Pickett’s Charge

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.

Gettysburg Camp, 50th Anniversary, July, 1913. Frank Edwards, c1913. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
Gen. Pickett taking the order to charge from Gen. Longstreet, Gettysburg, July 3, 1864… Henry Alexander Ogden, artist; Jones Brothers & Company, cMarch 1, 1900. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

The Battle of Gettysburg. N.Y.: Printed by Wm. C. Robertson; Published by Thomas Kelly, c1867. Civil War. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

[Gettysburg, Pa. The Bryan house on 2d Corps line, near scene of Pickett’s Charge]. July, 1863. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

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George M. Cohan

Playwright, songwriter, dancer, actor, theater owner, and producer George M. Cohan was born on July 3, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island. (Some sources report his date of birth as July 4.) As a young boy, he and his sister toured New England and the Midwest with their parents as the Four Cohans, a vaudeville act, for which he also wrote sketches and songs. In 1904, Cohan opened in the Broadway production Little Johnny Jones. That play, which Cohan also directed and for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics (including the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), catapulted him to national attention.

Give my regards to Broadway,
remember me to Herald Square,
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second street,
that I will soon be there,
Whisper of how I’m yearning
To mingle with the old time throng,
Give my regards to old Broadway
and say that I’ll be there, e’er long.

“Give My Regards to Broadway.” George M. Cohan, composer; New York: F.A. Mills, 1904. Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922. Music Division

[Portrait of George M. Cohan]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Oct. 23, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Cohan is best known for the innovative Broadway musicals that he produced in the 1920s, such as The Tavern (1920-21), The Song and Dance Man (1923-24), and American Born (1925). He later made memorable appearances in Ah, Wilderness! (1933-34) and I’d Rather Be Right (1937-38).

A gifted composer of popular songs, Cohan wrote such favorites as “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” His career was the subject of the movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and the Broadway musical George M! (1968-69).

You’re a Grand Old Flag. George M Cohan, composer; performed by the American Quartet; recorded on June 4, 1917, Camden, N.J. National Jukebox. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center

The popularity of Cohan’s World War I song “Over There” is attested to by the variety of sheet music releases shown below.

“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Willam Jerome Publishing Corp., New York NY, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division
“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Leo Feist Inc., New York NY, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division
“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Herman Darewski Music Publishing Co.. London, England, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division

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