Wednesday, July 3, 2013

High Tide

The small town of Gettysburg, gained tragic notoriety in July 1863 for the cataclysmic Civil War battle in which fifty thousand men died. There were more casualties during these three days than in any American battle until Battle of the Bulge – a full third of those who fought were killed or wounded – and entire regiments were wiped out when the tide finally turned against the South.

Americans were killing Americans

As the bitter fighting stretched into several hot days, Cemetary Ridge was one of several high ground spots Union hung onto - by her fingernails at times and today is the 150th year anniversary of the desperate attack to take it away and perhaps even win the war for Confederacy.

The High Tide of Confederal Warmaking

Picket's Charge

Predicted to be an epic fail by the charge's commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered psychologically.

"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."

After Confederate attacks on both Yankee flanks had failed the day and night before, Lee was determined to strike the Union center on the third day. On the night of July 2, General Meade correctly predicted at a council of war that Lee would try an attack on his lines in the center the following morning.

From the beginning of the planning, things went awry for the Confederates. While Pickett's division had not been used yet at Gettysburg, A.P. Hill's health became an issue and he did not participate in selecting which of his troops were to be used for the charge. Some of Hill's corps had fought lightly on July 1 and not at all on July 2.

Actually, cats that had done heavy fighting on July 1 ended up making the charge.

Although the assault is known to popular history as Pickett's Charge, overall command was given to James Longstreet, and Pickett was one of his divisional commanders. Lee did tell Longstreet that Pickett's fresh division should lead the assault, so the name is appropriate, although some recent historians have used the name Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault (or, less frequently, Longstreet's Assault) to more fairly distribute the credit (or blame). With Hill sidelined, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions were delegated to Longstreet's authority as well.

Thus, General Pickett's name has been lent to a charge in which he commanded about one-third of the men and was under the supervision of his corps commander throughout. Pickett's men were almost exclusively from Virginia, with the other divisions consisting of troops from North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The supporting troops under Wilcox and Lang were from Alabama and Florida.

Despite Lee's hope for an early start, it took all morning to arrange the infantry assault force. Neither Lee's nor Longstreet's headquarters sent orders to Pickett to have his division on the battlefield by daylight. An oversight by Longstreet, either as a misunderstanding of Lee's verbal order or a mistake. Longstreet's Gettysburg performance may be evidence that Longstreet deliberately undermined Lee's plan for the battle.

The July 3 bombardment was likely the largest of the war, with hundreds of cannons from both sides firing along the lines for one to two hours, starting around 1 p.m. Confederate guns numbered between 150 and 170 and fired from a line over two miles (3 km) long, starting in the south at the Peach Orchard and running roughly parallel to the Emmitsburg Road.

Despite its ferocity, the fire was mostly ineffectual. Confederate shells often overshot the infantry front lines—in some cases because of inferior shell fuses that delayed detonation—and the smoke covering the battlefield concealed that fact from the gunners.

The day was hot, 87 °F (31 °C) and humid, and the Confederates suffered under the hot sun and from the Union counter-battery fire as they awaited the order to advance. When Union cannoneers overshot their targets, they often hit the massed infantry waiting in the woods of Seminary Ridge or in the shallow depressions just behind Alexander's guns, causing significant casualties before the charge began.

The entire force that stepped off toward the Union positions at about 2 p.m. consisted of about 12,500 men. Although the attack is popularly called a "charge", the men marched deliberately in line, to speed up and then charge only when they were within a few hundred yards of the enemy. The line consisted of Pettigrew and Trimble on the left, and Pickett to the right. The nine brigades of men stretched over a mile-long (1,600 m) front.

The Confederates encountered heavy artillery fire while advancing nearly three quarters of a mile across open fields to reach the Union line and were slowed by fences in their path. These obstacles played a huge role in the large number of casualties the advancing Confederates faced. The ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge is slightly undulating, and the advancing troops periodically disappeared from the view of the Union cannoneers.

As Pickett's men advanced, they withstood the defensive fire of first Stannard's brigade, then Harrow's, and then Hall's, before approaching a minor salient in the Union center, a low stone wall taking an 80-yard right-angle turn known afterward as "The Angle." It was defended by Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb's Philadelphia Brigade. Webb placed the two remaining guns of (the severely wounded) Lt. Alonzo Cushing's Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, at the front of his line at the stone fence, with the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania regiments of his brigade to defend the fence and the guns. The two guns and 940 men could not match the massive firepower that Hays's division, to their right, had been able to unleash

The infantry assault lasted less than an hour. The supporting attack by Wilcox and Lang on Pickett's right was never a factor; they did not approach the Union line until after Pickett was defeated, and their advance was quickly broken up by McGilvery's guns and by the Vermont Brigade.

While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualty rate was over 50%. Pickett's division suffered 2,655 casualties

The casualties were also high among the commanders of the charge. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties of the day; Trimble lost a leg, and Pettigrew received a minor wound to the hand (only to die from a bullet to the abdomen suffered in a minor skirmish during the retreat to Virginia).In Pickett's division, 26 of the 40 field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) were casualties— 12 killed or mortally wounded, nine wounded, four wounded and captured, and one captured

As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers and Gen. Wilcox that the failure was "all my fault." General Pickett was inconsolable for the rest of the day and never forgave Lee for ordering the charge. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division."

The Yankee counterattack never came

History may never know the true story of Lee's intentions at Gettysburg. He never published memoirs, and his after-action report from the battle was cursory. Most of the senior commanders of the charge were casualties and did not write reports. Pickett's report was apparently so bitter that Lee ordered him to destroy it, and no copy has been found

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Vicksburg garrison along the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two. These two Union victories were the turning point of the Civil War

Pic - "I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the Army of the Potomac.”