Pickett's Charge in History and Memory

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If, as many have argued, the Civil War is the most crucial moment in our national life and Gettysburg its turning point, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett's Charge. But as Carol Reardon notes, the Civil War saw many other daring assaults and stout defenses. Why, then, is it Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg—and not, for example, Richardson's Charge at Antietam or Humphreys's Assault at Fredericksburg—that looms so large in the popular...

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Overview

If, as many have argued, the Civil War is the most crucial moment in our national life and Gettysburg its turning point, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett's Charge. But as Carol Reardon notes, the Civil War saw many other daring assaults and stout defenses. Why, then, is it Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg—and not, for example, Richardson's Charge at Antietam or Humphreys's Assault at Fredericksburg—that looms so large in the popular imagination?

As this innovative study reveals, by examining the events of 3 July 1863 through the selective and evocative lens of 'memory' we can learn much about why Pickett's Charge endures so strongly in the American imagination. Over the years, soldiers, journalists, veterans, politicians, orators, artists, poets, and educators, Northerners and Southerners alike, shaped, revised, and even sacrificed the 'history' of the charge to create 'memories' that met ever-shifting needs and deeply felt values. Reardon shows that the story told today of Pickett's Charge is really an amalgam of history and memory. The evolution of that mix, she concludes, tells us much about how we come to understand our nation's past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A fresh look at the disastrous assault.

New Yorker

[A] splendidly lively study of the manipulation, not necessarily deliberate or malign, of public opinion.

Atlantic Monthly

This fine book provides vivid evidence of just how far we will go to alchemize fantasy into fact.

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

Thought provoking and highly interesting, Reardon's book is a pleasure to read.

Orlando Sentinel

[Brings] together the various threads of most of the contemporary and historical arguments surrounding the charge.

Journal of Military History

Atlantic Monthly
A telling assessment of the myths and facts surrounding the most famous single military event of the Civil War. 24 illus. "Quite apart from its notable historical interest, Ms. Reardon's work is a splendidly lively study of the manipulation, not necessarily deliberate or malign, of public opinion".
From the Publisher
"This is a skillful and compelling example of the way an event whose story we think we know turns out to be as mobile as quicksilver when we try to put a finger down for certain."—Allen C. Guelzo, The Barnes & Noble Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807823798
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/1997
  • Series: Civil War America Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Reardon is associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
DISCONNECTED THREADS
Fifty years after Pickett's Charge, survivor D. B. Easley of the 14th Virginia finally admitted he had not seen very much of his regiment's most famous assault. He had become "so engrossed with his part of a fight" that he recalled "very little else." In apologizing for the haziness of his memory, he conceded an even more telling point: in the heat of battle, a soldier "fails to note all he does see." Offering an equally important caveat, a Pennsylvania captain explained that many soldiers could not describe the chaos of combat, so they filled their letters, diaries, and official reports with exaggerations, fabrications, generalizations, or laconic dispassion. He feared that despite the efforts of conscientious historians "to weave a symmetrical whole from such disconnected threads," they really preserved only a few bits of any military action, even one so dramatic as the great charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

A battlefield, according to military historian S. L. A. Marshall, is indeed "the lonesomest place which men share together." Each soldier's perceptions of what he saw or did in combat-or what he thought he saw or did-became individualized sets of memories. Moreover, such personal recollections are very selective. No soldier recalls every action he takes or every observation he makes in battle, argues historian Richard Holmes, because "the process of memory tends to emphasize the peaks and troughs of experience at the expense of the great grey level plain." Those peaks and troughs provide the disconnected threads of experience the Pennsylvania captain described. Only the most exceptional events, even on this momentous day in American military history, were likely to leave lasting marks in the soldiers' memories.

What did the survivors of that day tell us? Immediate postbattle musings offer glimpses of the horrific clash of arms. Collectively, however, they represent only a set of remarkable moments. These fragments of memory, as historian C. Vann Woodward has asserted, provide "the twilight zone between living memory and written history" that becomes the "breeding ground of mythology." All too often, however, this mythology wears the mantle of "history," and it is the perpetuation of this kind of record-written by the "eye who never saw the battle"-that Lieutenant Haskell dreaded.

What do those fragments tell us about what happened between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863? They tell us many important things, and not all of them are obvious to the best scholars. Historians often miss one particularly important point about that day: thousands of soldiers marched away from Gettysburg with no lasting memory at all of the great charge of July 3. Pvt. Samuel A. Firebaugh of the 10th Virginia recalled his own tough fight on Culp's Hill early that same morning as "the hardest contested battle of the war, lasting 6 hours" but dismissed the assault that afternoon with "Hill attacked on the right." Col. Moses B. Lakeman of the 3rd Maine, after a hard fight at the Peach Orchard on July 2, summed up the next day with a few unspectacular observations: "Went to support of Second corps; no casualties. Rained at night. Enemy completely repulsed in our front all day. Commanding brigade." The grand assault left no mark at all in the memories of the thousands of Gettysburg's survivors who played no part in the attack or its repulse.

