Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg

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Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg
Total Casualties in Killed and Dead, and Died of Wounds

Pickett and the Gettysburg Charge
The 630 Rifled Artillery and Smoothbore Cannon at Gettysburg

Cannon during Pickett's Charge
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Cannon at Gettysburg Battlefield


The countless commands of "double canister" shouted along the blue lines reinforce the belief that artillery was critical in repulsing the Confederates and securing Union victory on July 3, 1863.

Two of the divisions in Pickett's Charge were reduced to mere fragments. In front of the Union line, 20 fallen battle flags lay in a space of 100 yards square. Singly and in little clumps, the remnants of the gray columns that had made the magnificent charge of a few minutes earlier now sullenly retreated across the fields toward the Confederate lines. Lee, who had watched anxiously from Spangler's Woods, now rode out to meet his men. "All this has been my fault," he said to General Wilcox who had brought off his command after heavy losses. "It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can." And again that night, in a moment of contemplation, he remarked to a comrade, "Too bad! too bad! Oh! too bad!"

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg fought in July 1863, was the thundering climax of Lee's second invasion of the North in less than a year. A portion of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had stumbled upon a cavalry detachment of Union general George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac near the small Pennsylvania crossroads on July 1. There troops under A. P. Hill and Jubal A. Early routed hastily called-up Union reinforcements and sent them scurrying back through town and onto a fishhook-shaped line of hills to the south and southwest. This first day of fighting resulted in heavy losses for both sides, but it was Lee's best chance for victory and he failed to capitalize on it. By the next day, much of the Army of the Potomac had arrived and Lee's odds were longer. He simultaneously hurled James Longstreet's corps against the Union left and Richard S. Ewell's against the right, on Culp's Hill. In vicious fighting, which included the desperate defense of the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, Union troops held firm, but barely. On July 3, Lee was determined to launch one last attack, this time against the center, but Meade, in a council of war the night before, had accurately predicted Lee's plan for the day.

Pickett's Charge and Total Casualties
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Civil War Artillery Batteries in Linear Formation Caused Mass Casualties at Gettysburg


Pickett's Charge was the pinnacle of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and one of the most famous infantry attacks of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Lasting about an hour on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, it pitted 12,000 Confederates—including three brigades of Virginians under George E. Pickett—against half that number of Union troops. On July 2, Robert E. Lee had unsuccessfully attacked the Union flanks; in what even some of his own men perceived as a desperate gambit, he now attacked the center, asking his troops to cross an open field nearly three-quarters of a mile long. They were bloodily repulsed, losing half their number.

There were 459 infantry and cavalry regiments and 132 artillery batteries that participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, representing nearly 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Although battle losses are difficult to ascertain because of incomplete records, the general consensus for total Union and Confederate casualties -- killed, wounded, missing, and captured -- is 51,000.

Among 90,000 effective Union troops and 75,000 Confederates, there were approximately 51,000 casualties. The Army of the Potomac lost 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 captured or missing. Of the Army of Northern Virginia, 3,903 were killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing or captured. (Battle of Gettysburg : Strength of Union and Confederate Armies.)

If Chancellorsville was arguably Lee’s finest battle, Gettysburg was clearly his worst; yet the reversal did not unnerve him or reduce his effectiveness as a commander. The invasion had patently failed, and on July 4 he began to retreat toward the Potomac. As that river was flooded, it was several days before he was able to cross. President Lincoln, naturally pleased over Meade’s defensive victory and elated over Grant’s capture of Vicksburg, thought the war could end in 1863 if Meade launched a resolute pursuit and destroyed Lee’s army on the north bank of the Potomac. But Meade’s own army was too mangled; and the Union commander moved cautiously, permitting Lee to return safely to Virginia on July 13. It was Lee's second and final invasion of the North.

Artillery, the Cannons, during Pickett's Charge
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Thure de Thulstrup's Battle of Gettysburg, showing Pickett's Charge.

The Famed Pickett Charge Battle Map
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Pickett's Charge Battlefield Map

Artillery and Cannon

Those who fought at Gettysburg with rifles and carbines were supported by nearly 630 cannon—360 Union and 270 Confederate. About half of these were rifled iron pieces, all but four of the others were smoothbore bronze guns. The same types of cannon were used by both armies.

