Armistead leapt the wall and laid his hand on the gun,
The last of the three brigadiers who ordered Pickett's brigades,
He waved his hat on his sword and "Give 'em the steel!" he cried,
A few men followed him over. The rest were beaten or dead.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), 312.
It is all over now. Many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.
Maj. Gen. George Pickett, to his Fiancée, July 4, 1863
On July 3, 1863, Union troops repelled a massive artillery assault on Cemetery Ridge during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. During the early morning hours Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered General Longstreet to prepare General Pickett's troops for the assault. Longstreet advised Lee of his reservations about the success of such an advance, which he did not feel Confederate troops could sustain. Lee disregarded Longstreet and maintained his order for a heavy bombardment of Union defenses on the Ridge followed by an advance of Pickett's men.
After two hours of heavy shelling, Confederate Colonel Alexander sent word to General Pickett that the Union troops were withdrawing and encouraged him to come quickly in the interval. Pickett sent his note to General Longstreet who, based on Lee's orders and despite his own reservations, approved the charge.
The attack, commonly known as Pickett's Charge or Longstreet's Assault, was an attempt to penetrate the center of Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. During the attack, only one Confederate brigade temporarily reached the top of the ridge—afterwards called the high watermark of the Confederacy—led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead who, just before being shot, yelled, "Give them cold steel, boys!" The charge ultimately proved disastrous for the Confederates, with casualties approaching 60 percent. As a consequence, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to retreat and ultimately abandon his attempt to reach Washington, D.C. via Pennsylvania.
Army of Northern Virginia, haggard and tattered,
Tramping back on the pikes, through the dust-white summer,
With your wounds still fresh, your burden of prisoners.
Your burden of sick and wounded,
"One long groan of human anguish six miles long."
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), 316.
Some seventy years later, Confederate veteran John H. Robertson, one of many Confederate soldiers captured during Pickett's charge, recalled his experience as a federal prisoner of war:
I was captured at the battle of Gettysburg in Longstreet's charge and was taken to Fort Delaware, an island of 90 acres of land where the Union prisoners were kept. We were detailed to work in the fields and our rations was corn bread and pickled beef. However I fared better than some of the prisoners for I was given the privilege of making jewelry for the use of the Union soldiers. I made rings from the buttons from their overcoats and when they were polished the brass made very nice looking rings. These I sold to the soldiers of the Union Army who were our guards and with the money thus obtained I could buy food and clothing. The Union guards kept a commissary and they had a big supply of chocolate. I ate chocolate candy and drank hot chocolate in place of coffee until I have never wanted any chocolate since.
"John H. Robertson,"
Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer,
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
Robertson was fortunate as 28,063 Confederates and 23,049 Union soldiers were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. President Lincoln paid tribute to the Union soldiers' sacrifice in the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of a National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.