The artillery barrage is one of 35 events covered in a new Gettysburg field guide.
Gettysburg National Military Park can be explored a number of ways, but for those who prefer not to use a ranger-guided or auto-stop tour, a new book by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler, A Field Guide to Gettysburg, delves into the battle’s history, drama and complexity in rich detail. Pickett’s Charge, examined in this article, is one of 35 critical aspects of the battle that Reardon and Vossler break down. Each stop in the book begins with an orientation section that provides tips on prominent landmarks and landscape features, followed by an overview of the action, major figures involved and notable casualties. While Gettysburg’s outcome was decided by events at several key points throughout the three days of fighting, Pickett’s Charge remains the seminal event of not only the battle but probably the entire war. For 150 years now, historians and buffs alike have been dissecting and debating Robert E. Lee’s bold decision to attack the Union center on the battle’s final day, sending 13,500 soldiers nearly one mile across an open field against a well-positioned enemy. For most, no visit to the battlefield is complete without a stop along Seminary Ridge, where the men in the divisions of George Pickett, J.J. Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble began their fateful surge at 3 p.m., July 3, 1863.
Stand in front of the Virginia Monument and look eastward into the open fields. On the skyline directly ahead of you, you will see Union monuments atop Cemetery Ridge, the main battle line of the Army of the Potomac. Identify the large obelisk that looks much like the Washington Monument and the large cluster of trees to its left, the historic Copse of Trees. The single large tree to the left of the copse marks the point where the stone wall protecting the Union infantry makes a 90-degree turn to the east (toward the horizon) and then turns left again. The area between the Copse of Trees and that single individual tree is the area best known as “the Angle,” where Pickett’s Charge penetrated the Union line. The evenly spaced individual trees on the skyline to the left of the Copse of Trees mark the site of the orchard at Ziegler’s Grove. The small white farm buildings to the left of the orchard mark the site of the Abraham Brien (or Brian) Farm. The road that angles across your front, more than halfway across the field, is Emmitsburg Road; the red buildings of the Nicholas Codori Farm on your right front rest on the far side of the road.
WHAT HAPPENED HERE?
It is essential that you understand from the start that the fields immediately in front of you are not those over which Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s Virginia division made its famous assault on the Union center. This Virginia memorial stands here simply to mark the general location from which Lee observed the assault and rode out to rally and comfort the survivors.
To your right front, follow the asphalted walkway out into the field to the informational wayside next to several artillery pieces. If you previously had difficulty locating the famous Copse of Trees, simply look down the barrel of the cannon closest to the wayside; the copse appears to touch the left side of the muzzle.
From this position, you can gain greater understanding of the Army of Northern Virginia’s pre-attack cannonade. The cannons here at the wayside represent the position of a portion of Major William T. Poague’s Artillery Battalion from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps during the bombardment. You can visualize Hill’s artillery line by mentally pushing forward into this field the line of cannons you have passed so far along West Confederate Avenue. Hill’s guns that took part in the cannonade were, as Brig. Gen. William Nelson Pendleton reported, “well placed.”
Now look to your right front and locate the red barn and white house of the Daniel Klingel Farm on Emmitsburg Road. In front of the Klingel Farm, on this side of the road and the white fences that line it, you can see a slight ridge of ground. On that rise, which extends well to the right toward the Peach Orchard, the artillery of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps rolled into line. Their position allowed them to lay an enfilading (or angled) fire around the Copse of Trees capable of inflicting more damage than Hill’s guns emplaced here could produce with frontal fire alone. But they could not do so with impunity; Longstreet’s gun line also came under the fire of Union artillery on southern Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. Still, when General Pendleton visited the nearly 60 guns along the First Corps’ artillery line off to your right earlier in the day, he reported: “In the posting of these [cannons] there appeared little room for improvement, so judiciously had they been adjusted.”
Unfortunately, from this position you cannot see the positions of any of the guns of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, but their contributions to the great bombardment were minimal. Earlier in the day, their batteries had exhausted much of their ammunition supporting the fight on Culp’s Hill, and several commanders complained of defective shells. Colonel J. Thompson Brown, the Second Corps artillery chief, makes no mention at all in his report about his guns’ participation in the cannonade.
At approximately 1 p.m., after two signal shots fired by Captain Merritt B. Miller’s battery of the Washington (Louisiana) Artillery Battalion from Longstreet’s line to your right front, Pendleton reported that “our guns in position, nearly one hundred and fifty, opened fire along the entire line from right to left, salvos by battery being much practiced.”
Confederate artillery officers filled their reports with superlatives to describe the bombardment. Colonel Henry C. Cabell on Longstreet’s line considered it “far, very far, exceeding any cannonading I have ever before witnessed.” Captain Ervin B. Brunson, commanding a reserve battalion in the Third Corps, asserted that “the artillery fight was one of the most terrific on record, and never were guns served more splendidly, and never did men behave more heroically, than the artillerymen did in that memorable battle of the 3d.”
Longstreet had placed West Point–educated Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, one of his artillery battalion commanders, in charge of the First Corps guns on July 3. In so doing, he chose not to rely upon his command’s most senior artilleryman, Colonel James B. Walton, who was not a professional soldier. Even before the cannonade began, Alexander received an unexpected message from Longstreet: “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy…I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge. I shall rely a great deal on your good judgment to determine the matter & shall expect you to let Gen. Pickett know when the moment offers.” Alexander realized that Longstreet had tried to shift much of the responsibility for ordering the charge from his own shoulders to those of his subordinate.
