-- Robert E. Lee
No louder sound had ever been made by men in North America. Colonel Porter Alexander, age 27, returned his watch to his gray vest. It was seven minutes past one o'clock on a stifling hot Friday the third day of July 1863. The youthful colonel barked an order and the massed batteries of the Army of Northern Virginia opened with a roaring cloud of sulfur. Along the two-mile front at Seminary Ridge, as many as 170 Confederate cannon lobbed six- and 12-pound shot across the valley of death toward the east.
Along the opposite ridge, artillery men heaved powder and ball down Federal cannon. From Cemetery Ridge, over 200 Federal cannon replied. Red hot shot flew westward from the battlements of the Army of the Potomac.
Shot and shell whined across the valley criss-crossing the hot July sky with trails of smoke from hissing fuses. Batteries pounded each other across the one-mile wide valley. The ground trembled, dyed black with blood. Well over 30,000 men and boys wearing blue and gray had already fallen during two days of combat across the Pennsylvania countryside.
The cannonade rattled glass and cracked walls in the tiny village four miles north of the awful artillery duel. Citizens were huddled in damp storm cellars and beneath corn cribs as the bombardment uprooted their dead fathers and mothers. Ancient bones were unearthed where Rebel shot fell on the town graveyard atop Cemetery Hill on the far right center of the Federal line along Cemetery Ridge.
The stricken civilians caught between two armies and 170,000 men called their sleepy college town "Gettysburg."
On the field were 192 Confederate regiments of 55,000 men from 12 states facing 270 Union regiments of 75,000 Yankees from 18 states.
For over an hour the cannonade continued. Survivors would remain half-deaf all their days from the ungodly concussion. Farmers in rich Pennsylvania fields 140 miles away shook their heads. They could hear the distant thunder from Gettysburg and they looked to the sky for storm clouds. But the summer sky was clear.
Atop Seminary Ridge, the Old Man paced anxiously. All day he had watched for his troops in homespun uniforms dyed brown with butternut oil to assault the Federals across the valley. What could be delaying Lieutenant General Longstreet? Three times the white-bearded chief had trotted on his war-horse Traveller the full length of his lines for evidence of the advance. As was General Robert E. Lee's way when angry, his neck grew redder by the minute as Colonel Alexander's bombardment continued. The general's head and neck twitched nervously as always when struggling to control the temper so rarely seen.
One mile to the east, the hail of Confederate cannon landed long. Shot exploded behind Union breastworks down the far side of Cemetery Ridge. Rebel shells exploded well behind their targets: the batteries of Union cannon. Confederate cannon balls plowed into General Mead's headquarters at the Widow Leisure's house. Federal chief of staff, General Daniel Butterfield, was slightly wounded. Instead of softening the enemy guns, the exploding artillery rounds fell upon the Federal reserves and upon the horse-drawn ambulances. From burning hospital tents pitched between piles of amputated limbs sawed off wide-eyed men, the cries of the twice-wounded rose into the sky full of sulfur clouds.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, Colonel Alexander ordered his gray batteries to cease fire in response to slackening enemy fire. After only an hour of the cannon barrage, the Army of Northern Virginia was nearly out of artillery ammunition.
In the valley between the armies where 300,000 eyeballs burn and watered from the stinking smoke, the sickly yellow clouds rolled silently toward the boulder-covered Round Tops. Colonel Alexander stood nervously by his cannon. He penned an urgent dispatch to General Pickett: "If you are coming at all, you must come at once. I cannot give you proper support."
Lieutenant General James Longstreet -- "Old Pete" to his men -- conferred with George Pickett well behind Alexander's cannon.
Between the ridges a strange stillness lingered in the smoky valley. Old Pete nodded to Rebel General George Pickett, one-time captain in the United States 9th Infantry. The absolute bottom man at West Point, class of 1846, George Pickett shined in his polished boots and gold spurs. George Pickett would never have gotten into West Point at all had not his uncle, Andrew Johnston of Quincy, Illinois, pulled strings with his close friend -- a Springfield, Illinois, lawyer named Abe Lincoln. By Mr. Lincoln's influence, Virginia-born Pickett went to West Point on an Illinois appointment. Pickett and Gene Longstreet had known each other for many years. They had served together eight years earlier in the U.S. 8th Infantry at Fort Bliss. General Pickett's long hair was worn in perfumed ringlets and curls bounced as he hurried to his division. The dandy was a 38-year-old major general. His hour had come at last.
