The Last Attack at Gettysburg
Lt. Frank A. Haskell first became aware that Friday, July 3, had arrived when he felt someone pulling on his foot. It was four o'clock in the morning, nearly a half-hour before the sun would rise, and Haskell had managed to get four hours of sleep. If the sky had not been so cloudy, he could have looked up and seen the moon hovering above the sleeping army. The first sound Haskell detected in the dark was the popping of skirmish fire, off to the right front of the Second Corps line. After two days of terrific fighting at Gettysburg, the generals were still not satisfied. Another day of bloodshed was needed to decide a winner and perhaps to settle the fate of the nation.
The man tugging at Haskell's boot was Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, commander of the Second Division of the Second Corps. The two had fallen asleep in the Bryan peach orchard atop Cemetery Ridge, just behind the division line. Haskell found a cup of hot coffee and hastily drank it while getting ready to mount his horse and ride with Gibbon to discover the progress of the skirmishing. The general and his staff officer rode slowly, for neither of them were fully awake. Haskell noticed that most of the division was still asleep on the ridge, even though the skirmishers were only a few hundred yards away. As he looked to the left front, over the battlefield of July 2, he saw wounded horses limping through the growing light of dawn. The "ravages of the conflict were still fearfully visible," Haskell wrote a few months later, "the scattered arms and the ground thickly dotted with the dead."
There was little to fear from the skirmishers; they were simply firing in place rather than pushing or giving way. The skirmish lines remained stable, and only a few men now and then felt the sting of a round. There was time for Gibbon and Haskell to loll about and observe their men waking up with the sun. Soon the normal sounds and sights of a camp coming to life could be detected. "Then ensued the hum of an army . . . chatting in low tones, and running about and jostling among each other, rolling and packing their blankets and tents," wrote Haskell. "But one could not have told by the appearance of the men, that they were in battle yesterday, and were likely to be again to-day. They packed their knapsacks, boiled their coffee, and munched their hard bread, just as usual, . . . and their talk is far more concerning their present employment,some joke or drollery,than concerning what they saw or did yesterday."
These were veteran soldiers who knew that taking care of the inner man was the most important preparation for battle. As they readied for the day, the sun rose higher, but it was often obscured by dark clouds all morning. Old soldiers knew that it usually rained right after a major battle, and the fighting on July 1 and 2 had been among the heaviest of the war. But the moon set at 7:29 A.M., and the clouds continued to break apart. There would be no rain today.
To the right front of Gibbon's division a lone regiment was waking up from its bivouac along Emmitsburg Road. The men of the 8th Ohio had been on skirmish duty since the day before. Most of the regiment had slept along the ditch that bordered the west side of the pike while their regimental comrades manned the skirmish line, which was along a rail fence farther west. The skirmishers were only about sixty yards from the Confederate skirmish line, yet the bulk of the Ohio unit had no trouble waking up with the dawn, undisturbed by the racket taking place a short distance west of their ditch. Despite the heat of this early summer, the night of July 2 had been a bit chilly. The sun warmed everyone; it "sent its rays upon unprotected faces and into blinking eyes," wrote Lt. Thomas F. Galwey. The bluecoated soldiers rose with humped shoulders and outstretched limbs, "followed by a curious peering forward to see what the enemy, beginning to stir too, might be about."
Back to the rear, along Cemetery Ridge, Galwey could hear "an angry neighing" from the battery horses. They were tired of carrying the harness "that for more than two days they had constantly worn." The men on the skirmish lines could hardly afford to protest their fate; they spent the first moments of this day quickly building small fires to heat coffee. Galwey looked about and saw "little whiffs of blue smoke" rising into the air from numerous campfires. The sporadic skirmishing that continued on various parts of the line could not prevent these "determined spirits" from restoring their strength and energy with a much-needed dose of caffeine.
Much the same scene was enacted on the opposite side of the field, separated from the Yankees by less than a mile of disputed ground. Col. Edward Porter Alexander was among the first to wake up, despite having spent part of the night tending to the placement of his guns. Alexander commanded an artillery battalion in Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps and had been given temporary charge of several other battalions in the vicious battle the day before. He had visited Longstreet's bivouac at midnight to receive instructions for the morrow and learned that the attack would be renewed. He was to select an advantageous spot for the Washington Artillery, not an easy task in the darkness. Yet the moon shone brightly at that midnight hour, and Alexander surveyed the battlefield, believing he saw a place for the guns that were to reach him at dawn.
Alexander was satisfied and sought a place to sleep at 1:00 A.M. The Sherfy peach orchard was on some of the highest ground along Emmitsburg Road. It had been the scene of particularly hard fighting the evening before when Longstreet's men crushed the Union Third Corps. Now it was a mess, filled with "deep dust & blood, & filth of all kinds," recalled Alexander. The orchard was "trampled and wrecked." He found two fence rails and carefully placed them under a tree, used his saddle as a pillow, and fell asleep surrounded by human corpses and dead horses. He awoke two hours later after a "good sound & needed sleep," having slept no more than two hours the night before as well.
While Gibbon and Haskell still lay and dreamed in their own peach orchard, Alexander began to putter around in the predawn darkness. He had only a dim knowledge of the Union position, but he could see, as the sun began to peek over the horizon, what he thought was the spot where Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division had attacked the evening before. He assumed this spot was high ground just in front of the Federal lines and that a Rebel line of battle would appear there once the sun was fully risen. Therefore he directed the Washington Artillery to string out in a line through the Sherfy peach orchard, aiming toward that spot. Only later, when the sun was rising, did he realize his mistake. The high ground was Cemetery Ridge, and it was still held by the Yankees. Alexander scrambled to move his guns, fearing that they would be fatally enfiladed by the Union artillery as soon as the enemy gunners woke up and realized what an advantage Alexander had handed them. "It scared me awfully," he confessed, but Alexander managed to readjust the line before any harm was done.
The entire area around the orchard was "unfavorable ground for us," he reasoned. It was an open bump in the wide valley that separated Cemetery Ridge from Seminary Ridge, and the Yankees could see everything that was happening on it. "I studied the ground carefully for every gun to get the best cover that the gentle slopes, here & there, would permit," Alexander wrote, "but it was generally poor at the best & what there was was often gotten only by scattering commands to some extent." The only thing that saved him was a marked reluctance on the part of the Federals to open fire. Alexander was relieved to see that as the sun rose higher, there were only a few scattered rounds from the Union cannon. One of them wounded some gunners in the Washington Artillery, but Alexander refused to be drawn into a duel. The army had brought limited supplies of artillery ammunition, so he only allowed one or two rounds to be fired in reply, letting the Federals fire the last shot. Thus he could "beguile them into a little artillery truce. It worked excellently, & though, occasionally, during the morning, when we exhibited a particularly tempting mark we would get a few shots we got along very nicely." All of Alexander's arrangements were heartily approved by the army's artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, when he visited the Sherfy peach orchard later that morning.
Plans and Expectations
Longstreet, too, was up before dawn to push forward a favored scheme of his, mounting a flank movement around the Union left. Anchored on Little Round Top and Big Round Top, the Federal left was secure against frontal attack but might be vulnerable to a smartly executed march around the hills. Longstreet had been reluctant to attack the left even on July 2, strongly favoring a less costly tactical plan. His men had fought magnificently in the late evening hours of the second and had come very close to seizing Little Round Top. But the casualties were exhausting, and a partial success was not enough for an invading army in enemy territory with little logistical support from home. Longstreet admitted long after the war that he did not intend for the July 2 assault to be pushed so far. He meant that he regretted so many men were lost for no decisive gain. "The position proving so strong on the 2d, I was less inclined to attack on the 3d, in fact I had no idea of attacking."
