Men Of The War Between The States: Pickett’s Charge At The Battle Of Gettysburg

Climax of Picketts Charge[Image upload failed] courtesy of Alaskan Dude
How did they do it? How could they do it? How could those men march up Cemetery Ridge towards that copse of trees when they knew it was almost certain death or injury (70% casualties)?

I think the answer to that is many fold (and, not incidentally, much of the below also applies to Federal Soldiers at places like Mayre’s Heights and the “Dead Angle”).

Honor and Duty

First and foremost, most of these men were honorable and had a sense of duty. Not just toward country either, but even more so toward comrades. Most WBTS companies were formed by men from the same rural community. These men were serving closely with their neighbors and relatives, and they knew that if they were lucky enough to survive the war and return home, they would have to live among those with whom had served. Therefore, the men were even more loath to “show the white feather” than they would have been otherwise.

Faith

Also, there is the fact that many, if not most, of those men were real Christians with a real faith in God. Many were not just any Christian either, but Calvinist Christians of some stripe. They believed in “predestination”. In other words, they believed that their lives and destinies were in God’s hands and that their time would come in God’s time and not theirs, regardless of the actions they took to try to ensure their own safety.

Thomas Jonathon Jackson put it this way:

My religious belief teaches me that I’m just as safe on the battlefield as I am in my bed. The Lord has already appointed the day of my death so I need not worry about that. I live my life and prepare myself so I will always be ready to meet my Lord, when death does overtake me.”

In a cultural sense, this general attitude goes even deeper than that and is even older than that. Historians have noted that one of the reasons that ancient Celts were so brave in battle was due to their belief in reincarnation and the knowledge that they would live again. Southerners are the cultural descendants of those Celts.

I realized after I wrote this that I left out some the best, bravest, and most devout soldiers in the ANV. It is estimated that over 10,000 Jews served in the CS army, with at least two companies entirely composed of Jewish soldiers (both companies were from Georgia). Those devout Jews likely had a faith in the Old Master that was just as deep and abiding as their Calvinist Christian comrades, and they had just as great a willingness to put their lives in His hands.

Battle Rage

Along these lines too there is a phenomenon called “battle rage” or “battle fury”. It is a form of temporary insanity in which the victim doesn’t even realize what he is doing. The ancient Germans called victims of this phenomenon “beserkers”.

Training and Command

Another factor was training. Most men were drilled so often and so long, that marching and functioning in line of battle became automatic. They remained in formation without thinking - even when terrified (this is the purpose of military training and the endless drill).

Then too, there is the fact that, in a standard company formation, there were 5 or 6 “file-closers” (sergeants and lieutenants) behind the company in line of battle. Sergeants were armed with the standard musket and bayonet, and perhaps also a revolver; lieutenants with a foot officer’s sword and a revolver. The file closer’s job was to keep the company formation intact and to prevent “straggling”. They were usually under orders to shoot anyone who ran.

Life at War

Another not inconsequential factor is this: Simple weariness of a soldier’s life at war. Thirty mile forced marches in 100 degree weather; camping in the snow and rain, sometimes without even a tent or blanket; wounds, injuries, sickness; horrendous food or none at all; worn out shoes or none at all; inadequate clothes; the constant mental strain of a possible violent death or injury, or slow death from illness; seeing friends and relatives torn apart by shot and shell. Some of them likely looked at death as a blessing.

All this said there were some that did not make that assault. Some faked injuries or even deliberately wounded themselves. There were others that simply lay down and refused to go further when the futility became apparent. I don’t know that I would not have been one of these!

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.

3 Comments:

  • Mike D.: Macreverie said,
    "All this said there were some that did not make that assault. Some faked injuries or even deliberately wounded themselves. There were others that simply lay down and refused to go further when the futility became apparent. I don’t know that I would not have been one of these!"
    I think of the veterans and wonder how many times can a man face combat without faltering? How many times
    Can one stare death in the face without suffering the psychological effects. I’ve read of brave men, proven veterans of multiple battlefields reaching their breaking point. Generally I think the men making Pickett’s Charge where very tough men. The mere survival of the soldiers life up to that point had honed them into the finest infantry in the world, IMHO. Forced marches, barefoot over macadamized roads in 100 degree weather. Illness that killed twice the number of men that would fall to bullets. Exposure to the elements. To survive all these hardships and THEN face the perils of combat really makes such men heroes in my mind.
    Great post Mac :)
  • Moton: Brave or paralyzed with fear, which one would I be on that fateful day? I like to think I am a reincarnated rebel that made the leap and was felled. In my dreams at night I may be able to recall the numerous battles I fought up to the point of Pickett’s Charge. I can relive it all over again, the brain is truly the final frontier and combined with supernatural phenomenon it could happen, or be a good movie. What was my name? Who did I fight for? I like to think south.
  • EastTennessee1948: Welcome. Maybe you would be this man :
    http://www.americancivilwarforum.com/a-tennessean-at-gettysburg-28624.html

Add Your Own Comment:

By clicking 'Submit' you agree to the Site Terms
By entering this site you declare you read and agreed to its Terms, Rules & Privacy and you understand that your use of the site's content is made at your own risk and responsibility.
Copyright © 2006 - 2017 American Civil War Forum