Four Authors of the
American Civil War:
Excerpts From Their Work
2. Shelby Foote
This is Part One of an Excerpt From Shelby Foote’s
History of the Civil War. Go Here for Part Two.
2. Shelby Foote Excerpt 1: “Stars in Their Courses” (Pickett’s Charge)
Born in Greenville, Mississippi, in the Delta country, he was a novelist before he was a historian. His literary hero was William Faulkner, and his first Civil War work was the Faulkner-influenced novel “Shiloh” published in 1952. (Foote mentions in an interview, “Anybody that wants to visit a battlefield, the one that comes closest to being the way it was when it was fought is Shiloh. It’s not surrounded by hot dog stands the way Gettysburg is, and it’s not near any big city….It’s wonderful.” See here for details on visiting Shiloh.)
In the wake of “Shiloh” Foote signed with Random House to write a one-volume, 200,000-word history of the Civil War in anticipation of the 1961 centennial observance. He ended up writing three volumes and 1.2 million words, spending 20 years on the project – five years on each of the first two books and 10 years on the third, fully engaged every step of the way – “I felt very happy,” he recalled in one interview. (However, another account says he “suffered” through the final volume.) He learned every lineament of the war, every disputed ridge, every major issue and personality, gaining respect for some figures (Ulysses S. Grant, Patrick R. Cleburne, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Abraham Lincoln) and disdain for others (Philip H. Sheridan, Joseph E. Johnston [another view of Johnston can be found here]).
His books were well-received critically and sold reasonably well; then in 1990 came the television-borne tsunami, making Foote one of the world’s most famous (and richest) historians.
Pickett’s Charge, described here, commenced at approximately 2:30 p.m. on July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg. William Faulkner writes in his 1948 novel “Intruder in the Dust”:
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….”
Stars in Their Courses (Pickett’s Charge)
By Shelby Foote
From Chapter 5 of Vol. 3, “The Civil War: A Narrative” (1963).
By now it was noon, and a great stillness came down over the field and over the two armies on their ridges. Between them, the burning house and barn loosed a long plume of smoke that stood upright in the hot and windless air. From time to time some itchy-fingered picket would fire a shot, distinct as a single handclap, but for the most part the silence was profound. For the 11,000 Confederates maintaining their mile-wide formation along the wooded slope and in the swale, the heat was oppressive. They sweated and waited, knowing that they were about to be launched on a desperate undertaking from which many of them would not be coming back, and since it had to be, they were of one accord in wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. “It is said, that to the condemned, in going to execution, the moments fly,” a member of Pickett’s staff wrote some years later, recalling the strain of the long wait. “To the good soldier, about to go into action, I am sure the moments linger. Let us not dare say, that with him, either individually or collectively, it is that ‘mythical love of fighting,’ poetical but fabulous; but rather, that it is nervous anxiety to solve the great issue as speedily as possible, without stopping to count the cost. The Macbeth principle – ‘Twere well it were done quickly” – holds quite as good in heroic action as in crime.”
(A Confederate artillery bombardment soon began, aimed at three Federal divisions, which contained some 5700 infantrymen, roughly half the number about to march against them.)
This disparity of forces, occupying or aimed at the intended point of contact, was largely the fault of (Union Gen.) Meade, whose over-all numerical superiority was offset by the fact that his anticipations did not include the threat which this small segment of his army was about to be exposed to. Despite his midnight prediction to Gibbon that today’s main rebel effort would be made against “your front,” he not only had sent him no reinforcements; he had not even taken the precaution of seeing that any were made immediately available by posting them in proximity to that portion of the line. Daylight had brought a change of mind, a change of fears. He no longer considered that the point of danger, partly because his artillery enjoyed an unobstructed field of fire from there, but mostly because he recollected that his opponent was not partial to attacks against the center. As the morning wore on and Ewell failed to make headway on the right, Meade began to be convinced that Lee was planning to assault his left, and he kept his largely unused reserve, the big VI Corps, massed in the direction of the Round Tops. At 12.20, when Slocum sent word that he had “gained a decided advantage on my front, and hope to be able to spare one or two brigades to help you on some other part of the line,” the northern commander was gratified by the evidence of staunchness, but he took no advantage of the offer. Then presently, under the distractive fury of the Confederate bombardment, which drove him in rapid, headlong sequence from house to yard, from yard to barn, and then from barn to hilltop, he apparently forgot it. Whatever defense of that critical thousand yards of ridge was going to be made would have to be made by the men who occupied it.
