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In Their Words: Pickett's Charge

Edited by Diana Loski
Pickett's Charge: A Scene from the Gettysburg Cyclorama (Author Photo)
Pickett's Charge: A Scene from the Gettysburg Cyclorama (Author Photo)

Pickett’s Charge is perhaps America’s most storied battle, where men grappled for the future of the nation on a summer’s afternoon in 1863.  Tragic and epic, the fight has all the ingredients of the worst that humanity can inflict:  heroism and cowardice, gore and fear, death and destruction that assaulted all five senses to the extreme – it is the epitome of human suffering and the cost of war.  In their own words, some of the combatants – from just before the fight to its aftermath – share what they experienced on Gettysburg’s last day:

Our chaplain asked us to join him in prayer, and all of us knelt with him on the ground.  He prayed for us, fervently, for all of us, and most beseechingly for those to whom it was appointed to die this day; but most touchingly of all was the remembrance of the dear ones in our distant homes, who we knew, were at this hour anxiously thinking of us and mingling their prayers with  ours.  He ended and turned away, weeping.” 1

--Dr.William H. Taylor, 19th Virginia

“The day was intensely hot, and lying in the sun we suffered greatly from the heat.” 2

– Christopher Smith, 4th US Artillery, Battery A (Cushing’s Battery)

“The silence seemed to grow more and more intense.  Bang!  Bang!  Two signal guns sent shot into our lines…Along our whole front…a hundred and forty five War Dogs opened their brazen throats…Had all the demons of the infernal regions let loose they could scarcely have excelled what their intelligent pupil man had here produced for peopling those lower regions with souls unfitted to enter the gates…It seemed that all the devils in hell were let loose and were holding high carnival over us.” 3

--Daniel Bond, 1st Minnesota

“A shell exploded…a handful of earth mixed with blood and brains struck my shoulder.” 4  

- - Col. Joseph Mayo, 3rd Virginia

“The earth seemed to rise up under the concussion, the air was filled with missiles, and the noise and din were so furious and overwhelming as well as continuous that one had to scream to his neighbor lying beside him to be heard at all.  The constant roar of nearly four hundred cannon on both sides, with the explosion of the shells and frequently the bursting of a caisson wagon, was terrific beyond description.  Men could be seen, especially among the artillery, bleeding at both ears from concussion…” 5

  -- George Clark, Wilcox Alabama Brigade

 “In front of my company I was watching the struggles of a wounded artillery horse, when a shell whizzed over my head and struck behind me.  Seeing a peculiar expression upon the countenance of an officer who was looking back, I also glanced around and saw a most shocking spectacle.  The heavy missile descended six feet behind me and ploughed through the bodies of Morris and Jackson of my own company.  Poor fellows!  They were devoted friends and lay side by side on their blankets.   And side by side they were ushered into eternity.” 6

-- Randolph A. Shotwell, 8th Virginia

“A hostile shell hit William Church and burst, causing almost instant death.  Among all the bodies that I had seen on this gory field, his was the most horribly mangled.” 7

-- Ralph Sturtevant, 13th Vermont              

“From the opposite ridge, three-fourths of a mile away, a lime of skirmishers sprang lightly out of the woods, and with intervals well kept moved rapidly down into the open fields, closely followed by a line of battle, then by another, and by yet a third.  Both sides watched this never-to-be-forgotten scene…Gibbon’s division, which was to stand the brunt of the assault, looked with admiration on the different lines of Confederates, marching forward with easy, swinging step, and the men were heard to exclaim, Here they come!  Here they come!” 8

– Major Edmund Rice, Hall’s Brigade

“The conflict was tremendous but I had seen no wavering in all our line.  Wondering how long the Rebel ranks, deep though they were, could stand our sheltered volleys…the larger portion of Webb’s Brigade there by the group of trees and the Angle of the wall were breaking, and without orders or reason, with no hand lifted to check them, was falling back a fear-stricken flock of confusion.  The fate of Gettysburg hung on a spider’s single thread!" 9

– Frank Haskell, aide to General Gibbon. 

“General Garnett’s black war horse came galloping toward us with a huge gash on his right shoulder, struck by a piece of shell.  The [riderless] horse, in its mad flight jumped over Captain Campbell and me.” 10

– James Clay, 18th VA        

“On [they] advanced until, having reached close range of the enemy’s protected infantry, withering volleys of musketry, grape, double-charged canister, shot and shell shattered and mutilated as fine a body of Southern heroes as ever trod a battlefield.  Still, after practical annihilation, the remnant of these glorious Confederates kept going forward.” 11

– Captain J. B. Turney, 1st Tennessee

“My last round of canister was used when the enemy got possession of Cushing’s guns, and some were rushing to take mine.  I saw one officer waving his sword and calling his men to ‘take that gun’ just as I shouted the command to ‘fire’….My guns were dragged behind the crest…from which we opened fire with two guns…I was on the crest in a moment, after my guns had been pulled back and in that instant I saw [General] Webb behind Cushing’s guns, surrounded by a number of officers and men…A great many men and officers too were running away as fast as legs could carry them, and had been for two or three minutes.  James Plunkett, a Vermonter, attached to my battery, fought and cursed them and finally I saw him hit one fellow over the head with a coffee pot.” 12

– Andrew Cowan, commander, Cowan’s Battery

“This road known as the Emmettsburg [sic] Pike, had a post and rail fence on either side; the first I ordered the men to rush against and push down, which they did, but having to run out of the road they did not succeed in a like attempt on the second, and seeing that we were losing time, I climbed over on the right and my men were following me rapidly.  I had advanced ten yards or more towards the works when I was shot down; the men who had gotten over returned to and laid down in the Pike, as did the entire regiment.” 13

