The Third Day at Gettysburg

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The color sergeant of the 72d Pennsylvania, grasping the stump of the severed lance in both his hands, waved the flag above his head and rushed towards the wall. One man only starts to follow. Almost half way to the wall, down go color bearer and color to the ground—the gallant sergeant is dead. The line springs—the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load, men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass. It rolls to the wall—flash meets flash, the wall is crossed—a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, and undistinguishable conflict, followed by a shout universal that makes the welkin ring again, and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.

 

[ It needs to be borne in mind in this portion of the narrative that the Union line was approximately 100 yards in front of the actual crest of Cemetery Ridge. When Pickett’s men broke through, the Union defenders retired to the crest of the ridge and held their ground there, keeping up a sharp fire; eventually they swept down the slope and drove the gallant survivors of Pickett’s spearhead out of the ground that had been seized. It should be pointed out that although the Confederates brought up the slope many more men than the Second Union Corps had for defense, their troops were actually outnumbered at the actual point of penetration. Once the Unionists were rallied for a counterattack, Pickett’s case was hopeless .]

Many things cannot be described by pen or pencil—such a fight is one. Some hints and incidents may be given, but a description or picture never. From what is told the imagination may for itself construct the scene; otherwise he who never saw can have no adequate idea of what such a battle is.

When the vortex of battle passion had subsided, hopes, fears, rage, joy, of which the maddest and the noisiest was the last, and we were calm enough to look about us, we saw that, as with us, the fight with the Third Division was ended, and that in that division was a repetition of the scenes immediately about us. In that moment the judgment almost refused to credit the senses. Are these abject wretches about us, whom our men are now disarming and driving together in flocks, the jaunty men of Pickett’s Division, whose steady lines and flashing arms but a few moment’s since came sweeping up the slope to destroy us? Are these red cloths that our men toss about in derision the “fiery Southern crosses,” thrice ardent, the battle flags of the rebellion that waved defiance at the wall? We know, but so sudden has been the transition, we yet can scarce believe.

Just as the fight was over, and the first outburst of victory had a little subsided, when all in front of the crest was noise and confusion—prisoners being collected, small parties in pursuit of them far down into the fields, flags waving, officers giving quick, sharp commands to their men—I stood apart for a few moments upon the crest, by that group of trees which ought to be historic forever, a spectator of the thrilling scene around. Some few musket shots were still heard in the Third Division; and the enemy’s guns, almost silent since the advance of his infantry until the moment of his defeat, were dropping a few sullen shells among friend and foe upon the crest.

It is not an hour since these legions were sweeping along so grandly; now sixteen hundred of that fiery mass are strewn among the trampled grass, dead as the clods. More than seven thousand, probably eight thousand, are wounded, among them Generals Pettigrew, Garnett, Kemper and Armistead, the last three mortally, and the last one in our hands. “Tell General Hancock,” he said to Lieutenant Mitchell. Hancock’s aide-de-camp, to whom he handed his watch, “that I know I did my country a great wrong when I took up arms against her, for which I am sorry, but for which I cannot live to atone.”

[ Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, commanding a brigade in Pickett’s division, had been a close friend of Hancock before the war, and the two had exchanged emotional goodbyes at a farewell party in an army post in California in the spring of 1861, when Armistead and other Southern officers resigned their commissions in order to come east and serve with the Confederacy. Armistead died among Cushing’s guns at the point where Pickett’s men briefly broke the Union line, and his last thought apparently was of Hancock .]

 

Four thousand, not wounded, are prisoners of war. Our men are still “gathering them in.” Some hold up their hands or a handkerchief in sign of submission; some have hugged the ground to escape our bullets and so are taken; few made resistance after the first moment of our crossing the wall; some yield submissively with good grace, some with grim, dogged aspect, showing that but for the other alternative they.could not submit to this.