Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 3, 2013

Gettysburg, Part II


July 3 is the anniversary of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which included Pickett’s Charge.*

Although I have no sympathy for the Lost Cause, on this day it seems appropriate to quote Faulkner’s passage (from Intruder in the Dust) that captures the place that Pickett’s Charge occupies in the minds of so many Southerners:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

(Mind you, I never much liked Intruder in the Dust when it was assigned in 9th Grade English, and I do not think of it as one of Faulkner’s stronger novels – but that quoted bit is a gem among the slag. For a little more on Pickett’s Charge and the Lost Cause, see this old post by Jim Chen.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Today is also a good day to point to this column in the New York Times by Allen C. Guelzo – professor of history, Gettysburg College, and author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. An excerpt:

It took no more than a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg for the men who had fought there to realize how important it had been. “The Battle of Gettysburg, like Waterloo, must stand conspicuous in the history of all ages,” wrote a staff officer, Frank Aretas Haskell, who himself would die less than a year later in a much less conspicuous battle at a place called Cold Harbor. And even by the most remote measure, Haskell was right.

For over a year before, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his homespun Army of Northern Virginia had defied every expectation, and routinely humiliated every thrust its opposite number, the Army of the Potomac, had made at the Confederacy’s vitals in Virginia. Union generals – George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker – had been installed, and just as readily removed, until by 1863, a soldier in the 16th North Carolina could boast that they were merely waiting for the Yankees “to put up another General for us to whip.” When instead it was the Confederates who were defeated at Gettysburg, the surprise was almost unbearable. “The campaign is a failure,” wrote one rebel officer to his sister on July 17, “and the worst failure that the South has ever made … and no blow since the fall of New Orleans has been so telling against us.”

Prof. Guelzo’s piece is short but densely packed with sharp insights and sage analysis. In one passage, he looks at the contributions of junior officers on the Union side:

Looked at unemotionally, it was not Meade, but an unnoticed array of junior officers in the Union Army, making split-second, intuitive decisions on their own initiative, who pushed the Confederates back. It was midlevel brigade commanders like Strong Vincent, George Sears Greene and Samuel Sprigg Carroll who sprang into situations and headed off disasters that a few minutes’ hesitation would have brought down on all their heads. It was John Buford, skillfully playing his handful of cavalrymen like decoys to buy time for Union infantry to reach him. It was the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard, sizing up Cemetery Hill as the real key to the battle and making sure that it was fortified by Union artillery.

In keeping with the theme of the contributions of junior officers and commanders to the Union victory, Col. Bateman highlights the contributions of a young brigadier general by the name of George Armstrong Custer. Bateman’s hypothesis is that Pickett’s Charge was supposed to be part of a coordinated effort with the Confederate cavalry sweeping behind the Union lines, wrecking havoc among the Union baggage train and ammunition stores:

I have come to believe that Lee’s full battle plan was to exploit that paranoia among the Union troops — the fear that the wily General Lee would get behind them once again — to his advantage. To do that this time he would send his cavalry forces under General J.E.B. Stuart wide around the northern and eastern edge of the Union infantry.

To that end, he gave Stuart instructions to get in among the baggage and ammunition trains and wreak as much havoc as possible. The timing was critical. This assault was to take place prior to the commencement of the Confederate concentrated artillery barrage on the center of the Union lines.

Lee expected that the Union army, seeing columns of smoke rising to its rear, yet again, would fold and collapse if then struck hard in the center. It was not an unreasonable plan. At a minimum, Meade would have to react to the dirty black pillars rising into the sky, diverting troops to preserve, at a minimum, his artillery ammunition. And that would mean more and more Union soldiers would see other units marching to the “rear,” and this too would have a psychological effect on those units remaining. Then he would launch his cannonade, and ultimately an assault on the weakened Union center.

The CSA infantry would charge, the frightened and demoralized Union troops defending the ridge would retreat or flee, and it would be Chancellorsville all over again.

This is where Custer came in:

Out there on the Union right flank, away off about three miles to the east of it actually, Custer’s Michigan brigade was outnumbered when J.E.B. Stuart showed up with four brigades of rebel cavalry, probably around 4,500 men, but quite possibly more than 5,000. …

Custer had already defied orders from his own division commander to come over to the Union left (southern) flank, because he saw the reality of what was on the Union right. The division commander on this side had only a single brigade in place, and that one was understrength. Custer also knew that he had one of the largest brigades of cavalry in the Army and that there would be too few men, if he left, to secure this flank. He could see in all of this that there was a very possible threat to the rear of the Union infantry. So, despite being 23 and a general himself for less than a week, he ignored the order from his own division commander and did what his eyes told him was right: He accepted the request of the cavalry division commander on the site and he and his men stayed on the Union Right flank. Then J.E.B. Stuart attacked.