– Major J. McLeod Carter, 7th North Carolina

“We fired directly into the rebel flank and advanced a distance to the right of a thousand yards, and continued the charge until Pickett’s Division had mainly disappeared, a great portion being killed, wounded, or captured.” 14

– Chandler M. Russell, 16th Vermont

“I think I was shot from my horse about the instant that the general rout began.  I know that I was near enough to the enemy’s line to observe the features and expressions on the faces of the men in front of me, and I thought I observed and could identify the soldier who shot me.  Quickly after I fell, a Federal officer with several men took possession of me, placed me on a blanket, and started to carry me, when some of my men came up and, firing across my body, recaptured me and carried me in the same blanket to the rear.” 15

-- General James Kemper,  Pickett’s Division

“The effect was marvelous.  The right of Pickett seemed to melt away, and what with our flank fire and that in front, men could not stand it, they that were still alive and unwounded dropped their arms and rushed, some to the rear, and some into our lines.” 16

– Frank Clark, 16th VT

“All around us on either side as far back as we could see not a man was standing.  All were dead or dying.” 17   

-- Randolph A. Shotwell, 8th Virginia

“A piece struck an old German soldier, who was number two at the gun...I jumped from my horse, bent down by him, and called him by name.  The only audible reply was 'water'.  I called for a canteen, placed it to his lips.  He took one swallow and was dead...Just before nightfall, and after the cannonading had ceased, I got the men to dig a grave on the north side of that stone wall.  We wrapped the old soldier in his blanket and buried him as tenderly as we could.” 18

--Lieutenant Augustin Parsons, Battery A, New Jersey Light Artillery

 “The field here was thickly covered with the dead and wounded of both the gray and the blue…The moanings and imprecations for water and assistance were hard to endure, impossible to but faintly describe the horrid scenes of a battlefield just after a battle is over.” 19

– Ralph Sturtevant, 13th Vermont

“The stench on the battlefield was something indescribable, it would come up as if in waves and when at its worst the breath would stop in the throat; the lungs could not take it in, and a sense of suffocation would be experienced.  We would cover our faces tightly with our hands and turn the back toward the breeze and retch and gasp for breath.” 20

-- Joseph.W. Muffly, 148th PA

“I never saw dead and wounded men lay so thick.  From a space about seventy feet back to the opposite side of the pike you could walk over the dead bodies of men.” 21

– John M. Dunn, 1st Delaware.

“We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men.” 22

– Capt. J.T. James, 11th VA

“My spirit-crushed, wearied, cut-up people…with all the graves I have left behind me [I feel] all the wretchedness and misery this fated campaign has made.” 23

– George E. Pickett, in a letter to his fiancée, July 23, 1863.

Sources: The 8th, 11th, 18th, and 19th Virginia Files, Gettysburg National Military Park (hereafter GNMP).     56th Virginia File, GNMP.  13th Vermont File, GNMP.  16th Vermont File, GNMP.  Catton, Bruce, ed.  The Battle of Gettysburg by Frank A. Haskell.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958.  Clark, Frank.  “Address to the Loyal Legion of Cedar Rapids, IA.” Oct. 27, 1910, 16th Vermont File, GNMP.  Codori Farm File, GNMP.  Hess, Earl J.  Pickett’s Charge:  The Last Attack at Gettysburg .  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.  Ladd, David, ed.  The Bachelder Papers .  Vol. II, Dayton, OH:  Morningside Press, 1995 (Reprint, first published in three volumes from April 12, 1886 to December 22, 1894).  Mayo, Col. Joseph. “Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.”  3rd Virginia File, GNMP.  Muffly, Josepsh Wendel, ed.  The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers .  Des Moines, IA: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904.  Rollins, Richard, ed.  Pickett’s Charge!  Eyewitness Accounts .  Redondo Beach, CA: Rank and File Publications, 1994.  Stewart, George R.  Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 .  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1959.  Trinque, Bruce A.  “The Confederate Battle Flags in the July 3 Charge.”  Gettysburg Magazine no. 21.  Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, June 1999.

End Notes:

1.  19th Virginia File, GNMP. 

2.  56th Virginia File, GNMP.  Although the soldier who  made this remark was from the 4th US Artillery,  Battery A (Cushing’s Battery), his quote is  found  in the 56th VA File in the GNMP Library.

3.  Rollins, p. 132. 

4.  Mayo, pp. 3290330. 

5.  Rollins, p. 199. 

6.  8th Virginia File, GNMP.

7.  13th Vermont File, GNMP. 

8.  Rollins, pp. 224-225. 

9.  Catton (Haskell), p. 90. 

10. 18th Virginia File, GNMP. 

11.  Trinque, Gettysburg Magazine no 21, p. 114. 

12.  Ladd (Bachelder Papers), vol. 2, p. 1157. 

13.  Trinque, Gettysburg Magazine no. 21, p. 117. 

14.  16th Vermont File, GNMP. 

15.  Ladd (Bachelder Papers), vol. 2, pp. 1190-1191. 

16.  Clark, “Address to the Loyal Legion of Cedar Rapids, IA, Oct. 27, 1910.  16th Vermont File, GNMP. 

17.  8th Virginia File, GNMP. 

18.  Rollins, pp. 324-325.

19.  13th Vermont File, GNMP. 

20.  Muffly, p. 466. 

21.  Hess, p. 251. 

22.  11th Virginia File, GNMP.  This quote is also found   on the wayside marker at the spot where General   Lee went out to meet the returning troops from   Pickett’s Charge.

23.  Stewart, p. 274.       

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