Pickett’s Charge Failed 153 Years Ago Today

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va

Today is the 153rd anniversary of “Pickett’s Charge” – the final drama of a campaign that began with Confederates hunting down free blacks and fugitive slaves once they crossed into Pennsylvania. It’s a moment in the Civil War that has inspired some of the most outlandish counterfactuals and even great works of literature such as this famous passage from William Faulkner’s, 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 which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

Well, it did happen and we should all be thankful that the assault failed.

There is nothing worse than having to listen to people wax poetic about glorious assaults without any context. On days like today we should remember that the future of this nation and the lives of millions of people hung in the balance.

35 comments… add one
  • TFSmith Jul 3, 2016

    Indeed. Well said.

    There’s something to this element of the quote:

    ….for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave…
    that I think speaks to the reality that even Faulkner, while lyrical enough, understood it was pointless and doomed to failure.

    Of course, putting the entire passage into the person of a 14-year-old boy probably does the same. Be impressive if some of those who work so hard on their “what ifs” recognized that. 😉

  • bob carey Jul 3, 2016

    Kevin,
    The union charge toward Maryre’s Heights, the Charge of the Light Brigade, The Brits offensive on the Somme, and Pickett’s all very gallant and all very asinine.
    Real gallantry is what Richard Kirkland did in the aftermath of Fredericksburg.
    Romanticizing war is one contributing factor as to why we keep fighting them.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 3, 2016

      Real gallantry is what Richard Kirkland did in the aftermath of Fredericksburg.

      Yes, assuming you believe that story.

      • Dudley Bokoski Jul 3, 2016

        The question is whether history must be so yoked in service to narrative that we must answer to all of its social contexts and present implications and be forced to set aside the power it holds to illustrate the human condition.

        Shakespeare wrote:

        “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
        Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
        And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
        He that shall live this day, and see old age,
        Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
        And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
        Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
        And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
        Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
        But he’ll remember, with advantages,
        What feats he did that day.”

        It is well Shakespeare did not live in these times. Assuming he was not turned into a proper sociologist at university he probably would have had his manuscript sent back for a rewrite to make it less militaristic and more oriented to conditions in Gascony.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2016

          I would certainly hate to do that.

        • msb Jul 4, 2016

          “It is well Shakespeare did not live in these times.”
          Irrelevant; Shakespeare was a playwright and not a historian. Playwrights are still playing fast and loose with history – see Stoppard and Norman’s “Shakespeare in love” as an example.

          And thank God Pickett failed.

      • bob carey Jul 4, 2016

        Kevin,
        I always believed that story based on repetition and the monument at the base of Maryre’s Heights. I hope I haven,t fell victim to propaganda of some sort. I never felt the need to verify but now you have me curious.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2016

          You can start here.

          • bob carey Jul 4, 2016

            It serves me right for not having followed your blog until last year.

  • Jerry Sudduth Jr. Jul 3, 2016

    I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” in college and he was critical of the “Lost Cause” in that book and in other instances. But even such criticism had its limits I suppose! I take comfort in Allen Guelzo’s analysis of the failure of Pickett’s Charge and why the assault on the center of the Union line had to fail on page 425 and 426 of “Gettysburg: The Final Invasion.” He gets to the heart of the matter and the meaning it held for the course of freedom and justice in America.

    He points to the irony of the assault failing on the farm of a free African-American, as Guelzo wrote,”a species of humanity which was, by most Confederate understandings, not even supposed to exist.” The rebels’ failure benefitted the advancement of humanity and helped ensure this country didn’t get torn asunder. Through the triumph of the Army of the Potomac on July 3, 1863 and through the other Armies of the Union it ensured the freedom of four million people and the American Republic would continue.

    The people you discuss fantasize seeing the Confederates break through and sending the Army of the Potomac reeling across the Baltimore Pike. Some of these people are true believers on the southern cause, lovers of counterfactuals, or others are people who aren’t but have been, for lack of a better term “entranced” by the mythology of the “Lost Cause.” This battle didn’t happen in a vacuum, the “valor” of the men in gray represented a heinous cause and a heinous way of life. If people remember that we’d be better off as a people.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 3, 2016

      I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” in college and he was critical of the “Lost Cause” in that book and in other instances.

