Behind The Stonewall

The Virginia State Memorial - Gettysburg Pennsylvania



About what you are looking at...

(July 3rd, 1 PM). (Using the Virginia Memorial as a reference point). The viewer is looking west at the Virginia Memorial, on the lower end of Seminary Ridge. The largest of the Confederate Memorials on the Battlefield, the Virginia Memorial, dedicated "by Virginia, to Her Sons", depicts several Confederate soldiers from differing occupations. Atop the monument is General Robert E. Lee, astride his favorite horse, Traveler. Until the recent dedication of the Longstreet Memorial on Warfield Ridge to the south, Lee was the only member of the Army of Northern Virginia to be identified on a monument at Gettysburg. The monument marks the spot, a few hundred yards to the east, where Lee rode out to meet the returning men from Pickett's and Pettigrew's commands after the assault failed. Lee rode among the men, calling out, "It is my fault. It is all my fault". The men were heartened by this, and even though it was they who had born the brunt of the combat, they sought to console their beloved leader, forgetting for a brief moment, their own ills.

As the image pans to the right looking north along Seminary Ridge (and West Confederate Avenue), the viewer can see the woods from which the men of Pettigrew's command (Pettigrew had temporarily replaced Major General Henry Heth as Division commander, as Heth had been wounded on July 2nd) would step off on the way to Cemetery Ridge some two hours hence. But first, the cannonade. Firing from positions in the edge of the woods to the north, and south, and sometimes out in advance to the east several hundred yards, over one hundred cannons began firing at Cemetery Ridge at 1 PM. These cannons, ranged all along Seminary Ridge and Warfield Ridge to the south, concentrating their fire on the center of Meade's lines along Cemetery Ridge for about two hours. The cannonade, claimed by some to be the loudest sound ever heard on the North American Continent, was heard as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about two hundred miles to the west, and over several mountain ranges. Unfortunately, the cannonade, which had hoped to blast holes in the Union line, and force the troops and artillery there to retreat to safety, achieved little of its objective. Most of the shot and shell sailed over the heads of the Federal troops, landing behind the lines. Some of the worst damage was done at General Meade's Headquarters near the Taneytown Road, when the building was hit, and several horses belonging to staff officers were killed. The Union artillery fired in response at first, but then ceased firing in order to conserve their ammunition for the coming assault.

Panning a bit more, the tower on the horizon is the National Tower, the demolition of which has been funded by the National Park Service. To the right are small features on the horizon, two single trees, and then a very small clump of trees -- this is the "Copse of Trees" which was the focal point of the assault on July 3rd. The wooded area to its right is farther away on the back of Cemetery Ridge. The area just to the right of the tower was wooded at the time, and was known as Zeigler's Grove. The NPS has plans to restore the grove.

The near trees on the right are the woods in which Pickett's men waited while the cannonade was going on.

They lined up, from north to south this way by brigade: Mahone, Brockenbrough, Davis, Marshall, Archer, Wright, (all under Pettigrew) Garnett, Kemper, (under command of Pickett) and Wilcox (under command of Anderson). Behind Davis, Archer, Wright and Marshall, and under the command of General Isaac Trimble, were the brigades of Posey, Lane and Scales. Behind Garnett was Armistead's brigade, also of Pickett's Division. Somewhere around 13,000 men walked out of the woods on Seminary Ridge about 3 PM after the cannonade lifted. They lined up by regiments in brigades, flags flying, drummers beating time. They lined up in one solid wall of men, a mile wide! The men crouching behind the low stone walls on Cemetery Ridge were in awe of the spectacle they saw in the hot afternoon sun. It was truly a sight to behold. But the men of this assault, about a quarter of what Lee had brought with him into Pennsylvania would pay a dear price for this day's glory. Of the 5,000 men of Pickett's Division who made the charge, only 1,000 reported for duty the next morning. Of the 15 regimental commanders in Pickett's Division only one returned unharmed. A captain in the 18th Virginia, of Pickett's Division noted that 29 of 31 Regimental officers went down, and everyone in his company save one other man and himself disappeared. In Pettigrew's command the results were little better: the 47th North Carolina lost 500 of 600 men, and the 13th North Carolina lost 155 from the 180 which went in. A little over an hour after they had left their lines to march across a mile of open ground under fire, the battle was over. The men straggled back, as best they could, bringing as many of their fallen comrades as they could carry.

Reality set in hard for Lee. That evening, he confided to another officer that "I never saw troops behave so magnificently than Pickett's Division of Virginians did today." But still he was reeling. Various officers describe him as exhausted, or on the verge of collapse, requiring help to even stand that evening. And certainly, he felt the loss acutely. He had thrown his best at Meade and the Army of the Potomac and been rebuffed the past two days with great losses. Yet he had to rally himself, to show the men that his spirit was unbroken, and so was theirs. This he did, reorganizing his lines in case of a counter attack by Meade. After a tense day in the rain on July 4th, waiting for the attack which did not come, Lee began withdrawing his men from the Gettysburg area, vacating the field by the 5th. The retreat was not easy. Sending his supply trains back over the northern route via Chambersburg, with the wounded riding in whatever wagons they could find, the bulk of the army marched southeast to Fairfield, then over South Mountain into the lower Cumberland Valley, and down into Maryland. Harassed by Cavalry much of the way, Lee finally reached the Potomac only to find it in flood after days of rain. With no bridges to cross it, Lee had to turn and prepare to receive the attack of Meade. For his part, Meade was a bit slow to concentrate his forces in Lee's front along the Potomac, finally gearing up to attack, only to find Lee had eluded him once again, slipped away over a make-shift bridge of tangled branches across the Potomac, since the waters had begun to recede.

W. G. Davis


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