Pickett’s Charge on the third day at Gettysburg failed partly because of the ineffective Confederate artillery offensive bombardment that preceded it, and partly because of the effective Federal defensive bombardment that greeted the Confederate infantry as they marched across the field. This paper will discuss the reasons for the ineffectiveness of the Confederate fire, and the effectiveness of the Federal fire, during these crucial last hours of the battle. The paper will accomplish this by describing the artillery commanders and their commands, the orders and applications, the effects and outcomes of the artillery battle, and the strengths and weaknesses of the artillery.
By the morning of the third day of the battle, Lee knew that Union forces held a strong position on Cemetery Ridge. He judged the weakest part of the line to be near the middle at the curve where it approached closest to the Emmitsburg Road, less than a mile south of the point where that Emmitsburg and the Taneytown Roads intersected. Lee planned to pummel this position with heavy concentrated artillery fire, and then to send his fresh infantry into the supposedly weakened position. Lee knew that the Union position that he planned to attack could not be supported by effective cross fire from its flanks, except by the artillery on Little Round Top. Lee thought his own guns could take these out.
In preparation, all available Confederate artillery went into position along Seminary Ridge. The plan for the infantry attack was that following the intensive bombardment, Longstreet would launch an all out assault with the purpose of penetrating the Union position. Pettigrew's Division would comprise the northern portion of the attack (along with Trimble's two brigades in the rear and right as supports) while Pickett's Division would be the southern wing supported with one brigade under Wilcox on the right-rear flank. The infamous “clump of trees” on Cemetery Ridge marked the Confederate objective.
E. Porter Alexander was Commander, Alexander’s Battalion, First Corps Artillery Reserve, Army of Northern Virginia. Alexander was one of Longstreet's most trusted subordinates. At Gettysburg, as in previous battles, Longstreet gave Alexander almost complete tactical control over the placement of the First Corps artillery because he lacked confidence in J. B. Walton, his chief of artillery reserve. In preparation for the planned attack against the Union center Alexander would receive direct control of much of the artillery, but overall coordination of all artillery from the Army of Northern Virginia remained the responsibility of Lee’s Chief of Artillery.
Later, Alexander explained that his orders were, “First, 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.” Alexander said Longstreet's exact words were to, "drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him." This Longstreet told Alexander would be preparatory to an advance of infantry, and that Alexander should" advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack."
General Longstreet called Alexander “a brave and gifted officer” noting that this is why he was given overall control of the First Corps Artillery for the planed cannonade. According to Longstreet about one o'clock, in addition to preparing the positions for the main bombardment Alexander ordered a battery of seven 11-pound howitzers, with fresh horses and full caissons, to accompany Pickett’s force, but General W. N. Pendleton, recalled them after sending them to Alexander. This action potentially damaged the firepower that would actually make the assault.
Pendleton, was Chief of Artillery, Army of Northern Virginia. Although ultimately in command of all Confederate artillery on the field that day, Pendleton was a figurehead. One Confederate officer wrote, "Pendleton is Lee's weakness. [He] is like the elephant, we have him & we don't know what on earth to do with him, and it costs a devil of a sight to feed him." Lee never replaced Pendleton but most of his responsibilities were disseminated amongst his subordinates like Alexander.
On the other side of the battlefield, from the Union perspective, while the opportunity to counterattack the Confederates on the third day at Gettysburg may have been considered, ultimately Meade had no intent on taking the offensive. His army set about improving the natural defenses of his position with strong earthworks. He anticipated correctly that since the enemy had attacked both of his flanks in previous fighting, his next attack would be against the Union center.
Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, was the Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac. Hunt was in charge of all Union artillery at Gettysburg, and he was a gifted officer of the artillery trade. Hunt alone was responsible for directing the well placed defensive barrier that would meet the Confederate charge, and duel with the preparatory cannonade. It was said that if Henry Hunt was available to coordinate the guns, then all would go well, but if he was not there, great opportunities would probably be wasted.
