By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
Historian Phillip Thomas Tucker claims about the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge on the third day at Gettysburg:
Lee’s complex battle plan on July 3 was more brilliant than Napoleon’s at Waterloo…Lee unleashed a sophisticated and complex, three-part tactical plan to split the Army of the Potomac in two. Despite the failure of Stuart’s cavalry to charge into the rear of Meade’s right-center, and the lack of Longstreet’s and Hill’s coordination of the offensive effort as Lee bitterly reflected for the rest of his days, the attack had nearly succeeded nevertheless. (p. 359)
According to Tucker, Lee’s plan was to have simultaneous assaults not only by the Pickett-Pettigrew force accompanied by flying artillery and follow-up reinforcements but also by Ewell’s corps on Culp’s Hill and by Lee’s cavalry under Jeb Stuart attacking from the rear of Meade’s center (p. XXIV). Tucker also claims that despite the failure of Ewell’s attack being coordinated with the charge in Meade’s front and the failure of Stuart breaking through on the East Cavalry Field, the charge almost succeeded.
Stuart’s horsemen (who belatedly arrived late on the second day) were confronted by David Gregg’s outnumbered Union cavalry. An heroic charge by George Armstrong Custer and his Michigan Wolverine brigade blunted Stuart’s advance. Tucker’s key Union hero at Gettysburg is Custer (and Union artillery commander Henry Hunt). Our October speaker Eric Wittenberg will talk about this cavalry battle.
Tucker’s argument about Lee’s plan (beyond just the frontal infantry assault on Cemetery Ridge) repeats the same hypothesis made by Army historian and lawyer Tom Carhart in his 2005 book entitled Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg-and Why It Failed. Carhart arrived at his conclusion without much in the way of any real evidence to support his argument. He concluded:
Finally, after reading, sifting, and absorbing all the evidence, it is the reader who must make the ultimate choice. Did Lee really just have a bad day, as the current revealed wisdom would have it? Or had he in fact concocted a plan for a three-pronged attack that, if successful, would have stunned the world? If the latter is chosen, then it becomes apparent that, had Jeb Stuart carried out his task, it probably would have resulted in a smashing victory for Lee, a victory that could have won recognition and acceptance of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation, an outcome with truly unimaginable consequences. (p. 267)
Eric Wittenberg critiqued Carhart’s theory in his Rantings of a Civil War Historian on September 25, 2005:
I wish I could say that Tom Carhart’s recent book, Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg-and Why It Failed, is a worthy piece of revisionist history that adds something to the existing body of knowledge. Sadly, I cannot. Carhart’s work is revisionism of the worst sort-it’s grossly irresponsible, and there is not a shred of evidence to support Carhart’s contentions. What astonished me most of all is that people who have been flocking to buy this piece of tripe and that prominent and well-respected historians like James McPherson and John Keegan have put their imprimatur on something that has no basis in fact.
This book is an intellectually dishonest, poorly researched, fabricated piece of tripe that manipulates SOME of the available evidence to support foregone conclusions and which should be marked at fiction. It is certainly not history, and it constitutes revisionism of the worst variety.
I assume that Wittenberg would also label Tucker’s same argument in a similar negative vein.
I agree with Wittenberg’s criticism that there is little evidence to support Carhart and Tucker in their defense of Lee. Their criticism of James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Jeb Stuart for their failures on July 3 does seem justified. As for Tucker’s version, he repetitively makes his main argument. He also provides a painstaking account of the Pickett-Pettigrew attack which includes identifying the home and unit of seemingly most of the participants killed, wounded and captured during the fighting. Tucker has also written two other Gettysburg books, Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg and Storming Little Round Top: The 15th Alabama and Their Fight for High Ground, July 2, 1863.
Eric Wittenberg. Protecting the Flank at Gettysburg: The Battles for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, July 2-3, 1863. 2013. Savas Beatie.
Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack
by Phillip Thomas Tucker
Sky Horse Publishing (2016)
From the Publisher: The Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s turning point, produced over 57,000 casualties, the largest number from the entire war that was itself America’s bloodiest conflict. On the third day of fierce fighting, Robert E. Lee’s attempt to invade the North came to a head in Pickett’s Charge. The infantry assault, consisting of nine brigades of soldiers in a line that stretched for over a mile, resulted in casualties of over 50 percent for the Confederates and a huge psychological blow to Southern morale.
Pickett’s Charge is a detailed analysis of one of the most iconic and defining events in American history. This book presents a much-needed fresh look, including the unvarnished truths and ugly realities, about the unforgettable story. With the luxury of hindsight, historians have long denounced the folly of Lee’s attack, but this work reveals the tactical brilliance of a master plan that went awry. Special emphasis is placed on the common soldiers on both sides, especially the non-Virginia attackers outside of Pickett’s Virginia Division. These fighters’ moments of cowardice, failure, and triumph are explored using their own words from primary and unpublished sources. Without romance and glorification, the complexities and contradictions of the dramatic story of Pickett’s Charge have been revealed in full to reveal this most pivotal moment in the nation’s life.