More interesting, of course, are the memories of soldiers who did participate in the event. Honest soldiers, such as Sergeant Easley, realized that they just did not see enough of the fighting on July 3 to explain very much about it. As a Pennsylvania soldier suggested, "None but the actors of the field can tell the story" of a battle, and even then, "each one can tell of his own knowledge but an infinitisimal part." This truth behind these veterans" observations compels both explanation and appreciation.

First, both the linear formations the armies used and the sheer numbers of soldiers involved in the fight on each side that day limited each combatant's field of vision. One of Davis's Mississippians best described the problem to his general a few years later: "I was very much like the French Soldier of whom you sometimes told us, who never saw anything while the battle was going on except the rump of his fat file leader."

In addition, the irregular terrain on the field of the great charge also limited what each soldier could see of the day's action. The physical conformation of the July 3 battlefield was-and still is-deceiving. Then, as now, trees, patches of underbrush, and rock outcroppings dotted the fields and slopes. The front of Webb's brigade stretched only several hundred yards, yet one man of the 72nd Pennsylvania later wrote that "those of us who were with the rest of the brigade knew nothing of the Sixty-Ninth [Pennsylvania], except as we heard their cheers and the crack of their rifles" because they were "partly concealed from view by the clump of trees." The land between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges rolls gently, often dipping low enough to hide and shelter advancing soldiers. A low finger of ground jutting westward from the area around the Angle and the clump of trees toward the Emmitsburg Road, a subtly significant terrain feature largely unnoticed in 1863 and seldom noted today, effectively cut the battlefield in two. This subtle ripple cut the lines of sight along the lines of command responsibility: Pettigrew and Trimble fought Hays north of it, Pickett fought Gibbon south of it. Only a few soldiers saw much of both clashes. Smoke and the sheer number of horses and men on the field also made it difficult for any single individual to see much that day.

While limitations in visual contact circumscribed what any one man actually saw of Pickett's Charge, Easley's assertion that a soldier in the heat of combat "fails to note all he does see" deserves even more explanation. If a soldier set in memory only certain peak experiences and left the troughs unrecorded, what factors determined what would be remembered?

Most soldiers who took part in the fight on July 3 had seen combat before, and those experiences shaped perceptions now. North Carolina artilleryman Joseph Graham watched Southern infantrymen look out over the valley and heard them say: "'That is worse than Malvern Hill." After the fight ended, Pvt. J. L. Bechtel of the 59th New York wrote: "Antietam was nothing compared to it." The battle at Fredericksburg the previous December supplied many soldiers with the most obvious point of comparison. Capt. Henry L. Abbott watched the advancing Confederates and knew his men "would give them Fredericksburg." Sgt. Alex McNeil of the 14th Connecticut bragged that his regiment "paid the Rebels back with Interest, for our defeat at Fredericksburg." On the day after the great charge, Capt. J. J. Young of the 26th North Carolina wrote that "it was a second Fredericksburg affair, only the wrong way."

Some veterans knew that they lost more than physical vigor when the adrenaline rush of battle waned. They could forget much of what they saw or did. In times of extreme stress such as that induced by combat, argues Richard Holmes, the human brain only "records clips of experience, often in erratic sequence." Lieutenant Haskell clearly understood something about the process of memory when he warned his brother not to expect to learn much about the fight from the postbattle accounts of senior officers: "The official reports may give results as to losses, with statements of attacks and repulses; they may also note the means by which results were attained, which is a statement of the number and kind of forces employed, but the connection between means and results, the mode, the battle proper, these reports touch lightly." Even Haskell did not claim to write anything more than "simply my account of the battle." Veterans admitted that in official reports-and in histories based on them-"much of the planning and more of the doing has been omitted."

Historians have been slow to appreciate what Haskell and other veterans understood. The letters and diaries of veteran soldiers, far from providing concrete evidence of "the doing," reveal that much of "the doing" had become routine. Thus, they tell very little about the fighting that scholars seek to describe. By 1863, veteran Pvt. William Hatchett of the 22nd Virginia Battalion could sum up the great charge at Gettysburg in a single sentence: "The last day which was the 3d we charged across an open field about a mile while they played on us with grape and cannister very heavy." Even many longer accounts, such as that of the 34th North Carolina's Lt. Burwell T. Cotton, reveal few more specifics about "the doing" than the official reports of which Haskell complained: "[We] charged them through an open field 1 1/2 miles to their breast works. They threw shells, grape and canister as thick as hail. When we got in two hundred yards of them the infantry opened on us but onward we pressed until more than two thirds of the troops had been killed, wounded and straggled. Our lines were broken and we commenced retreating. A good many surrendered rather than risk getting out. They captured four flags in our brigade leaving only one. We lost four killed dead on the field and some six or seven wounded."

