A Few of Our Biographies:
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2. Shelby Foote
This is Part Two of an Excerpt From Shelby Foote's
2. Shelby Foote: "Stars in Their Courses" (Pickett’s Charge)
Nothing quite like this abrupt defection had ever happened before, at least not in Lee’s army, though the sight had been fairly common in the ranks of its opponents over the past two years, beginning at First Manassas and continuing through Second Winchester. Most Confederate witnesses reacted first with unbelief and then with consternation, but not Longstreet, who had steeled himself at the outset by expected the very worst. Still seated on the snake rail fence at the far end of the field, he moved at once to counteract what he had seen through the shellbursts to the north, sending word for Anderson to commit his three remaining brigades – Wright’s and Posey’s and Mahone’s; Lang and Wilcox had already been instructed to furnish such help for Pickett if it was needed – in support of the line thus weakened. No one could know whether the sudden collapse of this one brigade was indicative of what the others would do when the pressure intensified, but there was always the danger, even in quite sound units, that when a flank started to crumble, as this one had done, the reaction would continue all down the line. And in fact it did continue in one regiment under Davis, some of whose green troops took off rearward in the wake of the Virginians, but the other three held steady, taking in turn the end-on pounding from the batteries on the height as they kept up their steady progress across the valley. By now the interior flanks of Pettigrew and Pickett had come together on the near side of the fence-lined Emmitsburg Road, beyond which the blue skirmishers fired a volley or two before hurrying back to their own line, some four hundred yards up the slope behind them. The resultant crowding of Fry’s and Garnett’s brigades, which occurred before the latter received the order that brought its marchers off the oblique, presented a close-packed target the Union gunners did not neglect from point-blank range on the ridge ahead. “Don’t crowd, boys!” a rebel captain shouted, his voice as lackadaisical amid the bursting shells as that of a dancing master. There was in fact a certain amount of formal politeness as the two brigades came together, Tennesseans on the one hand and Virginians on the other, under circumstances designed to favor havoc. Southern courtesy had never been more severely tried, yet such protest as was heard was mild in tone. It was here that the classic Confederate line was spoken: “Move on, cousins. You are drawing the fire our way.”
Armistead was hard on Garnett’s heels by now, and Kemper’s men had drifted left, not only in an attempt to keep in touch with the latter’s contracting line, but also in obedience to a natural inclination to flinch from the increasingly effective fire directed at their exposed flank from Little Round Top as well as from the south end of the Federal ridge, where McGilvery’s seven batteries were massed. From close in rear of his advancing troops, Pickett saw his and Pettigrew’s lead brigades, crowded into a blunted wedge perhaps five hundred yards in width, surge across the road and its two fences, taking severe losses from the opening blasts of canister loosed by guns that had been silent until now, and begin their climb up the slope toward the low stone wall behind which the blue infantry was crouched. He saw that his men were going to make it, a good part of them anyhow; but he saw, too – so heavy had their casualties been on the way across the valley, and so heavy were they going to be in storming the wall itself, which extended the length of the front and beyond – that unless the survivors were stoutly reinforced, and soon, they would not be able to hold what they were about to gain. Accordingly, he sent a courier to inform Longstreet of this close-up estimate of the situation. The courier, a staff captain, galloped fast to find Old Peter, but even so he took time to draw rein in an attempt to rally some stragglers he found trotting toward the rear. “What are you running for?” he demanded, glaring down at them. One of the men looked up at him as if to say the question was a foolish waste of breath, though what he actually said was: “Why, good gracious, Captain, aint you running yourself?” Too flustered to attempt an answer, the courier gave his horse the spur and continued on his mission, feeling rather baffled by the encounter.