      You are absolutely right, but it is often cited by people who have fallen under the spell of Pickett’s Charge. I thoroughly enjoyed Guelzo’s Gettysburg book.

      • Andy Hall Jul 3, 2016

        “You are absolutely right, but it is often cited by people who have fallen under the spell of Pickett’s Charge.”

        Indeed. Faulkner was right — it’s an adolescent fantasy.

  • Erick Hare Jul 3, 2016

    As much as I had bought into Pickett’s Charge being the high tide of the Confederacy and the turning point in the Civil War when I was younger, as I grew older and actually looked at the war with a broader perspective. I came to realize the real turning point in the war was when Butler accepted runaways as contraband of war earlier in the war, which culminated with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation following the stalemate at Antietam in September 1862.

    After that point none of the European powers were going to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy because with the issuance of the Proclamation the abolition of slavery became an official war objective of the Union armies, and with slavery already abolished decades earlier by the European powers it would’ve been to hypocritical for Europe to intervene on the part of a rebellion fighting against the abolition of slavery.

    Pickett’s Charge to me at this point is a dramatic moment in the war where a lot of men lost their lives, but it really did not impact the overall trajectory of the war other than to accelerate the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia faster. The fall of Vicksburg the next day, in all honesty, had a much greater impact on the overall trajectory of the war than Gettysburg did.

    Oh and the invasion of the North by Lee both at Gettysburg and Antietam poke irrefutable holes in the argument that the Civil War was strictly the “War of Northern Agression.”

  • Robert Colton Jul 3, 2016

    As Porter Alexander is supposed to have said in private about Lee afte Gettysburg, “He really bolloxed that one.” Pickett’s charge thankfully was futile and had little chance of success against the Army of the Potomac which had seized the high ground, had a much better artillery commander and whose troops had prepared and followed orders for the most part. We are fortunate that Meade and his corps commanders performed so well and stood their ground against the Army of Northern Virginia. My great grand uncle was adjutant of the 13th Vermont and helped recapture a battery on July 2nd and led his regiment in the turn of Stannard’s Brigade to enfilade the Confederates right flank. We owe the Army of the Potomac a lot for forcing Lee on to the defensive and turning the tide of the war along with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg.

  • chancery Jul 3, 2016

    “For every Southern boy”

    For certain values of “every” Southern boy. Which gives the game away for all time.

    Mosaic, shmaic.

  • Forester Jul 4, 2016

    “On days like today we should remember that the future of this nation and the lives of millions of people hung in the balance.”

    Aren’t you being a tad jingoistic? More blacks died in Reconstruction than would have died under continued slavery. In some ways, the Northern victory caused massive starvation and death. A victory narrative adds a sense of meaning to the devastation of battle, but I don’t feel like it holds up factually. The Reconstruction era put blacks back into a situation similar to slavery, while adding the KKK and lynching to the mix. I feel like the US freed slaves the same way they freed Vietnam and Iraq (sorry…. presentism, I know).

    I’m usually rather liberal about history, but trying to spin the Civil War into a civil rights victory is just the Northern equivalent of the Lost Cause (in my opinion). Black people wouldn’t be “free” for at least another century, or more. The BlackLivesMatter people make a pretty convincing argument that they’re not really even free today.

    I can’t find anything worth celebrating in Gettysburg. Whatever was achieved by war could have been achieved some other way. I’m not saying the South should have won ….. I’m saying it was just a waste of lives no matter who won, and didn’t really free anyone except on paper.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2016

      I’m usually rather liberal about history, but trying to spin the Civil War into a civil rights victory is just the Northern equivalent of the Lost Cause (in my opinion).

      Not at all. I am in no way downplaying the challenges that African Americans faced during the postwar period, but we should be able to clearly articulate that FREEDOM MATTERED. Whatever you want to say about the postwar period, African American families could no longer legally be split apart. African Americans could marry legally, etc.

