Overview: Confederate General Robert E Lee ordered Pickett's Charge in order to attack Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union Army during the last day of Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
Pickett's Charge and Why It Happened
Who had lost Gettysburg? Longstreet's role in the battle and campaign seems rather insignificant, and Lee consistently and mistakenly ignored his advice. Even before the campaign, Lee had convinced Davis to ignore Longstreet's recommendation that the bulk of Longstreet's troops be sent to another theater. Partially because Lee kept Longstreet from going west, the Gettysburg disaster was accompanied by defeats in two other theaters. Lee's decision made it more likely that Grant would defeat the Confederates in Mississippi and capture Vicksburg and Pemberton's army. And he kept Bragg so shorthanded that his army was maneuvered back into Georgia from Tennessee in the virtually bloodless Tullahoma Campaign.
Robert E. Lee, therefore, bore a great deal of responsibility for a demoralizing triple disaster in the summer of 1863-Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma. Confederate morale and prospects fell to a new low from which they never recovered. Longstreet had advised defensive tactics for the campaign and was against attacking on the last two days of the battle. He was not present on the first day, and his men fought bravely on the last two days. That evidence seems to indicate that Longstreet was unfairly made a scapegoat for Gettysburg in order to remove blame from Lee, who protected his own reputation by suppressing Pickett's battle report.
How about Lee's strategic and tactical performance? Early Confederate reaction was not favorable. The Charleston Mercury opined, “It is impossible for an invasion to have been more foolish and disastrous. It was opportune neither in time nor circumstance.” Wade Hampton told Joseph Johnston that it was a “complete failure.” In a July 26 diary entry, Robert G. H. Kean of the Confederate War Department called Gettysburg “the worst disaster which has ever befallen our arms… To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when the freedom of movement gave him the advantage of selecting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder… Gettysburg has shaken my faith in Lee as a general.”
General Hampton concurred:
To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such a terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when freedom of movement gave him the advantage of accepting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder… the position of the Yankees there was the strongest I ever saw… we let Meade choose the position and then we attacked.
General Alexander shared the view that Lee had blundered: “Then perhaps in taking the aggressive at all at Gettysburg in 1863 & certainly in the place & dispositions for the assault on the 3rd day, I think, it will undoubtedly be held that Lee unnecessarily took the most desperate chances & the bloodiest road.” Historian William C. Davis, generally supportive of Lee's war effort, provides this insight into some specifics of Lee's performance at Gettysburg:
Confronted with a battle he did not want in ground not of his choosing, Lee exercised minimal control before he reached the field late on July 1. While struggling to concentrate the army, he could have sent staff to impose instructions on Hill and Ewell, but he did not, and left them to it. When he directed Ewell to take the key to the Union line on Cemetery Hill, he used the discretionary caveat “if practicable,” an unproductive phrase with a mercurial general like Ewell. Once he established his headquarters on the field, Lee erratically communicated plans to his corps commanders… Lee gave orders to his corps commanders but sent no staff with them to make certain his wishes were obeyed.
Davis then offers an overall appraisal of Lee's performance at Gettysburg:
He forfeited any long- or midrange tactical reconnaissance Stuart might have provided, and as a result had no grasp of the overall battlescape. He learned of Union movements too late to react, and never identified Meade's center of gravity in order to direct his own efforts to best effect. He let Hill bring on a major engagement despite instructions not to do so, and then gave orders too imprecise and discretionary to be effective. Five years later Lee offered two reasons for defeat: Stuart's absence left him blind; and he could not deliver the “one determined and united blow” that he believed would have assured victory… What he did not say was that he was ultimately responsible. He let Stuart go, and his own laissez-faire management helped bungle the attacks on July 1 and 2… Every general has his worst battle. Gettysburg was Lee's.
After the war, Lee provided his rationale for having attacked on the second and third days at Gettysburg:
It had not been intended to deliver a general battle so far from our base unless attacked, but coming unexpectedly upon the whole Federal army, to withdraw through the mountains with our extensive trains would have been difficult and dangerous. At the same time we were unable to await an attack, as the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies in the presence of the enemy who could restrain our foraging parties by holding the mountain passes with local and other troops. A battle had therefore become, in a measure, unavoidable, and the success already gained gave hope of a favorable issue.
Lee, in fact, had not come upon “the whole Federal army.” That whole army was not on the battlefield until late on the second day of the Gettysburg struggle. Later, even after suffering three days of terrible losses, Lee in fact was able to retreat safely through the mountains after the three-day battle. In addition, Lee's army managed to live off the country north of the Potomac for nine more days. Thus, Lee's rationale justifies neither his series of frontal attacks on the second day nor the suicidal charge on the third day.
Furthermore, Lee's strategic campaign into the North, which almost certainly had to end in a retreat and thus the appearance of defeat, had resulted in actual defeat. Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes's July 9 diary entry typified northern elation over Gettysburg: “I wonder what the South thinks of us Yankees now. I think Gettysburg will cure the Rebels of any desire to invade the North again.” Archer Jones writes that Lee “suffered a costly defeat in a three-day battle at Gettysburg. With Lee's loss of 28,000 men to the North's 23,000, the battle became a disaster of depletion for the Confederate army. His inevitable retreat to Virginia, seemingly the result of the battle rather than his inability to forage, made it a serious political defeat also.”
Considering the nearly equal number of combatants at Gettysburg, Lee's losses were staggering in both absolute and relative terms. Of the seventy-five thousand Confederates, 22,600 (30 percent) were killed or injured. The toll of general officers was appalling: six dead, eight wounded, and three captured. Just as significantly, the Southern field grade officers suffered high casualties, and their absence would be felt for the duration of the war. Of the 83,300 Union troops at Gettysburg, 17,700 (21 percent) were killed or wounded. Although his losses were higher in absolute and proportional terms, Lee told Davis, “Our loss has been very heavy, that of the enemy's is proportionally so.”
