’s division, a single regiment - the 11th Mississippi, which achieved the deepest penetration into Union lines - lost 102 killed or mortally wounded out of 270 who were hit. Lane’s brigade, in Trimble’s command, lost 554 killed and wounded, of whom 178 were fatalities.

These statistics are testimony to the severity of the Confederate disaster. It is not enough, though, to maintain simply that the attack was a monstrous mistake that need never have been made.To do so would be to overlook the compelling circumstances that Lee had to contend with. There were serious deficiencies in staff work that concealed the damage that so many of the attacking units had suffered in the first day of the battle, and, as has so often happened in war, too much reliance was placed on an artillery preparation that was to prove ineffective. That being so, Lee can be forgiven for ordering his men into this fight....as far as he could tell, the prospects of success were worth the risk, bearing in mind what the previous two days of combat had achieved. Longstreet, after Lee’s death, maintained that there was something wrong with Lee’s mental balance, that his “blood was up”and that he would not listen to arguments against the attacks on the second and third days at Gettysburg. There is something grotesquely unconvincing about this charge against Lee, who did all that he could to impose prudent control on to a battle that was not of his choice or making.After the traumatic repulse of the attack of July 3rd, instead of trying to shift the blame or find a scapegoat, Lee constantly repeated “It’s all my fault” and “The blame is mine”. His responsibility was obvious, as for his culpability, that is another matter. He did admit that he believed his men were invincible, and that too much had been asked of them. Many years later, though, he maintained that he should have won that battle, and there was an implication, which he never expostulated upon, that others had let him down. It is still difficult to ignore the fact that the Battle of Gettysburg was a desperately closely fought contest, and that Pickett’s Charge itself came close to success. To avow otherwise, and to argue that the assault of July 3rd was doomed to failure, would be to denigrate the achievement of the yankees who fought so hard and suffered so severely in repelling it.

It must be stressed that the Battle of Gettysburg was not so much lost by Confederate mistakes, as it was won by the fighting qualities of Meade and his men.Far from belittling his opponent, Lee was quick to point out when he received news of Meade’s appointment, that here was a leader who “...would commit no blunders on my front and if I make one .. will make haste to take advantage of it..” Indeed, the greatest battle ever fought on American soil has been caricatured as a contest between the audacity of Lee and the caution of Meade. Each General has been censured for exhibiting an excess of his respective traits in this campaign. It does seem that history has been niggardly in its praise of Meade’s achievement at Gettysburg. Notwithstanding his anomalous failure to bolster up his centre after his accurate prediction of where Lee’s climactic attack would come, Meade’s generalship was of a high order. The Confederate artilleryman, Alexander, reflecting on the fierce fighting of the second day, was perceptive and wrote that Meade’s performance under terrific pressure was “...perhaps the best example which the war produced of active supervision and efficient handling of a large force on the defensive...” This high praise was also extended, by the same writer, to the ordinary soldiers under Meade’s command “...whether from discipline or from the inspiration of home, the fighting done by the Federal brigades was of the best type...” This rather understated comment refers to the stand of the Union First Corps on the opening day of the battle, which was responsible for inflicting those terrible casualties on the rebel brigades of Heth and Pender’s divisions.This, as has been emphasised, was to prove crucial in undermining the effectiveness of the great assault of the third day. As for Pickett’s Charge, there can be no doubt that it was quick thinking and courageous action by Union officers and men, such as Stannard and his Vermonters, that broke the Confederate attack and won the day.Let the last word come from Pickett himself. When asked why the South lost at Gettysburg, he replied “...I think the yankees had something to do with it”!

Copyright 2003 by Phil Andrade

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