An Account of Pickett's Charge as Preserved in an Old Letter
TESTIMONY OF OFFICERS ENGAGED
What They Thought of the Failure on the Part of the Support
DEATH'S RICH HARVEST
Career of Captain James From That Event - Until After the End of the War
Before coming to the letter a word or two as to its historic value. No battle of ancient or modern times has been more written about and comcritics with exceptional unanimity, have agreed in distinguishing it as the pivotal or decisive battle of the war. To it greater prominence has been given than to either of the fatal surrender of Vicksburg and Appomattox. Bearing in its immediate results no resemblance to Waterloo or Sedan, where in each case the defeat of the vanquished was complete and overwhelming, it has none the less regarded, because of its remote results, the turning point in the great civil war. For the first and virtually last time in its eventful history the Army of Northern Virginia had made an attack and failed. True, its morale had been preserved, but at a fearful and irreparable sacrifice of its rank and file. Mr. Davis in his book pithily and mournfully tells the story in a sentence: " The battle of Gettysburg was unfortunate. Though the loss sustained by the enemy was greater than our own, theirs could be repaired-ours could not." Its importance attaches to every incident of the engagement more or less of interest; hence the heated controversies between distinguished officers over points in themselves seemingly trivial. We may deplore the acrimonious spirit characterizing some of these discussions, but we cannot fail to appreciate the significance of many facts elicited by them.
The following letter was written by an officer of unusual intelligence when the incidents he undertakes to describe were still fresh in his mind. His statements as to the time, place and manner of certain movements which have formed the subjects of controversy are certainly entitled to grave consideration. Without daring an expression of opinion as to the merits of the late discussion between two distinguished Southern generals concerning the alleged delay of one of them in getting his troops into line on the morning of the 3d, I may, without inpropriety, direct attention to the contemporaneous statements of Captain James upon that point. He represents Pickett's Division ( a part of Longstreet's Corps) as moving out of camp before daylight and in actual line of battle before 10 A.M. My recollection concurs with Captain James' statement.
There is another part of the letter deserving consideration. Along with most of the officers and men of Pickett's Division, who participated in and survived the famous charge. I have always attributed the failure of July 3 not to any mistakes of General Lee or any delay on the part of General Longstreet, but to the wild and unaccountable panic that took possession of the line of troops ordered to our support. This line really started to reinforce us, but for some reason or other, I have never clearly understood, it broke into wild confusion long before arriving within ordinary musket range of the summit.Captain James stated that, " after terrible loss we (Pickett's Divison) reached the breastworks and some of the men had taken possession of the cannon, when we saw the enemy advancing heavy reinforcements. We looked back for ours but in vain, we were compelled to fall back and had again to run as targets for their balls. The enemy's reinforcements here spoken of came up from the other side of the hill, obliquely upon our right. When within rifle range they opened ahot and well directed fire upon the already decimated ranks of our division, killing, wounding and disabling many. The relative position at that critical moment of our advanced forces is not a matter of mere speculation with the present writer.. He remembers, but too well, that he, with others of his regiment, was some yards beyond the enemy's line of field artillery and the famous rock-wall (part natural and part artificial), when suddenly wounded and disabled by a Minnie ball coming obliquely from the right and penetrating his right hip. And he will venture to assert that the archives of the Gettysburg Hospital, if any were kept, will show that all nearly all of Pickett's men wounded that day, after temporary capture of the enemy's guns, received the shots upon the right side of the body.
CAMP PICKETT'S DIVISION,
BETWEEN HAGERSTOWN AND WILLIAMSPORT
WEDNESDAY, JULY 9,1863
MY DEAR FATHER:
As I am wet, dirty, tired and miserable in every way, I will not attempt to write a letter but merely copy off a few of my "pencillings by the wayside." for my mind is in about as low a state as my body. We had been lying at Richmond and Hanover Junction for some time when orders were received to break up camp and join the rest of the corps at Culpeper Court House. After three days' march we arrived at that place in time to join Hood and McClaws, who had just started with their divisions in the direction of Blue Ridge Mountain. On our way we passed through the villages of Paris and Upperville, and at the latter place learned that Hooker was endeavoring to reach the gap in our front, known as Snicker's.This, of course, caused us to increase our gait and although we had a severe march, yet we accomplished our work in a short time and gained for ourselves and advantageous position, should the enemy deem it necessary to attack us. We remained at this place and Uppeville for three days, when we again started out, passing through Martinsburg and several minor villages on the way. About 3 o'clock in the evening we arrived on the south branch of the Potomac, opposite Williamsport, Md., and commenced crossing. The crossing was anything but pleasant, as the bottom was full of rock and a great crowd of men shoving and jostling you about the whole time you were in the river. But, like everything else, it had an end, and so after a great deal of labor we landed on the Maryland side.
