At the appointed hour of three o’clock on the afternoon of July 3, the roaring reports of the cannon stopped reverberating throughout the hot, humid Pennsylvania countryside in Gettysburg. It was the signal to begin the advance to east. Some fifteen thousand history buffs and curiosity seekers assembled behind the flags of the nine brigades of George Pickett, Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble. We were there to commemorate the supposedly glorious, war changing charge led by General George Pickett on the climatic moment of the climatic battle of the American Civil War.
It was exactly one hundred and fifty years ago to the hour from the time when Lt. General James Longstreet, in dutiful obedience to the decisive orders of General Robert E. Lee, reluctantly nodded his head in approval of Pickett’s request to move his division forward from the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge in an effort to strike and break the center of the Union line, well positioned behind a stone wall between “The Angle” and “The Copse of Trees.” (Left)
After a two-hour Confederate cannonade, the largest ever staged in North America and one which was heard as far away as Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Longstreet’s 12,000 men moved out. After an hour long advance across open fields in the face of skirmish fire and a relentless barrage of Union artillery fire, a fragment of Gen. Lewis Armistead’s brigade managed to briefly break the Federal position at the angle. (Left)
With nearly half of their men dead, wounded or captured, and all three of Pickett’s brigadier generals, along with three others of Pettigrew and Trimble’s divisions, dead or gravely wounded, the battered brigades reversed their course and limped back to the safety of the woods along the Seminary Ridge. The failed attack, one which General Longstreet had feared would be futile and a waste of lives, would be forever known as “Pickett’s Charge” and “The High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”
For the culmination of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the National Park Service invited reenactors, living historians and the public to participate in a walk across the same mile wide field which led to the capture, wounding or deaths of 11 of 15 of Pickett’s regimental commanders a total loss of more than 6,000 men in a single hour.
Visitors had their choice of following in the paths of Brockenbrough, Davis, Lane, Marshall, Fry, Lowrance, made of up of units from nearly all of the southern states, supported by Thomas’s Georgia Brigade including two companies from Laurens County on the left. Pickett’s three brigades of Virginia infantrymen were positioned on the right with Garnett in the lead on the left, Kemper on the right and Armistead in the rear.
The largest crowd gathered behind the flag of the brigade of Armistead, whose brigade broke the Union center and whose leader, General Lewis “Lo” Armistead, is featured prominently in Ted Turner’s movie, “Gettysburg.”
My wife Kathy and I took our spot on the far right end of the Confederate formation. We were there to walk in the footsteps of Kathy’s great-grandfather, William Foushee Harrison, a slight in stature, long bearded, 22-year-old 2nd Lieutenant of Co. A. 7th Virginia Infantry, of James L. Kemper’s brigade.
(Lt. William F. Harrison, Co. A, Richardson Guards, 7th Virginia Infantry, Kemper's Brigade, Pickett's Division.
For our point of departure, we were moved a few thousand yards north from the original position toward the center to shorten our strides. We could not see our objective on the ridge a mile in front of us, nor could the swiftly swelling crowd on Cemetery Ridge see us. Pickett chose this position around the Spangler farm to take advantage of the swales to conceal his position from Union lookouts. Like Pickett’s men, we baked in the sweltering sun for nearly two hours before moving out.
While Park Ranger and author, Troy Harman, was giving us our final instructions and interesting aspects of what would have happened along our path 150 years ago, a bellowing voice rang out. A tiny man asked if anyone remembered the scene in the movie when the 7th Virginia’s commander, Waller Tazwell Patton ( great-uncle of General George S. Patton) was wounded. He pointed to the scene with the actor portraying Col. Patton, he movie’s producer, Ted Turner, rallied his men and then grasped his left rib and fell mortally wounded on the field. In fact, the old man exclaimed loudly, “part of his jaw was ripped away.”
In an instant, astonished park rangers and professional and amateur historians recognized the booming voice. Ed Bearss, a Marine veteran of World War II and the country’s consummate dean of Civil War and World War II guides and historians, was among our ranks! As he spoke to our brigade, whispers rang out, “Who’s he?” “He’s famous!”
