What If Longstreet Called Off Pickett's Charge?

David H.

Private
Joined
Jul 11, 2019
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I have been a soldier all my life. I have commanded companies, I have commanded regiments. I have commanded divisions. And I have commanded even more. But there are no fifteen thousand men in the world that can go across that ground."

What if General James Longstreet did not give the signal to commence "Pickett's" Charge after Alexander informed him that he did not have enough ammunition to support the charge? Longstreet had earlier expressed his concern to General Lee about making the charge. Without enough artillery support, the chance of it being successful was even smaller.

So what would have happened if Longstreet did not give the signal to start the actual charge? (I am not asking if Lee wold have had him courtmartialed). Would Lee have ordered the charge himself? When Lee found out about the lack of ammunition, would he have agreed with Longstreet? And if the charge does not take place, what does each side do next?
 
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nc native

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NC Piedmont
I believe since General Lee was determined to have his decisive battle against the Army of the Potomac, the cancellation of Pickett's Charge would simply shift the action to another portion of the battlefield later in the day for another try at breaking the Union line elsewhere. Not attacking would result in a stalemate because there Meade was dug in and he wasn't going to attempt a large scale assault on the Confederate lines. Lee know the Army of Northern Virginia could not just sit around in Pennsylvania for an extended period of time and wait for even more Union reinforcements to join Meade and possibly block his lines of withdrawal and supply.

Meade, on the other hand, was content to play the waiting game. He knew an attack on the Confederate lines would be costly and could possibly give Lee the victory he sought on Northern soil. Meade knew that he had the home field advantage and the Army of Northern Virginia was not large enough or well supplied enough for an extended stay north of the Potomac unless it could get rid of the largest obstacle in its way, the Army of the Potomac. Meade had the advantage of terrain and numbers and he was not going to throw away these advantages by rolling the dice and attacking General Lee unless the situation were extremely advantageous for him.
 
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Longstreet would not have cancelled making the charge under any circumstances; he had been in the army too long to disobey an order, especially one from General Lee. After all, Longstreet had counseled Lee against making the charge even before it began; but after Lee gave him the order to attack, Longstreet reluctantly obeyed . But even if Longstreet had not given the signal, Lee would have. Lee fought his battles with one aim; destroy the enemy ("If the enemy is there tomorrow, then I will strike him"). He was a gambler to boot, not afraid to tackle long odds. He had attacked both flanks of the Union army on July 1-2; the center had to be weakened and could be broken. So in the end, Pickett's Charge would be made with the same end result.
 
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What if Longstreet simply went ahead with his flanking movement instead?
Lee had vetoed Longstreet's flanking movement before deciding to launch the attack on the Union center. It is highly unlikely he would have considered it on the afternoon of July 3rd. Longstreet would have never launched the flank attack without Lee's approval. And even if Lee had agreed to the flank attack on July 3rd, the time was long past the time when such a move could have been launched with any hope of success. To move Longstreet's troop for a march to the Round Tops would have taken too much time( realistically, they probably couldn't be in position until late July 4 or early July 5); at the same time it would have left a gap in Lee's line that Meade couldn't ignore, something that Lee would never have allowed to happen. The end result ? Pickett's Charge would be made, and it would fail.
 

rbasin

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Location
Tampa, Fl
Lee had vetoed Longstreet's flanking movement before deciding to launch the attack on the Union center. It is highly unlikely he would have considered it on the afternoon of July 3rd. Longstreet would have never launched the flank attack without Lee's approval. And even if Lee had agreed to the flank attack on July 3rd, the time was long past the time when such a move could have been launched with any hope of success. To move Longstreet's troop for a march to the Round Tops would have taken too much time( realistically, they probably couldn't be in position until late July 4 or early July 5); at the same time it would have left a gap in Lee's line that Meade couldn't ignore, something that Lee would never have allo
wed to happen. The end result ? Pickett's Charge would be made, and it would fail.

I don't see Meade going on the offensive. And I get that Lee wouldn't have changed the order this late. IMO, this attack worked out just how Longstreet saw it before hand.
 
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I don't see Meade going on the offensive. And I get that Lee wouldn't have changed the order this late. IMO, this attack worked out just how Longstreet saw it before hand.
I agree, Meade had no reason to go on the offensive; he held the high ground and time was on his side, not Lee's. Whether or not Longstreet agreed with the attack, it would have been made regardless.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
If we assume for a moment that Lee calls off Pickett's Charge, then two things probably happen.

1) Lee is forever castigated for not using his reserves when they could have been decisive. People examine the situation maps and conclude there was no Union reserve available, pointing out (correctly) that 6th Corps had been penny-packeted out and did not constitute a formed reserve, and claim that one last push could have broken the Union line.
2) The overall outcome of the battle preserves the quality of the Army of Northern Virginia and badly degrades that of the Army of the Potomac (which is to say, because the Charge didn't happen the casualty figures are about 16,000 for the ANV and about 21,500 for the AotP. Historically the 23,000 casualties suffered by the AotP badly degraded their quality, while the AoNV's 25,000 casualties didn't have quite so much effect for some reason; here the discrepancy would be magnified.)

