04 November 2007 by Published in: General musings 9 comments

For some time now, there’s been a thread going on the Armchair General forum boards on Pickett’s Charge. To date, there have been 121 replies to the original post, and there is a posted poll.

For the life of me, I simply cannot comprehend the fascination with the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge. Now, I recognize that this is the sort of thing that one often gets filleted for, but I’m going to explain my reasons for taking this position. Personally, I couldn’t care less about it. If I never heard another word about again for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t bother me a bit.

Tactically, there’s nothing interesting about it. I’ve walked it four or five times in my life, including several times with Wayne Motts, who is pretty much THE authority on the subject, and other than some interesting terrain features, I don’t find it interesting, and I don’t find it compelling. Not a bit. Strategically, it was gallactically stupid and doomed to fail. If you need evidence of that, take a good, long look at the frontal assault of the 5th Corps at the Deep Cut at Second Manassas. 12,000 Union troops made a direct frontal assault up a ridge line at a single spot, and they were repulsed with heavy losses. It was the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge in reverse, with the same level of losses and the same destiny.

Why doesn’t the attack at the Deep Cut get the same level of attention?

Why does the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack get so much attention when it’s quite clear indeed that Longstreet couldn’t have been more correct in his statement that no 15,000 men alive could take that position? I can understand why people who are descendants of participants are interested, and I suppose I can understand the fascination of the Lost Causers and neo-Confederates. Beyond that, though, I just don’t get it.

If you want to study a tactically and strategically interesting and important direct, frontal assault, study Emory Upton’s assault at Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. It was novel, unique, and it worked.

From my perspective, if I never heard of this ill-advised and doomed from the start attack again, it most assuredly wouldn’t bother me a bit. I just don’t get the endless fascination with it when there are so many more interesting things to study.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Matt McKeon
    Sun 04th Nov 2007 at 9:55 pm

    The fascination with Pickett’s Charge is a cultural phenomena, not a military one. While the eggheads may argue about the Western Theater or Antietam being the “turning points” of the war, we can see Lee won all the battles before Gettysburg, loses Gettysburg by making a classic(in the Greek sense) blunder, then he loses or at least stops winning all the rest of the battles.

    It’s all there, the hubris, the gallantry, the high water mark at the clump of trees, the touching vignettes(“General Lee, I have no division.”) That’s the fascination. It’s like asking why all the fuss about the Titanic? The big canoe wasn’t a feat of navigation or engineering either, but we’ve got a bunch of movies about it.

    Really, Eric, what a question.

  2. Stan O'Donnell
    Mon 05th Nov 2007 at 1:15 am

    [i]” Strategically, it was gallactically stupid and doomed to fail.”[[/i]

    Gallactically stupid. LOL!

    Never heard that one before!
    Did they use tazers, or are we talking bows and arrows?

    Upton was a perfectionist. Was Mott (Not Wayne, but the other Mott) a blunderer? Perhaps Upton was too perfect. Too perfect for his own good?

    Deep Cut or not, Malvern Hill aside, there’s always Solferino of ’59 to compare to that Galactic nightmare.

  3. Jim Morgan
    Mon 05th Nov 2007 at 4:11 pm

    ‘Fess up, Eric. You just don’t like it because it wasn’t a cavalry charge.

    Jim Morgan

  4. Don
    Mon 05th Nov 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Hmm, I’d love to point out to Jim that cavalrymen are of course too smart to do something so galactically stupid. Unfortunately, just a short distance away some genius ordered Brigadier General Farnsworth to make his famous charge….

    Eric has an interesting point with Deep Cut. Why is Marye’s Heights famous while Deep Cut isn’t? Why isn’t Second Manassas a “popular” battle with historians (popular in this case equaling historical argument and discussion about the battle)?

    I often wonder how many of the vignettes are historical and not Shaara-isms. I can’t help but believe that he would be appalled at how much of his fictional work has been accepted as historical fact by the public. But it does bring more people to the battlefield.

    Don

  5. Mon 05th Nov 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Eric I look at that event similar to the disastrous charge (for the North) here in Fredericksburg… I think that we sometimes look at those two attacks and are dumbfounded by the guts that it took to do them. NOT saying other attackes were not worthy, but these two were doomed from the start. Looking back at both of these events, I cannot fathom what these men experienced and how they managed to do what they did. Imagine standing on the edge of town here in F’burg – or the tree line in G’burg – and some guy points off in the distance and says we are going there… and then DOING IT. Suicide missions stand out. They are magnificent and horrifying all at the same time.