At Seminary Ridge, General Lee -- Number Two man at W Point, class of '29 -- remained edgy. He waited for his general Longstreet, Pickett, and Hill to assault Cemetery Ridge. Neck red with anger, Lee was exhausted. A week of dysentery and acute diarrhea had left him weak, pale, and sorely irritable. Lee had been out of sorts since his first coronary attack only four months earlier when a serious sore throat was accompanied by severe chest pains. His face, always ruddy, had been even redder than usual during the week ending April 6th when he had been confined to an ambulance. The terrible chest pain lasted until April 16th, only two and a half months ago.
Along the slopes of Seminary Ridge, men in butternut began falling in. They formed two parallel lines, each over a mile long. The parade forming across Seminary Ridge warmed Lee's dull spirits.
Division commanders, Generals George Pickett, Dorsey Pender, and Johnston Pettigrew (substituting for wounded Henry Heth) straightened their troops. Men and boys stood shoulder to shoulder in the blinding sunshine.
On command, some 14,000 infantrymen rested their heavy rifles with the weapons' butts between their feet, many bare. With bayonets fixed, the Enfield, Springfield, or Mississippi rifles were longer than all but the tallest soldier. Regiment upon regiment executed the "Load in Nine Times" maneuver: (1) Take out a paper cartridge with its 120 grains of powder behind one, thimble-size .58 calibre bullet; (2) Rip open the paper cartridge with the teeth -- hence the blackened lips on the swollen corpses; (3) Pour the black powder down the rifle barrel; (4) Drop the lead Minie ball into the barrel; (5) Drive the bullet down with the rifle's iron ramrod; (6) Reseat the ramrod into its sockets, called thimbles, along the barrel; (7) Ear back the hammer above the iron nipple at the breech; (8) Press a tiny percussion cap onto the hollow nipple; and, (9) Fire! The last step must wait until the infantrymen were closer to the enemy whom General Lee called "those people."
The weapons were primed. The men stood tensely under the terrible sun behind Seminary Ridge. Close by, Robert Lee looked on, tired, impatient, and proud.
Beyond the crest of Seminary Ridge, the valley was quiet. Across the valley, 40,000 blueclads waited. Their chief waited: Major General George Gordon Meade -- "Old Snapping Turtle" to his Federals. Mounted astride his horse Baldy, which would be wounded in battle four times, General Meade -- West Point, '35 -- may have been thinking of those days 70 years earlier when his father had ridden at the side of another General Lee to help George Washington crush the Whiskey Rebellion. That old Virginia patriot was General Hen "Light Horse" Lee. Now, Henry Lee's youngest son wore three gold stars on his gray collar and he paced Seminary Ridge in ill temper.
The Army of the Potomac crouched behind low stone walls. They tensely waited for the Rebel assault sure to follow the 90-minute cannonade. At the extreme Federal right, men lay low atop Cemetery Hill among the uprooted bones of the long-dead and the fly-covered cadavers of their newly dead messmates. Nervous boys wise-cracked about the ancient stone archway at the entrance to the Gettysburg town cemetery. The gate bore an inscription on the cold stone flecked with bullet and shrapnel holes: "ALL PERSONS FOUND USING FIREARMS IN THESE GROUNDS WILL BE PROSECUTED WITH THE UTMOST RIGOR OF THE LAW."
Along the Union line, eyes squinted into the afternoon sun high above the Confederate lines. Something was astir.
Behind the long brown line, General Pickett shouted to his regiments: "Up men! Don't forget that you are from old Virginia!" At the head of one brigade was Brigadier General Lewis Armistead from North Carolina. General Armistead set his gray hat atop the point of his uplifted saber so his men could see it and could follow him. Before going over the top, General Armistead took off his ring and gave it to his friend George Pickett. Armistead asked Pickett to give the ring to Sallie Corbell, Pickett's young and beautiful fiancee should Armistead fall in the grim valley.