We even had our own mascot in formation. An white-headed, brindled English Bulldog, sporting a 3"x5" battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, was attempting to stay cool in the shade of adoring, camera clicking participants.
After our chaplain recited the Lord’s Prayer, Ranger Harman led us followed by a chorus of Dixie.
“Forward march,” came the command!
Two wavy ranks began to climb the hill to the fence line where General E.P. Alexander’s artillery was once stationed to pound the Union positions on the ridge to the northeast. Our leaders directed us to go through a gap in the rail fence and reform for the second leg of our march to the left of Rogers house on the Emmittsburg Road, though along the line some couldn’t resist the urge to climb over the rails.
As the formation began to disintegrate into a jumbled mass, I looked a few steps to my right to find Bearss walking beside me. Asking for answers to questions to be delayed until the end, Bearss wanted to personally embrace the moment. As the prolific author Bearss wavered in his pace, I felt I should do the military thing and guard my superior’s unprotected left, just in case he fell.
For a few moments, I looked left down the entire line to see the breath taking sight of thousands and thousands of people walking, running and trudging forward. A wave of a rainbow colored horde spotted with gray clothed soldiers and waving battle flags was rolling, rolling across the plain and steadily up the hill.
As we approached the road and the second fence row, I noticed Bearss had moved well ahead of me, confirming the statement in his Wikipedia article that he frequently outwalks the much younger members of his tours. I certainly could stop worrying about him and concentrate on my own ability to make it to the objective.
After crossing the main road and moving to the right of the Cordori House, the ground became even more treacherous. A single mowed lane led in the direction of our march. In accordance with our commander’s original orders to march in ranks and not columns, I urged Kathy to move to the right. I shouted “Come over here to the right where your ancestor would have marched” in the face of frequently fatal flanking fire of the muskets of 59th New York, 20th Massachusetts and the 13th Vermont, which inflicted heavy casualties on Kemper’s men, including Kemper himself, who fell severely wounded and was eventually captured and exchanged. Kemper, who was a family friend and neighbor of Lt. Harrison, would be the only one of Pickett’s brigadiers to survive the attack.
After enduring ankle wrenching pot holes, sticky thistles, biting bugs and concealed rocks ravaging her partially covered feet and lower legs, that’s when Kathy broke the ranks and joined the files on the stable and safer path. I was left alone to defend the entire right flank of Pickett’s division. Soon, I too succumbed to the obstacles in my course along the undulating ground and rejoined her in the column as we moved the last 100 yards.
Little did I know that we were walking over the molecular remains of hundreds of Confederate soldiers who, for the most part, were buried where they fell that horrific day.
As the formation stopped at the wall, once again I looked left to observe a sea of humanity, converging at the angle at the stone wall. The Park Service estimated that approximately 40,000 people had assembled on the same spot where the battle culminated and set forth the course toward the end of the war, accelerated by the surrender of the Southern Army at Vicksburg a day later on July 4.
We were instructed to wait at the wall and listen for the wailing call of a bugle. One by one, from north to south, professional and amateur buglers played “Taps” in echo style moving from our left to our right.
When the last somber middle c faded into the hot July afternoon, I looked over to a big rock in a gap in at the stone wall. There I saw, Ed Bearss, sitting in the shade of his escort’s rainbow colored umbrella, completely exhausted. I was still standing and walking, hot and sweating, but not out quite all out of breath. I didn’t revel in my achievement, after all, he is 90 years old.
For George Pickett and nearly every man in his division, the attack on the Union center was all for the glory of their beloved Virginia. As I surveyed the tens of thousands of persons congregating, on that day and the third day of July 150 years ago, around the stone wall and think of half of them being dead or wounded, I looked back to the total tragedy of it all.
Perhaps General Lee said it best when he saw a similar somber sight which his men inflicted on nearly 8,000 Union soldiers at the base of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg when he lamented, “It is well that war is so terrible that we may grow too fond of it.”
It was at this point, late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, when the Georgia Brigade under the command of General Ambrose Ransom Wright, including many local men, broke the Union center at the Copse of Trees. This temporary successful accomplishment led Gen. Robert E. Lee to believe that if Wright's Brigade could break the center, surely Pickett's fresh Division could.