On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 3 July, 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, Confederate General Robert E Lee ordered his second in command, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, to lead three divisions of troops against a position at the centre of the enemy's line. It was the culmination of the Confederacy's desperate plunge into the northern states, a dramatic attempt to end a war which had been fought between the Union north and the Rebel south for two years.
Longstreet was reluctant to carry out this order, despite his deep admiration for General Lee. The Lieutenant-General protested, yet Lee insisted, 'The enemy is here, and I am going to strike him'. Deeply ingrained in Lee's masterful military mind was the old Napoleonic maxim, 'In the decisive attack, the last man and the last horse should be thrown in'. However, far as Longstreet could see, such a plan amounted to a suicide mission. The attackers would have to march over an open field, under withering artillery fire, towards a strongly fortified Union position which would be amply reinforced by an army of greater numbers and resources. Perhaps foreseeing the failure of the task assigned to him, Longstreet delegated as much as possible. He tried to transfer the decision of when and if the men should march to his artillery chief, Colonel Edward Alexander. Alexander politely refused to make such a consequential decision himself, but after a lengthy artillery duel between the two sides, he judged that the time was right and sent a note to Longstreet encouraging him to attack. The Southerners were running low on ammunition, and if they waited much longer, the troops would march without cover from the Confederate guns. Yet Longstreet equivocated. No nine brigades could take that position. This wasn't the age of Napoleonic Europe, as much as General Lee might wish it so; yet the battle would be known to posterity as either Lee's Solferino or Longstreet's Waterloo.
George Pickett's smell preceded him. His long, curled brown hair was damply perfumed with a fragrance imported from France (as he would eagerly tell you). His dress was impeccably neat and sometimes garish, as was his speech. He wore a small blue cap and long white gloves over his sleeves. His uniform was cleaner than it had any right to be after such a grueling campaign, his buttons dazzlingly bright.
Longstreet, with his long, untrimmed beard and habitual smell of alcohol, was leaning against a fence well behind his army's front lines. They were in a natural clearing with an easy view of both armies that the Confederate officers had taken to calling 'the point of woods'. Pickett, whose division had just arrived that morning and were not diminished by the action of the previous two days, was to be the senior field officer in the anticipated assault. He approached Longstreet eagerly. Under his brown, drooping mustache lurked the smallest shape, the slightest twinge, of a smile. 'General' he asked, 'shall I advance?'
Longstreet looked up at George Pickett. He saw a martyr without honour, a lemming for glory. The senior officer allowed the silence to stretch and expand, until a response seemed impossible. He turned away, but Pickett perceived a nod. 'I shall lead my division forward, sir!' Pickett said. He saluted, then went to mount his black horse. But he suddenly stopped, and seemed to remember something. Pickett took out a letter he had been composing during the artillery barrage, addressed to the girl he was engaged to, back home in Virginia. He wrote something in his flowing script on the back of the envelope and handed it to Longstreet, entrusting him with its delivery. Longstreet looked at him as if he'd done something wrong.
A Train in Maryland, November, 1863
A war-weary Abraham Lincoln sat scribbling on the back of an envelope as the brightness of the countryside scrubbed the dirty windows of his train. He was writing a short speech to deliver at the dedication of a new cemetery for veterans who died at the already-famous battle of Gettysburg. While Lincoln had not witnessed the battle himself, he had felt its presence when he was pacing back and forth in the telegraph office, waiting to hear its result. Just a few months of lifetimes ago, on 4 July, the day of the nation's annual independence celebration (notably muted that year, the 87th repetition), General George Meade had sent word that the Union forces had repulsed a large scale attack on their centre, forcing the Confederates to withdraw.
It was only later that Lincoln would hear some of the details. The charge, already known by the name of its senior field officer, General George Pickett, was beginning to gain legendary status. As the Confederate cause lost hope, they were saying that 'Pickett's Charge' was the decisive moment of the battle, which was turning out to be the decisive action of the war.