The ranks opened as they advanced between the line of cooling cannon. They closed up past the cannon and continued into the calm valley.
Thirteen hundred yards away, one long gasp rose from behind the low stone walls along Cemetery Ridge. The blueclads had never seen such a grand Confederate parade. In the valley, 14,000 Southerners were arrayed in two lines, each line one and one-half miles long. The two Rebel lines were separated by 150 yards. In the blinding sun, the hot breeze filled 47 regimental battle flags from the Army of Northern Virginia. So quiet was the valley that the Federals could hear the snapping of the Confederate banners: 19 bearing Virginia regimental colors, 14 from North Carolina, 7 from Alabama, 4 from Mississippi, and 3 regimental ensigns from Tennessee. In the calm afternoon, the Federals could hear the clatter of 14,000 Rebel canteens, many made from cedar wood because the Confederacy had no tin.
They marched in two lines across the valley with three-quarters of a mile separating the opposing armies. On the Confederate right, the brigades of Generals Richard Garnett and James Kemper led the brigades of Generals Wilcox and Armistead. Back in the "Old Army," Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox was a groomsman at the wedding of his old friend Ulysses S. Grant. Brigadier General Kemper's grandfather was a colonel on the staff of George Washington.
The lines wheeled slightly to their left to cross the quiet valley's diagonal en route to the Yankee entrenchments on the high ground. On the Confederate left were the four brigades led by Colonels Robert Mayo, J.K. Marshall, and Birkett Fry, and General Joe Davis (the President's nephew), all from Heth's Division. Behind them in the Confederate center were the brigades of General James Lane and Colonel W. Lee Lowrance from Pender's Division.
In the valley, both lines turned a quarter turn to the left to cross the dirt road running between Gettysburg to the north and Emmittsburg toward the south. This put the Confederate far right flank within the sights of the Federals on Little Round Top on the southern tip of Cemetery Ridge. Behind the Rebel lines, a brass band played as the brigades of Kemper, Garnett, and Armistead marched off.
For two hundred yards, the two lines of Southerners advanced in perfect parade order. Hardly a shot greeted them.
"Fire!" was the hoarse cry atop Cemetery Ridge, behind those low, stone walls.
A wall of white sulfur smoke rolled down from the Union line as Federal cannon opened along the mile-long crest.
The Southerners in front wavered and dropped. Union cannoneers were firing double loads of the dread "canister": gallon size cans of iron marbles. But the bloodied butternut lines marched dogged forward even though men were falling ten yards from where the severed arms and legs were bouncing upon the red earth.
Above the boom of cannon, 40,000 Yankee rifles opened with the crack crack crack of dry twigs snapping.Every fourth Confederate dropped upon the wet field. Some rolled on the warm ground and clutched hysterically at emptied sleeves and at emptied trouser legs.
In the iron hailstorm, the wavering lines closed up and marched up the hillside.
A roar of musketry plowed into the Rebel right flank. Men fell with thumb-size holes in their backs and exit wounds in their chests the size of a fist. They were raked by flanking fire from behind and from the side where riflemen had opened along the Round Tops.
Not since last December had so many men committed such grand, mass suicide. Then, it had been Fredericksburg, Virginia when Union Generals Burnside and Sumner had sent human waves up the bloody hill toward the Confederate entrenchments. In one afternoon, 13,000 Federals dropped like rows of bloody corn.
"Fredericksburg," a Federal whispered through a crack in the stone wall close to his powder-blackened mouth. He remembered. Down the line, another blueclad looked over the wall into hell and shouted, "Fredericksburg!"
By now, the two Rebel lines had merged into one line with grey gaps where whole regiments of mothers' sons had been mowed down by canister as if by a red hot wind. The Confederates shrieked the ferocious Rebel Yell born of the Confederacy's Celtic heritage. They stormed Cemetery Ridge and the line of hot Federal cannon. Leading them was old Armistead, his bullet-riddled hat now a gray rag atop his flashing saber. These men from the land of cotton were close enough to hear the blood-thirsty shouts from the Yankees behind their walls:
Climbing up Cemetery Ridge, the Rebels took waves of canister and a wall of Minie balls directly in their faces. Federal flanking fire ripped them open from the Round Tops to their right.