  6. Tue 06th Nov 2007 at 5:09 pm

    I think it’s the same reason that The Dirty Dozen is watchable over and over. You know that most of them die and that what they’re doing is kind of stupid, but that doesn’t mean that what happens during the attack is any less interesting. Like Michael Aubrecht said, suicide missions stand out.

  7. Matt McKeon
    Wed 07th Nov 2007 at 5:29 pm

    The dirty dozen is awesome.

  8. Fri 09th Nov 2007 at 9:13 pm

    Eric,

    View it from the perspective of those who were there. What makes it so compelling, that is – keenly interesting – was the sheer spectacle of the event.

    I can only imagine.

    Mannie

  9. Keith Snipes
    Tue 18th Dec 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Eric,

    Like you, I too am amazed with the fascination of the “perceived” Pickett’s Charge. However, the “High Water Mark of the Rebellion” that historians have handed down to us barely resembles what actually happened on July 3, 1863. Pickett’s Virginians storming the Angle is merely a gallant image that justified the Lost Cause.

    Unlike you, I don’t find “Longstreet’s famous assault” “tactically boring,” “gallactically stupid,” or a forlorn hope. Tactically, Lee’s intended plan of attack was brilliant and even worked later at the Wilderness. As learned, “Pickett’s Charge” is a direct frontal assault on the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps with thousands of Confederates mindlessly marching to their doom. In reality, Lee had designed an obliquely moving attack along a much broader front that would have hammered the Second Corps, taken the Eleventh Corps in flank, and negated Meade’s out of place reinforcements. As intended, Lee’s assault would have stretched from Standard’s brigade far south of the copse of trees to Smith’s brigade at the intersection of the Emmitsburg and Taneytown Roads.

    Lee thoroughly knew his opponents and hoped to exploit their weaknesses. Battle after battle he had witnessed the Army of the Potomac gloriously march forward. Similarly, he knew the location of each enemy corps on the battlefield and the assault would unravel his enemy’s weakest.

    Lee envisioned:

    The front line of Pickett’s division erratically maneuvering first north then east then north then east, etc. with Anderson’s brigades closely covering its right flank

    Pettigrew’s division closing on and catching Pickett’s left to give Hancock the impression that the assault was concentrating on his center

    Then Pettigrew’s line attacking obliquely to the northeast, creating an ever-widening breach, north from the Angle

    The entire second line (Trimble’s two brigades and Pickett’s second line) marching obliquely to the left from the onset to add punch to Pettigrew’s push and extending the attack’s front to Cemetery Hill

    Finally, Rodes’ division charging directly forward and smashing Smith’s brigade before landing on the flank and rear of the twice shy Eleventh Corps

    With Lee’s assault continuously shifting farther north and the initial belief that the copse of trees was the point of attack, Meade’s reinforcements would be distracted and delayed. Without the terrain, the disjointed flanking maneuvers, and subsequent countering tactics, Lee’s ill-conceived attack quite possibly might have unhinged Meade’s defenses from atop Cemetery Hill.

    For 144 years our collective interest in “Pickett’s (portion of the) Charge” has obscured the true grandeur of “Longstreet’s famous assault.” Lee’s deceptive tactics continue to befuddle and our historians haven’t told us the whole story. It’s all there; yet, most of us aren’t probing our popular memory, just blindly accepting its history. We are well studied on less than a third of Lee’s battle plan; we need to shift our focus farther north. There is where our fascination should lie.

    Private John H. Jack, 8th Ohio, was a member of the brigade band and served with the regiment’s ambulances. During “Pickett’s Charge,” he stood on the Taneytown Road near the current Visitors Center. On July 6, he wrote:

    “This artillery duel was immediately followed by an advance of the enemy’s infantry, which swarmed out of the woods in such hosts as to make one wonder where they all came from. They advanced at a rapid pace and in true American style, their lines being almost perfect and three in number, but changing as they came, making a masterly display of military manoeuvre [sic]. Finally they close their columns by division and directed their march upon the batteries, directly to the left of the 8th Regiment.”

    Woodruff and Arnold’s Batteries were “directly” to the Buckeyes’ left – not Cushing and Brown’s.

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