Skip to main content

Full text of "A short discussion of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg / by David K. Winslow."

See other formats


David it. Wlnslow 
Jan. 6, 1943 



The American Civil War as one would see It today In retro- 
spect was In Itself a singular struggle. Producing a contest 
which pitted state against state, brother against brother, and 
father against son, it principally grew out of attempts to set- 
tle, by futile arbitration, age old economic and political prob- 
lems dating back to pre-Revolutlon days- Aside from those spe- 
cific arguments presumably settled by the conflict, the Civil 
War could further be distinguished for the magnitude and scope 
of its military operations. Thus the Great Rebellion gave to 
our history some of the greatest tactical engagements of the 19th 
century. Of these numerous battles, perhaps the most notable 
In point of Importance to the total effort occurred at Gettys- 
burgh, Pennsylvania on the first three days of July I863. Right- 
fully called the turning point of the war, Gettysburg, however 
owed a large part of its right to glory to the magnificent but 
futile charge of jfiajor General George E. Pickett, Confederate 
States of America and his crack Virginia division. 

To obtain the necessary insight into the background 
surrounding the Confederate decision to attack on the third and 
last day of the battle, one should briefly review the operations 
at Gettysburg prior to July 3rd. The disposition of the troops 
was as follows: General Meade's Union Army of the Potomac was 
deployed roughly in the form of a huge question mark along a 
ridge line due south of Gettysburg proper. This chain of small 
bills, known as Cemetery Ridge, culminated on the north at 


Gulp'a Hill and on tbe south at Big Round Top. General Lee's 
Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was deployed In the form 
of a horseshoe with the left arm stretching along a similar ridge 
called Seminary, directly facing the Union position. The upper 

bend of the shoe passed through Gettysburg I after July 1) while 


the right arm stretched past Gulp a Hill to tbe south. 

On July If the opposing forces made their first con- 
tact northwest of Gettysburg, where fluford's Union cavalry came 
upon the advance elements of A.P.Hill's corps. Thus the first 
day's battle could be summarized as a Jockeying operation for 
Positions by the two forces. Upon this first day, the Confeder- 
ates gained the brief Initiative after Swell's corps drove Into 
and occupied the town In addition to the lower slopes of Gulp's 
Hill. The second day found very fierce engagements occurring 
at the southern ends of the ridges. Here General Longstreet, one 
of Lee's most able lieutenants, made a brave effort to dislodge 
the Union troops from their commanding position on Big Round Top. 
-after the bitterest of fighting, the Confederates were' finally 
thrown back to their original defensive position. The third of 
July dawned clear and warm. There was no omen of the tremendous 
carnage which was soon to follow. During the morning, however, 
there was considerable activity around Gulp's Hill where the 
Confederates were finally dispersed from their positions on the 
lower slopes. **t this stage, the engagement had generally reached 
a condition of stalemate. General nieade did not seem prone to 
1. Gilbert, J. Warren, The Blue and Grey , see map 


presa an attack. On the other hand General Lee, because of his 
dwindling supplies, had to conolude the fight immediately or re- 
tire. He chose the aggressive move by sending Pickett toward Into 
one of the most famous charges of military history. 

f'he drama and personal touch connected with the deci- 
sion to make and execution of this bold attack deserve a large 
part in any discussion wherein the name of Pickett la mentioned. 
George Edward Pickett was a Virginian first and foremost. After 
early schooling In Richmond, however, he journeyed to Qulncy 
Illinois, where he began studying law in the firm of his uncle. 
Daily he associated with men who tried cases In court with the 
promising, backwoods attorney, Abraham Lincoln. While In Illinois, 
Pickett received an appointment to West Point and thus began his 
military career. He showed no great promise at the udilitary Acade- 
m y yet subsequently did manage to graduate at the bottom of his 
class. It was not until some time later during tne Mexican War 
that Pickett first began to demonstrate his traits as a true mili- 
tary character. He distinguished himself with General Scott's 
expedition into Mexico and later was praised for his firmness 
in dealing with the British during that dispute over the bound- 
ariea of the Washington territory in 1859. 

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Pickett immediately 
resigned his commission aa captain In the 9th United States In- 
fantry and traveled all the way back across the continent to give 

2. Ibid , pp 44-5U 61-66 

3. Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln Vol . II, pp 340-341 


his service in the defense of his- birth state. Prior to Gettys- 
burg, Pickett as would be expected, showed great promise as a com- 
manding officer. He greatly improved his reputation by his ac~ 

tlons particularly In the battles of Seven Pines and Gaines Jtlll. 

In appearance, Pickett made quite a handsome figure. 
He is described by historians as a "tall arrow of a man." With 
his neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, his long ringlets of au- 
burn hair flying behind &s he galloped his horse, and his well 

fitted uniform, he oommanded the respect of all who ever witnessed 


him leading his troops Into battle. 

■Pickett's charge shortly after noon of the 3rd day at 
Gettysburg was directed at the center of the Union's defenses 
along Cemetery ridge. Lee's selection of the actual position to 
make the thrust was poor, since the men were forced to cross near- 
ly three quarters of a mile of open ground which gradually sloped 
up to the Union position. The story of the meeting of Pickett 
and his corps commander, General Longstreet, immediately before 
the attack provides an added personal touch. Pickett, upon re- 
ceiving orders to report .approached Longstreet and said, "General 
shall I advance?" Knowing that It was the only remaining action 
possible to stave off defeat yet unable to give the command, 
Longstreet turned his face away and nodded slightly. Pickett, 
grasping the situation, Immediately saluted and said, "I am going 
to move forward sir." Before he Joined his troops, he handed 

4. Freeman, D.S., Le e * s Lieutenants ,pr.15B 

5. Sandburg, Carl, op_. clt . , pg«340 


Longstreet a letter addressed to a girl In Richmond whom he was 
to marry If he lived. On the back of the envelope, he had writ- 
ten, "If Old Peter's (Longstreet *s) nod means death, good-bye, 
and G-od bless you little one ."Pickett then galloped to the head 
of his division and the attack was begun. The Confederates broke 
from the woods along the eastern slopes of Seminary Ridge In per- 
fect formation and stepped out smartly as if on routine drill at 
the parade ground. It was a tremendous sight, for with Pickett's 
division and supporting brigades, the force consisted of about 
15,000 men. Advancing in three waves, the troops had proceeded 
for perhaps a hundred yards when all hell broke loose, rildden 
Union artillery batteries and the concentrated infantry fire cut 
the lines to ribbons. But with dogged tenacity the remnant con- 
tinued to move forward. Prooably half the Initial force actually 
reached the Union position and bitter hand to hand fighting en- 
sued until the rebels, their numbers so thoroughly depleted, were 
completely routed. Pickett, as fate would have it, came back un- 
scathed, but he later wrote his fiance the following* "Your sold- 
ier lives and mourns and but for you, he would rather, a million 
times rather, be back there with his dead to sleep for all time 
in an unknown grave." The following day Lee began his retreat 
back to Virginia leaving 23»OO0 casualties on a field which sub- 
sequently proved later to be the high water mark of the Army of 

the Cpnfegerate.States of America. ^' 
' *5T "Sandburg 7 "Carir"op"" c it "pa .341 
Gilbert, J .Warren i op. clt . pg.99 




1. Sandburg, Par 1. Abraham Line o In - X be Vtar Years 

New York, Harcourt, Brace <£ Co. .1939 

2. Freeman, D.S., Lee 'a Lieutenants Vol . 11 

New York, Oharles Scrlbner 'e Sons 1942 

3- Gilbert, J.Warren, The Blue and Gr ey 

Gilbert, 1922