A GETTYSBURG STORY

ONE OF MANY HORRIFYINGLY TRUE TALES FROM EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS THAT WILL TUG AT YOUR HEARTSTRINGS
I would like to bring you today, accounts from the well-known, and very bloody, Pickett’s Charge of the Battle of Gettysburg. The story you are about to read is a true account, from this historian’s research and study of eyewitness accounts. The images were all gathered from the Library of Congress or taken personally of the Battlefield. Some of these images are beautiful, others pay homage to the dead, and the dreadful scenes produces from war.

Let us begin, by painting the picture. You are about to embark on a historical journey today, you will go back in time to July 3rd 1863, and are now standing upon the ground that became known as the High Water Mark, then known as the Union Center. Here is where the infamous 20th Maine under Chamberlain’s command were brought on the morning of the 3rd for rest after their courageous holding of the flank on July 2nd. Here is where Gen. Hancock rode proudly on horseback, checking his line, and encouraging his men. Here, is where many a young boy in Federal blue uniform woke up to a peaceful quiet morning, wondering what dread the day would yet bring before nightfall. Across the field from this position, were 15,000 Confederate troops, laying in wait in the wood line. Arriving overnight, many of these men had not yet been engaged in the fighting of Gettysburg. Gen. Pickett, their commander, was eager for victory for the glory of Virginia and the cause. He knew what the day would hold for these men, and was confident in what they were about to engage, and felt the victory close at hand. His commander, Gen. Longstreet, distraught and concerned lacked the confidence in what was about to be placed into action. His commander, Gen. Lee, was steadfast that in the center would be the weak point, and in the center would be where they would break the line and see themselves all the way to Washington. But that is the perspective of commanders. Hancock, Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, each having full focus on their men, each knowing what had already taken place for two whole days of bloody combat, each apprehensive and on edge, wondering exactly what the end of this day would bring. What was it like for the men, the common foot soldier, the ones who would be personally involved on this day, the one’s whose lives truly hung in the balance over the next few hours?

PA Monument, Union Center area of the Battlefield

view of Codori Farm, from the Union Center position behind the farm is the Confederate wood line position

 

artwork of Longstreet and Pickett (on horseback)

As the sun rose over Gettysburg PA July 3, 1863 the town had already suffered two days of bloody fighting in the streets and surrounding farmlands. Homes were filled with wounded, crying for their mothers and wives, begging for relief of pain. Surgeons were hard at work to save lives as best they could under the circumstances massively outnumbered. Families found themselves feeding soldiers, caring for wounded, and trying to settled their terrified children. There was a strange silence that fell across Gettysburg this morning. It had only been two simple days of fighting, those two days felt like an eternity, because the lack of gunfire and cannon smoke was terrifying. All of Gettysburg was on edge in the silence, wondering what horror was yet to fall upon the town this day before sunset. By midday, the silence was broken by the roar of cannon! The earth shook and shuttered, vibrations from the rumble was felt in the walls and streets of the town. For Michael Jacobs and his son Henry, they quickly ran to the rooftop of their multi story home on Middle Street to see what was going on. Countless cannon were engaged from the Confederate line along Seminary Ridge, but equally cannon were firing from Oak Hill as well. Shells flew overtop their heads and were aiming all in the direction of Cemetery Hill (from their perspective) the site was spectacular, and horrifying. Were these Confederate cannon hitting their mark? What was their target? It was known to these civilians that their own “Boys in Blue” held the ground in the aim of these cannon. How many lives were being lost right now in this rain of cannon fire? Would the town find themselves under Confederate rule by the end of the day? The thoughts were sickening, yet the cannon kept roaring louder and louder, heavier and heavier. It was magnificently terrifying. Jacobs’ accounts of the direction, wind, sun, clouds, temperature, all the detailed documentation he began writing of this day from his rooftop plays into the most spectacular part of Gettysburg’s history (wait that’s another story, for another day, coming very soon! back to Pickett’s Charge)

At the High Water Mark (Union Center) young boys are finding themselves on the receiving end of this massive cannonade. Shells bursting all around them from every direction

Union Center today’s perspective of the Battlefield

 

