The Swales of Pickett's Charge

Gettysburg Greg

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Many of the Union soldiers watching the more than 12,000 Confederates steadily advancing towards them on Cemetery Ridge at the beginning of the PPT Charge later recalled an interesting phenomenon as the Rebels got closer. The long lines of butternut clad men would disappear and then suddenly reappear as though they were coming up out of the ground. This was the result of the long lines passing through the series of deep swales that run between the two ridges. Just looking across the empty field today, the swales are hardly noticeable, however by following the line of an east-west fence line, the depth and frequency of the dips can be more easily discerned. My photograph taken from near the Virginia Monument shows a fence line running towards Cemetery Ridge that clearly demonstrates the point Much of the area between the two ridges inexplicably was turned into Camp Colt, a training base for a tank corps in 1918. Despite the damage undoubtedly done to the terrain, the swales remain, basically unchanged.
gb8 111.jpg
 

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infomanpa

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Excellent idea to use the fence posts as a demonstration of the undulating terrain! I'd like to point out that if you walk the path along the fence in your photo, you would find that you will always be visible to the Union lines. I believe that the report about the Rebels disappearing and reappearing applied more to the ground to the right of your photo where Pickett's division stepped off Seminary Ridge. If you walk over on that ground, you would find that the undulations are more extreme and you would definitely be able to be hidden from the Union view. Unfortunately, there is no continuous fence line to illustrate the effect.
 

Gettysburg Greg

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Excellent idea to use the fence posts as a demonstration of the undulating terrain! I'd like to point out that if you walk the path along the fence in your photo, you would find that you will always be visible to the Union lines. I believe that the report about the Rebels disappearing and reappearing applied more to the ground to the right of your photo where Pickett's division stepped off Seminary Ridge. If you walk over on that ground, you would find that the undulations are more extreme and you would definitely be able to be hidden from the Union view. Unfortunately, there is no continuous fence line to illustrate the effect.
I completely agree. When walking across towards Codoris, you notice the entire Union line disappears, only the spires on the barn visible.
 

Danvtemt

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Maybe a bit off-topic but I've often been amazed at how much variation in terrain is in fields that appear at casual glance to be flat. Cornfields that I pass by everyday show significant swales and ridges when viewed in the fall after the harvest. It really wouldn't take much of a dip in the ground to conceal a line of men.
 

rpkennedy

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On July 2, the fields between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge leading to the area around the Codori House were covered by what Union soldiers described as "high grass" which further obscured their vision. The 15th Massachusetts and 82nd New York were stationed right at the Emmitsburg Road and couldn't see Wright's Brigade approaching (although they could hear them) but Brown's Rhode Island Battery on a small knoll between the road and the stone wall could see them and fired over the probe infantrymen to their front.

Ryan
 

Scooter_B

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Many of the Union soldiers watching the more than 12,000 Confederates steadily advancing towards them on Cemetery Ridge at the beginning of the PPT Charge later recalled an interesting phenomenon as the Rebels got closer. The long lines of butternut clad men would disappear and then suddenly reappear as though they were coming up out of the ground. This was the result of the long lines passing through the series of deep swales that run between the two ridges. Just looking across the empty field today, the swales are hardly noticeable, however by following the line of an east-west fence line, the depth and frequency of the dips can be more easily discerned. My photograph taken from near the Virginia Monument shows a fence line running towards Cemetery Ridge that clearly demonstrates the point Much of the area between the two ridges inexplicably was turned into Camp Colt, a training base for a tank corps in 1918. Despite the damage undoubtedly done to the terrain, the swales remain, basically unchanged.
View attachment 312170
Thanks for the photos and posting them.
 

Scooter_B

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On July 2, the fields between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge leading to the area around the Codori House were covered by what Union soldiers described as "high grass" which further obscured their vision. The 15th Massachusetts and 82nd New York were stationed right at the Emmitsburg Road and couldn't see Wright's Brigade approaching (although they could hear them) but Brown's Rhode Island Battery on a small knoll between the road and the stone wall could see them and fired over the probe infantrymen to their front.

Ryan
Interesting how the terrain changes perspective.
 

John S. Carter

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I completely agree. When walking across towards Codoris, you notice the entire Union line disappears, only the spires on the barn visible.
There is a question that seems not to be answered its the fence.I realize that to send out pickets to reconordor the terrain is not feasible it would be like to say like 'We will be coming this way!" But the fence slowed the advance and gave the Union artillery time to adjust .How many men died at the fence?At the fence what was a orderly advance turned into a mass of congestion .Then the terrain, at Waterloo the terrain favored Wellington at Gettysburg it favored Meade.Both Napoleon and Lee should have left the field and move on to more favorable ground.
 

rpkennedy

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There is a question that seems not to be answered its the fence.I realize that to send out pickets to reconordor the terrain is not feasible it would be like to say like 'We will be coming this way!" But the fence slowed the advance and gave the Union artillery time to adjust .How many men died at the fence?At the fence what was a orderly advance turned into a mass of congestion .Then the terrain, at Waterloo the terrain favored Wellington at Gettysburg it favored Meade.Both Napoleon and Lee should have left the field and move on to more favorable ground.
IMO, the fence issue is somewhat exaggerated. For one, there were places where the fence had been torn down (from the Codori Farm and a short distance north, the 15th Massachusetts and 82nd New York had made barricades from part of the fence on July 2).