Almost all of the bronze pieces were 12 pounders, either howitzers or "Napoleons." They could hurl a 12-pound iron ball nearly a mile and were deadly at short ranges, particularly when firing canister. Other bronze cannon included 24 pounder howitzers and 6 pounder guns. All types are represented in the park today, coated with patina instead of being polished as they were when in use.

Most of the iron rifled pieces at Gettysburg had a 3-inch bore and fired a projectile which weighed about 10 pounds. There were two types of these—3-inch ordnance rifles and 10 pounder Parrotts. It is easy to tell them apart for the Parrott has a reinforcing jacket around its breech, The effective range of these guns was somewhat in excess of a mile, limited in part because direct fire was used and the visibility of gunners was restricted.

Two other types of rifled guns were used at Gettysburg—four bronze James guns and two Whitworth rifles. The Whitworths were unique because they were breech loading and were reported to have had exceptional range and accuracy. However, their effect at Gettysburg must have been small for one was out of action much of the time.

These artillery pieces used three types of ammunition. All cannon could fire solid projectiles or shot. They also hurled fused, hollow shells which contained black powder and sometimes held lead balls or shrapnel. Canister consisted of cans filled with iron or lead balls. These cans burst apart on firing, converting the cannon into an oversized shotgun.

Weapons influenced tactics. At Gettysburg a regiment formed for battle, fought, and moved in a two rank line, its men shoulder to shoulder, the file closets in the rear. Since the average strength of regiments at Gettysburg was only 350 officers and men, the length of a regiment's line was a little over 100 yards. Such a formation brought the regiment's slow-firing rifles together under the control of the regimental commander, enabling him to deliver a maximum of fire power at a given target. The formation's shallowness had a two-fold purpose, it permitted all ranks to fire, and it presented a target of minimum depth to the enemy's fire.

Four or five regiments were grouped into a brigade, two to five brigades formed a division. When formed for the attack, a brigade moved forward in a single or double line of regiments until it came within effective range of the enemy line. Then both parties blazed away, attempting to gain the enemy's flank if feasible, until one side or the other was forced to retire. Confederate attacking forces were generally formed with an attacking line in front and a supporting line behind. Federal brigades in the defense also were formed with supporting troops in a rear line when possible. Breastworks were erected if time permitted, but troops were handicapped in this work because entrenching tools were in short supply.

Like their infantry comrades, cavalrymen also fought on foot, using their horses as means of transportation. However, mounted charges were also made in the classic fashion, particularly in the great cavalry battle on July 3.

Cavalry and infantry were closely supported by artillery. Batteries of from four to six guns occupied the crests of ridges and hills from which a field of fire could be obtained. They were usually placed in the forward lines, protected by supporting infantry regiments posted on their flanks or in their rear. Limbers containing their ammunition were nearby. Because gunners had to see their targets, artillery positions sheltered from the enemy's view were still in the future,

Map of the Armies at Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg
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Map of Union and Confederate Armies at Pickett's Charge and Battle of Gettysburg

Map of Cannon Positions during Pickett's Charge
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Map of Union and Confederate Artillery Positions during Pickett's Charge Killed many Soldiers

Gettysburg Campaign Map
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Map of Gettysburg Campaign Battles, Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge, and Retreat

Map of Massed Artillery during Pickett's Charge
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Map of Union and Confederate Cannon Positions during Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge
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The Three Day Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863

Map with Movement of Pickett's Division
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Map of Troop Movements in Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge

The Confederates amassed approximately 135 cannon and at one o'clock in the afternoon unleashed about an hour-long bombardment of the Union position. The Confederate infantry marched at around two o'clock, emerging from the woods below Seminary Ridge and urged on by Pickett's cry, "Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" According to one Union observer it made for an awesome sight: "None on that crest now need be told that the enemy is advancing," he wrote. "Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us! … Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall, or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard, and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible." This tableau later would be frozen into myth.

The bombardment had caused terrible noise and substantial damage, but toward the goal of knocking out the Union guns, it had been a failure. As a result, Confederate casualties were high from the start. (The picture-book war faded fast. John Dooley, an officer in the 1st Virginia Regiment, said that once he came under fire, "instead of burning to avenge the insults of our country, families and altars and firesides, the thought is most frequently, Oh, if I could just come out of this charge safely how thankful would I be!") Pickett's men struggled to move to their left and close the four hundred-yard gap that had separated their left flank from Pettigrew's right at the start of the advance. Both flanks would meet opposite what some would later claim to be the agreed-upon target: a corner in the stone wall that came to be known as the Bloody Angle and a "copse" of trees just behind it. In everyone's way, meanwhile, was the sunken Emmitsburg Road, covered on the west by a post-and-rail fence and on the east by post and board.