With this frame of mind, the corps leader did not even ride to Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters on Chambersburg Pike to consult with him on the night of July 2. Instead he sent a report of his assault and received a message from Lee that the attack should be continued the next day. He simply gave Longstreet a broad directive to resume offensive operations as soon as possible. Longstreet wanted to take the offensive but not with a frontal assault. He had dispatched scouts into the countryside to find a way for his command to sidestep the Federal left, then turn and "push it down towards his centre." This, he presumed, could be accomplished with minimal bloodshed if the turning movement was successful. With the first light of dawn, Longstreet rode out to see for himself if a way around the heights could be achieved. His scouts offered encouragement, and Longstreet began to plan how his divisions might execute the maneuver. Lee typically gave the responsibility for planning details of operations to his subordinates, so Longstreet felt there was nothing wrong with choosing a line of attack that he personally favored.
His plan came crashing to a halt when Lee rode up about 4:30 A.M., just after sunrise. He was surprised at Longstreet's proposed line of advance and ordered him to cancel it. The army leader then outlined his own thoughts on the coming offensive. He wanted the entire First Corps to strike the south end of Cemetery Ridge in a frontal assault. Two of Longstreet's divisions, Maj. Gen. John B. Hood's (commanded by Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law) and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws's, were already in line holding the Confederate right. They had conducted the fierce attack the day before and had lost at least a third of their strength. Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's division, not yet engaged in the battle, was on the field but not yet in position. It would serve as a support to Law and McLaws. Lee wanted to better Longstreet's chances of success by coordinating an attack on the extreme left, to be conducted by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps against the Federal right. He had anticipated an early start, hoping to see the assault begin at dawn, and was disappointed it had not yet begun. This apparently had been his thinking all along, even the night before. It represented a continuation of the general plan of attack on July 2.
Longstreet was stunned. He had assumed that the results of the previous day's action provided ample proof that frontal assaults were too costly and unlikely to produce results. He spelled out his views in clear language, arguing that "the point had been fully tested the day before, by more men, when all were fresh; that the enemy was there looking for us." If Law and McLaws were withdrawn to attack the center, the Union left would be uncovered, allowing the Federals to advance and curl around Lee's right wing. No less than 30,000 men were needed, with the support of the rest of the army, to bring a chance of success to this assault on the center; Law and McLaws and Pickett combined could muster no more than 13,000.
Instead, Longstreet suggested the army conduct a major shift to the right. Ewell should disengage from his position on the left, march laterally behind Lee's rear, and position himself so as to hold the Union left flank in place on the rocky hills. The rest of the army would move to his rear and curve around to threaten the enemy rear, march five or six miles toward Washington, D.C., and find a strong defensive position. Then the Rebels could wait for the Federals to attack, slaughter them, and have the strategic initiative in hand. Longstreet later admitted in his official report that this proposed maneuver "would have been a slow process, probably, but I think not very difficult." It was a plan that would come to assume almost mythic proportions in the decades after Gettysburg as a glittering alternative to what actually happened on July 3. Untested and therefore open to unrealistic expectations of success, this maneuver to the right became the great "might have been" of Gettysburg for those who wanted Lee to avoid the slaughter that was to come.
Longstreet hoped to tempt Lee with its possibilities. "General, I have had scouts out all night," he told the army commander, "and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade's army and manoeuvre him into attacking us." But Lee did not take the bait. He replied, with "some impatience," that a direct assault on the center was the true course of action. Thrusting his fist toward Cemetery Ridge, he said, "The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him."
Lee based his decision on a considered opinion. He had been impressed by the results of the attack on July 2, when Ewell had hit the extreme right and Longstreet the extreme left of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's line. While Longstreet viewed these limited achievements as proof that something different should be attempted, Lee saw them as one step along the correct line of approach. The results "induced the belief that, with proper concert of action," in Lee's words, a similar movement could be successful on July 3. He believed that there had been too little coordination of effort and that the attack on the third had to be more minutely planned and closely executed. The capture of the Sherfy peach orchard especially encouraged Lee. It occupied the highest ground close to the Yankee line within Confederate reach, and artillery placed there could more readily support an infantry assault than any artillery post had done on July 2. Alexander had already come to the private conclusion that this was a false hope, but Lee grasped at every indication he could find to support his planned offensive. He counted heavily on the artillery to provide the key factor needed to bring success to this ventureartillery plus a well-coordinated tactical plan. Lee foresaw the guns softening the Union position and then moving forward to provide close support for the infantry when it attacked. He also wanted plenty of supporting troops on both sides of the assaulting column to be ready to rush in and exploit any success achieved. True to his command style, Lee did not intend to arrange this himself. He wanted Longstreet to be his right-hand man, as Stonewall Jackson had done on so many battlefields. Jackson had died less than two months earlier as a result of wounds received at Chancellorsville, and Lee was hoping Longstreet would fill his shoes.
Unlike Stonewall, Longstreet balked at the prospect of offensive action against the Yankees. Two other factors intervened to upset Lee's plan. First, the terrain on the southern part of the battlefield was dominated by Little Round Top and Big Round Top. They had almost fallen to Lee's troops the day before and were now held by Meade's Federals in strong force. They could not be easily taken, and to strike the southern end of Cemetery Ridge just north of Little Round Top would expose the attacking column to flanking artillery fire and a possible counterattack. Longstreet argued that Law and McLaws needed to remain in place, fronting this sector of the Union line to anchor the army's right wing. Lee soon agreed and allowed them to remain. He apparently had not fully appreciated the terrain difficulties on this part of the field, partly because Longstreet chose not to report in person on the results of the fighting the night before.
The second factor that changed Lee's thinking came from the far left. During the long conversation with Longstreet, which had started just after 4:30 A.M., the sound of artillery fire could be heard to the north. Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's division of Ewell's corps had attacked and captured some ground on the army's left the evening before, at Culp's Hill, which it held in close proximity to the Federal Twelfth Corps. Now, at early light, the Federals opened an artillery barrage, and a sharp fight ensued, leading Ewell's command to attack without coordinating its movements with Longstreet. Historian William Garrett Piston has suggested that Lee might have implemented his plan anyway by promptly ordering Longstreet to throw Pickett, Law, and McLaws into a frontal attack against the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Although late, this assault might have come off in time to give Ewell support. But Pickett's division was not yet up and in line, averting any possibility that Lee's desire for a cooperative attack on both flanks might take place that day.
With his first plan now impossible, Lee devised his second plan for operations on July 3. Pickett would still be the key; his fresh division would spearhead an assault to take place much later in the day and hit the center of the Union position. Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill's Third Corps, immediately to Longstreet's left, would provide additional troops. When Longstreet asked how many men would be involved, Lee guessed 15,000. The corps commander was stunned. He had earlier suggested that twice this number was the minimum necessary. "General, I have been a soldier all my life," he remonstrated, speaking more bluntly than ever before to Lee. "I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies, and should know as well as any one what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." He felt compelled to protest what he felt would be "the sacrifice of my men." After this Lee lost all patience. Longstreet recalled that his chief was tired "of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed."
Longstreet would brood over the results of this early morning conference for the rest of his life. He was firmly convinced that Lee's plan would fail and cost the lives of irreplaceable men. It was to be one of the most complex and difficult attacks to organize during the entire war, involving elements of two corps, dozens of artillery units, and the thorny problem of coordinating supporting troops. The plan called for one of the most extensive artillery preparations ever to precede an infantry assault. Longstreet had never been given such a tough assignment.
Yet if anyone in the Army of Northern Virginia had the potential to organize it properly, it was Longstreet. Born in South Carolina forty-three years earlier, he had graduated from West Point in 1842. Longstreet was a consummate professional soldier, talented, self-confident, amiable, and almost destined to rise in the army. He had fought bravely in the Mexican War, was badly wounded at the battle of Chapultepec, and had served on the Texas frontier in the 1850s. The Civil War offered him incredible opportunities; he led a brigade at First Manassas that included regiments now serving in Pickett's division and was promoted to division command in October 1861. Personal tragedy intruded on his career the following winter when scarlet fever took the lives of three of his four children.
Emotionally devastated, the general threw himself into the war and took solace in his military responsibilities. Longstreet led his division during the Peninsula campaign, participating in the engagement at Williamsburg and the battle of Seven Pines. He came into his own as a talented subordinate of Lee in the Seven Days, mostly by launching a crushing attack at Frayser's Farm, or Glendale, on June 30, that came close to cutting off a large part of the Army of the Potomac on its retreat to Harrison's Landing on the James River. His division of about 10,000 men advanced alongside A. P. Hill's division in a straight forward line of approach through a matted forest. There was no special artillery preparation here; his men fought their way to a hard-won but very limited tactical victory that yielded few strategic gains.
