Why Pickett’s Charge Failed – Analysis and Significance


Pickett’s Charge was undoubtedly the single iconic moment of the Battle of Gettysburg and perhaps the entire Civil War. Whether Lee erred in making the attack has remained controversial for 160 years and undoubtedly will continue to be.

On July 3, Pickett led his division across the open field along with those of Pettigrew and Trimble. Only men from Pickett’s division made it to the Angle. His division started from the more southern area of the field; Pettigrew and Trimble never crossed the Emmitsburg Pike.

The purpose of this article is to describe the relative impact of the artillery and to characterize the infantry attack in order to provide an answer as to why it failed.

The Artillery

Pre-Attack Bombardment

The Confederate 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. The artillery barrage lasted just over one hour. The cannonade prior to the infantry attack was made with about 170 guns, believed to be the most intense artillery attack in history up to that moment.  

The Confederate guns inflicted some damage on the Union batteries, but they largely overshot their targets. It was believed at the time that the reason the Confederate bombardment was ineffective was that Confederate artillerymen tended to aim high and missed their marks due to poor visibility from all the smoke on the battlefield. Part of the problem was that the day of July 3, 1863 was an extremely hot, windless day and the smoke from the guns hid the lines from the Confederate gunners, who thus could not adjust their range. Another factor was that the Confederate concept of artillery was to fire overhead, allowing exploding shrapnel to fall over the enemy lines. 

The Fuses. Perhaps the biggest issue was the artillery fuses used.The Bormann fuse was the most common fuse used on smoothbore field artillery ammunition during the war. Both sides used this design.  Bormann fuses were notoriously unreliable and were often replaced with copper fuse adaptors to accept the standard paper time fuse.

The Confederates adopted the Bormann fuse, a mechanical fuse, in 1861 and immediately began having problems. General Alexander wrote: “Careful tests being made of it, it was found that fully four fifths of the shell exploded prematurely, and very many of them in the gun…Repeated attempts were made to improve the manufacture, but they accomplished nothing, and until after the Battle of Chancellorsville the Bormann fuse continued in use, and premature explosions of shell were so frequent that the artillery could only be used over the heads of the infantry with such danger and demoralization to the latter that it was seldom attempted. Ernest requests were made of the Ordnance Department to substitute for the Bormann fuse, the common paper fuses, to be cut to the required length and fixed on the field, as being not only more economical and more certain, but as allowing, what is often very desirable, a greater range than five seconds, which is the limit of the Bormann fuse. These requests, occurring from our own guns among the infantry in front during the Battle of Fredericksburg were at length successful in accomplishing the substitution. The ammunition already on hand, however, had to be used up, and its imperfections affected the fire even as late as Gettysburg. The paper fuse was found to answer much better, and no further complaints of ammunition came from the smoothbores.”

The inferiority of the Bormann fuse combined with the intentional overhead trajectory led to the inefficiency of the artillery. If firing overhead and the fuse explosion is delayed by a second, it will not explode until it has gone past the target. Today, manufactured products are tested for effectiveness before they are sent to the supplier. 

A digression: On Friday, March 13, 1863, citizens in downtown Richmond heard a large explosion at the waterfront. It was soon recognized that this had come from an explosion in a building in the center of Richmond, VA on an island in the James River. There had been an accident at the Confederate Laboratory on Brown’s Island. The work at this ammunitions factory was to produce cartridges and fuses for the war effort. The explosion was caused by one of the workers, a 19-year-old girl, who was working with friction primers, small tubes filled with an explosive chemical. Sometimes they stuck in the wooden block which held them, and becoming impatient, workers tapped the block on the table to loosen them. This worker banged a friction block, and the black powder in the room detonated. 50 deaths of these young workers occurred, with many other injured. By April 4th, the factory was back up running. 

The explosion at the Richmond arsenal resulted in future ordnance supplies coming out of Selma and Charleston. After Gettysburg the CSA investigated the fuses and it was found that they contained a resin filler that would soften and mix with the powder in humid warm weather such as that in the first days of July. The filler mixing with the powder was the cause for the longer burning fuses and non-detonating shells. 

