Pickett's Charge proves futile


Southern hopes for victory at Gettysburg were dashed when Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863, failed to break the Union army's hold on Cemetery Ridge.

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's division consisted of brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett, Brig. Gen. James Lawson Kemper and Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead. These three men would lead this charge into well-defended Union territory and into American history.

In the morning, Pickett's division marched across Spangler's Woods and formed a battle line east of the woods in the open space behind Seminary Ridge.

Kemper took the far right position with the 3rd, 1st, 11th, 7th and the 24th Virginia. Garnett filed to Kemper's left with his brigade made up of the 28th, 18th, 19th, 8th, and 56th Virginia. Armistead was forced to form his brigade of the 57th, 53rd, 38th and 9th Virginia 100 yards behind Garnett.

In Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg, author Earl J. Hess writes:

"The move forward to the foot of Seminary Ridge forced Armistead to protest his position in line. He wanted to be in the front rather than serve as a second line to Garnett, and the brigadier asked Maj. Walter Harrison of Pickett's staff if the division commander wanted him to push out ahead of [Brig. Gen. J. Johnston] Pettigrew's right and align with Garnett."

Armistead was eventually denied this request by Pickett, who told him he could "make up his distance when the advance is made," according to Hess. But Armistead held this position for the rest of the attack.

The Confederate forces launched their attack at 1 p.m. Many of the shells landed behind the Union lines near the hospitals and wagons. In his article "The Battle of Gettysburg" from James McPherson's Battle Chronicles of the Civil War 1863, Jeffry Wert states:

"The firestorm lasted nearly two hours, but for the Confederates it was more thunder than lightning. Their relatively inaccurate fire caused insignificant casualties and failed to demoralize the Union infantry on the ridge."

As the firing ceased, Pickett discussed the situation with Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet gave the order to proceed, and the Confederates marched eastward from Seminary Ridge toward Emmitsburg Road.

Union waiting

As the Confederates advanced, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's Union 2nd Corps fired down from Cemetery Ridge. This corps consisted in part of units commanded by Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, heading the division at the threatened point, which was made up of brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. William Harrow, Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb and Col. Norman Hall.

The soldiers held positions behind two stone walls, both of which ran south and pointed west at their tips, forming right angles. Harrow took the far left position with the 19th Maine, 15th Massachusetts, 1st Minnesota and 82nd New York. Hall placed his brigade immediately to Harrow's right with the 19th and 20th Massachusetts, 7th Michigan, 42nd and 59th New York. Webb and the 69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania were behind Hall, to the right.

In his article "Repelling Lee's Last Blow at Gettysburg," from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, Brevet Lt. Col. Edmund Rice wrote:

"From the opposite ridge, three-fourths of a mile away, a line of skirmishes sprang lightly forward out of the woods, and with intervals well kept moved rapidly down into the open fields, closely followed by a line of battle, then by another, and yet a third. Both sides watched this never-to-be-forgotten scene - the grandeur of attack of so many thousand men. Gibbon's division, which was to stand the brunt of the assault, looked with admiration on the different lines of Confederates, marching forward with easy, swinging step, and the men were heard to exclaim: 'Here they come! Here they come! Here comes the infantry!' "

Garnett's and Kemper's brigades climbed the wooden fence that lined Emmitsburg Road and began to march the open 200 yards toward the Union's stone fence. Armistead and his men tightened with Garnett's brigade and closed in on the stone fence. Hess continues the narrative:

"Protected from the hail of enemy fire by the wall of Garnett's men, [Armistead's] brigade nevertheless took a number of casualties. Color Sgt. Leander C. Blackburn of the 53rd Virginia was hit and replaced by Pvt. James T. Carter. But another member of the color guard, Cpl. John B. Scott, wrenched the flag from Carter's hands. He moved about fifteen feet ahead of the regiment, waving the colors, until he fell. Then Pvt. Robert Tyler Jones took over. Armistead yelled to him, 'Run ahead, Bob, and cheer them up!' Jones did just that, advancing and shaking the flag over his head."

The Union troops were outnumbered at first, but there were a lot of Blue soldiers in the vicinity. These reinforcements were called to the line quickly. The Confederates pushed toward the center of the Union line.

'Who will follow me?'

The Union soldiers held nothing back and kept firing into the heart of the Confederate attack. Although this was true, Hess nonetheless concludes:

"If any part of Pickett's division had a good chance to penetrate the Union position, it was this concentration on the angle. Not only did the left wing of Garnett and Armistead have strength; both brigade commanders were still alive and active. ... There was a gap between the right flank of the 69th Pennsylvania and the angle itself - a gap of about 50 yards into which the rebels could push if they had the courage."

More than anyone else on the Confederate side, Armistead had that courage. When he noticed that his men along with Garnett's were at a standstill with no direction to move but forward over the stone fence, Armistead urged his men on, as Hess relates:

"Turning to the men, Armistead yelled, 'Come forward, Virginians! Come on, Boys, we must give them the cold steel; who will follow me?'"

With these words, Armistead moved his men into action against all odds.

In Gettysburg: The Final Fury, Bruce Catton describes his final acts: "[Armistead] was still waving his sword, his black felt hat that had been on the point of his sword had slipped all the way down to the hilt; he laid his hand on one of dead [Lt. Alonzo] Cushing's guns, urged his men on, a great figure of defiance - and then he fell with a mortal wound."

J.B. Smith wrote of the charge in the March 1887 issue of The Bivouac: "Armistead led his men through the terrific storm of battle to the base of the federal works, and there he placed his cap on his sword and scaled the wall, appealing to his troops to follow him. A few of his disorganized men imitated his heroic example, and died at his feet." Armistead, at that moment, had led the most dramatic and bravest battle sequence of the Civil War. Now fallen, he was identified by Union Capt. Henry H. Bingham of Hancock's staff.

Hancock and Armistead were close friends before the war. As the Union was dissolving in the spring of 1861 and the old army officers were forced to choose sides, Hancock held a party at the officers' quarters outside of what is now Los Angeles. Those resigning to join the army of the Southern Confederacy were the guests of honor; Armistead was one of these guests.

"Late in the evening one of the officers' wives sang 'Kathleen Mavourneen,' that haunted song of a long parting - 'It may be years and it may be forever' - and then the party broke up and Armistead came over to shake hands with Hancock," Catton writes. "Tears were in his eyes, and as he shook Hancock's hand, Armistead said: 'Goodbye - you never can know what this has cost me.' Then he went away, and he and Hancock had not seen each other again."

As Armistead lay in pain, according to Hess, he told Bingham that Hancock was "an old and valued friend of his," and he told him to send Hancock a message. "Tell General Hancock for me," as Bingham recalled later, "that I have done him and done you all an injury which I shall regret or repent (I forgot the exact word) the longest day I live."

Armistead was eventually brought to the 11th Corps hospital still in great pain, and died there that night. In the last hours of his life, Armistead refused to dwell on the fact that he was dying, but rather on a friendship he cherished.

Armistead is buried in St. Paul's Cemetery in Baltimore alongside his uncle, Col. George Armistead, the leader of the defense of Fort McHenry in 1814.

Joseph Esposito is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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