There were two things that seem to make the fences more important. One is that the road was the spot when the artillery in front of them opened up with canister (these guns had been mostly silent because they had shot their long-range ammunition during the cannonade) and the infantry began firing, thus increasing the incoming fire exponentially. It was from the road when the task became much more difficult. Another thing to remember was that the Emmitsburg Road was slightly sunken which led to a significant number of men diving in to the road and not leaving (not to mention that the attackers were hemorrhaging men as soon as they left Seminary Ridge). The men would climb over the first fence and throw themselves into the road to escape the fire for a few seconds but it took a prodigious strength of will to stand up and attempt to climb over the second fence and continue with the assault.

That said, I don't want it to sound like the fences were no big deal. They absolutely were a problem but not the decisive one that some historians have made them out to be (and the History Channel show that aired years ago).

Ryan
 

John S. Carter

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It is still hard to imagine an Army crossing that vast open area and expecting to not only survive, but to win the battle. What was R.E.Lee thinking?
To view this as a single movement in the battle is what causes people to question this .After reading of Lee's total movement of the forces then it does not seem to have been the error in reason.If all would have taken place as Lee had set it then the Charge would have possible gone down as a great deceiver move.Unfortunately Lee had a belief in his corp commanders to carry his plan as projecteded.Question did Lee have a conference with his commanders prior to this or did he just send out troopers to deliver their own movements.Lee had believed his own "mediA" concerning his troops abilities.Then there was the unexpected failure of artilary and events which came into play that he could not count on.
 

rpkennedy

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To view this as a single movement in the battle is what causes people to question this .After reading of Lee's total movement of the forces then it does not seem to have been the error in reason.If all would have taken place as Lee had set it then the Charge would have possible gone down as a great deceiver move.Unfortunately Lee had a belief in his corp commanders to carry his plan as projecteded.Question did Lee have a conference with his commanders prior to this or did he just send out troopers to deliver their own movements.Lee had believed his own "mediA" concerning his troops abilities.Then there was the unexpected failure of artilary and events which came into play that he could not count on.
Everything pretty much did go off according to Lee (with the possible exception of Rodes' Division who may or may not have been intended to support the assault's left flank; the sources are not clear but I tend to lean towards no unless a massive opening presented itself). Longstreet's Assault was very much a standalone attack. Exactly what other moving part do you believe failed?

As for meeting with his corps commanders, he did meet with Longstreet several times on July 3 and Hill once as well, IIRC. I don't recall a personal meeting with Ewell until it was far too late.

Ryan
 

John S. Carter

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Everything pretty much did go off according to Lee (with the possible exception of Rodes' Division who may or may not have been intended to support the assault's left flank; the sources are not clear but I tend to lean towards no unless a massive opening presented itself). Longstreet's Assault was very much a standalone attack. Exactly what other moving part do you believe failed?

As for meeting with his corps commanders, he did meet with Longstreet several times on July 3 and Hill once as well, IIRC. I don't recall a personal meeting with Ewell until it was far too late.

Ryan
Thank you for this.Correct this ,after the break in the defence that the men turned around to observe if there were any follow up by additional divisions.Was there suppose to be or was this a sense of accomplishment?They had done this now were was the support?Even after this did not Mead have extra division in reserve to send in support? There are many statements either fact or what was reported that one still should ask questions .
 

rpkennedy

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Thank you for this.Correct this ,after the break in the defence that the men turned around to observe if there were any follow up by additional divisions.Was there suppose to be or was this a sense of accomplishment?They had done this now were was the support?Even after this did not Mead have extra division in reserve to send in support? There are many statements either fact or what was reported that one still should ask questions .
No, there were no follow-up divisions ready to exploit a breakthrough. That role seems to have fallen to Armistead's (Pickett's Division), Lane's (Trimble's Division), and Lowrance's (Trimble's Division) Brigades. Wilcox's, Lang's, and Wright's Brigades (Anderson's Division) were assigned to support Pickett's right flank and some have argued that Rodes was supposed to guard Pettigrew's left flank (although I'm not convinced that Rodes was given positive order to that effect).

As for Meade, there was a Sixth Corps division (John Newton's) to the rear of the Second Corps that could have been brought forward but they had been somewhat scattered by the cannonade. The rest of Meade's reserves were scattered all over the field from Culp's Hill to Little Round Top so he was not in much of a position to counterattack after repelling Longstreet's Assault (not to mention the loss of Hancock and Gibbon).

Ryan
 

bankerpapaw

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For the life of me, I have never grasped why they would put a tank training ground on such hallowed ground. Did that not mean anything to anyone?
 

rpkennedy

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For the life of me, I have never grasped why they would put a tank training ground on such hallowed ground. Did that not mean anything to anyone?
It was already owned by the War Department so they used what they had available. It wasn't the first time that troops had been stationed in Gettysburg and trained on the battlefield. The 28th Division was based and trained at Gettysburg (Camp Samuel W. Crawford and Camp George G. Meade) and other units had had maneuvers in the area between 1865 and 1918 (Camp Colt).

Ryan
 


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