The afternoon of July 3, 1863, ranks as one of the most unforgettable times in American history. That was when fifteen thousand Confederates marched across a wide-open field toward the center of the Union-held lines atop Cemetery Ridge on day three of the Battle of Gettysburg.
As a Southerner and a history teacher, I find the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge troubling to teach. In one sense, it is a quite simple battle to explain. The battleground itself was shaped like a fish hook. The Union army occupied the hills and ridges on the interior, with the Confederates lined up outside the fish hook. The battle lasted three days with a series of distinct points of contact.
I have often used Gettysburg as a way of explaining interior and exterior lines of battle, the role of cavalry, flank attacks, enfilade fire, and the shoulder-to-shoulder methods of warfare. Hundreds of books have been written about Gettysburg, but I use Michael Shaara’s novel Killer Angels and the movie version of that novel, Gettysburg, as resources. Being that Shaara was writing fiction, I emphasize that he used history as a way of creating an imaginative account that is built around the themes of Homer’s Iliad. History and fiction are not the same, either in Homer’s time or our own.
With such a textbook-perfect history lesson, with literary and film resources supplementing it, why is Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge such a challenge to teach? I answer in part by appealing to the man who often touched the central nerve of Southernness, William Faulkner.
In his novel Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner wrote,
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 makes 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 even need a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown . . . the desperate gamble….
I doubt that young Southern boys today still live with that conscious recollection of Pickett’s Charge. But in Faulkner’s day, the scars of the War were still inescapably visible. What was politely termed “the Late Unpleasantness” was still impacting Southern thought, politics, and economics. We have reduced the War to controversies over flags, but the War and its aftereffects were much more complex than flags.
Then there is this phrase from Faulkner: “[T]here is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances ….” Pickett’s Charge is almost unexplainable in light of the Confederate army’s previous fights. Having taught through the series of battles in Virginia from First Manassas to Appomattox. I admit to getting carried away with unrestrained bursts of passion when teaching about my personal heroes, like Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and even Longstreet.
Robert E. Lee pulled off a series of victories that will forever enshrine his name in the annals of military history. He possessed an uncanny sense of when and where to engage the enemy. He was a master of both offense and defense. All too often, he was too close to the fray for his own good, causing Confederate soldiers to beg him to withdraw from the lines of fire.
Prior to Gettysburg, Lee masterminded a victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville that surpasses military logic. Lee divided his smaller forces, leaving one part of the army at Fredericksburg, while taking the rest to where Union General Joseph Hooker had crossed the Rappahannock River. Locating Hooker’s army, Lee divided his small force yet again and sent Stonewall Jackson on a wide route through woods toward the rear of the Union army. It was in this battle where Jackson launched his last and greatest charge of the war.
The magnitude of the victory at Chancellorsville was offset only by the subsequent death of Jackson. Chancellorsville, as well as previous victories, gave Lee’s army a sense of invincibility. That sense was shattered during Pickett’s Charge.
Some people fault Pickett’s Charge for being a frontal attack. Some have criticized the South’s penchant for frontal attacks and use of outmoded methods in light of the accuracy of rifled musketry. The case can be made that more defensive warfare, the greater use of trenching, and conservation of manpower might have changed the course of the war.
Frontal attacks, however, were not merely a military anachronism of men who were still thinking in Napoleonic terms about war. All wars involve direct confrontation with the enemy, which usually means confronting entrenched enemy fortifications. I am currently reading The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson. From D-Day in Normandy to the surrender of Germany in May of 1945, American and British forces defeated Germany largely by frontal attacks against German entrenchments.
Most Civil War battles involved frontal attacks and often resulted in disasters similar to Pickett’s Charge. Ulysses S. Grant was called “Butcher Grant” for his frontal attack at Cold Harbor. Union General William Sherman sacrificed large numbers at Kennesaw Mountain when he assailed Confederate General Joe Johnston’s army. Confederate General John B. Hood destroyed his own army when he ordered them to frontally attack the Union forces at the Battle of Franklin.
Pickett’s Charge was just one of many such blunders. It has been said, “Victory has many fathers, but defeat has only one.” Actually, the paternity cases regarding defeats are as contested as the battles themselves. There has been lots of blame through the years regarding Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge.
Here are the usual suspects:
• Cavalry General Jeb Stuart failed in being the “eyes and ears of the army” when he was “off joyriding,” in the days prior to the battle.
• General Richard Ewell failed to capture Cemetery Hill on the first day.
• General A. P. Hill was too sick to command his forces.
• James Longstreet‘s tardiness on Day Two resulted in defeat.
• The Confederate artillery did not provide adequate support for Pickett’s Charge.
• Stonewall Jackson should not have died.
• With over a century of blame shifting, one cannot but admire Robert E. Lee’s response: “It is all my fault.”
There is a finality to historical events. A fourteen-year-old boy from Faulkner’s time and we ourselves might look back to the moments before Pickett’s Charge and say, “Maybe this time,” but no, it always ends the same.
More Pictures for “Remembering Pickett’s Charge”