Read Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg Online

Authors: James M. Mcpherson

Tags: #Walking - Pennsylvania - Gettysburg National Military Park, #Walking, #Northeast, #Guidebooks, #Pennsylvania, #Gettysburg National Military Park (Pa.), #Essays & Travelogues, #Gettysburg National Military Park, #General, #United States, #Gettysburg; Battle Of; Gettysburg; Pa.; 1863, #Middle Atlantic (NJ; NY; PA), #History, #Travel, #Civil War Period (1850-1877)

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For two hours—the same two hours of the artillery duel and the beginning of the Pickett-Pettigrew assault back at Gettysburg—fast and furious cavalry attacks and counterattacks, mounted and dismounted, surged back and forth across these fields. At one point in the seesawing firefight, with Union horsemen hard pressed and falling back, Custer rode to the head of one of his regiments, the Seventh Michigan, and with a shout of “Come on, you Wolverines,” led them at the gallop in a Hollywood-style charge that blunted the Rebel advance. Counterattacked in turn, the bloodied Wolverines tumbled back in disorder.

We'll follow Confederate Cavalry Avenue south, to where it bends sharply left and becomes Gregg Avenue. Another half-mile brings us to a roadside marker and the impressive Michigan monument, a hundred yards south of the road. A confused melee in the fields south of this monument resolved itself into a renewed offensive led by the South Carolina brigade of Brigadier General Wade Hampton, a skilled commander and reputedly the South's richest planter. Custer once again led a mounted charge, this time by
the First Michigan. As the South Carolinians and Wolverines thundered toward each other, an awed Pennsylvania trooper looking on described what happened next: “As the two columns approached each other, the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them. The clashing of sabers, the firing of pistols, and demands for surrender, and cries of combatants, filled the air.”

Custer's horse went down, but he jumped up and mounted a riderless horse and continued to slash away with his saber, scarcely missing a beat. Other Northern units closed in on Hampton's flanks; one New Jersey trooper charged through the confusion and sent Hampton to the rear with severe saber wounds to his head. Their leader down, and beset by angry Yankees yelling like maniacs, the Rebel horsemen retreated to the protection of their artillery on the ridge from which they had started. Not long after Pickett's Virginians reeled back from Seminary Ridge, three miles to the west, Stuart recoiled from what has been known ever since as East Cavalry Field.

About the time the cavalry action began, the temporary calm back in Gettysburg was shattered by two cannon shots from Seminary Ridge at 1:07
P.M.
This was the signal for 150 Confederate guns to soften up
the point of attack near a copse of woods on Cemetery Ridge that Lee had selected for the target of his infantry assault. Union guns replied, and for almost two hours the rapid fire of more than 250 cannons shook the countryside. Owing to some freak acoustic condition of the atmosphere, several people in the Pittsburgh area, 150 miles to the west, heard this artillery barrage, while residents of Chambersburg, only twenty-five miles away, heard little or nothing.

After the first few minutes, the Confederate shells began to go too far before exploding, causing havoc a couple of hundred yards in the rear of the Union lines, but leaving infantry and artillery at the front relatively unscathed. Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view. Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered. One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force. Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slightly. The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks. The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of
Pennsylvania. Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fuses they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.

Whatever the reason, the Confederate artillery barrage did not accomplish its purpose. Nevertheless, after an hour or so, the Union chief of artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, began to withdraw some batteries from action as a ruse to convince the Confederates that they had been knocked out and also to save ammunition for the infantry attack he knew was coming.

Our next stop is the jump-off point for that attack. To get there from East Cavalry Field, we return to town on the Hanover Road (State Route 116), and continue west from downtown Gettysburg on Middle Street, which becomes the Fairfield Road (still Route 116). At the top of Seminary Ridge, we will turn left at the stoplight onto West Confederate Avenue, which follows the Confederate line south. The numerous cannons on our left, pointing at Cemetery Ridge across the fields, mark the positions of some of those Confederate guns firing fast and furiously that hot afternoon of July 3.