In describing the positions of both sides just before the bombardment, Confederate batteries covered a line that began at the Peach Orchard and ran north along a line just west of the Emmitsburg Road. To the north, the Confederates had more guns on Seminary Ridge, and a few long-range pieces were placed northwest on Oak Hill in order to cover Ziegler's Grove and the cemetery. Seventy-five guns under Alexander were placed in a curved line 1,300 yards long. These guns included his own battalion, and Cabell's, Dearing's, Eshleman's, and Henry's battalion. Several hundred yards to the left rear of Alexander's line were Walker's additional 60 pieces. These were placed along the ridge stretching to the Hagerstown Road. Two of Whitworth’s rifles were placed to the north of Hurt's two. Filling in the gaps were ten guns of Walker's Battalion and ten more of Latimer's command. Jones' and Nelson's artillery battalions backed them up. Interestingly, the Confederates had not discovered that the Union position could be reached by artillery fire from the town and its flank, and had placed no guns at these positions to enfilade the shank of the “fish-hook,” while providing crossfire with the guns from the west.
Unfortunately, for the Confederates, 25 rifled cannon and 16 Napoleons of the Second Corps and 15 12-pound howitzers of the Third Corps would not participate. As overall commander of Confederate artillery General Pendleton, was ultimately responsible for this. Overall, cooperation and liaison between the artillery of the three Confederate corps was deficient. Alexander believed that if the Third and Second Corps artillery had been massed to silence the Union batteries on Cemetery Hill, the infantry attack would have been spared the deadly flanking fire it met from that area of the battlefield. Alexander explains that “The great criticism which I have to make on the artillery operations of the day is upon the inaction of the artillery of Ewell's corps” Alexander explained that the one advantage of an exterior line was that “It enabled us to enfilade any of the enemy's positions.” But he says further “I never had an idea of the possibility of this being done at the time, for I had but the vaguest notion of where Ewell's corps was.” He then goes on to place the blame squarely on Pendleton’s shoulders. “Gen. Lee's chief [Pendleton] should have known, & given every possible energy to improve the rare & great chance to the very uttermost.”
On the other hand, one Confederate battery whose position was noteworthy was Captain John Milledge's Georgia Regular Battery. This battery found a position under good cover flanking Cemetery Hill. From that position, the battery was able to place effective fire on the batteries of the Union XI Corps once the cannonade started. Colonel Osborn, the Union XI corps artillery chief later wrote:
The gunners got our range at almost the first shot. Passing low over Wainwright's guns, they caught us square in flank and with the elevation perfect. It was admirable shooting. They raked the whole line of batteries, killed and wounded the men and horses, and blew up the caissons rapidly. I saw one shell go through 6 horses standing broadside. To meet this new fire I drew from the batteries facing west the 20-pounder Parrott battery of Capt. Taft, and wheeling it half around to the right brought it to bear on them. I also drew from the reserve one battery and placed it in position on Taft's right. Fortunately for us these batteries, placed in the new line, at once secured the exact range of their immediate adversaries. In a few minutes the enemy's fire almost ceased, and when it opened again, and while the fire was progressing, it was irregular and wild. They did not again get our range as they had it before we replied.
On the Union side, the batteries were positioned along the front wherever positions could be found for the guns, with all pieces placed in a position to join against the Confederate bombardment. On both flanks the cavalry would hold the Union position secure with Kilpatrick covering the left of the line along with Farnsworth's cavalry brigade. Later Merritt's brigade of Buford's division approached Longstreet’s right up the Emmitsburg Road from the south. According to later reports the number of Union guns in position on their lines at the beginning of the cannonade were 166, with ten batteries brought up from the reserves during the bombardment, making the total number engaged 220 on the Union line.