What followed was a swirling, chaotic mass of charges and countercharges, mounted and dismounted, as the Union forces wrestled with a Confederate mass several times their own size. If the Rebels had gotten through and in amongst the baggage Lee’s grand vision would likely have come true. But Custer’s men, personally led in every single charge by their boy-general, inflicted a stunning and nearly unprecedented check on the celebrated cavalry corps of Stuart. The crisis on the flank witnessed Custer riding to the front of his last remaining uncommitted regiment and leading them in a desperate meeting charge against eight full regiments of Confederate cavalry. Bellowing, “Come on you Wolverines!” Custer took his men into the vortex and, amazingly, checked the rebels. Having two entire regiments equipped with the new fangled Spencer repeating rifles probably did not hurt either.

Stuart was stopped, checked just as the rebel artillery was working on the center of the American lines. Lee’s greater plan, lacking that critical element that would have weakened the Union line, was now unhinged.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

People like stories, and the human mind likes to construct neat narratives out of the fog of the present and the messy facts of history. Good narratives often have an exciting climax, and the popular narrative of the Civil War has turned Gettysburg into the climactic battle of the war and Pickett’s Charge into the climax of that battle.

I do think it is useful to not overstate the importance of Gettysburg. For example, the fall of Vicksburg, which took place the same week as the Battle of Gettysburg and which completed the bisection of the Confederacy, was arguably more important to the overall strategic development of the war than was Lee’s failed invasion of the North. (At some point in his massive Narrative, which I do not have at hand, Shelby Foote says that one of his goals in writing his history of the war was to highlight the importance of events in the “western theater” of the conflict and to correct what he viewed as an imbalance in favor of focusing on, essentially, the war in the neighborhood of Washington and Richmond.) In this post, Ilya Somin notes that many modern historians maintain that “the Confederacy still had a chance to win by demoralizing northern public opinion during the 1864 campaign.” For that matter, one can also imagine scenarios in which the Confederates win Gettysburg but still lose the war – for example, because of events out West – just as Napoleon might have won at Waterloo but still have lost everything in a later battle.

Nevertheless, Gettysburg remains a turning point, as the myth of Lee’s invincibility was shattered and as the CSA could never really recover from the losses it sustained in that battle. In his column, Prof. Guelzo briefly mentions the decades’ worth of “recriminations, slander and shunning” by Southern veterans and historians who sought to assign blame for the failure of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania. Prof. Somin also mentions these arguments seeking to assign blame. Again, though, it is important to have some perspective. Fundamentally, the rebels failed to win a victory at Gettysburg because the soldiers of the US Army heroically resisted them and beat back repeated assaults over the course of three days. Pickett’s charge failed because of the men in blue that were waiting at the top of Cemetery Ridge. As Prof. Somin says, “The people who turned back Pickett’s Charge and the Confederate attacks of the previous two days deserve our gratitude on this anniversary.”

In short, as Gen. Pickett said, when people asked him why the charge failed on that July day in 1863, “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Image Credit: Map of the Battle of Gettysburg, Day 3, “Pickett’s Charge.” Map by Hal Jespersen,, and used under a CC BY 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

* As many will no doubt point out today, “Pickett’s Charge” is something of a misnomer, since Pickett’s division was only one of three divisions making the charge against the Union center that day. My understanding is that Pickett’s wife and various Virginia newspapers played key roles in assigning that name to the failed charge. The name “Pickett’s Charge” obscures the part that Gen. Trimble and Gen. Pettigrew’s divisions played. I am given to understand that Pettigrew’s North Carolinians were particularly annoyed by the emphasis that subsequent writers gave to Pickett’s Virginians.

Alternate names for the charge might include “Longstreet’s Charge,” since Gen. Longstreet was, on that day, the corps commander for all three divisions listed above and the overall commander tasked with effecting the attack. But that seems unfair because Longstreet opposed the charge and urged Lee not to attack the Union center. We could also call it “Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew’s Charge,” but that’s more than a tad clunky. In this post, Col. Bateman opts for the “Pickett-Pettigrew Assault,” which is a little better, but not great.


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