He found Old Peter still perched atop the snake rail fence, observing through his binoculars the action on the ridge. The general listened attentively to Pickett’s message, but before he could reply a distinguished British visitor rode up: Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle, of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards. Despite his high rank in a famous regiment, this was his first experience of battle. “General Longstreet,” he said, breathless with excitement, “General Lee sent me here, and said you would place me in a position to see this magnificent charge.” Then, observing for himself the struggle in progress on the ridge across the way, he exclaimed; “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything!” Old Peter laughed, an incongruous sound against that backdrop of death and destruction. “The devil you wouldn’t!” he said; “I would like to have missed it very much. We’ve attacked and been repulsed. Look there.” All the colonel could see, amid swirls of smoke on the slope at which the general was pointing, half a mile in the distance, was that men were fighting desperately; but Longstreet spoke as if the issue was no longer in doubt. “The charge is over,” he said flatly. And then, having attended in his fashion to the amenities due a guest, he turned to the courier and added: “Captain Bright, ride to General Pickett and tell him what you have heard me say to Colonel Fremantle.” The courier started off, but the general called after him: “Captain Bright!” Drawing rein, Bright looked back and saw Old Peter pointing northward. “Tell General Pickett that Wilcox’s brigade is in that orchard, and he can order him to his assistance.”
The courier galloped off at last, and the burly Georgian returned to watching the final stages of the action, pausing only to countermand his recent order for Anderson’s three reserve brigades to be committed. Wilcox and Lag could go forward, in accordance with Lee’s original arrangements – Longstreet’s final instructions, shouted after the courier when he first started back to Pickett, were more in the nature of a reminder than a command – but if what was happening on the ridge was only the prelude to a repulse, as he believed, then Anderson’s three and Pender’s two uncommitted brigades would be needed to meet the counterattack Meade would be likely to launch in the wake of the Confederates as they fell back down the slope and recrossed the valley. Fremantle marveled at his companion’s self-possession under strain, remarking afterwards that “difficulties seem[ed] to make no other impression on him than to make him a little more savage.” In point of fact, though Old Peter kept his binoculars trained on the flame-stabbed turmoil halfway up the enemy ridge, he watched the fighting not so much in suspense as to the outcome – for that had been settled already, at least to his own disgruntled satisfaction – as to study the manner in which it came about. Convinced that the attack had failed, even before the first signs of retreat were evident, he was mainly interested in seeing how many of his soldiers would survive it.
But they themselves had no such detached view of the holocaust in which they were involved. Massed as they were on a narrow front, flailed by canister from both flanks and dead ahead, the men of the five lead brigades were mingled inextricably; few of them had any knowledge of anything except in their immediate vicinity, and very little of that. “Everything was a wild kaleidoscopic whirl,” a colonel would recall. Fry, for one, thought victory was certain. “Go on; it will not last five minutes longer!” he shouted as he fell, shot through the thigh while urging his brigade to hurry up the slope. Nearby a lieutenant waved his sword and exulted as if he saw the end of the war at hand. “Home, boys, home!” he cried. “Remember, home is over beyond those hills!” Sheets of flame leaped out at the charging graybacks as the blue infantry opened fire along the wall, but they held their own fire until Garnett passed the word, which was taken up by officers all up and down the front: “Make ready. Take good aim. Fire low. Fire!” Uphill sheets of flame flashed in response and blue-capped heads dropped from sight beyond the wall. “Fire! Fire!” they could hear the Federal officers shouting through the smoke and muzzle-flashes. Still wrapped in his old army overcoat, Garnett rocked back in the saddle and fell heavily to the ground, dead, the Kernstown stain removed at last. Kemper meanwhile had turned and called to Armistead, who was close in his rear: “Armistead, hurry up! I am going to charge those heights and carry them, and I want you to support me!” His friend called back, “I’ll do it!” and added proudly: “Look at my line. It never looked better on dress parade.” But Kemper by then was in no condition to observe it; he had fallen, shot in the groin as he ordered the final assault. Pickett thus was down to a single brigade commander, and Pettigrew was in the same condition on the left, where only Davis remained, Marshall having been killed at about the same time Fry went down. Unhorsed by a shell on his way across the valley, Pettigrew had crossed the Emmitsburg Road on foot and then had been wounded painfully in the hand as he began to climb the ridge. He remained in command, though his troops were mingled beyond the possibility of over-all control, even if he could have managed to make himself heard above the tremendous clatter of firing and the high screams of the wounded. Nevertheless, like Pickett’s leaderless two on the right, his three brigades continued their uphill surge, eager to come to grips with their tormentors beyond the wall, and for the first time on this field today the rebel yell rang out.