Pickett, as Lincoln recalled, was quite a character. As so often happened during this war, Union and Confederate men knew each other from the years prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Lincoln remembered George Pickett quite well. Pickett had come (or he had been sent, to hear some people talk) to Springfield, Illinois from his family's home in Virginia. His family was one of those big Virginia clans that always seemed to be producing planters, Presidents and scions. Expectations must have been pretty high and narrow for him, but he was not quite focused or ambitious enough for his family's satisfaction. He was perhaps a bit too gregarious, maybe too charming. Some Springfield citizens inferred that Pickett was something of a disappointment to his family, who'd had high hopes for him. As for so many Americans to follow, the west was a great open second chance waiting for George Pickett.
When young Pickett decided to study law in Springfield, he naturally crossed paths with Lincoln, one of the city's most brilliant lawyers. Pickett made many friends; it seemed to be the one thing he naturally excelled at. Lincoln and Pickett shared a mutual friend in a lawyer named John Stuart, who, as it happened, had enough friends himself to be elected to the United States Congress. When Stuart went to Congress, he favoured his friend George Pickett with an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Lincoln hadn't heard much from Pickett since then, but he picked things up here and there. Pickett's West Point class of 1846 included Thomas Jackson, AP Hill, George McClellan, Cadmux Wilcox and John Gibbon - altogether ten future Confederate Generals and 12 future Union Generals. So many officers from this class served with distinction that it became almost legendary. Pickett's grades were almost legendary themselves - dead last in his class with a bootful of demerits. Like almost everyone in his class, he'd gone off to fight in the Mexican-American War and, ever in search of glory, was the first American to mount the ramparts at Chapultepec Castle, just west of Mexico City. He had waved his country's flag over the castle to the Americans below, even as retreating Mexicans shot at him.
The North was lucky, Lincoln decided, to have such a man leading the attack against them that day.
It was a hot day. Bees buzzed about the Union infantrymen who stood expectantly on a piece of land prematurely named Cemetery Hill. Soldiers took turns to fill their fast-emptying canteens from a creek which crawled throughout the rear of their formation. Some soldiers sought shade from the looming sun under trees or by making a tent out of two bayoneted rifles stuck into the ground and a blanket hung across. A massive flock of wild pigeons passed overhead, collectively blotting out the sun for a moment. Near General Gibbon's Division headquarters, many of the highest ranking officers had a picnic of stolen foods. In between the Union and Confederate lines, skirmishers sneakily dozed underneath their sweat-stained hats, encased in gentle fields of wheat.
There was a buzz of hopefulness that the Rebels wouldn't make their attack today. Nobody expected the Union to march against the Confederates; the new commanding General George Meade was a bit too prudent for that and everyone knew it. With the luxury of free time to whittle away, the soldiers began to talk. Hopeful rumours circled through the ranks that a Union corps under Darius Couch was headed north with fresh troops to reinforce them. Elsewhere, someone claimed that General George McClellan, a former commander of the Army of the Potomac, was headed to smash Lee's rear with 40,000 men. Maybe Lee knew he was beaten, and would withdraw - hell, that artillery mounting on the ridge was probably sent to cover their retreat.
And the Valley Shook
One signal shot awakened both sides to the reality before them. Any hope that the day's battle would be called off disappeared. The valley shook as the Confederates sent their fiercest fire into the Union ranks, first from the batteries at the centre, then spreading to the guns on the flanks.
Those who were there shared two near-universal recollections - first that it was the loudest thing they ever heard, and second that all of the horses were an eerie picture of tranquility throughout the barrage.
The Union batteries answered back, and the largest artillery battle up to that point in history had begun. The batteries on each side became a steady machinery of fire. Caissons filled, guns loaded, rammed, aimed, ordered, fired, repositioned, cleaned. A gunner carries, drops, shoves, wipes brow and covers ears. This happened twice a minute in the more efficient batteries. After some initial hits, the aim of the Confederate guns became long, and they mostly overshot the enemy batteries (their intended targets). Nevertheless, a poorly aimed exploding shell was just as deadly to the man with his head in the dirt forty yards behind a battery.
