31 Days of History: 3 July

Pickett’s Charge, known as the “High Water Mark" of the Confederacy, took place on this day, 3 July 1863 (146 years ago today) on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg is often described as the turning point of the American Civil War. 72,000 soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, under command of Robert E. Lee, went to battle with 94,000 Union soldiers under command of George Meade. It was a tragic battle, with 57,000 Americans giving their lives during the three day campaign.

The Battle of Gettysburg as pictured in an 1863 Currier & Ives print

The second day of fighting saw the famous defense of Little Round Top, a small hill just southwest of the town of Gettysburg. The defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine Division’s bayonet charge is one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War and propelled Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain into prominence after the war. (He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his action at Little Round Top, and rose quickly through the Union hierarchy. When Lee surrounded at Appomattox two years later, Col .Chamberlain was given the honor of supervising the official surrender ceremony.)

Col. Chamberlain, awarded the Medal of Honor for his action at Little Round Top

The third and decisive day at Gettysburg included Pickett’s Charge (so named because the division that led the charge was under command of Gen George Pickett). Lee came to the risky conclusion that the center of the Union lines was the weakest, and ordered a full assault at that spot. 12,500 Confederate soldiers attempted to advance ¾’s of a mile uphill and breach the Union lines, but were unsuccessful—over 6,000 Confederates died in the attempt. The point of furthest Confederate advance is referred to as the "High-water mark of the Confederacy", arguably representing the closest the South ever came to its goal of achieving independence from the Union via military victory.

The site of Pickett's Charge; modern day. The Union line was at the line of trees barely visible in the distance

The connection?

First, Gettysburg is a mere 70 miles or so from DC—close enough for this project to be considered local.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Second, in the American History Museum, there is a Bible carried by James H. Stetson at the Battle of Gettysburg. Unfortunately, he was killed during the Battle and it was collected from the battlefield after the Battle.

James Stetson's Bible

Third, it is believed that the Confederate soldier who made it the furthest in Pickett’s Charge was Brig Gen Lewis Armistead, the commander of one of Pickett’s brigades, who stepped up and over the stone wall that the Union troops were using for protection before he was killed in a volley of rifle fire. Armistead was the nephew of Major General George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry (outside of Baltimore) during the British attack on Baltimore (during the War of 1812) that inspired the words to the Star Spangled Banner. The flag that flew over Fort McHenry is the centerpiece of American History Museum in downtown DC.

Major General George Armistead

The Armistead Memorial, marking the spot where he was mortally wounded (not my photo)

Fourth, the casualties at Gettysburg were so numerous that instead of trying to relocate all of the dead to their original homes, a National Cemetery was established on the grounds and the dead were buried where they had fallen. It was at the dedication of that cemetery, four months later, that Abraham Lincoln gave his most famous speech. That speech, remembered to history as “The Gettysburg Address” is engraved in the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

. . .that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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