Pickett's Charge And The Battle At Gettysburg

July 3, 1863 was a day that would certainly live in infamy, with the charge of Gen. George E. Pickett's men across Gettysburg's battlefield.

For three days prior to Independence Day, 1863, a divided nation fought what would become a turning point battle in a war that had torn families apart. That battle was the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most famous and tragic of all the battles of the American Civil War. And, on the afternoon of July 3, one failed assault would bear the name of a single man forever: Pickett's Charge.

George Edward Pickett was born on January 25, 1825, in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a wealthy planter. His early life appears to have been no different from that of any Southern gentleman's son, and he entered West Point Army Academy in 1842 with the intent of serving in the United States Army. He graduated in 1846, and his service in the US army was a distinguished one, but at the start of the Civil War in 1861, he resigned his commission and offered his services to the Confederate Army instead. For the next four years, until Lee's surrender at Appomattox in 1865, Pickett served as a commander of an entire division of the Confederate Army.

As a man, Pickett was something of a hopeless romantic, not the type of man one expected to find on one of the bloodiest battlefields in American history. The four years of the Civil War leave a trail of blathering love letters written by 38-year-old Pickett to his fiancée, a Virginia teen named LaSalle Corbell. Pickett and Corbell were married soon after Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, but the letters did not cease until the end of the War. Pickett's letters are important to historians, tracing the course of the Civil War.

It is also interesting to note that, while Pickett appears career military before, and for a short time during, the Civil War, he resigned from all military matters directly following Lee's surrender at Appotamox Courthouse. Instead, he returned to Richmond for a time, then moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he made a living in insurance sales until his death July 30,1875. Never, after the end of the Civil War, did he serve another day of military service, and few history books ever make mention of even whether he ever engaged in hunting activities. Yet Pickett's name would forever be remembered in connection with the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.

Remembered as a pompous-looking man with long, curled hair and beard, both of which were perfumed, he was none-the-less an able soldier and quite capable as a commander. Much mention is made of his dedication to the cause at hand and his military career, though he also appears to have abhorred the constant death and hardship of war. No clear reason is ever stated for his resignation from the US Army or his offer to fight for the Confederacy, but it seems likely he did so as much in defense of his home as out of agreement with the cause of succession.

Regardless of Pickett's personal beliefs and desires, when he was ordered to lead his men in a full frontal assault against Union troops at Gettysburg, he did not hesitate to follow through. Riding just behind his men as they marched through the field dividing Seminary and Cemetery Ridges in Gettysburg, he was determined to keep the assault as precise and well organized as it had begun. His men remained under orders to neither fire nor loose their rebel yell as they advanced under heavy shelling from Union artillery. However, as the mile's distance between Union troops and Pickett's Confederate division shrank to mere yards, the orderly movement of his men disintegrated into a blind charge, and desperate hand-to-hand fighting began.

By the end of the day on July 3, 1863, the Confederate troops, which had, at the beginning of the day, vastly outnumbered Union troops, were decimated. Almost 4,000 of the 11,000 Confederate soldiers under Pickett's command were captured by Union troops. His division suffered a 75% total loss of manpower, between deaths and captures.

The Confederate Army, beaten by artillery fire and hostile terrain, began their retreat back across the Potomac that night. It was a retreat that would cost them dearly, but not as dearly as the battle had. After Gettysburg, Confederate morale sank, and the depleted number of troops at Lee's disposal led to one crushing defeat after another. In less than two years, the Confederacy would be finished, with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and Pickett's brave charge across the battlefields of Gettysburg would be directly responsible for that surrender.

Gettysburg, begun by accident, was the turning point of the war, and the South's darkest hours. But Gettysburg was not where the battle actually began. In truth, it began weeks before that fateful clash at Gettysburg, miles away from that small Pennsylvania town. While the truth in the claim that the Battle of Gettysburg was begun over a pair of shoes is unverified, the misinterpretation which led to the Confederate march into Pennsylvania is a matter of much historical record.

The Confederate cavalry was on inspection parade, rather than the warpath, when Federal scouts initially spotted their cloud of dust. Panicked, the Union sent cavalry troops to combat this presumed threat, leading to the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on American soil. After that battle, Lee knew he had to make a move, and eventually did, invading Pennsylvania and bringing the South into the most costly battle they would ever fight, at Gettysburg.

It is, however, highly possible that, had the Confederates not undertaken Pickett's charge, they might have accomplished much more than a hasty retreat across the Potomac. They might even have won the war.

Being largely agrarian, the southern states that made up the Confederacy were filled with seasoned hunters and trackers. The vast majority of Confederate regular troops were neither wealthy nor urbanized, and they believed themselves to be fighting not for group of slaves, but for their own humble homes and families. And, had the lower-class base supply of troops fallen off for the South, they had access to forced labor, which could have been pressed into service as cannon fodder, much as slaves had been used in Roman times to perform headlong and devastating charges against enemy troops.

All of these things combined to give the Confederacy a virtually endless manpower supply, and the upper hand in the war. Had they pressed a defensive war, rather than an offensive one, they could have dragged the war out indefinitely, and worn the North down by a slow drain on available manpower. Instead, their decision to constantly press the offensive, and particularly their invasion of Pennsylvania, was a costly mistake for the embargo-ridden South. They hadn't the supplies to stretch an offensive line into Union territory, and their maneuver cost countless lives and left Southern territories virtually unprotected against Northern invasion. Tactically, Gettysburg was a major blunder on the part of Lee and the South, and Pickett's Charge, with its further wasteful expenditure of manpower, cost the Confederacy more than just a battle. It cost them the war, and their way of life.

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