Was Pickett’s Charge Lee’s best chance for winning Gettysburg?
Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, is probably the most famous single military action to take place on American soil. Reliable estimates place the number of Confederate attackers at around 12,500, and the five leading brigades in the assault suffered an astonishing casualty rate of nearly 70 percent. For decades the attack was considered the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy,” and although many historians currently argue that Antietam deserves this accolade, the attack certainly put a great, climactic exclamation point on the largest battle to take place in the Western Hemisphere. As George R. Stewart concluded in his study Pickett’s Charge: A Micro History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, “Lee almost certainly realized that with the repulse had vanished all reasonable hope of a military victory.”
The three-day battle remains at the forefront of Civil War consciousness, and “What if?” scenarios abound as historians and buffs continue to refight Gettysburg. But the biggest debate about the struggle there relates to an event that actually happened: Should Robert E. Lee have ordered Pickett’s Charge?
Beginning with Lee’s top commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, the immediate reply of most historians in the past 149 years has been a resounding “No.” But I believe much analysis has failed to take into account whether Lee had other viable options that fateful day.
Let’s begin by asking whether the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania should have been made at all. Even given Lee’s spectacular record of success against the Army of the Potomac, he had to realize that a battle in Union territory carried large risks. Why then did he think it was a sound idea to move the Army of Northern Virginia north, where it would likely have to fight far from any relatively safe defensive positions?
In his Gettysburg Campaign classic Stars in Their Courses, Shelby Foote makes the case for a Rebel offensive. A move into Pennsylvania “might or might not cause the withdrawal of [Ulysses] Grant from in front of Vicksburg, but at least it would remove the invaders from the soil of Virginia during the vital harvest season”— emphasis mine—“while at best it could accomplish the fall of the northern capital and thus encourage the foreign intervention which Jefferson Davis long had seen as to the key to victory of the superior forces of the union.” In Lee’s mind it boiled down, as he put it to Davis and his cabinet, to “A choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.”
One might say that Pickett’s Charge was inevitable from the moment Lee decided to take the war north, though at the time neither Lee nor his generals saw it that way. For Longstreet’s part, he wished “We could stand still and let the damned Yankees come to us,” much as Lee had maneuvered them into doing at Fredericksburg. Longstreet recalled in his memoirs that he accepted Lee’s proposition “to make a campaign into Pennsylvania, provided it should be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics, forcing the Federal army to give us battle when we were in a strong position and ready to receive them.”
Longstreet and Lee should have realized that once they invaded Pennsylvania they would no longer be in position to call their own shots, and that the Army of Northern Virginia would be taking the offensive against superior numbers. When the fighting began on July 1, Maj. Gen. George Meade had 51 brigades of infantry and seven of cavalry, comprised of nearly 80,000 men, while General Lee, with J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry still away from the main body, had perhaps 50,000 men, 34 brigades of infantry and just one of cavalry. Thus the Federals began the fight with an 8-to-5 advantage.
Meade had another edge: morale. For the first time, a Northern army would be fighting in a Union state. Meade realized the advantage would be his if he could stay on the defensive. At the end of the first day, he told his generals that his intentions were “to hold this army pretty nearly in the position it now occupies until the plans of the enemy shall have been more fully developed.” He did not want “to wear the troops out by excessive fatigue and marches.”
Meade wrote to Henry Halleck that he had his army in “a strong position for defensive” and had not ruled out an attack on Lee. “If I find it hazardous to do so, or am satisfied the enemy is endeavoring to move by my rear and interpose between me and Washington, I shall fall back to my supplies at Westminster,” he wrote.
That was a key difference between Lee’s situation and Meade’s. If pressed, Meade could rely on an abundant supply source, to say nothing of likely reinforcements. Lee had no such advantage. He knew full well that if the Confederates were to win a military victory, the invasion of Pennsylvania would probably be their last opportunity to do so.
Lee also realized that if his opponent found the right defensive position, the burden of attack would be on his smaller, outgunned army. Meade could win without having to take any major risks. Essentially all he had to do was hold his position and wait out Lee. In the three days of fighting, Meade never took the offensive. The Army of Northern Virginia’s problem was considerable. Once Meade locked into his “fish hook” line of defense, he could man it with about 27,000 men per mile (15 men per yard), a solid line of riflemen at virtually any position, with plenty of backup—approximately twice the concentration the Rebels held on the Federals at Fredericksburg.