On the Union right, near Ziegler’s Grove, Hancock watched with admiration as Hays, whose northern flank considerably overlapped the enemy left, swung his end regiment forward, gatelike, to make contact with the Ohioans who had halted after routing Mayo and had taken up a position facing southwest with their left on the Emmitsburg Road. As a result of this pivoting maneuver, which was accompanied by two brass Napoleons firing double-shotted canister, some 450 men who otherwise would have had no share in the fighting after the rebels actually struck the blue defenses, well down the line and beyond their angle of sight, were placed where they could and did pump heavy volleys into the mangled flank of the attackers, adding greatly to the confusion and the carnage. Hancock shouted approval of this happy improvisation and took off southward at a gallop, intending to see whether the same could not be done at the opposite end of the position, which likewise extended well beyond the huddled mass of graybacks driving hard against his center. He rode fast, but even so he had cause to fear he would be too late. The stone wall along which his five brigades were deployed ran due south for a couple of hundred yards from Ziegler’s Grove, then turned sharply west for eighty yards, thus avoiding the clump of umbrella-shaped trees, before it made as sharp a turn again to resume its former direction. The jog in the wall – described thereafter as The Angle – had caused Gibbon’s men to be posted eighty yards in advance of Hays’s, which meant that they would be struck first: as indeed they were. Galloping southward along the ridge, Hancock was hailed by Colonel Arthur Devereux, who commanded one of two regiments Gibbon had placed in reserve, well up the slope behind his center. “See, General!” Devereux cried, pointing. “They have broken through; the colors are coming over the stone wall. Let me go in there!” Reining his horse in so abruptly that he brought the animal back on its haunches, Hancock looked and saw that the report was all too true. Less than two hundred yards away, due west and northwest of the clump of trees, which partly obscured his view, he saw a host of butternut soldiers, led by a gray-haired officer who brandished a sword with a black hat balanced on its point, boiling over the wall in hot pursuit of a blue regiment that had bolted. Some two hundred undefended feet of the south leg of the angle had been overrun. “Go in there pretty God-damned quick!” the general shouted, and spurred on southward to order Doubleday to repeat the flanking maneuver that was working so well at the far end of the line. That way, the breakthrough might at least be limited in width, and if Devereux got there in time it might even be contained.
Arriving, Hancock found that Doubleday, or anyhow the commander of the one I Corps brigade attached for defense of the Union center, had anticipated the order; Brigadier General G. J. Stannard, a former Vermont dry-goods merchant and militia officer, had already begun the pivot maneuver and was wheeling two of his three regiments into an advance position from which to tear the flank of the attackers pressing forward to exploit their narrow penetration of the south leg of the angle, directly in front of the clump of trees and less than two hundred yards north of the point where Stannard’s gatelike swing was hinged. Vermonters all, the 900 men of these two outsized regiments were nine-month volunteers; “nine monthlings hatched from $200 bounty eggs,” scornful veterans had dubbed them on their recent arrival from the soft life of the Washington defenses. They had seen their first action yesterday and their army time was almost up, but they were determined to give a good account of themselves before returning home. Now the opportunity was at hand. Company by company, they opened fire as they wheeled into line, blasting the rebel flank, and as they delivered their murderous volleys they continued to move northward, closing the range until their officers were able to add the fire of their revolvers to the weight of metal thrown into the writhing mass of graybacks. “Glory to God! Glory to God!” Doubleday shouted, swinging his hat in approval as he watched from up the slope. “See the Vermonters go it!”