Brigadier General Armistead led 150 survivors over the Yankees' stone wall as he shouted, "Give them cold steel, boys!" Then he dropped into a pool of his own blood and bowels between two enemy cannon. He and his boys had made it to the top of the Union position. Down the line somewhere, a solitary North Carolina boy stumbled over the wall to plant his regimental colors between the Federal cannon. The men in blue held their fire out of bloody respect and a terrible pity.
From his post 1,700 yards away, General Lee could barely see his men enter a mile-wide wall of smoke.
Gradually, General Lee was able to distinguish shadows of gray and butternut brown running from the smoking hill in the distance. They stumbled down the hill and fell over the torn bodies and the dismembered limbs of their fine parade.
Pickett's Charge was over.
The long gray line crumbled. Muskets were thrown to the red ground. Into the valley 14,000 men had marched gamely. Now, fewer than 7,000 ran or crawled back.
The survivors struggled back toward Seminary Ridge. They were met behind the ridge by Generals Pickett and Longstreet, and by the sick commanding general. There was no covering fire from Porter Alexander's Rebel cannon. The timber chests of shot were empty.
Across the valley, the firestorm of molten lead stopped. Along Cemetery Ridge, the Union guns ceased fire.
"Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" rang between the ridges.
The valley heard its own song. The wounded cried "Water, Water!" in the frenzied thirst which comes in nauseating waves from sudden hemorrhage. Other bodies were perfectly still with their thin faces tranquil and calm. Drying eyeballs looked to the July sky so far away. Around two years worth of campfires, how often had these eyes blinked back boys' tears when some grizzled Rebel veteran filled the night with the sad sweet melody "Lorena," the Confederate soldier's most beloved ballad:
Between the cooling Federal cannon, General Armistead lay dying. In the arms of a Yankee cannoneer, the bleeding Rebel asked that his pocket watch and his spurs be given to his life-long friend Union General Winfield Hancock, to be sent south to the Widow Armistead. The Union man nodded. Armistead smiled and died among the bodies of 42 Rebels who had made the climb with him.
The sweating survivors hobbled down the backside of Seminary. Ridge. Old, old men would one day remember how the little stream behind the ridge flowed brown with blood where thousands of men and boys bathed fresh wounds in the cool water.
Across the valley, Northerners looked down their hill at 30 Rebel battleflags lying among 5,675 dead and dying Confederates cut down within thirty minutes. General Garnett's brigade lost 948 of 1,459 men who joined the charge. General Richard Garnett, West Point '41, died with his men, his riddled body being interred in an unmarked, mass grave. The 18th Virginia and the 47th and 13th North Carolina regiments were all but exterminated on the slopes Cemetery Ridge.
These shattered bodies brought the number of Southerners to fall at Gettysburg within three days to at least 22,000 killed, wounded and missing. Six Confederate generals were dead, 3 captured, and wounded. Eleven colonels were dead with another 7 missing. Of 35 officers above the rank of captain who had gone over the top in Pickett's division, only one was not bleeding.
Behind Seminary Ridge, George Pickett was devastated by his stunning defeat. General Lee, his red face stricken, comforted his general with the perfumed hair. Lee sadly mourned, "It's all my fault."
The shattered Confederate line braced behind its battlements for a countercharge sure to come. They dared not send the stretcher-bearers down the hillside to fetch their broken friends who still cried, "Water! For God's sake, water!"Behind Cemetery Ridge, General Meade sat astride Baldy. He had no plans to attack the bloodied Rebels. He did not have to win at Gettysburg; he had only not to lose. Nearby, a Federal band struck up "Hail to the Chief" for General Meade. The brass band drowned out the pitiful cries which rose from the far side of the stone wall.
The following night in torrential rains and high water with mud up to the axles of the wagons, Robert E. Lee would lead his bleeding army out of Pennsylvania and the Confederacy's last invasion of the enemy's heartland. Confederate ambulance wagons would form a train of misery seventeen miles long between Gettysburg and Maryland.
Nothing would be left but a long retreat through 21 more months of ferocious bloodletting.
