The engagement known to History as “Pickett's Charge”, occurred on July 3, 1863 – during the final day of a 3-day conflict of The American Civil War – known as The Battle of Gettysburg (PA). Although incorrectly named (3 Divisions led by 3 Generals) – all participated in “The Charge”, it was General George Puckett's Division (Virginia), that suffered the most casualties). Confederate General Robert E. Lee did not want to fight at the sleepy Pennsylvania Town known to history as Gettysburg. This campaign was his “last effort” at invading The North. His goal (as it had been in the past), was to force pressure against The Northern Capitol of Washington D.C. (perhaps even to take it). Thus (forcing President Abraham Lincoln in unconditional peace), The Confederacy would at least be an Independent Nation. Sending his Chief of Cavalry (JEB Stuart) and his Corps. Ahead of The Army of Northern Virginia was critical.
Lee needed to know the exact whereabouts of The Union Army of The Potomac (who was well aware of Lee's presence – but also did not know where). Lee made it clear that there was to be no outward engagement with Union Forces and that his advance Units were to “Scout in Force” only. Unfortunately, Regiments of Confederate General Rhodes encountered an advance Union Cavalry Patrol of General John Buford (just outside of Gettysburg). Neither side wanted to “cut and run”. Soon engaged, Regiment upon Regiment (from both sides) – began to make their way into the vicinity of Gettysburg. The “unwanted battle” was upon Lee. The Union army took up position to the East of Gettysburg (in a long “Fish Hook” line). This Line extended through a system of Ridges, interconnecting fields and craggy, rock strewn out cropping. The Union Line had to maintain this “blocking “ in front of Lee's Army. For 2 days, both sides fought.
Lee probed each part of The Union Line. Finding a “”weak spot” at the extreme right (in the dense woods of Seminary Ridge) – he ordered Infantry assault after assault against The Union Positions. The defense and repulsion of 13 successive charges by a small Maine Regiment “saved” The Union Army that 2nd day of intense fight. Later that night in War Council, General Lee devised his final plan – a direct Infantry assault against The Union Center. Army of The Potomac Commander Maj.-General George Meade was in “council” as well. He knew rightly that the only option for Lee was a Frontal Assault. Still he could not deplete his Flanks, either. Using what little Reserves he had left – he bolstered his Center. Meade ordered all Artillery to be brought to the Front and deployed on the smaller hills and ridges behind and to the flanks of his Center.
It was their responsibility to “soften” any advance. They would. The Union “Center” was indeed a center. A simple 3 foot stone rough hewn wall (erected by some local Farmer), stretched directly to their front. It would serve as a “natural” defense. Off to the right, a stand of trees (30 to 40 feet tall), provided some shade (and – unknown to The Union Defenders, the primary massing point of The Confederate assault!). Lee's “Lieutenant” General James Longstreet, had bee quite “vocal” to Lee about NOT making this assault. The South's “numbers” (troops) were not easily replaceable (especially after 2 years of protracted War). Still, he followed his orders and assigned Generals Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble's Division to prepare for the assault. General Pickett was given the “honor” of tacking the lead position.
Some 12,500 men were formed into 9 Formations in the woodline opposite The Union Center. It was estimated that the long “Gray Line” was over a mile long. It was at least 1-mile to The Union Center. At 1 P.M. Union Artillery opened their fire into the vast field. Some 170 cannon began to fire into the filed and woodline. Their shells did little (owing to the distance). The Confederate cannon returned fire as well. Within minutes (due to the heat and lack of wind) – the entire field of the advance was covered in a thick cloud of gunsmoke. Visibility was only 5 to 10 feet at best. Without proper visual determination, both sides of Artillery had to “count” the lessening reports of each sides cannons. IF a Battery was suddenly “quiet” (The Rebels thought), they must have “knocked it out”. This was far from the truth, as Union Battery Commanders were wisely conserving their ammunition. Soon, both side Artillery (300 total), stopped. The command was given to Pickett – advance!
The mile long Line of 9 Brigades advanced in slow and steady order. Despite History's “misnomer” The Rebels “marched” in even and steady lines at pace. The smoke still covered the battlefield. Commanders had been told to centralize their Forces toward the stand of trees to the center of The Union Lines. Soon, broken Farming fences, uneven terrain and holes from the Artillery barrage began to slow up the advancing Confederates. Many Units had to stop and re-align themselves. That was when the cannon opened fire! The Union (who as was said wisely saved their ammunition) – had switched from Solid to Canister Shot. Now each gun was a “giant shotgun” - firing hundreds of pieces of shrapnel into the advancing Rebels.
In kind, The Union Center, opened up their Infantry volleys into the now “ghostly forms” of enemy soldiers advancing from the cannon smoke. The Rebels were still only HALFWAY in the field. Being cut to bits, many Units lowered and fired volleys of their own into the Union Center. Some fired and advanced as best they could – each trying to reach the stand of trees or the by now visible stone wall. General Louis Armistead (the only Confederate General at the front of the initial “contact Unit”, placed his hat on his saber so that he could be seen by his men. They advanced to the stone wall. The Rebels and Federal Forces were now engaged in fierce hand to hand combat. So did Armistead (up to the point of his being mortally wounded (shot) AND bayoneted!
By this time however, the Southern Forces were too depleted to be of any use. They simply did NOT have the men. Half of the advance force lay dead, dying and wounded on the mile long expanse of field. The fighting at the Union Center (known to History as “The High Water Mark”) - had reached it's conclusion. The Union Center held. The field was theirs. The broken and crippled remains of 9 Brigades limped back to the woodline (where they had started a scant 1-hour prior). General Pickett's “Division” was decimated with 3,000 killed and close to 900 wounded and or captured as such). Nearly 7,000 Confederate casualties were listed (known). The Union fared little better as Victors.
They suffered 1,500 dead and wounded in their defense of the Center. Lee had no choice but to retreat from the field. Gettysburg was a Union victory. It was Lee's last attempt at The North. His and his Army will “escape” capture by Union General Meade (who unwisely did NOT follow-up his victory). This inactivity will cause President Lincoln to yet again relieve yet another Union General from command of The Army. However, Lincoln had his “eye” on a determined Western General for Command........and his name was Grant.