There’s one thing that all wars have in common. Whether they’re local or global, big or small, whether we call them good wars or colossal mistakes, all wars are a succession of tragedies. Most of the time the historians look at them in the aggregate, they pull out big numbers, tell us that 12,000 men assaulted a position and only 8,000 made it through. These numbers are big but they’re antiseptic, clean. The butcher’s bill tells us nothing about the lives that are cut short, the fathers who will never again pick up their children, the husbands who will spend sleepless days, months, years, standing at the front window hoping against hope the empty front walk will suddenly be occupied by that familiar form. They tell us nothing about games of catch that will never be played, empty seats at the dinner table, dark suits, and dabbed tears.
The small tragedies are rarely told by historians. That task is left to the poets and storytellers. They’re the ones that are left with the task of reminding us that numbers don’t fight wars, statistics don’t die. Husbands and sons fight wars. Mothers and sisters die.
We go to war with the shouted slogans of propagandists telling us of the glory to be won. We finish was with the whispers of poets reminding us of all we’ve lost. There are heroes to be sure, those who in death became immortal or in continued life became legends.
Day 3 at Gettysburg is a day that looms over the battle that caused it. It didn’t start that way. The Union XII Corps pushed Ewell out of the positions he’d taken the day before. JEB Stuart’s cavalry finally made it in to the battle. He attempted to hit the Union right flank alongside Ewell, but was engaged and stopped short by Union cavalry under Gregg and a star-crossed brigade commander named George Armstrong Custer.
Longstreet set about to turn the Union left until Lee found out that Longstreet wasn’t engaging in a frontal assault and changed the plan. This might have been a good thing. Sedgwick’s Corps had finally arrived and Meade had placed him on the far left to make sure Longstreet couldn’t repeat his near victory of the day before. Chances are Longstreet didn’t know this and his flanking maneuver would have ended in disaster.
The alternate plan turned out to be much, much worse.
We know it today as Pickett’s Charge. In truth, George Pickett only commanded one of the three divisions that assaulted the Union center. General Pettigrew, in command of Henry Heth’s Division, and Isaac Trimble, who finally had the chance to command at Gettysburg after stepping in for the mortally wounded Dorsey Pender, made up the rest of the charge. There are those who wish the assault to be known as the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge or even Longstreet’s Assault.
Sometimes the historian’s accuracy must take a backseat to the memory of the event. Pickett’s Charge, whether he was in charge or not, whether it’s right or wrong to remember the attack by the name of a single man who was not in even in charge of a majority of the troops, will always be remembered as Pickett’s Charge. Sometimes it be that way.
We remember Pickett’s Charge mostly as the story of a large body of men that went out and much smaller band of survivors that straggled back. We count some 12,500 attackers and roughly five thousand casualties from that single action and think we understand the scope of war. We look at that butcher’s bill and assume it tells the story.
For the proponents of the Lost Cause Myth it’s the story of Longstreet and Pickett’s sniveling attempt to undermine Lee. For those with no vested interest in the infallibility of Lee it’s the story of the hubris of a commander who’s had too much success, the Victory Syndrome that crippled the Japanese in World War II. Yet to those who study the story carefully it’s the story of an attack with a very real chance of success, as Shelby Foote argues. Lee’s army had nearly taken the Union center, which was still spread thin to put more troops on the flanks. The artillery was supposed to have a much greater effect on the Union defenders but defective munitions, vision obscured by the smoke of the guns, and a Union center that refused to turn tail and run rendered the bombardment ineffective.
The real story of Pickett’s Charge, though, must be told one man at a time. For our purposes we will look at the stories of two men: II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock and one of Pickett’s brigade commanders, Lewis Armistead. Hancock was a Pennsylvanian and Armistead a Virginian with no blood relation. But there are those who become brothers without the help of blood and it is said that civil wars pit brother against brother.
