At Gettysburg, PA after having hit the Union line on each flank, General R. E. Lee made the decision to attack the Federals in the center. His thinking was that the center would be weakened after the union forces re-enforced the flanks. General James Longstreet was ordered to make the assault. He objected to the attack, wanting to resort to a flanking attack, but Lee could not be dissuaded. Longstreet voiced his objection in this way:
General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position
Longstreet picked three divisions to make the attack commanded by Major General George Pickett, Brigadier General Johnson Pettigrew, and Major General Issac Tremble.
At the time that the assault began, Longstreet who still objected to the plan could not give his verbal command for Pickett to advance but merely nodded his head when asked by Pickett if he should attack.
The Confederate attack against the Federal positions on Cemetery Ridge was a failure, the Confederates suffering an estimated 50% casualties out of the assaulting forces. This was the "high water" mark of the war. Psychologically the failure of Pickett's assault (as well as the loss of Vicksburg on July 4th) was the death knell of the Confederacy. Only the most insanely optimistic thought the south could win the war after these two losses.
To this day, Pickett's charge still has a mystical hold on the typical southerner. It is best summed up by William Falkner in his book, Intruder in the Dust:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
Food for Thought – 22 March 2018
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