Author: Earl J. Hess

an associate professor of history and the Stewart McClelland Distinguished Professor in Humanities at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. He is the author of Pickett's Charge:The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001)

Pickett’s Charge

Pickett’s Charge was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and one of the most famous infantry attacks of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Lasting about an hour on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, it pitted 12,000 Confederates—including three brigades of Virginians under George E. Pickett—against half that number of Union troops. On July 2, Robert E. Lee had unsuccessfully attacked the Union flanks; in what even some of his own men perceived as a desperate gambit, he now attacked the center, asking his troops to cross an open field nearly three-quarters of a mile long. They were bloodily repulsed, losing half their number. Controversy resulted, as Confederate veterans struggled to lay claim to honor and glory, pitting Virginians against North Carolinians in efforts to explain why the attack had failed. Many Southerners came to believe the charge represented the “High Water Mark” of Confederate hopes for independence, a view cultivated by proponents of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Meanwhile, twentieth-century popular culture transformed Pickett into a soldier as “gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament,” in the words of his wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett. And films like Gettysburg (1993) glorified the attack even while historians continued to debate Lee’s decision, sometimes comparing it to Union general Ulysses S. Grant‘s equally futile attacks at Cold Harbor in Hanover County in 1864.