ON THIS DAY: Picketts’ Charge

July 3, 1863

By 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was feeling good about the south’s chances of winning the Civil War. It was never the plan of the Confederates to defeat the north and take it over, and Lee, with his huge and invincible Army of Northern Virginia, was not tasked with invading the rump United States and seeking to conquer it. But, he knew that if he went into US territory and threatened northern cities, Lincoln, who was up for reelection in 1964, might relent and negociate a peace.

And so Lee, with 75,000 soldiers and many of his leading generals, marched into Pennsylvania. He was followed by the equally as large Army of the Potomac, and the two massive formations came into contact at the tiny town of Gettysburg. This battle, and it’s penultimate third day of fighting on July 3, is said to be ‘the high water mark of the Confederacy’ and the stunning loss for the Confederates set the pattern for the rest of the war. The third day is when Lee ordered 12,500 men to charge across a mile of open land to attack the Union Army at Cemetery Ridge.

This charge has become known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ but it wasn’t Pickett’s idea and he wasn’t the only general present. Pickett, like Lee, Union General Grant, and Confederate General James Longstreet, had all been in the Union army that invaded Mexico in 1845. Many of the war’s leaders on both sides knew each other. Longstreet and Pickett knew each other and had both fought at the Battle of Chapultepec in Mexico City.

In my book, The Educated Citizen’s Guide to Essential American History, I write:

Robert E. Lee was determined to attack the Union forces directly and overwhelm them at a place called,
appropriately, Cemetery Ridge. The morning of July 3, Lee spoke to his leading general, James Longstreet, and ordered that, after a sustained artillery bombardment, Longstreet was to direct his men to cross a long uneven field and breach the Union lines. In a sense, the conversation between these two men on that morning determined the outcome of the war. Longstreet wrote extensively about the discussions that morning after the war. He claimed that he advised Lee against a charge because they didn’t have enough men, the Union soldiers would expect it, and the distance they had to cross was a mile of grass and it would occur under heavy fire. Further, Longstreet noted that Union muskets had a very long range and would reach the Confederate soldiers long before the Confederates could reach the defensive line. Undeterred, Lee estimated the distance his soldiers had to cross was less than a mile and was ready to order the charge in spite of Longstreet’s objections. Lee and Longstreet discussed how many men were available to launch this assault and they concluded that the total was around 15,000 soldiers. Longstreet again argued that they did not have enough battle-ready men to accomplish the task at hand, but he later stated that Lee was impatient, determined to order the charge, and, after a time, no longer listening, so he had no choice but to carry out the order and initiate the charge

The Educated Citizen’s Guide to Essential American History, page 73

Longstreet conveyed the plan to Edward Pickett and others, and preparations were made. At 1:PM, the Confederates began a sustained artillery barrage and the Union forces responded. It was possibly the largest artillery exchange in the war. At 3:00 PM, Pickett and 12,500 men began to walk toward the Union lines. The results were catastrophic.

After a brutal and deadly hour, the Confederates began to file back individually or in groups across the long field, now strewn with their dead or dying fellow soldiers. The charge had failed, and at tremendous cost. Of the 12,500 men who started on the journey, 6,555 were killed, badly wounded, or captured. A shaken Lee took responsibility for the action, but he was concerned about a Union counterattack. When he came across an exhausted Pickett, he told the General to rally his division for defense, but Pickett could only respond, “General, I have no division.”

The Educated Citizen’s Guide to Essential American History, page 74

Lee and his mangled army retreated and never set foot on American soil again. The war carried on for another year and a half, and ended when Lee finally surrendered in April 1865. The Confederacy, and slavery, were finished.

The book is for sale here.

General Pickett
Survivors Reunion decades later