Monthly Archives: June 2011

Pickett’s Charge

Since I was a kid, growing up near Houston, I have always been fascinated by Pickett’s Charge, the defining moment of the Battle of Gettysburg. It seems to capture the glory and absolute stupidity of that war. Thousands of men died in about 90 minutes for literally nothing. Finally, this summer, I got to see it myself.

Look at the treeline towards the rear of this photo. There, at about 1 p.m. on July 3, 1863, more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers walked into the sunshine and marched into the final day of battle at Gettysburg and into a dreadful history.

Gen. George Pickett, whose division of Virginians made up the lion’s share of the force, moved them out into a line to attack roughly 10,000 Union soldiers aligned along Cemetery Ridge. The Union position was just this side of the stone wall in the foreground of the photo. It was to be the grand attack that broke the Union center and give Lee a victory. Or at least buy time.

All accounts record the Confederates marched slowly forward, arranged in parade-ground formation.  Their regimental flags snapped and the sun glinted off the musket barrels . It was, all agreed, a moving and lovely sight. They had about a mile of open ground to cover.

Union cannon opened up as the Confederates moved into the grassy area before them. Huge holes opened in the line, men screamed and others rushed to fill their ragged line and make it orderly As they hit the picket fence about a third of the way, the neat lines broke as Rebel soldiers climbed over the wooden fence or began dismantling it. Union cannon continued to pour steel into their line. Still they came forward.

Finally, the Union troops opened fire with their muskets, punishing the grey line and forcing them to pinch together, aimed at the rock fence line. Finally, those who were left ran forward, screaming the rebel yell, into point-blank musket fire. Union cannon changed to cannister shot that ripped into the Rebel line with thousands of small, iron balls. Only a handful, perhaps 200, led by Gen. Lewis Addison Armistead, waving his hat on the point of his sword, pushed beyond the stone wall and into a Union battery. Armistead died there. It is called the high-water mark of the Confederacy, the farthest north they got.

Nearly 13,000 Southern soldiers marched out that day. More than 5,000 fell dead or gravely wounded onto that sun-splashed field. The rest crawled and limped back nearly a mile to the Southern line. Lee, concerned that the Union might counter-attack, ordered Pickett to move his division into a defensive line. “General,” Pickett said. “I have no more division.”

The only way to see this ground is in silence. Even the flood of tourists belched out of the tour buses that rumble around the Gettysburg battlefield stare out across this open space in mute awe. That’s how I left it.

In Intruder In the Dust, William Faulkner described the lasting impact Pickett’s charge had on those growing up in the South. And maybe the North too. Faulkner gets the last word.

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time.

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Somewhere In America

It’s over. After 13 days, 3,600 miles, 9 states and the growing realization I’m too old for this shit, the Dave & Gin 2011 ElderTour of the South is over. We toured many old Southern mansions, stalked through roughly a gazillion museums and outdoor monuments in DC and Civil War Battlefields at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Antietam and one old fort outside Savannah. It was heaven.

The careful reader may pick out a theme. My name is David and I am a Civil War addict. Right now, I have something like 10 photos of Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam battlefield. Is that excessive?  Maybe. But it puts history into chilling perspective to stand on that graceful old bridge were Union soldiers died by the hundreds and hundreds in three failed attacks.

The main appeal of the trip was not history and bloodshed, however. We wanted to see America. Between the two of us, we’ve been in Ireland, England, France, Japan, Guatemala and Mexico. Now we wanted to see a part of America we really haven’t seen before. The pine forest that stretches from East Texas to the Florida Panhandle. The red dirt towns of rural Alabama and the rolling hills of Virginia and Maryland. Rivers that wide and fast-flowing and make the San Antonio River look like a creek. Rolling waves of newly planted corn shining in the morning sun. The relatively new DC monuments to FDR and World War II vets that are both eloquent and moving. FDR’s memorial, with its tension between an America of failed economy and the America at war, could easily have been about our times.

We tried Mennonite pickled eggs somewhere in Maryland or western Virginia – it’s all a little hazy. They were terrible, by the way. Barbecue, heavenly barbecue, in Savannah. An Irish pub in DC. Some astonishingly good pastry in Boonsboro, Maryland. A stop for food and people watching in Tuscaloosa – where men and women dress up to go to a coffee shop. Oh, yes, coffee. We stopped for where ever we saw a Starbucks. Or a McDonalds or someplace, any place, that sold coffee. More importantly, Gin & I got to get to know each other again. On the road. No kids, no family, no directions but those we imposed on ourselves. I could get used to this.