Doubtless Cotton and many others who survived July 3 agreed with a Vermont veteran who wrote, "Much history was made on this charge that can never be known, and much, though seen and realized that can never be adequately described!" Their reticence sprang from several sources, and a tendency to ignore the routine is only one of them. As Paul Fussell argues, the English language contains substantial numbers of words with sufficient power to convey images of destruction, violence, and death. Civil War soldiers simply did not use them very much, in part, it seems, from a concern about propriety and gentility. They apparently appreciated the truth behind Fussell's rhetorical question: "What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn't have to be?"

More to the point, however, many veteran soldiers had tired of trying to explain combat to those who could not comprehend its horrors. "Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers," historian Gerald Linderman has argued. Just before the battle, Union general Alpheus S. Williams explained the difference to family at home: "No man can give any idea of a battle by description nor by painting." In graphic prose, he commented on the crashing roll of muskets, the thud of cannon balls as they thud through columns of human bodies, and "the 'phiz' of the Minie ball." He advised that "if you can hear and see all this in a vivid fancy, you may have some faint idea of a battle," but you still had to "stand in the midst and feel the elevation which few can fail to feel, even amidst its horrors, before you have the faintest notion of a scene so terrible and yet so grand." Thus, just after July 3, a soldier from Maine could describe graphically the valley just south of the main thrust of Pickett's Charge and still warn his correspondent that even "after what I have written you have no idea of the s[c]ene. . . . You look at it on too small a scale." When veteran survivors of Pickett's Charge sat down to write about July 3, then, they recorded highly selective impressions framed largely by previous experiences and personal notions of what their audiences either wanted to hear or could comprehend.

In any case, no matter what kind of language they employed-the unadorned, unemotional prose of Lieutenant Cotton or the more emotionally charged narrative of Lieutenant Haskell-soldiers wasted little time reflecting on the troughs of their experience. They recalled little of what they perceived to be routine, ordinary, or unexceptional, and although their contemporaries on the homefront (and subsequent historians) have not always understood this fact, most of what the combatants did before, during, and after the great charge at Gettysburg fit into these categories. What was expected of them on July 3 differed little from what had been required of them on previous battlefields. In the end, only four elements of this day's work truly impressed the survivors as exceptional and worthy of special notice: the preassault cannonade, a few specific elements of the Confederate advance, the desperation and chaos at the Angle, and the high cost of such decisive results. About "the doing" of the rest of the charge, they told us remarkably little; yet most narratives of July 3 are built on these disconnected threads.

Read the complete chapter.

A fresh look at the disastrous assault. (New Yorker)

Quite apart from its notable historical interest, Ms. Reardon's work is a splendidly lively study of the manipulation, not necessarily deliberate or malign, of public opinion. (Atlantic Monthly)

This fine book provides vivid evidence of just how far we will go to alchemize fantasy into fact. (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)

Thought provoking and highly interesting, Reardon's book is a pleasure to read. (Orlando Sentinel)

Reardon has done a wonderful job of bringing together the various threads of most of the contemporary and historical arguments surrounding the charge. (Journal of Military History)

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Prologue. History, Memory, Pickett's Charge
Chapter 1. Disconnected Threads
Chapter 2. Scarcely Anybody Can Give a Correct Account
Chapter 3. History as It Ought to Have Been
Chapter 4. Binding the Wounds of War
Chapter 5. Monuments to Memory
Chapter 6. Southern Dissenters Speak Out
Chapter 7. Virginia Victorious
Chapter 8. Hand-Grips at the Sacred Wall
Epilogue. The Old Bright Way of the Tales
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

DISCONNECTED THREADS

Fifty years after Pickett's Charge, survivor D. B. Easley of the 14th Virginia finally admitted he had not seen very much of his regiment's most famous assault. He had become "so engrossed with his part of a fight" that he recalled "very little else." In apologizing for the haziness of his memory, he conceded an even more telling point: in the heat of battle, a soldier "fails to note all he does see." Offering an equally important caveat, a Pennsylvania captain explained that many soldiers could not describe the chaos of combat, so they filled their letters, diaries, and official reports with exaggerations, fabrications, generalizations, or laconic dispassion. He feared that despite the efforts of conscientious historians "to weave a symmetrical whole from such disconnected threads," they really preserved only a few bits of any military action, even one so dramatic as the great charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

A battlefield, according to military historian S. L. A. Marshall, is indeed "the lonesomest place which men share together." Each soldier's perceptions of what he saw or did in combat--or what he thought he saw or did--became individualized sets of memories. Moreover, such personal recollections are very selective. No soldier recalls every action he takes or every observation he makes in battle, argues historian Richard Holmes, because "the process of memory tends to emphasize the peaks and troughs of experience at the expense of the great grey level plain." Those peaks and troughs provide the disconnected threads of experience the Pennsylvania captain described. Only the most exceptional events, even on this momentous day in American military history, were likely to leave lasting marks in the soldiers' memories.

