Pickett's Charge was, perhaps, the most serious strategic error by Robert E. Lee in the entire American Civil War.
Lee's hope was to split the defending Union forces in two, as had almost happened through
Union misadventure the day before¹. Lee had been slow to react in exploiting a break in the center of the Union line on July 2nd. Union General George Meade managed to rush reserve troops into the Union line and plug the gap before Lee's forces could react.
Whether Lee sought to recreate this break with proper support or to exploit some other, imagined Union weakness is unclear.
What is certain is that the Confederacy's hope and will was mortally wounded along with most of Pickett's division that day. The supporting North Carolina force was swept back from their tenuous foothold in the Pear Orchard as the attack unravelled. Thus, the South lost its north most beachhead into Union territory, one which would never be regained.
On July 3rd, Lee committed Pickett's division to attack the center of Cemetery Ridge, with two North Carolina brigades² on his flank in support. Lee's plan was opposed by James Longstreet, but Lee had lost confidence in Longstreet, thinking him slow and hesitant in earlier engagements. Lee insisted, and planning for the attack went ahead. The main Confederate artillery under Colonel Porter Alexander was tasked to silence the Union guns that would otherwise make hash of Pickett's troops - even though the Union guns were more numerous, better supplied, and had more range than their Rebel counterparts. A 15 minute artillery attack was planned. Meanwhile, Lt. General Richard Ewell's corps³ was to hit the Union flank at Culp's Hill, drawing troops and command attention away from the line at Cemetery Ridge. Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry was positioned to ride to the Union rear and fall onto the fleeing Union troops. Longstreet's corps remained deployed to hold the Rebel lines.
An early problem
The best laid plans of mice and men ... and Lee's plans were laid hastily rather than well.
The first sign of disaster came when the Union 12th corps attacked Ewell's troops advance before the Ewell had his forces in position. Ewell's forced were unable to advance, and retreated before Pickett's attack began. Ewell's artillery, positioned near Porter Alexander's guns but poised to aide Ewell's success, never fired.
... and disaster
What follows is not so much an account of tactical error, and certainly shows no lack of bravery on either side.
Instead, it is a demonstration of management error in action.
The artillery attack was scheduled to begin at 1:00. In the hour before, Longstreet and Alexander exchanged messages, each trying to tag the other with responsibility for ordering Pickett's advance. Neither believed it would succeed, but neither dared to gainsay Lee. At 1:00 PM the artillery attack began, with massive sound and fury as mentioned above.
The 15 minute attack stretched to 20, then 25, with no sign of faltering from the Union guns, or serious damage to the Union troops, protected by the low stone walls of the Orchard. At 1:25pm, Alexander counted 18 guns still firing from the Orchard. Alexander himself was beginning to run low on ammunition when the Union guns went silent.
Alexander continued to fire into the Union positions. He waited 10 minutes to see if the guns were merely reloading. Finally he messaged Pickett to begin the attack while Alexander's guns still had ammunition to support them.
Meanwhile, a troubled Longstreet had ridden around to see Alexander in person. Again they agonized over the attack, and again they could not bring themselves to oppose Lee's orders. As they dithered, Pickett and the supporting brigades attacked.
Unbeknownst to Alexander and Longstreet, the Union guns had been pulled back to cool and resupply.
They had just returned to position as Pickett charged. They fired en mass into Pickett's troops with deadly effect. Alexander shot back, but was low on ammunition.
Ewell's guns, within range but without line of sight to the target, did not fire.
What followed was a long, bloody, and ultimately hopeless fight for the Rebels. Without Ewell's forces attacking the flank, and without his guns firing, the Union forces had only one focus. With Alexander low on ammunition and outclassed in weaponry, the Confederate troops were exposed to deadly counterfire before they could close to musket range. The Rebel forces were able to gain several temporary lodgements, and for a time the sight of Rebel battle flags in the enemy walls cheered the Confederate troops. But
Meade was able to shift fresh troops from both sides of his line to defend the center. Ultimately, superior Union numbers threw the Rebels back in disarray.
Lee's devastated army held position for one more day, and then retreated. The dead were left where they had fallen. Lee ultimately took full responsibility for the failure, but had Alexander or Longstreet taken the action they knew to be correct, Lee's army need not have been decimated. What might have happened next is anyone's guess. A Confederate success might have brought recognition of Confederate nationhood from France and Britain. As it was, they stood silent.
- See mcSey's excellent writeup in Battle of Gettysburg.
- Ulumuri says: "... it was not, in fact 'Pickett's division and two NC brigades supporting.' It was Pickett's division, Pettigrew's division with Lang's FL brigade and Wilcox supporting." I sit corrected.
- Ewell replaced Stonewall Jackson after Jackson's death at the Battle of Chancellorsville.