Those who criticize Lee for not engaging in more maneuver before attacking have never explained, first, how he could have avoided tiring his men with repeated forced marches, and second, how such maneuvering would not stretch his lines to the point of disaster. By the third day, Lee’s army averaged about 10,000 men to the mile, fewer than six per yard. Had Lee continued to extend his line around the fishhook in trying to outflank the Union army, Meade could have continued to extend his own line of defense—a line that commanded more than 350 pieces of artillery to the Rebels’ 272. On July 3, Meade averaged 188 heavy guns per mile to Lee’s 54.
Realistically, Lee had just two options: Retreat to Virginia with a battle left unfinished, which— given the military mind-set of the era—would have left him in disgrace, particularly since over the first two days of battle Lee’s army had inflicted more casualties on the Federals than it had received. His other option was to find the most vulnerable part in the Union line and make an all-out assault. He had only one tactical advantage, the knowledge that if he could score a decisive breakthrough, there was a very good possibility that his more tightly packed opponents might panic, break and run.
Lee in fact found just about the best spot to attack available anywhere along the Federal line. At 1:07 p.m. on July 3, when the first artillery shell was fired on the field, the Confederates had succeeded in massing 12,500 men to attack perhaps 5,700 Federal soldiers, a very rare advantage for the Southerners of 2.2-to-1. Not that this tilted the odds dramatically in the Confederates’ favor; in Longstreet’s famous words to Lee, “No 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle could take that position,” an evaluation that would have been even more accurate had the three divisions been up to their strength on the first day of the battle. But even if Longstreet were correct, where could Lee find more of an advantage?
In concentrating his artillery at the point of attack, Lee was obeying Napoleonic military doctrine. The bombardment remains the greatest concentration of artillery ever assembled on the American continent. What Lee could not have anticipated was how relatively little damage the barrage would do to the Union infantry or artillerists, who wisely decided not to duel the Rebel guns, saving their own shot for their opponents’ actual advance. But the Southern guns did do some damage. One shell crashed through the door of Meade’s headquarters, and might have altered the battle’s outcome had he been killed. “My God, if only we’d had another line, we would have whipped you,” a Rebel colonel later claimed. “By God, we could have whipped you as it was.”
The aftermath of the battle justified Lee’s desperate tactics on July 3. Meade received reinforcements from several surrounding states; Lee was sent none at all. Lee’s artillery chief, Edward Porter Alexander, thought his ammunition reserves were so low that a counterattack by a single Federal corps “could have cut us in two.”
Gettysburg was Lee’s final major offensive. For the rest of the war, he restricted himself to defensive campaigning, which many thought— especially after he lost “Stonewall” Jackson—was his army’s strength. Lee staved off the inevitable for two more years, inflicting perhaps twice as many casualties as he sustained. In the final analysis, though, he may have been correct when, after returning to Virginia, he justified his campaign to a representative of Davis. The passage, quoted by Noah A. Trudeau in Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, should be considered in any evaluation of Lee’s success in Pennsylvania: “Our loss was heavy at Gettysburg, but in my opinion no greater than it would have been from the series of battles I would have been compelled to fight had I stayed in Virginia.”
As Trudeau notes, “In his final campaign report, submitted in January 1864, Lee pointed to the supplies he had confiscated and the enemy’s subsequent failure to mount a full invasion into northern Virginia as the effort’s important results.” Would the Confederacy have been better off if Lee had stayed in Virginia instead of invading Pennsylvania? Not in Lee’s opinion. Would the fall of 1863 have seen a Federal army on Virginia soil? Probably.
The irony is that Lee is best remembered for ordering a charge not only against the better judgment of his most trusted general but also against his own judgment. But as he wrote to Davis during the retreat from Gettysburg, “With the knowledge I then had, & in the circumstances I was then placed, I do not know what better course I could have pursued.” No armchair general has ever provided a satisfactory answer.
Allen Barra, a former American Heritage editor, writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast and TheAtlantic.com
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.