What did the survivors of that day tell us? Immediate postbattle musings offer glimpses of the horrific clash of arms. Collectively, however, they represent only a set of remarkable moments. These fragments of memory, as historian C. Vann Woodward has asserted, provide "the twilight zone between living memory and written history" that becomes the "breeding ground of mythology." All too often, however, this mythology wears the mantle of "history," and it is the perpetuation of this kind of record--written by the "eye who never saw the battle"--that Lieutenant Haskell dreaded.

What do those fragments tell us about what happened between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863? They tell us many important things, and not all of them are obvious to the best scholars. Historians often miss one particularly important point about that day: thousands of soldiers marched away from Gettysburg with no lasting memory at all of the great charge of July 3. Pvt. Samuel A. Firebaugh of the 10th Virginia recalled his own tough fight on Culp's Hill early that same morning as "the hardest contested battle of the war, lasting 6 hours" but dismissed the assault that afternoon with "Hill attacked on the right." Col. Moses B. Lakeman of the 3rd Maine, after a hard fight at the Peach Orchard on July 2, summed up the next day with a few unspectacular observations: "Went to support of Second corps; no casualties. Rained at night. Enemy completely repulsed in our front all day. Commanding brigade." The grand assault left no mark at all in the memories of the thousands of Gettysburg's survivors who played no part in the attack or its repulse.

More interesting, of course, are the memories of soldiers who did participate in the event. Honest soldiers, such as Sergeant Easley, realized that they just did not see enough of the fighting on July 3 to explain very much about it. As a Pennsylvania soldier suggested, "None but the actors of the field can tell the story" of a battle, and even then, "each one can tell of his own knowledge but an infinitisimal part." This truth behind these veterans" observations compels both explanation and appreciation.

First, both the linear formations the armies used and the sheer numbers of soldiers involved in the fight on each side that day limited each combatant's field of vision. One of Davis's Mississippians best described the problem to his general a few years later: "I was very much like the French Soldier of whom you sometimes told us, who never saw anything while the battle was going on except the rump of his fat file leader."

In addition, the irregular terrain on the field of the great charge also limited what each soldier could see of the day's action. The physical conformation of the July 3 battlefield was--and still is--deceiving. Then, as now, trees, patches of underbrush, and rock outcroppings dotted the fields and slopes. The front of Webb's brigade stretched only several hundred yards, yet one man of the 72nd Pennsylvania later wrote that "those of us who were with the rest of the brigade knew nothing of the Sixty-Ninth [Pennsylvania], except as we heard their cheers and the crack of their rifles" because they were "partly concealed from view by the clump of trees." The land between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges rolls gently, often dipping low enough to hide and shelter advancing soldiers. A low finger of ground jutting westward from the area around the Angle and the clump of trees toward the Emmitsburg Road, a subtly significant terrain feature largely unnoticed in 1863 and seldom noted today, effectively cut the battlefield in two. This subtle ripple cut the lines of sight along the lines of command responsibility: Pettigrew and Trimble fought Hays north of it, Pickett fought Gibbon south of it. Only a few soldiers saw much of both clashes. Smoke and the sheer number of horses and men on the field also made it difficult for any single individual to see much that day.

While limitations in visual contact circumscribed what any one man actually saw of Pickett's Charge, Easley's assertion that a soldier in the heat of combat "fails to note all he does see" deserves even more explanation. If a soldier set in memory only certain peak experiences and left the troughs unrecorded, what factors determined what would be remembered?

Most soldiers who took part in the fight on July 3 had seen combat before, and those experiences shaped perceptions now. North Carolina artilleryman Joseph Graham watched Southern infantrymen look out over the valley and heard them say: "`That is worse than Malvern Hill." After the fight ended, Pvt. J. L. Bechtel of the 59th New York wrote: "Antietam was nothing compared to it." The battle at Fredericksburg the previous December supplied many soldiers with the most obvious point of comparison. Capt. Henry L. Abbott watched the advancing Confederates and knew his men "would give them Fredericksburg." Sgt. Alex McNeil of the 14th Connecticut bragged that his regiment "paid the Rebels back with Interest, for our defeat at Fredericksburg." On the day after the great charge, Capt. J. J. Young of the 26th North Carolina wrote that "it was a second Fredericksburg affair, only the wrong way."

