July 3, 1863
It has been discussed, debated, denounced, and eulogized. It has been recorded and recounted hundreds of times in the past 150 years. It will be forever remembered.
It was the “high water mark of the Confederacy,” a line of men as vast as it was beautiful, as glorious as it was tragic. Lee called it a “grand charge.” And grand it was. No more was a battle to be fought in such a colored fashion, with the pomp of the old style, the aligned ranks of a grand formation, the slow and deliberate march of an army in the open to face head-on its enemy in what was most regretfully the very jaws of death.
This was Pickett’s Charge.
In 1974, Michael Shaara added his own interpretation of the famed advance. Through the eyes of one of its fated participants, General Lewis Armistead, we see its tragedy in all its personal and military incarnations.
In Shaara’s epic novel The Killer Angels, we find Armistead, a general overseeing one of Pickett’s brigades, watch the start of the Confederacy’s artillery barrage that was to precede the grand charge. The time he notes is 1:07 and this trivia of information was taken from a first-hand account of a certain Gettysburg resident, Professor Jacobs, who noted the time the barrage began1 (Sears, 2003, p. 396).
Armistead sees the Federals reply to the great barrage, and watches the fire pass into his infantry, prompting his men to hit the earth for cover. Indeed, Federal artillery did overshoot in this case: Rather than hitting the cannons, Union shot fell into the infantry that the Confederates posted behind their guns (to avoid firing artillery over their own men). During this murderous prologue, Longstreet, as General Kemper recalled, “rode slowly and alone immediately in front of our entire line” as an inspiring spectacle of moral courage and encouragement (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 404). Armistead, to his men who were scrambling for cover, counseled, “Lie still boys, there is no safe place here” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 405).
Armistead, as he awaits the order to charge, sits alone and thinks about the haunting refrain, it may be for years, it may be forever, from the familiar tune “Kathleen Mavourneen.” He unconsciously hands Pickett the ring from his little finger to give to an old friend. Pickett is filled with poetic thoughts about the upcoming battle. This was his first real action for months.
Armistead sees Longstreet, feels a comforting solidity from him, goes back toward his brigade and muses haltingly on the muffled sadness of the charge. He feels powerless, and painfully resigns to these forces beyond his control. He recounts his past: his emotionless countenance, yet deep feeling; his duty as an Armistead, his regret that it was Hancock up on the hill. The guns slacken. Armistead stops himself from thinking too much on that last meeting with Hancock, back in 1861 in the small, dry town of Los Angeles, so far away. “My old friend is up on that ridge” (Shaara, 2004, p. 303). And this is the tragic theme of the Civil War, any civil war: It is a battle between brothers, a conflict among friends; it is blood shed to tear the closest bonds.
General Garnett is riding past splendidly and stops to talk. His horse had kicked him previously and walking had become impossible. He will go on the march riding, a bold target in the monotony of marching men. Garnett will use this opportunity to don his new uniform and, in full and splendid view of his troops, at last cancel the charge of cowardice leveled against him by Stonewall Jackson in 1862 (Sears, 2003, p. 416).
Armistead tries to convince him to get off his horse and walk, but Garnett is determined to save his honor. He doesn’t say goodbye as he leaves, yet they both know that he will likely die in the next few minutes. Armistead prays for him, feeling helpless, feeling a strange sense of detachment, yet doesn’t pray for himself, not yet.
Pickett gallops up, repeating the orders for a quick march forward, no stopping to fire. Armistead tries to convince him to order Garnett to walk, yet Pickett throws up his hands: “But you know how he feels. It’s a matter of honor” (Shaara, 2004, p. 306). And so it goes.
They meet up with Longstreet, who is the image of cold despair. Armistead feels a spark of sudden affection. This demanding hour, so filled with portents of death, kindles the deepest feelings in a man, and as Armistead realizes now, fills his soul with sorrow. Pickett leaves for a moment and returns with a message from the artillerist Porter Alexander: “General: If you are to advance at all, you must come at once or we will not be able to support you [in the coming infantry charge] as we ought. But the enemy’s fire has not slackened materially and there are still 18 guns firing from the cemetery” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 405).
Porter Alexander had indeed been skeptical of the advance into such a volcanic Federal fire. Before the artillery barrage was ordered by Longstreet, the general sent him a message which said in part, “Colonel: If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our effort pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Pickett to make the charge” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 393). With Alexander’s dissent, Longstreet hoped to secure one final argument to Lee against the doomed charge.
After this affirmative message from Alexander, Longstreet painfully nodded his order of attack to the gleeful Pickett. Immediately after Alexander sent this first note to Pickett, he noticed the Federal guns pulling back and felt a great relief that his artillery had done its job. Fifteen minutes after sending his initial note to Pickett, Alexander sent another message which reflects his urgency: “For God’s sake come quick. The 18 guns are gone. Come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you properly” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 406). This latter message, received by Longstreet when Pickett was already off on his march, “brought him [Longstreet] some comfort & encouragement” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 407).
