2f) A Vast Mournful Roar

Up men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!
–George Pickett

 

GEORGE pickettNow it remained to be seen if Lee would follow the barrage with the attack. On Cemetery Ridge many survivors of headlong assaults themselves wanted nothing better. Those who had been thrown against the stone wall at Fredericksburg had made their final rush over 400 yards of open ground and never got closer to it than forty yards. The Rebels who aimed at the stone wall on the crest of Cemetery Ridge today would have to cross three-quarters of a mile of open valley. At three o’clock, as the smoke of the artillery fight lifted, it became clear that they were going to try. “Thank God! Here comes the infantry!” one Yankee shouted. “Now, boys, look out,” called another; “you will see some fun.” A half-hour earlier, Edward Alexander, one of Longstreet’s artillerymen, had sent urgently to Pickett. With the Confederate caissons nearly depleted, Alexander warned, the attack must go off now or he could not support it. Alexander himself, seeing that he had not beaten off the Federal guns, thought it “madness” to attack at all at this point, but it was not his decision to make. That burden fell of course on James Longstreet, under orders from Lee to make the attack and equally convinced that it was madness to do so. George Pickett, however, was eager to strike. He went at once to Old Peter with Alexander’s warning. “General, shall I advance?” he asked. Speechless with despair now, Longstreet could only nod. “I am going forward, sir,” said Pickett, and off he rode.

On the right, Pickett’s brigades were rising now, stepping forward, and dressing their ranks. Their orders were fearfully straightforward: “Advance slowly, with arms at will. No cheering, no firing, no breaking from common to quickstep. Dress on center.” Pickett gave what one remembered as “a brief, animated address,” closing thus: “Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” On the left Pettigrew’s brigades were instructed likewise and formed up. Perhaps Pettigrew, the legal scholar, had a moment’s thought that this was after all a struggle about the sovereignty of states, for he, like Pickett, remembered his native state. Turning to the North Carolina boys of his old brigade, he ordered: “Now… for the honor of the Old North State, forward!” And on they came, nine brigades, 42 regiments, colors flying, a line more than a mile wide with a quarter mile gap between Pickett on the right and Pettigrew on the left. To one observer they “seemed impelled by some irresistible force,” bayonets glittering in the steaming sun. The dust they raised before them in the sultry heat, thought a Rebel captain on the skirmish line, was “like the dash of spray at the prow of a vessel.” The prow was aimed at the copse of trees in the center of the Union line. There the full sweep of the Confederate line was now visible, still silently advancing. In a moment would erupt violence unutterable, but for now one observer on the ridge thought there was beauty: “Beautiful, gloriously beautiful, did that vast array appear in the lovely little valley.” One Federal officer remembered how they came on with deliberate step as if the spectacle were unfolding before him again: “More than half a mile their front extends… man touching man, rank pressing rank… The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down… barrel and bayonet gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move as with one soul, in perfect order.”

This one soul was coming on in common step, about one hundred yards a minute down the shallow slope of the valley. When the line had covered three hundred yards or so, the first Federal guns–those that still had long-range ammunition–opened up and began to shake the Confederates’ perfect order. From the high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill guns poured a destructive enfilade fire on either flank of the advance. Because Pettigrew’s men had started farther back and consequently had farther to go to their objective, Pickett would have to align on them. As his division approached the road, under fire that grew steadily hotter, he ordered a left oblique, that is a 45-degree turn toward Pettigrew that would eventually close the quarter-mile gap between the two. As Pickett made his deliberate leftward movement, the Federal gunners kept up their punishing work. “We had a splendid chance at them,” one gunner in blue recalled, “and we made the most of it.” Thus, by the time Pickett’s men reached the middle of the valley, the lines were so ragged that Pickett called a halt to dress them. It is one thing to dress on center on the parade ground, quite another to do so in an open valley under a storm of cannon fire. For nearly as fast as a gap could be closed, a shell would tear a new one, sometimes ten men struck down by a single shell. The resistless tide that had stepped out of the woods into the bright sun was already beginning to waver, and it had such a long way left to go.

