On they came, closer and closer, pouring over and through the sturdy fence, the flood of thousands of grey and homespun uniforms, mostly from the division of General George Pickett, (12,500 in the original; about 5,000 this time). Stopping to fire, their volleys popped in a string like fire-crackers, returned by the Union forces, about 6,000 strong, standing behind a knee-high stone wall. The smoke turned the air hazy.
The cannon crews went about their work calmly, at a steady pace, knowing any mistake might blow up barrels already too hot to touch. The gunner pulled out the lanyard held it as if he had all the time in the world and then shouted, “This gun is ready!” To which the officer responded, “Fire!”An astonishingly loud boom rang out, followed by a white cloud. The smoke from the cannons and muskets grew thicker and thicker.
The Provost Guard, the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, stood patiently about twenty yards behind the front line. We were well-rested, having sat in the shade for about forty minutes away from the stifling heat that the deployed line units faced. We went at a run to the right, spacing ourselves out at five yards distance. It’s the point marked as “The Angle” on this map.
The Provost was the infantry unit belonging to First Division Headquarters, part field intelligence, part military government when needed, and protecting the general staff’s camp. Sometimes we went into the line; sometimes we took prisoners, and we were always visible lest someone thought of deserting ready to shoot the man if he didn’t stop running. Fortunately, no one did.
The headquarters’ staff include the Major General Allen Baldwin, the Gettysburg and now Winchester, MDfire chief, Tony Allen; the chaplain, surgeon, quartermaster Captain Willard Longnecker, and the canteen which using nineteenth century methods made the best bread and butter I’ve ever tasted, Provost, and Signals Corp.
Suddenly, as the still-alive Confederates reached the Union line, we charged forward to go into action. I ran up, sighting the tall form of Sergeant Ross “bayoneting”a Confederate who refused to surrender, I went toward the line. As I got there, an officer I didn’t know told me to escort a Confederate prisoner to the rear. He was a general, part of General Lewis Armistead’s staff. I had stumbled into the central scene of the battle.
[Photo: Armistead carried off the field of battle. Soldier on ground with red shirt is Union artilleryman; I'm standing immediately to his left.]
Lothario Armistead was born in February 1817, less than two years after his uncle, George, had commanded Fort McHenry in Baltimore against the British bombardment that gave proof through the night that the Star Spangled Banner still waved, in the terms in which Francis Scott Key wrote the National Anthem. He commanded one of three brigades of General Pickett at the July 3, 1863, charge which was Robert E. Lee’s desperate and ill-advised attempt to win the Civil War in one day.
As men fell around him, Armistead put his hat on his sword, held it high and shouted for those left to follow him. And then he fell, mortally wounded next to the Union cannon, the furthest advance the Confederate army made. Today, this called the High Water Markof the Confederacy. Ironically, the commander of the Union forces who hadmortally wounded him was General Winfield Scott Hancock, Armistead’s best friend before the war separated them forever.
About half the Confederates who marched with Pickett that day were killed, wounded, or captured, though a lower proportion were killed than you would expect given the state of medicine at the time.