By Mary Roll
In the years following the Civil War, Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg became synonymous with both the height of Confederate promise and the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Much of the blame for Confederate failure at Gettysburg has historically been placed upon the shoulders of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was second in command to General Robert E. Lee. There are many reasons for this: some of Longstreet’s subordinates insisted that he deliberately hesitated in executing Lee’s wishes so that the charge would be made only in desperation with diminished likelihood of Confederate victory. Others maintained that Longstreet simply acted out of anger and frustration when Lee refused to adjust his plans to reflect what Longstreet desired. However, attempting to peg Longstreet as guilty or to absolve him of any wrongdoing is not what matters. It is much more useful to objectively examine the events of July 3 from existing evidence and accounts to try to understand the choices Longstreet made in relation to the orders he both received and gave, and to recognize how those decisions were perceived by Longstreet himself and others both during the Battle of Gettysburg and after the Civil War.
July 1st, 1863, was an encouraging victory for the Confederates, with the Union driven through the town of Gettysburg from the high ridges and hills to its north and west. On July 2nd, the Confederates made an effort to sweep Union troops off the Round Tops and Culps and Cemetery Hills. These brought the Confederates nearer still to success. Thus, July 3rd was crucial to Confederate success at Gettysburg. General Lee believed that one final push would break the Union line. He chose to attack the Union line at its center at Cemetery Hill, where he believed the line was weakest and most easily penetrable. He desired to first launch an artillery bombardment, then to follow up with a main infantry assault. It was essential that the attack be coordinated and well timed. Lee’s plan for the grand infantry assault of July 3rd, which would come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, relied upon the assumption that the Confederate cannonade preceding it would do significant enough damage to the Union artillery to weaken and break it down. This assumption allowed Lee to believe that his troops could successfully make the attack.
General Longstreet was in a difficult position on the final day of the battle. Devoted to a defensive-offensive strategy at Gettysburg, which he hoped would force Union commander George Gordon Meade to attack first, Longstreet believed Lee was committed to the same fighting style and should execute the battle accordingly. When Lee demonstrated his desire to deviate from this plan on July 3rd, Longstreet tried – repeatedly but unsuccessfully — to caution Lee against making the charge. He could not, however, convince Lee to take another course of action. Longstreet believed his best option for ensuring that he carried out his commander’s orders and that any chance for success was not wasted was to put the opening bombardment, upon which the effectiveness of the entire operation weighed, into the hands of the gifted young artillerist Lieutenant Colonel Edward Porter Alexander. From his position at the Peach Orchard, remembered Alexander, he was to “give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try & cripple him—to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.”
This responsibility was placed upon Alexander in an order (above) from Longstreet sent at 12:15 p.m., which required Alexander to “advise Gen [George] P[ickett]” when the time was right if Alexander judged that the infantry should be advanced. In the note, housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Longstreet advised Alexander to do so if the artillery should have “the desired effect of driving the enemy’s off, or hav[e] other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack.” However, what cannot be easily explained is why Longstreet placed Alexander in charge of not only the artillery bombardment, but also of ordering the infantry to press forward with the attack. Why did Longstreet not initially require Alexander to report to him when he was ready with the artillery, and why then was General Pickett not given orders to advance directly from Longstreet?
One potential reason for this is that having Alexander give the order for Pickett to advance would likely prevent the waste of at least a few valuable minutes, especially in a moment such as this, when coordination was of the utmost importance. If the cannonade were to end without an immediate infantry assault, Union troops on Cemetery Hill would have more time to brace themselves, reinforce men and artillery, and be prepared for any further Confederate movements. This theory is slightly discredited when one considers the fact that General Pickett sought direct orders from Longstreet himself when the two met before the charge, despite being told by Alexander to proceed. In short, no time was saved by the system put in place by Longstreet. Additionally, Longstreet defended his great reliance upon Alexander during Pickett’s Charge by insisting that Alexander’s function in this instance was more of an engineer, rather than a battalion commander. As such, Alexander was best suited to work out the operation’s logistical details.