Hancock too was delighted, but while he was congratulating Stannard on the success with which his green troops had executed the difficult maneuver, a bullet passed through the pommel of his saddle and buried itself in the tender flesh of his inner thigh, along with several jagged bits of wood and a bent nail. Two officers caught him as he slumped, and when they had lowered him to the ground Stannard improvised a tourniquet – a knotted handkerchief wound tight with a pistol barrel – to stanch the flow of blood from the ugly wound. Hancock himself extracted the saddle nail unaided, though he mistook its source. “They must be hard up for ammunition when they throw such shot as that,” he said wryly. Stretcherbearers came on the run, but he refused to be carried off the field just yet. He insisted on staying to watch the action, which now was mounting swiftly toward a climax.
The gray-haired Confederate officer he had glimpsed through the screen of trees as he rode southward in rear of the center was his old friend Armistead, whom he had seen last in California and did not recognize now because of the distance and the smoke. Working his way forward to assume command of the frantic press of troops after Garnett and Kemper had fallen, Armistead found himself at the stone wall, midway of the 200-foot stretch from which a regiment of Pennsylvanians had bolted to avoid contact with the charging rebels. There the gray advance had stopped, or anyhow paused, while those in front knelt behind its welcome cover and poured a heavy fire into the secondary blue line up the slope. He saw, however, that it would not do to lose momentum or allow the Federals time to bring up reinforcements. “Com on, boys! Give them the cold steel!” he cried, and holding his saber high, still with the black hat balanced on its tip for a guidon, he stepped over the wall, yelling as he did so: “Follow me!” Young Cushing’s two guns were just ahead, unserved and silent because Cushing himself was dead by now, shot through the mouth as he called for a faster rate of fire, and Gibbon had been taken rearward, a bullet in his shoulder. Then Armistead fell too, killed as he reached with his free hand for the muzzle of one of the guns, and the clot of perhaps 300 men who had followed him over the wall was struck from the right front by the two regiments Devereux had brought down “pretty God-damned quick” from the uphill slope beyond the clump of trees. The fight was hand to hand along the fringes, while others among the defenders stood back, left and front and right, and fired into the close-packed, heaving mass of rebel troops and colors. “Every man fought on his own hook,” a bluecoat would recall, with little regard for rank or assignment, high or low. Even Hunt was there, on horseback, emptying his revolver into the crush. “See ’em! See ’em!” he cried as he pulled trigger. Then his horse went down, hoofs flailing, with the general underneath. Men on both sides were hollering as they milled about and fired, some cursing, others praying, and this, combined with the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying, produced an effect which one who heard it called “strange and terrible, a sound that came from thousands of human throats, yet was not a commingling of shouts and yells but rather like a vast mournful roar.”
Neither on the left nor on the right of the shallow penetration of the center, assailed as they were from north and south by the double envelopment Hays and Stannard had improvised, could the Confederates make real headway. Pettigrew’s troops, advancing up their additional eighty yards of slope, which one of them noted incongruously was “covered with clover as soft as a Turkish carpet,” were in fact outnumbered by the defenders of the two hundred yards of wall above the angle. Fry’s brigade and part of Marshall’s having gone in with the Virginians to the south, all that remained were Davis’s brigade and Marshall’s remnant, and though they kept coming on, torn by rifle fire and canister from the flank and dead ahead, they had not the slightest chance of scoring a breakthrough and they knew it. The most they could hope to accomplish was to keep the enemy units in their front from being shifted to meet the threat below the angle, and this they did, though at a cruel cost. A Mississippi regiment – including the University Greys, a company made up exclusively of students from the state university, which suffered a precisely tabulated loss of 100% of its members killed or wounded in the charge – managed to plant its colors within arm’s length of the Union line before it was blasted out of existence, and a sergeant from a North Carolina outfit, accompanied by one man bearing the regimental colors, got all the way up to the wall itself, but only because the admiring defenders held their fire as they drew near. “Come over to this side of the Lord!” a bluecoat shouted: whereupon the two surrendered and crossed over with their flag. Some others availed themselves of the same mercy at various points along the line, but these were all. Except as captives, or as corpses tumbling headlong under pressure from the rear, not an attacker got over the wall north of the angle.
