Pickett's Charge: Turning Point of the Civil War
Most historians agree that the Battle of Gettysburg, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia squared off against Union General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac, was the turning point of the Civil War. During those three days of bloody battle in July 1863, the pivotal moment came on the afternoon of the third day when, in the face of withering fire, Confederate troops marched across an open field to storm the Union center—an act of valor known as “Pickett’s Charge.”
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 6, 1863, issue of the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)
Newspaper correspondents at the battlefield described this stunning assault to their anxious readers back home. As the Philadelphia Inquirer breathlessly reported:
On they came, up to the very mouths of the cannon, up the hill sides, along which were stone fences in all directions. Our riflemen lay behind them, and as the rebels played upon us at Fredericksburg, so we poured a sheet of flame into their faces as they came within range, and hundreds were piled up as quickly as grain would fall before the reaper’s iron hand.
Pickett’s Charge came on July 3, after two days of fierce fighting had caused enormous casualties on both sides. Since attacks on the Federal flanks had failed the day before, Lee decided to attack the Union middle located on Cemetery Ridge, giving the honor of leading the charge to General George Pickett’s fresh division of Virginia troops.
An eerie silence had fallen on the battlefield around noon, when suddenly, at 1:07 p.m., over 100 Southern cannon roared into action. This massive artillery bombardment signaled the beginning of the attack, as every Confederate cannon poured shells into Cemetery Ridge in an attempt to soften the Union defenses. It took about 15 minutes before 80 Federal cannon fired their reply. For two hours the artillery duel raged, with a deafening thunder that awed the newspaper reporters on the scene.
Then ensued [two] hours of cannonading unsurpassed in incessant fierceness by any artillery battle on this continent. The sight and sound were awfully sublime. The hills trembled beneath the percussion. The sound filled the heavens and nature, as it were, stood still to contemplate the scene.
Horses were shot down by scores, gun carriages were demolished, pieces dismounted, caissons exploded, whole batteries were swept away, and cannoniers and officers killed and wounded in numbers almost incredible.
—an account in the Baltimore Sun
After the great guns fell silent, three divisions of resolute Confederate infantry, around 12,500 men, stepped out from the trees and formed battle ranks. Stretched out in a battle line over a mile long, with fixed bayonets and flags flying, the Southerners began their slow, determined march up towards Cemetery Ridge, three-quarters of a mile away. Waiting on top, the Union troops crouched behind stone walls, watching and holding their fire. When the Confederates were halfway across the intervening field, the Northern artillery opened up and began tearing great holes in the approaching lines. As the Southerners drew nearer, the Union infantry unleashed volley after volley of musket fire, mowing down the advancing enemy. Somehow the ragged lines kept reforming and on they came, despite the devastating carnage, quickening the pace and howling their “Rebel yell.”
The dead were lying literally in heaps, many hit in all manner of degrees, from a clean shot through the head to bodies torn to pieces by exploding shells.
—an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer
A few hundred Southerners, bravely led by General Lewis A. Armistead, breached the Union lines and briefly hoisted the Confederate flag on top of Cemetery Ridge before being overcome. The rest of the Southern troops could not even reach that point, and were forced to turn back.
Their battle-flag was planted boldly upon the crest and a shout went up from the demons who seemed to court death and destruction, but our lines swayed but for a moment; back they went, the ground was regained, and our lines again intact. At other points they succeeded in gaining temporary advantages, but ere they could realize their importance they were torn to pieces and hurled back upon their column, and so the column swayed until they could no longer get the troops to make a charge.
—an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer
The Southern survivors staggered back to the shelter of the trees where they had emerged less than an hour ago, having suffered 6,555 casualties—an astonishing total of more than 50 percent.
Word of the defeat had already reached the Confederate capital of Richmond when disheartened Southerners read this moving account in their local paper of General Lee meeting the survivors of Pickett’s Charge:
Soon afterwards I joined General Lee, who had, in the meanwhile, come to the front on becoming aware of the disaster. General Lee was perfectly sublime. He was engaged in rallying and encouraging the broken troops, and was riding about a little in front of the wood quite alone…His face, which is always placid and cheerful, did not show signs of the slightest disappointment, care, or annoyance, and he was addressing to every soldier he met a few words of encouragement, such as “all this will come right in the end; we’ll talk it over afterwards; but, in the meantime, all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now,” etc. He spoke to all the wounded men that passed him, and the slightly wounded he exhorted “to bind up their hurts and take up a musket” in this emergency. Very few failed to answer his appeal, and I saw many badly wounded men take off their hats and cheer him.
—an account in the Daily Richmond Examiner supplied by a British observer
Thousands of homes are made desolate by the loss of fathers, sons and brothers in this terrible struggle, but the sacrifice has determined the fate of our country. The sacrifice has been great, but the greater results obtained more than compensate for it all, and our bells may ring for joy, that the proudest army the rebellion has produced is annihilated.
—an account in the New York Herald
Pickett’s Charge had been stopped, the Battle of Gettysburg was over, and the South would never again invade the North—though it continued fighting for two more years before the war finally ended.
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