Yet when Longstreet visited Alexander a few minutes later, he realized that the artillery stores had been mislaid by the frightened artillery commander General Pendleton, who had moved them back for protection without alerting his subordinates where they were hidden. Longstreet, recounted Alexander, urged him to stop Pickett and locate his supplies – his last effort to stop Pickett’s Charge. But Alexander knows that any delay would cancel the slight cripple they had just now placed on the Federals. Any attack would have to come now; there was no turning back. (Sears, 2003, pp. 407-08)
Longstreet stood silent for a time, focusing his glasses on the enemy line. As he scanned the scene he said quietly, pausing between phrases, as if he were talking to himself, “I don’t want to make this attack … I believe it will fail … I do not see how it can succeed … I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered and expects it.”
Alexander was stunned. It appeared that with any encouragement from him, Longstreet might even now stop the attack. But the responsibility ‘in so grave a matter’ was too great for a mere colonel of artillery. Alexander held his tongue, and as the silence between them stretched on he became almost embarrassed. Finally Pickett’s legions came striding past, and the moment was gone. (Sears, 2003, p. 408; see also Alexander, 1998, p. 261).
There is a chilling silence before the storm. Armistead, as we follow Shaara’s narrative, regrets once more to fighting his friend Winfield Hancock. He walks up to Garnett one last time, to say goodbye. It is the first time he’s ever known a man will certainly die. The two of them marvel at the glorious image of the men in line.2 On his way back to his brigade, Armistead is hit by sharp and sudden depression. Pickett rallies the men and Armistead, with his sword drawn, shouts out his own encouragement, “Men, remember what you are fighting for! Your homes, your firesides, and your sweethearts! Follow me!” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 415).
The men felt Armistead’s show of courage: “It was his example, his coolness, his courage,” said one man from Armistead’s 9th Virginia, “that led that brigade over that field of blood” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 415).
As Armistead’s brigade advanced, it could not see Pettigrew’s men on their left; a stretch of woods separated the two divisions until each one moved forward a distance. As the charge advances, Armistead sees the flanks getting hit. Federal fire has sparkled to life all of a sudden. It is true what he suspected: that the Federal guns strategically paused their fire to lure the Confederates into the assault. They near the Emmitsburg Road. Gaps appear in the lines. No Southern artillery responds to the new attacks of Federal guns. Enfilade fire envelops Kemper’s brigade in front of Armistead. The left oblique begins, under deadening fire, to concentrate the divisions of Pickett and Pettigrew into one fist at the point of contact. Armistead marvels at the calm accomplishment of the move, and his heart is filled with pride.
They reach the Emittsburg Road. Canister fire explodes through them. Musket fire begins to reach. Kemper on the right is falling out of formation. Its flank attack is murderous. Kemper, injured, asks Armistead for support.3 Armistead hurries on and sees Pettigrew’s men on the far left running back. He hunkers forward, expecting to die any moment, pushing onward with his men. He sees Garnett’s horse, terribly injured and riderless, flash by. They reach the wall, the famous Angle near the Copse of trees. Armistead has more men than the defenders this time, and there is a crooked stalemate for a moment, until Federal reinforcements, wild and rallying, drive away the last of the desperate Southerners.
He had come at last over the wall and had at last been hit. He fell, a fate he knew was only a question of when. He grabs the cannon his men have captured and feels death lick up towards him. A Union officer comes to him and Armistead breathes desperately, “Will you tell General Hancock, please, that General Armistead sends his regrets. Will you tell him … how very sorry I am” (Shaara, 2004, p. 316).
In the Union lines, General Meade learned of the victory. He swung off his hat, about to shout a cheering whoop, when he paused, thought better of it, and said reverently, “Thank God!” (Catton, 1982, p. 93)
It was the first Confederate loss since a year ago, on July in Malvern Hill. It swallowed up about half of the over 14,000 men put into the assault. Their bodies lay in horrid, mangled masses in the field that spanned so beautiful only the day before.
Pickett’s Charge had closed the second offensive of Lee’s into the Union. It halted the momentum of the Confederacy for the rest of the war. It was Lee’s greatest mistake and it became one of the nation’s bloodiest days.
1. Math professor Michael Jacobs of Pennsylvania College also recorded the weather conditions during the Battle of Gettysburg and wrote the first book on the climactic battle. (Early Morning at Professor Jacobs’ House. [2008, Mar 15]. Retrieved from http://www.gettysburgdaily.com/?p=95)
2. This conversation was taken from history, although it occurred further into the attack (at the Emittsburg Road) between Armistead and Kemper, when the latter rode over to Armistead to coordinate the coming assault (Sears, 2003, p. 428). This is another deft example by Shaara of using fact in fiction.
3. Kemper actually asked for help from one of his own regiments, not Armistead’s brigades. And his injury occurred closer to the enemy line, when he was “knocked off his horse by a bullet that ranged through his body and lodged near his spine,” disabling him. (Sears, 2003, pp. 442-43; 448-49)
Alexander, E.P. & Gallagher, G.W. (1998). Fighting for the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://books.google.com
Catton, B. (1982). Gettysburg: The final fury. New York, NY: Berkley. (Original work published 1974)
Sears, S.W. (2003). Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.