A little more than a mile after our turn, we will pull into the parking area at the Virginia monument. After viewing this impressive sculpture portraying in bronze several representative Confederate soldiers at the base, with Robert E. Lee far above, mounted on his favorite horse, Traveller, we will walk a hundred yards east to the edge of the woods on the right. From this point the Confederate artillery stretched still another three-quarters of a mile south, all firing at the Union lines. The copse of trees visible across the fields was their central aiming point.

These fields were crisscrossed in 1863 by Virginia worm fences or post-and-rail fences enclosing small fields of grain, corn, and hay. Farmers in southern Pennsylvania customarily fenced in their crops and left livestock free to graze in open pastures and woods. These fences formed an obstacle to infantry moving across the fields. The Park Service intends to rebuild replica fences where they existed in 1863. But to be entirely realistic, many of the fence rails should then be thrown down, for by the afternoon of July 3, 1863, soldiers of both armies had already done precisely that during the previous two days. And when the Confederate infantry attacked across these fields, details of soldiers ran ahead of the main body to pull down many of the remaining rails.

That morning Lee and Longstreet had again disagreed
about tactical plans for the day. Longstreet had informed Lee shortly after dawn, “General, I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent chance to move around to the left of Meade's army and maneuver him into attacking us.” But Lee was no more in the mood for such a move than he had been twenty-four hours earlier. “The enemy is there,” he said, pointing toward the Union line, and “I am going to take them where they are.” He ordered Longstreet to prepare Pickett's fresh division and most of the brigades in Hill's two divisions that had fought on July 1—about twelve thousand men altogether—for an assault on the Union center near that copse of trees. They would be supported by other brigades from Major General Richard Anderson's division of Hill's corps.

The attackers would have to advance across these open fields in front of us, under artillery fire almost every step of the way. When they got across the stout post-and-rail fences lining the Emmitsburg Road (most of which had not been pulled down), they would come under rifle fire from Union infantry sheltered by stone walls, fences, and shallow trenches. “General Lee,” Longstreet later reported himself to have said, “I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies,
and should know as well as anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”

Irritated by this near-insubordination, Lee replied impatiently that his army had overcome similar odds before—the implication being that Longstreet had not been present at Chancellorsville and therefore did not know what he was talking about—and they could do it again. Longstreet was his senior corps commander, and Lee wanted him to organize the attack despite his reluctance. “My heart was heavy,” Longstreet recalled. “I could see the desperate and hopeless nature of the charge and the cruel slaughter it would cause. That day at Gettysburg was the saddest of my life.”

Longstreet's account may have been colored by hindsight. On the other hand, Confederate officers noted his heavy countenance as he organized the artillery for bombardment and the infantry for attack. He would have six brigades in addition to Pickett's three in the primary attack, and at least two more in support. Except for Pickett's division, these troops would not come from his own corps, which had been too badly shot up the previous day to be ready to fight again. Instead, the other six brigades in the primary attack would come from Henry Heth's and Dorsey Pender's divisions of A. P. Hill's corps. They had been badly mangled on July 1, but at least the survivors had had a day of rest. They would not be under their
usual commanders, however; both Heth and Pender had been wounded on that first day (Pender would die of his wound two weeks later). Brigadier Generals J. Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble took their places. Four of the six brigades in these two divisions were also under new commanders this day—all of them colonels—which did not augur well for the steadiness of these units if they ran into heavy resistance.

Major General George E. Pickett's all-Virginia division would constitute nearly half of the attacking force. They waited with nervous impatience to go in and get it over with. Like Custer, Pickett had graduated last in his West Point class (of 1846). And like Custer, he wore his long hair in ringlets. With his face adorned by a drooping mustache and goatee, Pickett looked like a cross between a Cavalier dandy and a riverboat gambler. He affected the style of Sir Walter Scott. His division had been involved only in skirmishes since the battle of Antietam, more than nine months earlier, and Pickett himself had seen little action since he was wounded in the Seven Days battles a year before. He was eager to win everlasting glory at Gettysburg.

