PICKETT’S CHARGE: THE LAST ATTACK AT GETTYSBURG
By Earl J. Hess
University of North Carolina Press
403 pages, Illus., $34.95
REVIEWED BY STROUBE SMITH
Of all the battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg still draws the most attention from both scholar and amateur. For one reason, Abraham Lincoln immortalized the battlefield with one of the greatest speeches in the English language; for another, it was the only major battle fought in a Northern state and is thought by many to represent “the high watermark” of the Confederacy.
The real reason, though, is that of all the bloody conflicts in the war, Gettysburg has inspired the most “what if” scenarios. So, after all the volumes already produced and all the “what ifs” already in circulation, why another book about this battle?
Earl J. Hess, a history professor at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., aimed at writing an old-fashioned “battle book,” relying on primary and secondary sources to fashion a detailed study of what really happened in the climactic conflict of the three-day battle. His aim is accurate.
In general, Civil War battles were hard-fought affairs between regiments of men who were very good at killing and being killed. Gettysburg, in a way, was the classic exemplar.
Both North and South had units of true veterans who had been on both the giving and receiving sides of massive charges by the time of this assault. On the Confederate side, there were officers who looked at their goal on Cemetery Ridge and said: “This is going to be worse than Malvern Hill” where Robert E. Lee’s troops dislodged a strong Union position in a bloody assault in the Seven Days Battle. After that, Lee was in awe of his men and sure they could succeed in any attack.
On the Federal side, even as they were maintaining a high rate of fire, men were chanting “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg,” exacting their own revenge for the bloody repulse there.
Today, on a visit to the ground over which the attack took place, one is amazed that men would undertake such a charge. It’s the same feeling one gets scanning the beaches at Normandy. The true cost of these attacks is measured by the rows of crosses and Stars of David in the battlefield cemeteries.
It also takes special courage to watch 12,000 men in perfect battle order march steadily toward you, maintain their order and to all appearances calmly fill the huge gaps caused by artillery fire and reach your lines.
For fresh units filled with ranks of young men who are sure they are going to live forever, staying steady in such conditions is conceivable. At Gettysburg, the rank and file on both sides knew exactly what they were getting into and did it anyway.
Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, I Corps commander and organizer of the charge, thought 20,000 men would be needed for success almost twice as many as he had. Maj. Gen. George Edward Pickett’s all-Virginia division had not fought in the previous two days of battle. The brigades from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps had, so any chance of breaking through rested with the three Virginia brigades.
Right up until the start of the march across the fields, Longstreet hoped to avoid the attack and left it to Col. Edward Porter Alexander, the commander of the artillery barrage, to give the start signal. While Longstreet was doubtful, Pickett voiced optimism.
The weight and number of artillery pieces between the two sides was about equal, but the North had more rounds at hand. Alexander sent the Southern troops forward when his ammunition fell so low that he could not maintain his rate of fire. Also, he was not able to move his pieces forward to support the infantry.
So, at about 2 p.m. on July 3, 1863, in 87-degree heat, off they went. It took Pickett’s troops about 20 minutes from their start line to reach Emmitsburg Road, where they started receiving artillery fire. Before that, the exchanges had been between the batteries. From there, one Federal officer said the Southerners took 19 minutes to get to his position. Including the repulse, the whole thing took an hour or less.
Pickett may have gotten around 4,000 to 5,000 troops to the area in front of the stone fence that protected the Union line. The North had about that same number in position along the fence. However, the North’s lines were in order, with officers and noncommissioned officers comparatively untouched, while the South’s ranks were in chaos and the leadership decimated. The North also had its artillery still blasting away. It also had an Ohio regiment on the South’s left flank and three Vermont regiments on the South’s right flank pouring in highly destructive fire.
Improbably, Brig. Gen. Lewis Addison Armistead led 100 Virginians across the stone fence and achieved a momentary break in the Union lines. He was mortally wounded, however; most of his men were killed or wounded, and there was no support to press the attack further. The Confederacy’s “high watermark” had been reached and passed.
Many Confederates surrendered rather than endure the Union fire that harassed their withdrawal, but most of the survivors made it back to their lines. Lee shouldered the blame for the defeat, but Pickett remained bitter ever afterward.
The losses were fearsome. Pickett’s division had 498 killed and 643 wounded; another 833 from other units were captured after being wounded, and an additional 681 were captured. The total was 42.4 percent of those engaged. Regimental losses ranged from the low of 38 percent for the 3rd Virginia to the 92 percent suffered by the 8th Virginia. Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew’s division, whose exhausted troops made up the rest of the assault force, apparently lost 470 killed, 1,893 wounded and 337 unwounded prisoners taken on the battlefield, 62 percent of those engaged in the charge.
Probably the best estimate of Union losses in turning back the charge is a total of about 1,500 casualties with about 150 taken prisoner by the Confederates or a little more than one-fourth of the defensive force at the stone wall.
Mr. Hess has few kind words for the Confederate leaders, with artilleryman Alexander the prime exception. On the other hand, he notes quite a few examples of solid leadership and impressive initiative on the Northern side that cannot be diminished by some later bickering.
In an interesting point, Mr. Hess points out that the leadership style of Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander, was oddly similar to Lee’s in getting his subordinates in place with a plan, letting them fight their actions but hovering on the scene to be available for additional decisions.
“Pickett’s Charge” is well illustrated with scenes from the battlefield and portraits of the principal figures. The many maps are helpful. It is prodigiously footnoted and referenced.
Though one can’t give a completely clean bill to a volume that contains the phrase “surrounded on two sides,” the writing is crisp and clear.
“Pickett’s Charge” is a valuable addition to the Civil War shelf.
Stroube Smith is a copy editor for The Washington Times and a free-lance writer.