On both sides, infantry tended to cluster together, so that one unlucky shell would find several men at once. Doctors spent the busy afternoon digging shrapnel from fleshy groins and guts with their unsanitary, red-tinted hands. They stuffed intestines back into the bodies they hung limply from. Soldiers with their skulls crushed in by the solid shot which whirred through the air were taken to the back, to await an idle moment for burial. Legs were amputated and disposed of, without a minute of sentimentality for the loyal limb.
The random cruelty of the artillery could kill a man mid-sentence, while another slept peacefully in the weeds a hundred yards away, lulled by the monotonous regularity of the explosions, like how some people enjoy sleeping under a tin roof in a thunderstorm, the rain hard and furious, tink, tink, tink.
The men who had slept through the barrage were awoken by a very sudden lack of noise. The crash of metal ripping through the hot air and the bestial cheers which accompanied the occasional direct hit to an ammunition chest had combined into a thunderous lullaby. Like a stopped heart, the valley lost its beat. It was terrifying.
The Union had always held the advantage in artillery terms; not only were their guns and ammunition more numerous and of better quality but they also had superior gunners. The result was that the southerners had been unable to disable many of the Union's batteries, aside from the occasional lucky shot.
It took a good deal of time for the Confederates to assemble their army. Chests were beaten, swords lifted, prayers extinguished. Pickett rode up and down the front of his Virginian division, shouting about the glory of their state. A good chunk of his men couldn't hear him, spread out as they were in a line of battle. Of Pickett's division, Kemper and Garnett's brigades were up front, with Armistead in support. To the left, Generals Pettigrew and Trimble went through a similar process and when their time came, they would be ready.
There's the copse of trees in the centre of the enemy line that the 13,000 men will converge upon. Oaks, they are.
As the line of soldiers moved out beyond tree cover, they exchanged tense glances with the artillerymen. The better part of their task now completed, the gunners could relax a bit and know that the Yankees had a new target to shoot at. Some batteries greeted the infantrymen with cheers and words of encouragement.
The ground was long and just a bit downward-sloping. A rural location, the green fields and wooden livestock fences were a familiar sight to the soldiers who hailed from the agrarian south. Pennsylvania, the land of the Quakers, was a new world, but not so very different from their own.
They marched with a divided mind. One step was fear, the next was courage. It was really happening. The heart pumped quickly now, and the officers were forced to steady the men from breaking into a run. Still plenty of ground left to cover, no reason to get worn out straight out of the gate.
At a time like this, all he could think of is the cold sabres in the hands of the file-closers, like shepherds, marching behind the men, alert for any cowards who intended to beat an unauthorised retreat. He won't be the one to break, but maybe he wouldn't be opposed to joining in, necessarily.
Even these thoughts seem to betray him, to himself, to his posterity. This outward bravado of his is necessary if he wants to be able to someday guiltlessly lift a hefty infant grandson onto his old creaky knee and tell him of the time he fought for him, the grandson... whatever happens. A rocking chair in a well-lit den and supper at sundown. That's what he'll fight for.
He doesn't hate the Yanks. Maybe he's supposed to, but he can't find it in his heart to shoot with malice at men who have never done him any harm. You sometimes heard about soldiers in combat who would just pretend to fire, and keep reloading over and over until their rifles were stuffed with ammunition and suddenly a whole battle had passed before them without their ever firing a shot. He hasn't had any trouble pulling the trigger so far, but things could look mighty different in a few hundred feet. They did kill his cousin in Tennessee. Maybe he'll think about that when he's got a Billie before his barrel. But then, some actions need a response. No doubt his cousin had been threatening the Yanks, and they did what they had to do. He'd been in fights before, and he knew that even a passive man could be coerced into crackin' a head.
