The Great Charge – 3 July 1863 (from “The Butcher’s Cleaver”)

Zoom_LCW

"… A mile away, across the grassy valley from the cemetery ridge, Pickett's Division lay waiting in the woods.  They had come up to this position in the early morning hours.  The officers occupied themselves with the usual business of placing the long lines of men in the order in which they would attack.  

After that, the men lay down, pretended to sleep, or devoted themselves to the routine of preparation for a major action.  They cleaned weapons, wrote letters, talked to their messmates and made final judgments on the comrades with whom they would go forward against the guns.

Jepson Thacker lay on his back looking up through the leaves and branches of a patriarchal and seasoned oak.  He had the thick trunk of the tree between him and the Yankee guns.  The smell of leaf mold and wood smoke hung in the air.  He tried to keep his mind on the beauty of the forest scene through the long wait under fire.  The 7th Virginia Infantry Regiment was all around him, stretching out to either side of his company.  The company had stood the artillery fire well.  Cannon balls had caromed through the trees for the last hour.  From time to time one killed or maimed, but for the most part the soldiers simply stepped out of their path.  The shrapnel from air bursts in the tree tops was a more serious matter.  They had lost several men to shell fragments.

In the midst of it all, “Pete” Longstreet rode into view, going down the line, slowly passing them by on a tall black horse, looking at them with an odd, pale expression on his usually ruddy features.  The black horse shied from the sounds of falling leaves and branches ripped off trees by passing solid shot.  A sergeant in Thacker's regiment stood up to yell at Longstreet. "You damn fool!  Do you think we need you to do this to make us fight?  Get the hell out of here before you get killed!"  Longstreet bowed his head to the man, and rode on.

When the barrage stopped, Thacker sat up and looked for his company commander.  The captain stood fifty feet away talking to an officer from another company.  Thacker just caught the end of their talk.  "Oh!  Here we go!” the other officer said.  “Please do remember me to your cousin Sally!  I haven't seen her since before the war.."

The captain walked back.  "Get 'em up Jepson," he said.  "I expect we'll be leavin' now.."

The regiment formed and dressed its ranks.  Thacker saw General Kemper and his staff take their place in front of the center of the brigade line.  This happened to be exactly in front of Thacker's company.

"Watch Morrison and Davidson," the captain said in a soft voice beside him.  "I'm takin’ everybody in today, everybody.  If they drop out, kill 'em."

Thacker nodded.  He checked his revolver to make sure none of the explosive metal priming caps had somehow been lost.

Claude came up the hill to stand beside his brother on the ridge just as the Rebel infantry began to emerge from the distant woods.  He intended to remonstrate with Patrick against their presence, but the scene before them silenced him.  "My God..  My God," was all he could manage.  There was at least a mile of troops forming in front of the wood line across the valley.  In the center of the line lay a triangular projection of forest.  To left and right of this feature regiment upon regiment of the familiar motley brown figures moved into position, coming out of the trees and halting behind their leaders and flags.  Somewhere, a band began to play.

From his post behind the company's two ranks, Sergeant Thacker looked up and saw the mile of open, gently rolling ground for the first time.  He had been busy correcting the alignment when they first emerged into the sunshine.  Now he saw it..  It looked like the surface of a dinner plate.  The far lip of the plate was a low ridge with a small patch of trees in the middle.  Union artillery and infantry covered the ridge line.  A road with some farm buildings beside it ran across the plate about three quarters of the way to the trees.

Enemy artillery started again.  The iron balls sailed through the air.  One struck the ground in front of a neighboring company.  It bounced into the ranks, tearing a hole in the formation.  Men screamed in pain, screamed with the sound that came with the knowledge of irreversible mutilation.

   In the ranks, the men began to talk to each other as they looked out across the landscape of their fate.  "Gawd damn it!” one said loudly.  “Who's got it in for us?  I guess old Bobby Lee, he don't have no fu'ther use for us!  Whut did we do to deserve this?  Somebody's got it in fer us, fer sure."

A rabbit ran from cover in front of the regiment, streaking through the ranks into the woods behind the troops.  A soldier in the front rank of Thacker's company sang out.  "Run rabbit!  I'd run too, if I's a rabbit!"

"Steady, boys!  Steady!" the regimental commander called out.

