A 1901 Account of the Civil War's Most Famous Charge
Isaac R. Pennypacker
It was at one o'clock that two Confederate signal guns were fired, and at once there opened such an artillery combat as the armies had never before seen. As a spectacle, the fire from the two miles of Confederate batteries, stretching from the town of Gettysburg southward, was appalling; but practically the Confederate fire was too high, and most of the damage was done behind the ridge on which the Army of the Potomac was posted, although the damage along the ridge was also great. The little house just over the crest where Meade had his headquarters, and to which he had gone from Gibbon's luncheon, was torn with shot and shell. The army commander stood in the open doorway as a cannon shot, almost grazing his legs, buried itself in a box standing on the portico by the door. There were two small rooms on the ground floor of the house, and in the room where Meade had met his corps commanders the night before were a bed in the corner, a small pine table in the center, upon it a wooden pail of water, a tin drinking cup, and the remains of a melted tallow candle held upright by its own grease, that had served to light the proceedings of last night's council of war. One Confederate shell bust in the yard among the horses tied to the fence; nearly a score of dead horses lay along this fence, close to the house. One shell tore up the steps of the house; one carried away the supports of the portico; one went through the door, and another through the garret. It was impossible for aids to report or for orders to be given from the center of so much noise and confusion, and the little house was abandoned as a headquarters, to be turned, after the firing was over, into a hospital.
During the cannonade the infantry of Meade's army lay upon the ground behind the crest. By General Hunt's direction the Union artillery fire, with the exception of that of the Second Corps batteries, was reserved for a quarter of an hour and then concentrated upon the most destructive batteries of the foe. After half an hour both Meade and his chief of artillery started messengers along the line to stop the firing, with the idea of reserving the ammunition for the infantry assault, which they well knew would soon be made. On the other side, Alexander sent word to Pickett to come quickly, and the Confederate assault began.
Crossing the depression of the ground, a part of the Confederate line, after emerging from the woods, found a moment's rest and shelter, and then started toward the little umbrella-shaped clump of trees on the Union line, said to have been pointed out by Lee as the objective of the assault. On the left Pettigrew's division of four brigades advanced in one line, with Trimble's two brigades of Lane and Scales in the rear and right as supports. Pickett's division on the right advanced with the brigades of Kemper and Garnett in the front line and Armistead's brigade in rear of Garnett's on the left. Twenty minutes afterward the brigades of Wilcox and Perry were to advance on Pickett's right and repel any attempted flanking movement. The assault was made by eighteen thousand men. To cover the advance the Confederate artillery reopened, and when the infantry line appeared the Union guns were directed upon the ranks. Great volumes of smoke, however, soon obscured the field, and many of the Confederates could not see that there was a foe in front of them until they were within two hundred yards of the Union line. Under the artillery fire from McGilvery and Rittenhouse on Pickett's right his part of line drifted to the left, and thus, when the brigades of Wilcox and Perry marched straight ahead, as ordered, for the purpose of protecting Pickett's right flank, their course took them too far to the south to accomplish their purpose, even if the advanced line by that time had not gone into pieces. As Pettigrew had formed behind Seminary Ridge, his troops had to advance under fire a distance of at least thirteen hundred yards, while Pickett's place of formation was but nine hundred yards distant from the objective point. The start was made in echelon, with Pettigrew in the rear; but by the time the Emmitsburg road was reached both divisions were on a line, and they crossed the road together. Brockenbrough's Virginians, Pettigrew's left brigade, were disheartened by the flank fire of Hays' troops and Woodruff's battery after a loss of only twenty-five killed, and these troops either retreated, surrendered, or threw themselves on the he ground for protection; but the other brigades of Pettigrew, as well as those of Trimble, advanced to the stone wall, stayed there as long as any other Confederate troops, and surrendered many fewer men than did Pickett.