Less eager, but driven by honor and pride, were Pickett's brigade commanders, all of them older than Pickett, and all of them brigadier generals: Lewis A. Armistead, Richard B. Garnett, and James L. Kemper. Kemper was an eager secessionist who had been
appointed for political reasons but had developed military skills; Armistead and Garnett were professionals with something to prove. Every generation of Virginia Armisteads since 1636 had fought in one of England's or America's wars. Lewis's father and four uncles had fought in the War of 1812. It must have been a matter of some family shame, therefore, when young Lewis was expelled from West Point in 1836, reportedly for hitting Jubal Early over the head with a dinner plate. Armistead went into the army anyway in 1839, and worked his way up to captain before resigning to join the Confederacy in 1861. One of his closest friends in the old army was Winfield Scott Hancock, who was waiting for him across the way as commander of the Union Second Corps holding the sector that the Confederates intended to attack.

Garnett had commanded the famed Stonewall Brigade under Stonewall Jackson in the battle of Kernstown in March 1862. When his men ran out of ammunition he had pulled them back. Jackson had him court-martialed for disobedience of orders and cowardice. Garnett was never tried, and was subsequently given a brigade under Pickett, but he felt the need to erase the stain on his honor. He was too ill to participate in this attack on foot, and was determined to lead his brigade on horseback, even though that would make him the prime target of every Union rifle within range. As Garnett and Armistead gazed
across the fields at the blazing cannons on the ridge they were ordered to assault, Garnett commented, “This is a desperate thing to attempt.” “It is,” agreed Armistead. “But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in his hands.”

Pickett's division would go forward on the right of the attacking line. We are standing about where the farthest right of Pettigrew's four brigades would start forward, with three more to the left and Trimble's brigades behind them. The whole line would be a mile wide when it emerged from the woods along Seminary Ridge, contracting to a width of only six hundred yards at the point of attack. Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00
P.M.
(reports vary), Confederate batteries began to run short of ammunition. Longstreet's artillery commander, Colonel E. Porter Alexander, sent word that it was now or never for the infantry to go forward. “General,” Pickett pleaded with Longstreet, “shall I advance?” Longstreet later wrote that “my feelings had so overcome me that I could not speak, for the fear of betraying my want of confidence.” All he could do was nod. That was enough for Pickett. He rushed back to his men and gave them a short speech (which most could not hear), concluding, “Up men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from old Virginia.”

Forth they went, line after line. Almost as soon as they emerged from the woods near where we are
standing, enemy artillery began to find the range. Confederate soldiers quickly learned that few if any Union cannons had been knocked out. Many of the times I have stood at this spot with a group of students, someone has asked me, “What made these men do it? What motivated them to advance into that wall of fire? What caused them to go forward despite the high odds against coming out unharmed?” The same questions could be asked about Union as well as Confederate soldiers on many a battlefield. I decided to write a book to answer the questions, using the letters and diaries of the soldiers themselves to find out what made them tick.

The answers to the questions are complex, as one might imagine, but they can be boiled down to the two motives expressed by the title of my book
For Cause and Comrades.
Most of the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg (and elsewhere) were volunteers. They had enlisted because they believed in the Cause (with a capital
C)
for which they were fighting: the very survival of their respective nations. If the North lost the war, the words “United States” would become an oxymoron. If the South lost, the Confederacy would exist no more. When the bullets started flying, however, the abstraction of Cause might fade into the background of the clear and present danger presented by those bullets. No sane person would walk alone for a thousand yards across open fields plowed by exploding
shells, knowing that if he made it that far, grim men with rifles were waiting to shoot at him during the next three hundred yards. But if his comrades were going forward, he couldn't let them down by lagging behind. His fear of their contempt for his cowardice was greater than his fear of those shells and bullets. “You ask me if the thought of death does not alarm me,” wrote one soldier to his sister. “I will say that I do not wish to die.… I myself am as big a coward as eny could be, but give me the bullet before the coward when all my friends and companions are going forward.”

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