Blood dripping from his wounded hand, Pettigrew sent word for Trimble to bring his two supporting brigades forward and add their weight to the attack. Trimble did so, ordering Lowrance to the right, against the angle, and Lane to reinforce the battered left. Mounted, he watched with pride as they swung past him. “Charley, I believe those fine fellows are going into the enemy’s line,” he told an aide. But he was wrong. Moreover, as he watched them waver and recoil under the impact of the heavy fire the Federals brought to bear, he was hit a bone-splintering blow in the leg he had nearly lost at Manassas, just over ten months back, from a wound that had kept him all those fretful months out of combat. He passed the command to Lane, whom he had succeeded only four hours ago, but stayed to watch the outcome of the action. Discouraged by what he saw, the sixty-one-year-old Marylander, whose reputation for hard-handed aggressiveness was unsurpassed by any man in either army, went rapidly into shock from pain and loss of blood, and declined to permit his aide to attempt to rally the troops for a renewal of the assault, which he now perceived would not succeed. “No,” he said slowly, sadly, in response to the aide’s request. “The best thing the men can do is get out of this. Let them go.”
They did go, here and on the right and in the center – at any rate, those who had not surrendered and were still in any condition, either physical or mental, to undertake the long walk back across the shell-torn valley. This was harder for those within the angle, not only because they had to run the longest gauntlet between the two converging wings under Hays and Stannard, but also because they were the last to realize that the assault had failed. For them, the let-down was abrupt and sickening. “I looked to the right and left,” a Virginia lieutenant would recall, “and felt we were disgraced...We had, for the first time, failed to do our duty.” It was only after he started back and saw for himself that the friends he missed were casualties, not skulkers, that he began to comprehend the nature of the failure, and “felt that after all were not disgraced.” He made it back across, as did June Kimble, the Tennessee sergeant who had resolved to do his duty and had done it, but who now admitted frankly: “For about a hundred yards I broke the lightning speed record.” Once more, however, his conscience intervened. With a horror of being shot in the back, he turned to face the bluecoats firing downhill at him and walked backwards until he was out of musket range, then turned again and plodded uphill amid shellbursts that plowed the farther reaches of what a Federal observer called “a square mile of Tophet.” Fortunately, the final stages of the withdrawal were favored somewhat by the advance of Wilcox and Lang, who came forward in response to calls from Pickett. Although Wilcox later reported that by the time he emerged from cover “not a man of the division that I was ordered to support could I see,” his limited advance had at least the effect of causing Stannard, who was wounded too by now, to order his Vermonters back into line to meet this new menace to their flank, thus easing the pressure on those Confederates who were last to leave the angle and the more stubbornly defended portions of wall above and below it.
Even so, barely more than half of the 11,000 men in the nine-brigade assault force – including Mayo’s defectors, whose losses had been comparatively light, and those disabled stalwarts who managed to hobble or crawl the westward distance across the valley – returned to the ridge they had left with such high hopes an hour ago. The rest, some 5000 in all, were either killed or captured. Further allowance for the wounded among the survivors, as well as for those who were killed or injured during the preliminary bombardment and in the belated advance of Lang and Wilcox, raised the total to about 7500 casualties, which amounted to sixty percent of the 12,500 Confederates engaged from first to last. In the five leading brigades under Pickett and Pettigrew the ratio of losses was considerably higher, no less indeed than seventy percent; so that it was no wonder that the former, writing five days later to his fiancée, spoke of “my spirit-crushed, wearied, cut-up people,” especially if he had reference to his subordinate commanders. Not only had he lost all three of his brigadiers, but of his thirteen colonels eight were killed and all the rest were wounded. In fact, of his thirty-five officers above the rank of captain only one came back unhit, a one-armed major, and Pettigrew’s losses were about as grievous in that regard. In Fry’s brigade two field officers escaped, in Marshall’s only one, and in Davis’s all were killed or wounded. Moreover, the Union infantry force, with half as many troops as came against them, suffered no more than 1500 casualties, barely one fifth of the number they inflicted while maintaining the integrity of their position. “We gained nothing but glory,” a Virginia captain wrote home before the week was out; “and lost our bravest men.”