As part of the overall plan, the Confederates intended to send at least some artillery along to support the infantry charge, but the artillery was not able to give the infantry much support. Alexander said that he intended to advance nine howitzers in front of Pickett's Division but the guns were not available at the time of the advance because of the previously mentioned action by Pendleton. Alexander describes the situation with the guns designated to support the infantry by reporting” After the battle I found that Gen. Pendleton, himself, had sent & taken four or five of the guns, & disposed of them elsewhere without any notice to me.” Then he adds “The remainder [were]… moved "a short distance" because…of shell from the enemy…” Alexander wrote that he deployed "fifteen or eighteen" guns behind Pickett's Division, but the Federal artillery concentrated fire on the infantry. Overall, Longstreet reported that the Confederate artillery fire during the infantry assault "did not force the Federals to change the direction of their fire and relieve our infantry."
In examining the cause for the lack of advancing artillery support during the infantry attack, in addition to the pulling of guns by Pendleton, B. F. Eshleman, Confederate artillery battalion commander, said that the artillery tasked to advance with the infantry, was low on ammunition and losses from the great bombardment had prevented most of the guns from advancing. Lee, Longstreet, and other Confederate leaders reported that the southern artillery was too low on ammunition after the cannonade to offer much support during the doomed Confederate assault.
Not withstanding the reported ammunition situation, many have criticized Longstreet for not ordering a sizeable force of artillery to support the infantry advance. While he may have considered advancing a few pieces, Alexander explains that this was not an effective option overall because, “our Confederate artillery could only sparingly, & in great emergency, be allowed to fire over the heads of our infantry.” There were many instances in the war when artillery fire had injured soldiers from the same side. “We were always liable to premature explosions of shell & shrapnel, & our infantry knew it…threatening to fire back at our guns if we opened over their heads”.
Could the artillery have been advanced in front of the infantry? Alexander answers that, “the infantry would not fire over the heads of the artillery. Hence it results that each arm must have its own fighting front free, & they do not mix well in a fighting charge.” Also according to Alexander, “artillery on the march presents such an immense target to infantry, and to other artillery in position, that within their respective ranges it requires very few minutes to disable it.” Therefore, as Alexander explains, advancing extensive artillery along with the infantry was not an option.
Alexander sums up the defense of the choice not to advance the artillery by saying, “the peculiarities of the topography, which are of most extreme importance upon every battle field, here left no reasonable method of making our attack at the point selected but the one adopted. Of my original force of guns I could spare none from the firing line.” Confederate artillery Lieutenant, C. W. Motes describes the artillery’s ability to fire in the support of advancing troops in the official records. “At the signal to commence firing, he opened fire upon the enemy's position, and continued until the infantry of Pickett's division advanced, when the firing partially ceased, firing only when the safety of the infantry in front would permit.” According to all reports, this was seldom.
Before the commencement of any action, Longstreet felt that the day’s plan would end in a bad way for the Confederates. In anticipation of giving the order for Pickett’s assault Longstreet wrote “never was I so depressed as that day.” Initially, Longstreet placed a large amount of responsibility on his young subordinate asking Alexander to “observe carefully the effect of the fire upon the enemy and, when it began to tell, to notify Pickett to begin the assault.” He then told Alexander in a written note “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him, I would prefer that you should not advise General Pickett to make the charge.” Not accepting the ultimate responsibility for the attack Alexander told Longstreet that he would only be able to judge the effect of our fire by the return fire, because he couldn’t actually see the Union infantry on Cemetery Ridge, because he knew that smoke would obscure the position once the cannonade was under way. Alexander then urged that “if there is an alternative to this attack, it should be carefully considered before opening our fire, for it will take all the artillery ammunition we have left.” According to Alexander, Longstreet’s response was, “The intention is to advance the infantry, if the artillery has the desired effect of driving the enemy's off, or having other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack. When the moment arrives advise Gen. Pickett, and of course advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack.” This made it clear that the attack would occur as ordered by Lee. The die was cast, when Alexander responded, "General. When our artillery fire is at its best I shall order Gen. Pickett to charge."
