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.