Why did Lee stake everything, finally, on an ill-considered thrust straight up the middle? Lee’s critics have never come up with a logical explanation. Evidently he just got his blood up, as the expression goes. When the usually repressed Lee felt an overpowering need for emotional release, and had an army at his disposal and another one in front of him, he couldn’t hold back. And why should Lee expect his imprudence to be any less unsettling to Meade than it had been to the other Union commanders?
The spot against which he hurled Pickett was right in front of Meade’s headquarters. (Once, Dwight Eisenhower, who admired Lee’s generalship, took Field Marshal Montgomery to visit the Gettysburg battlefield. They looked at the site of Pickett’s charge and were baffled. Eisenhower said, “The man [Lee] must have got so mad that he wanted to hit that guy [Meade] with a brick.”)
Pickett’s troops advanced with precision, closed up the gaps that withering fire tore into their smartly dressed ranks, and at close quarters fought tooth and nail. Acouple of hundred Confederates did break the Union line, but only briefly. Someone counted 15 bodies on a patch of ground less than five feet wide and three feet long. It has been estimated that 10,500 Johnny Rebs made the charge and 5,675—roughly 54 percent—fell dead or wounded. As a Captain Spessard charged, he saw his son shot dead. He laid him out gently on the ground, kissed him, and got back to advancing.
As the minority who hadn’t been cut to ribbons streamed back to the Confederate lines, Lee rode in splendid calm among them, apologizing. “It’s all my fault,” he assured stunned privates and corporals. He took the time to admonish, mildly, an officer who was beating his horse: “Don’t whip him, captain; it does no good. I had a foolish horse, once, and kind treatment is the best.” Then he resumed his apologies: “I am very sorry—the task was too great for you—but we mustn’t despond.” Shelby Foote has called this Lee’s finest moment. But generals don’t want apologies from those beneath them, and that goes both ways. After midnight, he told a cavalry officer, “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians. . . . ” Then he fell silent, and it was then that he exclaimed, as the officer later wrote it down, “Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!”
Pickett’s charge wasn’t the half of it. Altogether at Gettysburg as many as 28,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, captured, or missing: more than a third of Lee’s whole army. Perhaps it was because Meade and his troops were so stunned by their own losses—about 23,000—that they failed to pursue Lee on his withdrawal south, trap him against the flooded Potomac, and wipe his army out. Lincoln and the Northern press were furious that this didn’t happen.
For months Lee had been traveling with a pet hen. Meant for the stewpot, she had won his heart by entering his tent first thing every morning and laying his breakfast egg under his Spartan cot. As the Army of Northern Virginia was breaking camp in all deliberate speed for the withdrawal, Lee’s staff ran around anxiously crying, “Where is the hen?” Lee himself found her nestled in her accustomed spot on the wagon that transported his personal matériel. Life goes on.
After Gettysburg, Lee never mounted another murderous head-on assault. He went on the defensive. Grant took over command of the eastern front and 118,700 men. He set out to grind Lee’s 64,000 down. Lee had his men well dug in. Grant resolved to turn his flank, force him into a weaker position, and crush him.
On April 9, 1865, Lee finally had to admit that he was trapped. At the beginning of Lee’s long, combative retreat by stages from Grant’s overpowering numbers, he had 64,000 men. By the end they had inflicted 63,000 Union casualties but had been reduced themselves to fewer than 10,000.
To be sure, there were those in Lee’s army who proposed continuing the struggle as guerrillas or by reorganizing under the governors of the various Confederate states. Lee cut off any such talk. He was a professional soldier. He had seen more than enough of governors who would be commanders, and he had no respect for ragtag guerrilladom. He told Col. Edward Porter Alexander, his artillery commander, . . . the men would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”
“And, as for myself, you young fellows might go to bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be, to go to Gen. Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences.” That is what he did on April 9, 1865, at a farmhouse in the village of Appomattox Court House, wearing a fulldress uniform and carrying a borrowed ceremonial sword which he did not surrender.