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Pickett’s Charge

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain:  Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble..

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

 

 

One hundred and fifty-five years since the inaptly named Pickett’s Charge.  It was of course Lee’s Charge since the attack was by his order and was his concept.  Although manfully Lee took full responsibility after the failure of the attack, blame was heaped upon Pickett for not doing the impossible.  General Pickett, who graduated last in his class at West Point and who was a pre-war friend of Abraham Lincoln, was not the brightest bulb among Confederate generals, but he was blessed with a keen sense of humor.  He was frequently questioned after the War as to why the attack failed.  His stock response was to fall silent, ponder the question, and state solemnly:  “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it!”.

 

Tall Pickett went up to Longstreet-his handsome face was
drawn.
George Pickett, old friend of Lincoln’s in days gone by with the
blast,
When he was a courteous youth and Lincoln the strange shawled
man
Who would talk in a Springfield street with a boy who dreampt of
a sword.

Dreamt of a martial sword, as swords are martial in dreams,
And the courtesy to use it, in the old bright way of the tales.
Those days are gone with the blast. He has his sword in his hand.
And he will use it today, and remember that using long.

He came to Longstreet for orders, but Longstreet would not
speak.
He saw Old Peter’s mouth and the thoughts in Old Peter’s mind.
He knew the task that was set and the men that he had to lead
And a pride came into his face while Longstreet stood there
dumb.

“I shall go forward, sir,” he said and turned to his men.
The commands went down the line. The grey ranks started to
move.
Slowly at first, then faster, in order, stepping like deer,
The Virginians, the fifteen thousand, the seventh wave of the
tide.

There was a death-torn mile of broken ground to cross,
And a low stone wall at the end, and behind it the Second Corps,
And behind that force another, fresh men who had not yet
fought.
They started to cross that ground. The guns began to tear them.

>From the hill they say that it seemed more like a sea than a wave,
A sea continually torn by stones flung out of the sky,
And yet as it came, still closing, closing and rolling on
As the moving sea closes over the flaws and rips of the tide.

You could mark the path that they took by the dead that they
left behind,
Spilled from that deadly march as a cart spills meal on a road,
And yet they came on unceasing, the fifteen thousand no more,
And the blue Virginia flag did not fall, did not fall, did not fall.

They halted but once to fire as they came. Then the smoke closed
down.
And you could not see them, and then, as it cleared again for a
breath,
They were coming still but divided, gnawed at by blue attacks,
One flank half-severed and halted, but the centre still like a tide.

Cushing ran down the last of his guns to the battle-line.
The rest had been smashed to scrap by Lee’s artillery fire.
He held his guts in his hand as the charge came up the wall
And his gun spoke out for him once before he fell to the ground.

Armistead Leapt the wall and laid his hand on the gun,
The last of the three brigadiers who ordered Pickett’s brigades,
He waived his hat on his sword and “Give ’em the steel!” he cried,
A few men followed him over. The rest were beaten or dead.

A few men followed him over. There had been fifteen thousand
When that sea began its march toward the fish-hook ridge and
the wall.
So they came on in strength, light-footed stepping like deer,
So they died or were taken. So the iron entered their flesh.

Lee, a mile away, in the shade of a little wood,
Stared, with his mouth shut down, and saw them go and be slain
And then saw for a single moment, the blue Virginia flag
Planted beyond the wall, by that other flag he knew.

The two flags planted together, one instant, like hostile flowers.
Then the smoke wrapped both in a mantle-and when it had
blown away,
Armistead lay in his blood, and the rest were dead or down,
And the valley grey with the fallen and the wreck of the broken
wave.

Pickett gazed around him, the boy who had dreamt of a sword
And talked with a man named Lincoln. The sword was still in
his hand.
He had gone out with fifteen thousand. He came back to his lines
with five.
He fought well till the war was over, but a thing was cracked in his
heart.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

One Comment

  1. That Faulkner quote…
    Some years ago, my wife and I were sharing a good history book I had received as a gift; Lee’s Lieutenants, by Douglas Freeman, which covered all the war here in Va/Md/Pa under Lee. The book is a page turner, but sometime after the defeat and retreat from Gettysburg, she told me it had become hard to go on reading, knowing how it will end. I told her that Mr Faulkner had expressed the same sentiment, years ago.

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