The Charge At Gettysburg

For the Lord

On the whirlwind is abroad;

In the earthquake he has spoken;

He has smitten with his thunder

The iron walls asunder,

And the gates of brass are broken!


With bray of the trumpet,

And roll of the drum,

And keen ring of bugle

The cavalry come:

rp clank the steel scabbards,

The bridle-chains ring,

And foam from red nostrils

The wild chargers fling!

Tramp, tramp o'er the greensward

That quivers below,

Scarce held by the curb bit

The fierce horses go!

And the grim-visaged colonel,

With ear-rending shout,

Peals forth to the squadrons

The order, "Trot Out"!

--Francis A. Durivage.

The battle of Chancellorsville marked the zenith of Confederate good

fortune. Immediately afterward, in June, 1863, Lee led the victorious

army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. The South was now the

invader, not the invaded, and its heart beat proudly with hopes of

success; but these hopes went down in bloody wreck on July 4, when word

was sent to the world that the high valor of Virginia had failed at last

on the field of Gettysburg, and that in the far West Vicksburg had been

taken by the army of the "silent soldier."

At Gettysburg Lee had under him some seventy thousand men, and his

opponent, Meade, about ninety thousand. Both armies were composed mainly

of seasoned veterans, trained to the highest point by campaign after

campaign and battle after battle; and there was nothing to choose

between them as to the fighting power of the rank and file. The Union

army was the larger, yet most of the time it stood on the defensive;

for the difference between the generals, Lee and Meade, was greater

than could be bridged by twenty thousand men. For three days the battle

raged. No other battle of recent time has been so obstinate and so

bloody. The victorious Union army lost a greater percentage in killed

and wounded than the allied armies of England, Germany, and the

Netherlands lost at Waterloo. Four of its seven corps suffered each a

greater relative loss than befell the world-renowned British infantry

on the day that saw the doom of the French emperor. The defeated

Confederates at Gettysburg lost, relatively, as many men as the defeated

French at Waterloo; but whereas the French army became a mere rabble,

Lee withdrew his formidable soldiery with their courage unbroken, and

their fighting power only diminished by their actual losses in the


The decisive moment of the battle, and perhaps of the whole war, was

in the afternoon of the third day, when Lee sent forward his choicest

troops in a last effort to break the middle of the Union line. The

center of the attacking force was Pickett's division, the flower of the

Virginia infantry; but many other brigades took part in the assault, and

the column, all told, numbered over fifteen thousand men. At the same

time, the Confederates attacked the Union left to create a diversion.

The attack was preceded by a terrific cannonade, Lee gathering one

hundred and fifteen guns, and opening a fire on the center of the Union

line. In response, Hunt, the Union chief of artillery, and Tyler, of

the artillery reserves, gathered eighty guns on the crest of the gently

sloping hill, where attack was threatened. For two hours, from one till

three, the cannonade lasted, and the batteries on both sides suffered

severely. In both the Union and Confederate lines caissons were blown up

by the fire, riderless horses dashed hither and thither, the dead lay in

heaps, and throngs of wounded streamed to the rear. Every man lay down

and sought what cover he could. It was evident that the Confederate

cannonade was but a prelude to a great infantry attack, and at three

o'clock Hunt ordered the fire to stop, that the guns might cool, to be

ready for the coming assault. The Confederates thought that they had

silenced the hostile artillery, and for a few minutes their firing

continued; then, suddenly, it ceased, and there was a lull.

The men on the Union side who were not at the point directly menaced

peered anxiously across the space between the lines to watch the next

move, while the men in the divisions which it was certain were about

to be assaulted, lay hugging the ground and gripping their muskets,

excited, but confident and resolute. They saw the smoke clouds rise

slowly from the opposite crest, where the Confederate army lay, and the

sunlight glinted again on the long line of brass and iron guns which had

been hidden from view during the cannonade. In another moment, out of

the lifting smoke there appeared, beautiful and terrible, the picked

thousands of the Southern army coming on to the assault. They advanced

in three lines, each over a mile long, and in perfect order. Pickett's

Virginians held the center, with on their left the North Carolinians

of Pender and Pettigrew, and on their right the Alabama regiments of

Wilcox; and there were also Georgian and Tennessee regiments in the

attacking force. Pickett's division, however, was the only one able to

press its charge home. After leaving the woods where they started, the

Confederates had nearly a mile and a half to go in their charge. As the

Virginians moved, they bent slightly to the left, so as to leave a gap

between them and the Alabamians on the right.