With a crash of cymbals, the sweet song of fifes, and the barbaric rattle of its copper bottomed drums, a regimental band struck up a tune at the left of the division line.

Thacker could not at first see them.  The forest of men was too dense.  Heads turned toward the music, then swiveled back to watch for more incoming shells.  The invisible band strode forward, turned to the right and marched down the division front toward Thacker's regiment.

He concentrated on the music.

Stack arms men, pile on the rails,

We'll build the campfires bright.

No matter if the canteen fails,

We'll make a roaring night.

Here Shenandoah brawls along,

There burly Blue Ridge echoes strong,

To swell the Brigade's rousing song,

Of Stonewall Jackson's way…

They passed before him.  Their dress contained some elements of the finery of prewar militia elegance.  Travel stained long white gauntlets, and a number of black frogged blue jackets were the most obvious relics, but in the main they wore the rough butternut of their army's true uniform.  He tried to remember who had a band with them.  He could not.

The drum major raised his mace.  The band lengthened its stride, marching to its assigned place at the right of the line..

   Thacker focused on a drummer in the rear rank.  The mulatto bandsman played his instrument with great spirit, bringing the sticks up to a perfectly horizontal position at the level of his nose after each flourish.  On his back was a red and black checked shirt.  Across his back was slung a banjo.

The band moved away, out of sight.  They played on.

No matter if our shoes are worn,

No matter if our feet are torn,

Quick Step!  We're with him ere the dawn…

Major General George E. Pickett rode out in front of his division.  He brought the horse around to face them.  

The band reached its proper place.  The music stopped.

Pickett looked at his watch.  He raised his head, filling his chest, and ordered the attack.  "For your homes!  For your honor!  For Virginia!  The division will advance.  Forwaard!  March!"

Four thousand, seven hundred officers and men stepped off on their left foot as the band struck up a new tune.

There's a yellow rose in Texas,

That I am going to see,

No other darkey knows her,

No darkey only me,

She cried so when I left her,

It like to broke my heart,

And if I ever find her, we never more will part. 

Thacker thought of his wife, thought of the fence he had not finished.

The men were singing.  Pickett waited for the refrain. 

She's the sweetest rose of color

This darkey ever knew.

Her eyes are bright as diamonds,

They sparkle like the dew.

You may talk about your Dearest May,

And sing of Rosa Lee,

But the Yellow Rose of Texas

Beats the belles of Tennessee..

The general turned in his saddle.  "Left Oblique!  March!" 

The division pivoted on its right foot as one man. 

  They moved beyond some woods on the left.  Thacker saw that there were more troops advancing there.  The 45-degree turn would bring them together in one formation.

The Confederate spies stood among the Yankee army and watched the advance come on.  The stand of trees was slightly to their right.  Just to the front waited a battery of artillery.  Fifty feet farther down the modest slope stood a stone pasture wall, three feet high.  Union infantry stood elbow to elbow behind it, their regimental and national colors planted among them.  More U.S. troops stood in solid lines along the crown of the ridge to either side of the Devereuxs.  Claude knew his people should leave, that there was no good reason for personal participation in this tragedy.  Nothing could have made him go.

"Why!  Why!"  Patrick sighed beside him.  "There could not be a stronger position than this!  Why!"

"What would you have them do?" Frederick Kennedy asked from beside him.  The question reflected his confusion at the spectacle before him.

Patrick waved an arm.  "This cries out for a night attack..  No one could lose his way here.  Mon Dieu!"

Down among the infantry, behind the stone wall, the veteran riflemen stared at the oncoming line.

The distant band continued to play.

And here's to brave Virginia,

The Old Dominion State.

And here's to the bonnie blue flag

That bears a single star.

Hurrah! Hurrah! 

For Southern rights, Hurrah!

And here's to the bonnie blue flag

That bears a single star..

A gunner in the battery before them shook his fist at the oncoming enemy, screaming "Remember Fredericksburg" at the Pennsylvania afternoon.  You’re right, Claude thought.  We shot you to pieces there, just like this.  Now it’s our turn, damn you!

There were two major parts to the approaching column of attack.  These corresponded to their original dispositions to either side of the triangular patch of trees.  All the troops to the left carried the blue flag of the Old Dominion as well as the familiar red battle flag.  Those to the right had only the red flags.  As the Federal troops watched, the force with the blue flags made another 45-degree marching turn to bring it into perfect alignment with the rest of the column of attack.  Artillery fire from the high ground at the southern end of the Federal position continued to tear holes in the alignment of the oncoming troops.  These imperfections closed without interruption in the forward movement.  The march across the plain before them had the perfection of a garrison review at West Point.