They struggle to find a place of refuge, somewhere safe to wait it out. “What are on earth are these Rebs thinking?! What comes next?!” are thoughts of terror and horror in the mind of these young federal troops as they run, hide, lay down, crawl, shake and scurry, or simply stand still expecting their fate and saying their last prayers. It is a terrifying scene at the Union Center right now. Artillery shells of all kind are falling all around them, in particular boys from Ohio recall hearing the whistling of Whitworth shells bursting over their heads. On the other side of this field, the Confederate boys are waiting, solemnly, patiently, they know what comes next. Each shell that barrels across the earth before them, brings them one shot closer to leaving the sanctuary of the woods they sit in, and preparing to march across an open field to meet their enemy face to face. With each shell that the artillery fires off, they say a prayer it hits the mark, not that they want to see lives lost, but better another life then their own. They wait in patient fear and dread, agonizing over the patriotic brave duty being asked of them today. One they will face with the utmost bravery, for the sake of their cause and for the glory of Virginia. Many of these boys come from the heart of Virginia, with grandfather’s who fought against the King himself to create this country. Each of them has been raised with the knowledge of what this country was supposed to be and the freedoms it was supposed to grant. Each of them, knows what is being asked of them today, and as much as they would prefer to be home on their farms surrounded by loved ones today, they clasp their breast pocket, ensuring their death envelope is prepared and secure, and they will face the duty asked of them today without fear! AND THEN………..silence. A terrifying, dreadful, SILENCE!!! Jacobs and his son stand on the rooftop desperately trying to see through the massive smoke from cannon, wondering what comes next. Federal troops at the center, peer up from their places of refuge, not wanting to know but needing to know what was about to happen, all that cannon would 0nly be a prelude to something more. Those Virginians in the woods, are now called forth to stand in line and prepare to march. As 15,000 men quickly step out of those woods, they prepare their rifles with fixed bayonets’ and prepare to meet their enemy face to face. From the Union Center, the Federal troops can barely see across the field a sea of gray filling the fields before them. These boys know they are severely outnumbered, what will they do as this massive army preparing to march towards them? Hearts sink, lungs get heavy, each man places his hand upon his heart to remind himself that his death envelope is secure, he as a soldier has done all he can do for his family and his country, they each feel they will die on this day, for they cannot singlehandedly take down an enemy who so strongly outnumbers them today.

stone wall Union Center looking at the tree line where the Confederates stepped out from for the Charge

 

As this enemy 15,000 strong begins to march, the Union troops see a massive movement of gray flooding their direction ever so slowly, yet terrifying fast. And in an instant, Union cannon begin to rain down their own fire upon this sea of gray. And these boys in blue, peeking between the rocks they are secured behind begin to watch huge gaping holes blown into their enemy. Part of them sighs relief, but then breathes heavy as they realize, for every hole blown into the ranks of their enemy, they close lines and continue to march. As they get closer, shells of shrapnel and grapeshot are fired into their lines. They are now close enough that the Federal troops waiting to receive them can see their Confederate opposition being ripped to pieces, body parts scattered across the field. Yet still, they close ranks and continue marching. When they reach the fence of the road, they begin to climb over this fence, for a moment their enemy almost forgets they are within musket range now. The Union troops are ordered to take aim and fire, to fire at will. These blue clad young men, begin to aim their rifles across the rock wall they patiently sit behind and begin to by their own hand pick off one at a time at this sea of gray uniform that is now beginning to look more like a trickling stream. For the Virginia men, they know that they have lost have their strength and are only halfway across the field they were asked to charge. They know that they will not see the end of this day, but they are now halfway there and not one of them will give up. They know that Gen. Lee is watching, having faith in their victory, they know that their families at home are waiting for them to return home and end this war. Perhaps today will be that day, and for this they will gladly lay down their lives. They cross the fence, reset their formations, address their lines, and look up before them taking a deep breath and run for all they have, they are so close now they can taste it! The Federal troops waiting to receive them, are partly impressed, partly frightened, what enemy would come this far losing as many numbers as they had yet have the tenacity to charge with such fervor? It seemed unimaginable.

view from Little Round Top 1863 Confederate troops marched through this field on their way to the Union Center

For Jacobs and Henry, they cannot see a thing for the smoke hovering the town, but they hear the horrifying sound of the Rebel Yell. This shrieking terror of a sound, part wild animal, part wild Indian, they had read in the papers, descriptions of this famous Rebel Yell, and now had become all too well accustomed to it after the day of fighting in Gettysburg. The sound of the Rebel Yell brings to reality the almost dreamlike state the Federal troops have thus far been in, watching their brothers in gray come across this field of agony and bloodshed. Now here they are, snap to attention! Before you stand a man waiting to kill you, you must fight back. Hand to hand combat now begins over the stone wall at the Union Center. Guns fire at point blank range, sabers are drawn, bayonets are used, butt end of muskets are swinging through the air, teeth clench, fists plunge into faces, clothes are torn and ripped, men grasp at each other like wild dogs. Screaming fills the air, profanity and prayers, threats, death wishes, cries for help and saving grace.

photographic artwork from 1863

 

