Pickett's Charge Cherry Battlefield Tree Rings
Late on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, an infantry assault later known as Pickett’s Charge was ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union positions. The frontal assault toward the center of Union lines, nearly a mile away in open terrain, was ultimately repulsed with heavy casualties for the Confederates. Suffering from a lack of preparation and problems from the onset, the attack was a costly mistake that decisively ended Lee's invasion of the north and forced a retreat back to Virginia.
The charge is popularly named after Maj. Gen. George Pickett, but he was just one of three Confederate generals (all under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet) who led the assault.
This attack was part of Lee's plan to take the Union positions on Cemetery Hill and the network of roads it commanded. His military secretary described Lee's thinking:
‘There was ... a weak point ... where [Cemetery Ridge], sloping westward, formed the depression through which the Emmitsburg road passes. Perceiving that by forcing the Federal lines at that point and turning toward Cemetery Hill [Hays' Division] would be taken in flank and the remainder would be neutralized. ... Lee determined to attack at that point, and the execution was assigned to Longstreet.’
Lee believed that, after Confederate attacks on both the left and right flanks of the Union lines on the previous day, Meade would concentrate his defenses there to the detriment of his center. However, on the night of July 2, after a council of war, Meade correctly predicted that Lee would attack the center of his lines the following morning and reinforced that area with additional soldiers and artillery.
The infantry assault was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment that was meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but it was largely ineffective. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. Although some Confederates were able to breach the low stone wall that shielded many of the Union defenders, they could not maintain their hold and were repelled with more than 50 percent casualties.
Often cited as the turning point of the war, Pickett’s Charge was the farthest point reached by the attack and has been referred to as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.
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