They amounted in all to 26 regiments, including two advanced as skirmishers, and their line ran half a mile due south from Ziegler’s Grove, where Cemetery Hill fell off and Cemetery Ridge began. Gibbon held the center with three brigades, flanked on the left and right by Doubleday and Hays, respectively with one and two brigades; Gibbon had just over and Hays just under 2000 infantry apiece, while Doubleday had about 1700. For most of the long waiting time preceding the full-scale Confederate bombardment, these 5700 defenders had been hearing the Slocum-Johnson struggle for Culp’s Hill, barely a mile away. At first it made them edgy, occurring as it did almost directly in their rear, but as it gradually receded and diminished they gained confidence. Finally it sputtered to a stop and was succeeded by a lull, which in turn was interrupted by the brief but lively skirmish for possession of the house and barn down on the floor of the western valley. The half-hour rebel cannonade that followed accomplished nothing, one way or the other, except perhaps as a bellow of protest at the outcome of the fight. By contrast, hard on the heels of this, the midday silence was profound. “At noon it became as still as the Sabbath day,” a blue observer later wrote. He and his fellows scarcely knew what to make of this abrupt cessation, in which even the querulous skirmishers held their fire. “It was a queer sight to see men look at each other without speaking,” another would recall; “the change was so great men seemed to go on tiptoe not knowing how to act.” This lasted a full hour, during which they tried to improvise shelter from the rays of the sun and sought relief from the pangs of hunger. There was precious little of either shade or food, there on the naked ridge, but shortly after 1 o’clock, when the curtain of silence was suddenly ripped to tatters by the roar of what seemed to be all the guns in the world, they forgot the discomforts of heat and hunger, acute as these had been, and concentrated instead on a scramble for cover behind the low stone walls. However, as the pattern of shellbursts moved up the slope and stayed there – except for an occasional round, that is, that tumbled and fell short – they found that, once they grew accustomed to the whoosh and flutter of metal just overhead, the bombardment was not nearly so bad as it seemed. “All we had to do was flatten out a little thinner,” one of the earth-hugging soldiers afterwards explained, “and our empty stomachs did not prevent that.”
Despite the feeling of security that came from lying low, it seemed to another crouching there “that nothing four feet from the ground could live.” Presently, however, he and his companions all along that blasted thousand yards of front were given unmistakable proof that such was not the case, as least so far as one man was concerned. As the bombardment thundered toward crescendo, they were started to see Hancock, mounted on a fine black horse, and trailed by most of his staff, riding the full length of his line amid the hiss and thud of plunging shells and solid. He rode slowly, a mounted orderly beside him displaying the swallow-tailed corps guidon. Resisting the impulse to weave or bob when he felt the breath of near misses on his face, the general only stopped once in the course of his excursion, and that was when his horse, with less concern for show than for survival, became unmanageable and forced him to take over the more tractable mount of an aide, who perhaps was not unhappy at the exchange since it permitted him to retire from the procession. Hancock resumed his ride at the same deliberate pace, combining a ramrod stiffness of backbone with that otherwise easy grace of manner expected of top-ranking officers under fire – a highly improbable mixture of contempt and disregard, for and of the rebel attempt to snuff out the one life he had – whereby the men under him, as one of them rather floridly explained, “found courage to endure the pelting of the pitiless gale.” Intent on giving an exemplary performance, he would no more be deterred by friendly counsel than he would swerve to avoid the enemy shells that whooshed around him. When a brigadier ventured a protest: “General, the corps commander ought not to risk his life that way,” Hancock replied curtly: “There are times when a corp commander’s life does not count,” and continued his ride along the line of admiring soldiers, who cheered him lustily from behind their low stone walls, but were careful, all the same, to remain in prone or kneeling positions while they did so.
