Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Suffering of Pickett's Charge

Months ago, I received an e-mail asking about the experiences of the men who were stationed along Seminary Ridge on July 3, 1863 waiting to embark upon their immortal assault. The writer expressed specific interest in what the Southern men endured to make the charge. With some changes, here is how I responded.

On July 3, 1863, the suffering on these fields would be horrendous. Confederate Soldiers from Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia would first endure a 1 to 2 hour cannonade. With no real cover, chance alone would determine if the Federal shells found them or passed harmlessly by in search of another. When the artillery's roar ended, the men in butternut and gray would then of course advance in what would be called Pickett's Charge. About 12,500 Southern men would do their duty, venturing out from the woods and marching about a mile across open, undulating fields towards some 7,000 waiting veteran Union muskets and numerous cannon. Southern casualty estimates usually settle around or slightly above 50%, which include those men who were killed, wounded, and captured.

The suffering here was indescribable. Owing to the Southern Army's inability to recover all of their fallen brothers, nearly 7,000 wounded would be left on the field. Many in severe pain and in desperate need of water, some would lay in the sun and rain for days until Union surgeons could tend to their wounds. Those men that the Army of Northern Virginia could recover traveled in an ambulance train that would stretch on for some 17 miles as they moved towards the relative safety of Virginia soil. The ride was agonizing as the maimed bounced over rough roads in comfortless wagons.

Not all of the suffering here was physical however. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was not wounded at Gettysburg, wept as he reluctantly obeyed General Lee's orders and initiated the charge he believed would prove catastrophic. Major General George Pickett later remarked that General Longstreet said to him, "Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make." General Pickett also described how General Longstreet gave the orders he did not wish to give. "I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, - given in anguish and with reluctance."

General Pickett, who was also not physically harmed during the assault, was devastated as he watched thousands of his men being cut down. He wrote to his fiancée of how his men trusted him to lead them and how in horror he watched them die. He held General Lee accountable for what occurred and apparently never completely forgave him. Years later, as the pain remained, he would lament bitterly, "That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg."



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GettysBLOG said...

Thoughfully put. No one wanted that charge to go forward, except, Lee. Everyone knew the outcome before the first step was taken, except Lee. Was he ill? Did he believe too much in his own mythology and that of his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia? They had quite a time for about 18 months, easily handling the Army of the Potomac. But things were suddenly very different here.

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