But home calls. As it always does. One day, we looked at each other and said, “It’s time.” We’ll have to catch Charleston and Mobile on another trip. We made a marathon run home, stopping only for the night in a terrible hotel on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., the kind of place where you check beds for bedbugs and you walk past some lady’s underwear and bra on the way out in the morning.  Home never looked so good.

Gin is already gathering ideas for the next road trip. Maybe the west, this time. We haven’t seen a lot of the west. It has an appeal.


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Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

We weren’t expecting this.

We visited the Chancellorsville battlefield in June. It’s near the wild, haunted woods of the Wilderness in Eastern Virginia. There, on May 3, 1863, in the second bloodiest day in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee won another victory that helped inspire his invasion of the North a month later. It also cost him Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.

Jackson had made a successful flank attack on the Union’s right the day before. That night, under a full moon, he rode out with aides to consider the next day’s attack. As he rode back to Rebel lines, a North Carolinian regiment mistook him for Union cavalry and opened fire. Jackson was hit 3 times, one shot shattering his left arm. He was taken to a field hospital at an old farm house, where his arm was amputated.

The surgeon wrapped up the arm and buried it near the family cemetery at the Lacy Farm near in the Wilderness. There is lies today.  Jackson died a week later in a delirium of fever from pneumonia. His dying words: ” “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Another 3,000 soldiers, Union and Rebel died at Chancellorsville. I’m not sure what their final thoughts were.

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The Cornfield at Antietam Battlefield, where hundreds died for no apparent reason in 1862

This may easily be the saddest piece of real estate in America. The battle fought here on Sept. 17, 1862, along Antietam Creek (and near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, resulted in more than 23,000 casualties – the bloodiest single day of combat in US  history. It was, at best, a draw.

It is a serenely beautiful landscape. Rolling hills and wide fields of corn, dotted by thick stands of trees, it seems incredible great horrors happened here. But they did. Over and over again. Antietam, as much as any battle in the Civil War demonstrated the sheer force of personal courage and grace under fire by individual soldiers and the staggering arrogance & incompetence of their commanders. The Corn Field. The Bloody Lane. Burnside’s Bridge. Each redefined pointless carnage and the chaotic violence that became war that day.

At the Antietam Battlefield Park museum, I overheard a mother attempting to answer her daughter’s questions about the exhibits.

“The soldiers wanted to take care of each other,” she said when asked why the soldiers on both sides kept charging into brutal cannon and musket fire.

‘Well,’  the daughter asked, ‘Who were the good guys? Which side were we on?’

‘These were all good Americans, honey. We don’t have a side and they weren’t bad guys.’

The daughter, maybe age 9, grasped that. Or at least accepted it.  ‘But who won?’

‘Nobody won, honey. It wasn’t that kind of battle.’

‘Well, when grandpa was in the Army, his side won,’ the little girl said.

‘No, grandpa was in Vietnam. He didn’t win either.’

I doubt anyone could have put the matter more honestly.

We have been on a whirlwind trip through the south, touring Civil War battlefields, old Civil war forts and the more pleasant recreations of Savannah and Washington D.C. It creates quite a breakdown in reason after a while. Reading histories of the war, you don’t get the feel of how close, how concentrated the battles were. These were not ideological fights. This was raw and personal. The body count is horrendous and we still feel the impact of those battles today

This is beautiful country around Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields in Virginia, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Antietam. We are at this writing staying in a beautiful B&B in Boons boro, Maryland created out of an old 19th Century house. I am sure the residents heard the musket rattle and cannon’s roar from  Antietam nearly a 150 years ago. Now, we’re going down for cheese, fruit and wine.

It’s going to take a while to get any coherence out of this trip.

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Greetings from Savannah

Magnolia in Savannah

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Gosh, CNN, what did you expect?

Yeah, I know. You’ve seen Caribou Barbie stumble through Paul Revere’s ride. This time, stick around for the anchor’s reaction.  You have to wonder, did they think Palin would get it right?”>She said what?

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