The following day, at Malvern Hill, Longstreet attempted to organize a large concentration of Rebel guns to soften the strong Union position blocking the way to Harrison's Landing, but he failed. The densely packed and well-placed Union guns pounded the Rebel artillery, denying them a chance to achieve superiority on the field. Then a series of uncoordinated and unwise infantry assaults, launched piecemeal by brigades, took place. The result was a terrible slaughter and a tactical defeat. Yet because the Federals retreated to the James, the Seven Days campaign was a major Confederate triumph.
Longstreet launched a decisive assault that tipped the scales in favor of Lee during the Second Manassas campaign, but he did it in a slow, cautious manner. While Jackson's corps had positioned itself along the unfinished railroad grade near Manassas and received the spirited but piecemeal assaults of Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia, Longstreet had quietly positioned his corps to Jackson's right and waited. He arrived early enough on August 29 to attack in the early afternoon with 30,000 men, but disturbing reports of an unknown Yankee force to his right and a desire to know every detail of the terrain and the Union forces in his front led Longstreet to advise postponing the attack. Lee reluctantly agreed, even though the advice ran counter to his own inclinations. The delay did not endanger Confederate chances of success. Pope was myopically concerned with Jackson, and the Federal force on Longstreet's right, Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps, was determined to remain on the defensive. Everything conspired to allow Longstreet the time and opportunity he craved to be fully prepared. When the attack took place on August 30, it was a crushing success. The Federals were driven from the field in a disaster that eclipsed the first battle at Manassas more than a year earlier.
The successful attack on August 30, in which Longstreet was able to influence Lee's decision-making process, allowed him to feel a heady sense of importance within the command structure of the army. But he later came to appreciate deeply how easily the survival of the army could be threatened. The battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was one of the most searing days in the history of the army. Heavily outnumbered and fighting on a remarkably open, rolling battlefield, the Confederates were nearly overwhelmed. Longstreet earned the nickname Lee gave him that evening, his old war-horse, by doggedly holding in the center, but the army had barely survived its first invasion of Northern-held territory.
Longstreet later saw the power of the defensive vividly demonstrated at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, when little more than two of his brigades were positioned several ranks deep behind a stone retaining wall at the foot of Marye's Heights. The Army of the Potomac foolishly launched repeated assaults up an open, ascending plain into the teeth of massed musketry. The result appalled even the Confederates, for the plain was thickly strewn with dead and dying Yankees by that evening. Longstreet took from Fredericksburg a deep appreciation for the advantages of a strong defensive position, backed by artillery and strengthened by fortifications.
He missed the Chancellorsville campaign, when Lee demonstrated the offensive power of the army by fighting his way out of a trap set by an adroit maneuver of the Army of the Potomac, because he was off on a frustrating campaign against Suffolk, Virginia. The primary purpose of this expedition was to gather much-needed foodstuffs for Lee's army, rather than to regain Union-occupied territory. The place was so heavily fortified that Longstreet could not find a way to pry himself into it. When Longstreet rushed his troops back to Lee immediately after Chancellorsville, Jackson was out of the picture, and he now had to shoulder the responsibility of becoming Lee's right-hand man.
Despite the complexity of the July 3 attack, it was clear that Longstreet had the ability to deal with the situation. He was one of the most able tacticians in the Confederate army, and he had a discerning eye for terrain and a keen appreciation for the role of artillery. He could have dealt with most tactical problems, but the corps leader was severely hampered by a heartfelt conviction that this attack was a dreadful mistake. Longstreet was working out a different relationship with Lee during the Gettysburg campaign. He felt it was necessary to be outspoken on important matters, and often, it was turning out, he did not see eye-to-eye with Lee. The two certainly were not thinking alike about the conception of this campaign on either the strategic or the tactical level. Lee chose to ignore this difference of opinion, losing his patience when Longstreet persisted in arguing for a different approach to the tactical problem. He had grown used to his generals doing the impossible and saw no reason to change his expectations now.
Moreover, Lee had developed extremely high expectations of his enlisted men. Ever since he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia a year earlier, he had seen them conduct juggernaut assaults, stand firm in defensive battles, and display unflappable morale in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. Chancellorsville seemed to epitomize all of this. Outnumbered more than two to one and sandwiched between two powerful Federal forces, they fought the Army of the Potomac to a standstill and then launched a counterattack under Jackson that turned the tables on their opponents. The army's fierce assaults on the morning of May 3, launched through a landscape cluttered with saplings, small trees, and brush and butting against hastily made earthworks, forced the Federal army to retreat from its advantageous position and won the battle for Lee. The Rebel army leader was in awe of his men. While contemplating the reorganization of the corps and assessing the need to promote officers to command them, Lee wrote to Hood that the army would be "invincible if it could be properly organized and officered. There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led." This was Lee's mindset prior to the Gettysburg campaign.
Lee could have referred to himself when commenting on the common soldier's need to be properly officered, for his command style left something to be desired. It seldom resulted in disaster because his subordinates usually made up for any deficiencies by improvising solutions or by unleashing the fighting spirit of their men. The conception of and planning for what came to be known as Pickett's Charge would become the most controversial episode of Lee's and Longstreet's careers because the attack proved to be a bloody failure. To what extent Longstreet's lack of faith in the attack doomed its chances of success became a matter of bitter debate for many Confederates and their partisans. The two commanders would never again have so much difficulty understanding each other's motives or feelings when discussing plans, for they would form a strong, united team in the 1864-65 campaigns in Virginia. But now, on the morning of July 3, they were like two old friends who suddenly felt they had never really known each other.
Longstreet later confessed that Lee "should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan." He pointed out that slightly more than half of the attacking force came from a different corps, "and there was no reason for putting the assaulting forces under my charge." There is no evidence that he suggested a change of commanders to Lee. His sense of professionalism held him to discharge his duty, even if he felt it was unwise. "Knowing my want of confidence," Longstreet continued in his memoirs, "he should have given the benefit of his presence and his assistance in getting the troops up, posting them, and arranging the batteries: but he gave no orders or suggestions after his early designation of the point for which the column should march." Lee left everything in Longstreet's unwilling hands. This was true to his instinct and consistent with his history of success.
To his credit Longstreet set about to do the best job he could, considering how severely his lack of faith in Lee's plan hampered his ability to organize the attack. His effort to minimize casualties led Longstreet to limit the number of supporting troops to be engaged. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the size of the attack, but there were other areas in which Longstreet failed to prepare the assault fully. There were examples of shortsightedness, lapses of thinking, or failure to see that directives were properly carried out. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, Longstreet did not give all of his considerable talents to making sure the attack had every chance of success.
Longstreet directed Pickett to place his command "under the best cover that he could get from the enemy's batteries." He designated Pickett as the guide for the attack, in accordance with Lee's instructions, but he did not mean to use Hill's troops as a support, in the strictest meaning of the term. Longstreet instructed those troops to align themselves to the left of Pickett and move forward abreast of his division. They would be equal partners in the attack, extending the line to the left. The unit chosen from Hill's corps was Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division, now led by Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew because Heth had suffered a head wound on July 1. The division had fought hard and lost heavily that day and was just as exhausted as Law's and McLaws's men, but it happened to be the rightmost division of Hill's corps and thus was conveniently placed to join the attack.
Encouraging evidence of Longstreet's care in preparing the assault lay in his instructions to division leaders. He asked them to "go to the crest of the ridge and take a careful view of the field, and to have their officers there to tell their men of it, and to prepare them for the sight that was to burst upon them as they mounted the crest." Longstreet took his own division commander, Pickett, to personally show him the field, but he was depressed by Pickett's reaction. The division leader "seemed to appreciate the severity of the contest upon which he was about to enter, but was quite hopeful of success." Longstreet despaired, still convinced of "the desperate and hopeless nature of the charge and the cruel slaughter it would cause. My heart was heavy when I left Pickett."