      Whatever was achieved by war could have been achieved some other way.

      I will leave it to you to speculate on what might have happened. What we can say for certain is that the outcome of battles and campaigns impacted the lives of millions of Americans.

      • Mark Snell Jul 4, 2016

        Kevin,

        Maybe it’s because I’m just an old soldier, but I still stand in awe when I look across the fields between Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge and contemplate the courage of the Confederate soldiers who made the assault. I feel the same way when I stand behind the wall at Marye’s Heights or in the Sunken Road at Antietam when Union soldiers were called upon to do the same. (For that matter, I have felt similar emotions when I stood in the sunken road near Beaumont Hamel on the Somme.) I am fairly sure that–at the moment when they were to make the assault–none of those Civil War soldiers, regardless of their uniform color, were dwelling on the causes of the war or its consequences, even if “FREEDOM MATTERED.” (The exceptions are obvious: the charge of the 54th Mass. at Battery Wagner and the USCTs before their assault on the Crater.) Freedom did matter. And we are better off as a nation because it still does. But that does not diminish the deeds and sacrifices of the Confederate soldiers who began their march towards Cemetery Ridge at 3 pm on July 3, 1863. The valor of both sides during the Battle of Gettysburg still inspires American soldiers to this day, and probably will continue to do so for generations to come.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2016

          Hi Mark,

          Great to hear from you. Last year I brought 18 students to Gettysburg. We walked “Pickett’s Charge” but before we began we read through a number of accounts from Confederate soldiers who survived the assault. We discussed the broad range of emotions that they referenced and students tried to wrap their heads around what it took to make that charge. In short, I agree with pretty much everything that you have stated.

          At the same time I think it is absolutely necessary that we understand and acknowledge that there was a right side and wrong side in this war. I know of no other way to get at this than to state that it was a good thing that the Confederacy lost. I don’t care if not a single Confederate soldier owned slaves or at some point acknowledged that he was fighting to protect slavery. Every Confederate soldier fought for a nation that was pledged to protect and expand slavery and white supremacy.

          Whatever inspiration American soldiers draw from the men on both sides at Gettysburg, I hope they are still able to acknowledge that the nation they pledge to protect and defend emerged out of destroying a rebellion.

    • Will Hickox Jul 4, 2016

      “More blacks died in Reconstruction than would have died under continued slavery.”

      How do you know this? Anyway, we can acknowledge the failures of Reconstruction (along with its successes, like the 14th and 15th Amendments) and still see that battles such as Gettysburg and Union victory changed the course of history. Personally, I view the Civil War as one major milestone among many on the path to equality which we’re still traveling.

    • msb Jul 4, 2016

      “Aren’t you being a tad jingoistic?”

      No. Despite all the violence and reinstated oppression of Reconstruction, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: before the War you could legally sell somebody’s family, and after the War you couldn’t.
      I, too, used to lament that Americans couldn’t find another way to cure our $3.5-billion original sin, but we didn’t. War seems to have been the only way to kill so deeply entrenched and so profitable an economic and social system. The clumsiness and brutality of the means, and the incompleteness of the victory do not change that.

      • TFSmith Jul 5, 2016

        True. In 1861, 4 million Americans, men, women, and children, were so much livestock. In 1865, they were not.

        Individuals like “Forester” above are more than welcome to try and denigrate that reality, but they can’t.

        That is what Gettysburg and Vicksburg won, for this nation and, ultimately, for humanity.

        Best,

        • Forester Jul 9, 2016

          TFSmith said: “In 1861, 4 million Americans, men, women, and children, were so much livestock. In 1865, they were not.”

          That is a good point. And I like what Kevin pointed out, that after the war, black marriages were legally recognized. It was a major step forward. I will absolutely give you that.

          But I also feel like you all are fishing for a justification for the war. Slavery was abolished because the North won; therefore, it was good that the North won. Well ….. maybe. I don’t know. Good thing they won AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation! It would have been much harder to justify the war if they had trounced the Rebs earlier on, when they intended to leave slavery legal where it already existed.