This whole thing is one big barroom brawl, except that nobody's near drunk enough to be enjoying it. They had just run out of whiskey while they were in Chambersburg waiting for the cavalry.
The first Unioners to see the charging Rebels were the men stationed to the south at the rocky hill called Little Round Top. A shout of 'Here they come' careered down the hill's slopes and through the Union lines, curled about the fishhook formation and settled into the alert front line of infantry. A hush fell across the northerners, men from Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Connecticut and from right here in Pennsylvania.
Pretty soon, the lines of men came up over the distance. They were still far enough way as to be indistinct from one another. They each carried a rifle against their right shoulder, with a bayonet fixed to the muzzle. The blades shimmered together in the glow of the hot afternoon sun. An undulating silver lawn marched forward. The charging officers marched with their backs to the Union men, facing their own soldiers, as unconcerned about what was behind them as if they were leading a dress parade. Once they were close enough, the observers could see some details. One bareheaded officer had placed his hat at the tip of his sword, and was waving it around, but the blade's sharp tip had pierced through the top of the hat and was drifting near the hilt. Soldiers were gesticulating and their mouths moving, but the northerners couldn't hear any of the shouts; the artillery was eating the attackers up.
Close up, men! Close up! an officer would shout when a hole in the line was created. Not the same officer you had this morning; might have been a sergeant this afternoon and the way things were going, he could end up as a colonel by the end of the day. The Union's artillery relentlessly fired into the hull of the Confederate advance. A solid-shot could take out huge gashes of the opposing forces. Shrapnel fell through the air, lodging itself deep in sweaty human flesh, like a hook stubbornly pinned in a fish's mouth. Close up!
A tumbling shot sprayed a wall of men with clumps of dirt and the southerners saw their countrymen lying fallen; Armistead's brigade and Trimble's division, who trailed the advance line, had to step over lifeless bodies, through pools of blood and against a prevailing stream of retreaters. The fire was fierce and frighteningly random. The troops on the attacking right reached the Emmitsburg Road, which was enclosed by a plank fence. The sound of metal slicing through the wood didn't deter the soldiers, and they continued, over a second fence and past a red farmhouse.
The elements of the Confederate attack converged together, and a line of soldiers stretching across 2,000 yards took shape. In their numbers, they seemed a great grey tide which would sweep aside all resistance. In a moment of faith's indulgence, they grew even closer and the Union batteries switched ammunition.
The deadly canister, or grapeshot, sprayed a hail of metal onto the approaching soldiers at close range. Blasts of the canister felled men like a scythe's smooth cut. Each footfall was lonelier than the last. Close up, men! It was awful, the cries, the indignity. If a soldier chanced a look over his left shoulder (the right one bearing his weapon) the scene stretched out before him. Men were splayed about on the ground, the blood leaking down wrinkles and noses, eyebrows and foreheads, shoulders and fingernails, onto the green grass below; Christmas colours in July.
The enemy sides temporarily lost sight of one another as the marching men dipped into a swale; the marshy depression a perfect pool for the harvested blood which was beginning to coat the lightly sloping valley. And the heat. Wasn't this the vision of hell conjured by fire-and-brimstone preachers in the north and south alike? Craters of blood, sitting in such heat you'd fear it would begin to cook and boil.
At the far northern end of the advance, John Brockenbrough's demoralised brigade folded and scattered back to their lines. The 8th Ohio regiment, less than a third the size of Brockenbrough's group of Virginians, had charged wildly at the Confederates, causing their flight.
Meanwhile, the elements of the attack under Pickett's direct supervision began to make a series of left-oblique movements, meant to catch their intended targets unawares. The hardy regiments of Vermont had looked poised to absorb the brunt of Pickett's charge before these manoeuvres. The Vermonters were mostly backwoodsmen who had practically been born with a rifle in hand, and when they noticed that the southerners were marching away from them, they defied orders and carried their guns northwards to join the fight regardless.