Blood spills in every direction, as you open your mouth to take a breath, or scream in rage, you taste the coppery flesh of the man in front of you or beside you, there is so much fighting at such close range its hard to tell from whom you just received a mouthful. Cannons randomly pop, but whose artillery, is it? No one knows. Are your own men firing on you or are they aiming for the enemy? Is that the enemy shooting against you or are they firing on their own men? In the midst of all this confusion, men watch their best friends fall to the ground, and it seems as though the world stands still. For that haunting moment, they see this man eyes wide open, mouth pouring blood, with other men trampling on them, are they still alive? I see a movement, there is a hand reaching up for help, no that is just the force of someone stepping on the body, my friend is dead, I know he’s dead. And in that same mournful moment of loss, you quickly realize that if you do not act quickly you will be next, you just now almost took a blow to the head from the butt of pistol, and here quickly coming from the other side of you is a saber waiting to break your bones, yet there on horseback yet another saber that will quickly bash in your skull. As quickly as all this chaos of bloody hand to hand conflict begins, it ends. The Confederate troops begin moving back. Having given all, they could give for Virginia today, they return, to regroup and fight again another day. The Federal troops continue shooting at them for a moment, cannons still burst at the Confederate troops as to remind them, you did all you could do today, do not come back again. As the Union boys look around them, so much blood, so many dead bodies, so many men laying still alive screaming for relief from the pain they are in as they are laying on the ground clutching wounds. These same boys in blue look out across the field, from which their enemy came just a moment ago in a forceful number that struck fear into their heart and now, a field of agony, blood, men crawling, men limping, men searching for their own body parts so they may desperately ask a surgeon to “put it back on”, men trying to get to the safety of the tree line once more, without stepping on a fallen comrade who now lays in this field. As the Union boys look across this field, it comes to their mind a battle just months ago, where they were the ones who made a desperate charge across an open field toward an enemy that they weren’t sure they could defeat, but they did their patriotic duty at Fredericksburg. For Henry and his father, just moments after hearing the Rebel Yell from the smoke filled field, they now hear the Yankee Huzzah!! And the cry of the word FREDERICKSBURG! Why do you supposed the Federal troops began to chant the name of a previously fought battle at the end of this day’s fight? Was it pride? Rubbing their victory into the face of their enemy? Or, perhaps, was it a brother looking on at another brother, seeing the dread and despair, the massive loss of life, yet the ambitious call to duty, was this an honorable “I’ve been there, I know what you’re feeling right now” ? I’m sure for each man who joined in the chant they had their own reason. Out of the accounts I’ve studied, they had a pride for their victory, this victory meant a great deal to them, it was the first they had felt like they won a victory over their southern brothers in two whole years of fighting. This day July 3rd meant a great deal to those Union boys. But also too, with study of accounts, they revered their southern brothers for the momentous charge they had just made. They knew firsthand how difficult that charge was, because they had been there just 6 months prior. Now so quickly the tables were turned. This would be endless. It had gone on for so long now as it was, and both sides feared today that it would never stop. At the end of July 3rd, 1863, every soldier in Gettysburg still breathing air feared the war would never end, it would just be a continuous journey from one town to next, and now entering into Northern territory, bloodshed and horror would just rape the land forever. Men laying, bleeding to death, baking in the hot sun by day, and being plucked at by wild pigs and scavenging creatures at night, felt they had died in vain, or did they? July 3rd, 1863 is one of many days that will live in American History forever, a turning point for the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was the first major Union victory over the South. But the war itself was far from over.

Confederate Dead on the fields of Pickett’s Charge

 

 

When President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg months after the Battle took place, he was very quickly humbled to find that there were STILL bodies actively being buried and wounded still receiving care. Out of 165,000 men combined from both sides who fought here for three days, 51,000 were left behind. It was a battle in Civil War history that carried a VERY heavy death toll. Pickett’s charge alone saw very few of their 15,000 men who marched return. Gen. Pickett, so eager for a victory, so proud to bring his boys to the fight, nearly went mad after this one battle. He was never the same after losing his entire division, a general with no men to command. All three of Pickett’s Brigadier Generals had been lost in one battle. Gen. Lee was devastated, feeling responsible for each life that was lost, he was so sure of victory, he felt now that he had been blinded somehow, not seeing this grave outcome and yet sent his men into their death. Gen. Longstreet, suspicious of the charge’s eminent doom, stood at the tree line long after nightfall, waiting for each possible man who returned, shaking their hand and commending them for their duty and sacrifice. The men themselves were exhausted yet still invigorated for the cause they stood for, they mourned the loss of the fallen, but knew they would yet live to fight another day in hopeful victory. Gen. Hancock receiving a wound of his own this day, remained on the battlefield as long as he possibly could before receiving medical care, applauding his troops for their steadfastness against a wave of gray that came upon them this day. Gen. Meade, after spending three days facing a Confederate enemy on the Northern soil he was duty bound by the President to defend, went to bed this night mournful from a letter he had received just a week ago from his sister who lived in Vicksburg Mississippi. He was commanding the fight for the Federal cause but had blood ties blowing in the Confederate winds down south. For the town, Jacobs and Henry, and their neighbors, they all breathed a heavy sigh of relief now that the fighting was finally over. Tomorrow as the rains came to cleanse the earth of the blood, they would watch the armies pack and leave their town. They would quickly find out that the worst was yet to come, now that the fighting was over.