A popular historian deconstructs “the greatest assault of the greatest battle of America’s greatest war.”
Judging by the battlefield remains of combatants uncovered in 1996 or the 2014 Medal of Honor President Barack Obama bestowed on an artillery officer who helped thwart the Confederate assault, the real-world aftermath of Pickett’s Charge continues to unfold. Certainly, controversy persists among Civil War historians about precisely what happened on July 3, 1863, when Robert E. Lee went for broke and the “high tide of the Rebellion” was repulsed. Tucker (George Washington’s Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle that Decided the Fate of America, 2014, etc.) tracks the assault from the opening, unprecedented artillery bombardment to the end, where “the foremost attacker of Pickett’s Charge was killed near the open crest of so much strategic importance.” Determined to spotlight some hidden or neglected truths, he dots this narrative with various pieces of odd information, including, for example, the curious tendency of soldiers armed with bayonets during the intense fighting to eschew their use in favor of clubbing each other with muskets. The author also pauses to add a list and description of soldiers severely wounded in the groin and testicles. He comments on the precise nature of the terrain the attackers traversed, the disproportionate influence of Virginia Military Institute graduates within Pickett’s division, the considerable number of Irish and Germans among the Confederates, and the diversity of their backgrounds, facts at odds with the romanticism about “the very flower” of Southern culture and refinement that perished that day. More than anything, Tucker aims to pierce the myth that Lee’s plan was doomed. He argues that given the South’s need to strike a decisive blow, Lee’s tactics, a complex mix of artillery, infantry, and cavalry, were sound, that in spite of subordinate officers’ failures of leadership, communication, and execution, the assault came excruciatingly close to succeeding.
Blemished by repetitive prose and a needlessly bumptious tone, Tucker’s narrative nevertheless contains much to interest and provoke Civil War enthusiasts.