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Pickett’s Charge

Borepatch reposts an oldie but goodie on the swift and sudden ebbing of the Confederate High Tide.

Robert E. Lee is without doubt one of the greatest generals these shores have ever seen – arguably the greatest of all. And so I’ve always been mystified why he ordered General George Pickett to lead 12,500 of the South’s finest troops across nearly a mile of open ground against fortified Union lines, that July 3 afternoon so long ago.

The lesson of Fredricksburg from the previous year should have told him what to expect. General Longstreet had learned that lesson, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade his commander to call off the assault. Overcome with emotion – a premonition of slaughter, really – he couldn’t even speak the final order to advance, but merely nodded assent to Pickett’s request to charge. When the stragglers returned to their lines, General Lee (worried that the Yankees might charge to follow up their success) asked Pickett to rally his Division. Pickett replied, General Lee, I have no Division.

The War Between The States (“Civil War” to Yankees) was a brutal affair, where the weaponry had advanced faster than the tactics. It remains to this day the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history, with more casualties than any other war we’ve fought. When you consider how much the population has grown since the mid-nineteenth century, it was even worse.

The psychological scars of that war were to linger for a generation or more. The sense of loss – needless loss – is perhaps summed up by Pickett’s Charge. William Faulkner captured this sense 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, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…

Pickett never forgave Lee. Asked many years later why the charge failed, he replied that he thought that the Yankees had something to do with the outcome. He might have said that Lee had, too.

A few notable quotes from some of the men who were there:

I think that this is the strongest position on which to fight a battle that I ever saw.
Winfield Scott Hancock, surveying his position on Cemetery Ridge

It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.
James Longstreet to Robert E. Lee, surveying Hancock’s position

This is a desperate thing to attempt.
—Richard Garnett to Lewis Armistead, prior to Pickett’s Charge

The fault is entirely my own.
Robert E. Lee to George Pickett, after the Charge.

Almost to a man, all of Lee’s most reliable and trusted subordinates, foremost among them the eminently competent and formidable GEN Longstreet, were shocked and horrified at Lee’s uncharacteristic folly in ordering Pickett’s division to attack Hancock’s essentially unassailable position in the Union center atop Cemetery Ridge.

Having spent most of my “adult” (HA!) life intently studying Civil War history, reading everything I could get my hot little hands on from the time I was about fifteen or so, there’s another contributing factor that I consider probably the overriding one: CSA cavalry commander JEB Stuart’s ill-advised ride all the way around Meade’s army, a blunder driven by Stuart’s personal vanity which left Lee blind as to the enemy’s numbers, dispositions, and intentions and thus figured tremendously in the bitter, costly outcome.

At this point (ie, June 28th—M), Stuart had crossed the Potomac and uncovered the enemy’s movements (although unbeknownst to him, his courier had not reached Lee). He had captured a variety of goods, destroyed enemy property, and generally made a nuisance of himself. Yet all of this came at a cost. He was now approximately eighty miles southeast of the Confederate army, and the Federal army stood between him and Lee. He had yet to link up with Richard Ewell’s corps as his orders dictated. Worse, his ability to communicate with Lee was circuitous and precarious at best. Robert E. Lee, in turn, was “surprised and disturbed” to learn on June 27th that Stuart and his troopers were still in Virginia. Lee ordered scouts to try and locate his lost general. There was a growing, uneasy disconnect between Lee and his cavalry commander.

Jeb Stuart having crossed the Potomac, he found himself at a crossroads. Instead of turning northwest to attempt to unite with Lee and Ewell, he decided to continue his raid and turn east. Moving to Rockville, a Washington D.C. suburb, Stuart captured 125 Union supply wagons, loaded with food, hay, bread, bacon crackers and more. Thinking in bigger terms, Stuart contemplated then dismissed the possibility of striking Washington itself. Having by now captured nearly 400 Union prisoners up to this point, Stuart took some time to parole them, then plodded northward with his newly captured wagon train throughout the rest of the 28th and 29th. The splashier his raid, the further away Brandy Station seemed.

On the 29th, while his men cut telegraph wires and tore up the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Stuart discovered that the enemy was in Frederick, Maryland. The move seems to have jolted Stuart, who realized the sudden importance of uniting with Lee “to acquaint the commanding general with the nature of the enemy’s movements…” Finally, Stuart recognized just how serious the Union movements were, and just how imperative his presence with the Army of Northern Virginia had become.

By now, Stuart was actively searching to unite with Ewell, but didn’t know where to find him. Believing Ewell to be in Carlisle, Stuart set off for that town, only to discover that it was occupied not by Ewell but instead 2,400 Union militiamen. Threatening to shell the town if the Yankees didn’t surrender, “shell away and be damned!” came the reply. So shell away Stuart did, opening fire on the town. The Confederates were so exhausted that many of the troops slept through the bombardment.