In his official report, Longstreet finds that after the barrage, the ammunition is too low to support the infantry. “I found then that our supply of ammunition was so short that the batteries could not reopen.” Then Longstreet confirms that calling off the attack was not an option that was given to him by Lee when he concludes that the “…order for this attack, which I could not favor under better auspices, would have been revoked had I …had that privilege.”
To signal the start of the barrage Longstreet sent a courier from headquarters with an order to fire two guns with a measured interval between – this signaled the start of the massive explosion as the whole line of Confederate guns opened fire. Union gunners on Cemetery Ridge ran to their pieces to return fire, The Union infantry meanwhile stayed low protected by the strong breastworks. The fifteen thousand Confederates of Longstreet’s Corps who had been appointed to charge across the field also laid low and waited. Called by many the largest bombardment of the war, the roar was continuous, and so intense that artillerists could hardly hear the sound of their own guns firing. Alexander describes the opening of the cannonade:
It was just one o'clock, by my watch, when the double boom of the signal guns from the Washington Artillery broke the silence; & it was, indeed, a grand & exciting moment to hear our long line of guns break loose as if impatient of their long restraint, & roaring in very joy of battle. Every gunner had his target selected, & we must have made it pretty hot for the opposite line from the word go, for Gen. Hunt's orders not to reply for 15 or 20 minutes, I am very sorry to say, were immediately forgotten.
In his official report, Major James Dearing, commander of a Confederate artillery battalion explained that, “When the signal guns were fired, I at once brought my battalion in battery to the front, and commenced firing slowly and deliberately. To insure more accuracy and to guard against the waste of ammunition, I fired by battery.” Dearing comments, “The firing on the part of my battalion was very good, and most of the shell and shrapnel burst well.” Dearing observed, “Three caissons were seen…to blow up and…I saw several batteries of the enemy leave the field.”
According to some reports, initially the Union batteries replied vigorously, but towards the end their fire slackened. This led the Confederates to believe that their fire had driven the Union force back off the line. As to the effectiveness of the Union fire, because of the convex line of the Union position they were not able to respond with the same intensity of the Confederates although with action going on all over the battlefield it was advantageous not to bring all artillery to the center.
The fire of the Union artillery during the early part of the duel however was not without effect. In his official report, Major Charles S. Peyton, Nineteenth Virginia Infantry, commanding Garnett's brigade, Pickett's division, wrote; “At about 12 m. we were ordered to take position behind the crest of the hill on which the artillery, under Colonel [E. Porter] Alexander, was planted, where we lay during a most terrific cannonading…we lost about 20 killed and wounded.” Confederate Brigadier General Cadmus M. Wilcox reported that “During all this fire, my men were exposed to the solid shot and shell of the enemy, but suffered comparatively little, …The brigade lying on my right (Kemper's) suffered severely.”
Many Confederate artillerymen found the massive bombardment an opportunity to consider the technical aspects of their profession. With detached professionalism, they reported on ranges, rounds fired, and effectiveness of the bombardment. Most on the giving end certainly agreed that they never had seen artillery employed on such a scale. Captain Graham with the Charlotte Artillery described it as "the heaviest Artillery duel of the war."
The artillery duel so loud that it was heard miles away. Unfortunately for the Confederate effort most of their projectiles flew high and passed behind the Union position. In fact the worst of the damage was caused when the Confederate fire blew up close to a dozen caissons of the Federal reserve artillery parked behind the Union lines. The guns that swept Cemetery Ridge killed men and animals, and destroyed gun carriages, and caissons. The Federal power to resist however, was not materially weakened -- except that some of Meade's batteries ran out of long-range ammunition and would have to wait for their attackers to get closer so they could rip them with canister.
