Until I began to read Earl Hess’ account of Pickett’s Charge, I had not fully appreciated how it was truly organized chaos. It was far from a 20 minute walk in the park land! Hess provides a minute by minute almost man by man account of that attempt to break to Union defensive line. It is a gripping tale of gore and courage.
As with just about every other aspect of this most infamous battle, my personal understanding of it has gone through an evolution of understanding and appreciation. Dating back to my 1964 course in American History in high school, I had come away with the mistaken memory; I’m sure it wasn’t taught to me that way it was just how I remembered it. I thought that his ‘charge’ was a last minute, impromptu attempt to salvage the day for the Confederacy. The first general accounts of the three day event quickly corrected faulty memory. Lee had begun planning this ill-fated attack early on Day 2. He truly did seem to have convinced, himself at least, that there was a possibility that it could slice into and break the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
I soon moved on to a series of WHATIFs concerning just what it was that even Lee himself would have accepted as a successful outcome. He was truly at the end of his proverbial rope. He had no additional troops available to exploit any ‘success’ that afternoon. It forces one to place oneself on Traveler sitting in the woods on Seminary Ridge watching the debacle unfold and to try to see it as Lee was drinking in the realization that he had executed thousands of his men that afternoon. Beyond those KIA and MIA (some literally turned to mist by the cannon fire), there were additional hundreds of wounded who would need care and treatment well beyond the capability of his medical service to provide – both in technology and volume. Fortunately, for many of those wounded — although at the time I’m sure many of them felt themselves anything but fortunate – he had expended huge amounts of ammunition. So those wagons were now empty and available to ferry the wounded back to Virginia. Many would not see Virginia again.
But returning to the description of the battle as presented by Hess, he relates the 20 minute-long event in a 400+ page book. He does so from the vantage point of dozens of officers and common soldiers. In doing so, he is telling the tale, not providing an analysis of Lee’s plan or strategy – at least not until the EPILOGUE. Where, IMHO, he does a rather superficial analysis. After spending hundreds of pages on exquisite details of the battle, he races thru this final chapter.
He raises the basic question if what success would have looked like, but then reverts to questioning the basic premise of Lee’s raid into the North. He seems convinced (much like Longstreet) that the attack was doomed for the start and had no real likelihood of anything resembling success. Of course, he blames both the ineffectual preliminary bombardment and the lack of coordination among the various commands for that failure. Hess offers no new aspects in his criticisms; noting the disruptive effect of the fences and sunken roadbed on the Confederate lines. He re-iterates the lack of any forces or plan by Lee to exploit any small success that Pickett may have had.
Perhaps the closest he comes to a ‘new thought’ is suggesting that a nighttime advance and a dawn charge would have been more likely to succeed. But that flies in the face of the standard tactics of the era, plus the timing of Picketts division’s arrival on 2 July. Not truly a sensible alternative approach. He spends too much of that short chapter (again IMHO) comparing this attack to Fredericksburg. He also barely touches on the possibility of an ‘alternate’ battle by having Lee move south to threaten the main Union supply depot – supplies that Lee’s force desperately needed – at Westminster. In my WHATIF ramblings, such a move (as introduced by Longstreet) was the ONLY one that leads to an eventual Rebel victory.
He does place a high level of importance for the Union success in the actions of both the Vermont regiments on Pickett’s right flank and the 8th Ohio on his left. Here, too, I have to admit a misconception on my part. From their treatment in some of the more superficial overviews of the battle, I had thought that the 8th Ohio was a small artillery battery poised in an advanced position and firing obliquely into Pickett’s left flank. Hess’ detailed description of the battle went a long way to clearing up my erroneous understanding. The 8th Ohio was a somewhat understrength regiment that was assigned duty as advance skirmishers near the Emmittsburg roadway in the area just below the cemetery. Fortuitously, this placed them in a perfect position to withdraw and re-align themselves – aided by some the green-suited Union sharpshooters – such that their musket fire was enfilade to the advancing Rebels. Per Hess, their fire combined with that of the Vermont regiments in a similar position on the opposite flank had a devastating effect on the Rebel formation. So much so that a substantial portion of Kemper’s Brigade had to break off the attack and pivot to their right to fend off the Vermont fuselage. Neither Garret nor Armistead’s forces reacted overtly against the Ohioans.
Hess surmises that by Day 3 Lee was truly desperate and was in search a miracle result of this last-ditch effort.
In looking at the above, this essay has evolved into more of a book report or criticism of Hess’ tome. In short, he does a masterful job of describing exquisite details of a 20 minute battle, but falls short in his end-piece analysis of same. Hess has published a well-written description of an important event in American history, but falls short in providing a well thought out analysis of the event. Perhaps that simply wasn’t his intention.
Suffice it to say, that the ‘supporting’ attack by the two cobbled together divisions on Pickett’s left flank, were poorly coordinated and executed. It soon deteriorated and many of the men failed to advance beyond the sunken Emmittsburg Road. Those that proceeded farther did little to actually ‘support’ the main attack element. The fragmentary units that ascended the hill had little effect and many were eventually forced to surrender.
The entire left flank has collapsed in chaos. The lack of experience of the newly appointed commanders played only a minor role in that debacle.