          Don’t get me wrong, I’m GLAD that something good did come out of it all. But a good result doesn’t justify a bad action. If the outcome justifies the action, then we should all hoist a big ol’ Confederate flag and make Secession Day a national holiday — after all, secession started the war that caused emancipation. :p

          Okay, that last part was tongue-in-cheek. But it illustrates my point: you can justify nearly anything or anyone by finding some positive outcome down the road. I’m a big fan of Howard Zinn; even though he’s a sloppy historian with an atrocious lack of citation, I love his social commentary. In a discussion of the American revolution, he wrote:

          “There are things that happen in the world that are bad, and you want to do something about them. You have a just cause. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately jump from, “This is a good cause” to “This deserves a war.” You need to be very, very comfortable in making that jump. […] Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No. We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.”

          TFSmith said: “Individuals like “Forester” above are more than welcome to try and denigrate that reality, but they can’t.”

          1. Ouch! No need to go for the jugular. I’m not denigrating the reality, just lamenting that we never found a better way to achieve it.

          2. Please don’t put my name in quotes. It’s not a pseudonym, Forester is literally my name (that people call me every day). No different than someone having Bobby or John as a blog handle. Except I have a much cooler name than Bobby or John. :p

  • Patrick Jennings Jul 5, 2016

    Sadly the two best lines of this paragraph were left off. The opening lines…

    “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten-thousand years ago.”

    And the closing line…

    “This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim.”

    Faulkner was not writing about winners or losers – the battlefield doesn’t care about those – he was writing, quite well for a non-veteran, about that final moment before a soldier steps up to do his or her duty. Any 14 year old with glory on his mind could easily supplant the view at Gettysburg with one at Belleau Wood, Normandy, Khe Shan, or even Ramadi brave with youth but not knowing, as most never will, that jarring moment when you plunge over the world’s rim.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2016

      …the battlefield doesn’t care about those…

      I am not at all clear as to what this means in reference to winners and losers.

      Any 14 year old with glory on his mind could easily supplant the view at Gettysburg with one at Belleau Wood, Normandy, Khe Shan, or even Ramadi…

      This is certainly the case for a culture that places as much stock in violence as we do.

  • Christopher Neudorf Jul 5, 2016

    Just as a belated tangent to these interesting historiographical discussions, I wanted to briefly posit my belief that if the future of the United States hung in the balance at Gettysburg it was not on the third day, but the second. (I’m writing this in a hurry so please forgive me if its a bit convoluted).

    Pickett’s Charge essentially sees 13000 men, most of whom are exhausted from two days of fighting, charging the fortified position of 5000. While such a charge is not an impossibility, it seems unlikely that Longstreet could have been able to force a sufficient breakthrough to allow the ANV to do disabling damage to the Federal line. In order to achieve a breakthrough, Longstreet first must overcome a number of obstacles. The first is the men themselves, of the 13000, 8000 are of Pender’s and Heth’s exhausted divisions, most of which were dubious brigades to begin with. No brigade demonstrates this better then Brokenbraugh’s, which broke at the first contact with the Federals, leaving Joe Davis’s flank completely exposed. Beyond concerns over the fatigue of soldier’s, Longstreet must overcome the terrain, which is uphill and devoid of substantial cover (with the only exception being a brief dip at the base of the ridge). Far worse is the presence of two rail fences bisecting the field, the second of which occurs only a few hundred yards before the Federal line. These fences force the Rebel battle lines to stop, negotiate themselves over the fence, and then reform their lines. Naturally these fences provide natural targets for Federal rifle fire and artillery. On the Second Day, en ecehelon infantry assaults across the Federal line forced Meade to reform and thin his lines, as well as deploy all available reserves, thus the attack upon cemetary ridge (essayed by Wilcox and Lane) was free of enfilade fire. Pickett’s Charge was not free of such fire, as it was concentrated attack on the centre, and otherwise unsupported. Thus adding devestaing front and flank fire to the aforementioned obstacles. If the Rebels can close the position, they must overcome double canister and massed infantry fire from front and flank. They must hold this position until reinforcements move up, all of which will encounter the same obstacles.

