Walking in the path of Pickett at Gettysburg
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted portions.,
"It was here.
The battlefield was here.
The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked
by three Roman legions.
The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn't hold.
They were massacred.
Arab women stripped them of their tunics, and their swords and lances.
The soldiers lay naked in the sun.
Two thousand years ago.
I was here."
--From the movie "Patton"
In what was one of the spookier moments from the classic biopic of General George S. Patton, Jr., the General stands on what was an ancient battlefield and describes what happened from the perspective of an eyewitness. Whether such a battle ever really happened, or this was another one of the theatrical performances Patton had a penchant for, or even if the entire scene was a Hollywood creation isn't really clear. What is clear, however, is the effect the spectre of battle had on him.
I've always been a kind of amateur historian. I enjoy looking back into the past in the attempt to learn more about the events that shaped their future, which became my present. In that research, I've tried to not only glean the dry facts of dates, names, places, and events, but to somehow use my admittedly overactive imagination to try to place myself in the shoes, boots, or sandals of the participants. Previous visits to places like Pearl Harbor, Nagasaki, and other historical sites have made that effort easier by becoming familiar with the actual landscape where such events took place. One of my favorite scenes from the movie "National Treasure" is when the protagonists bring the purloined Declaration of Independence to Philadelphia, unrolling the ancient document inside Independence Hall. At one point, Nicholas Cage's character takes a breath and says, "The last time this document was here, it was being signed."
Moving to Virginia has brought many of our nation's significant historical sites to within a day's drive of our home. In recent years, my interest in the Civil War has inspired trips to battlefield sights in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The first trip was a day-long visit to Gettysburg. I hadn't really studied the battle, so the tour didn't have much of an impact. However, by the second trip, I had read several books and articles and had reached the level of knowledge where I could stand on Little Round Top and pretty much recount the entire three days of the battle.
One can read about the action on the third day, commonly called Pickett's Charge, how Lee ordered a mass assault on the center of the Union line, hoping that the previous days battles on either flank had weakened the Union forces. In actuality, the Union lines along Cemetary ridge had been reinforced with troops, and fortified with a lot of artillery. So when Pickett led his men out of the trees along Seminary ridge and up that long slope, they were subjected to massive cannonades and the concentrated fire of the Union troops safely ensconced behind a protective stone wall. The amazing thing is that the charge was nearly successful. Despite massive casualties, the Southerners broke the line in the center. But the Union commander, Hancock, had reserves to contain and reject the breakthrough. Lee, having committed all of his available troops, had no reserves to exploit the break. The Southern units were decimated, and Lee, having lost the battle, pulled out that night and fled for the safety of Virginia.
Today, you can stand at the point where the charge started and take an introspective walk up the mile-long hill towards Cemetary Ridge. The first time I did that, I imagined thousands of blue troops behind that stone wall, all shooting at me. I mentally placed Union artillery on the left on Cemetary Hill, down the spine of the ridge, and on Little Round Top on the right, all firing shot and shell as I walked, naked of cover, across that field. The further I walked, the more emotional I became. The thought kept pulsing through my mind, "What in the world was Lee thinking?" In those moments, I gained a whole new appreciation for the raw courage of the Confederate soldier to keep marching through that blizzard of lead.
On one fine spring day in late March, I spent the morning running one of the trails at Mannassas (Bull Run) Battlefield, about 10 minutes from home. This time, I spent some hours reviewing the events of both major battles fought on this same ground before I went, so I was able to understand the flow of events as they took place. I stood on Henry House Hill, where General Thomas Jackson "stood like a stone wall" thereby earning his enduring nickname, and saving the victory for the South.
Later that day, I visited the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland. This was the single bloodiest day of the entire war for both sides. It was considered a Union victory, although any reasonable person could call it a narrow one indeed. More importantly, it was a victory that put teeth into President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
Even if you know the history of what transpired in these places, it can be difficult to equate the fire and violence, and the death that littered what are quiet fields today. But that is the nature of war; the act of turning a quiet countryside into chaos. But one can also begin to appreciate that these were places where the highest ideals of courage and sacrifice were acted out; where our country, as it exists today, was forged.
It is so very important that we take time to remember and realize the death and sacrifice that went into creating and sustaining this United States of America. Perhaps, if we take time to remember, we will be less inclined to take it all for granted.
Standing on those quiet hills and fields, if you close your eyes and listen closely, you can almost hear their plea across the years appealing to us to preserve what they fought to protect...
"Don't let me to have died in vain."