Still, on they came, Pickett turning to his left, Pettigrew stepping straight toward the ridge. On either flank, though, the Confederate assault was in increasing trouble. Pickett’s right-most brigade was James Kemper’s, and it was the particular target of the six guns on Little Round Top firing into his ranks very nearly end-on. (Imagine someone shooting down a row of seats in a crowded theater.) In fact, it was hard for the Federals to miss. If a shell arched over Kemper’s brigade, it was likely to fall on Richard Garnett’s to the left. The fire was even hotter on Pettigrew’s flank where the 29 guns from Cemetery Hill were mangling the left-most brigade, Joseph Mayo’s four under-strength regiments. For these Virginians, already hard hit, things went from bad to worse. They had just passed the burned ruin of the house and barn that had been fought over that morning and hadn’t quite reached the Emmitsburg Road when they were struck on the flank again–this time by infantry. They were the riflemen of the 8th Ohio posted on the skirmish line. Their colonel had seen the opportunity to strike a slashing blow and had taken it. Then something happened that just didn’t happen in the Army of Northern Virginia: Joe Mayo’s brigade broke up with one will and went streaming toward the rear, taking a quarter of Pettigrew’s division out of the fight. The enfilade fire from the high ground now fell on the next brigade in line, Joseph E. Davis’, and, though it broke the left-most regiment, the other three pushed on toward the Emmitsburg Road.

All this while, Longstreet had been sitting on a rail fence in the right rear of the assault. He could see now the flanks of the attack beginning to crumble, and he did what he could. Three of Anderson’s brigades–Posey, Mahone, and Wright–would go forward on the left to support Pettigrew, and the other two–Wilcox and Lang–were already in the Peach Orchard on the right in support of Pickett. By this time the assault wave was just shy of the Emmitsburg Road, and the original quarter-mile gap was closed as Pettigrew’s right, Birkett Fry’s brigade, met Pickett’s left, Lew Armistead’s brigade. Or rather, the brigades ran rather clumsily into each other, and there was a moment of confused milling in front of the two fences on the road. Pickett’s left oblique and the punishing fire on both flanks had at this point reduced the front of the assault wave to considerably less than half its original mile. Now it was a dense mass of men with muskets ready to cross the road and charge up the slope to the stone wall four hundred yards away. On the ridge the Yankees were eager to receive them. Here and there men chanted “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” satisfied to see the tables now turned. At Fredericksburg Rebels had taunted, “Come on, blue belly.” Now it was the Yankees who urged, “Come on Johnny! Keep on coming!” And on they came. As they surged forward, the fire they ran into grew hotter. First, volleys from the skirmish line tore their ranks; then canister–like the blasts of a huge sawed-off shotgun; then the Yankee riflemen slamming volley after volley into the Rebels as fast as they could tear cartridges and stuff them in muzzles.

In Hays’ front on the right, the Federals were more deliberate. As the Rebels reached good rifle range, he gave the order to fire: 1,700 muskets and 11 cannon loaded with canister went off in a single smashing volley. “Arms, heads, blankets, guns, knapsacks were tossed into the clear air,” a Federal officer recalled. Even above the uproar of battle could be heard the moaning of mangled soldiers. And yet, incredibly, on came the red flags with the blue St. Andrew’s cross through the smoke and fire. “Home, boys, home!” a Rebel lieutenant shouted. “Home is over beyond those hills!” The attackers now were an intermingled mass of every command, but they were closing now with the Yankees behind the stone wall. Garnett fell, shot from the saddle, but Kemper called out to Lew Armistead, “Armistead, hurry up! I am going to charge those heights and carry them. I want you to support me.” A moment later Kemper, too, fell with a nasty wound. Still, the attack drove on of its own inertia, out of anyone’s effective control and just about to pierce the center of Hancock’s line. Even as the spearhead was thrust at the copse of trees there, however, the flanks of the assault were being finally and fatally broken. Because the Confederate front had narrowed under pressure, the attacking lines were overlapped on both flanks. On the right, Hays swung his right-most regiment out of line and wheeled them left, putting them now in line with the 8th Ohio which had broken Mayo’s brigade earlier. With two brass Napoleons firing double loads of canister to support them, the two Federal regiments tore into Pettigrew’s mangled left. Hancock, much pleased with this success on his right, hurried now to do the same on his left. Before he could reach there, however, Doubleday had already sent two Vermont regiments forward with orders to wheel right to fall on Pickett’s flank there. The Vermonters happened to be green nine-months’ men, but they wheeled smartly into line company by company, each delivering a volley as it swung in. Then, increasing the pressure, they advanced, closing to revolver range of the Rebel flank. The Confederate attack was being assailed now front and both flanks.