Is it perhaps more likely that Longstreet subconsciously felt that his arrangement of affairs on July 3rd would save him from the blame for a failed attack that he did not want to make? Longstreet did not desire to defy Lee’s orders, but he was perhaps justifiably concerned about the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia if the attack was to be made. Longstreet has been accused of being so deliberately hesitant on July 3rd that he intentionally attempted to sabotage Lee’s plan for the charge. He was indeed reluctant, though not for such a malicious, insubordinate reason. General Longstreet did not wish to see his men wasted as mere cannon fodder in an attack which he believed could not possibly succeed. Longstreet did not refuse Lee’s orders to take charge of the attack, but he did express his reluctance to do so under the given circumstances. It was a matter of numbers; no 15,000 men could take Cemetery Hill in a charge such as this, Longstreet insisted. It was not that the men of Lee’s army were not strong or brave enough to do so, but rather that there were not 15,000 more just like them waiting in reserve. For this reason, Longstreet went to great lengths to talk Lee out of making the attack in this manner.
Longstreet believed from the start that Lee’s proposition for July 3rd—a successful, crushing attack on the Union center at Cemetery Hill—was not likely to succeed. “We failed simply because we had undertaken too great a contract and went about it in the wrong way,” Longstreet stated after the war. “Longstreet did not wish to take the offensive,” Alexander remembered. This was a decision based “solely on general principles.” It is not difficult to understand Longstreet’s misgivings; even if the cannonade was as successful as Lee hoped it might be, the Federals would
still keep the advantage of position and the high ground. In a postwar letter to Confederate General Lafayette McLaws, Longstreet pointed to the Union catastrophe at Fredericksburg in December 1862 as an indication of “the advantage of receiving instead of giving the attack.” “Under no circumstances were we to give battle,” Longstreet insisted in the same letter, “but to exhaust our skill in trying to force the enemy to do so in a position of our choosing.” Pickett’s Charge accomplished precisely the opposite.
When Longstreet’s concerns failed to resonate with Lee, Longstreet did what he saw fit to grant as much chance for success as he could to the doomed charge. Placing Alexander in control put a great deal of value on the artillery bombardment. Perhaps if the cannonade succeeded, the great odds of overall failure might be offset. However, as Alexander stated in his memoirs, “I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision [to send the infantry forward following the cannonade], but in vain.” Alexander did not wish to carry the burden of such a responsibility any more than Longstreet did, nor perhaps should he have had to. Lee had tasked Longstreet with executing the assault, and Longstreet maintained that he regarded the execution of Lee’s orders as a part of his military duty. But did Longstreet in fact do his duty? Lee’s orders were given and followed, but did Longstreet play as integral a role as his position required or as Lee might have expected?
Many of Longstreet’s post-war critics were former Confederate officers and keepers of the Lost Cause myth. Longstreet has been scapegoated by comrades and historians alike, blamed for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg based in part on his open reluctance to oversee the action of July 3rd. The charges against Longstreet serve only to mask the real conflict: Longstreet’s hostile critics truly resented not that he thought critically about what was demanded of him as a field commander, but that he was correct in predicting the outcome of events as Lee planned them. Perhaps more important, Longstreet’s critics begrudged his willingness to transcend the war and to move beyond the conflicts of the past. Longstreet became a Republican after the war, had a successful career with the United States Government, resumed his pre-war friendship with Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and readily criticized some of General Lee’s most important decisions, most notably those at Gettysburg. These choices only helped to write his name at the top of the list of enemies of the Lost Cause movement.
Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, Gary W. Gallagher, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
“Gen. Longstreet as a Critic: The Confederate General Comments upon the Southern Civic and Military Leaders,” Washington Post, June 11, 1893. Transcription accessed at Gettysburg National Military Park Library, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
James Longstreet to Lafayette McLaws, July 25, 1873, Lafayette McLaws Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Transcription accessed in James Longstreet Files, Gettysburg National Military Park Library, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Original Order for Pickett’s Charge, July 3, 1863, Edward Porter Alexander Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Copy accessed in Edward Porter Alexander Files, Gettysburg National Military Park Library, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Smith, Karlton. “’Never Was I So Depressed’: James Longstreet and Pickett’s Charge,” James Longstreet Files, Gettysburg National Military Park Library, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.