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How could Lee think Pickett's charge would succeed?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: March 26, 2013 
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Good Day,

So let's say that Pickett's charge succeeded. Against the odds, let's say a couple hundred Confedrates stand in the middle of Cemetary Ridge and watch the remainder of Hancock's corps running either towards Cemetary Hill or Little Round Top. So General Lee's plan has succeeded. Now what?  

You have this couple hundred rebel soldiers milling around with the guns on Cemetary Hill and those on Little Round Top staring down on them. There were no troops readily available to exploint the breakthough. What do they do now?  Once they started catching hell from the artillary on both hiils, I guess that they go back the way thay came.

What did General Lee expect was going to happen? Even if the Union line was split, there was no one to keep driving forward. The Confederates had to return and the Union troops would reoccupy their original position. How could General Lee think that Pickett's Charge would win the battle?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Richard Greabell

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Greabell,

Far be it for me to say what was going on in General Robert E. Lee's head, but I do believe his ego, reinforced by his remarkable victory against the odds two months earlier at Chancellorsville, overrode the growing evidence that the Army of the Potomac, occupying the high ground at all quarters, was not going to crack—and neither was its commander, Major General George G. Meade. Keep in mind, though, Pickett's Charge up the middle was not the only Confederate move on July 3, 1863—there was another assault up Culp's Hill and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was trying to start a distracting tumult in the Union rear that Lee hoped might cause some useful panic, until it was undone by an aggressive countercharge by some younger Yankee cavalry leaders like Brig. Gen. George Custer. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I believe Lee put it fairly well himself when he said: "It's all my fault. I thought my men were invincible."

Sincerely,

 

Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History

 


2 Responses to “How could Lee think Pickett's charge would succeed?”


  1. 1
    Mike Davies says:

    Dear Jon

    In my view

    Lee had been left unsighted on the enemy by Stuart and consequentially blundered into a piecemeal action which for once left the Union with the commanding position. With elements of his army still coming up behind him disengagement and manoeuvre in the face of the enemy could have been tactical suicide even when facing someone as indecisive as Meade. I think he was left with few options other than attack although maybe he could have used the mere presence of Pickets troops to pin the union centre whilst he mounted another flanking attack rather than mounting a high risk charge across the open ground.

    Mead was handed victory on a plate but his lack of an aggressive follow through when apparent that the Confederates assault was broken probably lost a golden opportunity to break the army of Northern Virginia and shorten the war. Gettysburg was only half the victory it could have been if the union had aggressively exploited its sucess.

    Mike D

  2. 2
    A decendant of General Robert E. Lee's says:

    It sounds like you are not aware of some of the best history of this event, which can be found in a book called, \Life and Letters of General Robert E. Lee,\ by one of his friends and a chaplain in his army, J.W. Jones. You see, Lee never talked about this battle and the failure of some of his subordinates, only because he was too gentlemanly to do so. He never wanted to bring public criticism to those who had done all they could for the southern cause. Nevertheless, the battle that actually unfolded was not at all what Lee had planned.

    To begin with, Longstreet was to have taken Little Round Top at the break of dawn on July 4th. If he had, he would have been unopposed in filling Little Round Top with Confederate artillery, from which he could have shelled the entire southern half of the Union line from the flank. That alone would have devastated the Union position. Jackson would have done it, but Longstreet failed at this point.

    Second, when the battle was to have begun, Ewell was supposed to demonstrate against the northern end of the \fish hook\, to prevent them from reinforcing the southern end of the line, by this time having been shelled, was now being rolled upon by Longstreet. And when the southern end of the Union line had begun to collapse, only then was Pickett's charge to have begun on the confused and panicking Federals. The Union would not have been able to concentrate its artillery and the Confederates quite possibly would have destroyed the Union Army.

    After the way, in the presence of close friends, Lee said privately and in confidence, that \If I had had Jackson at Gettysburg, I am confident that we would have won a great victory, and with it, our independence.\



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