The pursuit would end in Virginia at an obscure widening in the dirt road called Appomattox.
"My heart and thoughts will always be with this army," General Lee scrawled in a long-hand note to young Jeb Stuart, the brave 30-year-old general of Confederate cavalry. He dated the dispatch Wednesday, December 9, 1863.
A freezing fog hugged the banks of the Rapidan River where the Army of Northern Virginia shivered in winter camp near Orange Court House, Virginia, 50 miles northeast of Charlottesville.
General Lee sat in his command tent with its spartan fixtures: single wooden table, three chairs, a cracker box, and a cot with two blankets. He sat with Colonel Walter Taylor and Colonel Chax Marshall, his sole administrative staff.
No one could really be intimate with the commanding general other than his family in Richmond. Even 34 years ago at West Point, Cadet Lee was so elegant and so guardedly austere with his emotions that his classmates dubbed him "The Marble Model."
The exhausted chief was particularly fond of Walter Taylor from Norfolk. Only 25 years old, Taylor had been promoted to lieutenant colonel two months ago and was adjutant general for Lee's legion. Colonel Taylor's mission was to steer General Lee through the paper burden of administering an army of 70,000 men when all three corps were operating together.
General Lee sat quietly, his ruddy face dark with continuous grief. The last two months in Virginia had only added disappointment to his anguish after Gettysburg. The October 1863 campaign at Bristoe Station, the November debacle at Kelly's Ford, and the dry hole of the Mine Run operation just completed had accomplished nothing except to plant more hungry Confederates in unmarked graves by the side of the road. During the five months since fleeing Pennsylvania General Lee had suffered his second and third heart attacks. His chest pain creased his dark face and was written in his brooding eyes.
On September 20th, the chest and back pains were so severe that General Lee was confined to an ambulance until October 10th. His sore chest was then free from angina pain for only three weeks. A third coronary seizure on October 31, 1863, had laid him up in ambulance until November 5th, hardly a month ago. Four months ago to the day, General Lee had tendered his written resignation to President Jefferson Davis.
President Davis declined to accept the August resignation. But Robert E. Lee was now old at age 56. His hair and beard were completely white. The last two months of futile engagements and continuous chest pain had taken a terrible toll on the solemn general.
The Army of Northern Virginia had been pursued by General Meade who slowly pressed them out of Pennsylvania. The Federal army was spread out near Culpeper, Virginia. On October 9th, the Confederate's III Corps led by Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill -- "A.P." to headquarters, but "Little Powell" to his troops -- marched from Orange toward Madison Court House. General Richard Ewell -- "Old Bald Head" to his boys who loved their eccentric bug-eyed commander -- joined the march with his II Corps.
Both Rebel corps reached Culpeper two days later as Baldy Ewell rode strapped awkwardly to his saddle. At Groveton in August 1862, a Yankee bullet had blown off Lieutenant General Ewell's leg. Jeb Stuart's cavalry covered the Confederate right flank. The cavalry of General Fitzhugh Lee, Robert Lee's nephew, provided the rearguard. General Meade and his blue columns were in motion northward just ahead.
By early afternoon, Wednesday, October 14, 1863, A.P. Hill was on the high ground at Bristoe Station. Little Powell could see the enemy regiments marching for the railhead at Manassas Junction.
General Hill saw his chance to cripple the Federals. He opened with his cannon. When III Corps saw their Little Powell wearing his familiar red "battle shirt," they knew it was time. Three brigades rushed the Union rear.
But Little Powell had been lured into a deadly trap. Concealed Federal guns opened along the railroad. The Confederate brigades of Generals Cooke and Kirkland were ripped into a bleeding heap. After a brief but fierce clash, 1,361 Rebels lay dead and dying upon the rail tracks. Generals John Cooke (a Harvard graduate engineer) and William Kirkland (a West Point dropout) fell with their men.
Another 520 Southerners were captured. Brigadier General Cooke was the brother of Jeb Stuart's wife.
By October 17th, the Army of Northern Virginia was back in winter camp along the banks of the Rappahannock. On October 31st, General Lee was abed with his third coronary attack. He coold not take horse until November 5th. Then, in great pain, he inspected a grand cavalry review staged by Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station, six miles east of Culpeper.
