On July 3, 2013 in the hot sun of the early afternoon, I stood not too far from the Virginia Monument on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. I’ve stood there many times before and would meditate on what would motivate men to make that long walk to the stone wall under fire from three directions. It never even occurred to me to make the walk myself in the benign conditions of the late twentieth century or early twenty-first.
On this day 150 years to the hour or so after the actual event, I was actually going to make the walk. Well fed, well hydrated and not under fire. Unencumbered by an Enfield rifled musket and facing the prospect of having to search for my covivant and attempting to impersonate a journalist after crossing the stone wall, which I was virtually certain to do. Despite all that, and more, I do think I caught one small insight into the motivation of those fellows. I was making the walk with 15,000 other people who had been drawn to be there at the same time and place.
What’s In A Name ?
The monuments on Cemetery Ridge call it “Longstreet’s Assault”, but it goes down in history and popular imagination as “Pickett’s Charge”. Longstreet’s Assault is more accurate, since Pickett commanded only one of the three divisions. I thought that shift might have been post-war revisionism, since Longstreet fell out of favor among Lost Cause historians. Fred Wieners, our tour guide on Saturday, told me that it was more a matter of Pickett being popular with the Richmond press. He also told us that the idea of a frontal assault on the center after a heavy artillery barrage was probably inspired by the Battle of Solferino in 1859. It worked then. The consequence of the Battle of Solferino was the independence of Italy.
I Switch Sides For A Day
We found out early that the Pickett’s charge event on Wednesday afternoon was predicted to be the most heavily attended. It was not to be a reenactment. Members of the public led by Park Rangers would follow the footsteps of the soldiers who made the assault, while others stood behind the wall on Cemetery Ridge. It would be a bit like the ritual that the veterans enacted on anniversaries. It was a lot easier on the Yankee geezers, of course, but so had been the whole war. The Yankees got fed pretty regular and were paid with money that would actually buy something. I pictured myself behind the stone wall with my blue kepi as close as possible to the monument of some of my famine refugee probable cousins. Plans change. On Sunday, we saw a pretty good re-enactment of Pickett’s charge by the Blue Gray Alliance on private property a few miles from the park. I got caught up in the excitement and instead of just standing there, I moved through the spectator area parallel to the advancing Confederates. I decided then that I could not just stand by the wall on Wednesday.
The Lost Cause
I usually try to write my posts to stand on their own, but I am going to have to ask you to refer to the one before this, if you want some context. As I see it, if you are willing to allow a gross over-simplification, Civil War historiography can be divided into two schools – Lost Cause and the other one that I refused to talk about for one day. As an amateur historian, I have some serious issues with Lost Cause, but I released them for a day. Lost Cause has dominated popular culture for over a century. Lost Cause has woven itself into the fabric of American consciousness. It will always be with us. Popular culture has done a pretty good job of draining Lost Cause of its noxious elements, which for one day I could forget about. Some people might think that without the noxious elements there is nothing to Lost Cause, but they are wrong. What you are left with are some things that you should believe, regardless of whether they are true or not – That honor, courage and virtue mean everything. That money and power, power and money mean nothing.
At any rate, after the Blue Gray Alliance re-enactment, I wandered among the sutler tents, an inevitable side attraction of major re-enactments, searching for a gray kepi, which I bought to wear on Wednesday.
At The Visitor Center
In making our way to the event on July 3, my covivant earned a commendation for superior parking skills. The lots by the Visitor Center had flashing signs indicating they were full and that we should drive to a mall and take a shuttle bus. This presented a logistical problem, since backpacks are not allowed in the Visitor Center “for security reasons”. I needed my back-pack in which I had put six bottles of water and my blue kepi. (I ended up leaving the gray one in the car so I had to make the walk hat-less.) Undeterred by the flashing signs CV, with unerring instinct, honed in on a couple walking toward their car and moved into position to pounce on the spot after they pulled out. As time passed, I began to suspect that the couple’s plan was to sit in their car listening to the radio and taunting us. Ultimately, they did pull out.
In the Visitor Center, I stamped my park passport, something I missed on the previous two days. I also tried to draw some of the Park Service people out on the Goodwin speech. They have mostly been to0 busy to be aware of the controversy. One of the rangers at the desk told me that she was probably selected by the Gettysburg Foundation. The ranger said that once they have that podium, they get to say whatever they want. The rangers said that the numbers at the Park were unprecedented and exceeded expectations.
Jeff Shaara was signing books. The book collector in me found it irresistible. I imagined down the road the volumes with intact dusk jackets signed by the author at Gettysburg on July 3, 2013. I was apologetic about holding up the line while he signed five books. Shaara did not mind. As he said, it is kind of the point. I asked one of his assistants if he had a research team working for him. He said he did not. He had to do the research personally in order to be able to hear the voices.