The drifting of Pickett's division to the left exposed the flank of his right brigade (Kemper) to the fire of Doubleday's division, a part of which moved with Pickett, thus continuing its deadly volleys, while Stannard's brigade by Hancock's orders, changed front to the right, and opened a most destructive fire upon Kemper's flank. Armistead's brigade moved in between Kemper and Garnett, and together they marched upon the angle of the stone wall held by Webb's Philadelphia brigade, Garnett, just before death, calling out to Colonel Frye, commanding Archer's brigade of Pettigrew's division on his left, "I am dressing on you." Scales' brigade, whose commander, Colonel Lowrance, says it "had advanced over a wide, hot, and already crimson plain," and through whose ranks troops from the front began to rush to the rear before he had advanced two thirds of the way, together with Lane's brigade, advanced to the front line, Lowrance's brigade reaching the wall. The two guns of Cushing's battery at the wall were silenced. The greater part of the Seventy-first Pennsylvania Regiment of Webb's brigade had been withdrawn from the wall to make room for the artillery, and the two remaining companies, overwhelmed by the mass of the enemy concentrated at this point, were driven back from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet. Through this gap the Confederates crossed the wall, and Armistead, putting his hat on his sword, dashed toward the other guns of Cushing's batter, near the clump of trees, and fell dead by the side of Cushing. The Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania of Webb's brigade held its left flanks by the enemy. The Seventy-second Pennsylvania and two companies of the One Hundred and Sixth Pennsylvania advanced to the wall; Cowan's New York battery galloped up; Hall's brigade of Hancock's corps, by the orders of Hancock, on Webb's left, changed front, and poured its fire into the Confederates' flank; Harrow's brigade also attacked Pickett in flank. The attack of Pettigrew and Trimble, farther to the Union right, fell upon Hays' division of the Second Corps. The Eighth Ohio changed front, facing south, reversing the tactics of Hall's brigade on the left and opened a flank fire. General Pickett, in person, did not cross the Emmitsburg road. Of his three brigade commanders, Garnett and Armistead were killed, and within twenty-five paces of the stone wall Kemper was wounded and captured. Pettigrew and Trimble and three of their brigade commanders (Frye, Marshall, and Lowrance) were wounded. The brigades of Wilcox and Perry, exposed to a heavy artillery fire from the fresh batteries moved to Gibbon's front again, and, seeing the repulse of the assault to their left, fell back to the main Confederate line.
Out of the fifty-five hundred men which Pickett took into action, fourteen hundred and ninety-nine surrendered, two hundred and twenty-four were killed, and eleven hundred and forty were reported wounded. Pickett lost twelve out of fifteen battle flags. Pettigrew's division, in which there was one brigade of North Carolina troops , lost in killed and wounded eight hundred and seventy-four, and in missing five hundred. Trimble's two North Carolina brigades lost in killed and wounded three hundred and eighty-nine, and in missing two hundred and sixty-one. The two brigades of Perry and Wilcox together lost three hundred and fifty-nine. Pettigrew's brigade of North Carolina regiments, commanded by Colonel Marshall, lost in the charge five hundred and twenty-eight, of which number three hundred were killed and wounded; and the Twenty-sixth North Carolina of this brigade, which regiment suffered greater losses during the war than any other on either side of the conflict, went into this charge with two hundred and sixteen men, and returned with but eighty-four. The percentage of losses in killed and wounded in the assaulting column, taken as a whole, was not extraordinary for the Civil War. The place assaulted was less formidable than Fort Fisher, which was taken later in the war by Union troops, and the assault itself was far less successful than that of Meade's division at Fredericksburg. Its complete failure was due to the thorough dispositions made to meet it, and it is improbable that the result would have been reversed if McLaws and Hood , whose attention was occupied by the appearance of the Union cavalry on their right, had participated in the assault. The tactical skill which had prevented the rout of the Third Corps from involving the whole army in a defeat on the second day of the battle, was exerted with equal success in supporting the center under attack on the third day.
At the center of Meade's position, were troops rank after rank, infantry division after division, line upon line, including even the provost guards, and, in rear of all, a regiment of cavalry waiting to shoot down the craven if he would discover himself. Against an army so disposed, in such a position, and so handled, its different parts thrown from point to point with certainty and promptitude, with every possible Confederate movement anticipated and provided for, the assault ordered by Lee was in truth the mad and reckless movement that Meade characterized it, and it accomplished no more than a slight fraying of the edge of the front Union line of troops.
On the Union side, Hancock, Gibbon, and Webb were wounded and carried from the field. The union losses were twenty-three hundred and thirty-two. Webb's brigade losing more than any other. One hundred and fifty-eight artillery men were killed or wounded. Before the attack Meade had told Hancock that if Lee attacked the Second Corps position he intended to put the Fifth and Sixth Corps on the enemy's flank. Recalling this remark of the army commander, Hancock, while lying on the ground wounded, dictated a note to Meade, expressing his belief that if the movement contemplated by the army commander were carried out a great success would be won. The Sixth corps, however, was not now a compact organization, its different parts, having been disposed in different portions of the field. The Fifth Corps was ordered to carry out the contemplated movement, but it had also been moved to support the center. There is a limit to human endurance, and the slowness with which the movement ordered by Meade was made, owing partly to the difficulty of collecting the troops, was no doubt largely due to sheer exhaustion caused by the supreme efforts which had now been prolonged for six midsummer days.
Source: "General Meade" by Isaac R. Pennypacker published 1901