The CSA artillerymen had no idea that there was a problem with the fuses coming out of Selma and Charleston that would make them burn longer than a fuse of the same length coming out of Richmond. The idea was to make the fuses burn slower, but no one had told the confederate artillery commanders about that. These “new” fuses burned slightly slower than what the artillerists were accustomed to. “Slightly slower” can mean yards and yards off time. The impact of this accident was most noted on July 3 at 1 PM when the Confederate bombardment prepared for Pickett’s Charge. Due to the explosion, Brown’s Island produced fuses, which had high quality, were not available. 

A week after the battle, Lt James Dinwiddie working for the Ordnance Dept. conducted tests on the various fuses supplied from around the Confederacy at the Richmond Laboratories. His findings showed that while those fuses manufactured in Charleston and Selma were made of exceptional quality, the rate of burn for those fuses was markedly less. In his findings compared with those fuses as previously supplied to the ANV from the Richmond arsenals it was found the fuses from Charleston and Selma burned at a rate of one second longer for the same length of fuse. The result of course was that those fuses in shells intended to explode over the Federal position at Gettysburg ranged anywhere from 150 to 200 yards further to the rear before exploding. A 4 inch fuse would burn at the rate as a Richmond fuse one cut to 5 inches

The Confederate Artillery: Organization and Position. The mapdisplays the artillery line up at the time of Pickett’s Charge. If you focus on the Confederate positioning you will note that the Confederate cannon are placed in a wide perimeter. While those focused on Culps Hill make sense, you will note how many batteries are placed north and northwest of town where no troops are going to charge. Confederate authority dictated that artillery remain under control of their corps command. Thus, Alexander had to organize his artillery without other help. As a result, there was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective.

The Confederate officer responsible for this configuration was Lee’s artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton. Although he was Lee’s friend, his major contribution to Pickett’s Charge was to obstruct the effective placement of artillery from the two corps besides Longstreet.  The responsibility for the artillery cannonade to start the charge was given to Longstreet’s Corps Artillery chief, the outstanding young artillerist, Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who had effective command of the field.

Alexander did not have full confidence that all the enemy’s guns were silenced and that the Confederate ammunition was almost exhausted. Longstreet ordered Alexander to stop Pickett, but the young colonel explained that replenishing his ammunition from the trains in the rear would take over an hour, and this delay would nullify any advantage the previous barrage had given them. The infantry assault went forward without the Confederate artillery close support that had been originally planned.

The difference in artillery positioning at the time of the charge made all of the difference in this battle. Why was Henry Hunt’s positioning and management of his artillery allowed but Pendleton/Alexander had no such authority? 2) How was Hunt able to align the artillery to Union advantage?

The Union Artillery Organization and Position. Were it not for General Henry J Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, the Union would have lost that battle and perhaps the war. 

Hunt able to control the Union artillery as a single force which Pendleton could not do on the confederate side Because Hunt was in charge of all of the artillery separate from Corps command, he was able to create this deception. Hunt had to resist the strong arguments of Hancock, who demanded Union fire to lift the spirits of the infantrymen pinned down by Alexander’s bombardment. Hunt, the most well-known artillerist of his day, had argued that that was not the best management system, and that a single commander of artillery should be in charge. 

See the map which shows the lines of fire Hunt placed the Union artillery in position for. The prior map showed that the Confederate line of fire was straight ahead, but the Union artillery chief had a different idea. 

General Hunt anticipated the infantry attack across the field connecting Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge in the afternoon of July 3. As the map shows, he lined the artillery up to catch the invasion in a crossfire. His idea was to fire along the lines of the invading troops rather than face on. Consequently, when he fired, entire lines of men disappeared.

