Sat. Jul 03, 2004
3 Days in July
I hope you are having an enjoyable and relaxing Fourth of July weekend. But once upon a time, during this three day span in early July, 6,334 Americans were killed, another 28,209 wounded, and 20,264 were reported missing or captured [*].
141 years ago this afternoon, an estimated 12,500 men crossed a mile wide field in southern Pennsylvania, in formation, under fire, in a final attempt to win the battle. About 54% of them became casualties. It became known as Pickett’s Charge: “Major General Pickett, when after the attack was asked to reform his shattered Division, said to General Lee, ‘I have no Division.’”
On the 4th of July, 1863, Gen. Pickett wrote to his fiancée, “Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your Soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.”
“War is hell” is a phrase inspired by the Civil War, and the comparison to today is stark. We were stunned by the deaths of 3,000 Americans in one day as a result of an act of war. At Antietam, over 5,500 were killed in one day. During the Civil War, on average, 400 Americans were killed a day. Every day. For four years.
We mourn the loss of over 800 killed and thousands more wounded during 15.5 months in which about 140,000 Americans have been in Iraq. But at Gettysburg, where the combined Union and Confederate forces totalled over 157,000, over one third of them were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. In a mere three days, that toll exceeded 50,000.
Dave Kopel has written a column in which he describes Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock as “The Hero of Gettysburg” :
On the third day of Gettysburg, Hancock commanded the First, Second, and Third Corps — three-fifths of the Union army. That day, Robert E. Lee flung the Virginia militia and Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet into “Pickett’s Charge,” a bold offensive gamble to win the battle, and perhaps the war, in a single day.
The charge began, and Hancock was everywhere, ordering the regiments and brigades. The steady advance of Picketts’ men was the high water mark of the Confederacy. A bullet ripped through Hancock’s saddle, opened an inch-wide hole in his body, and lodged eight inches inside his groin — along with a nail and a piece of wood as big as the bullet. Hancock looked as if he had been cut with a butcher’s knife.
Hancock refused to be carried to safety, and continued to direct the combat from his stretcher. Pickett’s Charge was repulsed, and the Union dubbed Hancock “the hero of Gettysburg.”
Dave Kopel: “The Hero of Gettysburg“
But Kopel doesn’t mention perhaps the most moving aspect of Hancock’s story on that day:
One of the most moving and thought provoking monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park, the “Friend to Friend” monument depicts Confederate Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead handing his watch to Captain Bingham, a Union Solder. General Armistead had been a very close friend with Union General Winfield Scott Hancock since 1844, 17 years before the start of the war. After receiving word of the secession of Southern States, Armistead knew that he, a son of Virginia, and Hancock from Pennsylvania, would serve different causes. Armistead is said to have asked that God strike him dead if he ever brought harm to his friend.
Prior to the battles of the third day of Gettysburg, General Armistead, sensing the possible outcome of the day, asked that General Longstreet ensure the delivery of a package to Elmira Hancock, Win’s wife, should he be struck down. The package contained his bible.
Late on July 3rd, after a valiant surge to the Union lines and crossing onto Cemetery Ridge, General Armistead was shot in the leg and arm. Finding him, Captain Bingham, who served under Hancock, asked if General Armistead had any possessions for which he might care. While handing the Captain his watch and other possessions, General Armistead asked that this message be given to his friend. “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and done you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.”
This war was unquestionably the bloodiest in American history. But the horror and atrocity could not break the bonds held by so many. Friendship transcended war, even death.Battle of Gettysburg: “The ‘Friend to Friend’ Monument“
The story of Armistead and Hancock typifies the Civil War, where war was indeed Hell, but a certain sense of honor was maintained nonetheless.
It’s picking nits (perhaps the reason this site exists), but as a student of Civil War history, I would argue the real “Hero of Gettysburg” was Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, who won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on July 2 in the battle for Little Round Top:
At Gettysburg, the 20th Maine was commanded by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, a former professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College. After marching all day and night to reach Gettysburg, the regiment was ordered late in the afternoon of July 2 to occupy critical terrain between two hills, Big Round Top and Little Round Top. Chamberlain was ordered to hold this position on the extreme left flank of the Union line at all costs; if outflanked by the Confederates, the entire Union position would be in jeopardy. It was not long before the 15th and 47th Alabama Regiments attacked. The 20th Maine held off six attacks by the determined Alabama men, however, Colonel Chamberlain knew that his regiment, low on ammunition, could not withstand a seventh. He therefore ordered a counterattack with fixed bayonets, and the 20th Maine charged down the slopes of Little Round Top into the startled Confederates and broke their attack. The 20th Maine took 400 prisoners and stopped the Confederate threat to the Union flank.
Speaking at the dedication of the Monument to the 20th Maine
on October 3, 1889, Chamberlain said, “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
Many great men, known and unknown, fought and died in that war, in numbers that today we cannot even comprehend. And it was exemplified on the fields of Gettysburg, 141 years ago this weekend.