The gloom that settled over the western ridge was more than matched, at least in intensity, by the elation of the victors on the one across the way. On Cemetery Hill, watching a the rebel lines began to come unhinged, a captain shouted: “By God, boys, we’ve got ’em now. They’ve broke all to hell!” And down on the blood-splotched ridge below, when it became apparent that such was indeed the case, a wild celebration got under way before the gunfire stopped. Hays, who had had two horses shot from under him and had lost all but six of his twenty orderlies, was so exuberant that he grabbed and kissed young David Shields, a lieutenant on his staff. “Boys, give me a flag!” he cried. “Get a flag, Corts, get a flag, Dave, and come on!” There was no shortage of such trophies; for of the 38 regimental flags that had been brought within musket range of the wall, here on the right and on the left, no less than 30 had been captured. Hays and the two staff officers he had invited to join him in a horseback victory dance rode up and down the division line, each trailing a stand of rebel colors in the dust behind his mount, cheered by those of their grinning soldiers who were not still busy taking pots shots at the butternut figures retreating in disorder across the valley. Recalling his excitement, Shields wrote later: “My horse seemed to be off the ground traveling through the air.” His impression was that if he could survive what he had just been through, he could survive almost anything, in or out of the catalogue of war. He was going to live forever. “I felt though a shot as large as a barrel should hit me in the back, it would be with no more effect than shooting through a fog bank.”
Meanwhile the nearly 4000 rebel prisoners, wounded and unwounded, were being rounded up and sent to the rear. “Smart, healthy-looking men,” one Federal called them, adding: “They move very quick, walk like horses.” It was strange to see them thus, close up and de-fanged, without their guns and yells. They had a simple dignity about them which their ragged clothes served more to emphasize than lessen. Nor were all of them in rags. “Many of their officers were well dressed, fine, proud gentlemen,” another observer wrote soon afterwards, “such men as it would be a pleasure to meet, when the war is over. I had no desire to exult over them, and pity and sympathy were the general feelings of us all upon the occasion.” This last was not entirely true. At least one Union officer was alarmed by the thought that the prisoners – who, after all, numbered only a few hundred less than the surviving defenders of the ridge – might take it into their heads to renew the fight with the discarded weapons thickly strewn about the ground at their feet. There was, as it turned out, no danger of this; but the commander of a reserve battery, galloping forward in response to belated orders to reinforce the badly pounded guns along the center, received a different kind of shock. As he came up the reverse slope of the ridge he saw a mass of gray-clad men come over the crest ahead, and his first thought was that the position had been overrun. He signaled a halt and was about to give the order to fall back, when he saw that the Confederates bore no arms and were under guard.
Meade had much the same original reaction. Arriving at last from Powers Hill, he too mistook the drove of prisoners for evidence of a breakthrough. Then, as he realized his mistake and rode on past them toward the crest, he encountered a lieutenant from Gibbon’s staff. “How is it going here?” he asked eagerly, and received the reply: “I believe, General, the enemy’s attack is repulsed.” Meade could scarcely credit the information, welcome though it was. “What!” he exclaimed. “Is the assault already repulsed?” By that time he had reached the crest, however, and the lieutenant’s assurance, “It is, sir,” was confirmed by what he saw with his own eyes: more captives being herded into clusters along the left and right and center, his own troops cavorting with abandoned rebel flags, and the fugitives withdrawing amid shellbursts on the far side of the valley, all unmistakable evidence of a victory achieved. “Thank God,” he said fervently. The lieutenant observed that Meade’s right hand jerked involuntarily upward, as if to snatch off his slouch hat and wave it in exultation, but then his concern for dignity prevailed. Instead he merely waved his hand, albeit rather self-consciously, and cried, just once: “Hurrah!” This done, he gave the staffer instructions for the posting of reinforcements expected shortly, “as the enemy might be mad enough to attack again.” Adding: “If the enemy does attack, charge him in the flank and sweep him from the field,” he rode on down the ridge, where he was greeted with cheers of recognition and tossed caps. A band had come up by now from somewhere, and when it broke into the strains of “Hail to the Chief” a correspondent remarked, not altogether jokingly: “Ah, General Meade, you’re in very great danger of being President of the United States.”