The Confederate lines came on magnificently. As they crossed the

Emmetsburg Pike the eighty guns on the Union crest, now cool and in good

shape, opened upon them, first with shot and then with shell. Great gaps

were made every second in the ranks, but the gray-clad soldiers closed

up to the center, and the color-bearers leaped to the front, shaking

and waving the flags. The Union infantry reserved their fire until the

Confederates were within easy range, when the musketry crashed out with

a roar, and the big guns began to fire grape and canister. On came the

Confederates, the men falling by hundreds, the colors fluttering in

front like a little forest; for as fast as a color-bearer was shot

some one else seized the flag from his hand before it fell. The North

Carolinians were more exposed to the fire than any other portion of

the attacking force, and they were broken before they reached the line.

There was a gap between the Virginians and the Alabama troops, and this

was taken advantage of by Stannard's Vermont brigade and a demi-brigade

under Gates, of the 20th New York, who were thrust forward into it.

Stannard changed front with his regiments and fell on Pickett's forces

in flank, and Gates continued the attack. When thus struck in the flank,

the Virginians could not defend themselves, and they crowded off toward

the center to avoid the pressure. Many of them were killed or captured;

many were driven back; but two of the brigades, headed by General

Armistead, forced their way forward to the stone wall on the crest,

where the Pennsylvania regiments were posted under Gibbon and Webb.

The Union guns fired to the last moment, until of the two batteries

immediately in front of the charging Virginians every officer but one

had been struck. One of the mortally wounded officers was young Cushing,

a brother of the hero of the Albemarle fight. He was almost cut in two,

but holding his body together with one hand, with the other he fired his

last gun, and fell dead, just as Armistead, pressing forward at the head

of his men, leaped the wall, waving his hat on his sword. Immediately

afterward the battle-flags of the foremost Confederate regiments crowned

the crest; but their strength was spent. The Union troops moved forward

with the bayonet, and the remnant of Pickett's division, attacked on all

sides, either surrendered or retreated down the hill again. Armistead

fell, dying, by the body of the dead Cushing. Both Gibbon and Webb

were wounded. Of Pickett's command two thirds were killed, wounded or

captured, and every brigade commander and every field officer, save one,

fell. The Virginians tried to rally, but were broken and driven again

by Gates, while Stannard repeated, at the expense of the Alabamians, the

movement he had made against the Virginians, and, reversing his front,

attacked them in flank. Their lines were torn by the batteries in front,

and they fell back before the Vermonter's attack, and Stannard reaped a

rich harvest of prisoners and of battle-flags.

The charge was over. It was the greatest charge in any battle of

modern times, and it had failed. It would be impossible to surpass

the gallantry of those that made it, or the gallantry of those that

withstood it. Had there been in command of the Union army a general

like Grant, it would have been followed by a counter-charge, and in all

probability the war would have been shortened by nearly two years; but

no countercharge was made.

As the afternoon waned, a fierce cavalry fight took place on the Union

right. Stuart, the famous Confederate cavalry commander, had moved

forward to turn the Union right, but he was met by Gregg's cavalry, and

there followed a contest, at close quarters, with "the white arm." It

closed with a desperate melee, in which the Confederates, charged under

Generals Wade Hampton and Fitz Lee, were met in mid career by the Union

generals Custer and McIntosh. All four fought, saber in hand, at the

head of their troopers, and every man on each side was put into the

struggle. Custer, his yellow hair flowing, his face aflame with the

eager joy of battle, was in the thick of the fight, rising in his

stirrups as he called to his famous Michigan swordsmen: "Come on, you

Wolverines, come on!" All that the Union infantry, watching eagerly

from their lines, could see, was a vast dust-cloud where flakes of

light shimmered as the sun shone upon the swinging sabers. At last the

Confederate horsemen were beaten back, and they did not come forward

again or seek to renew the combat; for Pickett's charge had failed, and

there was no longer hope of Confederate victory.

When night fell, the Union flags waved in triumph on the field of

Gettysburg; but over thirty thousand men lay dead or wounded, strewn

through wood and meadow, on field and hill, where the three days' fight

had surged.