Pickett’s Charge was the name given to a massive frontal assault on the Union lines on the afternoon of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The charge on July 3, 1863, was ordered by Robert E. Lee, and was intended to smash through the federal lines and destroy the Army of the Potomac.
The long march across open fields more than 12,000 troops led by General George Pickett has become a legendary example of battlefield heroism. Yet the attack failed, and as many as 6,000 Confederates were left dead or wounded.
In the following decades, Pickett’s Charge became known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” It seemed to mark the moment when the Confederacy lost any hope of winning the Civil War.
Following the failure to break the Union lines at Gettysburg, the Confederates were forced to end their invasion of the North, and to withdraw from Pennsylvania and retreat back to Virginia. The rebel army would never again mount a major invasion of the North.
It has never been entirely clear just why Lee ordered the charge by Pickett. There are some historians who contend that the charge was only part of Lee’s battle plan that day, and a cavalry attack led by General J.E.B. Stuart which failed to accomplish its objective doomed the effort of the infantry.
The Third Day at Gettysburg
By the end of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union Army seemed to be in control. A fierce Confederate attack late on the second day against Little Round Top had failed to destroy the Union’s left flank. And on the morning of the third day the two enormous armies were facing each other and anticipating another violent day.
The Union commander, General George Meade, had some military advantages. His troops occupied high ground, and even after losing many men and officers on battle’s first two days, he could still fight an effective defensive battle.
General Robert E. Lee had decisions to make. His army was in enemy territory, and had not struck a decisive blow to the Union's Army of the Potomac. One of his most capable generals, James Longstreet, believed the Confederates should head southward, and draw the Union into a battle on more favorable terrain.
Lee disagreed with Longstreet's assessment. He felt he had to destroy the Union’s most powerful fighting force on northern soil. That defeat would resonate deeply in the North, cause citizens to lose faith in the war, and lead to the Confederacy winning the war.
And so Lee devised a plan that would have 150 cannons open fire with a massive artillery barrage that would last for nearly two hours. And then the troops of General George Pickett, which had just marched up to the battlefield the day before, would go into action.
The Great Cannon Duel at Gettysburg
At about noon on July 3, 1863, about 150 Confederate cannons began shelling the Union lines. The federal artillery, about 100 cannons, replied. And for nearly two hours the ground shook.
After the first few minutes, Confederate gunners lost their aim, and many shells began to sail beyond the Union lines. While the overshooting caused chaos in the rear, the front-line troops and artillery the Confederates hoped to destroy were relatively unscathed.
The federal artillery commanders began to cease firing for two reasons: it led the Confederates to believe gun batteries had been put out of action, and it saved ammunition for the anticipated infantry attack.
The Infantry Charge
The Confederate infantry charge was centered around the division of General George Pickett, a proud Virginian whose troops had just arrived at Gettysburg and hadn’t seen action yet. As they prepared to make their attack, Pickett addressed some of his men, saying, “Don’t forget today, you are from old Virginia.”
As the artillery barrage ended, Pickett’s men, joined by other units, emerged from a line of trees. Their front was about a mile wide. About 12,500 men, arranged behind their regimental flags, began to march across the fields.
The Confederates advanced as if on parade. And the Union artillery opened up on them. Artillery shells designed to explode in the air and send shrapnel downward began to kill and maim advancing soldiers.
And as the line of Confederates kept advancing, the Union gunners switched to deadly canister shot, metal balls which tore into troops like gigantic shotgun shells. And as the advance still continued, the Confederates entered a zone where Union riflemen could fire into the charge.
"The Angle" and the "Clump of Trees" Became Landmarks
As the Confederates came close to the Union lines, they focused on a clump of trees that would become a grim landmark. Nearby, a stone wall made a 90 degree turn, and “The Angle” also became an iconic spot on the battlefield.
Despite the withering casualties, and the hundreds of dead and wounded left behind, several thousand Confederates made it to the Union defensive line. Brief and intense scenes of combat, much of it hand to hand, occurred. But the Confederate attack had failed.
The attackers who survived were taken prisoner. The dead and wounded littered the field. Witnesses were stunned by the carnage. A mile of fields seemed covered with bodies.
Aftermath of Pickett’s Charge
As survivors of the infantry charge made their way back to the Confederate positions, it was clear the battle had taken a massively bad turn for Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The invasion of the North had been stopped.
On the following day, July 4, 1863, both armies tended to their wounded. It seemed the Union commander, General George Meade, might order an attack to finish off the Confederates. But with his own ranks badly shattered, Meade thought better of that plan.
On July 5, 1863, Lee began his retreat back to Virginia. Union cavalry began operations to harass the fleeing southerners, but Lee was eventually able to travel across western Maryland and cross the Potomac River back into Virginia.
Pickett’s charge, and the last desperate advance toward the “Clump of Trees” and “The Angle” had been, in a sense, where the offensive war by the Confederates had ended.