Pickett's Charge: Smoking Shoes And Body Parts

The North Carolina monument at Cemetery Ridge in the Gettysburg
National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s been reported that the duel between Confederate and Union artillery at the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago today was so loud it could be heard in Pittsburgh, 140 miles to the west.

The firing ceased around 2:45 p.m. on July 3, 1863, and after such an awful noise, the silence was decidedly eerie. A few minutes later, Confederate soldiers emerged from trees on Seminary Ridge and, with remarkable military precision, formed in long straight lines. Then, at a rapid, steady walk, they moved down Seminary Ridge and started a mile-long trek across a shallow valley to Cemetery Ridge.

About 12,000 Confederate soldiers were involved in this military maneuver that will forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The name comes from General George Pickett, who was ordered to push about 4,000 Union troops off Cemetery Ridge. Historians have pointed out that the attempt to take Cemetery Ridge should be referred to as the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge because the men who took part in the famous assault were from North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, and most were led by generals other than Pickett.

But Pickett, a native of Virginia, benefitted from the presence of many newspaper reporters from his own state who wrote their stories with a decided slant in favor of their native son.

If the assault had succeeded, it could have broken the Union Army of the Potomac and given the Confederacy such an advantage that it might have been able to dictate peace terms to President Abraham Lincoln and end the American Civil War with a victory for an economic system that relied on human bondage.

Even some of the men who were going to try to kill the Confederates were impressed by the way their enemy arrayed himself. “Beautiful, gloriously beautiful, did that vast array appear in the lovely little valley,” a New York soldier wrote in a letter after the battle.

Author Shelby Foote described what happened after Union soldiers got over the dazzling display of martial precision moving toward them at the rate of 90 steps per minute. The thousands of Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge “settled down to the task of transforming those well-dressed gray lines into something far from beautiful,” Foote wrote.

Among the 12,000 soldiers making that deadly march was my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, a private in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry.

It took the Confederates about 15 minutes to go the first half-mile of the journey. Union cannons were firing at them the entire time, tearing gaps in the precise lines. But the Confederates still impressed their opponents. “The enemy advanced magnificently, unshaken by the shot and shell which tore through his ranks,” said General Henry Hunt, commander of the Union artillery.

My great-grandfather’s unit, the 52nd North Carolina, was commanded by Colonel James K. Marshall. After leading his men about halfway to their objective, Marshall turned to another officer and said, “We do not know which of us will be next to fall.”

After more than 20 minutes, the Confederates were nearing the crest of Cemetery Ridge. By now, thick smoke from the black powder being used in the weapons fired by both sides had created a fog

Thousands of Confederates already were dead or dying, but the survivors pushed on to the low rock wall that protected their opponents. As the 52nd approached the wall, Marshall was urging his men on. Then suddenly, two bullets struck him in the forehead.

At about the same time, a Union artillery commander screamed at his men to fire their cannons point-blank at the North Carolina troops.

Later, the commander wrote in his diary that after the smoke had cleared from the blast, the only thing remaining of the North Carolina troops was “smoking shoes.”

For a few moments, it looked like Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s gamble had succeeded. A few Confederates managed to cross the stone wall that protected the Union troops. But so many Confederates had been killed that they did not have the numbers to push Union troops off the hill. The attack was broken, and dispirited Confederate troops retreated back across the valley to Seminary Ridge.

Fewer than half the Confederates survived the charge. My great-grandfather was among the survivors.

The following day, July 4, Lee’s broken army left Gettysburg in a driving rain, moving south toward Maryland. The Union artillery commander who had fired point-blank at North Carolina troops described the ground in front of his guns as being “black, greasy, and full of body parts.”

Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; research by Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross; and Wikipedia.

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