Despite the evidence spread before him that the Confederates were in a state of acute distress, and therefore probably vulnerable to attack, the northern commander’s words had made it clear that he had no intention of going over to the offensive. No one on the other side of the valley had heard those words, however. If they had, their surprise and relief would have been at least as great as his had been on learning that their attempt to pierce his center had been foiled. This was especially true of Longstreet. A counter-puncher himself, he expected Meade to attack without delay, and he moved at once to meet the threat as best he could, sending word for Wright, whom he had halted when he saw the charge must fail, to collect and rally the fugitives streaming back toward the center, while he himself attended to that same function on the right. Now that the painful thing he had opposed was over, he recovered his bluff and hearty manner. He rode among the returning troops and spoke reassuringly to them, meantime sending word for McLaws and Law to pull back to the line they had taken off from yesterday and thus place their divisions in position to assist in the defense of the weakened center. When one commander protested that his men could not be rallied, Old Peter mocked at his despair. “Very well; never mind then, General,” he told him. “Just let them remain where they are. The enemy’s going to advance, and will spare you the trouble.” Fremantle thought the Georgian’s conduct “admirable,” and when he paused at one point to ask if the colonel had anything to drink, the Britisher not only gave him a swig of rum from a silver flask but also insisted that he keep the rest, together with its container, as a token of his esteem. Longstreet thanked him, put the flask in his pocket for future reference, and continued to move among the fugitives with words of cheer and encouragement, preparing to meet the counterattack which he believed Meade would be delivering at any moment now.
But most of the survivors came streaming back the shortest way, straight across the valley toward the command post midway of its western rim, like hurt children in instinctive search of solace from a parent: meaning Lee. There the southern commander had remained throughout their advance and their brief, furious struggle on the distant ridge, until he saw them falter and begin their slow recoil; whereupon he rode forward to meet them coming back, to rally them with words of reassurance, and to share with them the ordeal of the counterattack he believed would soon be launched. Nor did he disappoint them in their expectations of solace and sustainment. “All this will come right in the end,” he told them. “We’ll talk it over afterwards. But in the meantime all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now.” He made it clear to all he met that he considered the failure of the charge not their fault, but his, for having asked of them more than men could give. To Fremantle, who had ridden over from the right, he said: “This has been a sad day for us, Colonel. A sad day. But we can’t always expect to win victories.” After advising the visitor to find a safer point for observation, he continued to move among his soldiers in an attempt to brace them for the storm he thought was coming. “Very few failed to answer his appeal,” Fremantle noted, “and I saw many badly wounded men take off their hats and cheer him.”
One among the fugitives most in need of encouragement was Pickett, who came riding back with an expression of dejection and bewilderment on his face. Leading his division into battle for the first time, he had seen two thirds of it destroyed. Not only had his great hour come to nothing; tactically speaking, it added up to considerably less than nothing. Lee met him with instructions designed to bring him back to the problem now at hand. “General Pickett, place your division in rear of this hill,” he told him, “and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.” At least one bystander observed that in his extremity Lee employed the words “the enemy” rather than his usual “those people.” But Pickett was in no state to observe anything outside his personal loss and mortification.
“General Lee, I have no division now,” he said tearfully; “Armistead is down, Garnett is down, and Kemper is mortally wounded – ”
“Come, General Pickett,” Lee broke in. “This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before....Your men have done all that men can do,” he added after a pause for emphasis. “The fault is entirely my own.”
