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Pickett’s Charge July 3, 1863 “The high-water mark of the Confederacy”

“Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!”

By now it was noon, and a great stillness came down over the field and over the two armies on their ridges. Between them, the burning house and barn loosed a long plume of smoke that stood upright in the hot and windless air. From time to time some itchy-fingered picket would fire a shot, distinct as a single handclap, but for the most part the silence was profound. For the 11,000 Confederates maintaining their mile-wide formation along the wooded slope and in the swale, the heat was oppressive. They sweated and waited, knowing that they were about to be launched on a desperate undertaking from which many of them would not be coming back, and since it had to be, they were of one accord in wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. “It is said, that to the condemned, in going to execution, the moments fly,” a member of Pickett’s staff wrote some years later, recalling the strain of the long wait. “To the good soldier, about to go into action, I am sure the moments linger. Let us not dare say, that with him, either individually or collectively, it is that ‘mythical love of fighting,’ poetical but fabulous; but rather, that it is nervous anxiety to solve the great issue as speedily as possible, without stopping to count the cost. The Macbeth principle – ‘Twere well it were done quickly” – holds quite as good in heroic action as in crime.” Shelby Foote – The Civil War: A Narrative

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. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. -— William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

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  • PA Cat July 3, 2018, 3:43 PM

    All honor to them. Fifty years on, some of the survivors from both sides held a reunion that included a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. “The climactic moment of the 50th Reunion was a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch as the Union veterans took their positions on Cemetery Ridge, and waited as their old adversaries emerged from the woods of Seminary Ridge and started toward them again. They converged as they had 50 years earlier at the stone wall but this time the Confederates were met with embraces of brotherly fellowship.”

    Photo here: http://www.gettysburg.com/livinghistory/pastpics/1913/191302.htm

  • Howard Nelson July 3, 2018, 3:54 PM

    And now I look down
    at Men garbed in grey and blue, sober, somber, laughing, free,
    preparing to serve Comrades, Honor, Responsibility.
    And as They die, All return to Me.

    What was gained, what was lost?
    Who gained what, at what cost?
    Field of folly, field of fealty,
    Who can grasp war’s full reality?

  • Howard Nelson July 3, 2018, 4:09 PM

    Great link, PA Cat. It should be shown in every school room.
    This country has had more than one Greatest Generation as those vets show. Great in war, great in peace, great in grace.

  • rabbit tobacco July 3, 2018, 11:01 PM

    It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it. Robert E. Lee

  • james wilson July 3, 2018, 11:27 PM

    What Lee’s comment reveals is that it was he who was too fond of it. Sherman, with all his faults, or because of them, held the sober point of view.

  • Callmelennie July 4, 2018, 8:55 AM

    Once the Great Rebel Cannonade on Cemetery Hill misfired and once JEB Stuart’s stab in the Union’s rear was foiled by George Custer, the charge was doomed. Nothing hung in the balance

    If Lee had only known that the two perquisites for success had come to nothing, he would have told Pickett’s troops to stand down, I’m sure of it.

  • Rob Miller July 4, 2018, 11:51 AM

    Lee should have listened to Longstreet who begged him not to fight at Gettysburg until Stuart’s cavalry returned with full recon.

    FTR, I once participated in a very sophisticated and accurate computer simulation of Gettysburg. I took the Confederates.

    Since I was giving the orders, I had Pegleg Dick Ewell’s troops and the other Confederate units take the high ground and dig in once Buford’s cavalry was pushed out of the way, long before Meade’s troops arrived. In the real battle, Ewell, who was commanding Stonewall’s troops did exactly the opposite and didn’t occupy the high ground, thanks to Lee’s inconclusive orders which he interpreted to suit himself.

    The ridges and high ground were the key to the battle. With me making sure the South was already in possession, when the main body of Lee’s troops came in from the west, they too were able to dig in and form a battle line together with their artillery.

    Then, it was the Union troops who had to attack fortified positions backed by artillery uphill instead of Lee’s troops. I won handily.

    I’m not any kind of tactical genius, and of course I had the huge benefit of hindsight. Nor am I any kind of romantic, moaning over the Lost Cause. But the Confederates could definitely have won at Gettysburg and I proved it. What defeated them was Lee’s inept orders and Ewell’s timidity. Any professional soldier of that time should have known better than to leave the high ground for the enemy.