We did the museum, which we had so far neglected. The front end of the museum is totally captive to that other school of historiography, which if you must know is called neo-abolitionism. Here is the secret to holding onto the full Lost Cause faith. Avoid reading anything written in the South prior to 1862. At all costs, avoid reading the statements that the five Confederate States that issued statements of reasons for secession. Don’t look too closely at the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. You’re not getting any links from me to those things in this article. Just say States Rights, States Rights and confine your reading to postwar memoirs. In the museum at the Gettysburg Visitor Center, walk quickly through the first section, which has no military artifacts at all.
Preparing For Action
The instructions from the Park Service were to not even think about parking on West Confederate Avenue, but to walk across the field from Cemetery Ridge to either the Virginia or North Carolina monument, depending on which of the eight brigades you were planning to come back with. The eight brigades were my one source of disappointment. There were actually eleven brigades in the historic assault.
In careful consultation, with Fred Wieners, I decided that I belong with Perry’s Brigade. Those were the guys from Florida. I don’t think they had serial numbers in the Army of Northern Virginia, but, if asked, I would have been ready – AC41295. That’s my Florida CPA license. Also we were sharing much of the time with friends from Central Florida, whom I have been calling Mr. and Mrs. CF. Their three boys were also along. I thought it would be cool if the five boys did the walk with CV and Mrs. CF waiting for us at the wall. All that fell apart . The CF family had enough Civil War by Tuesday and decided to see a play in Lancaster on Wednesday and spend July 4 in Philadelphia. The last get-together of the Magnificent Seven was Tuesday night dinner. There was a strange turn in the conversation at one point where Mrs. CF, who is actually Doctor CF, felt moved to illustrate what a simple procedure a vasectomy is, using some pasta as a visual aid. On top of that, Perry’s was one of the three brigades not included in the Park Service march.
I chatted with people as we crossed the field from Cemetery Ridge on a path that the Park Service had mowed for us. I was thinking I might get some really choice comments on the Goodwin speech from this crowd, but not many had been to it. I got to the Virginia Monument with plenty of time to spare, so I was able to hike over to the Florida Monument to make sure no one was gathering there. I persuaded a passerby to take my picture by the monument in case I ever need proof. On the way back to the Virginia Monument, I chatted with an EMT crew from Pleasant Hall, which is about 40 miles from Gettysburg. I spoke with rangers who had been pulled in from Shenandoah. Somebody told me that there were people helping from as far away as Cape Cod, but I did not run into any of them.
While I was talking to the EMTs, a fellow came up and asked them for some water. The guy looked like he might have been even more elderly than I. I have made it a rule to not resist generous impulses, so I handed him one of my bottles. His name was Tim Coghlan. He is of Irish descent, but his family has lived in England for several generations. I became an honorary member of his tour group. I got to tell them the story of my great-grandfather missing the battle by less than a fortnight. We enlisted in Armistead’s brigade which was predicted to be the most popular. The story of Armistead, who commanded one of Pickett’s Brigade and Hancock, who commanded the Union II Corps, is the ultimate bromance.
We spoke with one of the small group of re-enactors that would be leading us. Tim was very interested in the Enflield that the fellow was carrying. The re-enactor was part of the Wheeling Fencibles. Tim wanted to see what the percussion caps looked like, but he told us that they were not even allowed to bring them on the field. There was some talk of states rights and how it just keeps getting worse and worse. The Fencible used the direct election of senators as an example. I had to look that one up. Six of the eight states that did not ratify the Seventeenth Amendment in 1912 had been part of the Confederacy.
Prepare To March
They started forming us into lines to make the march. Originally it was going to be two lines, but as we stretched out, they had us double up and make it four. I don’t know if Armistead’s brigade ended up being the most popular, but it probably was. Combine that with there being only eight brigades rather than eleven and there being even more people getting ready to cross the field than there had been 150 years ago. I lost track of the English tour group and ended up standing next to a young woman with a small boy that she was holding. She put him down and told him he was going to have to walk on his own. She had three other kids and her husband arrayed alongside. One of the kids was taller than me. That is a peculiar thing when you get to my age – young women with grown children. I asked her if everybody was well hydrated and she admitted lack of preparedness, so I slipped her one of my bottles. A high school teacher standing behind us complained that the school curricula don’t give nearly enough attention to actual battles.
There was some disappointment that we did not get a rallying speech from an Armistead interpreter. The ranger commanding us looked like he might have been working at the Park during the Centennial, if not the 75th. We finally kicked off with some yelling. There was a blue banner with Armistead emblazoned on it leading us. An inauthentic, but heartening, touch was that the stars and stripes were in front along with a scattering of Confederate flags.