He repeated this as he rode from point to point about the field: “It’s all my fault,” “The blame is mine,” and “You must help me.” To Wilcox, who was about as unstrung as Pickett in reporting that he was not sure his troops would stand if the Federals attacked, Lee was particularly solicitous and tender. “Never mind, General,” he told him, taking his hand as he spoke. “All this has been my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” Fremantle, who had not followed his advice to find a place of safety, thought it “impossible to look at him or listen to him without feeling the strongest admiration,” and when he rode forward to the line of guns, the Britisher found the cannoneers ready to challenge any blue attack on the disrupted center. They had much the same reaction as his own to Lee’s appeal. “We’ve not lost confidence in the old man,” they assured him, speaking defiantly, almost angrily, as if someone had suggested otherwise. “This day’s work will do him no harm. Uncle Robert will get us into Washington yet. You bet he will.”
By no means all responded in that fashion, however – especially among the troops who had been all the way to the enemy ridge and back, as the artillerists had not – and even concerning those who did there was considerable doubt as to whether they would stand their ground, this soon after their delivery from chaos, if they were exposed to more than the possibility of further danger. In point of fact, there was strong evidence that they would not. When some officers managed to form a line along the forward slope of Seminary Ridge, still in plain view of the Union batteries, the rallied fugitives broke badly under the long-range fire their concentration drew. “Then commenced a rout, that increased to a stampede,” an indignant witness later wrote. Fleeing rearward over the crest, the mass of several hundred fear-crazed men was funneled into a ravine along the western slope, and there, without regard for orders or appeals from their officers, who were swept along in the crush, they “pushed, poured, and rushed in a continuous stream, throwing away guns, blankets, and haversacks,” until at last a straggler line, composed of the more stalwart few among them, was thrown across their path and “dammed [them] up.”
Lee did not reproach them even then, knowing as he did that time alone could heal the wounds their morale had suffered in the hour just past. What was more, his ready acceptance of total blame for the failure of the assault was not merely a temporary burden he assumed for the sake of encouraging his troops to resist the counterattack he believed Meade was about to launch at them; he continued to say the same things in the future, after the immediate need for them was past and the quite different but altogether human need for self-justification might have been expected to set in. “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible,” he told Longstreet the next day, perhaps by way of making specific admission that he had been wrong in overruling his chief lieutenant’s objection that the charge was bound to fail. And in his official report to the President, forwarded on the last day of the month, he repeated for the record his assertion that such fault as might be found could not properly be applied to the men who had bled and died to sustain his pride in them. “The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect,” he wrote, “and they deserved success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude. More may have been required of them than they were able to perform, but my admiration of their noble qualities and confidence in their ability to cope successfully with the enemy has suffered no abatement from the issue of this protracted and sanguinary conflict.”
(At the conclusion of the battle, Lee rode back to his quarters.)
It was late, well after midnight, by the time he left Hill and rode back through the quiet moonlit camps along Seminary Ridge to his headquarters beside the Chambersburg Pike. Imboden was waiting for him there, as instructed, though no one else was stirring; his staff had gone to sleep so tired that not even a sentry had been posted. Lee drew rein and sat motionless for a time, apparently too weary to dismount, but as the cavalryman stepped forward, intending to assist him, he swung down and leaned for another long moment against Traveller, head bowed and one arm thrown across the saddle for more rest. Imboden watched him, awed by the tableau – “The moon shone full upon his massive features and revealed an expression of sadness that I had never before seen upon his face” – then, hoping, as he said later, “to change the silent current of his thoughts,” ventured to speak of his obvious fatigue: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” Lee raised his head, and his fellow Virginian saw grief as well as weariness in his eyes. “Yes, this has been a sad, sad day to us,” he replied, emphasizing the word he had used that afternoon in speaking to Fremantle. Again he fell silent, but presently he “straightened up to his full height” and spoke “with more animation and excitement” than Imboden had ever seen him display: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been – but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not – we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.” This last was a strange thing for him to say, for he himself had denied Hill permission to throw his whole corps into the assault. However, there as no mistaking the extent of his regret. “Too bad; too bad,” he groaned; “Oh, too bad!”
Suppressing his emotion, he invited Imboden into his tent for a study of the map and the long road home, which he was about to take. “We must now return to Virginia,” he said.