The First Micro-History: Pickett’s Charge

Stewart had long been interested in Pickett’s Charge, which historians consider the turning point in the American Civil War.   Stewart’s uncle John was a soldier for the union army, who told stories of the Peninsular Campaign to his  nephew. During his army service, Stewart was in a bivouac on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where he began researching the site of Pickett’s Charge.  Finally, in the late 1950’s he decided to write about the Charge.

Pickett’s Charge has long been debated by historians, both in terms of its strategy and its data.  If you go to Gettysburg, and follow the path of the charge, you’ll understand the questions about strategy:  The Virginians under Pickett lined up and walked up a hill with no cover into intense fire from Union soldiers who had the shelter of a stone fence at the hilltop – a classic example of Napoleonic tactics.  But those tactics were developed when ordnance – cannons and muskets – were much less accurate, so soldiers had some chance under such conditions.  By the time Pickett sent his men up the hill, 50 years later, highly accurate rifles and cannons meant there would be far more casualties if soldiers kept their straight line battle formation.

The battle was later seen as heroic by some, foolish by others.  Stewart didn’t want to get into that argument; but he did want to make sure that the statistics and research sources were accurate before he wrote his book.  He discovered that much of the data was off – the oft-stated number of troops in the fight, for example, was based on an off-hand remark by Confederate General Longstreet (who opposed the Charge).   And the times of events, reported in an era before Standard Time, varied wildly.

Once Stewart was certain that he had found the correct data, he began to write.  Again, he decided to invent a new form of literature – the micro-history, in which a small detailed section of historical time is the entire subject of a work.  (Stewart may in fact have co-invented the micro-history, since D-Day: The Sixth of June was written the same year.)  Entitled Pickett’s Charge, the micro history begins at 3:00 AM on July 3, 1863.  It ends, except for two short chapters which discuss later events and some of the controversies, 272 pages later, at sunset on the same day.  Stewart includes several appendices which discuss flags, artillery, battle orders, the battlefield and so on.

One of his comments about the battlefield is telling, spotlighting his role as an author of place, and his belief in the need to study places when writing about them:  “The battlefield itself is an important document…”

Another comment, in the beginning of the work, stresses his idea of microcosm.  Most of his works, although set in one place and concerned with one set of events there, were written with the idea that the place is a microcosm for all places, and its events are microcosms for all human or natural events.  In this case, Stewart writes “In a sense, even, the charge may stand for all of human life.  Some time in the years, if not daily, must not each of us hear the command to rise and go forward, and cross the field, and go up against the guns?”

When I visited Gettysburg, and walked the field of Pickett’s Charge, I must admit to tears in my eyes.  Even if I didn’t agree with their cause, I was moved by the thought of those men walking up that exposed hill into killing fire  – they were men of honor, a sense of duty and honor which we don’t understand, most of us, today.

The book, George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge. A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, is one of three Stewart bookswhich still sell well.  (Earth Abides and Ordeal by Hunger are the others).  Civil War students, amateur and professional, consider the book a sine qua non for learning about the War, and especially Gettysburg.

It was the only book Stewart would write about an historical war.  But for the next decade he would leave fiction behind to write several more histories.