(Confederate Gen. Longstreet did likewise in the face of Federal cannon fire.)
When Longstreet rode along the front of Pickett’s division and a round shot plowed the ground immediately under his horse’s nose, the general kept the startled animal under control, “as quiet as an old farmer riding over his plantation on a Sunday morning, and looked neither to the right or left.” Thus an admiring captain described the scene; but the men themselves, apparently resentful of the implication that they needed steadying, had a different reaction. “You’ll get your old fool head knocked off!” one of them called out to him, while others shouted angrily: “We’ll fight without you leading us!” Similarly, in Armistead’s brigade, where the troops had been instructed to remain prone throughout the bombardment, there was resentment that their commander felt it necessary to move erect among them with encouraging remarks and a showy disregard for the projectiles whooshing past him. One soldier rose in protect, and when Armistead ordered him to lie back down, pointed out that he was only following his general’s example. Armistead, however – like Hancock on the ridge across the valley – had a ready answer. “Yes, but never mind me,” he said. “We want men with guns in their hands.”
(At about 2:30 p.m., Gen. Pickett received a note from an artillery commander encouraging him to begin the assault as soon as possible “or we will not be able to support you as we ought.”)
Glad to receive anything that might end the strain of waiting, he mounted his horse and rode at once to Longstreet, whom he found sitting on a snake rail fence out front, observing the bombardment. Dismounting, he handed him the note. Old Peter read it deliberately, but said nothing. “General, shall I advance?” Pickett asked eagerly. Longstreet, who later explained: “My feelings had so overcome me that I could not speak, for fear of betraying my want of confidence,” responded with a silent nod. That was enough for the jaunty long-haired Virginian. “I am going to move forward, sir,” he said. Then he saluted, remounted, and rode back to join his men.
Front and center of his division, he delivered from horseback what one of his officers called “a brief, animated address” which only those soldiers nearest him could hear but which ended on a ringing note: “Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” There was, however, no disconcerting haste as the troops were paced in attack formation. For the most part, they simply rose to their feet and began to dress their regimental lines while their colonels passed among them repeating the instructions received from above: “Advance slowly, with arms at will. No cheering, no firing, no breaking from common to quick step. Dress on the center.” In at least one outfit, a survivor would recall, one of the captains led in the singing of a hymn and a white-haired chaplain offered prayer. Nor was the step-off itself unduly precipitate. Pettigrew gave the signal on the left to the new leader of his old brigade: “Now, Colonel, for the honor of the good Old North State, forward!” The advance was somewhat ragged at first, as if the Virginians, Mississippians, Alabamians, and Tennesseans of his division supposed that the spoken order only applied to the Carolinians, but the laggard brigades soon restored the alignment by double-timing to catch up. Meanwhile, in the wooded swale to the south, others had taken up the cry. Armistead, whose brigade comprised the supporting line on the right, as Trimble’s two did on the left, did not neglect the opportunity afforded for another display of determination. “Sergeant, are you going to plant those colors on the enemy works today?” he asked a nearby colorbearer, and when the sergeant gave the staunch expected answer, “I will try, sir, and if mortal man can do it, it shall be done,” the general removed his wide-brimmed black felt hat, placed it on the point of his sword, and raised it high for all to see, shouting in a voice that carried from flank to flank of his brigade; “Attention, 2d Battalion, the battalion of direction! Forward, guide centerrr, march!” and led the way. Beyond the left, within the lower limits of the town of Gettysburg, onlookers from Rodes’s division, seeing Pettigrew’s troops emerge from the woods and begin their downhill march into the valley, called out to the Federal surgeons who had remained behind to tend the captured wounded of their army: “There go the men who will go through your damned Yankee line for you!”