Because the Richmond papers, and thus many others in the South, initially reported Gettysburg as a Confederate victory, the South did not at first realize the extent of its losses in Pennsylvania. By July 31 Lee had deluded himself into calling the campaign a “general success.” A Virginia private who had fought at Gettysburg expressed a different view in a letter to his sister: “We got a bad whiping… they are awhiping us… at every point… I hope they would make peace so that we that is alive yet would get home agane… but I supose Jef Davis and lee don't care if all is killed.”
Regardless of what was known when, Lee's strategy and tactics at Gettysburg were the same that he had employed for the entire thirteen months he had commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. He attacked too often, and too often he initiated frontal attacks. Lee's approach had resulted in a terrible toll of death and injury. When he assumed command in June 1862, his army numbered about ninety-five thousand. From the Seven Days' through Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and finally Gettysburg, Lee's little army had suffered about eighty thousand killed and wounded while inflicting about seventy-three thousand deaths and injuries on the enemy.
Not only had the outnumbered army of Lee suffered more casualties in absolute terms, its casualties as a percentage of its total strength were substantially higher than the Federals'. During the Seven Days' Battle, 21 percent of Lee's army was killed or wounded (to the enemy's 11 percent), at Second Manassas it lost 19 percent (to the Federals' 13 percent), at Antietam Lee lost an appalling 23 percent (to the “attacking” McClellan's 16 percent), at Fredericksburg Lee's generally entrenched forces lost only 6 percent (to Burnside's 11 percent), in his Chancellorsville “victory” Lee lost 19 percent of his men (to Joe Hooker's 11 percent), and then at Gettysburg came the crushing three-day loss of 30 percent of Lee's remaining troops (to Meade's loss of 21 percent). Lee's offensive strategy and tactics were bleeding his seriously undermanned army at an unsustainable rate. Lee's strategy and tactics were just what Union generals should have been doing, but they were totally inappropriate for a rebel general.
British Colonel Arthur Fremantle, an observer at Gettysburg and elsewhere, advised Lee concerning the flaws of Lee's aggressiveness: “Don't you see your system feeds upon itself? You cannot fill the places of these men. Your troops do wonders, but every time at a cost you cannot afford.” Later, Lee's own General D. H. Hill described the folly of the Army of Northern Virginia's penchant for the tactical offensive:
We were very lavish of blood in those days, and it was thought to be a very great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry… The attacks on the Beaver Dam intrenchments, on the heights of Malvern Hill, at Gettysburg, etc., were all grand, but of exactly the kind of grandeur which the South could not afford.
All of the attacks mentioned by Hill had been personally ordered by Lee.
In a little over a year, therefore, Lee's army had lost as many men as it had when he took command and was losing its strength at a far faster rate than its manpower-rich foe. While the North, with its almost four to-one manpower advantage, could afford its casualties and replace the men it lost, Lee's aggression had seriously depleted the supply of Confederate men of fighting age in the East, had drained men from the rest of the Confederacy, and had made his ultimate military defeat inevitable-unless Lincoln lost the war at the ballot box in 1864.
Allen Guelzo concludes his authoritative analysis of Gettysburg with a summary of Lee's role in the Confederate defeat: “It can be said, then, that Lee lost a battle he should have won, and lost it because (a) he began the battle without completely concentrating his forces, (b) he proved unable to coordinate the attacks of the forces he did have available, and (c) he failed to reckon with how tenaciously the Army of the Potomac… would hold its ground under direct infantry attack on July 3.”
In summary, Gettysburg demonstrated all of Lee's weaknesses. He initiated an unnecessary strategic offensive that, because of his army's inevitable return to Virginia, would be perceived as a retreat and thus a defeat. He rejected alternative deployments of Longstreet's corps that might have avoided or mitigated critical losses of the Mississippi River (including Vicksburg and then Port Hudson, Louisiana) or middle and southeastern Tennessee (including Chattanooga). His tactics were inexcusably and fatally aggressive on the second and third days at Gettysburg, he failed to take charge of the battlefield on any of the three days, his battle-plans were ineffective, and his orders (especially to Stuart and Ewell) were vague and too discretionary. Gettysburg indeed was Lee at his worst.
Not only would Lee's entire Army of Northern Virginia never again invade the North; it had been so damaged that it had become vulnerable to a war of attrition. Any remaining hope of foreign intervention ended as England halted the extension of credit and deliveries of ships to the Confederates. The European powers reacted not only to Lee's Gettysburg Campaign itself but to the simultaneous losses in the Western and Middle Theaters. On July 28, the Confederate chief of ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, bemoaned the rapid change of rebel fortunes resulting from its defeats at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Gettysburg:
Lee failed at Gettysburg, and has recrossed the Potomac & resumed the position of two months ago, covering Richmond. Alas! he has lost fifteen thousand men and twenty-five thousand stands of arms. Vicksburgh sic and Port Hudson capitulated, surrendering thirty five thousand men and forty-five thousand arms. It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success-to-day absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.
Gettysburg indeed had been a Confederate disaster, and the record is clear that responsibility for it rests, for myriad reasons, with Robert E. Lee. Jeb Stuart, Richard Ewell, Jubal Early, Nelson Pendleton, and perhaps Longstreet played lesser roles in the defeat. The latter, however, who played a subordinate role in the battle and whose wise tactical counsel was rejected, has been unjustly blamed for his conduct at Gettysburg in an effort to deflect criticism away from Lee-the commanding officer who failed to command or command well in that campaign and battle.
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