Pettigrew received instructions to report to Longstreet, and he did so, learning that Heth's division would take part in the attack and that it would advance in line with Pickett's division, not as its support. He also was told that a massive artillery barrage would precede the attack. But there is no evidence that Longstreet or anyone else took Pettigrew to the crest of Seminary Ridge and offered him advice about the lay of the land. Pettigrew passed on the minimal information he was told to his four brigade leaders. One of them, Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis, authored the division report after the battle. He indicated that the only instructions were to dress to the right and come into line with Pickett's command. Longstreet failed to see that his enlightened instructions about informing everyone what they could expect to encounter were carried out. He probably led Pickett to the crest of Seminary Ridge because he personally knew the division leader and wanted to gauge his opinion on the prospects of success, only to have his hopes of finding a gloomy ally dashed by Pickett's optimism.
Longstreet's biggest failure was in not properly arranging for support to either side of the attacking column. Contrary to the assertion of a modern writer, there never was a "second wave" planned for Pickett's Attack. That is, no one contemplated a large force following directly behind the attackers to provide additional weight of numbers at a key point in the assault. Second waves were likely only if the attacking force was expected to engage in a prolonged struggle after it made the initial contact with the defenders, as in twentieth-century amphibious landings, where there was little prospect of sending troops in to right or left of the first wave. Whether a second wave was necessary on July 3 is debatable. Lee simply did not have the reserve manpower to form one; he could not afford to pull units out of his long line and position them to follow up Pickett's Attack without leaving a gaping hole somewhere else. Also, there was little likelihood that a second wave would suffer fewer casualties than the first wave while crossing the open valley between the opposing lines, and therefore it would not add significantly more momentum to the forward drive as it reached Pickett's line. After all, Pickett's own men would be in its way, and it was likely that the two waves simply would blend together and lose their momentum due to exhaustion, losses, and the stubborn resistance of the Federals.
Instead the only support contemplated was the advance of units to right and left of the attacking force. This became one of the most bitter controversies to develop after the attack. Several members of Lee's staff who were at the conference that morning insisted that the army leader wanted Longstreet to use large numbers of troops to either side of Pickett and Pettigrew. Col. Walter H. Taylor, Lee's chief of staff, recalled that all or part of Law's or McLaws's commands were to be sent forward. Col. Armistead L. Long, Lee's military secretary, insisted that Lee's instructions to Longstreet on this point were in the form of orders, not suggestions, and that he and at least one other staff officer heard the army commander give them.
Longstreet had a genuinely different impression of Lee's intentions. He stated flatly after the battle that the general had allowed him to keep Law and McLaws in place to secure the right flank, and Lee reported as much in his official report as well. The army leader noted that Longstreet "deemed it necessary to defend his flank and rear with the divisions of Hood and McLaws. He was, therefore, re-enforced by" troops from Hill's corps. It would have been extremely risky to move any part of those two divisions out of line to have them attack behind or in close support of Pickett; such a move would have dangerously exposed the right flank. It could also have endangered Alexander's artillery concentration at the Sherfy peach orchard, as Alexander himself believed. Lee's staff officers were not clear in their language as to exactly how Law and McLaws were to support Pickett and Pettigrew, whether they were to reposition their units farther toward the center or simply to advance straight ahead. The latter maneuver would have continued to secure the flank and possibly could have helped the attackers if it was pressed hard and at just the right time. But the very hard attack of July 2 on this part of the field had failed at high cost, and the Federals were far better prepared for a repetition of it on July 3. It undoubtedly would have failed to capture the Round Tops unless Pickett and Pettigrew broke through the center across Cemetery Ridge in a very dramatic and decisive way.
As a result Longstreet did not include either Law or McLaws in the planning of the attack. He only arranged for two small brigades of Hill's corps to shield Pickett's right flank. These were a Florida brigade led by Col. David Lang and an Alabama brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox, both of Anderson's division. The two units had been sent to this part of the field the day before and had participated in the battle of July 2, attacking the Union center on Cemetery Ridge nearly in the same area to be hit by Pickett. Lang and Wilcox were instructed to move to the right rear of Pickett's division "to protect it from any force that the enemy might attempt to move against it." In other words, Longstreet did not see Lang and Wilcox as helping Pickett to penetrate the Union line; they were to guard his flank.
McLaws was left completely in the dark, although his division was next in line to Lang and Wilcox. "I was not notified that it was in contemplation even to make any further attacks by either Hood's or my division, nor was I informed that it was the intention to assault the enemy's centre with Pickett's division, with the assistance of troops from other corps." Longstreet stated in his memoir that he instructed Law and McLaws to move forward so they could spring to the attack directly to their front if Pickett and Pettigrew should be successful. But this apparently was not true. McLaws flatly stated, "I was not told to be ready to assist, should the assault be successful, nor instructed what to do should the assault fail and the enemy advance. I contented myself with reconnoitering my ground and vicinity in all the directions necessary for movement in any emergency, and took my position among my troops."
Longstreet did not have an opportunity to use Law and McLaws, for there was little, if anything, they could do to help the attack. The Federals did not transfer troops from the area of the Round Tops to repulse Pickett, and therefore an attack by these two Rebel divisions would not have affected the outcome of the assault. Despite Armistead Long's assertion that Lee bemoaned the fact that the two divisions were not used, there is every reason to assume that Lee knew Law and McLaws were out of the picture. Longstreet was careful to defend himself in this regard. He pointed out that he rode with Lee along the line twice after the early morning conference
to see that everything was arranged according to his wishes. He was told that we had been more particular in giving orders than ever before; that the commanders had been sent for and the point of attack had been carefully designated and that the commanders had been directed to communicate to their subordinates, and through them to every soldier in the command, the work that was before them, so that they should nerve themselves for the attack and fully understand it. After leaving me he again rode over the field once, if not twice, so that there was really no room for misconceptions or misunderstanding of his wishes. He could not have thought of giving any such orders [involve Law and McLaws in the attack.
Thus did Longstreet try to prove that Lee had ample opportunity to learn of his dispositions and raised no objection to them.
Longstreet also failed to draw on Hill's corps for support to the left of the attacking column. The only help he derived from that source was recruited by Lee himself. After leaving the conference with Longstreet, Lee rode along the front of Hill's command and stopped in front of Maj. Gen. William D. Pender's division, now led by Brig. Gen. James H. Lane due to the mortal wounding of Pender the previous day. Lane watched as Lee gazed toward the Union position across the valley between the two ridges. Then the army commander said "he needed more troops on the right, but that he did not know where they were to come from." Lane did not volunteer his command, but soon after Lee left, he received orders to leave two of the four brigades in place and move the other two toward the right. Lane was also to report to Longstreet, who instructed him to place the two brigades behind Pettigrew's right wing. One of these brigades was Lane's and the other was Col. Alfred M. Scales's. Both were from North Carolina, and both had been engaged in the fighting on July 1, when Scales was severely wounded. His unit now was led by Col. William L. J. Lowrance. Soon after taking position, Lane was bumped from division command by Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, and he returned to lead his brigade.
If there was to be a second wave in Pickett's Attack, Trimble's command was it. Positioned only a short distance behind Pettigrew's right, his two brigades were not large enough to cover the entire rear of Pettigrew's division. He had too few men to add much weight to the forward momentum. All Trimble could hope to do was to fill in any holes that might develop in Pettigrew's line or, failing that, simply to push forward and hope to carry the men in his front farther forward if they happened to stall. But his command would have to overcome the same obstacles of exhaustion, terrain obstructions, and enemy fire that Pettigrew's men would have to endure.
