The final day of battle at Gettysburg was marked by Pickett’s Charge. The assault was a full scale frontal march toward the center of the Union line. General Longstreet, Lee’s second-in-command, commanded approximately 15,000 men of the Confederate army in the charge. General George Pickett lead the attack with his division, thus the event has since been known by his name, but the action involved multiple corps of Lee’s army.
The assault, commanded by Lee, has been incredibly controversial in military history. Many believe it was a desperate attempt doomed to failure, since the attackers were ordered to march over a mile in formation under direct fire from Federal positions. Longstreet claims to have argued to Lee that the attack was impossible and ill-advised.[i] Others fault Longstreet for not carrying out his orders with the fullest dedication.[ii]
One may consider the task of crossing a mile of open field under artillery fire and find it to be insane. Lee’s decision, however, can be argued to be grounded in reasonable decision making. He had attacked the Federal position at its flanks the day before. He had to expect that those flanks were reinforced, and therefore the Union center had become their weak point.[iii] The charge had a chance of success if nothing went wrong in the Confederate plan.
Everything that could have gone wrong for the Confederate army on July 3 clearly did go wrong. The frontal assault was not coordinated in time with support assaults on the flanks, regardless of who was at fault. Confederate artillerymen ran out of ammunition far faster than anticipated and were unable to support the infantry assault after their initial bombardment of federal positions.[iv]
The attack ended in a definitive victory for the Union and full-scale retreat by the Confederate army the following day. The assault was incredibly costly in terms of lives lost. The film depicts the scale of the bloodshed very well, without an an unnecessary amount of gore, so it remains a family-friendly piece. The Civil War went on for two more violent and destructive years.
[i] Richard Rollins, Pickett’s Charge: Eyewitness Accounts at the Battle of Gettysburg (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 27-41.
[ii] Rollins, 45-46.
[iii] Craig Symonds, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Picutres, 1993.)
[iv] Peter S. Carmichael, Three Days at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and union Leadership (Kent, OH: The Kent State Universtiy Press, 1999), 270-282.