Hunt had only about 80 guns available to conduct counter-battery fire; the geographic features of the Union line had limited areas for effective gun emplacement. He also ordered that firing cease to conserve ammunition, but to fool Alexander, Hunt ordered his cannons to cease fire slowly to create the illusion that they were being destroyed one by one. By the time all of Hunt’s cannons ceased fire, and still blinded by the smoke from battle, Alexander fell for Hunt’s deception and believed that many of the Union batteries had been destroyed. Hunt was also saving his ammunition for the infantry charge rather than long distance firing. The diminishment in US artillery fire was intentionally designed by Hunt (CO of the Artillery reserve) to create the impression among the rebels that the US artillery had been silenced and therefor would be unable to respond effectively to Pickett’s charge. There was actually a substantial row between Hancock, who wanted the artillery firing to boost the morale of his troops, and Hunt who wanted to gull the rebels.

The Infantry Attack

Longstreet states in his autobiography that it would have required 30,000 men to take Cemetery Ridge.  Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire.

What was the landmark that was the objective of the attack? And why didn’t anyone get there?

Although traditionally the Copse of Trees near the Angle has been cited since Bachelder as the visual landmark of the attack, this is probably mythical. In fact, Lee’s objective was very likely on July 3 exactly what his original objective on July 2 was. 

Likely Ziegler’s Grove, at the base of Cemetery Hill, was the planned objective. Lee’s attack both days were intended for the Union center. It was much more strategically significant than the open area where the Copse of Trees was. It was more elevated and a perfect artillery platform (hence why the Union had artillery there) and it would command the road network. The idea that the Copse was the focus was Batchelder’s incorrect and misleading attempt to bring attention to the area on the field where the attack went to, not what was the real objective. Lees plan both day 2 & 3 was the union center. That’s why a coordinated attack at Culps hill was so necessary.

So, once you realize the Copse wasn’t the focus then you have to ask why the attack went awry. Lee didn’t plan for the attack to go to the Angle, Batchelder was wrong. 

Pickett’s Charge was intended to go along the north part of Cemetery Ridge and Ziegler’s Grove, but Hunt’s placement of his weapons forced the charge to go more south. If Ziegler’s Grove was the intended focus of the attack with a view to crushing Cemetery Hill, how did the attack end up at the Angle at Cemetery Ridge instead? General Hunt anticipated the infantry attack across the field connecting Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge in the afternoon of July 3. As the photo shows, he lined the artillery up to catch the invasion in a crossfire. His idea was to fire along the lines of the invading troops rather than face on. Consequently, when he fired, entire lines of men disappeared. This caused the flanks of the attack to be pushed toward the center of the Union line: The Angle. Note how Alonzo Cushing’s battery just north of the Copse of Trees becomes the central focus. He was at the center not by intentional design but rather because the two confederate flanks converged on his position to escape the crossfire. 

The fences on Emmitsburg Turnpike: To cross from their positions on Seminary Ridge, the infantry had to cross Emmitsburg Turnpike about 100 yards before Cemetery Ridge. Witnesses noted that Pickett’s men crossed the road without problem from the southern end of the attack and were the ones who made it to Cemetery Ridge.  However, Trimble and Pettigrew’s men were caught in the road and very few moved further east. Hess first identified that a significant part of the problem was that the fences on either side of the road posed an obstacle to cross. Many were killed trying to get over the fence. But on the southern part of the road, these fence posts had been removed the day before during the July 2 battle, and so they didn’t pose a problem for Pickett.

The artillery fire that devastated the infantry attack also forced a sort of organic shift to center and where the Copse was, and in addition, the 8th Ohio flanked the left of the Confederates, further pushing them to the center.. But the fences on both sides of the turnpike remained present on the north end, which prevented any of those divisions from getting through. Most of the men from Pettigrew and Trimble who did not retreat were caught on the road. Pickett’s men faced a road in which the fences had been removed on July 2. Their problem was moving left under artillery fire, and ended up at the Angle. The fences on both sides of the turnpike remained present on the north end, which prevented any of those divisions from getting through. Most of the men from Pettigrew and Trimble who did not retreat were caught on the road. Pickett’s men faced a road in which the fences had been removed on July 2. Their problem was moving left under artillery fire, and ended up at the Angle.

How many would have been needed to carry the position?

Longstreet ordered nine infantry brigades to make the charge on July 3. Five more brigades were held in reserve, which Longstreet never ordered to advance. 

