Lessons Not Learned: The Folly of Pickett’s Charge

This presentation was given at the Fresno Historical Society’s Civil War Revisited on Saturday, October 19.

Gettysburg holds a special place in American memory. For the North, the battle was cause for celebration — it helped stem Confederate momentum, kept the British from allying with the South, and gave further credence to Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans at the expense of those in the North advocating an ignoble peace. It also allowed Lincoln to recast the war, as he began to with the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of the year, as a fight for freedom: that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For the South, it was the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Never again would Southern forces, clad in gray, reach so far into Union territory. As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust, “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” — that moment before the war was lost.

For all Americans, Gettysburg is enshrined as representative of courage and valor. No aspect of the war better illustrates, in the public’s mind, that courage and valor quite like Pickett’s Charge.

Following the battle of Chancellorsville, a Confederate victory that burnished the reputation of Robert E. Lee to massive proportions, Lee’s army, the Army of Northern Virginia, went looking for a decisive victory. One large blow, the Confederates thought, would “strengthen Peace Democrats, discredit Republicans, reopen the question of foreign recognition, and perhaps even conquer peace and recognition from the Union government itself.”[1] The week before Gettysburg, Lee told Gen. Isaac Trimble how he expected his campaign into the North to go:

Our army is in good spirits … and can be concentrated … in twenty-four hours … When [the enemy] hear where we are they will make forced marches to interpose … between us and Baltimore and Philadelphia. They will come up … strung out in a long line much demoralized when they come into Pennsylvania. I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it … drive one corps back on another and by successive [blows] … create a panic and virtually destroy their army.[2]

In short, a significant victory on Union territory might win the war.

The two armies met in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, almost by accident. On July 1, A.P. Hill’s division was in Gettysburg looking for a supply of much-needed shoes when they met two brigades of Union cavalry lead by John Buford. Lee hurried over, as did Gen. George Meade who had taken over the Union’s Army of the Potomac for “Fighting Joe” Hooker after the Federal disaster at Chancellorsville. Lee pointed to Cemetery Hill, where the Union army held a strong position, and told James Longstreet, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” The battle of Gettysburg had begun.[3]

The first day was a startling success for the Confederates. Though the Army of the Potomac held its own early in the day, it tired and soon was pushed back on its heels. Confederate reinforcements were coming much faster than Union ones, and they were holding on desperately to their position. Lee told 2nd Corps Commander Richard Ewell to advance and attack Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Were Stonewall Jackson, whose division Ewell took over, still alive and in his place, he most assuredly would have. But Jackson was in the grave. Ewell did not find it practicable, and by the time the Army of Northern Virginia could have mustered an attack, Federal reinforcements had arrived and the day had ended. Though Lee had come so close to the knockout blow, the battle would have to be continued the next day.[4]

The second day offered no such consolation for Lee. Seeking to repeat Hannibal’s victory at Cannae, Lee sent Longstreet’s fresh divisions to attack the Union left and Ewell’s to the right, hoping to envelope and annihilate the enemy. Longstreet, however, was slow to attack, not getting his troops into position until four o’clock. Perhaps Longstreet delayed because he thought Lee’s plan disastrous. The Army of the Potomac was situated at a concentrated, central position above the stretched position of the smaller Army of Northern Virginia. No matter where the Rebels attacked, they would be coming uphill. Longstreet favored the defensive position, arguing for the Confederates to move between Washington and the Union troops, forcing the Federals to go on the offensive. Lee, though, would not have it. Whether this was the cause of the delay, the Confederate troops, once they got going, could not break through. Union troops on Little Round Top, led by the former professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, held off the Rebels for nearly two hours until, desperate and out of ammunition, Chamberlain drove them off by ordering his troops to fix bayonets on their empty rifles and charge. The Army of the Potomac’s left flank was spared.[5]

As the day ended, each side remained entrenched where they were when they day began. The carnage was almost unfathomable: the two-day total for casualties on both sides was nearly 35,000, the worst for a single battle in the war to date. The battle, however, was not over. The night of July 2, the Union generals huddled to contemplate just how the vaunted R.E. Lee might attack them, and how they could repulse him. “If Lee attacks tomorrow,” Gen. Meade said, “it will be in your front.” His reasoning was that Lee had already attacked both flanks and failed. If he attacked once more, it would be in the center.[6]

