Pickett’s Charge History and Overview
During the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg — July 1 and 2, 1863 — Robert E. Lee and his Confederate forces tried unsuccessfully to flank each end of the Union line. Believing that Major General George Meade had weakened the middle of the federal line to defend his flanks, Lee decided, at a council of war during the night of July 2, to launch a frontal assault on the center of the federal line the next day. The corps commander assigned to lead the assault, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, argued against the attack, but Lee remained resolute.
Longstreet and Lee chose three divisional commanders to lead the attack: Major General George Pickett, Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Major General Isaac R. Trimble. Pickett commanded a division, a part of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps, one of three Confederate corps that took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. Pettigrew had assumed command of Major General Henry Heth’s division after Heth was wounded on July 1. Trimble had assumed command of Major General W. Dorsey Pender’s division after Pender was mortally wounded on July 2. Heth’s and Pender’s divisions were a part of Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps.
Federals Fortify their Lines
At his own council of war on the night of July 2, General Meade correctly predicted that Lee would launch an attack the next day against the center of the federal lines positioned on Cemetery Ridge. Meade warned Major General Winfield S. Hancock, the commander of the center of the Union lines, to fortify his position and prepare for the Confederate assault.
The attack began at roughly 1 p.m. on July 3, when about 135 Confederate cannons began bombarding Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., the shelling ended and about 12,500 Confederate infantrymen emerged from their positions in the woods below Seminary Ridge and marched toward their target nearly a mile away. Unfortunately for the foot soldiers, the Confederate bombardment had done little damage to the Union artillery, and they suffered from heavy fire as they crossed a valley of wide-open terrain.
The result was a Confederate bloodbath. Of the Confederate troops who advanced close enough to the Northern position to mount a charge, only General Lewis Armistead and his brigade breached the Union line. A federal counterattack quickly drove the Confederates back. Some historians have referred to Armistead’s advance as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. In less than an hour, the assault crumbled; the Confederates retreated; and the defenders of Cemetery Ridge cemented a noteworthy Union victory at Gettysburg. Over half of the Confederate troops who began the assault became casualties (killed, wounded, or captured). The Union suffered about 1,500 casualties, compared to approximately 6,500 Confederate casualties, including at least 1,123 killed. Reportedly, General Pickett was inconsolable after the assault and never forgave General Lee for ordering the advance.
Pickett’s Charge Outcome
Pickett’s Charge was a pivotal event in the American Civil War. By assuring the Union of a much-needed victory at Gettysburg, the defenders of Cemetery Ridge ended Robert E. Lee’s second attempt to bring the war to the North, and they disproved the invincibility of the Army of Northern Virginia.
During the late twentieth century, popular media romanticized Pickett’s Charge through works such as Ken Burns’ public television documentary, The Civil War, Michael Shaara’s novel, The Killer Angels, and its movie adaptation, Gettysburg.