We’ve come to the last act. 150 years ago today, the last stages of the Battle of Gettysburg played out. We remember Pickett’s Charge as a glorious failure, something along the lines of Lord Cardigan’s Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava about a decade earlier. Surely that can’t have been Lee’s real plan? My reading suggests that it’s not – and what that plan was supposed to be was something that might have been truly glorious.
“We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men.”
– John T. James, Lieutenant, 11th Virginia (CSA), on Pickett’s Charge
There are few scenes in American military history that are visualized like Pickett’s Charge: somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 Confederate troops under the commands of George Pickett, J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Isaac R. Trimble marching three quarters of a mile in the face of a devastating artillery barrage. It was a spectacle out of another era, and though it came close to carrying the day, in the end, it failed, costing the Confederates the battle – and ultimately, the war.
By why did it fail? More importantly, why was it the only attack Lee made that afternoon? Robert E. Lee was considered a brilliant military mind – surely, that lone infantry assault wasn’t his sole hope of success? Surely, other forces should have come in to play?
It turns out, they did. Jeb Stuart had finally arrived on the battlefield late in the afternoon of 2 July. Hampered by captured supplies and a long road, he had been forced to take practically the entire body of Confederate cavalry on a long ride around the Army of the Potomac, denying Lee of his eyes and ears. Now, however, Stuart and his vaunted horsemen – sometimes called “the Invincibles” due to their success in battle – were here, and Lee would be able to play his full hand against George Meade.
There was other action on 3 July, of course – Richard Ewell’s troops were repulsed from Culp’s Hill once again that morning, and Stuart was turned away by a much smaller force under the command of a young Union cavalry officer, George Armstrong Custer (Technically, Custer was part of a force under the command of David Gregg, but Gregg had more or less positioned his forces so that Custer’s brigade would take most of the brunt of the attack.
Stuart’s cavalry attack, by the way, was at the same general time as the infantry charge led by Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble. Does that tell you anything? It should. Stuart had probably meant to flank the Union forces and deliver a blow to the rear just as the infantry crashed into the Union front. The only things that saved Meade that day was the fact that Gregg had positioned his forces farther to the east than he had been ordered, as well as the fact that Custer did not return to his commanding officer, Judson Kilpatrick.
In reality, the Union cavalry probably shouldn’t have managed to drive away Stuart – the Confederates outnumbered them more than two to one at what has become known as East Cavalry Field. What’s more, Jeb Stuart had literally ridden circles around the Union cavalry many a time – something that everybody knew. So why did this attack fail?
Well, for one, the Union cavalry had gotten better and bigger. They’d finally managed to find officers and soldiers who could ride as well as many of the southern officers who had been with Stuart for the whole war. Engagements earlier in the Gettysburg campaign, such as clashes at Brandy Station and Hanover, while technically Confederate victories, had raised the confidence of many Union commanders – including Custer.
To put it simply, one could say that for possibly the first time in the war, Union cavalry were not afraid of the specter of Stuart’s cavalry. His aura of invincibility, already challenged in recent weeks, was smashed by a young and confident Custer, who successfully prevented the larger Confederate force from breaking through to the rear of Meade’s position.
It’s an orchard of scenarios for writers. What if Gregg had followed orders and not asked for an amendment, as he did? What if Custer had gone to rejoin Kilpatrick? Going back a day, what if Custer had been killed when he was unhorsed at Hanover on 2 July? What if, despite all of the Union bravery, Stuart did what everyone expected and broke through?
Would that have won the battle of Gettysburg for Lee? Probably. While not a complete double envelopment of Meade, Stuart’s cavalry would have met the infantry advance and cut the Army of the Potomac in half, just as Jackson had done at Chancellorsville earlier in the year. Lee might not have been able to completely destroy the Army of the Potomac, as he had wished to, but he would have dealt it a severe blow – perhaps enough to put it out of commission for a while, but probably not the decisive victory he had been searching for at the beginning of the campaign. By 3 July, his losses were just too severe to be able to fully press any advantage he would have gained.
All in all, Lee’s plan for the last day at Gettysburg would have gotten the Confederacy a victory had it gone right. It would have been a victory that would have enhanced the already nigh-legendary status of both Lee and Stuart. It might even have been enough to fulfill Lee’s vision of strengthening the Union peace movement enough to perhaps force a quick settlement of the war.
Instead, however, it ended in defeat. Stuart was repulsed at East Cavalry Field. Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble were repelled from Cemetery Ridge – the high-water mark of the Confederacy – with heavy losses. Lee, who might have been on the cusp of victory, instead had to prepare his army for a withdrawal back to Virginia. It would take twenty-one months for it to happen, but the battle of Gettysburg (along with the capture of Vicksburg on 4 July 1863) marked the beginning of the endgame for the Confederacy. They could try and stem the tide, but there would be no stopping it after this.
In his novel Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner wrote that “…for every Southern boy fourteen years old…there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,” where in their minds, they can “crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble,” made by Robert E. Lee on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg. But those thoughts, like mine above, are merely thoughts – the fanciful wondering of what could have been, had Lee’s gamble worked.