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.