Alexander replied, “I will only be able to judge of the effect of our fire on the enemy by his return fire,” and he raised a more serious concern: “If, as I infer from your note, there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire, for it will take all the artillery ammunition we have left to test this one thoroughly.”
At the height of the bombardment, from his own artillery line to your right, Longstreet observed some of the exchange of fire, watching intently and noticing that “the enemy put in fresh batteries about as rapidly as others were driven off.” He believed that “we must attack very soon, if we hoped to accomplish anything before night.” But Alexander and other artillerymen realized they were running low on ammunition. At “exactly” 1:25 p.m., Alexander sent a message to Pickett: “If you are coming at all, come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least eighteen guns are still firing from the cemetery itself.”
Just 10 minutes later, Alexander sent a second message to Pickett: “For God’s sake, come quick. The 18 guns are gone. Come quick or I can’t support you.” When Longstreet learned of the ammunition shortage, he wanted to delay the assault long enough to refill the chests, but he soon learned that this could not be done in a timely way. “Frequent shell endangering the First Corps ordnance train in the convenient locality I had assigned it,” Pendleton reported, so he moved it farther to the rear. As Longstreet wrote in his official report: “The order for this attack, which I could not favor under better auspices, would have been revoked if I felt that I had that privilege.” But Lee had made his wishes clear. When Pickett looked to Longstreet for orders to advance, all the First Corps commander could do was nod in assent.
WHO FELL HERE?
In Longstreet’s Corps, Major James Dearing’s Artillery Battalion lost 29 of its 419 men, Alexander’s Battalion lost 139 of its 576 men, Cabell’s Battalion lost 52 of its 378 men, and the Washington Artillery lost 30 of its 338 men. These numbers reflect losses suffered by Longstreet’s artillery on both July 2 and July 3.
WHAT DID THEY SAY ABOUT IT LATER?
Several questions relating to the bombardment demonstrate just how difficult it can be for a historian to reconstruct events of long ago. In a highly charged event that threatens life and limb, individual perception and perspective shape what one remembers afterward.
In stressful situations, for instance, the passage of time can take on a fluidity that makes it seem to speed up or slow down, depending on circumstances. This proved to be true during the cannonade. Major Benjamin F. Eshleman of the Washington Artillery, focused on keeping his gun crews firing, reported that 30 minutes elapsed between the first signal shot and the advance of the infantry. On the other hand, Colonel James Mallon of the 42nd New York, his men lying in wait on the forward crest of Cemetery Ridge, believed that the cannonade lasted every bit of four hours.
His corps commander, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, reported that it lasted “an hour and forty-five minutes.” Maj. Gen. George Meade— as well as Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the Union artillery chief; Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard of the XI Corps; and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon of the II Corps division in the target area, along with his brigade commanders, Generals Alexander S. Webb and William Harrow and Colonel Norman J. Hall—reported that the bombardment began at about 1 p.m. and ended about 3 p.m., providing a foundation for the traditionally accepted span of two hours.
General Lee made no specific reference to the bombardment at all, reporting simply that “the battle recommenced in the afternoon of the 3d, and raged with great violence until sunset.” His artillery chief, General Pendleton, reported that the cannonade started at 1 p.m., but he made no specific reference to its duration.
How many Confederate cannons took part? Pendleton estimated the number to have been “nearly one hundred and fifty.” General Hunt, in his report, estimated the number of guns “bearing on our west front at from one hundred to one hundred and twenty.” Hancock offered an estimate of between “one hundred and fifteen to one hundred and fifty.” But Corporal J.L. Bechtel of the 59th New York wrote on July 6 with great confidence that he endured the fire of exactly “113 guns for one hour and a half” and suffered only a bruised heel.
How effective was the bombardment? Major Dearing reported that “the firing on the part of my battalion was very good, and most of the shell and shrapnel burst well. My fire was directed at the batteries immediately in my front, and which occupied the heights charged by Pickett’s division. Three caissons were seen by myself to blow up and I saw several batteries of the enemy leave the field.” Captain Charles A. Phillips of the 5th Massachusetts Battery commented, on the other hand, that “viewed as a display of fireworks, the rebel practice was entirely successful, but as a military demonstration, it was the biggest humbug of the season.” Colonel Hall provided this colorful assessment: “The experience of the terrible grandeur of that rain of missiles and that chaos of strange and terror-spreading sounds, unexampled, perhaps in history, must ever remain undescribed, but can never be forgotten by those who survived it.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Colonel Alexander made no comment at all in his report about the effectiveness of the bombardment, its start or end time, or its duration. In his postwar recollections, however, he admitted: “I had, at first, taken no very special thought as to how long I would let the fire continue, before telling Pickett to go. Some 20 to 30 minutes I supposed would be about right. Not shorter than 20, for the longer the time the more punishment the enemy would have. But not longer than 30, because they had a long charge, & I must allow plenty of time for them to cover the distance within the hour. For I did not like to use up more ammunition than that would consume before having the crisis of the matter determined.”
From A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield Through Its History, Places, and People by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.