Longstreet had preceded them out to the line of guns and was conferring with Alexander. Pleased though he had been at seeing the enemy artillery first slack then cease its fire, he was anything but pleased when he saw his own guns follow suit immediately after he gave Pickett the nod that would send him forth to what he himself had predicted would be slaughter. But his greatest surprise was at Alexander’s explanation that he had suspended firing in order to save ammunition, being doubtful whether enough remained on hand for proper support of the infantry on its way across the valley. Old Peter was plainly horrified, despite the colonel’s earlier statement that the supply was limited. “Go and stop Pickett right where he is, and replenish your ammunition!” he exclaimed. Now it was Alexander’s turn to be surprised. “We can’t do that, sir,” he protested. “The train has but little. It would take an hour to distribute it, and meanwhile the enemy would improve the time.” Longstreet made no reply to this. For a long moment he stood there saying nothing. Then he spoke, slowly and with deep emotion. “I do not want to make this charge,” he said; “I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.”
With that he stopped, gripped by indecision and regret, though in point of fact he had been given no authority to halt the attack even if he had so chosen. The young artillerist volunteered nothing further. Just then, however, the issue was settled for once and all by the appearance of Garnett’s and Kemper’s brigades from the swale behind the guns. Garnett was mounted, having been granted special permission to ride because of his injured knee and feverish condition, and Alexander went back to meet him; they had been friends out on the plains in the old army. Apparently the Virginian was experiencing a chill just now, for he wore an old blue overcoat buttoned close to his throat despite the July heat. Alexander walked beside the horse until they reached the slope leading down to the Emmitsburg Road and the Union ridge beyond. There he stopped and watched his friend ride on. “Goodbye,” he called across the widening gap, and he added, as if by afterthought: “Good luck.”
By now – some twenty or thirty minutes after the Union guns stopped firing, and consequently about half that long since Alexander followed suit – much of the smoke had been diffused or had drifted off, so that for the attackers, many of whom had stepped at a stride from the dense shade of their wooded assembly areas into the brilliant sunlight that dappled the floor of the valley, the result was not only dazzling to their eyes but also added to their feeling of elation and release. “Before us lay bright fields and fair landscape,” one among them would recall.
It was not until the effect of this began to wear off, coincidental with the contraction of their pupils, that they saw at last the enormity of what was being required of them, and by then, although the vista afforded absolute confirmation of their direst apprehensions, the pattern of exhilaration had been set. Under the double influence of secondary inertia and terrific deliberation, the long gray lines came on, three brigades to the south under Pickett and six to the north under Pettigrew and Trimble, with a quarter-mile gap between the interior flanks of the two formations, the former composed of fifteen and the latter of twenty-seven regiments, all with their colors flying at more or less regular intervals along the rows of nearly 11,000 striding men. Harvey Hill was to say of the individual Confederate, as he had observed him in offensive action: “Of shoulder-to-shoulder courage, spirit of drill and discipline, he knew nothing and cared less. Hence, on a battlefield, he was more of a free-lance than a machine. Whoever saw a Confederate line advancing that was not crooked as a ram’s horn? Each ragged rebel yelling on his own hook and aligning on himself.” But Hill, though he was to see about as much combat as any general on either side before the war was over, was not at Gettysburg. If he had been, he would have had to cite it as the exception. Forbidden to step up the cadence or fire their rifles or even give the high-pitched yell that served at once to steady their own nerves and jangle their opponents’, the marchers concentrated instead on maintaining their alignment, as if this in itself might serve to awe the waiting bluecoats and frighten them into retreat. And in point of fact, according to one among the watchers on the ridge across the way – a colonel commanding a brigade adjacent to the little clump of trees – it did at least produce the lesser of these two reactions. For him, the advancing graybacks had “the appearance of being fearfully irresistible,” while a foreign observer, whose point of vantage was on the near side of the valley, used the same adjective to communicate the impression the attackers made on him: “They seemed impelled by some irresistible force.” Out front with the rebel skirmishers, a captain had a closer view of the troops as they strode down the slope toward where he crouched, and he remembered ever afterwards the “glittering forest of bayonets,” the two half-mile-wide formations bearing down “in superb alignment,” the “murmur and jingle of trouser-legs and equipment, and the “rustle of thousands of feet amid the stubble,” which stirred up dust and chaff beneath and before them “like the dash of spray at the prow of a vessel.”