Some veterans knew that they lost more than physical vigor when the adrenaline rush of battle waned. They could forget much of what they saw or did. In times of extreme stress such as that induced by combat, argues Richard Holmes, the human brain only "records clips of experience, often in erratic sequence." Lieutenant Haskell clearly understood something about the process of memory when he warned his brother not to expect to learn much about the fight from the postbattle accounts of senior officers: "The official reports may give results as to losses, with statements of attacks and repulses; they may also note the means by which results were attained, which is a statement of the number and kind of forces employed, but the connection between means and results, the mode, the battle proper, these reports touch lightly." Even Haskell did not claim to write anything more than "simply my account of the battle." Veterans admitted that in official reports--and in histories based on them--"much of the planning and more of the doing has been omitted."

Historians have been slow to appreciate what Haskell and other veterans understood. The letters and diaries of veteran soldiers, far from providing concrete evidence of "the doing," reveal that much of "the doing" had become routine. Thus, they tell very little about the fighting that scholars seek to describe. By 1863, veteran Pvt. William Hatchett of the 22nd Virginia Battalion could sum up the great charge at Gettysburg in a single sentence: "The last day which was the 3d we charged across an open field about a mile while they played on us with grape and cannister very heavy." Even many longer accounts, such as that of the 34th North Carolina's Lt. Burwell T. Cotton, reveal few more specifics about "the doing" than the official reports of which Haskell complained: "[We] charged them through an open field 1 1/2 miles to their breast works. They threw shells, grape and canister as thick as hail. When we got in two hundred yards of them the infantry opened on us but onward we pressed until more than two thirds of the troops had been killed, wounded and straggled. Our lines were broken and we commenced retreating. A good many surrendered rather than risk getting out. They captured four flags in our brigade leaving only one. We lost four killed dead on the field and some six or seven wounded."

Doubtless Cotton and many others who survived July 3 agreed with a Vermont veteran who wrote, "Much history was made on this charge that can never be known, and much, though seen and realized that can never be adequately described!" Their reticence sprang from several sources, and a tendency to ignore the routine is only one of them. As Paul Fussell argues, the English language contains substantial numbers of words with sufficient power to convey images of destruction, violence, and death. Civil War soldiers simply did not use them very much, in part, it seems, from a concern about propriety and gentility. They apparently appreciated the truth behind Fussell's rhetorical question: "What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn't have to be?"

More to the point, however, many veteran soldiers had tired of trying to explain combat to those who could not comprehend its horrors. "Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers," historian Gerald Linderman has argued. Just before the battle, Union general Alpheus S. Williams explained the difference to family at home: "No man can give any idea of a battle by description nor by painting." In graphic prose, he commented on the crashing roll of muskets, the thud of cannon balls as they thud through columns of human bodies, and "the 'phiz' of the Minie ball." He advised that "if you can hear and see all this in a vivid fancy, you may have some faint idea of a battle," but you still had to "stand in the midst and feel the elevation which few can fail to feel, even amidst its horrors, before you have the faintest notion of a scene so terrible and yet so grand." Thus, just after July 3, a soldier from Maine could describe graphically the valley just south of the main thrust of Pickett's Charge and still warn his correspondent that even "after what I have written you have no idea of the s[c]ene.... You look at it on too small a scale." When veteran survivors of Pickett's Charge sat down to write about July 3, then, they recorded highly selective impressions framed largely by previous experiences and personal notions of what their audiences either wanted to hear or could comprehend.

In any case, no matter what kind of language they employed--the unadorned, unemotional prose of Lieutenant Cotton or the more emotionally charged narrative of Lieutenant Haskell--soldiers wasted little time reflecting on the troughs of their experience. They recalled little of what they perceived to be routine, ordinary, or unexceptional, and although their contemporaries on the homefront (and subsequent historians) have not always understood this fact, most of what the combatants did before, during, and after the great charge at Gettysburg fit into these categories. What was expected of them on July 3 differed little from what had been required of them on previous battlefields. In the end, only four elements of this day's work truly impressed the survivors as exceptional and worthy of special notice: the preassault cannonade, a few specific elements of the Confederate advance, the desperation and chaos at the Angle, and the high cost of such decisive results. About "the doing" of the rest of the charge, they told us remarkably little; yet most narratives of July 3 are built on these disconnected threads.

What did the soldiers recall of these four peak experiences? To begin, most soldiers, except for those directly caught up in the firefights near Culp's Hill and Spangler's Spring, began their written accounts of July 3 with the great artillery bombardment. At that moment, they all seemed to shake free of the routine of eating, marching, deploying, and resting. Individual perspective then dictated what each soldier found most fascinating.