Longstreet really stumbled when it came to dealing with Hill. The two generals had nursed a personal feud for a year, ever since the battle of Frayser's Farm during the Seven Days. It started when Richmond newspaper editor John Daniel published inflated stories about Hill's prowess during the battle, which infuriated Longstreet. The two had jointly fought the engagement, side by side, at the head of their respective divisions. Longstreet published a rebuttal in a competing Richmond paper, which infuriated Hill. The quarrel grew worse when Longstreet temporarily placed Hill under arrest for refusing to turn in a routine report. The two managed to patch things up well enough to maintain a coldly formal relationship, but that chill inhibited their ability to cooperate on July 3. They held a private meeting that morning that resulted in Hill's decision to let his two brigade commanders take all their instructions from Longstreet. For his part, the commander of the First Corps may have assumed from their discussions that Hill would do more than this, and the result was a gaping chasm in intercorps communication and cooperation.
Hill's role in the planning and preparation was virtually nonexistent, but a good corps commander should never remain idle while a colleague takes his troops and plans an attack within his area of influence. Hill completely failed to affect what was to happen on July 3. He failed to point out that Pettigrew's division and Trimble's two brigades had been worsted on July 1 and needed time to recuperate. He failed to offer other Third Corps troops that were in better shape, namely Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey's Mississippi brigade and Brig. Gen. William Mahone's Virginia brigade of Anderson's division. Even Brig. Gen. Edward L. Thomas's Georgia brigade of Pender's division was fresh, having seen no action on July 1. Hill exercised no control over the placement of the troops and issued no instructions or advice to any of their commanders. He had a record of success, effectively leading a division in the Seven Days campaign and performing brilliantly at Antietam. But he was now trying to adjust to higher command, which demanded more administrative and planning abilities than he probably possessed. Moreover, he may have felt a bit uneasy about his ability to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of his troops in the face of Longstreet's self-assurance and Lee's legendary persona. However his mind was working, Hill failed to play the role of an effective corps commander on July 3.
Hill left little indication of his attitude toward the attack, and the testimony of other officers on this subject is conflicting. His adjutant, Maj. William H. Palmer, missed the campaign because of a wound received at Chancellorsville, but Hill told him after Gettysburg, "I begged General Lee to let me take in my whole Army corps. He refused, and said what remains of your corps will be my only reserve, and it will be needed if Gen'l Longstreet's attack should fail." Lee confirmed part of this story in his report by writing that Hill "was directed to hold his line with the rest of his command, afford General Longstreet further assistance, if required, and avail himself of any success that might be gained." But one of Pettigrew's brigade commanders, Col. Birkett D. Fry, indicated that Hill was not so sure the attack was wise. Hill asked Fry to go forward and observe the Union position with him. Looking carefully from the crest of Seminary Ridge through a good pair of field glasses, Hill asked Fry what he thought. Fry said simply that it was a strong position, and Hill replied, "emphatically closing the glass; entirely too strong to attack in front."
Thus the elements of Hill's corps taking some part in the assault included Pettigrew's division and two brigades of Trimble's division as part of the assaulting column. In addition Lang and Wilcox would serve as right flank guard for Pickett. The rest of the Third Corps, Anderson's and Trimble's remaining brigades, would be ready to support Pettigrew's left. Longstreet does not seem to have communicated directly with Hill on any of these matters. He only gave instructions to Pettigrew and Lane and would not have had the services of Trimble's two brigades if not for Lee's personal intervention. Longstreet never communicated directly with Anderson or with Trimble during the preparatory phase of the attack.
Despite this neglect from the organizer of the operation, word filtered down the ranks of Trimble's two brigades about what was expected of them. Trimble himself told the troops that the enemy were behind a stone fence on the crest of the ridge opposite and that the Tar Heels were to hold their fire while advancing with bayonets fixed. Company leaders were instructed to "inform their men of the magnitude of the task assigned them, and also to caution the men to keep cool, preserve the alignment, press steadily to the front, and gain the enemy's works." Those were not only detailed instructions, but they served to steel the men for the coming attack.
Even if Longstreet failed to be thorough in his preparations, Lee wasted no opportunity to ride about and see how he could contribute. The army commander did not leave the arrangements for the assault entirely up to Longstreet. Not only did he select two brigades from Hill to reinforce the attacking column, but he rode all over the field to inspect the alignment and placement of the troops. Lee did not leave firm instructions about the employment of supports to either flank of the column, merely letting Longstreet know that he could call on Hill for help if needed. This gave the corps commander the latitude he needed to reduce casualties in what he thought was a hopeless cause. The attack would not extend much farther to the right or left than the fronts of Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions.
Many soldiers left accounts describing Lee's movements in front of their units, although some of these seem apocryphal. Among the more trustworthy are those by members of Brig. Gen. James J. Archer's brigade, commanded this day by Colonel Fry. It was positioned on the far right of Pettigrew's division and thus would have the responsibility of connecting with Pickett's command after the attack started. John H. Moore of the 7th Tennessee in Fry's brigade recalled seeing Lee, Longstreet, and Pickett riding along the lines "several timesat least three times; if not moreobserving our alignment, but principally with field-glasses observing the position and movements of the Federals." Moore interpreted their movements as signs that the high command was not yet sure what should be done on this day.
Fry himself left an even better account. He observed Lee, Longstreet, and Hill riding toward his position, then dismounting and taking their seats on a fallen tree trunk only sixty yards from him. "After an apparently careful examination of a map, and a consultation of some length, they remounted and rode away." Then staff officers began to scurry about, and Pettigrew rode up to inform Fry that an artillery barrage would precede the attack. The Federals would "of course return the fire with all the guns they have; we must shelter the men as best we can, and make them lie down," Pettigrew told him. Fry also was to see Pickett to work out the coordination of their flanks during the attack. The two had served in the Mexican War, and both had participated in the assault on the fortified military academy of Chapultepec, which contributed to the capture of Mexico City nearly sixteen years earlier. Pickett was "in excellent spirits," Fry thought, and both commanders were certain their attack would succeed. Pickett's left brigade was commanded by Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett, who now appeared and worked out the arrangements with Fry.
Members of Pickett's division penned some questionable accounts of their army commander's movements over the field. Capt. James R. Hutter of the 11th Virginia recounted an amazing story, if it was true. He was resting under a large apple tree just behind the right wing of his regiment with Pickett and Longstreet when Lee rode up. Longstreet and the army leader engaged in a heated discussion, which Hutter overheard. Longstreet asserted that "his command would do what any body of men on earth dared do but no troops could dislodge the enemy." Pickett, on the other hand, was certain he could do it. Lee then said, "Ask the men if they can dislodge them." Hutter and Capt. Thomas Horton called on several members of Company B, 11th Virginia, for their opinion. The response was not surprising. The soldiers said, as if reading a line in a play, "Boys many a one of us will bite the dust here today but we will say to Gen. Lee if he wants them driven out we will do it." One wonders how much credence to give this report, for it has the ring of a memory manufactured in the wake of the tremendous controversy surrounding Longstreet's lack of enthusiasm for the assault.
Even a member of McLaws's division recalled seeing Lee dangerously exposed on the skirmish line that morning. W. Gart Johnson of the 18th Mississippi claimed that Lee and Longstreet walked past him, "stopping now and then to take observations." Despite the ping of rifle bullets nipping close by, Lee calmly looked at the Union lines through his field glasses. "A few minutes afterward we heard him say to Longstreet, in substance, 'Mass your artillery behind that hill,' pointing to a ridge just in our rear, 'and at the signal bring your guns to the top of the ridge and turn them loose.'" As the two commanders walked toward the rear, Johnson and his comrades felt they had heard enough. They began to dig with bayonets and planks of wood to provide some cover for themselves as soon as the guns opened up. Johnson, like Hutter, remembered a fine story, but there seems little likelihood that Lee and Longstreet went this far forward or that Lee gave such minute instructions for the employment of the artillery. Certainly Longstreet did not deploy the guns or use them in the manner indicated by Lee in Johnson's unreliable story.
Exactly how long the preparations took is difficult to estimate. One modern writer believes Lee and Longstreet consulted off and on from 4:30 until at least 10:00 that morning. The work of positioning troops and artillery went on for the remainder of the forenoon. The guns, in particular, demanded a lot of attention, for they would be the key to giving Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble any decisive edge in this action. If the guns could seriously damage the Union artillery and kill at least a few Federal infantry, the assaulting column would have a fighting chance.
