July 3, 1863, noon
The tremendous barrage of artillery that shook the ground at Gettysburg was the largest in American history up to that point. In the 1993 film rendition Gettysburg only 40 cannon – less than half of the actual amount in July 1863 – were used to recreate the assault. And yet, with the strength of charges much less than what was used during the Civil War, the ground shook men to the ground and created such a noise that reenactors could not determine the noise from their own guns going off. How much more was this true in the Civil War, when 630 Union and Confederate cannon burned red hot after the day’s barrage. (Tedesco & Armstrong, 1993)
In Michael Shaara’s rendition of the battle of Gettysburg, as found in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, we find the Hero of the Little Round Top, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and his 20th Maine regiment moved towards the center of the Federal line to rest and recover. In reality, of course, his men were never near Hancock’s headquarters in the center of the line at the time of Pickett’s Charge. Yet poetic license places the Maine colonel there on the infamous day.
Shaara’s narrative in the third chapter of July 3 begins with a guide, Lieutenant Pitzer, leading Chamberlain and his men to the location. The guide serves as a messenger of information for Chamberlain and the reader on the outcome in the high command over the previous day’s events. He reports the gallant action of the 1st Minnesota, whom Hancock had used to hastily fill a gap in the Federal line. And then he says that Meade had drawn up retreat papers and that a vote among his officers unanimously went against such a move, making him stay. Now this is where Shaara’s story begins to give a like impression as that of another modern phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, in the latter’s interpretation of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The Nicea Council, according to Brown, voted on the divinity of Christ. Yet nothing of the sort took place in real history. Like the historical Meade “vote,” no poll took place to decide something definitively, only to confirm what was already essentially decided and accepted:
Meade had never given the order to retreat. This story was conceived by the disgruntled General Dan Sickles after he was evacuated to Washington after a disabling injury. Yet Sickles got press coverage and his story remains alive.
Meade had, in fact, called together his generals to ascertain the state of his army’s supplies and rations, and to determine the exact course of the next day’s action. Previous to this meeting, he had sent to his commanding general, Halleck in Washington, this message:
The enemy attacked me about 4 p. m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. … I shall remain in my present position to-morrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character. (Meade to Halleck, July 2, OR 27.1:72)
The generals’ meeting, taking place quite informally, gathered to discuss the army’s state in rations and the new information from prisoners that Lee had used his whole army, save Pickett, in the previous day’s assault. The options “voted on” asked officers if the army should shift itself closer to its base of supplies, wait to be attacked or to attack, and if to wait, how long. (Catton, 1982, p. 61; Sears, 2003, pp. 341-345).
As the meeting adjourned at midnight, Meade told John Gibbon, commander of Second Corps in the center of the line, that he expected Lee to attack him in the center. He then expressed his confidence in the day’s upcoming fight in a letter to his wife:
Dearest love, All well and going on well with the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking & we completely repulsing them – both armies shattered…. Army in fine spirits & every one determined to do or die. (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 345)
Returning to Shaara’s rendition, we find Chamberlain amazed that Meade would consider retreat. Lieutenant Pitzer tells him Hancock believes the enemy will be coming and that the 20th Maine should make itself available, if the fight should need them. Indeed, Hancock was enthusiastic about the victory he saw coming up, and when told that Lee had put in his whole army that day and emerged less than victorious, he raised his fist to Meade and exclaimed, “General, we have got them nicked!” (as recollected by Colonel George Sharpe, Bureau of Military Intelligence, qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 342).
Now in Shaara’s mind, we see Chamberlain privately meditating on the day, thinking on the tempting smell of food (his men being without rations), on his friend Buster Kilrain, what his wife would be doing, how pleasant sleep seemed. It should be noted that the person of Buster Kilrain never existed, and he constitutes the only primary character who is of Shaara’s imagination. The character, who had been busted to a private, may have been based upon the person of George Washington Buck, who also had been forcefully demoted and killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. (see his story at my previous post “Climax at Gettysburg”). Those seeking Kilrain’s grave at the battlefield of Gettysburg sadly look in vain.
At this point in Shaara’s story, General Sykes calls Chamberlain over and he proceeds to the generals’ headquarters, where he finds the men feasting on chicken – much to the torture of his desperate hunger. The general commends his action at the Little Round Top and tells him to rest, “nothing going to happen today” (Shaara, 2004, p. 293). Chamberlain walks back through the profuse aroma of boiled chicken and tries to work through his pride and ask for a piece of chicken. An aide of General John Gibbon, Lieutenant Frank Haskell, comes up and Chamberlain does manage to request some food, thinking that if he doesn’t get fuel soon to alleviate the loss of blood in his injured foot, he might very well pass out. Chamberlain divides the three pieces of chicken Haskell gives him. The food is “awful but marvelous” (Shaara, 2004, p. 294).
