Lee attacks Union center

Pickett's Charge: The culminating event of the Gettysburg re-enactment will be a portrayal of the Army of Northern Virginia's almost mythical charge into death and history.

Gettysburg : A Remembrance

July 04, 1999|By Jacqueline Durett | Jacqueline Durett,Special to the Sun

This weekend's re-enactment of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pa., will culminate with a portrayal of Pickett's Charge at 2 p.m. today. The re-enactment battleground is at Bushey Farm, southwest of Gettysburg.

Pickett's Charge ended the three-day battle at Gettysburg in 1863 and marked the beginning of a series of Confederate defeats as the Southern invasion force withdrew.

After two days of victorious fighting at Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander in chief, decided to do something drastic. He stayed up all night before the third day, July 3, 1863, and came up with the idea to first bombard the federal troops with a heavy cannonade. Once they were weakened, the Confederates would charge them. This charge became one of the most famous attacks in American history.


Lee thought the plan -- the initial bombardment and the subsequent charge -- was going to be another in the chain of successes that the Confederates had had. Rich Rollins, editor of "Pickett's Charge: Eyewitness Accounts" and several scholarly essays on aspects of the charge, explained, "He had beaten his opponents at virtually every battle. The victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863 was among his most spectacular. He had soundly trounced an army about twice the size of his own." Rollins cited Lee's letter to Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, one of his division commanders, in which Lee called his troops "invincible."

Steve Wright, curator of collections at the Civil War Museum in Philadelphia, said that Lee had good reason to believe in this invincibility. Before Gettysburg, "Lee's army had basically been successful in everything that they tried," he said.

Michael Cheeks, author of the essay "Nothing But Glory Gained," contends that Lee had a clear vision for July 3. "Lee's newest plan remained simple: A tremendous bombardment by all available Confederate artillery was to sweep the Union line around the trees, while Southern infantry would remain behind Seminary Ridge, out of sight of the enemy. As soon as the artillery was finished, the infantry would march down the hill, across the valley and break the federal line, splitting the Army of the Potomac in half."

There were three divisions of troops going into the charge, although many historians disagree about how many men were involved.

Pickett, Pettigrew, Trimble

Carol Reardon, associate professor of American history at Pennsylvania State University, said, "There were few estimates right after the fight and they varied wildly, some almost suggesting that Lee's whole army made the charge. ... In the 1870s and 1900s, 17,000 seemed to be the standard number ... but in recent years [since 1960], that number has been reduced to somewhere between 10,500 and 13,500. The bottom line is, we don't know for sure. And we never will."

Confederate losses in killed, wounded and captured during the attack are estimated at 60 percent.

In the charge, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett commanded three Virginia brigades while Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew and the newly assigned Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble headed the rest, a mixture of men from all over the South.

But there was a distinguishing difference between Pickett's men and the combined forces of Trimble and Pettigrew, all of which were under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. "Unlike Pickett's fresh troops, almost all of Pettigrew's and Trimble's units had fought and suffered severe losses on the battle's first day," said Michael Taylor, who has written two books and several articles about the Battle of Gettysburg, with the main focus being the charge.

Cheeks added that Lee was quite aware of this. "He saw, with dismay, that many of the soldiers were sporting bandages. 'Many of these poor boys should go to the rear,' [Lee] said. 'They are not able for duty.' But none left. ... They stayed with their regiments."

Stationed at Seminary Ridge, the Southern troops were a half-mile from Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. It was from here that the Confederates started the first phase, the assault. Wright said that low visibility was one of the prime reasons that the Confederates didn't accomplish what they wanted to do in the first phase. "The guns they used in those days fired black powder," Wright said. "Smoke clouded the vision of almost anybody."

Reardon, in her book "Pickett's Charge in History and Memory," wrote: "Smoke and sheer number of horses and men on the field also made it difficult for any single individual to see much that day."

"After two hours, the federal forces stopped firing, and all Union guns went silent, leading Lee to think that he had been successful in the first part of his assault. One would naturally think that," Wright explained.

But what really happened was that the Confederates' aim wasn't on target -- most shells were what Wright described as "flying harmlessly over the ridge," over the heads of the Union troops.

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