Evaluating the fire later Major General Winfield S. Hancock said "It was a most terrific and appalling cannonade.” But history tells us that it did little damage, since the Union soldiers lay under the strong protection of stone walls, swells in the ground, and strong earthworks, and the projectiles of the enemy passed over their heads, although causing much devastation in the rear.
As to the effect of the Confederate fire on the soldiers on the awaiting Union battle line, one Union soldier even wrote that shortly after noon, when the Confederate artillery opened he was “lulled by the incessant roar of the cannon…[and] dropped quietly asleep. It was not heroic; but it was, I hold, essentially war, though by no means war as imagined in the work-room of the theoretic historian."
The high fire passing over the battle line, reached Meade’s Union Headquarters, located just behind the aiming point, sporadically at first. Most of the rounds seemed to some to come from the left although a stray shot came across the direct front periodically. "That," said Samuel Wilkeson a reporter covering the battle for the New York Tribune referring to an unfamiliar sound from some unknown kind of small projectile, "is a muffled howl; that's the exact word to describe it." The bombardment intensified as the Confederate fire passed the main battle line making the rear a dangerous place to be. "By Jove," said one of the staff officers, "those fellows on the left have the range of headquarters." From the door of the headquarters, Meade advised those outside to get out of the area. Reporter Wilkeson remained at the Leister House throughout the cannonade. In his report, Wilkeson wrote: “Every size and form of shell known to…gunnery shrieked, whirled, moaned, whistled and wrathfully fluttered over our ground. . . . Not an orderly--not an ambulance-not a straggler was to be seen upon the plain swept by this tempest of orchestral death thirty minutes after it commenced.” Another reporter on hand from the New York World wrote:
The storm broke upon us so suddenly that soldiers and officers-who leaped, as it began, from their tents, or from lazy siestas on the grass--were stricken in their rising with mortal wounds and died, some with cigars between their teeth, some with pieces of food in their fingers, and one at least--a pale young German, from Pennsylvania--with a miniature of his sister in . . . hands, that seemed more meet to grasp an artist's pencil than a musket. Horses fell, shrieking such awful cries as Cooper told of, and writhing themselves about in hopeless agony. . . . The earth, torn up in clouds, blinded the eyes of hurrying men; and through the branches of the trees and among the grave-stones of the cemetery a shower of destruction crashed ceaselessly.
Capt. Charles A. Phillips of the 5th Massachusetts Battery, provides one of the most used quotes on the high fire issue: "Viewed as a display of fireworks, the rebel practice was entirely successful, but as a military demonstration it was the biggest humbug of the season." A point worth considering however is that artillery fire does not have to hit its target directly to wreak havoc. According to accounts many Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge that day found the extended fire especially unsettling. A soldier from the 19th Maine wrote "It seemed as though, had a knitting-needle stood on end it would have been shot off a dozen times in so many minutes.” Soldiers from the 1st Minnesota gave thanks that "the Lord of Battles put up His shield in front of many a man on the Union line and turned the deadly missiles aside." Another soldier from Massachusetts who was down the line rather far from the target area was so awed by the spectacle that he wrote, "the range of the rebel cannon was deadly exact; and different shells struck six men who occupied in succession the same place in the ranks." "Malvern Hill did not compare with it." wrote Captain Phillips.