General Lee knew Brandy Station. Here, five months earlier, his son Rooney Lee fell wounded in a June clash. Rooney, age26, remained a prisoner of war. Rooney's beautiful young wife, Charlotte, was on her deathbed near Richmond. Rooney had married Charlotte Wickham, a distant cousin, at Shirley Plantation in May 1859 in the same great hall of the Lee ancestral home where General Lee's parents were married.Saturday, November 7th, one month ago, a Federal force had been spied at Kelly's Ford five miles downriver from the Confederate camp along the frigid Rappahannock. III Corps and A.P. Hill were upriver to the west. Rappahannock Bridge downriver was held Ewell's II Corps with grim-faced Jubal Early's troops dug-in at the bridge. "Old Jube" to his boys was 46, a confirmed bachelor, a Viking in battle, a former prosecuting attorney, and graduate number 18 from the Point's class of '37. Six feet tall, stooped by crippling arthritis, General Early was known for his habit of turning his perpetual tobacco chaw over and over in his mouth when he was agitated.
Old Jube had good reason to fuss with his chaw that bloody Saturday afternoon. A fierce Federal attack had crushed Early's position and both Rappahannock Bridge and Kelly's Ford had fallen to waves of blueclad infantry. By nightfall, the bloodied butternut columns were retreating south from the river toward Culpeper. They left 2,023 men behind. Of those losses, 1,674 were sacrificed by General Early at the bridge.
For two weeks, the graybacks shivered beside the freezing river Then, on Thursday, November 26th, Union infantry columns were in motion along the Rapidan River. General Lee saw a chance to strike General Meade. II and III Corps advanced to cut the Federals off and to protect the Rebel right flank.
Next day, blood flowed all afternoon at Locust Church, 14 miles east of Culpeper. The fire did not slacken until darkness. Upon the cold ground were 545 Southerners, motionless.
On the 28th of November, Federals and Confederates were camped along Mine Run Creek north of Verdiersville in freezing rain.
When the Federals refused to climb out of their works on Tuesday, December 1st, General Lee said of General Meade to his field officers, "They must be attacked!" Two Confederate divisions then crunched upon frozen ground all night through the thickets to turn the Union left and to roll up the long blue line. During the nighttime march, it had been so cold that water froze in the cedar canteens of the Southern infantry. The grand offensive to crush General Meade once and for all was set for daybreak.
But dawn on Wednesday, December 2nd, found the Union entrenchments deserted. While the Rebels were marching all night, General Meade had been moving his troops northward.
General Lee had been sorely disappointed. The two months from Bristoe Station to Mine Run had cost 4,255 Confederate casualties. All for nothing.
General Lee sighed toward Colonel Marshall, "I am too old to command this army. We should never have permitted those people to get away."
"It was the weather, General," Colonel Marshall consoled his anguished chief.
"Perhaps," General Lee shrugged.
"At least, General, you will be home in Richmond for Christmas this year."
"Yes, Colonel." The officer rose painfully from his hard chair. He still had chest pain this December 9th.
In his blue greatcoat and slouch hat, General Lee led Colonel Marshall into the overcast morning by the river. Colonel Taylor joined them. Outside, an orderly had Traveller saddled and ready beside a mounted escort of cavalry. The two staff officers and their chief mounted.
The little caravan turned southeast toward Richmond. After a short ride, they planned to meet the train for the trip by rail to the capital city of the Confederate States of America. The Old Man called it "taking the cars."
As the escort and General Lee rode slowly through camp, little clusters of thin hungry men stood silently beside small fires while they huddled to keep warm. When General Lee passed, not a head remained covered. The weary general on the great gray horse belonged to them, and the ragged boys to him. The affection ran deep in these sunken, pale faces for their general whom they lovingly called Uncle Robert or Marse Robert behind his back.
Lifting his hat to his tattered men, the commanding general disappeared into the snowy trees. Battalions of homesick boys blinked wet eyes toward the back of their Uncle Robert, their Robert E. Lee, General, the Army of Northern Virginia.
Savage, Douglas. The Court Martial of Robert E. Lee: a novel. Warner Books, Inc.
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