Mathematical modeling based on the Lanchester equations developed during the First World War to determine the numbers necessary for successful assaults demonstrates that with the commitment of one to three more infantry brigades to the nine brigades in the initial force, Pickett’s Charge would probably have taken the Union position and altered the battle’s outcome.  If he had put most of those reserves into the charge, the model estimated it would have captured the Union position. However, the Confederates would have been unable to exploit such a success without the commitment of still more troops.  

The authors do not include Wilcox’s and Lang’s brigades in the initial force.  If these troops and if Anderson’s entire division had attacked with the initial force, this would have supplied five additional brigades and around 5,000 more men, making the attack force fourteen brigades and from 15,000 to 18,000 men. These numbers would have guaranteed a lodgment at the Angle.  Another five brigades and one regiment scheduled for the second wave of Pickett’s Charge from Pender’s and Rodes’ divisions, as well as at least another brigade from McLaws’ division, were also available. Had all of these men been brought into the attack column, the total would be nearer to the 30,000 men Longstreet thought necessary.  

However, assuming the same rate of casualties, the cost would have been about half, or 15,000 casualties. There would have been insufficient fresh troops left to take advantage of that success. And what about the next hill, and the next one? There were only about 70,000 men in Lee’s entire army at the start of the battle, and the casualty rate for the charge was about 50%. Add another 10,000 casualties and it’s hard to see how Lee could have continued the war after taking that ridge.

Was it a Bad Decision?

The Gettysburg campaign was a roll of the dice at a crucial moment. You can’t understand Gettysburg as a stand-alonecampaign. You have to see it as a desperate final try to win the war on the battlefield. Despite all of Lee’s victories, the Union had not given up and in fact were winning in the western theater. The west was being lost and the confederacy was running out of time. Resources are dwindling. Davis and Lee know that things aren’t looking promising. He was a river boat gambler who rolled the dice in every battle. From that perspective, it starts to make sense. 

We might surmise that Lee wanted to bring on a huge battle in the north that might be decisive. The idea was to take attention away from the events out west and to precipitate a battle in the east that might turn the tide. several goals: a) it would give war torn Virginia a much needed respite, and would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to provision itself from his enemy’s resources; b) the invasion into Pennsylvania might cause the Federal government to shift troops from the west possibly loosening the grip of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege on Vicksburg, c) probably foremost was Gen. Lee’s confidence in his army, and that if he could find and prepare ground which was to his advantage, the Army of Northern Virginia in the pitched battle would defeat the Union Army on its own soil. This, Lee reasoned might possibly have caused the war-weary north to sue for peace, d) It might also have been the military stroke needed to demonstrate to Great Britain and France the strength of the Southern will for independence.

One hears suggestions that General Lee was ill and that he had heart disease, weakening his judgement. A contemporary analysis shows no reason for this suspicion.

Faced with circumstances on July 3, Lee had no other options but to attack, and no other place to attack than the center. If he retreated then the campaign is a failure. Vicksburg falls and he didn’t use his army. The salient on Cemetery Hill is the obvious place to attack.

Ewell is stalled on the left. Longstreet tried on the right the day before. He wants to go further to the right but there is no road there and no supply line. Hill is sick. Longstreet is being obstinate. Stuart had gotten nowhere that morning.. General Lee is all alone. My guess is he had to create a victory or the future was bleak. Where Lee miscalculated is that Hunt had created a deadly crossfire with artillery that had never been done like that before. Lee lost that day but look at all the other gambles he won.

Further Reading:

• https://theconversation.com/picketts-charge-what-modern-mathematics-teaches-us-about-civil-war-battle-78982

• Michael J. Armstrong and Steven E. Soderbergh, “Refighting Pickett’s Charge:  mathematical modeling of the Civil War battlefield,” Social Science Quarterly 96, No. 4 (May 14, 2015), 1153-1168.  

• Richard Rollins, “The Second Wave of Pickett’s Charge,” Gettysburg Magazine, No. 18, July 1998, 104-110.

• Lloyd W Klein and Eric J Wittenberg, “Did General Lee’s heart attack impact the conduct of the Battle of Gettysburg?” Gettysburg Magazine 67:July 2022; 62-75

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