While researching the varying aspects of General Robert E. Lee’s decision to order Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a multitude of sources surfaced which lent credence to the actions taken by the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), as well as his troops. It remained very enlightening to view how various authors’ perspectives on the charge caused them to either praise or upbraid Lee, his subordinates, and his decision. Throughout researching this controversial query, surprisingly, there existed several more opinions on the issue than the two previously mentioned. In fact, authors lauded his tactical judgment, questioned his motives, and analyzed every action leading up to and following Pickett’s Charge.
The literature studied included numerous opinions that ranged from simply reporting the facts to analyzing and critiquing virtually every action and command given. Nevertheless, they supported the fact that Pickett’s Charge, as well as Lee’s decision to order the attack, indelibly represented not only the farthest North that the ANV ever reached, but also the turning point of the Civil War. Additionally, writers penned dashing, as well as scandalous, accounts of Lee and his men, questioning the resolve of the ANV subsequent to the defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. While viewing that literature, no discernible pattern appeared to emerge. Even though a vast majority of the authors incorporated similar historical facts, differing biases emerged pertaining to Robert E. Lee and Pickett’s Charge. Based upon national identity and geographical location within the United States, each author formulated his opinions and viewpoints accordingly.
The earliest source, Lifeand Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee, written by James McCabe in 1867, four short years after the battle, provided a strong and detailed overview of the campaigns which Robert E. Lee led and participated in while commanding the ANV.1Interestingly, McCabe attempted to provide his readers with an unbiased view of the Battle of Gettysburg but ultimately focused on the movement of troops and supplies, thus providing relatively sparse details pertaining to General Lee’s actual reasons and orders for mounting the attack on the fortified Union position. Unlike McCabe’s work, Douglas Southall Freeman’s text, R. E. Lee, A Biography – Volume III, written in 1935 provided an analysis of Lee’s motives for ordering the attack. In fact, that author’s work represented the first ideology pertaining to the rationale as to why Lee and his men charged a heavily fortified Union position.2 He devoted several chapters to pondering the questions – “Why Gettysburg? and How [was it] lost?” With that mindset of reporting and analyzing the Battle of Gettysburg, Freeman forever changed the way that people viewed the men who fought in the battle. Additionally, he elaborated on the rationale that the South utilized when launching the attack on July 3, 1863.3
In 1944, Freeman penned a second book entitled Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command and presented his readers an extensive analysis into the command structure of the ANV.4 Without that work, audiences would never have fully comprehended the army’s dependency upon Lee’s mandates, as well as its willingness to adhere to his directives regardless of the consequences. In fact, Lee’s men nicknamed him the “Old Man,” a title that might initially infer a negative connotation. However, that appellation actually reflected the admiration, love, and respect bestowed upon Lee by not only his soldiers, but also his officers and staff members. 5 Even though Freeman paralleled his writing style and sources to his first book, he did not specifically focus on the Battle of Gettysburg but rather the orders given throughout the final day of fighting. Nevertheless, Freeman’s account provided extremely helpful insight because it juxtaposed the initial orders given by Lee and the final orders given before commencement of the assault by ground troops.
Several years later, in 1956, Burke Davis wrote Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in an attempt to explain Lee’s actions as commander of the entire Southern Army.6 Davis carefully described every battle from numerous perspectives ranging from ordinary privates to the commanding general. Similar to Freeman, the author seamlessly interwove personal accounts, quotes, letters, and orders into his text, thus lending credence to his various arguments. While he reported on the battles and their outcomes, he also analyzed each and every move that Robert E. Lee made while on the field commanding his troops.
Conversely, a varying analysis which investigated both the Union and Confederate viewpoints regarding Pickett’s Charge, George Stewart, in 1959, penned Pickett’s Charge: A Micro History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863.7 Rather than just reporting the facts, Stewart synthesized and composed a thorough scrutiny into the rationale adopted by the opposing commanding officers.8 Similar to Stewart, in 1963, Shelby Foote wrote a monumental text, The Civil War – A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, painstakingly detailing every aspect of the Gettysburg campaign from start to finish.9 Through the usage of anecdotes from not only the exceptional heroes, but also the common foot soldiers, the book allowed readers to envision and experience the true horrors of the war. In fact, Foote had influenced historians of all ages when he pondered whether or not Pickett’s Charge represented the High Water Mark, the Confederate’s furthest penetration into the North.
