Pickett’s Charge: A microhistory of the final attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 by George R. Stewart

Forget where I came across a mention of George R. Stewart’s microhistory of Pickett’s Charge. could’ve been anywhere.  The idea of a microhistory intrigued so I got a used copy.

How about the career of George R. StewartMan: An Autobiography.  Genius.

If we grant – as many would be ready to do – that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode of the history of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett’s Charge.

Thus to hold, indeed, is not to maintain that a different result, there by the clump of trees and the angle in the stone wall, would of itself have reversed the course of the war and decisively altered history.

Stewart takes you there, to the clump of trees and the angle in the stone wall.  If you want to know where Hancock was at approximately 3:30 pm that day, and from where Longstreet watched what he knew was likely a doomed advance, this is the book for you.

The task at hand is to make sense out of what must’ve been absolute insanity, deafening, smoky confusion for the participants.  Consider the 19th Massachusetts, around 3:50 pm:

The men were jammed in to an average of six deep.  When a man had loaded, he pushed his way to the front to fire.  Sometimes he had to doge around to get a place through which to point his musket, and in the confusion men might be shot from the rear.  With men firing from everywhere the noise of the discharges was deafening.

Sometimes the lines even surged together, and there was a sudden swinging of clubbed muskets.  In one of these encounters, Private De Castro of the 19th knocked down the color-bearer of the 14th Virginia, he himself using the staff of the Massachusetts state colors as a club.  He seized the Virginia flag, brought it back, and thrust it into the hands of his colonel.

Some of the events seem almost mystical to the modern reader.  The wounded Confederate general Armistead falls at the Union lines:

Armistead had been heard, in some lull of the musketry, calling for help, “as the son of a widow.”  This we must take to be the code of some secret society; at least, the words gained immediate response.  Some of the men of the 72nd Pennsylvania requested permission of their officer to go to his aid, and carried him behind the Union lines.

As a wounded general, even though of the wrong side, he was granted much attention and every courtesy.  A surgeon, Henry H. Bingham, soon arrived, but could only inform Armistead that he was dying.  Bingham promised to deliver any personal effects that the general might desire forwarded to his family.

Armistead was, according to Bingham, a man “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken spirited.”  The words that he then spoke were destined to become a small storm-center of controversy: “Say to General Hancock for me, that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret.”  He was then carried to the hospital.

Attitudes were at play which seem hard for us to access.  Stewart:

Horrors there were in plenty – men struck in the eyes, through the intestines, in the genitals.  Men were carried away maimed for life, and at least one wounded man drew his revolver and shot himself.  But to write of Gettysburg in terms of the Somme or of Monte Cassino would be a painful falsification of history.  Nothing is more striking in the sources generally than the absence of gloom.  The armies suffered casualties such as few modern armies have endured, but the men did not seem to feel sorry for themselves.  Did some primitive spirit of combat sustain them?  Or a romantic sense of glory?  Or an intense patriotism?  Or was it a more imminent hint of immortality, as when a private of Brown’s battery died in a religious ecstasy?

One of Stewart’s great sources is the records of a trial, twenty-five years after the battle, which resulted from a dispute between the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and the Survivors’ Association of the 72nd Pennsylvania about where on the battlefield they were permitted to put their statue:

Some of the testimony is of a remarkable poignancy, even though the heat of battle was so many years in the past.  We have the boiling over of pride in the regiment:

Q.  Did you see any Massachusetts or New York regiment come down and run over the Seventy-second?

A. I would like to see somebody say so!  I would like to meet the man who said it!

We have the vivid personal memory:

Q. Where did you find the bodies in the angle; I mean of the Seventy-second people in the angle?

A. The most I can remember was one by the name of Metz belonging to my company – him and me were great chums – and he fell across the stone wall.  He fell crossways across the stone wall.

As for Pickett himself?

He himself realized that his conduct during the afternoon had been such that he would be accused of cowardice . . . His career really ended at Five Forks, April 1, 1865, when he again lost most of his division.  On this occasion, while his men were being crushed, Pickett was behind the lines and out of touch, enjoying a shad-bake.  These were the last days of the war, and the scandal was somewhat hushed up.  But Pickett thereafter had only some fragmentary regiments, and he was relieved of his command the day before the surrender.  Lee, seeing him at Appomattox, remarked, “I thought that man was no longer with the army.”

(Should we rename the fort named after this guy?)

You needn’t bother adding this volume to your library unless you’re a fairly serious student of the battle, but it’s impressive to observe Stewart’s achievement, and to think on these events.

If I have a criticism of this book it’s that Stewart is so entertaining he can make all this seem like sort of just a violent field day.  To clear up that impression real fast, one can look at any of a number of grim photographs Timothy O’Sullivan took that day, and after, photographs which still shock.  This one, “Dead Horses of Bigelow’s Battery,” for instance.

How Lee took the devastating day:

Summoned to receive orders, [General John D. Imboden] found the commander so exhausted that he could scarcely dismount from his horse.  Shocked by this weariness and by the sadness of the face, Imboden ventured to remark, when Lee stood silent, “General, this has been a hard day on you.”

Lee looked up, and then spoke mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us.”  After another lingering silence, Lee commented on the gallantry of Pickett’s men, and then after another pause, he cried out, in a loud voice, in a tone almost of agony, “Too bad!  Too bad!  Oh!  TOO BAD!”

 



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