Unsolved History: Pickett’s Charge

Watched an episode of Unsolved History the other night on Pickett’s Charge and it was actually pretty good. For those unfamiliar with the series, it takes a historical event with ambiguous circumstances and tries, using scientific techniques, to clarify them. In this case it was the reasons for the failure of the climactic Confederate attack on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg.

As part of the research, they had a reenactment unit try its luck at shooting a group of targets representing an opposing line of battle at 80 yards, firing a volley and then at will with live ammo. The modern-day soldiers managed about two rounds per minute and got just over 50% hits at that range. I would say that their level of training and expertise was roughly comparable to a green unit that had not yet “seen the elephant.” A veteran unit should have been capable of three rounds per minute (an increase of 50% in firepower) and given the level of CW marksmanship, a slightly higher number of hits.

The second test involved a Napoleon shooting double canister at the same range. The “spray” of balls was about 20 yards wide, and not much inside that fan would have come out unwounded. Still, there are accounts of Confederates attacking in open order who managed to dodge most of this, altho this would not have worked in line of battle.

They were coming on in two lines; the first a rather heavy skirmish line, about 10 to 20 rods in advance of their main line, and they were also reaching round our left flank from the other side of the brook. It was their front or skirmish line that struck us. There were probably about 75 or 80 of them that actually struck us, and the row was all over before the main line got up. I could not believe that they were actually going to close with us until the men on the remaining gun of our left section abandoned it and retreated toward the old graveyard wall. Their front line was not in order, but there was an officer leading them, and I distinctly heard him shout: “Rally on the Battery ! Rally on the Battery !” Our section and the right stood firm. Pat Hunt drove home his last double canisters when their leading men were within 40 feet of him, and as our No. 4 – sturdy Jake Gabriel – fell shot through the head in the act of “hooking on.” I took the lanyard as it slipped through his nerveless fingers and yanked it right in their teeth, almost, but they were right on top of us, and as Kershaw’s Rebel veterans understood this kind of business they “opened out,” so that the charge did not hit any of them, as I could see, and in a second they were amongst us, amid smoke, fog, wreck, yells, clash and confusion which no pen can depict and no pencil portray. It was now man to man, hand to hand, with bayonet and musket butt on their side and revolvers, rammer heads and handspikes on ours!

Overall, Unsolved History concluded that given the hit rates and the number of rifles and cannon aimed the Confederates, their casualties should have been much higher, which I suppose can be accounted for by the “pucker factor” in actual combat. Theoretical accuracy and accuracy on the range is not the same as accuracy under the stress of fighting. Nevertheless, a substantial force of Confederates got to within striking distance of Union positions on Cemetery Ridge without crippling casualties, and might have taken it except for running into the fence along the pike, which slowed them down and disrupted their formations. At this point their casualties jumped (as shown by the burial charts) because they made much better targets, their organization fell apart, and a number of men simply abandoned the fight and hoofed it to the rear. A small, determined group made it to the ridge but were too few to take it. It convincingly showed the value of even a small obstacle in disrupting an attack.

Personally, I would have liked to have seen them test and compare rifle hit rates at different ranges, e.g. 30 yards, 80 yards, 200 yards, 400 yards, etc. Even better would have been to compare them to a unit armed with smoothbores firing “buck and ball.”

Overall, well worth watching if you’re interested in Civil War tactics. This episode is currently showing on the Military Channel and you can find out when here.

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One response to “Unsolved History: Pickett’s Charge”

  1. Scott Avatar

    Good post. I’ve been generally impressed with any episode I’ve seen of Unsolved History. I’ll try and catch this one.

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