American Road trip, Brian Moore, Canister shot, cannon, Civil War, Confederate, General Hancock, General Lee, General Longstreet, General Meade, Gettysburg, Novel, Pickett's Charge, Rebel, Rifles, Spangler's wood, The Angle, Union, Writing, Yankee
As I woke on this my final morning in Gettysburg, I knew that today was not only the end of my time here at the battlefield; it was also on this day 151 years ago that the Army of Northern Virginia was about ready for what they hoped would be their final, and ultimately successful, assault on the Union forces still entrenched behind their lines on Cemetery Ridge.
I walked out onto the battlefield at Cemetery Ridge, only a short stroll from my motel, and from my position on the ridge looked out over what was the entire battlefield all the way to the Round Tops at the far end of the field.
It was 7a.m.
There was a mist hanging over the field as the sun worked to burn off the early morning dew. In my mind, I could see the troops on either side stirring in the early morning light. The sounds of soldiers cooking what breakfast they had, the pickets (sentries) on both sides watching, and in some cases calling greetings to each other across the fields, and, of course, the sound of the wounded, many of whom had spent the night in agony between the lines.
The ground would have been littered with the dead and the dying. All along the line, there were smashed guns, destroyed wagons, dead horses and wounded soldiers calling out for help.
With that vista before him, General Lee knew that he had only enough supplies of men and ammunition for one more push. This was the final day that he could stay here. If he did not succeed today, he would have to retreat back to Virginia and shorten his supply lines.
With this in mind, and with the carnage of the last two days everywhere to be seen, the commanding General outlined his plans for July 3rd 1863.
General Lee’s attempts to break the Union lines, first on the right, and then on the left, had both failed. General Longstreet advised, once more, moving around the Union lines, getting between General Meade and Washington, finding ‘good ground’ and forcing the Federals to attack the Confederates where they would have the advantages of entrenching and forming a defensive line.
This would, Longstreet told his commanding General, ‘force the enemy to smash themselves against our defensive walls’.
In hindsight, this seemed a very sensible plan. But General Lee had other ideas. The good General could see that the Union strength was strongest at both ends of their line: at Culp’s Hill and on the Round Tops. Therefore, he surmised that the centre of the line must be the weakest point. There would be no movement around the Yankees; the army would attack the centre and split the Union line in two, forcing them to retreat.
This plan was not without its merits. The Union line was indeed at its weakest in the centre and the Confederates had General Pickett’s division of over 5,000 fresh troops, which had yet to see any fighting at Gettysburg.
Lee also ordered what was the biggest bombardment of the war, so far, when he placed over 150 cannon so that they could concentrate their fire on, this, the centre of the enemy lines.
Two more divisions were added to Pickett’s, bringing the total to over 12,500 troops ready for the assault.
While General Longstreet would have command of the operation, he was not at all happy with this plan.
As the troops began to assemble in the woods facing the Union line and the artillery rumbled into place, General Longstreet tried one more time to persuade Lee to rethink his plans and to move around the Federal line.
However, General Lee was set on the course he had chosen and, with this decision made, the artillery prepared to fire.
On the Federal side, as the morning dragged on and the heat of the sun once again beat fiercely on both armies, Union General Hancock watched as the Confederates placed their cannon. He had just over 5,000 men in his position behind a stone wall. It was a strong position and General Hancock like many of the officers on the Union side felt that today, July 3rd, after all the death and destruction of the last two days, would be quiet.
He was about to be proved wrong.
I left Cemetery Ridge and drove to Spangler’s Woods where Pickett’s Division prepared to make their assault 151 years ago. The tree line here stretches almost from one corner of the battlefield to the other and behind these trees, hidden from the Federals on Cemetery Ridge, the Confederates prepared for their final push, this final offensive, that would cut the Union army in two and win the battle.
Here, all along the tree line, the artillery was ready and as I walked out into the field between the two lines, there was that strange silence again.
From Spangler’s Wood, the ground looks flat and even all the way across to the Union lines but it’s not; there are a series of dips to negotiate as well as the Emmitsburg Road, which with its post and rail fencing would also have to be crossed.
I could clearly see the Union lines and I knew that all along this ridge were placed many cannon and over 5,000 rifles ready and waiting behind the stone wall.
The bombardment began.
All 150 cannon fired. The sound of these guns were heard, it is said, as far away as Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The cannonade continued for over one hour as the Rebels fired shell after shell into the Union position.
The Union guns at first did not return fire as they now knew that this bombardment meant only one thing…that ‘Johnny Reb’ would soon be on his way and they needed to conserve their ammunition for the onslaught that was about to begin.
The Federal soldiers hugged the ground or looked for whatever little cover they could find against the exploding shells and the rain of metal that were now falling amongst them.
Men were cut to pieces as razor-sharp fragments from the exploding shells tore into them while they tried to shelter from the fire.
As suddenly as the shelling started it stopped and when the Yankees got to their feet and looked out over the battlefield, towards Seminary Ridge, they were amazed at what they saw.