More Union infantrymen receiving fire on the rear slopes of Cemetery Ridge reflected on the Confederate cannonade. The intensity and violence of the bombardment impressed Northern infantrymen like Lt. Henry P. Clare of the 83rd New York, posted well in reserve, who reported that "heaven had opened its gates and poured forth . . . their murderous messengers of death with the determination of annihilating our entire army." Sgt. John Plummer of the 1st Minnesota admitted that although used to receiving cannon fire, this day they hugged the ground to try and avoid "the hissing, screaming, bursting missiles, and all of them really seemed to be directed at us." A soldier in the 108th New York commented "five different cannonballs struck a large oak tree three feet in diameter, which stood not five feet from where I lay." Therefore, even if technically the Confederate aim was high each round that found a target left lasting impressions. The bombardment's most intense moment for Private Bechtel came when one shell passed "through our brestwork [sic] killing 1 and wounding six of our company …”
Behind the Union line where the bulk of the Confederate fire landed, the main casualties were among the clerks, cooks, musicians, and medical personnel, often called noncombatants by front-line troops. Hundreds broke and fled in panic. Ambulances could not run the gantlet of that fire to bring back wounded from the front, nor could stretcher-bearers reach the wounded. Only caisson drivers risked the fire to deliver ammunition to the constantly firing guns. Some were smashed to bits, as shells hit their loaded chests. Some shells reached the spot where the reserve artillery parked, under cover of a hill, awaiting a call into action. This forced the batteries to limber and retreat beyond the range of the fire. The fire of the Confederate guns, lethal on the Union rear, was for the most part wasted on the primary objective. These rear bursts were unobserved and therefore went uncorrected because of the smoke and the screening of the Union rear by the Union front. Unfortunately for the Confederates, ranges were not adjusted so while effective against the cooks and the caissons they failed to achieve the primary objective of knocking out the bulk of the Union batteries along the ridges and softening up the defending infantry.
Having delivered the bombardment, there was much argument among Confederate officers later about whether the Gettysburg cannonade was a success. Major Eshleman of the Washington (Louisiana) Artillery reported that his fire "caused immense slaughter to the enemy." Other Confederate leaders were less boastful. Colonel J. Thompson Brown, the acting chief of artillery for the Confederate Second Corps, reported that the fire" was well directed, and its fine effect was very noticeable." But, Brown said the guns would have done better if the "proximity" of Confederate infantry and the poor quality of the shells had not forced them to fire only solid shot. Many officers were openly critical of the effectiveness of the Confederate fire. Longstreet admitted after the war that the fire "seemed less effective than we had anticipated." Cadmus M. Wilcox, a brigade commander in Anderson's Division, said: "I do not believe a single battery of the enemy had been disabled so as to stop its fire." Tellingly, on the Union side Captain Phillips, whose guns were south of the “clump of trees”, totally dismissed the Confederate fire, saying that "beyond the noise which was made no great harm was done." General Hunt called the Confederate artillery fire too high and "scattered over the whole field." As to the affect behind the line however “caissons were blown up by the fire, riderless horses dashed hither and thither, the dead lay in heaps, and throngs of wounded streamed to the rear. Every man lay down and sought what cover he could.”
Confederate Artillery Chief Pendleton, summed up the entire cannonade and his inaccurate perception of the effect of the fire in the official records:
The average distance between contestants was about 1,400 yards, and the effect, was necessarily serious on both sides. With the enemy, there was advantage of elevation and protection from earthworks; but his fire was unavoidably more or less divergent, while ours was convergent. His troops were massed, ours diffused. We, therefore, suffered apparently much less. Great commotion was produced in his ranks, and his batteries were to such extent driven off or silenced as to have insured his defeat but for the extraordinary strength of his position.
Historian James M. McPherson in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Battle Cry of Freedom” sums these points up neatly by describing that:
For almost two hours an artillery duel among nearly 300 guns filled the Pennsylvania countryside with an ear-splitting roar heard as far away as Pittsburgh. Despite this sound and fury, the Union infantry lying behind stone walls and breastworks suffered little, for the rebel aim was high.
After an artillery dual of roughly an hour General Hunt, decided to conserve his artillery ammunition for the infantry that he knew would follow the barrage and ordered his batteries to cease fire. While the Union guns were still firing, Alexander, worried about the depleted Confederate ammunition, sent a note to Pickett: "General: If you are to advance at all, you must come at once or we will not be able to support you as we ought. But the enemy's fire has not slackened materially, and there are still 18 guns firing from the cemetery."