Now this, for once, is an example of the quaint placement of fact in fiction that Shaara is so deftly skilled. While Chamberlain himself never partook of the generals’ chicken or of their presence on this day, a meal of boiled chicken and potatoes was indeed served at noon by General Gibbon, commander of Second Division in Hancock’s corps, who recalled the meat being tough but acceptable (Catton, 1982, p. 74).
Back to Shaara… Chamberlain returns to his men and sees his brother Tom. He senses a sadness in Tom and regrets again sending him into that hole in the line. He determines to send Tom elsewhere in the army, lest he have to face that dilemma again. Tom tells him that Buster Kilrain has died. Sadness casts a spell over the brothers, and then Shaara has Chamberlain begin to despair in the manner of Longstreet: in a vacant loss of faith and hope beyond.
Now Shaara says in the preface of his book that “the interpretation of character is my own.” Certainly this is no more true than in the spiritual states of his main characters, Longstreet and Chamberlain. The real men are much more different and admirable. We can discover for ourselves how Chamberlain would react to a loss like that of Kilrain’s by examining his reaction to what he believed would be his own death after the Petersburg attack in late June 1863. At this time, Tom Chamberlain had learned that Lawrence was hurt badly and subsequently searched for hours to locate his injured brother. When found, Lawrence wanted surgeons to attend to his boys, yet his men would have none of it. The injury was near fatal, and a perceived posthumous recommendation for brigadier general was put forth for Chamberlain by Generals Warren and Griffin. On what he believed to be his deathbed, Lawrence wrote to his wife:
My darling wife I am lying mortally wounded the doctors think, but my mind & heart are at peace Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior. I go to him. God bless & keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me…. We shall all soon meet Live for the children Give my dearest love to Father, mother & Sallie & John Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven God bless you evermore precious precious one Ever yours Lawrence. (qtd. in Trulock, 1992, p. 215; complete text of letter in footnotes).
Likewise is the case with General Longstreet on the news of the death of his children in January 1862. While Shaara has us believe he despaired on God and faith, Longstreet in fact had fled to the comfort of his Catholic faith after the devastating loss: “An aide noted his ‘grief was very deep,’ while others commented on his change in personality. He sought solace in religion and gave up gambling” (Wert, 2006; see also Tumblin, 1998). This faith remained with him throughout his life (Longstreet, 1905, p. 220).
Back to Shaara… Chamberlain hears as the great Confederate cannonade begins. Men hit the ground, as they truly did on that shattering day. Smoke and shell cloud the air. Yet Chamberlain is beginning to faint from loss of blood. The Confederates are firing too high, and this is true: During the artillery barrage, it became safer to move to the west of the Federal army than to remain in the supposedly safer headquarters of Meade in the east.
The chapter ends with Chamberlain, thoughts spinning through his head, falling asleep. Shaara’s description of the gunfire that day is indeed in keeping with eyewitness accounts of the ferocity and thunder of the barrage: “Yankee soldiers groped for words to describe it…. Sergeant Ben Hirst, 24th Connecticut, told his wife, ‘Turn your eyes which way you will see the whole Heavens were filled with Shot and Shell, Fire and Smoke.’ ” (qtd in Sears, 2003, p. 396).
Complete text of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s farewell message to his wife:
“My darling wife I am lying mortally wounded the doctors think, but my mind & heart are at peace Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior. I go to him. God bless & keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me. To know & love you makes life & death beautiful. Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones Do not grieve for me. We shall all soon meet Live for the children Give my dearest love to Father, mother & Sallie & John Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven God bless you evermore precious precious one Ever yours Lawrence.”
Quoted in Trulock, 1992, p. 215
Catton, B. (1982). Gettysburg: The final fury. New York, NY: Berkley. (Original work published 1974)
Longstreet, H. D. (1905). Lee and Longstreet at high tide. Gainesville, GA: Princeton. Digitized 2009, retrieved from http://books.google.com
Sears, S.W. (2003). Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
Trulock, A.R. (1992). In the hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina.
Tedesco, M. & Armstrong, M. (1993). The making of Gettysburg [DVD]. United States: Turner Pictures.
Tumblin, J.C. (1998). James Longstreet. Retrieved from http://www.discoveret.org/kcwrt/history/hlo-text.htm
Wert, J. D. (2006, August). James Longstreet: Robert E. Lee’s most valuable soldier. The Civil War Times. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/james-longstreet-robert-e-lees-most-valuable-soldier.htm
U.S. War Dept. (1880-1901). War of the rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
(Meade to Halleck, retrieved from http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/sources/recordView.cfm?page=72&dir=043)
The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.