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Pickett's Charge was an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The charge was against Major General George G. Meade's Union positions on Cemetery Ridge . After Confederate attacks on both Union flanks had failed the day and night before, Lee had determined to strike the Union center the next day. On the night of July 2, General Meade correctly predicted at a council of war that Lee would try an attack on his lines in the center the following morning.
The charge was made by three Confederate divisions, commanded by Generals George Pickett, J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Isaac R. Trimble, consisting of troops from James Longstreet's First Corps and A.P. Hill's Third Corps. From the beginning of the planning, things went awry for the Confederates. While Pickett's division had not been used yet at Gettysburg, A.P. Hill's health became an issue and he did not participate in selecting which troops of his were to be used for the charge. Some of Hill's corps had fought lightly on July 1 and not at all on July 2. However, troops that had done heavy fighting on July 1 ended up making the charge.
Although the assault is known to popular history as Pickett's Charge, overall command was given to James Longstreet, and Pickett was one of his divisional commanders. Lee did tell Longstreet that Pickett's fresh division should lead the assault, so the name is appropriate, although some recent historians have used the name Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault to more fairly distribute the credit (or blame). With Hill sidelined, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions were delegated to Longstreet's authority as well. Thus, General Pickett's name has been lent to a charge in which he commanded about one third of the men and was under the supervision of his corps commander throughout. Pickett's men were almost exclusively from Virginia, with the other divisions consisting of North Carolinians, Mississippians, and Tennesseeans.
From the beginning, Longstreet opposed the charge, preferring his own plan for a strategic movement around the Union left flank. He told Lee that he didn't think there were "15,000 men on earth capable of taking that [the Union] position." Longstreet looked for ways to avoid ordering the charge by attempting to pass responsibility to his artillery chief, Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, but he eventually did pass the order himself non-verbally, nodding reluctantly to Pickett's request to step off.
The infantry charge was preceded by what General Lee hoped would be a powerful and well concentrated cannonade of the Union center, destroying the Union artillery batteries that could defeat the assault. But a combination of inept artillery leadership and defective equipment doomed the cannonade from the beginning. The July 3 bombardment was likely the largest of the war, with hundreds of cannons from both sides being fired along the lines for almost two hours, starting around 1 pm. Confederate guns numbered over 170 and fired from a line over two miles long. But the fire was mostly ineffectual. Confederate shells often overshot the infantry front lines, and the smoke covering the battlefield concealed that fact from them. Union artillery chief Henry J. Hunt ceased his counter-battery fire to conserve ammunition and Alexander interpreted this as meaning that many of the batteries had been destroyed.
The entire force that charged against the Union positions consisted of about 12,500 men, marching deliberately in line with Trimble on the left, Pettigrew the right, and Pickett behind Pettigrew. The Confederates never stood a chance, as they encountered heavy artillery fire while advancing across open fields nearly a mile to reach the Union line. Murderous fire from Freeman McGilvery 's concealed artillery positions north of Little Round Top raked the Confederate right flank. Shell and solid shot in the beginning turned to cannister and musket fire as they neared the Union line. Pickett's Virginians had been subjected to the least fire in the beginning of the charge and wheeled to their left toward a salient in the Union center. This position of the lines was marked by a low stone wall taking a right-angle turn known as "The Angle." The Confederates partially breached the Union's first line of defense, but were forced back soon after as Union troops gathered on their right flank and stabilized the center of the line. The charge lasted little more than an hour.
The attrition in the two armies for the entire battle and for Pickett's Charge in particular was brutal. During the entire three-day battle, the Confederates suffered about 28,000 casualties, the Union about 23,000. The Confederate casualty rate for Pickett's Charge was over 50%, and all thirteen of Pickett's regimental commanders were casualties. The most famous casualties were Brigadier Generals Richard Garnett and Lewis Armistead . Garnett had a leg injury and rode a horse during the charge, knowing that conspicuously riding a horse into heavy enemy fire would mean certain death. Armistead is known for leading his brigade with his cap on the tip of his sword. Armistead was mortally wounded, falling near "The Angle" at what is now considered the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties, the latter dying on the retreat to Virginia, and three of their brigade commanders were wounded as well. Pickett himself has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle personally unscathed, but his position well to the rear of his troops was command doctrine at the time for division commanders.
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, allegedly telling returning soldiers that the failure was "all my fault." General Pickett never forgave Lee for the charge and was inconsolable for the rest of the day. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division."
The Union counteroffensive never came; the Army of the Potomac was exhausted and nearly as damaged as the Army of Northern Virginia. Meade was content to hold the field. On July 4, the armies observed an informal truce and collected their dead and wounded. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Vicksburg garrison along the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two. These two Union victories are generally considered the turning point of the Civil War.
The origins of the naming of Pickett's Charge is almost as controversial as the charge itself. Virginian newspapers praised Pickett's Virginia division as making the most progress during the charge, and as it became more clear that Gettysburg had been the turning point in the East, the papers used Pickett's "success" as a means of criticizing the actions of the other states' troops during the charge. Pickett's military career was never the same after the charge, and he was (unsurprisingly) displeased about having his name attached to the repulsed charge.
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