The sight of massed Confederate columns 'gives you chills'

Confederate troops mount a futile advance in the Battle of Gettysburg's last engagement.
Confederate troops mount a futile advance in the Battle of Gettysburg's last engagement. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 09, 2013

For about a half hour, the farm fields outside Gettysburg trembled and the air shook with the power of the guns, just as they had 150 years before.

About 140 cannons unleashed a steady, thunderous fire, piercing gray clouds of smoke with yellow muzzle flashes, like lightning bolts.

More than half of them were aimed at a line of men in blue who hugged the ground along a stonewall as concussive blasts thumped chests and the acrid odor of burnt gunpowder wafted by.

Then silence, smoke lifting, and an unforgettable sight - thousands upon thousands of soldiers in butternut and gray, as if on parade, flags waving, muskets shining.

If not for massive grandstands, folding chairs, and blankets with more than 20,000 spectators snapping photos and cheering, blue and gray reenactors might have thought they had stepped back in time - and that it was really July 3, 1863, with the climactic assault known as Pickett's Charge underway.

They had come for this moment, to be part of this re-creation on the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Confederate casualties during Pickett's Charge numbered nearly 4,700, and about 2,300 Federals were killed, wounded, or missing. Over the three-day clash, both armies were terribly battered, losing a total of about 50,000 troops.

"This is an opportunity," said Niles Clark, a 54-year-old Westfield, Ind., man who portrayed Confederate Gen. George Pickett and looked the part, with a fancy uniform and curly flowing hair. "We win this battle and we win the whole war."

On the receiving end of the Southern assault was Union adjutant Mike Murphy: "You see them in perfect order coming across the field, drums beating, flags waving - and hear that rebel yell. It's awe-inspiring.

"You imagine what Union troops were feeling," said Murphy, 29, an Ebensburg, Pa., resident who has been reenacting for 18 years. "They knew what was coming."

Sunday's Gettysburg recreation was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience such an artillery barrage and vast numbers of troops reenacting one of the most famous battles in the history of the world," said Randy Phiel, one of the event's organizers.

"I'm so impressed with the authenticity," said spectator Peter Perrill, 67, of Rock Hill, N.C., who looked through binoculars at his son Miller, 23, then serving as a Confederate reenactor. "I've never seen a bombardment."

"It's a sensory experience-like fireworks," said Miller's wife, Sarah, 24, of Charleston, S.C.

The final showdown was only hours away. Confederate ranks gathered as the sun burned off the morning mist and beat down on Seminary Ridge.

Their objective lay about a mile across an open field: a small clump of trees near a stone wall, the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered a massive artillery barrage, to be followed by an all-out infantry assault by more than 12,000 veterans, the pride of the South.

"At exactly 1 o'clock by my watch the two signal guns were heard in quick succession," recalled Col. E. Porter Alexander, who commanded the Confederate artillery. "In another minute every gun was at work."

More than 150 cannon blasted away at the Federals for two hours, while at least 100 Union artillery pieces returned the fire at a slower pace to conserve ammunition.

"Streams of screaming projectiles poured through the hot air, falling and bursting everywhere," recalled Union Maj. St. Clair A. Mulholland. "Men and horses were torn limb from limb . . . No spot within our lines was free from this frightful iron rain."

Then the firing ceased and Pickett began the attack. It was 3 p.m.

The sight of the massed oncoming Confederate columns "gives you chills," said Union reenactor Austin Schetrompf, 17, a college freshman who lives in Williamsport, Md. "You're standing face to face with the enemy."

Across the field, the neat gray ranks were still far away, but the military precision and numbers were strangely mesmerizing. "It took bravery and courage not to run," Schetrompf said.

The Confederates "keep coming, then our artillery opens followed by volleys of muskets - and their ranks thin," said Union reenactor George Kohan, 55, a railroad conductor and Johnstown, Pa., resident, speaking as a corporal of the time. "If we hold, that should end the threat."

On they came, while scores of Federal cannon and thousands of muskets sent torrents of shrapnel and metal balls tearing through their ranks.

A Union officer described the effects of one volley: "Arms, heads, blankets, guns, and knapsacks were tossed into the clear air. A moan went up from the field distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle."

Confederate Lt. W.G. Finley said, "When we were about 70 or 100 yards from the stone wall, some of the men holding it began to break for the rear, when, without orders . . . our line poured a volley or two into them."

Union Pvt. John W. Haley said his division and many others "hastened to the scene to take part in the closing act of the drama."

"On they pushed, delivering a withering fire," he said. "But our fire was equally destructive, and they soon presented a bloody and desperate appearance.

"No troops could resist the awful attack to which they were exposed. It was a sheet of fire, backed by a wall of steel."

At the stone wall, later known as the "bloody angle," Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead urged the attackers on. "Come on, boys. Give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?" Then he was mortally wounded.

One of the groups hit hardest by the rebel attack was the Philadelphia Brigade, made up mainly of city residents then deployed along Cemetery Ridge.

They were among thousands of native Pennsylvanians defending their state against the Southern invaders.

The brigade fell back as the Confederates leaped over the stone wall and headed for the clump of trees, but they soon rallied and countercharged the rebels, cutting off those still within the Union line.

Reinforcements arrived and soon the graycoats were in full retreat.

Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, a native of Philadelphia's Holmesburg section, helped rally the state's soldiers and was seriously wounded as the attack began to fall apart.

Pickett's Charge is an emotional experience, said Mike Maffei, 61, a Pittsburgh resident who portrayed a Union brigadier general and has been reenacting for 17 years.

"You tell the men to hold fast and you see the Confederates decimated," Maffei said. "Some bedraggled troops get over the wall. It's moving. These are Americans fighting Americans."

As the echoes of war died in the distance, it was time, too, to remember the significance of what had just happened on the field.

The battle over, the doleful notes of Taps began to ring out over the multitudes while reenactors stood at attention. Then, blue and gray soldiers shook hands across the wall.

"You feel the emotion," said Maffei, the Union general. "There are no dry eyes. Everybody tears up."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com .

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