Soon afterwards, Alexander noticed that the Union fire had slowed. In fact, it appeared through the smoke that some of the guns had withdrawn. He sent another note to Pickett, saying: "For God's sake, come quick. The 18 guns have gone. Come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you properly." Shortly thereafter Pickett's 15,000 infantry emerged from the woods passing through the line of Alexander's batteries, and began their movement towards the Union position. Hunt’s cease-fire had caused the Confederates to mistakenly believe that they had silenced the Union guns at the point of attack. Lulled into security by Hunt’s tact Confederate Major James Dearing writes, “…the batteries of the enemy in our front had nearly all ceased firing; only a few scattering batteries here and there could be seen to fire.”
Once the cannonade was over Union “Men began to breathe more freely…The battery men were among their guns, some leaning to rest and wipe the sweat from their sooty faces, some were handling ammunition boxes and replenishing those that were empty.” During this lull batteries from the artillery reserve were moved up to strengthen the line. Frank A. Haskell, a staff officer of the 2nd Division, Second Army Corps reported “We were near our horses when we noticed Brigadier General Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army, near Woodruff's Battery, swiftly moving about on horseback, and apparently in a rapid manner giving some orders about the guns. …In a moment afterwards we met Captain Wessels and the orderlies who had our horses; they were on foot leading the horses. Captain Wessels was pale, and he said, excited: "General, they say the enemy's infantry is advancing."
In describing the advance of the Confederate infantry Major Charles S. Peyton, Nineteenth Virginia Infantry describes the effect of the Union fire in the early stages as the Confederates begin their movement;
Up to this time we had suffered but little from the enemy's batteries, which apparently had been much crippled previous to our advance, with the exception of one posted on the mountain, about 1 mile to our right, which enfiladed nearly our entire line with fearful effect, sometimes as many as 10 men being killed and wounded by the bursting of a single shell.
Then the Union guns reopened in earnest on the approaching Confederate forces. The Confederate artillery was unable to respond and offer equal support since most guns had exhausted their ammunition in the cannonade that preceded Pickett’s advance. Interestingly, the state of the artillery ammunition that could potentially support the attack was known to General Longstreet, but not reported to General Lee before the attack. Perhaps Longstreet, trusting Alexander’s assessment of the effectiveness of the preparatory fire did not think it necessary, although Longstreet’s feeling about the attack in general would cause one to think that he may have looked for any excuse to call it off. It is more realistic to assume that Longstreet felt he had received the final decision from Lee, and that there would be no further discussion, regardless of the shape of the supporting artillery.
The Union artillery played a crucial role in the decimation of Pickett’s assault. While some have reported that there was a great duel between both forces, others commented on the reservation of Union fire in anticipation of the Confederate assault. Artillerymen hoarded their ammunition during the one sided duel that preceded the charge, apparently, saving it to use against the Confederate infantry. In fact, Alexander commented after the war that he had never seen the Union reserve their artillery fire for the Confederate infantry as they did during the Gettysburg artillery duel. By saving their fire, and throwing it full force into the Confederate infantry, the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge contributed greatly to the destruction of the charge. "The rebel lines advanced slowly but surely," wrote one Federal artilleryman "half the valley had been passed over by them before the guns dared expend a round of the precious ammunition remaining on hand. The enemy steadily approached, and, when within deadly range, canister was thrown with terrible effect into their ranks." In support Captain Andrew Cowan, a Union battery commander wrote that he fired on Pickett's Division with canister at 200 yards. "My last charge (a double-header) literally swept the enemy from my front," reporting that this blast was "fired at less than 20 yards." A soldier from the 107th New York later wrote, “There is one thing that our government does that suits me to a dot. That is, we fight mostly with artillery. The rebels fight mostly with infantry.” General Wilcox reported “I do not believe a single battery of the enemy had been disabled so as to stop its fire…As soon as these troops rose to advance, the hostile artillery opened upon them.”
