COMMENTARY | As we honor the brave men and women who served and experienced the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, it is worth noting that many myths persist about the final day of the three-day ordeal. One is the role a fence played in slowing down “Pickett’s Charge,” the last desperate gamble of General Robert E. Lee.
On that day, Lee sent General George Pickett’s Virginians and several other units from North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama to break the Union Center at Cemetery Ridge. They were repulsed by General Winfield Scott Hancock’s soldiers, losing half their men, and only briefly making it to the Union lines. Many died before they could even get in range.
There’s a lot of finger pointing going on. Pickett blamed Lee. General Jubal Early blames General James Longstreet for the failure, though Longstreet did his best to talk Lee out of making such a suicidal charge. Others claim it was the inability of the Confederate artillery to weaken the Union lines and guns. Only the classy Lee seems to have accepted any responsibility.
But what if it was something as simple as a fence that thwarted the Confederate attack?
Only Emmitsburg Road, a fence existed separating two farms. As Confederate forces moved nearly a mile across the field, many had to stop to climb over the fence. They made perfect targets for the Union as a result. Perhaps that’s why so few even made it to an area known as “Bloody Angle,” depicted in “the Lost Cause” movement in the South as “the high water mark of the Confederacy.”
The Discovery Channel show “Unsolved History” claims the fence was a critical part of the attack, using reenactors to demonstrate how the fence slowed down Pickett’s Charge. The group tested the myth whether pushing down the fence would have made much of a difference. Others suggested that the fences should have been dismantled at night before the attack.
There are a few problems with that myth. First, the fences of 1863 were hardly flimsy structures to be easily pushed down. They were buried deep, and would have had to be dug up, something the South could ill-afford to do during the battle. Tearing them up at night, even if the South could do so without leading to Union gun attacks, would alerted the North to the Southern plan. Lee hoped to hit Meade in the Center, reasoning that his Union counterpart reinforced his Left on Little Round Top and Round Top, and the Right on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, the object of the previous day’s attack, thus weakening his Center.
Moreover, such a myth does not take into account the accuracy of the Union gunners, the effective use Meade had of the reverse slope at Cemetery Ridge at his Center, and the wide distance Pickett’s troops had to cover. Moreover, not all of the third day’s charge had to go over the fence; the South had troops meeting in the Center from multiple positions.
In reality, while there was no shortage of gallantry on the Confederate side in making such a desperate charge, it was no more likely to succeed than General Ulysses S. Grant’s assaults upon dug in Confederate forces at Cold Harbor, Virginia the following year, which suffered similar attrition rates according to Civil War Historian James McPherson.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, GA. Photo of Civil War era cannon is by the author.