Artillerymen found the bombardment a marvelous opportunity to consider technical aspects of their craft. With professional, nearly clinical, detachment they reported on ranges, rounds fired, and their effectiveness. Entirely occupied with their mission, they found only a single perception worth further mention: they never had seen the long arm employed on such a scale before. Captain Graham with the Charlotte Artillery described it as "the heaviest Artillery duel of the war, (and said to have been heavier than the cannonade at Balaklava)." Across the valley, where the converging fire of the Southern guns made Cemetery Ridge a particularly dangerous position, Capt. C. A. Phillips of the 5th Massachusetts broke from the formalities of official language in his professional assessment with colorful prose that suggests he witnessed something exceptional, if not particularly effective: "Viewed as a display of fireworks, the rebel practice was entirely successful, but as a military demonstration, it was the biggest humbug of the season."

Union infantrymen lying passively on the slopes of Cemetery Ridge with no duties to distract them, however, had plenty of time to reflect on the hell they endured. Memories of the hail of shot and shell--however long it lasted--left its mark. "When a man imagines that every moment is his next to last," Fussell noted, "he observes and treasures up sensory details purely for their own sake." The sheer violence of the bombardment stunned Northern infantrymen. Lt. Henry P. Clare of the 83rd New York, posted well in reserve, believed that "heaven had opened its gates and poured forth ... their murderous messengers of death with the determination of annihilating our entire army." Sgt. John Plummer of the 1st Minnesota admitted that he and his comrades usually did not mind cannon fire, but this day they hugged the ground to avoid "the hissing, screaming, bursting missiles, and all of them really seemed to be directed at us." A private in the 108th New York must have believed the Southern gunners aimed at him personally, especially after "five different cannonballs struck a large oak tree three feet in diameter, which stood not five feet from where I lay."

Even if in a technical sense the Confederate artillerymen mostly overshot their mark, each round that found a target--each hit filling only the briefest moment in time--left lasting impressions. The bombardment's most riveting moment for Private Bechtel came when one shell passed "through our brestwork killing 1 and wounding six of our company including my self." Nearby, William B. Hoitt of the 19th Massachusetts, bruised by a fragment while shells "rained over and down upon us like hail stones," found himself astonished "that I 'still lived." Col. Norman J. Hall explained in his official report that "the terrible grandeur of that rain of missiles and that chaos of strange and terror-spreading sounds, unexampled, perhaps, in history, must ever remain undescribed, but can never be forgotten by those who survived it."

Perhaps those who best appreciated what the Union infantry endured that day lay in the Southern ranks across the valley. General Davis downplayed his loss to Union counterfire as small: two men killed and twenty-one wounded. The small numbers probably meant little to Lt. William Peel of the 11th Mississippi, who watched "the most appaling [sic] scene that perhaps ever greeted the human eye" when a shell that struck the ground near the head of Lt. Daniel Featherstone ricocheted and "entered his breast, exploding about the same time & knocking him at least ten feet high, & not less than twenty feet from where he was lying." In the lines of the 19th Virginia of Garnett's brigade, Maj. Charles S. Peyton watched in horror as Lt. Col. John T. Ellis raised his head during the heat of the firing and took a solid shot full in the face. Pvt. Granville Belcher of the 57th Virginia, who was on detached duty in the rear during the cannonade, sympathized with the plight of his friends on the front line: "I was six miles from the battle field & wanted to get further."

The unprecedented violence of the bombardment: soldiers remembered this, above all else. The fine details--the starting and ending times, its duration, the number of cannons involved on either side--interested soldiers chiefly as evidence of the extreme danger of the moment. That perspective helps explain, even as it does not resolve, some glaring time discrepancies that plague studies of the fight. The very busy Maj. Benjamin Eshelman of the Washington Artillery noticed Southern infantry advancing a mere thirty minutes after one of his batteries fired the first signal shot. In sharp contrast, Col. James Mallon of the 42nd New York, hunkered down under "a destructive artillery fire, which will ever be remembered by those subjected to its fury," estimated that his men endured it for four hours. While senior Union commanders such as Hunt and Hancock might equivocate in their professional estimation that the II Corps line had been the target of 100 to 125 Southern cannons, Private Bechtel seemed absolutely confident in his conclusion that he had endured the fire of exactly "113 guns for one hour and a half."

When the cannons fell silent, even the dullest private in the ranks knew what would happen next. The Confederate infantry must advance.

Southern soldiers wrote little about deploying for their charge. Pettigrew's and Trimble's men had done this before, only two days earlier. Senior Confederate officers employed the traditional terminology of the tactics manuals to describe routine movements; just a few quickly corrected misalignments warranted further comment. Only the exceptional won special notice. The heat of the day drew the attention of Lt. W. B. Taylor of the 11th North Carolina to men "fainting all along the [line] before [we] started on the charge." Artilleryman Graham recalled the usually stalwart infantrymen's "want of resolution," made all too obvious when he heard one of them say, "'I don't hardly think that position can be carried.'"

