In the second entry in our new series, “Letters from the Battlefield,” Jen Simone ’18 shares a letter from George Washington Beidelman, a Union soldier of the II Corps, written on July 4, 1863 from the Gettysburg battlefield. By July 4th, Beidelman knew that the Union had won a decisive victory… but he got a few facts wrong, even telling his father that General James Longstreet had been captured. Video produced by Nicole Hindley ’18.
???I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision, but in vain.???: James Longstreet, Edward Porter Alexander, and Pickett???s ChargeIn the years following the Civil War, Pickett???s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg became synonymous with both …
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.” Continue reading ““I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision, but in vain.”: James Longstreet, Edward Porter Alexander, and Pickett’s Charge”