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee, only thirty miles away, remained unsure of Stuart’s whereabouts. Inquiries to subordinates brought only disappointment. An aide overheard Lee grumble that “Gen’l Stuart has not complied with his instructions.” Finally, one of Stuart’s riders located Ewell’s corps in Gettysburg, and returned to Stuart with orders to march for the town. This was the first communication that Stuart or Lee’s army had with one another since June 25. In that time, the Army of Northern Virginia had blindly moved north and found itself unwittingly trapped in an engagement at Gettysburg.

In the morning hours of July 2nd, Jeb Stuart made his way to General Lee. “Well, General Stuart,” Lee said simply, “you are here at last.” However muted, the rebuke no doubt stung. Stuart and Lee’s conversation was, according to an aide, “painful beyond description.”

Muted, perhaps, but coming from the quiet, calm, gentle-spoken Lee amounted to an extremely sharp condemnation indeed—a fact with which Stuart was all too well acquainted.

That said, Lee’s crushing defeat on the third day of battle at Gettysburg, capped off by the pointless disaster of Pickett’s Charge, was in fact brought about by numerous conditions and precipitating events and is not fairly attributable to any single cause, man, or decision: among those, the loss of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville in May looms especially large.

In the end, though, it all went the way it went. Who can say, really, even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight? Much as I hate to do it, I just gotta include Mike Walsh’s paean to GEN US Grant here, dang his beady little eyes. But with a YUUUGE caveat, which will be revealed anon.

These first few days of July are of importance to every real American. Not simply because the Declaration of Independence was unanimously adopted by the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, the document in which the new United States of America proclaimed its irrevocable break with Great Britain. We rightly celebrate that momentous event in world history tomorrow, the Fourth of July, with fireworks and hot dogs and perhaps even a renewed sense of patriotism in these troubled times when the foundations of our country are under relentless attack from the cultural sappers of the universities all the way to the top of our political system, headed by a senile old man who can only remember the grudges he bears toward the country he now ostensibly leads, and for which he has no love.

Of equal importance in our history, however, are the two epic battles fought during the same period in 1863, during the Civil War. Today is the third day of Gettysburg, the day when Pickett’s Charge spelled the end of southern dash in the face of the north’s overwhelming pluck and endurance, a mad suicidal race across a open field raked by Springfield rifles and twelve-pounder “Napoleons” cannon fire. It was the southern commander Robert E. Lee’s greatest blunder of the war, ending his brief invasion of the north and helping to seal the South’s ultimate defeat.

“Overwhelming pluck and endurance”? Well, okay, sure. But of far greater importance was the North’s overwhelming superiority in materiel, manufacturing, and able-bodied males of fighting age—advantages that would prove to be insuperable, and decisive.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Ulysses S. Grant was about to cement his place in military history by concluding his nearly two-month long siege of the formidable Confederate fortress of Vicksburg. The town sat high above the Mississippi River on the eastern bluffs, its artillery commanding the mighty river in both directions. Behind it, to the east, were the forces of the breakaway Confederate state of Mississippi itself. The task looked impossible. But Grant was already an experienced hand at river warfare, having proved his mettle early with the victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, working in tandem with the gunboats of flag officer Andrew Foote.

With his victories at Shiloh in 1862, which put the Tennessee River in Union hands, and at Vicksburg, Grant had twice bisected the Confederacy. It was the “Anaconda” strategy of the retired General of the Army, Winfield Scott, made flesh. Then, in November, Grant marched east and broke the stalemate at Chattanooga, leaving Georgia wide open for invasion and, ultimately, Sherman’s march to the sea. Despite General George Meade’s repulse of Lee at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln’s choice for a new commander of all the Union forces was clear: in March of 1864, Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington and named him general-in-chief of the Union forces. The moment had met its man.

That Grant was the greatest American of all time is indisputable.

Yeah, NO. Grant’s claim to greatness was never really based upon his competence as a general, his tactical acumen, or his inborn adroitness as a leader of men, but on bulldog stubbornness and pugnacity; unswerving determination; and a willingness to pour out the lifeblood of the soldiers under his command like water over desert sands in the pursuit of ultimate victory. His military success wasn’t so much a matter of the happy marriage of talent to experience, then, but more of personality and deeply-ingrained habits of mind.

Grant, the “greatest American of all time”? Oh puh-LEEZE, Mike. Over men like Jefferson, Washington, Adams, then? Over Patton, Nathanael Greene, Audie Murphy? Claire Chennault, Chuck Yeager? Over the indomitable Samuel Whittemore, even? I got no real gripe with the man, I really don’t, even as what for many years I’ve proudly referred to as an Unreconstructed Southron I don’t. But really, now: with a list of names like those as fellow contenders for the title, Grant wasn’t even “indisputably” the greatest American soldier of all time.