The elements of the Confederate attack who remained were soon within range of rifle fire, but were ordered to refrain from firing themselves until they were closer. These were the most difficult steps to take. The artillery fire had been horrific, but random, like a lightning strike with the accompanying boom from the artillery's chorus. The volleys of fire directed at the approaching southerners were oppressive, a pelting rain to accompany the thunderstorm's flashes. The soldiers who continued could scarcely populate a line stretched one-deep in places. A well placed shot from behind the stone wall could strike an irreparable hole in the line of attack, but still the call came, from a different voice, yet equally determined, Close up, men!
Many of the southern men turned back now, but some of them marched on. Large numbers of North Carolinians and Virginians kept advancing. The fighters inched forward, walking as they loaded their weapons - quickly because the northern man was loading his. They passed through withering fire and now faced what rural Pennsylvania had in the way of a citadel. The stone wall protecting the Yankees was not built to keep livestock in, or even to keep wild animals out. Eastern Pennsylvania was a rocky country, and the land's farmers had simply picked up these stones and stacked them together in a straight line. The stone fence which Union men crouched behind served no greater purpose than to denote the western border of a piece of land belonging to a free black man named Bryan.
The wall was only a few feet high, and after the remaining southerners caught their foes with a well-directed volley of fire, they mounted the wall and gave chase to the fleeing Union men. This was the grey tide at its crest. The high water mark. The Confederate Generals would surely be sending waves of reinforcements to press their advantage. They sent a soldier back across the field to call for the reserves, waited a minute, and sent another. Hopefully one would make it to the other side. General Armistead, one of Pickett's brigade commanders, tried to turn a piece of Union artillery against the northerners, but just as he was doing so, a wave of Union reinforcements came and shot him down.
A fierce combat ensued; there were no orders, it was pure combat. Opponents jousted with bayoneted rifles, used the guns as clubs, tussled on the rocky ground, hand to hand. Ruthless. Reloading a gun was too slow with a man vying to stick your gut with his silver blade. Regimental battle flags were fought over fiercely; the pride of the unit lay in the possession of its banner, but an enemy officer could boast about one's capture. The sound of the rifles and artillery were no longer predominant and one could hear shouting and screaming, bodies falling to the ground and stones toppling off the wall. Confederate grey mingled with Union blue, and some of them were such a brown mess that you could hardly tell if you were fighting with a friend or enemy or a pile of wood. Some of the soldiers took refuge in the small gathering of oaks and burst out at intervals to fire their guns; fighting at such a range as they had signed up for.
After some minutes, the remaining Confederates surrendered or retreated. The most courageous lay on the grass. There were about 9,000 casualties in all, but Cemetery Ridge was pacified. The victors obnoxiously cried 'Fredericksburg', remembering a battle in Virginia a year earlier where the circumstances of the two armies were opposite and the Confederates fought off an enemy charge from behind a stone wall. There was a fatigue floating about, and just about everyone could tell that the battle was over; some might have sensed that the war was now concluding. A few of the northerners graciously recognised that if the moment had held for their southern enemy at the crest of Cemetery Ridge, it could be they who were now captured and under guard. The mercy of the victors was golden.
George Pickett was never really more than an adolescent General; the sort of man who enjoyed warfare and reveled in the glory and camaraderie it offered. He loved the late-night campfires, the passionate letters to his betrothed and the way the golden buttons of his grey uniform looked like sunrise lifting through a morning's fog. But while he may have enjoyed the war life, he did not have a callous soul. He was deeply affected by the outcome of his eponymous charge. He had believed that the character and courage of his men would carry the day - as it seemed to so many times before, when outmatched Confederates ran the Yankees down. To find that it was ammunition and numbers and tactics which should decide the war was offensive to his personal philosophy of warfare - perhaps even his entire worldview.