While many Tennesseans and North Carolinians surged well beyond the road, about half of Pettigrew's men stopped there. In contrast, Pickett's Virginians were fresh troops, not having endured the bloodshed of the previous two days, and they managed to maintain their formation, executing that left oblique under fire and closing with Pettigrew's men near the road. Meanwhile, on the Union side of the stone fence, the 71st Pennsylvania saw the Virginians headed their way and abandoned the Angle, leaving behind two pieces of artillery. The 72nd Pennsylvania rushed to cover the gap from eighty yards behind the line, while the 69th Pennsylvania held on at the wall. When Pickett's men arrived, they halted and exchanged fire with the Pennsylvanians at close range.

Suddenly one of Pickett's brigade leaders, Lewis Armistead, led a hundred Virginians over the wall, exhorting his men, "Come forward, Virginians! Come on, boys, we must give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?" They grabbed the abandoned guns and even wheeled one around, but they couldn't fire it for lack of ammunition. Armistead, whose best friend before the war had been the Union corps commander Hancock, was shot and later died. His fellow brigade commanders James Marshall and Richard Garnett—the latter once court-martialed by Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and conspicuously in search of redemption—also were killed. Pettigrew and Lowrance were wounded, and Trimble, Kemper, and Fry wounded and captured—all in a charge that reached this far but no farther. By day's end, Pickett's casualties, including killed, wounded, and captured, numbered 2,655, or about 42 percent of his men. Pettigrew lost 2,700 men (62 percent) and Trimble 885 (52 percent).

John Imboden recalled Lee saying that evening, "I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett's division of Virginians did today in that grand charge." He then expressed confusion as to why the day had not been won. Still, he told another general that "this has all been my fault." An observer remembered Pickett "weeping bitterly," and John Singleton Mosby later claimed that Pickett blamed Lee for the disaster: "That old man destroyed my division."

It Was Slaughter

Although the charge had resulted in thousands killed, mortally wounded, missing, and captured, there were high casualties throughout the ranks of both Union and Confederate horses and mules. 

Regardless of the care given to artillery horses during the Civil War, the animals still perished at an astounding rate. Many died of disease or were put to death because of exhaustion. Many more were killed alongside their battery mates in battle. When a battery unlimbered and took its place in line, the horses were ordinarily moved to a place sheltered from direct enemy fire–behind a building or hill, in a copse of trees or in a ravine. Such precautions, however, did not always protect the animals from hostile fire.

On the third day at Gettysburg in July 1863, many of the Union artillery horses were placed on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge, behind and below the crest. In the great barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge, the position inadvertently became a death trap. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery for the Federal forces, reported that fire from the Confederate guns was high. It passed over the crest and exploded or fell among the horses on the eastern slope. As Hunt reported, ‘This cost us a great many horses and the explosion of an unusually large number of caissons and limbers.’ The Union artillery lost 881 horses at Gettysburg. All of those animals were not killed on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge, but it may be assumed from Hunt’s remarks that many were.

Horses suffered not only from artillery fire but also from the fire of advancing infantry. The capture of a piece of artillery was a great exploit, bringing with it honor and recognition. Confederate regiments in the Western theater were allowed to place crossed cannons on their regimental battle flags after they had taken a Federal gun.

One tactic used in attacking a battery was to shoot down the horses attached to it. If the battery horses were killed or disabled, moving the guns back to safety was an impossible task. But horses could take much punishment. They were difficult to bring down, and once down were difficult to keep down, even with the impact of the large-caliber Minie bullets.

Brigadier General E.P. Alexander, chief of artillery in Lt. Gen. James P. Longstreet’s Confederate corps, reported that on July 3, 1863, the reserve artillery of Lee’s army, consisting of 89 guns, moved from Greenwood, Pa., to a point one mile west of Gettysburg in only six hours. The march of 17 miles began at 1 a.m. and was completed by 7 a.m.

