Battle of Reports – Gettysburg II



Map of the third and final day during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are, however, other trails to follow. Several Confederate officers who fought at Gettysburg, who knew Pickett well, and who were likely to be familiar with his report later talked about its contents. These included E. P. Alexander, Longstreet, and Colonel Taylor of Lee’s staff. Alexander, who commanded Longstreet’s artillery on July 3, said in his Military Memoirs that Pickett’s report “reflected unjustly upon the brigades of Hill’s corps [the divisions of Pender/Pettigrew and Heth Trimble] among which the break first occurred.” Alexander did not claim to have seen the report himself, but he wrote knowingly of its contents, and he was certainly well acquainted with everyone at both Longstreet’s and Lee’s headquarters who would have handled the report. Still, in the absence of direct observation, Alexander’s comments must be considered hearsay.

Longstreet, who was Pickett’s corps commander and, equally important, was as close to him as any man in the Army of Northern Virginia, could have cleared up the mystery easily in any of the several postwar accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg he wrote for publication. Unfortunately, he seems either to have been completely in the dark, or to have been covering for his old friend, when he wrote disingenuously in Battles and Leaders: “The only thing Pickett said of his charge was that he was distressed at the loss of his command. He thought he should have had two of his brigades that had been left in Virginia; with them he felt that he would have broken the line.” Like Alexander, Longstreet did not claim here to be quoting directly from the report. Even so, his description of Pickett’s sentiments hardly indicates anything so potentially destructive of good morale that Lee should have ordered the report suppressed.

Colonel Taylor, who received the report at army headquarters and passed it on to General Lee, is hardly more helpful than Alexander or Longstreet, but he does offer one vital clue about the document’s contents. In his Personal Reminiscences, Taylor wrote: “The report passed through my hands, but was not carefully perused. Not realizing then the extent to which we were making history, I took no note of the contents of the report; but the inference is clear from reading General Lee’s letter that General Pickett complained of the lack of support and charged it home to some one [emphasis added].”

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Pickett pinned the blame on a specific person (“some one”), not an entire unit, which seems to let Pettigrew’s North Carolinians, the most frequently mentioned villains, off the hook.

If Pickett’s report was indeed a personal attack on a fellow officer, that alone would have given the commanding general grounds to “suggest” that the report be rewritten. If we pursue Taylor’s lead by seeking an individual culprit in Pickett’s report, there are plenty of suspects among those who fell down in their duty that day. The list of suspects must begin with Longstreet, who exercised overall command of the assault, including the troops borrowed from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps. Lee told his First Corps commander that morning, “I am going to take them…on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack.” It was as clear as that. When Longstreet demurred, Lee insisted, causing his subordinate to lament later, “Lee should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.” But Lee chose instead to rely on Longstreet’s professionalism and loyalty to do everything necessary to make the attack succeed. This was in keeping with Lee’s oft-demonstrated willingness to leave all arrangements up to his corps commanders, a fact which must have been known to Pickett from long experience.

When Pickett made his troop dispositions on the morning of July 3, it was under Longstreet’s watchful eye. It was also Longstreet who placed the artillery batteries in position, put Alexander in charge of the bombardment, and decided when and if the assault should be made. Pickett stood face to face with Longstreet just before moving his men forward. Longstreet had one further, crucial bit of responsibility during the assault-the authority to order forward the reserves after Pickett’s men had engaged the Federals on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, none of this was written out in formal orders; the division of responsibilities was arrived at in discussions with Lee on the morning of July 3.

In the initial advance, Longstreet refused to commit the divisions of Major Generals John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws, despite being “so ordered” by Lee. Then he refused to send reinforcements forward at the height of the charge, feeling it was “useless” and a further waste of men. The Comte de Paris described the situation in his early account: “Longstreet did not give to Pickett’s desperate attack the support of all the force placed at his disposal, and did not cause any diversion to be made in his favor by the two divisions under Hood and McLaws.”

The possibility of Longstreet being held culpable by Pickett is supported by something Lee told Colonel William Allen after the war: “The imperfect, halting way in which his corps commanders fought the battle gave victory finally to the foe.” If Pickett did in fact blame Longstreet, he would have received a lot of moral support in the years after the war from such prominent Longstreet bashers as Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, and J. William Jones, long-time secretary of the Southern Historical Society, all of whom pinned the blame for the failure at Gettysburg squarely on the First Corps commander.

Representative of their opinions are the words of Jones, written to the editor of the Richmond Dispatch in 1896. In the letter, he accused Longstreet of not making his attack “as ordered, with his whole corps, supported by A. P. Hill.” Instead, Longstreet sent Pickett forward “with a bare 14,000 men against Meade’s whole army while the rest of our army looked on.” These words reflected a long-running feud between Jones and Longstreet, but could they have been the same sentiments Pickett felt and perhaps expressed when he sat down to write his report? Perhaps. One of Pickett’s own colonels, Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia, harbored an even blunter version of the same view. “It seems clear,” he wrote, “that if Longstreet had supported Pickett by the rest of his corps… and by part of Hill’s corps… he would have penetrated and held the lines of Meade.” At least some of Pickett’s officers, it seems, thought the buck stopped with the First Corps commander.

While Pickett wrote no memoirs and remained aloof from the war of words between former comrades after Appomattox, he was not completely silent on the central event of his life. Fortunately for us, he expressed himself on the subject of the battle, although it was done, not for the general public, but for a more select and sympathetic audience. About a decade after the war, Pickett addressed a reunion of his division’s veterans in Richmond. In a speech long on oratorical flourishes and short on facts, he recounted a version of events the veterans must have loved:

We marched across one mile… into the jaws of death under fire from 200 pieces of Ordnance and upon the center of the foe… without support and without faltering. Oh grand but fatal day…. Had we been supported, had others followed to hold what we had gained at such heroic sacrifice then would our freedoms have been secured. If the views Pickett expressed on this occasion were the same as his feelings in the weeks after Gettysburg, then the principal objects of his wrath seem to have been the “supports” back on Seminary Ridge who failed to come forward at the critical time. This view certainly agrees with the accounts of Colonels Allan and Mayo and Major Timberlake: It was those behind Pickett’s men-not those on the flanks-who failed in their duty that day.

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