One of the most moving scenes in the movie Gettysburg is one that I always suspected took a bit of dramatic liberty with the facts: the scene where Confederate General James Longstreet orders General George Pickett to lead his troops on what is now known as an ill-fated, failed assault on the Union center. General Robert E. Lee gave the order to Longstreet, who, by his account, objected, telling Lee that “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” In the movie, Longstreet is depicted as so deeply doubting the possibility of success– or so deeply believing in the certainty of failure– that he could not even bring himself to give the order directly to Pickett, delegating the responsibility to his artillery commander, Colonel Edwin Alexander, and then standing mute when Pickett asked if he should take his troops in.
I’ve always wondered about the movie’s depiction of this scene, particularly since it seemed to be based primarily on Longstreet’s accounts of the events, which, as the post-war years passed, not only became more detailed, but also more critical of Lee and more vociferous in their certainty of failure.
In the book Pickett’s Charge: Eyewitness Accounts, a collection edited by Richard Rollins, a series of letters that Pickett wrote to his wife Sallie immediately after the battle confirm that Longstreet, indeed, expressed his grave doubts to Pickett, could not give the order to Pickett directly, and, if anything, that the scene in the movie may have understated the emotion of the moment.
Here is Pickett’s first post-battle letter to Sallie dated July 4, 1863, the day after the failed charge:
My letter of yesterday, my darling, written before the battle, was full of hope and cheer; even though it told you of the long hours of waiting from four in the morning, when Gary’s pistol rang out from the Federal lines signaling the attack upon Culp’s Hill, to the solemn eight o’clock review of my men, who rose and stood silently lifting their hats in loving reverence as Marse Robert (General Robert E. Lee), Old Peter (General James Longstreet) and your own soldier reviewed them — on then to the deadly stillness of the five hours following, when the men lay in the tall grass in the rear of the artillery line, the July sun pouring its scorching rays almost vertically down upon them, till one o’clock when the awful silence of the vast battlefield was broken by a cannon-shot which opened the greatest artillery duel of the world. The firing lasted two hours. When it ceased we took advantage of the blackened field and in the glowering darkness formed our attacking column just before the brow of Seminary Ridge.
I closed my letter to you a little before three o’clock and rode up to Old Peter for orders. I found him like a great lion at bay. I have never seen him so grave and troubled. For several minutes after I saluted him he looked at me without speaking. Then in an agonized voice, the reserve all gone, he said:
“Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make. I have instructed (Colonel Edwin) Alexander (Confederate artillery commander) to watch the effect of our fire upon the enemy, and when it begins to tell he must take the responsibility and give you your orders, for I can’t.”
While he was yet speaking a note was brought to me from Alexander. After reading it I handed it to him, asking if I should obey and go forward. He looked at me for a moment, then held out his hand. Presently, clasping his other hand over mine without speaking he bowed his head upon his breast. I shall never forget the look in his face nor the clasp of his hand when I said “Then, General, I shall lead my Division on.” I had ridden only a few paces when I remembered your letter and (forgive me) thoughtlessly scribbled in a corner of the envelope, “If Old Peter’s nod means death then good by and God bless you, little on,” turned back and asked the dear old chief if he would be good enough to mail it for me. As he took your letter from me, my darling, I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, — given in anguish and with reluctance.
My brave boys were full of hope and confident of victory as I led them forth, forming them in column of attack, and though officers and men alike knew what was before them, –knew the odds against them,– they eagerly offered up their lives on the altar of duty, having absolute faith in their ultimate success. Over on Cemetery Ridge the Federals beheld a scene never before witnessed on this continent, –a scene which has never previously been enacted and can never take place again — an army forming in line of battle in full view, under their very eyes– charging across a space nearly a mile in length over fields of waving grain and anon of stubble and then a smooth expanse– moving with the steadiness of a dress parade, the pride and glory soon to be crushed by an overwhelming heartbreak.
Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many are wounded, bleeding and dying. Your soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.
In camp, July 4, 1863