This may have knock on effects. How would Chickamauga have done if the Confederates had had another 8,000-9,000 infantry with them?
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
If Longstreet had called it off, would he be in command ever again?
If he'd done it on his own initiative and violated a direct order - not just "executed it half-heartedly" (as he did historically) but completely ignored it?
Hard to tell. Jackson certainly got away with outright defiance of orders on several occasions, but that might have been an interpersonal thing between Lee and Jackson.
 

67th Tigers

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Nov 10, 2006
What if General James Longstreet did not give the signal to commence "Pickett's" Charge after Alexander informed him that he did not have enough ammunition to support the charge? Longstreet had earlier expressed his concern to General Lee about making the charge. Without enough artillery support, the chance of it being successful was even smaller.

So what would have happened if Longstreet did not give the signal to start the actual charge? (I am not asking if Lee wold have had him courtmartialed). Would Lee have ordered the charge himself? When Lee found out about the lack of ammunition, would he have agreed with Longstreet? And if the charge does not take place, what does each side do next?

What Lee envisaged was a "whirlwind" 15 minute bombardment, followed by an immediate strong assault by 20 brigades. What he got was ca. 2 hours of faltering bombardment, and then an assault by only 9 brigades.

Longstreet's reasoning was that he believed the assault could not succeed, and he preferred his idea of maneouvering. Hence he hesitated and held back.
 

John S. Carter

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Joined
Mar 15, 2017

I have been a soldier all my life. I have commanded companies, I have commanded regiments. I have commanded divisions. And I have commanded even more. But there are no fifteen thousand men in the world that can go across that ground."

What if General James Longstreet did not give the signal to commence "Pickett's" Charge after Alexander informed him that he did not have enough ammunition to support the charge? Longstreet had earlier expressed his concern to General Lee about making the charge. Without enough artillery support, the chance of it being successful was even smaller.

So what would have happened if Longstreet did not give the signal to start the actual charge? (I am not asking if Lee wold have had him courtmartialed). Would Lee have ordered the charge himself? When Lee found out about the lack of ammunition, would he have agreed with Longstreet? And if the charge does not take place, what does each side do next?
Ask any artillerist and I believe that the mistake that Lee ,because he did not know of the Union's cannon positions in front of the charge and to the sides {Charge of the Light Brigade on foot) or just trusted in Alexander's perfection with his cannons that this was the error of the charge.The commander of Union artillery held till Alexander had silenced his cannons and waited till the charge was in the area where his cannons would and did accomplish the most damage before it had reached the crest.As to the question;A combined calvary {every unit available} charge at the cannons which were in place that would have fired on Pickett and Armsteadt .This to be done in unison with the attack by Pickett.Question: Lee was a student of Napoleon.Did he ever study Waterloo?There are stories that Napoleon was ill at Waterloo and effected his judgement could Lee had been hill or suffering post heart attack.Neither general wanted to fight here ,at least Meade did not.WHY?There is a physiological effect to this battle.How many times had the ANV won against the AP?These times where in Va,now they were in Pa.with a different general than the previous It would be like a team that had defeated this team ,even humiliated at times,over so many times that this would be no different ,Maybe Lee should have on the second day called his commanders and division commanders and given them a BRAVEHEART speech .ONE LAST= At Waterloo ,their had been rain there the night of ,so a cannon ball would have sunk into the ground,at Gettysburg no one checked the fuse.result ,the cannon fire at both battles for Nap and Bobby Lee use useless.
 
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Lubliner

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Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
I see the 'What if...' proposition as Lee and Longstreet, together now with Stuart deciding on the third day to remove the army and swing south to return and strike the Union force from the flank and rear. An early dawn move, say about 3:00 A. M. would give them opportunity to gather in and consolidate a drive for better ground to attack. It would become a running battle, possibly making the Union fall back quickly upon itself. Would the Union be disorganized logistically and the men suffer from negative morale? Good thoughts.
Lubliner.
 

Rhea Cole

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I have walked the field to where a relation took cover behind the fence along the Emmitsburg Road on the day before Picket's Charge. Forty-five percent of his comrades in the 3rd Georgia were left on the field that day. Lee had hard numbers for what it would cost to cross that field again. He knew exactly what it was going to cost to break the AoP line at the copse of trees. Lee was well aware of the tactical ascendancy of the defense over the offense. The 2nd Corps under Hancock held the line he intended to attack; there would be no panic by green troops. Private Benjamin Lester, knew all this from vividly fresh personal experience. The smell from the blood of his friends splattered on his uniform was still pungent. While standing at the position where he, & what was left of his regiment, watched Picket's men disappear into the cloud of dust & gun smoke I could only speculate on what he was thinking. I will never know, of course.

There is no question, attacking at that point was a tactical blunder by Lee, pure & simple. Longstreet could not have refused to order the charge simply because he was General Longstreet; to do otherwise was inconceivable. He knew better. Private Benjamin Lester knew better. Generals Eisenhower & Montgomery, when they toured the battlefield, knew better. From the evidence of my own eyes, without 20/20 hindsight even I know better. When Lee said that it was all his fault, he knew better, too.
 
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