The second memorable moment of July 3 began when Pettigrew's Confederate infantry emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge. This formation, in plain sight of thousands of Northern soldiers from the moment it broke out of the treeline, followed a straight line of march toward the Union line. Since survivors recalled few details about the routine movement, except for the stout post-and-rail fences that disrupted their forward progress, the passive observers on Cemetery Ridge left the most dramatic accounts of the Southern advance.

Passive anticipation of battle often causes more stress and focuses the senses more sharply than does actual combat. Union veterans of many firefights in the wooded Virginia countryside seldom had seen so many soldiers at any one time as they now saw marching across that open field. Moreover, they had about twenty minutes to appraise the threat they faced and to prepare both physically and psychologically to deal with it. While Hancock admired their "precision and steadiness that extorted the admiration of the witnesses of that memorable scene," Hays watched them march as "steady as if impelled by machinery." A private in the 108th New York marveled that "they looked in the distance like statues. On they came, steady, firm, moving like so many automatons." Down by the Angle in the stone wall, a Pennsylvania private enjoyed the panoramic view: "It was a grand sight and worth a mans while to see it."

Impressions of power overrode attention to technical details of military formations. Many Union soldiers described a standard two-rank battle line. Others saw something more, but they rarely agreed on just what they observed. Hancock saw two-rank lines "supported at different points by small columns of infantry." Maj. Theodore Ellis, with the 14th Connecticut north of the Angle, noted two battle lines "re-enforced on the right and left by a third line." Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer of the 8th Ohio saw columns, not lines.

Soldiers became so entirely focused on the majesty and power of Pettigrew's advance out of the trees and down the slope of Seminary Ridge across their immediate front that only a few Union troops--mostly Stannard's Vermonters and others considerably south of the copse of trees--really saw the first appearance of Pickett's division as it came up over the rise of ground near the Spangler barn. They, too, described its formation generally as a two-rank line, with a variety of incongruities. A Vermont lieutenant saw "a column, and a very wide and deep one. General Stannard also insists that it was a column and its depth was almost equal to the length of the line of battle of the 13th and 16th Vt. Regiment."

The rolling terrain apparently limited the number of Union soldiers who could see or appreciate the threat presented by the approach of two distinct assaulting forces, however. Lt. John Dent of the 1st Delaware, likely writing the first battle critique of his military career, stood nearly alone in noting that the strength of "the Pickett column moving on us in an oblique direction from the left, the Pender [sic; Pettigrew] column moving on us in an oblique direction from the right, both columns converging in our immediate front."

Fear and awe left stronger impressions in Northerners' memories than did such routine matters as assault formations or preparations to repel the attackers. On the afternoon of July 3, a Pennsylvania private confided to his diary that if the South succeeded now, it would be "all up with the USA." That night, Pvt. Charles Belknap of the 125th New York wrote that he and his comrades had "waited in almost breathless suspense for the enemy who was moving on toward us like an avalanche." The 12th New Jersey's Cpl. Christopher Mead thanked the "God of our nation we had more in reserve" after Union skirmishers ran "like so many frightened sheep." It had worried the 14th Connecticut's Alex McNeil that "we had only one line of troops to contend with three lines of the enemy." Even Colonel Hall thought the Southerners "gave the appearance of being fearfully irresistible."

When the Union artillery opened on those parade-ground ranks, the disconnected threads representing thousands of individual perceptions of Pickett's Charge multiplied in profusion. As a soldier makes contact with his enemy, a kind of tunnel vision overcomes him. When the battle ends, individual memories of the battle fix "upon those moments of terror and excitement when it seemed to the soldier that his life was in extreme peril." Perspective still shaped those recollections, however.

After he watched his men advance under Union artillery fire, Maj. Charles Peyton of the 19th Virginia remembered "as many as 10 men being killed or wounded by the bursting of a single shell." Pvt. William H. Jones of that regiment wrote home that "I never though[t] I would come owt. we had to advance wright in front of the Batteries which were fireing every second Loded with grape and canister." In reality, the steady march of the great gray wave substantiated Hancock's criticism of the Union gunners' "feeble fire" and artillery chief Hunt's admission that "the enemy advanced magnificently, unshaken by the shot and shell which tore through his ranks from his front and from our left." But to the Southerner breasting that fire, even a single well-placed burst--such as the odd round from Little Round Top that could rake Pickett's line--could leave singular memories.

