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A Yankee Notebook

October 24, 2011


GETTYSBURG BATTLEFIELD - I stood at the foot of the Virginia Monument, its base of white granite topped by an equestrian Robert E. Lee, and gazed out across the once-deadly field in front of me toward the location of the Union Army lines on July 3, 1863. Behind me ran Confederate Avenue, which wasn’t there on that day, and the oak-and-ash woods running along Seminary Ridge. Pickett’s divisions had crouched in those woods during the Confederate artillery cannonade that preceded their fateful charge.

The mile-wide field was green where it had been mowed – it’s kept pretty much as it was then – and brown with tall dead grass where it hadn’t. The temperature was warm enough to hike across the mile-wide field in a T-shirt, but occasional rain showers, mist, and gusts of wind called for Gore-Tex. I waved my cane at Mother, who’d dropped me off at the monument and would drive around the battlefield to pick me up at the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. I waved it around my head, pointed it across the field the way General Armistead did his sword, and cried, “Forward, men! For your homes, for your sweethearts, for Virginia!” and set off on the paved path pointing more or less in the right direction.

I’ve been so often fooled over many decades by my preconceptions that I should have been a bit more careful. But I thought, “Cemetery Ridge, eh? There’s a ridge over there. That must be it.” When the path petered out, I kept slogging toward it, keeping the Virginia Monument between my shoulder blades. Pretty soon the footing got muddy. I climbed over a couple of rail fences, slopped through a soggy little drainage ditch hidden among red cedars, crossed a blacktop highway, and waded through chest-high nettles, thistles, burdocks, and unharvested grain. It wasn’t much fun, but it certainly beat being under enemy fire.

The problem was in my notion of the word “ridge.” We New Englanders all know what a ridge is: a long, high hill scraped off by a glacier. But Seminary Ridge, where the Confederates and I started, is just sort of a high spot left behind when Willoughby Run, to the west of the battlefield, slowly carved its tiny valley; and Cemetery Ridge, where the Union cannon and infantry were massed in a mile-long line, isn’t even a topographical speed bump. Its eminence made it a perfect artillery platform in 1863, but in 2011 I couldn’t even see it.

Thus when I finally struck the blacktop road in the area of the Union line, I was looking at monuments dedicated to generals and units on the far left of the line, at the foot of Little Round Top. I was about half a mile off – not too good for a one-mile hike. I started trudging damply up the road, wondering how I could have gone wrong.

Pretty soon here came Mother in the Prius. She stopped and got out. She looked upset; something was up. Her white pullover was stained with mud on the front, and her ring finger was grotesquely swollen. Uh-oh. “What happened?” I asked her.

She’d been passing a spot where the guide book said Pickett’s troops had been sheltering in the woods before the charge. “I wanted to see what it felt like to come out of the woods,” she said. So she walked in, tripped over something, and fell on her face. Bloody nose, chipped tooth, mud all over her front, and what still looks to me like a broken finger. Pickett’s revenge, I guessed. We went back to town. She changed, and we had lunch.

She wasn’t going to seek medical attention beyond buying a splint at a pharmacy; so in the afternoon we went back to the battlefield. I was determined not to wait another year before trying again. This time I focused on the monuments I knew were clustered around the Bloody Angle, where the charge achieved its maximum penetration – a tall obelisk dedicated to the men of the regular army and the huge, hulking Pennsylvania Memorial. The ground has been mowed with a bush hog, and the walk was a piece of cake this time. But all the way, I could see the cannons ranged along the ridge. It was suicide, that charge. Only a desperate desire to beat the Yankees, save the Confederacy, and belief in their officers could have motivated men even to attempt it.

General Longstreet, to whom Lee delegated it, did not want to make it, and said so, risking a charge of mutiny. To the last minute, he attempted to pass the responsibility to Colonel Alexander, his artillery officer, in a note telling him that if he didn’t think his cannonade had sufficiently damaged the Union line, he could call off the charge. Alexander appropriately passed the hot potato back to Longstreet. Years later, writing of that day, Alexander said, “Never, never, never did Gen. Lee himself bollox a fight as he did this.”

As I approached the slope beneath the stone wall that General Meade’s troops had used for a breastworks, I could see and hear tourists and school groups clustered around the famous Copse of Trees that Lee had picked out as a target of the charge (now fenced in to discourage souvenir hunters). It’s incredible that anyone who started up that slope could have made it. I discovered, halfway up, a seep in the hillside, and was wading up to the knobs of my ankles in mud. Then it was up over the stone wall, where the charge ended and ebbed at last in hand-to-hand fighting. As I write tonight, a week later, I’m looking at an old photograph, of nine men just about my age: Confederate survivors of that famous charge, walking briskly through a field of thigh-deep grain in 1913, fifty years to the day afterward. They’re waving their hats as they walk, smiling happily, remembering, perhaps, a day that was at once the worst and the finest of their lives.

Photo by Willem lange