PICKETT’S CHARGE – one of the first microhistories

Imagine wearing a wool uniform in 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, on a still and humid day, while carrying a rifle, ammunition, and a pack and walking uphill.  Add cannons’ roar, the whiz of bullets, the death of your comrades.  And, to complete the picture, litter the hillside with the corpses of those killed in the previous two days of battle.

Why are you there?  Because your generals, and your commander, General Pickett,  have told you this is the last chance for the Confederacy to win the War Between the States, and its freedom.   So you march up hill, in the heat, through the corpses, in a straight line, into the cannon and rifle fire while your companions drop around you.  It is a sense of duty and honor that we have great difficulty understanding today.

For those in the Union Army, at the top of the hill,  it is no less critical a day.  The Union soldiers have a stone wall to protect them, buildings behind them, and they hold the high ground.  Their equipment is better, too.  But the Rebs are tough, and determined, so there is great bloodshed on the hilltop, too.  About 3500 Union boys are killed.  About 7000 of the Confederates are also killed, on this terrible day.

Yet, in spite of the odds against them, the Rebs make it to the top of the hill.  And they break the Union line.  It is called “The High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”   Fortunately for the Union cause, extra troops arrive at that moment – and  push the Confederates back.

Pickett’s Charge has failed.  The Confederate Army retreats under cover of darkness that night.  The Civil War will continue for another year, but the South has lost.

Anyone who had relatives at Gettysburg, and who has walked the fields of battle — especially that of Pickett’s Charge — feels the power of the place.  In my case, I met and talked with a man who was showing his son the battlefield from Little Round Top.  They, as it turned out, were descendants of Georgia Confederate soldiers who fought there; but we shook hands as we left to continue our saunters.

George R. Stewart was the first Whole Earth author, but he was also an historian with a great interest in the Civil War.   His Uncle fought on the Peninsular Campaign, and left a journal which still carries in its words the scent of gunsmoke and blood.  Stewart himself, in his Army Ambulance Corps Days, bivouacked on the Gettysburg Battlefield.  Scholar-in-becoming that he was, he walked the field, and considered the course of the battle.  When he became an established writer, he decided to write about the Battle; and as a great believer that the microcosm reveals the macrocosm, he chose to focus on Pickett’s Charge. (Subtitled:  A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863.)

It is the detailed story of the few hours before, during, and after the Charge.  Told in an easy but precise style, it is a page-turner of a book.  In explaining the events of that short period, Stewart manages to present the essence of all battles and all wars in human history.

It is a remarkable work, now considered one of the most essential books to the understanding of the Civil War (and, in microcosm, all war).   Reprinted several times, it is one of the three Stewart books which have the greatest endurance.  (The others are Ordeal By Hunger and Earth Abides).

(Cornelius Ryan wrote The Longest Day in 1959.  It, too, is a micro-history,  so he and Stewart may share the honors of inventing the form.)

Here’s a Googlebooks site with more information:  http://books.google.com/books/about/Pickett_s_Charge.html?id=8LZiRttGlsEC

Stewart wrote the book in 1959, probably for the Centennial of the Civil War.  We’re discussing it here a little ahead of its time in the Stewart timeline of books, but that’s because next Wednesday, July 3, 2013, is the Sesquicentennial of Pickett’s Charge — its 150th Anniversary.  There will be a re-enactment, of course, but not on national park lands.  (And perhaps that is as it should be, because “re-enactments” don’t have corpses on the ground or real death — they are play, not war, and many feel that they diminish the real experience of such historical events.)

Since we are in the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I recommend that you find and read Stewart’s remarkable book.  We’re a long way from that period in history, but his work will help bring it to life and give you some understanding of the time.

You may also want to watch Ted Turner’s “Gettysburg.”  Pickett’s Charge is dramatically presented in the movie, in context with the entire Battle of Gettysburg.