Pickett's Charge - CSA Unit Cohesion and Breaking Points

Robert Kirchubel's picture



My organization at Purdue is still working on modeling Pickett's Charge - not my wheelhouse so asking for help once more! Our modelers are interested in why different units behaved so differently as the assault culminated; are there reasons, besides saying regiment X or brigade Y had higher morale, more experience, better officers, etc?

Specifically, Armistead, Garnett and Kemper made it to Union lines, went "toe to toe" against the Yankees, and achieved minor break ins before turning back; Davis and Lane barely reached the Emmitsburg Pike before retreating; Brockenbrough (Lang & Wilcox in the south) had enough before really engaging the enemy. 

We know their linear tactics required men of unbelievable discipline, that I doubt you could find in today's armies. I suspect at no point prior to the attack did Lee or Longstreet or anyone else say "Don't turn back until you reach 27.6% casualties." So what accounts for different behaviors, different points that units "broke" (if we can even say that Pickett's three brigades did that)? Any ideas, or better yet, hard facts?

Thanks again, Rob Kirchubel


Pickett's division was fresh, having missed the first two days of fighting. The other units making the charge had suffered severely during the previous two days.

Anyone who's visited Gettysburg and stood at the spot where Lee sat on Traveler, contemplating Cemetery Ridge in the distance, across those open fields, must have had the same thought that I did -- "They had to be crazy to attempt something like that!"

I have no scholarly answer to Rob's question, only the random speculation that in addition to the discipline and the esprit, maybe some handful of the rank and file, Lord knows how many or how few (along with Armistead, Garnett and Kemper) surely knew in their hearts that this was the "make it or break it" moment for the Confederacy. If they could not prevail here and now, they would surely never prevail.

It's easy to rely on hindsight, but far harder (impossible?) to see history when it's happening, right here and right now. Did some of those men, carrying out Lee's suicidal order, understand it better than others who marched shoulder to shoulder with them for part of the way? I look forward to reading how those folks at Purdue answer that question.