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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.

  • Wildman July 3, 2020, 11:37 AM

    Bravery such that those men showed at Gettysburg, Omaha, Inchon and Khe San is in short supply today

  • James ONeil July 3, 2020, 1:05 PM

    Far too many today have forgotten Grant’s words at the Appomattox courthouse; “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”

  • ghostsniper July 3, 2020, 1:53 PM

    I was there on the 100th anniversary 01July1963 when I was 8 years old.
    My dad took my younger brother and me.
    Though I was born in Gettysburg it was the first time I had been to the museum.
    I got a map there and took it home and studied it to death.
    I was a rapacious reader of everything Gettysburg I could find.
    The most amazing thing I saw at the museum, and I am still stunned by it some 57 years later, was the shear volume of found bullets that had collided in mid-air, on a wall display. Hundreds of them. Let that sink in. If you are a shooter, and everyone here should be, imagine the volume of lead that must be in the air at the same time for that to occur. Remember, they didn’t have full automatic sheen guns. Most were old skool loaded one ball/bullet at a time. Seeing that display, there is no wonder so many died there. The amazing part is that anyone survived.

  • Andrew X July 3, 2020, 3:05 PM

    I have loved this movie since day one, I have already replaced one DVD of it.

    It is interesting the discussions of Martin Sheen, an American Olivier. My take is that I wish he had been taller of stature, but other than that, I thought his portrayal was magnificent.

    Well, we all have a pretty good idea of Sheen’s outlook on the world. And if I ever got through to him on a call-in or something , I would be dying to hear him respond to one question: “Mr. Sheen, I truly loved and admired your portrayal of Robert E. Lee. Can you tell me how it feels to know that this movie will never, and I mean, never, in your remaining lifetime, be shown publicly or on any even moderately prominent national network, and won’t for many years to come, if at all? It has been and will be censored. It will not be broadcast, or God help us shown in schools…. pretty much anywhere. Forever, for all we know. And what say you to the absolutely undeniable fact that this movie would never even be made at all in this foul and stupid day and age?”

    Your work in it was wonderful, and it has been and will be ruthlessly purged. By people who probably would look at the two armies’ uniforms and not know which was which. Sir, how do you feel about all this?

  • Gordon Scott July 3, 2020, 3:31 PM

    Geez, PA Cat. I can only imagine what it felt like for those survivors from Pickett’s Charge to look east out of the woods on Seminary Ridge, across that distance, and to step out and begin that long, long deadly march.

    I stood there, 150 or so years after, and thought to myself, man, I would not want to make that walk. Not now, not ever. There’s too many ghosts out there.

  • Kirk Forlatt July 3, 2020, 3:58 PM

    How can you post something like this and then post that fawning clip of the horrid “Battle Hymn of the Republic?”

    Gell-Mann, call your office…

  • Skorpion July 3, 2020, 4:10 PM

    @Ghostsniper: One of my most treasure possessions is a .58 Minié ball dug out of the Gettysburg soil. I have no idea whether it was fired by a Union or a Rebel soldier, but that doesn’t matter to me. Some brave young soldier on that bloody ground loaded and fired it; perhaps it found its target, punched through flesh and bone, and then buried itself in the dirt, only to be uncovered a century later.
    Whatever its story, may it serve to always remind me of that terrible fratricidal conflict, and of the men who fought and fell there.

  • captflee July 3, 2020, 8:25 PM

    At the rate we’re going, the near future may well show us what real civil war looks like. No flags or uniforms, just your neighbors burning you out and murdering your children. There’s a line from my favorite movie on the WBTS, “Ride with the Devil”, that puts it rather succinctly. “Battles and armies, it’s all back east; down here in Missouri, you just have the people to fight ya”.