By that time, the Rebel soldiers had lost perhaps one-fourth of their force, but the worst had only begun. At the Confederate right, the troops had to cross a four-foot-high wooden rail fence, all the while under a dreadful Federal fire. Rear units came up, pushing the thinned-front ranks ahead, until, at a small grove of trees known as “the Angle,” Virginians under Gen. Lewis Armistead reached the stone wall from which Gen. Alexander Webb’s “Philadelphia Brigade” hurled a withering fire into their midst. Armistead, a personal friend of Union Gen. Winfield Hancock, the II Corps commander immediately in front of him, stuck his general’s hat on his saber and screamed, “Give them the cold steel!” Scaling the wall with about 200 Virginians following him, Armistead was killed. Known as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy, it was a scene later recaptured in film and art. It lasted for only minutes, as Union reserves poured new volleys into the exposed Confederates, then charged, reclaiming the stone wall and Ziegler’s Grove just to the north of the Angle. More than 2,000 Confederates died or surrendered in that narrow strip; overall, the attack had completely erased Pickett’s division, with only half the 15,000 men who began the attack straggling back to Rebel lines in the orchards. As they ran, a chant rose up from the Yankee infantry behind the stone wall. “Fred-ricks-burg. Fred-ricks-burg.”
Allan Nevins described the event: “It was a glorious charge, but it was not war.” Color-bearers of 35 regiments were shot down, he noted, along with seven Confederate colonels and two generals who led the center ranks in the final push—Armistead and Richard Garnett—while a third, James Kemper, was badly wounded. (He survived, and became a governor of post-war Virginia). A Union general reported that he attempted to ride across part of the battlefield, but the dead and wounded were so thick his horse could not get through them. Another observer described the horrible battlefield after the slaughter:
“The knapsacks case aside in the stress of the fight, or after the fatal lead had struck; haversacks, yawning with the rations the owner will never call for; blankets and trousers, and coats and caps, and some are blue and some are gray; muskets and ramrods, and bayonets, and swords, and scabbards and belts, some bent and cut by the shot or shell; broken wheels, exploded caissons, and limber-boxes, and dismantled guns, and all these are sprinkled with blood; horses, some dead, a mangled heap of carnage, some alive with a leg shot off, or other frightful wounds, appealing to you with almost more than a brute gaze as you pass.”
Pickett’s charge was not the only action that day, but the Confederates’ other initiatives failed as well. Stuart had taken his cavalry south to try to flank the Union positions—the maneuver Longstreet pleaded for more than a day earlier—but by that time the Union was ready. At the Rummel farm, a large battle took place between dismounted cavalry, until Stuart, seeing his opportunity for success diminish, ordered a final mounted charge. Sabers gleaming, Stuart’s men rode at the Union artillery and dismounted troops until suddenly a fiery Michigan general named George Armstrong Custer, with the cry of “Come on you Wolverines!” sent the Confederate cavalry reeling.
1. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, vol. III: The Organized War, 1863-1864 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, 110-111.
2. Quoted in Schultz, Most Glorious Fourth, 260.