At the Confederate headquarters, Lee was convinced that the Army of Northern Virginia had almost achieved victory. With the advantage of one more day of fighting, Lee might achieve the decisive victory he sought. Initially, he intended to have Ewell and Longstreet attack simultaneously on the right and the left, with Hill’s division waiting to exert pressure where advantageous. This was essentially what the Rebels did the previous two days, and Lee was convinced that a little push was all that was needed.[7]

The Union army scuttled those plans early in the morning. Meade seized the initiative and attacked Ewell’s division early in the morning on July 3, and Lee’s plans for a coordinated assault on both Union flanks were now in disarray. Noticing that Meade seemingly failed to reinforce his center, Lee rode to Longstreet and informed “Old Peter” of his new plans to attack. Now, one of Longstreet’s divisions would, with the aid of two of Hill’s, attack the center of the Union position and attempt to achieve a breakthrough. The commander of the brigade was George Pickett, and the maneuver would forever be known as Pickett’s Charge.[8]

Pickett was a mediocre soldier — he finished last in the West Point class of ’46 that included George McClellan and Stonewall Jackson — whose division did not fight at Chancellorsville and saw scant action to this point at Gettysburg. He pined for eternal glory, and accepted Lee’s challenge without reservation. Longstreet, however, agonized over the decision. “General Lee,” he said, “there never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” Another told Lee that he opposed the maneuver, explaining that “the enemy have had all night to intrench and reinforce. I had been pursuing a broken enemy, and the situation now is very different.”[9]

Lee stuck with it anyway. It was not because he did not know it was risky. He knew that frontal assaults were rarely successful. Thanks to innovations in weaponry, rifles could fire at twice the range of the previous models, with exceedingly deadly accuracy. This gave the defensive position a major advantage. Given a line with any kind of protection, the defense could simply wait for the enemy to get in range and fire. The results could be catastrophic — the combination of the innovation of arms and antiquated field tactics played an outsized role in the horrific number of casualties during the Civil War. Lee himself had experience defending against a frontal assault. At Fredericksburg, less than a year before the battle of Gettysburg, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside engaged in a frontal assault on an entrenched Confederate army dug in along the hills south of the Rappahannock River. Burnside sent his men and Lee and his troops repelled them: one soldier remarked that “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.” He was right. The Army of the Potomac lost that battle, and almost 13,000 casualties with it. The odds that a charge similar to this, like the one Lee was pursuing, would succeed were very slim. Lee, however, had tried something similar at Chancellorsville and succeeded spectacularly, and he had great confidence that his soldiers could do just about anything he asked them to.[10]

But Pickett’s Charge, under any conceivable measure, was a colossal mistake. Lee’s generals thought it was a mistake; it was contrary to conventional wisdom; even Lee knew its chances of success were small. Though Lee was renowned for his humility, and as a supreme Southern gentleman no doubt this reputation was deserved, this attack was an act of desperate hubris. Perhaps his previous victories, spectacular as they were, had gone to his head. He believed his men invincible, able to carry out any order he gave, no matter how risky. He also knew that the only way to a swift end to the war was through a big victory in Northern territory. That was why he was in Pennsylvania in the first place. To leave without such a victory would, in Lee’s mind, be to leave a golden opportunity for victory on the table. And, as Lee had demonstrated again and again the previous year, victory was achieved with bold strokes, not a defensive posture. Lee’s overconfidence in the abilities of himself and those of his soldiers, along with his desire for a decisive victory and the risk-taking nature of his personality, led him to overrule his generals and take on such a venture. Pickett’s Charge, protestations to the contrary, would go on.

It was now near three o’clock. Pickett, eager for everlasting glory, asked Longstreet, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet, so overcome with grief at what he feared was about to happen, could only nod. Pickett rode to his men and placed them in attack formation. “No cheering, no firing, no breaking from common to quick step,” he commanded. This was a grim affair. One chaplain offered prayer, and one captain led his troops in the singing of a hymn.[11]