At Gettysburg and numerous other Civil War battles, the humble horse and his human masters soldiered on. Whether plodding through the dry, stifling dust, struggling in clinging mud, rushing up to a position at a jolting gallop or creeping backward in a fighting withdrawal, the men–and the horses–always did what had to be done. They moved the guns.

Lincoln had a very heavy heart at Gettysburg
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President Abraham Lincoln at time of Gettysburg Address


Both Union and Confederate forces were too exhausted for further attacks. Both sides had fought hard and with great valor. Among 90,000 effective Union troops and 75,000 Confederates, there were approximately 51,000 casualties. The Army of the Potomac lost 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 captured or missing. Of the Army of Northern Virginia, 3,903 were killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing or captured.

Lee, as he looked over the desolate field of dead and wounded and the broken remnants of his once-powerful army still ready for renewed battle, must have realized that not only was Gettysburg lost, but that eventually it might all end this way. Meade did not counterattack, as expected. The following day, July 4, the two armies lay facing each other, battered and torn.

Late on the afternoon of July 4, Lee began an orderly retreat. The wagon train of wounded, 17 miles in length, guarded by Imboden's cavalry, started homeward through Greenwood and Greencastle. At night, the able-bodied men marched over the Hagerstown Road by way of Monterey Pass to the Potomac. Roads had become nearly impassable from the heavy rains that day, hindering the movements of both armies. Meade, realizing that the Confederate Army was actually retreating and not retiring to the mountain passes, sent detachments of cavalry and infantry in pursuit and ordered the mountain passes west of Frederick covered. Lee, having the advantage of the more direct route to the Potomac, reached the river several days ahead of his pursuers, but heavy rains had swollen the current and he could not cross. Meade arrived on the night of July 12 and prepared for a general attack. On the following night, however, the river receded and Lee crossed safely into Virginia. The Confederate Army, Meade's critics said, had been permitted to slip from the Union grasp.


When General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia left the field of Battle of Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, it also left behind thousands of dead and wounded. Thousands of additional union casualties remained as well. A small army of surgeons and other medical personnel from both sides remained to tend to the wounded. Local citizens also pitched in helping erect temporary shelters and bringing clothing, food, and water. African-American laborers were given the grim task of burying the many corpses. In the coming months, leaders realized that Gettysburg would become an enduring symbol of inspiration and patriotism. A committee set about planning a more formal cemetery and battlefield memorials.

By Nov. 19, the new “Soldiers Cemetery” was completed and ready for dedication. President Lincoln accepted an invitation to attend and he was the featured speaker during the ceremony, giving his famous “Gettysburg Address”. In addition to galvanizing Union public support for the war, his address inspired the nation for generations to come. The address spoke eloquently of a reconciliation between North and South, a healing of the nation’s collective wounds, and equality and freedom for all.

An observer recalled seeing Lincoln, “his face, lined and sad bore traces of the tremendous worry the ordeal of war had brought to him. His expression was benign and kindly, and the strength of his character seemed to be evidenced in the pronounced features; a high forehead, a prominent nose and a decided chin juting below firmly set lips. His countenance seemed to reflect the tragedy of war and the significance of his visit to Gettysburg on that Day.”

What follows is the Bliss Copy (the last written copy) of Abraham Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of the field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here to the dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Long after the end of the Civil War, veterans from both sides returned periodically to the battlefield to visit the graves of fallen comrades, to reflect and to find some measure of healing and tranquility. Reunions of the veterans were organized. One such reunion took place in 1913 at Gettysburg, with more than 50,000 attending, some from as far away as California. U.S. Army and National Guard units assisted, providing food, shelter, medical care and other logistics. The veterans found the young Soldiers to be eager listeners, obliging them with many stories. Many of these same Soldiers would themselves be engaged soon in a war on Europe. Having put their differences aside many years ago, the veterans from both quickly became comrades. Their bonds of friendship were symbolic of the healing of the nation.

President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly attended the 1913 reunion, perhaps not wishing his remarks to be compared with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it was, nonetheless, profound and fitting for the occasion. He said: “ These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they have established. Their work is handed unto us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over, it is upon us in full tide.”

See also:

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park; National Park Service; National Archives; Library of Congress; Army.mil; The Union Army (1908); Maps by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW; Battles and Leaders; history.navy.mil.


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