Among the blue riflemen behind the wall, admiration for what they were watching warred with murderous intent.  A swarthy, mustachioed First Sergeant of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry leapt to the top of the wall, waving his kepi at the sky.  "Three cheers for the Johnnies!” he yelled at the sky.  “Hip! Hip! Hurrah!, Hip! Hip! Hurrah!, Hip!….  Come on Johnnies, we want you!"

Thacker heard the cheering, wondered for a second if it meant anything.  The brigade went down into another fold in the ground.  In the bottom, they were out of sight of the fearsome position on the ridge before them.  The guns to the right continued their terrible work, playing on the straight lines as though their missiles were the balls in a grotesque game of billiards.  They marched up out of the bottom, emerging from the depths as though they were new-made men sprung directly from the bowels of the earth itself.  As they came up the slope, a collective sigh escaped them.  The awful ridge seemed so close now.

The artillery forward gun line lay just ahead of the dip.  Dead horses and men were scattered on the field.  The cannoneers ceased fire as the infantry passed through the line, masking the fires of the batteries.  Officers stood at the hand salute, their faces strained from the trial by fire they had just concluded.  The gunners and drivers covered their hearts with their hats.  "Good luck, boys!” they said.  “We'll be with you as soon as we limber up!  Don't stop for nuthin'!"

Thacker scrutinized his company commander.  His stocky, farmer's body trudged steadily along.  The man had not looked back since Pickett ordered the advance.  It was blindingly clear that he would advance to the regiment's objective alone if they did not follow.

Thacker looked at the two "play-outs" he had been cautioned against.

One of them peered back at him.

Don't you do it!  I don't much want to kill nobody today, 'specially you.

Small arms fire began to feel at them.  The conical Minie balls whirred by in growing numbers.  The infantry on the ridge fired at them by volleys.  Men hit with the big lead slugs jerked backwards or spun crazily from the impact.  Thacker stepped over a soldier named Herbert Jamison, a friend from home.  He had gone down in the front rank and lay moaning, clutching his abdomen.  Too bad, too bad, a belly wound.  Yer a goner fer sure..  "Close up!  God damn it, Morrison!  Close up!" Thacker bellowed at his company.  My Gawd, Herbert.  Who will tend to your ma?

Grasshoppers flew up in clouds from the standing grain as they pushed through it.  

The band played on behind them.  

The sun's low down the sky, Lorena.

The frost gleams where the flowers have been…

They reached a split rail fence beside the road.  There was another on the other side.  The captain climbed through between the upper and lower rails.  Standing in the dust of the road, he turned for the first time to look.  A smile creased his homely face at the sight of them.  A bullet hit him in the back, throwing his body forward into a fence post.  It slid down the rough wood.  The post pulled and tore the skin of his face.  He lay motionless in the road, his feet pointed at the enemy.

Thacker dropped his rifle, kneeling to pick up the officer's sword.

The line climbed through the fence on the other side of the road.  A group of farm buildings stood in the way.  Thacker's company passed to the right of a red barn.  The ridge was two or three hundred yards off now.  The enemy infantry fired continuously.  White smoke wrapped the hillside, drifting toward the attacking force.  He looked left and right.  As far as he could see, the troops still pressed forward.  There were several thousand men left in the ranks.  They now were all across the second fence.  It looked like he still had thirty or so men on their feet in the company.  The colonel commanding the regiment lay in the shadow of the barn, shot through the head.  They halted just past the barn to straighten their alignment.  A great, rumbling, growling began to swell from the ranks.  Someone in the next company fired his weapon at the ridge.  An officer yelled "No!" but his attempt to maintain the tight control needed in the assault was hopeless. The Southern infantry began to shoot at the ridge.  Through the smoke, Thacker glimpsed the first rifle shot Union casualties.  He watched some of the blue forms pitch back away from the wall.

The brigade started forward down a grassy slope.  An officer raised his voice to be heard above the din.  "Home, boys!  Home!  Home is just beyond that hill!"  The men began to yell.  The wavering shrillness of their battle cry was answered by the deeper sound of Union cheers.  