Lee and Longstreet were in complete agreement on this point. The artillery needed to, in Lee's words, "silence those of the enemy." Moreover, the Rebel artillerists were to push forward as soon as the infantry made progress over the valley, "protect their flanks, and support their attacks closely." The former objective was possible if the Confederate guns fired accurately. But the latter instruction would be very difficult indeed, and it would be possible only if the first objective was met. Given that both sides used the same kind of ordnance, any batteries that advanced into the open valley to close with the enemy would be subject to a devastating artillery fire by the Federals. There had been very little of this kind of artillery advance thus far in the war, for this very reason. The fact that Lee was ordering his guns to push ahead now was a sure indication of his desire to leave no stone unturned in efforts to give Pickett and the others every chance of success.
Longstreet faithfully passed down these instructions to the artillery officers. No one was put in charge of the barrage that was to come, although it was to be fired by nearly every battery in the army. The logical choice to organize this effort was the army's artillery chief, but the well-meaning Pendleton, who was a minister as well as a military officer, was not capable of the job. He had become a supernumerary since his appointment to this position earlier in the war, for Lee had a number of superb artillery officers in charge of battalions and batteries alike. They could easily carry the burden of positioning the guns and directing their fire.
One artillery officer in particular would play a prominent role. Edward Porter Alexander was singled out by Longstreet for his promise. A Georgian and a West Pointer with experience on the Western frontier, Alexander had shone brilliantly in the Chancellorsville campaign. He was largely responsible for collecting the guns that softened the Union position at Fairview, an open field near the Chancellor House, and prepared the way for the final Rebel attacks that drove the Army of the Potomac back toward their crossing of the Rapidan River. This was the true turning point of the battle, not Stonewall Jackson's flank march, and Alexander deserved great credit for his role in it.
Hardly suspecting what this day would bring, Alexander busied himself all morning with the guns of his battalion. After Pendleton had visited Alexander and approved his dispositions, the young artillery officer went back to find Lee and Longstreet in consultation about 8:00 A.M. He learned from them the details of Lee's projected assault, receiving "more exact ideas of where Pickett was to direct his march."
Alexander was pleased when Longstreet appointed him to take charge of the First Corps artillery for the day's action, and he was careful to record what Longstreet told him to do. "First, to give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try & cripple himto tear him limbless, as it were, if possible." After that Longstreet wanted him to "advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack." This last phrase hit home to Alexander. He had a total of seventy-five guns available but was convinced he would have to use all of them, firing at the comparatively long range of 1,200 yards, in the bombardment. Moreover, "I had not the ammunition to make it a long business." He estimated a supply of only 200 rounds per gun was on hand, which included a lot of short-range ordnance that would be useful only in repelling an infantry assault. The guns had already expended a large amount of long-range ammunition supporting the attack on July 2, and there were no reserve supplies closer than Staunton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, about 150 miles away. His guns could fire anywhere from 30 well-aimed rounds to 100 hastily prepared shots per hour. Thus the logistical demands were restricting; Alexander reckoned his barrage should be no longer than one hour. While his reasoning applied to the First Corps artillery, it was quite possible that a similar situation existed with the artillery of the other two corps as well.
For the second part of his mission, providing close support for the advancing infantry, Alexander had a special plan. Since he would have to use all of his available guns in the long-range bombardment, he hoped to obtain a reserve that he could push forward alongside Pickett's men. Fortunately such a reserve force was available. When Pendleton had visited Alexander earlier in the morning, he had told him that Col. R. Lindsay Walker, artillery chief of Hill's Third Corps, had several twelve-pounders to spare. They were smoothbores and thus would be of comparatively little use in the long-range barrage. Walker was willing to loan them to anyone. Alexander jumped at the chance and said, "I had the very place for them." The guns, eight in number, came under the charge of Maj. Charles Richardson, and they were drawn from several different units. Alexander placed them in a small hollow behind Spangler's Woods, near Emanuel Pitzer's house, and told Richardson not to move until he sent for him. Alexander's courier, a soldier named Arthur C. Catlett, was also told to note the position of Richardson's guns in case he should be sent to retrieve them. Alexander intended that his own line of guns should remain in place after they stopped the barrage and prepare to repel a Union counterattack with canister fire while Richardson's guns would roll forward.
Yet even though Alexander was excited by the prospect of actually taking guns into close support of an advancing infantry force, he recognized that the ground was not ideally suited for such a venture. There was no cover for the advancing guns, the Federal artillery had good positions to strike them, and if gunners and horses advanced too far, the Union infantry could also cut them down with rifle fire. Yet he intended to try, if for no other reason than to satisfy a professional curiosity to see if it would work, but he would advance them only until they reached the range of the Union infantry. From there the weapons could cover the infantry's retreat or limber up and continue to advance if Pickett broke through. Just to hedge his options, Alexander also gave instructions for all of his guns, besides Richardson's, "to limber up & follow any success, as promptly as possible."
About 11:00 A.M., when the sky was clearing and the temperature was rising, Alexander felt ready. But then he heard the loud roar of artillery to the left. The guns of Hill's Third Corps went into action to support the Rebel infantry in a sharp little skirmish that amounted to a miniature battle for possession of a large barn on the Bliss farm. It was almost halfway between the lines on Hill's front and had been a bone of contention the previous day as well. Alexander noted disapprovingly that Walker allowed nearly all of his artillery to be drawn into this waste of long-range ammunition. This exchange, which involved a number of Federal guns as well, lasted for about a half-hour, but Alexander refused to let his First Corps artillery participate. The noise was so great that many observers later assumed it was part of the artillery preparation for Pickett's Charge, but fully an hour and a half of silence ensued after it ended and before the true barrage began.
Alexander was prepared and reported to Longstreet sometime between 11:00 and 12:00 A.M., but the corps commander was not yet ready. He told the artillerist that the infantry still had to finish their dispositionshe probably referred to Trimble's command, which was the last to take position. So Longstreet told him he would order the signal guns to be fired, two in quick succession, by the Washington Artillery. Alexander was to take a good position from which he could observe the effects of the barrage, for Longstreet had a special assignment for him. The young gunner was to discern the opportune moment for the infantry to advance. Alexander was not intimidated by this job. He was quite capable of making such a judgment, and he took Catlett and a courier from Pickett's staff with him so as to communicate directly with the infantry. The three men took position just to the left of Lt. James L. Woolfolk's Virginia battery, which was the third battery from the left in Alexander's line, directly in the front and middle of Garnett's infantry command.
During the next few minutes Alexander pondered the best timing for Pickett and the other infantry leaders. He reasoned that the attack should begin twenty to thirty minutes after the start of the barrage. Alexander intended to continue firing even after they started so as to cover their advance as long as possible and allow the foot soldiers to get close to the Federals before the barrage lifted. Alexander was fully confident that all would be well, and his faith in Lee's judgment was the key to his optimism. "But the fact is that like all the rest of the army I believed that it would all come out right, because Gen. Lee had planned it."
Imagine the colonel's shock when, about noon, a message arrived from Longstreet. It demonstrated, for the first time in Alexander's eyes, the corps commander's deep reservation about this assault. "If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge. I shall rely a great deal on your good judgment to determine the matter & shall expect you to let Gen. Pickett know when the moment offers." Alexander began to worry. "It was no longer Gen. Lee's inspiration that that was the way to whip the battle, but my cold judgment to be founded on what I was going to see." The artillery officer felt a bit unsteady with so much resting on his shoulders. He knew the Federals held a strong position and that the assault would have to be costly. But "while ready to attack anything on Gen. Lee's or Longstreet's judgement, I was by no means ready to go for that place on my own judgement."