Even though in 1974 Michael Shaara wrote The Killer Angels as a fictional account of the early days of the Gettysburg Battle, his work actually became a pivotal text that enabled readers to garner information about the battle because Shaara penned the flowing fictional historical text in a relatively easy to read narrative form.10 In fact, Shaara wrote each chapter through the eyes of various characters, officers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Additionally, he incorporated diaries, journals, and letters in order to recreate the action on the battlefield, as well as the troops’ thoughts and emotions, thus substantiating his overall arguments. Like Foote, Shaara posited that the battle actually represented the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America. In fact, he suggested the idea that Lee should have shouldered the blame for the Confederate defeat.11 Furthermore, in 1982, Bevin Alexander penned Robert E. Lee’s Civil War as an analytical text for audiences to comprehend the mindset of the South’s greatest general.12 Since the author strongly respected Lee and his directives, he firmly believed that any command given by the general held importance, thus requiring scrutiny and evaluation. Interestingly, he highlighted the fact that Lee’s orders issued to his subordinates did not properly translate to his division and corps commanders, thereby becoming the catalyst that created chaos on July 3, 1863.
As recently as 2001, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward co-authored Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign which not only presented a modern viewpoint, but also provided additional information for individuals when debating and pondering the Battle of Gettysburg.13 Interestingly, they outlined various reasons explaining why Lee ordered the attack, as well as the opposing opinions offered by Lee’s subordinates. The authors combined facts, opinions, and primary accounts into a work highlighting the atrocities that occurred on the bloody fields outside the town of Gettysburg.14 Similar to Bowden’s and Ward’s writing, in 2001, Earl Hess penned Pickett’s Charge – The Last Attack at Gettysburg.15 He not only reiterated previous authors’ information, but also developed new insight into one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War. Hess’s work allowed historians and readers to ponder a new perspective relating to the actions of the officers who commanded on that fateful day.16
The varying texts analyzed and researched proved to change over time as historians found new insights into Pickett’s Charge. One of the most interesting nuances which arose, however, dealt with authors’ varying perspectives pertaining to General Robert E. Lee. Most writers lauded the commanding officer of the ANV, but there existed those who questioned his motives for ordering his men on an almost suicidal charge against a fortified Union position. Nevertheless, by not discerning and interpreting the diverse texts, a complete portrait of Robert E. Lee and his men would never have been created to survive forever in the annals of American history. In essence, writers, as well as historians, have attempted to appear objective by incorporating dates, figures, and facts into their writings. Consequently, each author has provided his own viewpoint and cultural perspective, thus portraying a unique interpretation for the readers.
Works Consulted Bibliography
Alexander, Bevin. Robert E. Lee’s Civil War. Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1998.
Bowden, Scott, and Bill Ward. Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg
Campaign. Cambridge: Savas Publishing Company, 2001.
Davis, Burke. Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc.,
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command. New York: Charles Scribner’s
Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee, A Biography. Vol. III. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War - A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random
Hess, Earl J. Pickett’s Charge -The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 2001.
McCabe, James D. Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee. New York: Blelock & Co., 1867.
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.
Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Micro History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3,
1863. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1959.
1 James D. McCabe, Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee (New York: Blelock & Co., 1867).
2 Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee, A Biography, Volume III (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935).
3 Freeman utilized countless primary accounts of Pickett’s Charge in order to present one of the best historical writings about the battle during the mid 1900’s. His research and style of writing laid the groundwork for future decades.
4 Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).
5 Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, 251.
6 Burke Davis, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1956).
7 George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Micro History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1959).
8 Stewart highlighted Lee’s steadfastness in ordering Pickett’s Charge, as well as the placement and marching formation of the Confederate troops.
9 Shelby Foote, The Civil War – A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian (New York: Random House, 1963).
10 Michael Shaara, The Killer Angles (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974).
11 Throughout his novel, Shaara allowed his readers to truly experience Pickett’s Charge and understand the psychology that the Union and Confederate officers adopted during the battle. In fact, he not only told a tale – the story of Pickett’s Charge – from both sides, but also placed the reader in the minds of the generals and the men fighting for their respective causes.
Bevin Alexander, Robert E. Lee’s Civil War (Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1998).
13 Scott Bowden and Bill Ward, Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign (Cambridge: Savas Publishing Company, 2001).
14 Those two authors represented the only ones who systematically laid out the foundation for the reasons that Lee ordered the attack. They also skillfully presented other distinct possibilities that Lee could have chosen in order to avoid Pickett’s Charge.
15 Earl J. Hess, Pickett’s Charge – The Last Attack at Gettysburg (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
16 Without the author’s ability to garner new information about the Battle of Gettysburg, historians would have utilized semi-archaic texts. In essence, he provided his audience with a more complete set of events than ever before.