Like most people, I still have some work to do in finding an appropriate topic. I’ve been trying to avoid posting and updating you with my slow progress just for the sake of posting, so I thought I would share a letter that I came across over the past week.
The date and author will speak for themselves, but I thought it was – if nothing else – a pretty powerful message. It should also give you some idea of the topics I have been looking into. It may appear long in this format, but it reads quickly, I highly recommend reading this:
Letter from George Edward Pickett to LaSalle Corbell Pickett, July 4, 1863.
MY letter of yesterday, my darling, written before the battle, was full of hope and cheer; even though it told you of the long hours of waiting from four in the morning, when Gary’s pistol rang out from the Federal lines signaling the attack upon Culp’s Hill, to the solemn eight-o’clock review of my men, who rose and stood silently lifting their hats in loving reverence as Marse Robert, Old Peter [nickname for General Longstreet] and your own Soldier reviewed them — on then to the deadly stillness of the five hours following, when the men lay in the tall grass in the rear of the artillery line, the July sun pouring its scorching rays almost vertically down upon them, till one o’clock when the awful silence of the vast battlefield was broken by a cannon-shot which opened the greatest artillery duel of the world. The firing lasted two hours. When it ceased we took advantage of the blackened field and in the glowering darkness formed our attacking column just before the brow of Seminary Ridge.
I closed my letter to you a little before three o’clock and rode up to Old Peter for orders. I found him like a great lion at bay. I have never seen him so grave and troubled. For several minutes after I had saluted him he looked at me without speaking. Then in an agonized voice, the reserve all gone, he said:
“Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make. I have instructed Alexander to watch the effect of our fire upon the enemy, and when it begins to tell he must take the responsibility and give you your orders, for I can’t.”
While he was yet speaking a note was brought to me from Alexander. After reading it I handed it to him, asking if I should obey and go forward. He looked at me for a moment, then held out his hand. Presently, clasping his other hand over mine without speaking he bowed his head upon his breast. I shall never forget the look in his face nor the clasp of his hand when I said: — “Then, General, I shall lead my Division on.” I had ridden only a few paces when I remembered your letter and (forgive me) thoughtlessly scribbled in a corner of the envelope, “If Old Peter’s nod means death then good-by and God bless you, little one,” turned back and asked the dear old chief if he would be good enough to mail it for me. As he took your letter from me, my darling, I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, — given in anguish and with reluctance.
My brave boys were full of hope and confident of victory as I led them forth, forming them in column of attack, and though officers and men alike knew what was before them, — knew the odds against them, — they eagerly offered up their lives on the altar of duty, having absolute faith in their ultimate success.
Over on Cemetery Ridge the Federals beheld a scene never before witnessed on this continent, — a scene which has never previously been enacted and can never take place again — an army forming in line of battle in full view, under their very eyes — charging across a space nearly a mile in length over fields of waving grain and anon of stubble and then a smooth expanse — moving with the steadiness of a dress parade, the pride and glory soon to be crushed by an overwhelming heartbreak.
Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your Soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.
In Camp, July 4, 1863.