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The 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge

Today’s guest post comes from Robert Lee Tringali, program analyst at the National Archives.

Starting on July 1, the last three days have marked the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. In particular, today marks the anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, the defining event of the battle.

Monument at the Angle, the site of the fiercest action of Pickett's Charge. The Copse of Trees is in the background. Photo by Robert Tringali.

The battle of Gettysburg had raged furiously for two days. On the first day’s action—after bloody fighting at McPherson’s Ridge, Oak Hill, Oak Ridge, and Barlow’s Knoll—Union troops were forced to retreat and occupy a position southeast of town on Cemetery Hill. The second day’s action was marked with savage fighting at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee failed to dislodge the Union forces on both the left and right flanks. Consequently, at a meeting late on July 2, Union General George Meade warned that the following day’s attack would descend upon the Union center. Meade’s reasoning proved correct as Lee’s battle plan for July 3 called for an assault on the Federal center.

The attack was preceded by a massive Confederate artillery bombardment of the Union center. Shortly after 1 p.m., nearly150 Confederate cannon on Seminary Ridge erupted with flame as they fired on the Union lines. They were answered by approximately 100 Union guns. Yet, for all of the noise and smoke, the Southern artillery largely overshot their targets and failed to destroy the Federal center.

The Rebels mistakenly believed that they had damaged the Northern center. Finally, shortly before 2 p.m., Confederate General George Pickett approached his corps commander, General James Longstreet for permission to enter battle. Longstreet was reluctant to give the order, as he was certain of the slaughter of his men. In sharp contrast, Pickett was confident of success.

There were three brigades in Pickett’s Virginia division, commanded by Richard Garnett, James Kemper, and Lewis Armistead. It is often forgotten that of the 11 brigades that participated in this charge, only three were in Pickett’s division. The left portion of the assault consisted of four brigades of Henry Heth’s division (now led by James Pettigrew) and two brigades from Dorsey Pender’s division (now led by Isaac Trimble). Heth—a first cousin of Pickett—had been wounded in the first day’s action, while Pender fell mortally wounded on the second day’s action.

Union General Winfield Scott Hancock (ARC 529369)

Soon, the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge witnessed something that they would remember for the rest of their lives. The Southerners were marching towards them as if on dress parade. To some Yankees, it looked like an irresistible wave. Yet the bluecoats—led by II Corps commander, Winfield Scott Hancock—were not intimidated by this display.

Union artillery soon struck the oncoming butternut ranks. The Rebels merely closed ranks and pressed onward. But trouble began immediately in Pettigrew’s division, where the two leftmost brigades were faltering. The 8th Ohio, under Lt. Colonel Frank Sawyer, sensed an opportunity. Seeing the confusion in the Southern ranks, he ordered his 160 Buckeyes to charge Brockenbrough’s brigade, sending the Virginians scurrying in confusion towards the rear.

The Confederates would soon experience problems with their right flank as well. General George Stannard’s Vermont brigade swung down the left of Cemetery Ridge and attacked Kemper’s brigade, the extreme right of the Confederate assault. The firing on both flanks caused a tremendous amount of crowding towards the center as they approached the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge.

General Alexander Webb’s Pennsylvania brigade was taking the brunt of the assault in a portion of the field referred to as “The Angle.” Inside the Angle, the mortally wounded Lt. Alonzo Cushing was holding this position to his last breath. The 69th Pennsylvania were the saviors of the Angle, as they fired in two separate directions. Armistead was leading his men towards two of Cushing’s guns when the brigadier fell mortally wounded.

After Armistead’s death, the attack seemed to lose momentum. Other Union regiments arrived at the Angle to halt the Southern advance. A small group of resilient Rebel survivors reached the Copse of Trees.  However, due to overwhelming Union numbers and lack of reinforcements, they were forced to throw down their arms and surrender. This is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” Two other Confederate brigades—Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama brigade and David Lang’s Florida brigade—would briefly participate in the assault on Pickett’s right, but they retreated quickly.

General Robert E. Lee (ARC 525769)

Pickett’s Charge was finished and the dazed survivors retreated back to Seminary Ridge. Miraculously, General Pickett would survive this bloody assault, but many Southerners would never forgive him for not going all the way to the stone wall with his men. Robert E. Lee greeted the disconsolate Rebels, offering words of encouragement and taking full responsibility for the failure of the assault.

The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered on July 4, and the Confederacy was now cut in two. The repulse of Pickett’s Charge and the surrender of this key Southern city spelled the death knell of the Confederacy.

 

 

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