McPherson describes the charge of the Confederate force across the open field between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, and the effect of the Union army on the approaching Confederate force:
It was a magnificent mile-wide spectacle, a picture-book view of war that participants on both sides remembered with awe until their dying moment--which for many came within the next hour. Pickett's charge represented the Confederate war effort in microcosm: matchless valor, apparent initial success, and ultimate disaster. As the gray infantry poured across the gently undulating farmland with seemingly irresistible force, northern artillery suddenly erupted in a savage cascade, sending shot and shell among the southern regiments and changing to canister as they kept coming.
British historian Paddy Griffith wrote of the artillery effectiveness of the two armies that day:
Alexander’s massed artillery played upon the Union lines in preparation for Pickett’s great infantry attack. Because the defenders’ batteries retired under cover, however, they were scarcely damaged. Then when the charging infantry came close, they sprang to life and materially contributed to its defeat.
In summarizing the overall reasons that the artillery fire from both sides was significant in the failure of Pickett’s Charge, there are three main points of consideration. First, the overall effectiveness of the fire, second, the lack support of Pickett’s charging infantry by the Confederate artillery, and finally the leadership and overall coordination of the “long arm” on both sides.
Civil War artillery was much more efficient in the defense than in the offense and this was proven on the third day of Gettysburg. Long-range fire was seldom effective against the batteries and regiments in the defense, unless the defensive position happened to be in the open, and on a forward slope. This was seldom the case, and certainly not the case on Cemetery Ridge. When a defender made good use of high ground, and strengthened his position with fortifications, it rendered the artillery technology of the 1860’s ineffective. This is because, long-range fire was too lightweight, and indirect fire was too inaccurate to have a great affect on the defense. Artillery was most effective in its shock power, and in the case of the bombardment that proceeded Pickett’s Charge this shock was not enough to damage the main line of defense that would meet the Confederate assault.
The artillery actions of both sides had a great impact on why Pickett’s Charge ended in defeat for the Confederates. On the Confederate side, the artillery failed to soften up the Union line as intended—the fire was high. This was primarily because of several things. First, the quality of the Confederate ammunition and the nineteenth century artillery better suited for the defense than the offense as previously mentioned. Second, the smoke that covered the Federal position-not allowing the Confederates to see their fire was high and to adjust. Finally, the strong Union position affected the effectiveness of the Confederate fire. At long range, direct fire of Confederate cannons either would fly over the defender’s heads, or would simply dig into the bank. Any hope for indirect fire was minimal because this type of fire was simply too inaccurate.
When standing on the Seminary Ridge position and looking across the field to Cemetery Ridge the difficulty in ranging the Union position is apparent. The land slopes gently down through a valley between the ridges and then up to the highpoint on the far Cemetery ridge—and Cemetery Ridge is higher than the firing position of the Confederate artillery. The simple topography of the position could lead to “aiming high”. When this is considered with the other factors it explains the ineffectiveness of the Confederate barrage.
On the issue of the Confederate artillery advancing with the infantry, this, according to Alexander was not an option. First, the ammunition was spent from the preparatory barrage. Second, it was not practical to fire over the heads of advancing infantry in support, because the fire had the potential for friendly-fire damage. The Confederate artillery was able to offer support in preparation, but not in execution. The Union artillery on the other hand, had the advantage of using their artillery on the defensive. The Union line was able to decimate the Confederate assault line with a progressive transition of projectiles that ended with the extremely effective canister fire.
Finally, the overall command of the artillery was much more effective on the Union side. While Alexander, did a capable job with his portion of the available artillery, overall coordination of fire rested on Pendleton’s incapable shoulders. Pendleton failed to use the artillery of the entire Confederate army effectively. For the Union Pendleton’s equivalent, Henry J. Hunt was one of the most capable in using “the long arm” in American history. Knowing that his artillery would have to meet a great infantry threat against which it would be most effective, Hunt conserved his fire for the infantry assault. In doing so, he gave the illusion that the Confederate fire had been effective, triggering the doomed assault by the Confederates.