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October 21, 2017

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What's in a Name?

The practice of naming events can sometimes lead to interesting problems. Gettysburg is rather unusual for a Civil War battle in that both sides are in agreement as to its name. It was not uncommon during the war for each side to referred to a particular battle by a different name. Thus, the battles of Bull Run are known in the South as those of Manasas, Antietam is also known as Sharpsburg, Shiloh is also Pittsburg Landing, and Pea Ridge is Elkhorn Tavern. Indeed, there area six battles that have five names, the most notable of which was Kenesaw Mountain/Lost Mountain/Nose's Creek/Marietta/Big Shanty, during Sherman's drive on Atlanta in mid-1864. There were generally good reasons for these differences. Sometimes the name depended upon the most prominent locale behind friendly lines. At others a particular geographic feature caught the fancy of one side and not the other. In the case of Gettysburg, of course, there was no particularly important geographic feature in the area save for the town, which made it a logical and natural name for the battle, equally satisfactory to all concerned. But while there is generally satisfactory, that usually accorded its most spectacular event is not.

The Confederate attack on Cemetery Ridge is normally referred to as "Pickett's Charge". Yet, while Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett was responsible for marshalling the attack, he was not in overall command of it, nor did his division supply more than three of the brigades which comprised the nine-brigade assault column and the two flank guard brigades on the right. Heth's division, under Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew supplied four of the attacking brigades, while two came from Pender's division, under Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, and the two flank guard brigades came from Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division. Some attempts have been made to call the assault the "Pickett-Pettigrew" attack, which is not only clumsy but still inaccurate. Use of the form "Pickett-Pettgirew-Trimble" is perhaps more accurate but still clumsier. At the time the attack was generally referred to in Union circles as "Longstreet's Attack", since Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was in overall command of it, although most of the troops came not from his I Corps, but rather from Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's III Corps. This is actually the most accurate name, and indeed Longstreet afterwards regularly referred to the attack as "my assault". However, "Longstreet's attack" lacks both the long usage and romantic connotations of "Pickett's Charge", by which the attack will certainly continue to be known.

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