The ground was pretty lumpy in places and we were slowed by a ditch. The sound of feet scraping the grass was quite audible. Climbing the fence was hard on the elderly, but even harder on the fence. The line had dissolved by that time and there was just a mass in front of me. I turned around and saw a respectable bunch behind me. CV, of course, had a better view of the mass than I did and indicated it was pretty formidable.
he event ended with us standing in front of the wall many rows deep while Taps was played. I saw people standing around someone on the ground shading him. It looked to be a re-enactor and I thought it was meant to represent one of the downed Confederate generals. When I got closer I realized it was an actual casualty of the day’s walk. He was sitting and talking so hopefully it was not too bad.
The walk across the field from the Virginia Monument to the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge with 15,000 others was not at all exhausting. It was kind of exhilarating actually. Besides the crowds of people on Cemetery Ridge, there were numerous vehicles. Ambulances and television trucks were among them. Someone on a Red Cross truck handled me a bottle of a water. A lot of preparation had gone into the event and it came off very well. I wandered around trying to find out if there was a crowd estimate. A couple of rangers had given me eyeball estimates of 6,000 to 7,000. The official estimate ended up being 15,000.
My covivant who had been watching the mass coming across the field at the Angle thought the crowd was overwhelming and intimidating when she imagined them carrying guns and wanting to kill her. She was most impressed, though, by all the random interactions of the people milling around after the charge was done. A Confederate standing near her broke into a song she did not recognize which was followed by Amazing Grace, with everyone singing along.
The Confederate Flag
During the election I had the good fortune to interview Green Party candidate Jill Stein, One of the things that I gave her a pretty hard time about was her party having a plank in its platform against display of the Confederate Flag
You have to stick your head in the historiographical sand in order to not think that the Confederate Flag stood for slavery for at least a few years. Of course, Lost Cause historians have been piling up mountains of sand in the last century and a half, so there are plenty of places to stick your head. Also, by the same standard, the flag of the United States of America stood for slavery for over eighty years. Flags are symbols and symbols have meanings that vary. I think progressives who spend time being offended by Confederate flags are wasting that time. Think about what the symbol means to the person displaying it. When I see somebody displaying the Confederate flag my working assumption is that to them it stands for honor, courage and virtue. That may be combined with an aversion to engaging with pre-1862 primary source material, but, frankly, very few people seemed inclined to do that.
We Get Ready To Go
I wandered around proving to myself what a lousy reporter I am and realized that I should get serious about finding CV. This being 2013 and all, we both had cell phones. Imagine how a couple of them would have changed the outcome 150 years ago. She told me she was by the Angle. CV has not exactly turned into a Civil War scholar since May 1st, when we first went to Chancellorsville, but she now knows considerably more than she ever intended to learn.
There had been a large number of tents set up by the cathedral-like Pennsylvania monument. On Saturday there had only been one up labeled as a hospital tent. I interviewed Bob Tycenski, a Verizon power technician, who impersonates a Civil War surgeon attached to the 14th Brooklyn. CV and I kept meaning to get over to those tents and interact with the other interpreters, but there was always something more pressing.
As we walked by most of the tents were already struck. I walked over to one of the few remaining tents. It was close to where the hospital tent had been. It was labeled “Embalmer”. The fellow in period costume told me more than I wanted to know or care to share about what was involved in preserving bodies for shipment. The embalmers were free-lance and it was a service that only went to those who could afford it. He said that his research indicated that the going rate was about 100 bucks for an officer and somewhat less for enlisted men. CV wisely skipped that discussion finding a nice shady tree to sit under.
As we walked to our car I asked CV what her overall impression was. She said that she was strongly reaffirmed in her belief that war is stupid, irresponsible, obscene and a waste of human life. She thinks there is a better way to resolve conflict than sending your children to be slaughtered. (She had been really impressed by the comment by one of the interpreters that over 100,000 Civil War soldiers were under fifteen, some as young as nine.) She thinks that if we were to spend as much money on learning skillful conflict resolution as we do on war and preparations for war, we would be a world at peace. She thinks we associate war with honor, duty and integrity, but it is really about slaughtering your children. Just a couple of weeks ago CV and I had been wandering the streets of Northampton (which is a bit like Greenwich Village North) and noticed that Buffy Saint-Marie was playing at the Iron Horse. CV said she kept thinking about the Universal Soldier
I wonder if any other of my 15,000 comrades had somebody who had actually been at Woodstock waiting for them on the other side of the wall ?
Peter J. Reilly is a contributor for Forbes and has been a CPA for over 30 years focusing on taxation. He has extensive experience with partnerships, real estate and high net worth individuals.