As I stood in the middle of the field, half-way between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge, I looked back towards the tree line and imagined the scene that was about to unfold over 151 years ago on this day at this very moment.
Extending for a distance of one mile, the Confederate Divisions stepped out of the woods: some 12,500 men following their flags and their regiment bands stepped out into the open ground.
One Union officer, who had been wounded during the bombardment, said ‘ I could not believe my eyes, the line of grey stretched out before us, they marched as if they were on parade in Richmond. I could see their battle flags, I could hear their drums and fifes and I could see their bayonets glinting in the sun, this magnificent line of brave men.’
The Confederates marched upright, standing shoulder to shoulder; their officers out in front leading their men on with their swords pointing the way.
As the Yankee soldiers looked on in awe, the Union artillery began to fire.
All along the Union line, from left to right, the cannon fired into the advancing line of Confederate infantry. Holes started to appear in the long grey line as the shells began to take their toll.
With each exploding shell, scores of Rebels were cut down; when each shell smashed holes in the line, the soldiers calmly moved together to fills these gaps. They did not run or look for cover, they just moved together to recover the line and march on into the storm.
When they reached where I was now standing, in the first dip, they must have thought that they would have had some cover from the Union guns. Unfortunately, the Yankee cannon on either end of the line had a clear view of the Rebels in this shallow trench and, as their guns fired, the slaughter continued.
One Rebel officer who was wounded at the spot where I now stood said, ‘For the Yankees, it was like shooting rabbits in a barrel. A blind man couldn’t miss his target if he tried.’
Even now, with the intensity of fire coming from their front and from either flank (side), the grey line continued.
As they marched on, they soon came into range of the Union soldiers and their rifles waiting behind the stone wall. There was a thunderous volley as the entire Union line exploded from left to right with rifle volley after rifle volley from the waiting Yankee soldiers.
Again the grey line stumbled, seemed to shake for a moment, and then continued the march towards the Yankees on the ridge, leaving scores more dead and wounded in their wake.
Hundreds were dead and wounded but the Rebels came on still, marching upright and following their flags.
As the Confederates reached the Emmitsburg Road, they were forced to stop to dismantle the post and rail fencing. The fence removed, the Rebels continued their advance and now, as the rifles on the ridge continued to cause havoc and death all along the line, the Union artillery opened up with canister ammunition.
Canister shells have been described by those who have seen their effect on massed infantry as nothing short of horrendous.
The shell is, as the name suggests, in the shape of a long canister made of tin. Inside the canister is packed twenty to thirty metal balls, about the size of a tennis ball. When this canister is fired from a cannon, the tin container disintegrates and the metal balls spread out in a cone shape.
Twenty Union cannon now began a sustained canister bombardment into the advancing and ever-decreasing Confederate line.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing whole sections of soldiers simply disappear as the canister shot tore men to pieces.
But still they came.
The Rebel line was now concentrating on a clump of trees in the centre of the Union line. Here, what was left of the Confederate division would make their final assault.
So, as they advanced through the hail of canister, bullets and shells, the shrinking number of regiments and brigades began to contract towards the centre.
This allowed the Federal units at either flank of the line to swing out of their positions and pour fire into the Confederate line from each end.
By now, the Rebels were taking fire from three sides.
I moved on. The idea of so much death and destruction at this very point, right here where I was standing was, I must admit, very unsettling.
These soldiers were not green recruits who had never seen a battle before and therefore didn’t know what to expect.
These men had already campaigned hard for over two bloody years. They knew, every one of them knew, what was going to happen when they stepped out of those woods that morning.
And still they stood up and walked out to face death and destruction.
I crossed over to the Union line and stood behind the stone wall looking out onto the ground where ‘Pickett’s Charge’ came to its bloody end.
With fire concentrated on what was left of the Confederate advance, the line began to finally crumble. A few hundred made it to the wall where I was now standing but they were either killed or captured by the Union soldiers who were being steadily reinforced.
While what was left of the Rebel divisions turned and moved off back towards the woods where their bloody charge had begun, the words ‘Fredricksburg, Fredricksburg’ could be heard, as the Union soldiers began to chant these words repeatedly.
‘Fredricksburg, Fredricksburg’, over and over again.
The reason for this unusual chant and the mention of the Virginian town? Well, that’s for another blog and another story of bloodshed, slaughter and unbelievable valor.
Of the 12,500 men that left the woods, less than 3,000 arrived back without some sort of wound. ‘The field is covered in blood,’ one wounded soldier told General Lee as he sat visibly shaken on his horse ‘Traveller’ and watched his men return from their attack on the Federal lines.
Lee now faced a very serious situation. He was sure that the Federals must now launch a counter-attack against his shattered line, which, he could see, had been decimated. He tried to form some sort of defensive line and then he waited for the Union army to swarm out of their defensive positions to crush his shattered army.
But nothing happened. Lee re-organised his army and waited. Still there was no movement from the Federal line and, after a day of waiting, Lee ordered his army back into Virginia.
It was over…for now.
Gettysburg was a Union victory but there was still further death and slaughter to come.
The bloodshed would continue for two more horrible years.
It was time for me to move on…