On July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Lee put a massive force on a frontal assault, across open ground, towards the Union’s line on Cemetery Ridge. This was to be the decisive battle of the campaign. And it’s outcome would dictate the future direction of the Civil War.
The assault first started at 1:00 PM with a massive artillery bombardment towards the Union line. Some 150 Confederate cannons tenderized the heart of the Union position. With all the cannon fire came a lot of smoke, which made aiming at your intended target problematic. Many rebel shells overshot their target, hence the shells that struck General Meade’s headquarters, which was further east from the heart of the Union line, but apparently not further east enough. The artillery assault did not break or severely weaken the Union center but Lee proceeded with the second part of this plan, the infantry charge.
At about 3:00 PM, the assault, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, began. The 6,000 Union troops positioned on Cemetery Ridge saw a line of Confederate soldiers appear out of the woods a mile away. The line was almost a mile in length. Pickett’s Charge had begun.
General George Pickett was another interesting figure in the Civil War. His classmates at West Point referred to him as the “goat”. Today that term, when applied to elite athletes, means “Greatest Of All Time” but in Pickett’s time it referred to his academic performance; he was last in his 1846 class at West Point. Pickett cut his teeth during the Mexican War fighting with many of the men he was now fighting against. While the charge now bears his name, Pickett was one of three commanders that led the charge. The charge could have bore any name of those behind it “Longstreet” or “Lee” but for whatever reason, it has gone down in history as “Pickett’s Charge”.
The 12,500 Confederate troops moved over the open ground towards the Emmitsburg Road. They were now open targets for the Union infantry and artillery that waited for them. Union artillery started to blow holes in the rebel line but the charge still moved on as holes in their advancing line was plugged by soldiers marching behind.
One of the Confederate commanders under Pickett was General Lewis Armistead. His story exemplifies the irony of the Civil War as brother fought brother and friend fought friend. Armistead was leading his men to attack one of his dear friends from his US Army days: Major General Winifred Scott Hancock.
Both men became friends while serving in California. In 1861, Armistead resigned from the US Army to join the Confederate Army (Armistead was a native of North Carolina). Hancock’s wife held a going away party for the men who where leaving to fight for the Southern cause and this was the last time that Armistead and Hancock spent together. Before he left, Armistead gave Mrs. Hancock his prayer book. Who know what was going through Armistead’s mind as he advanced toward this good friend with murderous intent. Could he really raise his sword against his friend?
The Confederates continued to move west toward Cemetery Ridge and as they moved closer, their losses grew higher. Still they advanced, filling in the holes caused by death and injury with men at the back. Still they marched towards the Copse of Trees.
The south concentrated there attack on the stone wall the turned in at a 90 degree angle. This location became known as “The Angle” or the “Bloody Angle”. Armistead led his men, his hat on sword point towards The Angle.
The Confederates reached what is know was the High Water Mark, on Cemetery Ridge. The High Water Mark is the farthest the Southern Army ever advanced into the north and it is where they where stopped, dead in their tracks, literally. This was the climax of the Confederate offensive, after this point, the South would be on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
Armistead reached a Union cannon after jumping over the small stone wall that formed The Angle. Armistead and this men were surrounded by Union troops and they were fired upon at point-blank range. The general was mortally wounded and he died without ever seeing his friend Hancock, who was also injured in the battle but he survived his wounds.
Pickett’s Charge had run out of steam and they soon where retreating back to the west. In this failed charge, 6,000 confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Half of Pickett’s division was gone. When General Lee saw Pickett, he ordered him to reassemble his division to cover the retreat. General Pickett replied, “General, I have no division.”