Thursday, July 3, 2014

PICKETT'S CHARGE ~ July 3, 1863

Pickett's Charge was an infantry assault ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility was predicted by the charge's commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

The charge is named after Maj. Gen. George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault under Longstreet.

After Confederate attacks on both Union flanks had failed the day and night before, Lee was determined to strike the Union center on the third 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 infantry assault was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment that was meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but it was largely ineffective. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields for three quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. Although some Confederates were able to breach the low stone wall that shielded many of the Union defenders, they could not maintain their hold and were repulsed with over 50% casualties, a decisive defeat that ended the three-day battle and Lee's campaign into Pennsylvania.

When asked, years afterward, why his charge at Gettysburg failed, General Pickett said: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

In 1963 when I was fourteen my family went to Gettysburg for the Centennial of the Battle. We stayed in our Apache aluminum-trailor-canvas-tent-camper on the farm of Mother's Mount Holyoke quasi-roommate (they had shared adjoining single rooms). One of the features of the brick farm house was a cannonball still lodged in the living room wall. Ethel Butterfield's husband was a math professor at Gettysburg College.

The night before we watched the reenactment of Pickett's charge, we attended a program at an outdoor amphitheater. The man sitting next to me looked vaguely familiar. He was obviously Southern and had a perpetual cigar in his mouth. Only later did I realize he was Alabama Governor George Wallace. Amazingly, I don't recall seeing substantial security. Of course this was four months before President Kennedy's assassination.. and nine years before Wallace himself was shot and paralyzed.

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