To see his men, who he so idolised, cut down before his eyes was more than he could take. Fully two-thirds of his division was missing. Of his three friends, his brigade commanders, Garnett (who had foolishly ridden into battle on a horse) was killed, Armistead was killed at the base of a Union cannon, and Kemper was thought to be fatally shot (he would survive). Pickett himself was unharmed. He had stopped his own advance at a red farmhouse about halfway to the enemy's entrenchments, preferring to supervise the attack from a distance.
Pickett was still weeping when General Lee gave him an order, 'General Pickett, place your division in rear of this hill, and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.' Pickett bowed his head at this holy moment and replied softly, his voice breaking, 'General Lee, I have no division now. Armistead is down, Garnett is down, and Kemper is mortally wounded.' Lee recognised this truth, but for the moment, he focused on preparing the line.
The counterattack didn't come from the Union that day, thanks mostly to the incompetence of the Union's General Meade (a mistake which would see him demoted from control of the main Yankee army). Somehow, the southern men were not dejected by the charge's outcome - they even wanted to launch a second attack themselves. The Generals rode amid the swarming crowd of men, disordered and disheveled, speaking to them and encouraging them. General Lee shouted to the soldiers, 'It's all my fault! I thought my men were invincible'. He could be heard repeating 'It is my fault - my fault!' over and over, riding among the men on his grey horse named Traveller. A hundred things went wrong which might have tipped the balance away from the southerners. If the artillery had been more effective, if a diversionary strike from General Ewell to the north had been better timed, if Brockenbrough had not folded, if the field officers had held the formation together more tightly, if reinforcements had come when the Union front was breached... with stronger wills and sharper minds, the south could have won the field today and those deaths could have meant something more. 'My fault!'
Pickett was off weeping somewhere. This man who was noted as the most fun-loving soldier in the entire Confederate army never did quite overcome the pain of seeing so many men marching into battle and so few return. That day aged him, and he became a more serious person. The day after the charge, he wrote to his future wife, Sallie Corbell,
Even now I can hear them cheering as I gave the order, 'Forward!' I can feel their faith and trust in me and their love for our cause. I can feel the thrill of their joyous voices as they called out all along the line, 'We'll follow you, Marse George. We'll follow you - we'll follow you.' Oh, how faithfully they kept their word - following me on - on - to their death, and I, believing in the promised support, led them on - on - on - Oh, God!
I can't write you a love letter to-day, my Sallie, for with my great love for you and my gratitude to God for sparing my life to devote to you, comes the over-powering thought of those whose lives were sacrificed, of the broken-hearted widows and mothers and orphans. The moans of my wounded boys, the sight of the dead, upturned faces, flood my soul with grief and here am I whom they trusted, whom they followed, leaving them on that field of carnage - leaving them to the mercy of and guarding four thousand prisoners across the river back to Winchester. Such a duty for men who a few hours ago covered themselves with glory eternal.
Pickett went on to a commendable service during the remainder of the Civil War, even as the Confederate cause lost all hope and the Union triumphed in 1865. After his service, he went back to Virginia and married Sallie. About ten years after the war ended, he died, still affected by his experience at Gettysburg. The widow Sallie Pickett devoted the rest of her life to clearing his name, which had become besmirched by association with the Charge; she wrote and spoke widely about her husband. She later published their private correspondence from the time of the Civil War. One letter includes Pickett's description of a scene after General Lee issued an order commending the soldiers who were engaged at Gettysburg, only four days after the southerners withdrew from Pennsylvania. Pickett's amazement is apparent.
I heard one of the men, rather rough and uncouth and not, as are most of the men, to the manner born, say, as he wiped away the tears with the back of his hand: 'Dag-gone him, dag-gone him, dag-gone his old soul, I'm blamed ef I wouldn't be dag-gone willin' to go right through it all and be killed again with them others to hear Marse Robert, dag-gone him, say over again as how he grieved bout'n we-all's losses and honored us for we-all's bravery! Darned ef I wouldn't!' Isn't that reverential adoration, my darling, to be willing to be 'killed again' for a word of praise?