150 years ago today, Richmonder George Pickett would lead the fateful “Pickett’s Charge” which would mark a turning point in the Civil War.
I think it all started for me with the Battle of Gettysburg.
My elementary school took us on a bus trip to the famous battlefield and I remember being fascinated by the vast landscapes and monuments to military heroes. I remember being struck by the scale of it all as I looked across the wide open fields and imagined what it must have looked like during the battle. I guess it’s fairly safe to say that an interest in Civil War history has stuck with me since then. But why Gettysburg? I grew up in northern Virginia, so it would have been a lot easier for us to drive an hour south to see the battlefields of Fredericksburg or Richmond. There’s just something about Gettysburg: no other Civil War battle has been as studied or well-remembered than the one that took place over the first three days of July 1863. First, many feel that it represented the last best hope for the Confederacy to win a military victory. Second, the three days of fighting saw the largest number of casualties during the war. Finally, having returned to Gettysburg last month, it remains one of the best preserved battlefields of the Civil War. Once you’ve been there and looked out across the fields, imagining vast columns of infantry and the sound of cannons firing, it begins to make sense why Gettysburg draws so many visitors each year.
Since the circumstances of the battle are pretty well known at this point, I thought I’d focus on one particular element of the battle that has always fascinated me: Pickett’s Charge. I think it’s relevant here because Pickett was from Richmond1 and many of those involved in the attack were Virginians. Also, there’s a new exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy that focuses on the fateful assault and features several of the battle flags captured that day. I spent a recent afternoon at the exhibit and was really impressed by the battle flags, many of which weren’t returned until years after the war.
On July 3rd, the Battle of Gettysburg was in its third and final day. In the previous day’s fighting, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had made two attempts at attacking the Union flanks without success. On this day, he planned to attack the center of the Union line at a place called Cemetery Ridge. Lee assumed that Union Gen. George Meade had reinforced his flanks from the previous day’s fighting, leaving his center more vulnerable. With every passing day, the Union army facing him grew and he knew his window of opportunity was shrinking. With that in mind, he was determined to make an assault and gave the order to Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet, upon receiving the order from Lee, shared his doubts privately with his artillery chief, saying “I believe it will fail.”
While Gen. George Pickett would be the one best remembered for the assault, it consisted of three divisions. Pickett’s Virginians were joined by divisions from Gen. Isaac Trimble and Gen. Johnston Pettigrew. Pickett, however, would lead the charge. Waiting for Pickett on the other side of the field was a freshly-reinforced Army of the Potomac. Meade had anticipated an assault on his center, so he was well-prepared for Lee’s attack and was ready with artillery and soldiers in position to create a murderous crossfire.
Just prior to Pickett’s Charge, a Confederate artillery barrage began at 1:00 PM. It was one of the largest of the war, with over 150 cannons firing across a 2-mile line. The goal was to destroy Union artillery and clear the way for the charge. Unfortunately, the artillery fire was largely ineffective, and did not result in the damage Lee had hoped for.
The infantry assault began at 2:00 PM, with over 12,500 Confederate soldiers marching forward into battle. Pickett rallied his troops by shouting “Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!” But it wasn’t long before they realized they were marching into a bloodbath. The Union artillery (which they’d hoped had been damaged) unleashed a hellish barrage along with the thousands of Union muskets that joined in once the soldiers came into range. Entire lines of Confederate soldiers were mowed down by canister shot and musket fire. Despite the deadly fire, one of Pickett’s brigade leaders Gen. Lewis Armistead still managed to cross the field and lead 100 soldiers over a stone wall to create a breach in the Union line, shouting “Come forward, Virginians! Come on, boys, we must give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?”
The breach did not last long as Union soldiers rushed in to close the gap, thus ending the assault. Armistead was shot three times and was mortally wounded.
A Richmonder in Pickett’s division, John Dooley of the 1st Virginia, was shot in both thighs during the charge. He would later recall his feelings in that moment, likely shared by many of Pickett’s Virginians:
Instead of burning to avenge the insults of our country, families and altars and firesides, the thought is most frequently, Oh, if I could just come out of this charge safely how thankful would I be!
Many would not come back at all. Over half the men who were part of Pickett’s Charge ended up killed, wounded, or captured. Thirteen of the fifteen Confederate battle flags in the charge fell and were captured. It was said that Pickett wept as he watched the survivors straggle back to their own lines.
After the assault was over, Lee rode up to Pickett to ask him to move his division to a nearby hill, to which Pickett replied, “General Lee, I have no division now.”
It’s hard for me to understand why Pickett’s Charge is romanticized as an act of bravery and a gallant “last stand” of the Confederacy. A year before, the Army of Northern Virginia learned firsthand the devastation resulting from a frontal assault on an entrenched position at the Battle of Fredericksburg. That fatal charge at Gettysburg was a bad idea that both Longstreet and Pickett disagreed with, and yet they followed orders that led to a futile loss of life.
After the failure of Pickett’s Charge, Lee knew the battle was over and made plans for a retreat back to Virginia. The defeat at Gettysburg combined with the loss of Vicksburg in the west would be a double hit that the Confederacy would never quite recover from. The war still had two years remaining, but Lee would never have the initiative quite like he did in the summer of 1863.
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- Not only was Pickett from Richmond, but he’s buried here as well. You can find his monument in the Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery near his fallen soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg. ↩