In more late night musings, I have been exploring if it was even possible for Pickett’s frontal assault to have been successful. As I have noted time and again, I am fully convinced that Lee’s venture into the North was a doomed campaign. I keep looking for places that he may have enjoyed more success. Day 3 is NOT one of those.
As I place myseIf in Lee’s position, I struggle to understand precisely what he hoped to accomplish on Day 3. I had entitled an earlier essay about Day 3 as “Frustration and Fuses” (see Section 7). I have truly come to the conclusion that Lee had run out of options and ideas by the evening of Day 2. His decision to send Pickett’s Division directly into the heart of the Union defense seems indefensible and driven by frustration! What precisely did he hope the outcome would be? What would have constituted a victory?
Let’s reset the stage before the Day 3 act begins. Both Lee and Meade had arrived at Gettysburg with as many as 70,000 men under arms. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the casualties on both sides over the first two day’s fighting were reasonably equal. So the forces facing each other on the morning of Day 3 were still fairly balanced.
Many of Lee’s units had been battered and were no longer up to massing an attack. Lee originally had wanted Hood (now commanded by Law replacing the wounded Hood) and McLaw to support Pickett on his right, but Longstreet begged off due to the severity of their losses on Day 2. Heth was still licking his wounds from Day 1. Ewell’s entire Corps was out of position to support the attack that Pickett was being ordered to make. The best Lee could do to support him was to cobble together about five Brigades from Hill’s Corps many of which had new command structures due to the many officers who had been wounded or killed. Pickett’s was the only unbloodied unit.
Despite an equal number of losses, Meade’s force structure was in better shape. Sickles’ Third Corps was decimated on Day 2 and many other units had suffered heavy losses while supporting that fight but they were more widely distributed among the other Union Corps. Meade had carefully thrown regiments into the battle on Day 2. Those losses were rather more easily absorbed by the various Corps. Meade even had the entire Sixth Corps and portions of the Fifth that had not yet engaged. Also, unlike Lee, Meade’s forces were aligned in a tight line that allowed him to shift units over relatively short distances as reinforcements. The Union Second Corps that would absorb the brunt of Pickett’s attack had fought on Day 2, but their losses were light compared to Anderson’s division that had attacked them.
So, what precisely did Lee expect Pickett to accomplish? His Day 2 plan for a flank attack was designed to roll-up the Federal force before they had firmly established a secure defensive line. Militarily, that plan made sense. It simply fell apart about a half hour into the attack.
In short, even if Pickett had been able to punch a hole in the Union defensive line, what then? Lee had no forces available to exploit any gains that Picket may have made.
Let us now reconstruct the sequence of that day. For Pickett to have any chance of success, the pre-attack artillery barrage would have had to have been much more successful than it was [see essay #5]. Due to the issue with the faulty fuses, it had done almost no real damage to either the waiting infantry or artillery batteries. Pickett was walking into a slaughter zone.
Even the fact that the two events, barrage and attack, were completely separate contributed more to Pickett’s doom. Had he been able to initiate his attack during the barrage, it could have provided some cover for his infantry as they advanced across the mile of open ground. As they first stepped out from the protection of the trees on Seminary Ridge, they were within range of the Union long-range cannons. Because the Confederate cannons had ceased firing, they was nothing – no smoke, no confusion, no fear – to stop them from firing accurately as Pickett advanced.
Let us now build on the ALT Hx 25e scenario that the barrage was more effective and that a large sector of the Second Corps infantry had abandoned their places on the crest of Cemetery Ridge in the area of the copse of trees and the angle of the stone wall. Let’s grant Pickett that advantage that the Union soldiers had moved to the relative safety of the reverse slope of that ridge. Once the Rebel artillery ceased fire, it wouldn’t have taken the Union officers long to rally their units and return to their fighting positions at the wall. This is why it would have been more advantageous for Pickett to begin his advance while shells were still falling on Second Corps.
So let’s postulate that Garnett’s and Kemper’s brigades reach the top of that ridge near the copse of trees relatively intact. What do they do then? If the intent was to punch a hole in the Union line, seemingly one brigade would turn north and the other south. But the Federal forces there would not have been subjected to the brunt of the artillery attack and would be waiting as they watched Pickett approach. They might even have ventured forward from their defensive position to launch an attack on Pickett’s flanks. As seemingly foolish as it seems to the modern mind to leave a protected perimeter to venture into harm’s way, we saw it happen many times before. Such (rash?) actions seemed to be ingrained in Union tactics.
Following in the path of the two lead brigades now engaged in hand-to-hand fighting on the left and right, Armistead’s large brigade (his brigade had about 50% of Pickett’s strength) marches into that breech. Where do they go from there? Seemingly, their only option is to continue straight over the crest and down the reverse slope attacking directly into the Union rear area. But that is where most of Second Corps now stands. Even if they weren’t yet reorganized into cohesive companies and regiments, they won’t stand and be overrun. A third massive clash would have occurred at the base of that slope.
While all this was going on. Meade would not have been inactive. Sure his HQ had been threatened by the falling shells and he had had to move east. But he would have already sent orders to start to move troops towards the threatened area. Units of the Twelfth Corps from Culp’s Hill and of the Sixth Corps off to the south would be on the move, threading their way through the masses of wagons and tents in the Union rear echelon. But they weren’t far away and it would not have taken them long to make their way to the embattled sector.
Pickett’s men would soon be facing fresh troops; thousands of them. Whatever momentum he might have gathered would soon peter out as those units clashed. Energy and ammunition would soon be low. And more Union troops would just keep coming. Lee had no one else to send to assist or exploit any gains that Pickett could attain.
Once again, even given every possible break, Pickett’s attack seemed doomed from the start.