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Walk path of Pickett's Charge



Published: Sun, January 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



About half the Confederates in the famous charge became war casualtiesthat day.

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Wayne Motts estimates that in 13 years as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, he has walked Pickett's Charge more than a thousand times.

He says he's walked it with George Pickett V and other descendants of Confederate generals who fought there.

"The only way to truly understand Pickett's Charge is to walk it," he said.

Recently, it was our turn. With Motts as our company commander, 20 members of a HistoryAmerica Tours group adopted the identities of 20 members of Company F, 53rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, part of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead's brigade.

Motts is the author of the only published biography of Armistead, "Trust in God and Fear Nothing."

Retracing the march of Pickett's Charge is one of the most popular things that visitors do at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Significance: It involves a walk of about a mile across an open field, from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge, the path marched by some 12,000 Confederate soldiers on July 3, the third day of the battle.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's plan was to assault what he believed to be the Union's weak point -- the center of its line at Cemetery Ridge. The attack was led by a division commander, Maj. Gen. George Pickett.

The charge was a catastrophic failure, as the South suffered roughly 50 percent casualties in a barrage of artillery and rifle fire from 6,000 Union soldiers. All 15 of the regimental commanders in Pickett's division were killed or wounded.

Armistead was the only general to advance inside the Union line, but it was a hollow victory. Carrying his hat atop an upraised sword as he led his men, Armistead was mortally wounded.

The 53rd Virginia was able to plant its flag inside the Union line -- at a huge price. Each time the regiment's color bearer was killed or wounded during the charge, a new man would assume the duty.

Hutchings Carter was the 11th man to carry the flag, and it was he who planted it on Cemetery Ridge.

"But when he turned around," Motts says, "he was all by himself."

For our march, Motts had us form into two lines on Seminary Ridge, having given each of us an index card bearing the name of a member of Company F.

His goals: Motts had three primary goals: to show us the kind of terrain that lay between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge; to convince us that Lee's plan wasn't the hare-brained scheme that it appears to be on its face; and to give us a feel for the courage it took for the Confederate soldiers to follow their leaders into the killing field at Cemetery Hill.

From a distance, the open field appears to be flat, but we discovered that there are dips and ripples, with swales large enough that troops could advance in some spots without being seen from the Union line. Unfortunately for the Confederates, a two-hour artillery barrage that they had unleashed toward Cemetery Ridge had failed to do sufficient damage.

"Pickett's Charge failed because artillery didn't accomplish what Lee had envisioned it would do," Motts said.

Instead, the soldiers and artillery along the Union line were relatively intact and braced for the charge.

When we had advanced to a rise almost halfway across the field, we could easily be seen from the entire Union center.

"When you're standing here, the artillery is going to hit you like a blast of hot air," Motts said. "The rest of the way, you'll be under artillery fire from Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge."

What was next: When we reached Emmitsburg Road, we were about 200 yards from the stone wall that protected Union troops on Cemetery Ridge.

From there, it was up a slope for the Confederates, making a bayonet charge into an incredible barrage of bullets and cannon fire.

Pickett's Charge lasted less than an hour, and when it was over, so was the Battle of Gettysburg, for all intents and purposes. The charge went down in history as Lee's biggest mistake of the war.

Before his death in 1870, Lee was invited to return to Gettysburg but declined, Motts said. Over the years, other survivors of the charge were invited to come back and walk across the field again, but some did not.

"Some could not emotionally bring themselves to come back here," Motts said. "Soldiers who marched here were emotionally scarred for life."

Pickett survived the charge but never forgave Lee. Pickett sold insurance after the war and is said to have remarked once to Confederate cavalry officer John S. Mosby, "That old man destroyed my division."

Mosby replied, "Yes, but it made you immortal, didn't it?"




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