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Published:July 3rd, 2013 08:35 EST
Is the Mythology Surrounding Pickett`s Charge Perhaps True?

Is the Mythology Surrounding Pickett`s Charge Perhaps True?

By John G. Kays

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." P. 233 Stars In Their Courses - The Gettysburg Campaign Shelby Foote

With 150 years to the day in the rear view mirror, I have some news to report regarding the chivalric assault by the Confederacy (known as Pickett`s Charge), on the last day of Gettysburg: the night before (July 2, 1863), General Meade predicted to his command, that Lee would hit hard right at Brig. Gen. John Gibbon`s position, which was right in the center of the Union defenses at Cemetery Hill (in proximity to the famous and controversial Copse of Trees [this popular version is reenforced by the 1993 film Gettysburg]).

Lee didn`t change his mind regarding his battle plan, even in the horrifying aftermath of things going wrong on Day Two. This approach, apparently, was confounding to General Longstreet, who knew his men would be torn to ribbons before they could make the 3/4 mile trek through open fields, between the Army of Virginia`s position on Seminary Ridge and that of the Union`s on Cemetery Hill. Was General Lee forgetting what happened to the Yankees at Fredericksburg (Dec 11-15, 1862)?

We can`t know now what Lee was thinking, but we might consider the notion it was based more on faith, than on sound military reasoning. The infantry assaults used by the Romans or by the Spartans (in antiquity) could use their shields to repel incoming arrows; but what could the Confederacy use to protect themselves from artillery blasts, blowing gaping holes in their fragile, stiff lines? Nothing! Still, I had learned my history, about what had gone down at Pickett`s Charge, in the 1960s? 

Was my knowledge of this pivotal event in our history merely the mythological version? I can answer my own loaded question; yes it was, or better, yes it is. I still need to weed out or debunk much of the romanticism and fictionalizing of the event, which probably started just minutes afterwards, as the battered Rebels hightailed it out of there, dragging their tattered and bloody carcasses back to the safety of Seminary Ridge. 

Robert and James could see the entire tragic affair unfold with field glasses; myself, however (150 years later), can`t see so clearly. I had to do some careful reconnaissance. 

That`s code for research my friend; I`m accumulating some valuable resources and there`s a lot on the internet too. A trip to the battlefield itself, is of course, the best source to use. I hope to make it to Gettysburg by next June, but I want to have a proper command of the material before I get there. 

For a quick video summary of the battle, I recommend a 2011 History Channel production, Gettysburg, which you can see in 6 parts on YouTube; Part 6 covers Picket`s Charge. It`s strong point is the importance of Union artillery and it`s advanced technology (pay especial attention to the canisters used in cannon when the Rebs got fairly close to the line).

So those Civil War bubble gum cards that I use to get as a kid were right! The colorful cartoon-like illustrations showed Yankee cannon balls blasting a half dozen Johnny Rebs to smithereens. This is how it really was! I`ll recommend Shelby Foote to you also for understanding; he`s a real Southern writer but steers clear of syrupy romanticizing, while maintaining a proper mix of this defining moment in our Nation`s History, peppered with intended, righteous, seasoned glory.

But can you imagine the range of emotions experienced by Olde Robert E. Lee as he watched the chivalric flower of his Confederacy wither away like dust, as he sadly peered through his military field glasses? How can you debunk the myth when pondering that?