They came on at a steady rate of about one hundred yards a minute, and before they had been three minutes in the open – barely clear of the line of friendly guns, whose cannoneers raised their hats in salute and wished them luck as they passed through – the Union batteries, as if in quick recovery from the shock of seeing them appear thus, massed for slaughter, began to roar. The gray lines dribbled rag-doll shapes, each of which left a gap where it had been while still in motion. Flags plunged with sudden flutters in the windless air, only to be taken up at once as the fallen colorbearers were replaced. This happened especially often in the regiments on the flanks, which came under galling long-range fire delivered in enfilade from the two heights, Cemetery Hill on the left and Little Round Top on the right. Pettigrew’s troops had farther to go, since they had begun their march from Seminary Ridge itself, but this had been foreseen and allowed for; Pickett had been charged with closing the quarter-mile interval between the two formations, which would lengthen the distance his three brigades would have to cover in the course of their advance. Accordingly, once they were clear of the line of guns, in plain view of the little clump of trees just over half a mile ahead, he gave his troops the order, “Left oblique!” They obeyed it neatly, executing in midstride a half-face to the north, which, at every full step of their own, brought them half a step closer to the flank of the undeviating marchers on their left. All this time, both groups were taking losses, a more or less steady leakage of killed and wounded, who lay motionless where they fell or turned and hobbled painfully up the slope they had descended. Coming presently to a slight dip, about midway of the valley – a swale not deep enough to hide them from the enemy gunners, but conveniently parallel to the ridge that was their objective – Pickett’s men received their second order, which was to halt, close up the gaps their casualties had left, and dress the line. They did so, once more with the deliberate precision of the drill field, but with the difference that such gaps continued to appear at an even more alarming rate as the Union gunners, delighted with this sudden transformation of a moving into a stationary target, stepped up their rate of fire. The result was the first evidence of confusion in the Confederate ranks. A soldier would look toward the comrade on his right, feeling meanwhile with his extended hand for the shoulder of the comrade on his left, and there would be a constant sidling motion in the latter direction, as men continued to fall all down the line, leaving additional gaps that had to be closed. This might have gone on indefinitely, or at any rate until there were no survivors left to dress or dress on, but at last the order came for them to continue the advance, still on the oblique.