The attack picked up speed through the smoke.  

Thacker raised the sword, bellowing, "Come on, Come on!"

They trotted down into the bottom land at the foot of the ridge.

A battery behind the wall fired a volley of canister which ripped a hole in the regiment.  Dead and wounded covered the ground to Thacker's left.  Men dropped around him on all sides, kicking and clawing at the grass, victims of the point blank fire of the blue figures behind the wall.

He could now see the enemy despite the smoke.  Their shoulders worked methodically in the familiar routine of loading and firing.  A stand of colors dominated the section of wall in front of him.  The national and regimental flags, stood there together.  The regimental color shone a deep green.  Upon it was embroidered a golden harp.

The line started uphill.  They were taking fire from infantry farther south along the stone wall.  Union regiments had crossed the barrier to turn and fire into their right flank.

Something hit him hard in the muscle of the left arm.  

Some of the men around him were strangers.  Things were getting mixed up.  To his left, Thacker saw the Confederate assault roll up the slope.  He reached the wall..

They all reached it.

The blue enemy started to draw back with the two flags in their midst.

One of Thacker's men lunged across the stony barrier to grasp the staff of the national color.

The red and white striped cloth writhed in the smoke and turmoil.  A dark featured Yankee with the chevrons of a first- sergeant cried, "No, you don't, damn you!", and clubbed the Southerner in the face with his musket butt.

A soldier at Thacker's side bayoneted the sergeant.

The Rebel line of battle now stood behind the downhill side of the stone wall.  Their riflemen loaded and fired with the skill and practice of long habit.

   The Union infantry at the crest seemed shaken by the sight of so many of their enemy so close at hand, and protected by the solid stones of the wall.  The blue troops began to look over their shoulders at the valley behind.

Thacker thought he had fifteen men left.

Enemy soldiers began to appear on the hilltop in apparent flight from something happening to the left.

He looked in that direction.  Blue and red flags surged across the wall in the area beyond the trees.

The battery firing steadily into the ground to Thacker's left was guarded by the remnants of the infantry pushed back from the wall.  Small arms fire cut down gunners and infantrymen alike in the space around the guns.  Where's the Goddam' artillery? Thacker wondered, looking behind him.  There was no one at all behind the Rebel infantry at the wall.

A blonde young major from another regiment appeared at Thacker's side.  He pointed at the battery.

Thacker suddenly saw the truth of it.  The battery was the linchpin of the Union line.  If it went, the whole center might fall apart.

The battery commander saw the major pointing at him.  The man stood hatless in the sun, just behind his cannons.  Blood ran down one hanging, useless arm.  "1st Section!  Action left!  Double Canister!" he shouted.  In response to his command, two of the guns began to spin on their wheels, manhandled around by brute force.

The blonde major hurdled the wall, sword in hand. "Take the guns!  Take the guns!" he screamed at the men behind him.

Thacker stepped back far enough to get a start, and followed him over.  What was left of the company went with him.

The two guns spun.

The day stood still as Thacker ran up the slope behind the blonde young man.  The smoke seemed less dense.  He watched the gun captain of the right-hand piece raise his arm as the men finished loading.  Behind him, on the crest of the ridge, the Union infantry brought their weapons up in unison.  Thacker's searching eyes found a little group of men in civilian dress.  One of them leaned on crutches.

"Fire!"

Claude Devereux felt his heart stop.  Through the smoke he saw the butcher's ground in front of the two Napoleons.  The blonde officer's corpse lay broken on the grass.  One of his hands very nearly touched an ironshod wheel.  Behind him, the others were scattered, all the way down to the wall.

Farther up the ridge, beyond the trees, the Rebel attack surged almost to the crest.  Human beings stood in ranks and fired at each other at ranges that did not exceed thirty yards.  Men howled and rifle bullets whirred across the ground.  It was clear that the moment of opportunity for Confederate success had nearly passed.

Devereux had his pocket pistol in hand.  He looked about him for a worthwhile target.  Major General George Gordon Meade sat his horse 100 yards away.  He had just ridden onto the scene.  The distance was too long, far too long.  Devereux looked at Meade for a time.  Glancing around, he spied a Springfield rifle on the ground a few yards away.  He gathered himself up spiritually for the act that would surely be his last.  He held his brother Patrick by the right arm.  Kennedy had him by the left.  Devereux thought of the aftermath of what he was about to do.  He thought about the vengeance that might be sought.  He thought of his youngest brother, and wondered if Jake lay on the field before them.  He hesitated.

