Pickett's Charge: The Turning Point of the Turning Point

Pickett's Charge: The Turning Point of the Turning Point

As Gettysburg is regarded as the turning point in the Civil War, Pickett’s Charge is regarded as the turning point in the three day of Battle of Gettysburg.

This charge took place on July 3, 1863, and was General Robert E. Lee’s last, best chance at regaining the momentum the Confederacy enjoyed after night fell on Gettysburg on July 1. Yet instead of regaining momentum, the fractured military maneuver sealed the fate of thousands of those in the charge itself, and many hundreds of thousands more who had or would give up their lives in battles against the North.

The charge itself was of Lee’s design, and it was intended to break Union Maj. General George Meade’s line on Cemetery Ridge. 

The execution of the charge was placed in the hands of Lee’s trusted subordinate Gen. James Longstreet. One early problem with this was that Longstreet did not agree with the charge; neither the timing nor the methodology behind it.

In fact, as Jeffrey D. Wert shows, Longstreet wrote in retrospect that Lee “should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.”

Under Longstreet were George Pickett, Johnston Pettigrew, and Isaac Trimble, all of whom were busy getting their men into place on the morning of July 3. Their assault was to be preceded by a bombardment aimed at taking out the Union cannon that could be used against attacking Confederate soldiers.

Longstreet placed Porter Alexander over the Confederate cannons, and Lee himself narrowed the focus of the bombardment to cover the charge of Pickett’s men before the action began.

Alexander later wrote that his orders were “to give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not simply meant to make a noise, but to try and cripple [the enemy]–to tear [the enemy] limbless.” 

Yet in the end, Alexander also wrote that the position chosen for attack played to the Federals’ strengths. He wrote: “The point selected and the method of attack would certainly have been chosen for us by the enemy had they had the choice.”

Even if this were not true, there is strong possibility the Confederates would have still lost on July 3 because the bombardment Lee planned did not take place as it was supposed to.

There was heavy artillery use in the hours before the charge began, but this was to be followed by a continued barrage during the charge itself; a fierce bombardment that moved Pickett’s enemies from in front of him. That part of the plan never materialized because the Confederates had spent the majority of their ammunition.

As Lee wrote after the fact: “[During the attack] our own [guns] having nearly exhausted their ammunition… were unable to reply, or render the necessary support to the attacking party. Owing to this fact, which was unknown to me when the assault took place, the enemy was enabled to throw a strong force of infantry against our left” and repel the attack. 

More than half of Pickett’s 6,000 men were left “dead, bleeding, or captured on the field at Gettysburg, including all 15 regimental commanders.” 

With Pickett’s men, the Confederacy’s hopes of winning the Civil War perished as well. 

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