This they did, to the considerable relief of most of the bluecoats on the ridge ahead, whose reaction to the maneuver was one of outrage, as if they had been exposed to a blatant indecency, such as the thumbing of a nose, though for others the feeling of revulsion was tempered by awe and incredulity. “My God, they’re dressing the line!” some among the waiting infantry exclaimed, more by way of protest than applause. In the course of the ten- or fifteen-minute lull allowed by the enemy guns before the attackers first appeared on the far side of the valley, the defenders had improved the time by repairing what little damage had been done to their improvised earthworks by the rebel cannonade. Now there was nothing left to do but wait, and in some ways that was the hardest thing of all. In fact, some among them found it downright impossible. Despite the renewed Confederate bombardment, they stood up behind their low stone walls or their meager scooped-up mounds of dirt and began to shoot at the graybacks half a mile away, only to have their officers tell them gruffly to hold their fire until the Johnnies came within decent range. Hays, who was jumpy enough himself, being of an excitable nature, found a way to pass the time for the men of his two brigades; he put them through a few stiff minutes of drill in the manual of arms, despite the overhead hiss and flutter of going and coming projectiles. Meanwhile the Union cannoneers kept busy, at any rate those who had husbanded their long-range ammunition for the opportunity now at hand, including the men in a six-gun battery that came up with full limbers just as the lull was ending and replaced the departed Rhode Islanders in the position directly south of the clump of trees. Rittenhouse and Osborn had the best of it in this respect, slamming their shells in at angles that caught the advancing lines almost end-on, but others were by no means idle. “We had a splendid chance at them,” one of McGilvery’s captains later testified, “and we made the most of it.” Watching the effects of this – the gnawed flanks and the plunging flags, the constantly recurring gaps all up and down the long gray front – the bluecoats cheered, and from time to time a man would holler “Fredericksburg!” elated by the thought that he was seeing, or was about to see, a repetition of that fiasco, though with certain welcome differences. On that field, for example, only the last four hundred yards of the attack had been made in full view of the defenders behind their wall of stone and dirt, yet not a single one of the attackers had come within twenty yards of the objective. Here the critical distance was more than three times as great, and the waiting soldiers took much consolation in the fact that the respective roles of the two armies, as attackers and defenders, had been reversed. “Come on, Blue Belly!” the rebs had yelled, but now it was the other way around; now it was the Federals who were yelling, “Come on, Johnny! Keep on coming!” even though the Confederates were bringing no blankets or overcoats along and their worn-out shoes would not be worth stripping from their corpses.
On Pickett’s right, Kemper’s brigade was taking cruel punishment from the half-dozen guns on Little Round Top, whose gunners tracked their victims with the cool precision of marksmen in a monstrous shooting gallery, except that in this case the targets were displayed in depth, which greatly increased the likelihood of hits. Moreover, the slightest excess in elevation landed their shots in Garnett’s ranks “with fearful effect,” as one of his officers would report, “sometimes as many as ten men being killed [or] wounded by the bursting of a single shell.” But worse by far was the predicament of the troops on Pettigrew’s left. Here Mayo’s brigade – Virginians too, but fewer by half in number; their heavy losses at Chancellorsville had never been made up, and they had been under a series of temporary commanders for nearly a year, with the result that their morale had been known to be shaky even before the bloody action two days ago had taken its further toll – caught the end-on fire, not of six but of 29 high-sited guns, with correspondingly greater suffering and disruption. As they tottered forward under the merciless pounding from the batteries on Cemetery Hill, these unfortunates had all they could do to maintain their alignment and keep their four flags flying. Whereupon, about two hundred yards short of the Emmitsburg Road, having passed the still-hot ashes of the house and barn set afire by the forenoon bombardment, they were struck on the flank by a regiment of Ohioans from the Union skirmish line, whose colonel massed and launched them in an assault as unexpected as it was bold. The reaction of the Virginians – it was they who “on a sudden had become as still and thoughtful as Quakers at a love feast” when they first learned that the attack was to be made and that they were to have a share in it – was immediate and decisive. Despite their four-to-one numerical advantage and their well-earned heritage of valor, they took off rearward at a run, flags and all, to the considerable dismay of the onlookers who had told the Federal surgeons, “There go the men who will go through your damned Yankee line for you,” and did not stop until they regained the cover of Seminary Ridge. By quick subtraction, four of Pettigrew’s regiments, nearly one fourth of the total in his division, thus were removed from his calculations as effectively as if they had stepped into bottomless quicksand. Osborn’s gunners, observing the flight of the brigade which up to now had been their sole concern, cheered lustily and swung their muzzles without delay along a short arc to the left. Their first shell burst in the midst of Davis’s brigade, killing five men in one of his Mississippi regiments. ●