The shock of the strike of a bullet ran through the three of them.  For an instant Claude thought himself hit.  The sagging weight on his left drove a dagger of despair into his spirit.  They laid Patrick out flat on the ground, a rolled up coat beneath his head.

The fight went on around the trees.  It had become strangely unimportant.  Bill ripped open the shirt.  The wound was in the right breast.  A bloody foam surrounded the hole.  Pink bubbles formed and broke with each breath.  The noise around them built to a crescendo.  Abruptly, it was over.  The men of Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions drew back in a sudden, collective knowledge of failure.  The broken fragments of the column of assault moved back across the field of death.  For those farthest forward, there was no possibility of escape.  They dropped weapons and raised their hands.

The victorious Federal infantry sat down in place to rejoice in their survival.  Their captives sat with them, drained of life by their ordeal.  There was much ostentatious sharing of canteens and tobacco with the defeated enemy.  The prisoners had little to say.  They mostly sat with their backs to their captors and watched the remnant of their comrades in their going.  A Confederate colonel, taken prisoner inside the stone wall was brought at his request to the top of the ridge.  He looked down into the nearly empty valley on the other side, and wept."  From "The Butcher's Cleaver" , a novel

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Great Charge – 3 July 1863 (from “The Butcher’s Cleaver”)

  1. Avatar turcopolier says:

    all
    This is a family commissioned portrait by Keith Rocco working off an old photo. Major Williamson, 6th Virginia Infantry, lost the left arm later in the war and was head of buildings and grounds at VMI for a long time.

  2. Avatar Leith says:

    Meade was at Fredericksburg and learnt a lesson there that he applied at Gettysburg. I am not a fan of either Pickett or Burnside.

  3. Avatar Eliot says:

    “He did not seem to partake of that wild enthusiasm which seized and possessed almost every other individual in his command. Cool, calm, and collected, he discharged the duties of his position very much after the style with which he discharged them in the camp or bivouac. He had too much pride of character to shrink from danger, and this is, after all, the sum total of courage”
    “On approaching a fence, amid a terrific fire of artillery and small-arms, Colonel Neff stopped in an exposed position, and the writer, in passing him, inquired if he had any orders to communicate. He replied, “None; go to the fence and do whatever you may regard as necessary to be done.” These were the last words that he was ever heard to utter.”
    – Captain David H. Walton, remembering Col. John F. Neff 33rd Virginia Infantry

  4. Avatar Leith says:

    A couple of questions & comments:
    1] How did Meade correctly predict the point of attack as said by many historians? Was it because it was the center of the Union line? Or because of the salient (The Angle) at Gibbons’ pos? Or some feature of the terrain there? I don’t believe Meade had spies on Lee’s staff or had insight into Lee’s thinking.
    2] Why is it called Pickett’s Charge? Pettigrew’s Division attacked on his left. So did Trimble’s Division also on the left although they made little progress. And overall command was by Longstreet.
    3] Why do most accounts of Gettysburg neglect to mention or pass over the charge of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers on the day before Pickett’s. That charge resulted in 82% casualties for the Minnesotans and kept Wilcox’s and Lang’s Brigades from taking Cemetery Ridge until more Union forces could be brought up. Wiki says: “The 82% casualty rate stands to this day as the largest loss by any surviving military unit in U.S. history during a single day’s engagement.” A good read is Richard Moe’s book ‘The Last Full Measure’, published five years prior to Shaara’s novel of the same title.
    https://www.amazon.com/Last-Full-Measure-Minnesota-Volunteers/dp/0805023097/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
    4] Why do most accounts ignore the Union artillery chief General Henry Jackson Hunt whose guns decided the outcome at Gettysburg? And who was the Confederate general that reportedly said “Give me Confederate infantry and Union artillery, and I’ll whip the world!” ? I’m hoping to soon snag a copy of Longacre’s bio of Hunt: https://www.amazon.com/Man-Behind-Guns-Biography-Commander/dp/0306811545

  5. Avatar Leith says:

    PS –
    I had meant to add this, another Keith Rocco painting. This one of the 1st Minnesota:
    http://www.keithrocco.com/inventory/details.php?productid=383&subcategory=24

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.