    Critically, we must consider the ease of the Federals in bringing up reserves to support the centre. The VI Corps arrived on the night of July 2nd, and was now in reserve and unlike the Rebels absolutely fresh. The entire corps can be deployed to repel any Rebel breakthrough. The Federals have enough troops to stymie any breakthrough, even if such a breakthrough was theoretically possible. I think, like the previous two days, Lee was still convinced that the Army of the Potomac was on the knife’s edge of breaking ranks and routing the field, the same mistake Grant made on the devastating 3rd of June, 1864.

    On July 2nd, Lee could have broken Cemetery Ride with Lane and Wilcox’s brigades. Coupled with an attack by Rhodes’s and Early’s division on Cemetery Hill, supported by Mahone and Posey, the Federal line would have snapped at the neck, bisecting and scattering the I, II, III, and V Corps, and isolating XII Corps before VI Corps could arrive to support. he Potomac Army would have been routed to Maryland, and the Rebels would occupy Pennsylvania for the gubernatorial election and the New York Draft Riots. On the second day, the Federals were disorganised by piecemeal deployment on the heights, and Lee had sufficient troop strength to carry out an echelon attack of the entire Federal Line, and to support any potential breakthrough. On the third day, he simply lacks these crucial resources.

    On the Second Day, Lee might have achieved these devastating results, on the Third Day, I think the opportunity was lost.

  • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2016

    Kevin,

    Generally I agree with the thrust of your post, but I do find your opening sentence to be potentially misleading. While basically accurate, these were by no means central factors in the decision to initiate the 1863 Pennsylvania campaign. The foremost motivating factor in the campaign was borne out of the rapidly deteriorating supply situation that in the Spring of 1863 reached a very real crisis point that was threatening the efficacy of the War effort. The magnitude of the longterm threat can virtually not be overstated. From there, the campaign carried with it enormous strategic possibilities, potentially even dealing a decisive blow to Hooker’s Army, but the relative importance of the campaign from the perspective of the fugitive slave question wasn’t one that I would characterize as anything more than an ancillary one. That by no means demeans or diminishes the import of the tragedy on a human level of course. If you were simply reminding the reader of what is at stake in the War, then I am on the same page.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2016

      I don’t believe the statement is misleading at all. The ANV was tasked with rounding up fugitive slaves once it crossed into Pennsylvania and it did just that. I never claimed it was a ‘central factor in the decision to initiate the 1863 Pennsylvania campaign.’

      • Nathan Towne Jul 7, 2016

        Apparently not, because I had to ask for clarification and I am not a poor reader. 🙂 Again, I assume that what you were saying was simply intended to serve as a reminder of what is really at stake in the war and to reinforce the basic point that you make in your concluding sentence?

        Nathan Towne

        • Erick Hare Jul 7, 2016

          While I understand your concern Nathan, I think your point about the ANV’s primary motivation to invade Pennsylvania in 1863 being to relieve the pressure on the Virginia countryside to support the Confederate war effort makes Kevin’s point that the ANV couldn’t help but send as many blacks as they came across in their campaign through the North even more damning. The Confederates couldn’t help but be themselves and impose their beliefs, agenda and will upon free blacks in the North while ” relieving the Confederate war effort” through the act of invasion.

          • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2016

            The Army of Northern Virginia functioned as the military arm of the Confederacy, which throughout the war was concerned about the flight of slaves within the Borders States. It was in a position to try and stem that tide in the early summer of 1863. That was the point I was trying to make.

      • Mark Snell Jul 7, 2016

        Kevin,

        Not just fugitive slaves, but free blacks were “confiscated,” too. Confederate leadership saw it as a logistical consideration: labor supply for the war effort down south. Nonetheless, your opening statement emphasizes the capture of fugitives as a campaign objective. If your remark only was intended to remind everyone of the true cause of the war, as Nathan asked, then I can see why you started your post with it. I would be interested to know if the confiscation (kidnapping) of humans during the Gettysburg campaign occurred in Maryland, too.

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