Pickett's charge: Lee's supreme bid for victory Doomed assault crushes Southern hopes for triumph in the North

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 28, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The dawning of the third day at Gettysburg found the Confederate troops still occupying Seminary Ridge while the Union army was stretched from Little Round Top on the left in a fishhook to Culp's Hill on the right.

Gen. Robert E. Lee still thought he could break through the federal line and ordered up the division of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's 1st Corps, which had been left the previous day at Chambersburg, Pa., to guard the Confederate supply trains.

Longstreet, who preferred the strategy of taking strong defensive positions and waiting for the enemy to attack, opposed Lee's plan to attack the Union line straight on. Longstreet writes in his account of Gettysburg in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" that he told Lee he thought the wisest course was to move around the Union left, find good defensive ground and wait for the Union army to attack.

But Lee would have none of that.

" 'No,' [Lee] said, 'I am going to take them where they are on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett's division and make the attack,' " Longstreet recounts.

Making one last protest, Longstreet told Lee, "That will give me 15,000 men. I have been a soldier, I may say, from the rank 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 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully."

Lee seemed to be somewhat impatient at Longstreet's remarks and he said nothing more.

Firing begins

Shortly after 1 p.m. July 3, two Confederate guns at the Peach Orchard sounded the opening of the Confederate artillery bombardment, and more than 100 cannons began firing at the Union line. In response, more than 80 federal guns opened fire.

"The destruction was, of course not great," Long-street writes. "But the thunder on Seminary Ridge, and the echo from the Federal side, showed that both commanders were ready. The armies seemed like wild beasts growling at each other and preparing for a death struggle."

The artillery barrage continued for two hours, until about 3 p.m. Then the federal guns ceased firing and several withdrew from their positions, a strategic move to save ammunition before the anticipated infantry attack. Col. E.P. Alexander, Longstreet's chief of artillery, sent word to Pickett that now was the moment for the attack to proceed.

Pickett rode to Longstreet's headquarters to get approval to start the advance.

"I was convinced that he would be leading his troops to needless slaughter and did not speak," Longstreet recalls. "He repeated the question, and without opening my lips I bowed in answer."

Pickett, leading his division, marched over the crest of Seminary Ridge and passed Longstreet as he began descending the slope.

"As he passed me he rode gracefully, with his jaunty cap raked well over on his right ear and his long auburn locks, nicely dressed, hanging almost to his shoulders," Longstreet recalls. "He seemed rather a holiday soldier than a general at the head of a column which was about to make one of the grandest, most desperate assaults recorded in the annals of war."

Infantry moves forward

The long gray line of Confederate infantry moved forward slowly in close ranks, emerging from the woods into the open field. "Before them lay the ground over which they were to pass to the point of attack," Longstreet writes. "Intervening were several fences, a field of corn, a little swale running through it and then a rise from that point to the Federal stronghold."

As the Confederate army came into view, the federal artillery began firing, but the line continued to advance.

After Pickett crossed the Emmitsburg Road and drew to within 400 yards of its line, the Union artillery began firing canister that showered the Confederate ranks with metal balls. Federal sharpshooters also took their toll. "The slaughter was terrible, the enfilade fire of the batteries on Round Top being very destructive," Longstreet writes. "At times one shell would knock down five or six men."

The right and left wings of the Confederate army took a terrible punishment and broke ranks. The attack now depended on the center. Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, leading about 200 men, converged on the Angle, a point in the Union line where soldiers were positioned behind a stone wall, pouring fire on the Confederate ranks. Steadily running up the slope toward the wall, pausing only to reload their rifles, Armistead's men overtook the Angle and for a brief few minutes engaged in hand-to-hand combat with their enemy.

Longstreet, watching from Seminary Ridge, saw that his troops could not hold. "The Confederate flag was planted in the Federal line, and immediately Armistead fell mortally wounded at the feet of the Federal soldiers," he writes.

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