Back in 1998 I travelled to the USA to take part in a huge reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. The highlight of the three days was taking part in Pickett’s Charge, the doomed frontal attack by the Confederates against the Union infantry and artillery ensconced behind a stone wall. In the real battle in 1863, the majority of Confederate troops fell or retreated before they got to this stone wall, but a few did make it over, until they too were killed or captured.
To reenact this turning point in American history, it was important that just as many reenactors fell before they got to the wall. Because every Confederate reenactor wanted the distinction of climbing over the wall, this was done by way of a lottery, with everyone except the winners having to die or retreat before reaching the wall – I was very fortunate to be one of the few who drew a winning number!
There were about 12,000 Confederate reenactors involved in Pickett’s Charge, which meant we were doing a full scale reenactment of the event. We had to cover about half a mile of open ground, before finally reaching the blue-uniformed Federal infantry, lined up about four deep for the entire half-mile or so length of the low stone wall and fenceline.
In silence, each Confederate brigade headed off towards its ‘destiny’. We did a few obliques (diagonal movements) to place ourselves in the correct position, having some problems with our line bowing all the time. It seemed no time at all till we reached the first obstacle, a wooden fence denoting the Emmitsburg Road.
At this point the yell came for those who had drawn ones in the lottery to take a hit. Marching onwards, it must have made an impressive sight to the spectators, as the units shrunk with casualties streaming our behind their trail – it certainly looked it on each side as brigade after brigade of Confederates headed towards the long line of Union soldiers behind their stone wall. (Jill Russell photo)
Down went our twos and threes, our corporal shouting for them to go down. Then at a run, instinctively bowing our heads, hunching our shoulders, and leaning forward as though walking into a headwind, we crossed the final gap towards the stone wall, the fours going down all around us. I clambered up onto the wall, behind which there was a twenty-yard gap, filled already with Confederate and Union ‘bodies’, then the solid line of Union blue. I ran towards them, watching others round me crashing down to the ground.
I felt someone brush past me, and saw it was General Armistead, carrying his hat pierced on the end of his sword (a famous moment in American history). At this moment, I made it to the front cover of the special Gettysburg edition of Civil War News. The photo below depicts General Armistead during Pickett’s Charge, and there I am right beside him! (Julio C Zangroniz photo)
I then decided that it was time I went down myself. I stayed down for a while, watching Union troops shooting, and hearing their ‘Hurrah!’ as the Confederate assault was thrown back. I looked back at the field, which was totally covered with casualties and retreating rebels running back individually and in small groups. There was a group of Confederate and Union soldiers standing near me, so I ‘limped’ over to see what they were looking at. In the centre of the group lay the ‘dying’ General Armistead.
After a while the shooting began to ease off, and it was evident that the battle was at an end. Taps was played on a bugle, and in a very emotional moment, we all, Confederate and Union alike, stopped and took off our caps to honour those real soldiers who fought 135 years ago.
Note: You can read more about my three days at Gettysburg on this old posting about my Gettysburg experience (posted back in February 2012).