Still, in the center it had made a breakthrough. The stone wall on Hancock’s front ran south from Cemetery Hill until it made a 90-degree angle west in front of the copse of trees; it then ran eighty yards until it made another 90-degree turn to continue south once more. North of this angle–ever after The Angle–were Hays’ men; south of it were Gibbon’s. At this Angle, just in front of the trees, Lew Armistead, Pickett’s last brigadier on his feet, with his black hat on his sword led several hundred men up to and at last over a two-hundred-foot section of the wall on Gibbon’s front, sending a Pennsylvania regiment packing. While surveying the damage the Vermonters were doing on his left, Hancock had seen the danger in the center and sent the two regiments of Gibbon’s reserve to the Angle on the run. A moment later Hancock was down himself, shot through the thigh. The Angle now was a seething crucible of smoke and fire, a mad heaving mass of struggling men and plunging horses. “Seconds are centuries, minutes are ages,” one wrote. “Men fire into each other’s faces not five feet apart. There are bayonet thrusts, saber strokes, pistol shots… men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping blood, falling; legless, armless, headless.” A sound “strange and terrible… a vast mournful roar” filled the air, another remembered. But the men in grey and butternut were too few here, while Gibbon’s two reserve regiments pitched into the fight in short order. Armistead, waving his sword with one hand and reaching for a cannon with the other, fell mortally wounded. He and Hancock had been dear friends before the war; now he asked that his personal effects be sent to him to be forwarded to his wife. A short time later he was dead. The Yankees restored their breached line and the struggle here was over. Of the Confederates who crossed the wall none remained alive and uncaptured. All along this stretch of Gibbon’s front now (Gibbon himself was also a casualty by this time) Pickett’s survivors were either giving themselves up or making their way back across the valley as best they could.

North of the Angle on Hays’ front Pettigrew’s men were making a last weary lunge at the crest, but the most they could accomplish by force of arms was to plant the flag of one Mississippi regiment near the wall. One of its companies, the University Grays composed entirely of University of Mississippi students, virtually ceased to exist there, every last scholar-turned-soldier killed or wounded. Two men from a North Carolina outfit brought their colors up to the wall to find unexpected mercy. As the bluecoats held their fire, one called out, “Come over to this side of the Lord!” The North Carolina men carried their colors and themselves over the wall and into captivity. Pettigrew, wounded in the hand early in the fight, called in desperation for Trimble’s two brigades to come up in support, but they were too little and too late. Trimble himself went down shot through the leg (the same leg shattered at Second Bull Run nearly a year ago). There was nothing for Pettigrew’s survivors to do now but, like Pickett’s, get back across the valley if they could. Pickett’s men got some help in doing so. Lang and Wilcox on the right had come up in support, and these had persuaded the Vermonters on the Federal left to return to their lines. On the left Mahone, Posey, and Wright had never been sent forward after all. Longstreet, unwilling to reinforce failure, had countermanded his own order. The vast beautiful array in the lovely valley that a Federal had admired an hour ago was now as ghastly a scene of slaughter as that frozen field at Fredericksburg back in December. One Federal with an Old Testament turn of mind remembered the field as “a square mile of Tophet,” the shrine near Gehenna where human sacrifices were made.

 

FATEFUL LIGHTNING: The Civil War Text V. FATEFUL LIGHTNING 2) The Fiery Trial Through Which We Pass 2f) A Vast Mournful Roar