Armistead and Hancock, as so many of the stories of the Civil War start, fought in the Mexican-American War together, served under Zachary Taylor and became friends with another young officer named John F. Reynolds. They helped take California from Mexico and stayed out in California together. Armistead was serving as Hancock’s quartermaster when the Civil War broke out. Armistead headed south out of loyalty to Virginia while Hancock headed north out of loyalty to the Union.
It’s said that on the last night they were together Armistead said to Hancock, “If I ever raise my hand against you, may god strike me dead.” Though Armistead joined the Army of Northern Virginia and Hancock the Army of the Potomac they did not meet on the battlefield through the first two years of the war. Now on the afternoon of July 3, 1863 Lewis Armistead was to lead one of Pickett’s brigades up Cemetery Ridge, over the low stone wall, and into the teeth of the Union II Corps. Lewis Armistead was to direct his troops right at Winfield Scott Hancock.
First there was the long artillery bombardment. While his men took cover Hancock sat astride his horse behind the lines for all to see. When a subordinate begged him to get down from his horse Hancock replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not matter.”
As the artillery ran low of ammunition the divisions assigned to the assault left the tree line at Seminary Ridge. They now had two miles of open ground to cross, a fence to climb while under fire, and an entrenched enemy waiting for them at the top of the hill.
Hancock stayed in the middle of his lines atop his horse until a Confederate bullet that ripped through the pommel of his saddle and in to his thigh knocked him off. He refused to be taken off the battlefield. The Union hero could not have been far from where his friend Lewis Armistead managed to cross the wall after the 71st Pennsylvania retreated. The 72nd Pennsylvania soon arrived to plug the gap and Armistead was mortally wounded in the counter attack. He never did get to see his old friend Hancock.
The Confederate center was in disarray, but the Union center wasn’t in much better shape. Meade was unwilling to repeat Lee’s mistake with an assault of his own. Meade’s caution was warranted, as Lee still had strong forces on his flanks and both armies were exhausted after three days of fighting under the summer sun.
The armies spent a soggy Independence Day staring at each other across the lines and collecting the dead. Lee withdrew and headed back for Virginia. Meade followed, but with no real sense of urgency. The Army of the Potomac held off the Army of Northern Virginia and held the field, but the victory came at great cost. The Army of the Potomac took some 23,000 casualties among its 90,000 soldiers while the Army of Northern Virginia lost somewhere between 20,000 and 28,000 of its 70,000 or so men. Of the casualties on both sides about 8000 died while another 20,000 still lay wounded on the battlefield. The lucky ones were in field hospitals surrounded by dying soldiers, spilled blood and amputated limbs. The unlucky ones lay where they fell, dying of thirst and surrounded by corpses and the moaning of other stranded survivors.
The armies left the field, but Gettysburg would not return to normal for quite some time. Civilians spent weeks digging graves and helping wounded soldiers. Many had lost their homes and found their property and crops damaged or plundered.
In the aftermath of the battle we forget the tragedies suffered by those who win no laurels and don’t meet death’s swift release. History books can’t offer us the stench of rotted limbs discarded at the sides of primitive field hospitals. Monuments don’t replicate the moans of the dying men who lie dehydrated and helpless in the fields. Films end before the frightened civilians emerge from their cellars with shovels to dig shallow graves and try to get their lives back to normal.
That should be the true legacy of Gettysburg. Of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, and Shiloh, too. We should remember wars not for the great heroism and spoils of the Ardennes, Waterloo, Breitenfeld, Agincourt, Cannae, Gaugamela, or Kadesh, not for the numbers engaged, the numbers killed, or the commanders who gained everlasting fame. We should remember battles by the stories that were cut short, the children who grew up without fathers, the civilians who had to dig the graves.
Maybe then we can begin to get rid of this human obsession with marking our history by the wars we fight and fights we win.
But that was not what happened at Gettysburg on July 4th, 1863. The battle was over, but focus shifted away from the aftermath in the Pennsylvania countryside. Something happened on banks of the Mississippi River that was at least as important as the Battle of Gettysburg.