George E. Pickett: Reflections on Gettysburg

George E. Pickett: Reflections on Gettysburg

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      Although Gen. James Longstreet was technically in command of the forces that stormed the centre of the Union lines at Gettysburg on the final day of the battle, it was Gen. George E. Pickett and his Virginia division that led the charge. Pickett's division paid a heavy price: nearly half of it fell in battle and three of its brigadier generals and all thirteen of its colonels were killed or wounded. Pickett, who had graduated last in his class at U.S. Military Academy but who had distinguished himself during the Mexican War, would continue to command his division after Gettysburg. The letter printed here was written by Pickett on July 6, 1863, to his future wife. It reveals both his pride in the efforts of his troops and his despair, as well as his belief that the end of the war was now imminent.

      On the Fourth — far from a glorious Fourth to us or to any with love for his fellowmen — I wrote you just a line of heartbreak. The sacrifice of life on that bloodsoaked field on the fatal 3rd was too awful for the heralding of victory, even for our victorious foe, who, I think, believe as we do, that it decided the fate of our cause. No words can picture the anguish of that roll call — the breathless waits between the responses. The "Here" of those who, by God's mercy, had miraculously escaped the awful rain of shot and shell was a sob — a gasp — a knell — for the unanswered name of his comrade called before his. There was no tone of thankfulness for having been spared to answer to their names, but rather a toll and an unvoiced wish that they, too, had been among the missing.

      But for the blight to your sweet young life, but for you, only you, my darling, your soldier would rather by far be out there, too, with his brave Virginians — dead.

      Even now I can hear them cheering as I gave the order, "Forward"! I can feel their faith and trust in me and their love for our cause. I can feel the thrill of their joyous voices as they called out all along the line, "We'll follow you, Marse George. We'll follow you, we'll follow you." Oh, how faithfully they kept their word, following me on, on to their death, and I, believing in the promised support, led them on, on, on. Oh, God!

      I can't write you a love letter today, my Sallie, for, with my great love for you and my gratitude to God for sparing my life to devote to you, comes the overpowering thought of those whose lives were sacrificed — of the brokenhearted widows and mothers and orphans. The moans of my wounded boys, the sight of the dead, upturned faces flood my soul with grief; and here am I, whom they trusted, whom they followed, leaving them on that field of carnage, leaving them to the mercy of — — and guarding 4,000 prisoners across the river back to Winchester. Such a duty for men who a few hours ago covered themselves with glory eternal.

      

Source: Arthur Crew Inman (ed.), Soldier of the South: General Pickett's War Letters to His Wife (1928).

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Universalium. 2010.

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