Pickett's-ChargeThere are a few military engagements in the history of our country, that when mentioned, seem to be universally known and recognized. Such is today’s choice for our 3rd installment of On This Day in Military History – Pickett’s Charge. On the 3rd day of the Battle of Gettysburg or July 3rd, 1863, Commanding General Robert E. Lee, supposedly in an attempt to dislodge the dug in Union Troops holding the high ground on Cemetery Hill with the plan of cutting their lines thereby neutralizing the enemy, ordered an infantry assault against Major General George G. Meade’s positions. This move was one of the few mistakes made by the Confederate General during the war and its futility was predicted by the charge’s leading commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered militarily or psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as the high-water mark of the Confederacy (see the Copse of Trees in the middle right of the above picture just above Gibbon’s command). The charge was named after Major General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault under Longstreet.

High Water Mark of the Confederacy
Copse of trees and the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” on the Gettysburg Battlefield looking north.

The infantry assault was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment that was meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but was largely ineffective. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. Although some Confederates were able to breach the low stone wall that shielded many of the Union defenders, they could not maintain their hold and were repulsed with over 50% casualties, a decisive defeat that ended the three-day battle and Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania. Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, Pickett replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Field of Pickett's Charge
A look over the field of Pickett’s Charge looking west. As you can see, the Union Troops were shielded by a low stone wall and had a clear field of fire across which the Confederate Troops had to traverse nearly 3/4 of a mile through heavy fire.

History may never know the true story of Lee’s intentions at Gettysburg with the charge. He never published memoirs, and his after-action report from the battle was incomplete, with little information about the goal or aim of the action. Most of the senior commanders of the charge were casualties and did not write reports. Pickett’s report was apparently so bitter that Lee ordered it destroyed and no copy survives today.

While its goal was unclear, the ramifications from its failure are not. The loss on the 3rd day of Gettysburg left the Confederacy staggering and they would never recover from this defeat. Pickett’s Charge became one of the iconic symbols of the literary and cultural movement known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Confederate Novelist William Faulkner summed up the picture in Southern memory of this gallant but futile episode of the Civil War.

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

— William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

The U.S. Civil War from GMT Games

One of the problems that I used to have with wargaming was that I felt my participation in a game covering such sometimes tragic events, with great suffering and loss of life, with cardboard was somehow insulting to the memory of the soldiers and commanders who lost their lives on those dates so many years ago. But now, with perspective gained over the years, and a greater appreciation and even love of history that has grown in me over the past 20 years, partly due to my playing wargames, I now feel totally differently about wargaming. My participation in a game doesn’t cheapen the sacrifice tied to those moments in history, but enhances and honors it, as our play remembers the great difficulty in decisions having to be made by generals to send young men to their deaths based on their imperfect understanding of the terrain, their enemies’ strength or the will of their own soldiers. Wargaming is a way of looking back to see if things could have turned out differently and to allow players to experience, on some level at least, the agonizing decisions that had to be made. And I love it!

The US Civil War Setup
Gorgeous and well done mounted map boards make this Civil War game standout from the crowd.

With that being said, I wanted to share with you my brief experience with The U.S. Civil War from GMT Games. I own this daunting title and have only played it twice, once with a good friend who loves the Civil War era, and another time by myself. The game is a massive monster of a strategic level wargame covering the entire span of the Civil War from 1861-1865 and having action in every theater, stretching from the Eastern Theater, through the mid-Atlantic and Lower Seaboard to the Trans-Mississippi Theater. This game is huge, and as such, requires two large mounted map boards totaling a play area of 30×44″.

Military forces are represented by generals and strength-points (SPs). Each SP represents approximately 5,000 soldiers. Game mechanics stress strategy, maneuver and leadership but details like ironclads, naval battles, leader promotions, forts, and commerce raiders are included. Shorter scenarios are also included that cover just the years of 1861, 1862 and 1863.

US Civil War First Move
Confederates lose opening battle at Harper’s Ferry and it would all be down hill from then on!

Players of Eric Lee Smith’s The Civil War and Mark Herman’s For the People will see many similarities between this game and those two, and many concepts from those two games inspired many of the rules and concepts used in this game.

What I love about the game is also its greatest weakness. I love that each player has innumerable choices and decisions to make about how they want to conduct the war, limited by their numbers of troops and the luck of the dice with action points, but still there is a lot to do. Do you want to focus on a CSA strategy of hit and run, protecting Build Point sites first but harassing the Union troops to force them to act? As the Union, you have massive firepower and big stacks of units but they are hard to move around the board. Where do you focus first? Protecting Washington is always important? Do you want to put pressure on Memphis and focus on assaulting along the Mississippi River? Do you focus on a strategy of cutting the Confederacy in two or work east to west? How about an amphibious assault in New Orleans? Lots of choices and it is really hard to tell what is good and necessary to accomplish. But as for gameplay, it is fantastic and very playable, even for new wargamers, although the rules are overbearing and can be a little bit ambiguous upon first reading. I recommend that you find a good video and watch someone else play for a few hours as it will help immensely with your decisions.

I hope you have enjoyed this edition of On This Day in Military History and I encourage you to give The U.S. Civil War from GMT Games a try.