Unsure of his role in this unfolding drama, Alexander sought the advice of Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright. Wright was a fellow Georgian who commanded a brigade in Anderson's division, and his men had attacked the Federals the day before almost exactly where Pickett's men were doomed to hit them. He had come tantalizingly close to breaking through and crossing Cemetery Ridge but was repulsed with heavy loss. Now Wright supported Alexander in writing to Longstreet for clarification. "Your letter implies that there is an alternative attack open to us," Alexander wrote. "If so I earnestly advise that it be carefully considered before we open the Arty fire." Alexander assured Longstreet that once cannon smoke filled the valley, he would have little opportunity to do more than observe how much return fire was coming from the Federals, which "may not be safe criterion." If there was any question about the wisdom of this assault, if it was not strongly supported by both Longstreet and Lee, then it would be foolish to waste precious ammunition only to call off the expected infantry advance.
Longstreet responded at 12:15 P.M. by repeating the general instructions. "The intention is to advance the Infy if the Arty. has the desired effect of driving the enemy's off, or having other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack." When Alexander showed this to Wright, the infantry officer accurately noted, "He has put the responsibility back upon you." Alexander was fully aware of that, and he asked Wright's opinion on the prospects of success. Wright succinctly put the problem before him. "Well, Alexander, it is mostly a question of supports. It is not as hard to get there as it looks. I was there yesterday with my brigade. The real difficulty is to stay there after you get therefor the whole infernal Yankee army is up there in a bunch."
At this point a lesser man might have quailed at the responsibility thrust upon him, but Alexander did not. He bolstered his courage and tried to decide what to do. First, the artillerist determined that he could not make a decision about whether the infantry should attack while the barrage was under way; there was no opportunity of gauging the effect on the Union infantry once the smoke obscured everything. He had to make up his mind, before the first gun was fired, that Pickett would either go or stay. To help him make that decision, Alexander rode to Pickett to gauge his spirits. "I did not tell him my object, but just felt his pulse, as it were, about the assault." Just as Longstreet had done before him, Alexander came away from Pickett with the strong impression that he was "in excellent spirits & sanguine of success." But unlike the corps leader, Alexander did not leave him with a heavy heart. Instead he dashed off a short note to Longstreet. "When our artillery fire is at its best I shall order Gen. Pickett to charge."
Thus the die was cast. The infantry assault would take place, and Alexander had handled the most difficult moment of his career. "Gen. Lee had originally planned it," he wrote many years later, and "half the day had been spent in preparation. I determined to cause no loss of time by any indecision on my part. As to the question of supports, that I supposed would be the one to which Gen. Lee himself would have given his own special attentionfar more than to any particular features of the ground. And I had heard a sort of camp rumor, that morning, that Gen. Lee had said he intended to march every man he had upon that cemetery hill that day."
Longstreet had deftly shifted a good deal of the burden of conducting this assault onto Alexander's young shoulders. He later admitted feeling unable to "trust myself with the entire responsibility" for sending the men in. Longstreet hoped to create a situation where the attack would be called off by someone else; thus the lives of the infantry would be saved, and he would avoid the primary blame. This is probably why he communicated with the gunner, who was only a few hundred yards away, by letter rather than consult with him verbally. It enabled Longstreet to create a paper trail of responsibility leading toward Alexander. Also, a face-to-face meeting between the two men would have allowed Alexander to press Longstreet for more detailed instructions, which the corps leader did not want to give. Alexander's resolution aborted Longstreet's plan, for good or ill.
Knowing all this prompted Alexander to rethink his calculations about the proper time to send the infantry forward. "To be too soon, seemed safer than to be too late, so I fixed in my own mind on 20 minuteswith a possibility of even shortening it to 15, if things looked favorably at the time."
Alexander also changed his plans for Richardson's eight guns. He no longer felt comfortable keeping them so far to the rear. A bit of rocky woods through which they had to pass to get onto the battlefield might delay them. So Alexander sent Catlett to fetch the guns, intending to place them closer to the action. In fact, while waiting for Catlett, Alexander even thought of advancing these guns in front, not to the flank, of Pickett. They could deploy just outside Union rifle range and pound the enemy until Pickett's men arrived. After some time had passed, the courier returned with no artillery. Alexander was angry, assuming Catlett had forgotten where he had placed Richardson. "He would not dare to leave there without orders. You go again & find him & don't you come back without him," he warned Catlett. The faithful courier tried again, but the bombardment started before he returned once again with the explanation that the guns were nowhere to be found.
Alexander always regretted losing these pieces. He later admitted that his plan to push them ahead of the infantry probably "would only have resulted in their loss, but it would have been a brilliant opportunity for them, and I always feel like apologizing for their absence." He also regretted not trying his experiment with some of his own guns, as it was "a beautiful chance to handle Arty & to show what it can do." Much later he found out what had happened to Richardson. Pendleton had taken half his guns and repositioned them elsewhere on the field without telling Alexander. Then, during the artillery exchange between Hill's corps and the Federals over the Bliss barn, Richardson's remaining crews were in the way of overshoots. The major decided, without informing Alexander, to move his guns to a safer location. "But, wherever he went, it was where Catlett, who was an excellent & reliable man, could not find him." Alexander was angry enough that he reported the entire incident to Longstreet and even considered preferring charges against Richardson, but he soon dropped the idea.
Longstreet did an effective job of passing down instructions to other artillery officers in his corps, besides Alexander. He sent a message to Col. James B. Walton to see him that morning. Walton had formerly served as the chief of artillery for the corps, but Longstreet had made Alexander acting chief that day, assigning Walton to take charge of the right wing of the corps artillery line. Walton and his adjutant, William Miller Owen, rode to corps headquarters and found Lee and Longstreet conferring with several division leaders. The plans for the assault and the artillery's role in it were spelled out clearly. Owen was told to pass the word to all battalion commanders. He turned to Longstreet when he had finished and was told, "All right; tell Colonel Walton I will send him word when to open."
Exactly how much detail Owen imparted to the battalion officers is unknown. But the battery leaders in Maj. James Dearing's battalion of Longstreet's artillery received remarkably detailed instructions. Dearing told Capt. Joseph G. Blunt and Lt. Joseph L. Thompson of Company D, 38th Battalion of Virginia Artillery, that the guns would fire for fifteen minutes after the opening of the barrage. Then they would be moved forward and fire again in stages, keeping up with the infantry. Dearing told Capt. Robert M. Stribling of Company A, 38th Battalion of Virginia Artillery, that the battalion would advance one battery at a time, starting with his unit on the right of the line. Stribling and Dearing rode forward to examine the ground they would have to cover and found that Emmitsburg Road was a difficult obstacle because it had been cut into the side of a slope in their front. The post-and-rail fences on both sides of the road also hindered movement. They could only take the guns in column through a gate at P. Rogers's house to the right front of the battalion, move several hundred yards down the road, then move through another gate in the fence bordering the east side of the road. It would be a complicated maneuver, exposing the guns to a fearful fire, but Dearing apparently had every intention of trying it.
The instructions also filtered through the layers of artillery command in Hill's corps. Maj. William Thomas Poague, who led a battalion that was positioned in front of Pettigrew's division, was told to wait until the infantry had seized the crest of Cemetery Ridge and then "to proceed as rapidly as possible to the summit with all my guns, and there be governed by circumstances." He was not told to accompany the foot soldiers as they advanced but just to occupy the Federal position once it was taken. While Poague did not identify who issued the order, presumably it came from Walker. Longstreet had virtually no contact with anyone in the Third Corps, and this may account for the difference in the instructions Poague received compared with those given the First Corps artillery. The general sense was the same, but the execution of the artillery support for the infantry was not only different but more realistic as well. The artillery of Hill's corps was not expected to fight its way across the valley but to position itself on captured ground and offer whatever support it could in holding it.
Longstreet probably was right when he told Lee that he had been "more particular in giving orders than ever before" while preparing for this attack. Comparing the preparation with how the Army of Northern Virginia operated in the Seven Days campaign certainly proves his point. That campaign, the first matching Lee with the army that he made famous, was characterized by good strategic and tactical ideas that were seldom put into practice in an efficient way. The army's staff work was poor, and Lee's habit of delegating authority through the issuance of vague instructions was new to the subordinate commanders. The possibility of disaster was averted only because the men were willing to fight hard, as they did at Mechanicsville and Malvern Hill. Only the latter battle resulted in no strategic gain.