Update! Finally finished reading Walsh’s piece, after walking away in frustration and pique at the preposterous remark I just dispensed with above, and I must say I have no quibble at all with the closer:

Grant was there for his country in its hour of need. Now that a new, even deadlier threat has emerged thanks to the neo-Marxist Left that considers our entire country illegitimate, who will take his place? Only one thing is certain: he has to crush them as mercilessly as Grant crushed the South, except this time there can be no magnanimity, only unconditional surrender.

Amen to that, buddy, with big ol’ bells and a pretty bow on top.

Reading list update! Having mentioned being a life-long Civil War history buff, I feel compelled to commend to your gracious attention the works of the foremost writer and scholar on the topic: the truly remarkable Shelby Foote, in particular his spellbinding, magnificent magnum opus The Civil War: A Narrative.

I’ve read ‘em all; from Bruce Catton to Samuel Mitcham to you name it, I probably have it in the rickety ol’ bookshelf. Foote stands head and shoulders above them all, no question; for something that most would probably consider a dull, dry, overchewed subject at this point, Foote’s masterful writing chops; his insight; his encompassing grasp of the issues, the people, the times, and the battles themselves are simply beyond compare.

He truly brings the historical record to flesh and blood life for the contemporary reader; even if you have little interest in the subject, you’ll find this masterpiece impossible to put down. And even if you consider yourself quite knowledgable already about this pivotal event in American history, I guarantee you’ll learn something you never knew about before from the Foote books. Yes, they really are that good. This 10-minute vidya discourse on Pickett’s Charge, G-burg in general, and the present-day political wrangling over the Confederate Battle Flag ought to tell you all you’ll ever need to know about the man’s ready, marrow-deep knowledge of all things Civil War.

I decided long ago that if somehow I was required to get rid of all my books except one, I’d keep Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. Yes, it’s a three-volume set, but if I wasn’t allowed some sort of consideration for that I’d say to hell with it, just go ahead and kill me now then.


6 thoughts on “Pickett’s Charge

  1. Nicely said, Mike. I’m also a Civil war reader, but not as knowledgeable as you or many others on the battle itself. I tend more towards the root cause (money and power) and the politics.

    OTOH, I have read the history over and over and also found Foote to be one of the best if not at the top of the heap.

    On Lee and Pickett’s charge – It’s always been a complete mystery to me and everyone else I think. How a man as capable as Lee didn’t see that pure folly is never going to be understandable.

    Men like Lee are as rare as Jefferson and Franklin. Grant was just a killer with an army IMO, to be feared for sure, but given equal strength and equipment there is little doubt who would have prevailed in a match up between Lee and anyone else.

  2. The North won because it had better intelligence, they could see what the CSA could not –

    By the way, Foote wrote those books using a dip pen, writing his manuscript one letter (or two) at a time, on foolscap paper. “You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,

    the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.

    It’s actually easier for me to write anything long, on paper in longhand, because a “word processor” destroys continuity, whereas with paper you have the sheets right in front of you. In law school, I wrote a monograph on 250 pages of legal paper in longhand, over the course of two weeks. It reduced to 150 pages of typescript (a friend’s secretary’s work, thankfully) and finally 89 pages in the American Bar Association Journal on Real Property, Probate, and Trusts… Summer 2000 issue, “The Meaning of Blight”, if you would care to look it up. I far, far recommend Foote’s work, though, it’s a captivating series which I read straight through.

    1. The balloon reference is the best I could find with a Duck-duck-Go search, and it contained nonsense like this: “Union and Intrepid balloons could lift up to 20,000 cubic feet of gas per load, allowing them to carry up to 32,000 people.” – whereas in real life this is obviously not only false but laughable. Whoever wrote this piece must have either been in China or was mentally challenged, to write this sort of inane nonsense. In fact, the balloons cited had a capacity of 32,000 cubic feet of gas, the balloon was filled with the gas at ground level, and was tethered to the ground by ropes and definitely not a gas hose… As a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, I read a great deal of contemporaneous accounts of the Civil War/War Between the States which they had in their library – and bought one or two which they sold at their library sales.

      1. this interview is the best I’ve seen, lots of interesting background, especially on Gettysburg – and I’ve only seen the first hour of three, total.

    2. “”The North won because…”

      As I’m sure you know there were several reasons why the north won the war. In spite of their built in advantages in manpower and materials, the Southerners came close and caused the war to be long.

      I’ve always likened the South to the Japanese at the beginning of WW2 (with the exception of equipment). In order for either to win it had to be a quick war, one that would cause the other side to sue for peace.

      The balloons were useful but they were abandoned at some point. I don’t recall why that is.

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