On July 3, 1863, Union troops repelled a massive artillery assault on Cemetery Ridge during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. During the early morning hours Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered General Longstreet to prepare General Pickett’s troops for the assault. Longstreet advised Lee of his reservations about the success of such an advance, which he did not feel Confederate troops could sustain. Lee disregarded Longstreet and maintained his order for a heavy bombardment of Union defenses on the Ridge followed by an advance of Pickett’s men.
After two hours of heavy shelling, Confederate Colonel Alexander sent word to General Pickett that the Union troops were withdrawing and encouraged him to come quickly in the interval. Pickett sent his note to General Longstreet who, based on Lee’s orders and despite his own reservations, approved the charge.
The attack, commonly known as Pickett’s Charge or Longstreet’s Assault, was an attempt to penetrate the center of Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. During the attack, only one Confederate brigade temporarily reached the top of the ridge—afterwards called the high watermark of the Confederacy—led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead who, just before being shot, yelled, “Give them cold steel, boys!”
The charge ultimately proved disastrous for the Confederates, with casualties approaching 60 percent. As a consequence, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to retreat and ultimately abandon his attempt to reach Washington, D.C. via Pennsylvania.
Some seventy years later, Confederate veteran John H. Robertson, one of many Confederate soldiers captured during Pickett’s charge, recalled his experience as a federal prisoner of war:
I was captured at the battle of Gettysburg in Longstreet’s charge and was taken to Fort Delaware, an island of 90 acres of land where the Union prisoners were kept. We were detailed to work in the fields and our rations was corn bread and pickled beef. However I fared better than some of the prisoners for I was given the privilege of making jewelry for the use of the Union soldiers. I made rings from the buttons of their overcoats and when they were polished the brass made very nice looking rings. These I sold to the soldiers of the Union Army who were our guards and with the money thus obtained I could buy food and clothing. The Union guards kept a commissary and they had a big supply of chocolate. I ate chocolate candy and drank hot chocolate in place of coffee until I have never wanted any chocolate since.
[John H. Robertson]. Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer; Marlin, Texas, ca. 1936-40. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Robertson was fortunate as 28,063 Confederates and 23,049 Union soldiers were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. President Lincoln paid tribute to the Union soldiers’ sacrifice in the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of a National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.
- View the order for Pickett’s charge from General James Longstreet to Colonel Edward P. Alexander and copies of Alexander’s battlefield dispatches to Longstreet and Gen. George E. Pickett during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. These are part of the Edward Porter Alexander Papers, 1854-1865, a collection in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
- Many Civil War veterans spoke of a 1913 Battle of Gettysburg reunion in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940.
- Search on Gettysburg in Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints to find more photographs of the Battle of Gettysburg. This collection also includes a timeline of the Civil War.
- Detroit Publishing Company
- Horydczak Collection
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- Duke University Libraries’ Historic American Sheet MusicExternal collection contains “Pickets Charge March”External, which was “composed and dedicated to the Northern Army of Virginia.”
- Browse Civil War Maps by subject, location, contributor, or title for views of more than 2,000 Civil War maps and charts as well as atlases and sketchbooks.