Pickett's Attack, while much more minutely planned than these engagements, was less well organized than Lee's last offensive of the war, the attack on Fort Stedman during the latter stages of the Petersburg campaign. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon was in Longstreet's shoes then, and he planned the operation with an impressive degree of detail and thoroughness. His troops were successful in capturing this Federal strong point in the fortified lines, but the weakened condition of Lee's army meant the Confederates could not hold it. If Pickett's Charge had been organized with similar attention to every detail, it might have had a better chance of success.
Despite the conclusion of a modern biographer who asserted that Longstreet "had devoted his full talents and energy toward" preparing the assault, there are several weaknesses evident in those preparations. Longstreet failed to follow through on his good intentions to explain the details of the attack to all levels of command in all units. He failed to communicate effectively with anyone outside the First Corps, even though Third Corps troops would make up more than half the attackers. He failed to devise a detailed plan to gauge whether the artillery barrage would damage the Federals enough to justify sending in the infantry, and he neglected to develop and implement detailed plans to push the guns forward in close support of the attackers. He failed to understand, mostly due to his lack of contact with the Third Corps and partly through Hill's reluctance to speak up, the weakened condition of Pettigrew's and Trimble's units. All of these weaknesses fall into the category of lapses of thought, not deliberate attempts to sabotage the assault. For the first time in his career Longstreet was organizing an attack across corps lines and utterly failed to meet the new challenge.
More evidence of lack of thought can be seen in the placement of Pickett. Longstreet simply instructed him to find a spot for his men to ride out the barrage somewhere in the vicinity of the Union center. No one seems to have pinpointed an exact spot for the attack to aim at, a rather odd omission, to be sure. No reliable accounts of the preparation for this assault indicate that anyone pointed out the copse of trees or the angle in the stone fence as key features in the landscape. Pettigrew was given to understand that he was to assault directly ahead, which would bring his extreme right wing toward those two points. Pickett only was instructed to join his left flank with the right flank of Pettigrew. That necessitated a significant and difficult left oblique movement by the Virginians across the valley, under artillery fire. Why Pickett was allowed to start his troops 400 yards from Pettigrew was never explained. No one other than Longstreet could be blamed for this error.
Of course, errors of judgment or lack of forethought were one aspect of the limitations of planning that characterized this assault. Longstreet's deliberate attempts to limit the chances of success and thereby limit the loss of valuable manpower also hamstrung the operation. His decision not to use reserve troops to right and left of the attackers, which Lee had clearly authorized him to do, was a serious mistake. If he had had his whole heart in the operation, Longstreet should have planned to move Anderson's division forward on both flanks of the attacking column within a few minutes after Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble started, so they could have approached the Union line early enough to have taken some pressure off the centrally positioned troops. Instead he chose to use them only if trouble developed or to cover a retreat, a plan that effectively robbed them of any chance to help achieve a breakthrough.
In short, as an example of planning and organizing a complex offensive on the battlefield, Pickett's Charge neatly falls into the middle ground between the haphazard design of the Seven Days and the meticulous preparation of the assault on Fort Stedman. Longstreet's reluctance to push forward the preparations for the attack opened him to a lifetime of charges by Lee's partisans; Lee's old war horse became the scapegoat for the failure of Pickett's Charge.
The preparations on the Confederate side were massive, and they lasted throughout the morning. What was taking place among the Federals during the same time? No one seems to have been certain that a major assault was in the making. Certainly all observers could see that the Rebel artillery was massing in plain view. There obviously was something afoot, but there was no consensus of opinion on the Union side as to what this meant. A heavy bombardment was the prospect, but whether this was meant to cover a general retreat or prepare for an infantry assault was the question. To cover all angles, Meade busied himself with preparing his army for any contingency.
Meade had already signaled his apprehensions regarding Lee's moves by predicting at least two possibilities. The night before, after a lengthy council of his officers, the army commander spoke privately to Gibbon and confided his prediction for the morrow. "Gibbon, if Lee attacks me to-morrow it will be on your front." The division leader was a bit surprised and asked why he believed this. "Because, he has tried my left and failed, and has tried my right and failed; now, if he concludes to try it again, he will try the centre, right on your front." Gibbon was not intimidated. "Well, general, I hope he does, and if he does, we shall whip him."
But Meade also feared that Lee would try to flank his left, which was exactly what Longstreet had vainly argued should be done. In fact, Meade feared this Rebel move the most. A frontal assault could be repulsed, but moving to the rear to catch up with the enemy was a more complex and risky prospect. The Federal commander went about preparing his men with commendable thoroughness. To Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Second Corps, he explained his plans in case Lee attacked the center. When the Rebels were repulsed, he hoped to counterattack Lee's right flank with the Fifth and Sixth Corps. In case Lee moved around his left, Meade gathered information about the roads and the lay of the land to his rear so he could maneuver more quickly to keep between the Rebels and Washington, D.C. Meade also sent detailed information about the progress of the battle and instructions to Maj. Gen. William B. French at Frederick City, Maryland, and to Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both men commanded forces that were independent of the Army of the Potomac but that were ordered to cooperate with Meade.
The Army of the Potomac was fully prepared to evacuate its position at Gettysburg and retire to a strong and fortified position along Pipe Creek in Maryland. Located sixteen miles south of the battlefield, Pipe Creek had been Meade's hope for a successful defensive battle against Lee ever since he had taken command of the army on June 28. Meade carefully planned the positioning of his corps here for three days and intended to concentrate the army along the creek even as late as July 1, before it became evident that the fighting at Gettysburg would assume such proportions as to force him to concentrate the army there and fight it out with Lee on Pennsylvania soil. The position along Pipe Creek was strong; artillery chief Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt later believed it was stronger than the army's position at Gettysburg. The creek had carved out "a wide, flat valley, bordered on both sides by high sloping wooded hills." Even as late as the afternoon of July 2 Meade reported himself ready to retire to it if the situation demanded a retreat. This was the real reason Meade called a council of war that night to determine if the army should remain at Gettysburg or fall back to this excellent battleground. If Lee had allowed Longstreet to attempt his flank movement, Meade was ready to deal with it effectively.
The army commander also inspected his line from one end to the other. He visited Gibbon's headquarters, at the division commander's urging, for a hastily prepared lunch. Then he started with Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays's division of the Second Corps, positioned just to the right of Gibbon, and rode slowly to the left. He detoured enough to visit Maj. Gen. John Newton, commander of the First Corps, and Maj. Gen. John Sedgewick, leader of the Sixth Corps. While riding on toward Little Round Top, Meade could easily see Alexander's artillery concentration a few hundred yards away. He returned from Little Round Top to his headquarters at the Widow Leister's house, at the eastern base of Cemetery Ridge just behind Gibbon's division, before 1:00 P.M.
Beyond this the Federals made no special preparations for Pickett's Charge. To be sure, the Army of the Potomac was far more ready for any action, including a massive infantry assault on Cemetery Ridge, on July 3 than it had been on either of the previous days of fighting at Gettysburg. Rebel gunner Alexander thought his opponents had failed to take advantage of an important weakness in the confrontation between the assembled guns of the two armies. He was a bit surprised that the Union gunners allowed his men to lull them into what he liked to call artillery truces. Alexander thought the Yankees should have guessed, from the Confederate reluctance to fire, that they wanted to conserve ammunition. The proper tactic would have been to force the Rebels to use it up "as long as possible before we were ready. For 9 hoursfrom 4 A.M. to 1 P.M. we lay exposed to their guns, & getting ready at our leisure, & they let us do it. Evidently they had felt the strain of the last two days, but for all that they ought to have forced our hand."
Instead an "ominous silence" descended on the battlefield from a little after 11:00 A.M. until about 1:00 P.M. By eleven the sky had cleared, with only a "few white, fleecy cumulus clouds floating over from the west." There was a slight breeze, and the temperature was quickly climbing into the eighties. The fighting at Culp's Hill was over, the sporadic artillery fire in the center had ended, and skirmishing was reduced to the minimum. The midday lull indicated either exhaustion or preparation for something big, and many Federals had no idea what was to happen next. The Confederates, on the other hand, were all too aware of what was in store.