Reimagining Pickett's Charge
Confederate reenactors take part in a demonstration of a battle during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Saturday, June 29, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the warâs bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A photograph by Alexander Gardner shows dead soldier near John Rose's farm soon after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Library of Congress
Big questions hover over the Gettysburg battlefield like the morning mist, and scholars enjoy long lives arguing about the answers. For most of these questions there are also two perspectives, Northern and Southern, as though the war settled nothing. But when it comes to Pickett’s Charge, the glorious but futile Confederate assault which occurred 150 years ago today, you can trust your own eyes to find the answers.
Gettysburg was the decisive battle of the war. The Union victory there turned back the Confederate army’s last invasion of the war and crushed the Southern hope of independence at its highest point. The repulse of Pickett’s Charge was the bloody exclamation point of the Union victory.
As I walked the battlefield with my wife and friends during a recent six-day visit to Gettysburg, I learned from the terrain each time. But to follow the route of Pickett’s Charge, I joined a group from the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and had the good fortune to have Troy Harman, an experienced park
ranger, as a guide.
Two charges in one
Pickett’s Charge began as two charges. Gen. George E. Pickett’s division formed on the right and Gen. Isaac R. Trimble’s on the left, hundreds of yards away. The two wings pressed into one as they marched across an open field, perhaps 12,500 men in all, toward Cemetery Ridge. Union artillery and infantry opened fire on them, killing more than 1,100 and wounding or capturing nearly 6,000.
Harman led us through Spangler’s woods from the Virginia Monument, a statue of a gallant Robert E. Lee, to the area where Pickett’s brigades gathered for the attack. We passed Spangler’s farm into the fields to the west of it, where the men formed. They waited in the sun on July 3, just as Col. Edward E. Cross’s brigade and the rest of his division had waited on Cemetery Ridge a mile east of them the day before.
The land Pickett’s men occupied was lush green pasture stitched with zigzagging rail fences, and it sloped upward from the house and barn. At a distance of maybe 200 yards, you could see a ridge, and above the far left of the ridge, treetops. Pickett’s men didn’t know it, and we didn’t know it till Harman told us, but the trees were in Ziegler’s Grove near Cemetery Hill.
What cannot be seen from this staging area is the Copse of Trees, known to many generations of tourists as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. A Yankee from New Hampshire came up with the title 15 years after the battle. This was John B. Bachelder, a native of Gilmanton who attended military school at Pembroke Academy. He followed the Army of the Potomac as an artist and later painted and chronicled the battle of Gettysburg and helped place most of the Union monuments on the field.
Among battlefield historians today, Ziegler’s Grove seems to be displacing the Copse of Trees as the actual aiming point for Pickett’s Charge. In truth, a solid, exploitable breakthrough anywhere along Cemetery Ridge might have produced a winning outcome for the Confederates.
As you march up the fields with the barn and the afternoon sun at your back, Ziegler’s trees grow from the horizon before your eyes, but until you reach Emmitsburg Road Ridge, you cannot tell what they are growing from. Pickett’s men were veterans. The cannon fire foretold their task, but surely they were eager to know the particulars, and the top of the ridge held the promise of this knowledge.
I was curious myself as I plodded through the tall grass, although there was no comparing my curiosity to what drew Pickett’s men forward. Their questions were how much lead would fill the air and how far they would have to go before they could shoot back. Mine was simply: Where exactly are we going?
Suddenly we topped the ridge, and everything changed. The view was so startling that I returned to it twice to show it to others. Each time, I literally gaped across the expanse of perhaps half a mile to Cemetery Ridge from this actual starting point of Pickett’s Charge. Between these ridges stretched a field of high knotty grass with hidden holes, runnels and stones. This was slow ground to march through, even without Union cannons blasting away at the right flank, pushing men to the left, shortening the line and turning it leftward.
This march was suicidal, and the general who ordered it made a colossal mistake. The general was Lee, who had seen the ground close up beforehand. The only possible excuse for his error, which led to the slaughter of men he revered while also ending the South’s best chance to win the war, is that he woefully underestimated the Union force on Cemetery Ridge.
Where the dead lay
Two days later, I went on another guided tour. Its leader was Tim Smith, a man obsessed with rocks and pictures, specifically Gettysburg’s splotchy gray stones and the photographs of soldiers’ corpses taken shortly after the battle.
In the small cadre of such enthusiasts, the star is William Frassanito, author of Gettysburg: A Journey in Time. More than 30 years ago he identified the locations where Alexander Gardner and his crew photographed several bodies. He did this by studying the rocks in the pictures. These rocks are composed of diabase, not granite, as many people think, and they have personalities. They are smooth, shapely, craggy, cracked. While nature constantly alters the landscape, the rocks change little. Miraculously, considering there are thousands of them, Frassanito found the ones in the pictures.
To Civil War historians, what made these discoveries “Aha!” moments rather than “So what?” moments was what had happened after the pictures were taken. To increase sales, Gardner or someone working with him purposely mislabeled the photographs as having been taken at various points around the battlefield. In fact, all were taken in just a few places.
A few days after the battle, Gardner arrived in Gettysburg by the Emmitsburg Road and turned his wagon into the lane of John Rose’s farm on the southern end of the battlefield. In a field beyond Rose’s house he found several bodies lined up awaiting burial. These were almost certainly Confederate bodies killed in the fighting after the Fifth New Hampshire left Rose’s Woods on July 2.
Of course, the bodies were long gone by the time our tour arrived, possibly buried beneath our feet. But the rocks were still there. Correction: Most of them were still there. After Frassanito identified the spot, at least one stone was pried out by a souvenir hunter, returned and stolen again. Relic-hunting has been a problem at Gettysburg since the day after the battle.
Near one of the rocks in one of the Gardner pictures, Smith passed out 3-D glasses to the tour group and held up a colorized 3-D image of the picture itself. This act warped time and other dimensions – a modern picture of an old picture of a rock that stood right before our eyes, the bodies near it in 1863 possibly buried nearby.
The three photographers, Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and James F. Gibson, were witnesses after the fact trying to record some account of the battle through what remained of it. They took some liberties, moving a body (not many, as some people think) and placing rifles as props. Although photography was still a new art in the 1860s, and thought of as such, these pictures are in fact early photojournalism, even with the alterations and false captions. Such manipulation was common in newspapers until at least the early 1960s. Gardner’s team showed the public the true face of war.
Later, during a presentation on the images, I watched the slides and thought about them as an editor, my job for 30 years before I retired: Which one should we publish and why? Every one of these photos would touch readers’ emotions, and you wanted them to react to the picture, not to the decision to publish it.
The choice was easy. It was a single soldier’s corpse lying on the rocks in the area before Devil’s Den known as the Slaughter Pen. His face was invisible, which made him everyman and lent him dignity. His posture in death, even bloated, even with his arms at his sides rather than outstretched, looked like the crucifixion. His corpse conveyed not violence and chaos, but rest, eternal rest. His one body represented thousands.
Through the brush you can no longer see the rocks on which this body lay, but I know where they are. In the way that the Gettysburg battlefield is ever-changing for anyone who spends time on it, that spot speaks to me in a different voice now, and always will. The more you walk the battlefield, the more the narrative changes and the richer the story grows.
(Mike Pride blogs on the Civil War and New Hampshire’s roll in it at our-war.com, which can also be reached through the “Monitor” website.)