July 3, 1863: Longstreet's Misgivings -- and Pickett's Charge

July 3, 1863: Longstreet's Misgivings -- and Pickett's Charge

By Carl M. Cannon - July 3, 2014

On this day 151 years ago, two great armies amassed for one final day of battle just outside a Pennsylvania town no one had ever heard of before -- and would never forget afterward. The heat and humidity were stifling. The aura of death was worse.

As dawn broke in Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, the men on the scene knew they were part of something profound. Some of the soldiers had premonitions they wouldn’t survive the day. Many were right.

“General, shall I advance?” one Southern division officer fatefully asked corps commander James Longstreet.

The man doing the asking was a well-connected 38-year-old Virginian, George Edward Pickett. Gen. Longstreet believed the impending charge to be folly, and had conveyed these misgivings to Robert E. Lee. Instead of a frontal assault, Longstreet urged Lee (whose army occupied an inferior geographic position on that battle) to leave the field and circle around the Yankees, positioning the Confederates between the road to Washington and the bluecoats, thereby forcing the Northern commanders’ hand.

But Lee was tired of chasing Yankees, and he ordered the July 3 attack on fortified Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. He should have listened to Longstreet.

“Pickett’s Charge” is the name given to Gettysburg’s fateful engagement, but that’s something of a misnomer. For one thing, Maj. Gen. George Pickett was one of three Confederate leaders ordered to take Cemetery Ridge. The others were Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble and Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew. Also, it wasn’t really a charge. It was a slow advance, by infantry, across a mile-wide meadow that sloped upward -- into withering rifle fire and artillery bombardment. It was carnage.

In Longstreet’s memoir, the tortured corps commander recalled his response when Pickett asked him, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet’s misgivings were so profound that he literally could not find his voice.

“The effort to speak the order failed, and I could only indicate it by an affirmative bow,” Longstreet wrote. “He accepted the duty with seeming confidence of success, leaped on his horse, and rode gayly to his command.”

That is not to say Pickett had no misgivings. So did others below Lee and Longstreet in the Confederates’ chain of command. Among them was Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper, the youngest of Pickett’s brigade commanders, and Richard B. Garnett, who’d run afoul of Stonewall Jackson at an earlier battle and was determined to restore his reputation for bravery while serving with Pickett.

Moments before the fateful charge, Garnett found himself with Lewis Armistead, a popular brigade commander remembered -- up until that time -- for breaking a plate over the head of Jubal Early while both were at West Point.

“This is a desperate thing to attempt,” Garnett said to Armistead. “The slaughter will be terrible.”

“Yes, it is.” Armistead was overheard to reply. “But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in His hands.”

Neither man would survive Gettysburg. Garnett died on the field that very day. Armistead, shot as he reached the Union lines, had shouted to his men, “Give them the cold steel, boys!” before being cut down by Yankee bullets. He succumbed to his wounds in a Union Army hospital two days later.

As the July 3 battle was coming to a momentous conclusion, it took Lee a little while to comprehend the havoc his decisions had wreaked upon his own army. When he came across Pickett, still in the field trying desperately to shepherd what remained of his men back to safety, Lee rushed toward him.

“General Pickett, place your division in rear of this hill,” Lee said, “and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.”

One Southern officer who heard this exchange was struck that Lee was so angry he called the Union forces “the enemy,” instead of his usual, and more genteel, “those people.” Frantic with grief, Pickett couldn’t have cared less about Lee’s language.

“General Lee, I have no division now!” he spat back. “Armistead is down, Garnett is down, and Kemper is mortally wounded.”

The following day, Pickett was more measured in his language, although his grief had metastasized.

“It is all over now,” he wrote to his fiancée, LaSalle Corbell. “Many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.”

President Lincoln would mark Gettysburg as the second beginning of the American nation, “a new birth of freedom.”

But Pickett’s charged stamped itself on the South’s collective memory, too, and in a different way.

One need not be a Southern sympathizer or a sap for the ill-begotten “Lost Cause” to feel something for those Virginians, most of them very young men, who had been amassed for one last time at the bottom of that long sloping field. One can even believe, as I do, that Grant was right when he wrote later about Appomattox that the cause for which Lee and Pickett and Longstreet marched off to war was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

And yet, that charge haunts us still, and not just for the sheer bravery required to make it, but for the waste of lives, for its very futility.

In “Intruder in the Dust,” William Faulkner wrote about it this way:

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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