To a veteran, one firefight seems much like any other; to a rookie, each sensation in battle is new. As the Virginia advance met its first resistance ahead of the main Union line, the green 13th and 14th Vermont recalled very colorfully the first brush with Garnett and Kemper. They boasted of a volley that leveled the Virginians' front rank, which forced them "to slacken and nearly halt," and Stannard expressed pleasure that the enemy did not "escape the warm reception prepared" for them. In contrast, a veteran Virginia major recalled only brushing away some pesky skirmishers, and from the still-quiet copse of trees, Lieutenant Haskell observed the firing and noted only that "the gray lines do not halt or reply, but withdrawing a little from that extreme, they still move on."

Both Union soldiers south of the copse of trees and Pickett's survivors commented on the unusual indirect approach march that the Virginians employed. "We moved alternately by the front & by the left flank under a most deadly fire of infantry & artillery," explained Capt. William W. Bentley of the 24th Virginia. The Vermonters, and then other Union commanders just north of them, gave their own hot fire the credit for the Virginians' continued sideling movement toward the Angle in the stone wall. This action confused Northern observers. Despite a stout resistance, the Southerners did not retreat, they did not immediately return fire, and they seemed to march on purposefully and with stalwart determination, first east, then north, then east again. This unnerved Union commanders, and Colonel Gates, for one, remembered that when the Southerners finally opened fire, the fighting became "especially obstinate." He believed "for a considerable time the chances of success appeared to favor first one side and then the other." The uniqueness of the Virginia advance intrigued Colonel Hall so much that he illustrated it on a map submitted with his postbattle report. As they executed their unusual approach march, even under the hot fire of Gates, then Harrow, then Hall, the Virginians' apparently deliberate concentration for a final rush against the Union line at the clump of trees held the close attention of every Northern soldier on Gibbon's front.

No such sense of crisis swept through Hays's men, and their immediate recollections reflected a greater sense of confidence. As they prepared to meet Pettigrew and Trimble's Alabamians, North Carolinians, Mississippians, and Tennesseans, most of Hays's men could not see much of the crisis building on Gibbon's front. As one of Hays's men admitted, "Pettigrew commanded the column nearest our position," and as it approached the II Corps front, "it was about all that we could see of the line." The Southern battle line approached to within 200 yards (or less), and then the textbook offensive move met a textbook defensive response.

Although briefly hot and unquestionably costly, the clash on Hays's front possessed little that the soldiers deemed overly dramatic or exceptional. As Capt. George Bowen of the 12th New Jersey summed it up, "They fell like wheat before the garner, but still on they came until they were within a dozen feet of us when those that were left threw down their guns and surrendered." A comrade noted only that "the whole line became engaged in repulsing an attack made in force by the enemy, completely routing him." Colonel Smyth described the work of his brigade briefly: "So effective and incessant was the fire from my line that the advancing enemy was staggered, thrown into confusion, and finally fled from the field, throwing away their arms in their flight." Lt. Col. James Bull of the 126th New York wrote only that "the enemy, advancing in four lines across the flat, were subjected to a murderous fire of musketry and artillery, and were driven back in confusion, after an engagement of about an hour," a report so sparse that he even omitted recording the capture of three sets of Confederate colors.

Unquestionably, many personal dramas played out on Hays's front, but no great moment of crisis compelled the survivors to preserve many of them. Captain Bowen saw a few Southerners to his left get "over the fence and to the battery" of "steel rifled cannon," probably those belonging to Arnold's Rhode Islanders, and watched "one confederate jump on one of the guns, wave his flag and give a cheer," before a gunner felled him. Some of Davis's men--Lieutenant Peel among them--made it to the Bryan barn, but Hays's men held, and they no longer felt the sense of urgency that compelled their attention to the Southerners' advance. One unimpressed New York private downplayed the scene: "When within musket range the infantry rose up and gave them a withering shower and the gray lines melted away." Hays, never a subtle man, summarized his division's fight by noting that "in less time than it takes to record it," the Southerners "were throwing away their arms and appealing most pitiously for mercy."

The only Union unit on Hays's front to win special attention in later years did so because it performed in an unusual way. The 8th Ohio, redeployed from the west-facing picket line to face south, took Pettigrew's and Trimble's men in flank and, in combination with "the fire from the front, together with the concentrated fire from our batteries," destroyed Davis's ranks. Some of Lane's men apparently obliqued to strengthen that flank, but many other Southerners, shaken out of ranks at first contact, only kept up a desultory fire from the Emmitsburg Road. Still others may have drifted southward away from the threatened flank and joined in--without formal organization--with Pickett's men. The success of Hays's men in preventing the Confederates from breaking their line, ironically enough, helped to relegate them to the role of bit players, preserved the fiction of an all-Virginia Pickett's Charge at the expense of Pettigrew's and Trimble's men, and marked the "high tide of the Rebellion" at the copse of trees in Gibbon's line.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2000

    More than just Civil War history

    I loved this book. It was more than just the history of the charge. It was also a history about how history comes to be remembered and recorded. Even if you are not into the Civil War, there are many valuable insights in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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