With the signal, the men started off. Looking off from the distance, Longstreet said, “I do not want to make this charge. I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” The Union artillery, which had sent a steady barrage of fire in the Confederates’ direction, suddenly stopped to conserve ammunition. Out of the lifting smoke emerged the Rebel troops, marching in perfect lockstep with one another, silent. Frontal attacks normally included officers shouting themselves hoarse in order to hearten the troops about to enter battle. The famous Rebel Yell emboldened Confederate troops as much as it put fear in the hearts of Union soldiers. But now, all was quiet. One New York soldier, writing home after the battle, remembered the scene as “Beautiful, gloriously beautiful, did that vast array appear in the lovely little valley.”[12]

The Federals resumed firing. The Rebels had no chance against this steady barrage. The assault collapsed; in only one area did Confederate troops reach Union lines. At a spot called The Angle, a group of Southern soldiers, led by Gen. Lewis Armistead, breached the Union line. “Come on, boys! Give them the cold steel!” he cried, clutching his sword. “Follow me!” Armistead was then killed reaching for a Union musket, along with hundreds of others who followed him. Those who had not already retreated turned tail and ran. The battle was over. Pickett’s Charge lasted only half an hour. Only half of the 14,000 soldiers who were sent returned, and Pickett’s division was decimated: He lost two-thirds of his men.[13]

As his soldiers raced back to the Confederate line, desperate to escape sure doom, none other than R.E. Lee was there to greet them. “It’s all my fault,” Lee would say to any who would listen. “It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” Longstreet, looking out at his depleted troops, remarked later “that day was the saddest of my life.” Pickett, listening to Lee’s instructions after he had returned, was obviously in no state to discuss battle plans. “General Lee,” he said with tears in his eyes, “I have no division now.”[14]

As much as Gettysburg electrified the Union — and indeed, northerners considered the next day the most glorious Fourth of July celebration ever — it also depressed the Confederacy. Lee, in particular, had staked his whole plan for winning the war on a massive victory on Northern soil; he would now be forced to return to his native Virginia, keeping on the defensive, while his beloved homeland would be ravaged by two more years of war. “It’s all my fault,” he told Longstreet the next day, “I thought my men were invincible.” He even offered his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, writing, “No one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others?” Davis, of course, refused his resignation. Lee and his men would continue to win glorious battles and build on their legacy. But never again would the Confederacy threaten the Union like it did from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Never again would the South come as close to winning its independence. Said writer and historian Shelby Foote, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having R.E. Lee. That was the mistake he made, the mistake of all mistakes.”[15]

Robert E. Lee certainly deserves the sainted reputation he has earned over the years. His shocking victories defied opposing generals and conventional wisdom alike, and his development of trench warfare tactics toward the tail end of the war foreshadowed World War I. His willingness to take all the blame for the loss at Gettysburg certainly speaks to his honor and virtue — upon hearing Lee repeatedly absolve his men of any and all blame, one Southern soldier found it “impossible to look at him or listen to him without feeling the strongest admiration.”[16] However, Pickett’s Charge was an act of supreme folly, and it was thought so by a great many people at the time. Lee, due to the combination of the desire for a decisive victory and a hubristic belief in the ability of his soldiers, foolishly ordered it. Though this fact certainly should not tarnish his legacy, it should temper it. Pickett’s Charge was Lee’s folly.


[1] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 647.

[2] Phil Leigh, “The High-Water Mark of the Confederacy,” The New York Times, July 5, 2013, accessed October 8, 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/the-high-water-mark-of-the-confederacy/?_r=0

[3] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 653-656.

[4] Ibid, 654-655; Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1955), 250-251.

[5] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 656-659; Catton, This Hallowed Ground, 252-253.

[6] Bruce Catton, Glory Road, (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952), 306.

[7] Leigh, “The High-Water Mark of the Confederacy”; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian, (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 521-522.

[8] Foote, The Civil War, 528-531.

[9] Foote, The Civil War, 530-532; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 661-662.

[10] Leigh, “The High-Water Mark of the Confederacy”; Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1962), 190-191; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 571-572.

[11] Foote, The Civil War, 551.

[12] Foote, The Civil War, 548-552; Catton, Glory Road, 314; Paddy Griffith, “Packs Down — Charge!: The Frontal Attack,” in With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, ed. Robert Cowley, (New York: Berkley Books, 2001), 240.

[13] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 662; Foote, The Civil War, 562.

[14] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 663; Foote, The Civil War, 568.

[15] Foote, The Civil War, 569; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 663-666; The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns, Episode Five.

[16] Foote, The Civil War, 568.

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