Across the Potomac and in the land of our enemy! How often had we looked forward and hoped for the long-expected time! Virginia, our native State,, was now for a time at least to be freed from the desolation and cruelties incident to the presence of an armed foe, whilst the land of our enemy was to receive some of the treatment (but not all, thanks to our great-hearted General!) which had been so lavishly dealt to ours! Everything seemed to favor us. An army that had never been defeated, flushed by recent brilliant victories, and now by marching against its old antagonist-an antagonist we had met so often, and whipped as often as we had met. On, on, we march, welcomed by the smiles of the ladies and cheered by our numerous sympathizers in Maryland, until at last we step from her territory into that of her neighbor, Pennsylvania- frightening by our armed presence rather than aggressive acts, by our shouts of joy rather than barbarous threats, out of our comfortable and heretofore happy homes, the inmates who had all along imagined themselves free from the ravages of war, living here in ease and contentment, furnishing men and means to carry on the war against the "rebels".
The heavens were dark and gloomy, but our hearts were glad as we now stepped forward for the first time upon the soil of the foe, never stopping until we pitched camp in the very midst of the Philistines at Chambersburg. Our division, the rear of Longstreet's Corps, here remained two whole days and the part of a third. About 2 A.M. on the third day of our stay we broke up camp and marched toward Gettysburg, having received marching orders the evening before. We had not marched far before we heard that Ewell and Hill had met the enemy the day previous (Wednesday, July 1) just this side of Gettysburg, and after killing and wounding a great many and capturing two thousand, had driven them back to the food of the South Mountain on the left. On Thursday, the 2d, the same day, we marched from Chambersburg to Gettysburg. Longstreet, with Hood's and McLaws' Division, made a stubborn attack upon the enemy's left, with a result only partially successful. We could hear from where we were all of the cannonading, and that night we went to bed a few miles from the town fully convinced that the merrow would bring forth the great fight.
Before daylight on Friday, the 3d, we were put in motion and before 10 o'clock A.M. we occupied the ground from which the charge was made. A short time after we got there General Longstreet, and after him General Lee, rode along in front of us to see if everything was right and examine the position of the enemy. As soon as we saw this we knew a fight and a big fight at that was brewing, and it was hardly necessary for General Kemper to come around, as he did, and tell us that our division as assigned the task of storming the heights in our front and capturing the artillery of the enemy; that the two signal guns would be fired upon our right, after which our artillery would open a heavy fire and continue for some time. Upon the cessation of the fire we were to move forward and capture the heights or die in the attempt.
We were then behind a hill (a gently sloping one) from which we could not get a very good view of the enemy, and I went up to the top to reconnoitre. Immediately in our front was a range of lofty hills (I term then mountains) and a little distance beyond and above of the foot of these hills were posted the enemy, strongly entrenched, whilst in the right and left of the point which we had to attack was a very high knob, on the top of which the wood had left a mile's distance betwen us and them, and with the exception of an orchard covering one tenth of the distance, and one small house, we had no protection whatever. I was almost fully convinved, after looking at the situation of affairs that I would never get back safe, and I am even now almost persuaded that I was saved in that charge by a miracle of some kind of other.
We waited patiently and wished, though dreaded, for the signal to commence the action and probably for the order that would seal our fate. At last my company was thrown out as skirmishers (Captain Houston was acting as a field officer), and soon afterwards the skirmishers of the other regiments were placed in a line with mine and marched some distance to the front and ordered to lie down and await until the artillery had ceased firing. Soon the signal gun fired, and then from the throats of over two hundred cannons such a storm of shot and shells were sent forth as not battle-field in America ever witnessed before. The Federals were not taken by surprise, fort in a few seconds their solid shot were tearing up the ground around us, and their shells busting in our very faces. I have heard and witnessed heavey cannonading, but never in my life had I seen or heard anything equal to this. Some enthusiasts back in the Commissary Department may speak of it as grand and sublime, but unless grandeur and sublimity consist in whatever is terrible and horrible, it was wanting in both of these qualities. Whilst this artillery duel was in progress we were lying in a field with a very heavy growth of grass, so thick in fact, it was impossible for any wind to get throughit, and this with the intense heat of the sun, produced several cases of sunstroke among our men.
After about and hour's work the artillery ceased firing and allowed the infantry to pass
them. SLowly but steadily we marched forward, the line of battle suffering terribly, but we
skirmishers being in front and extended across the field they shot over us, seeming to
prefer the larger mass. I may remark here that this thing saved our company from the
fearful loss that befell those in the regular line.By some mischance the line of battle,
instead of following us, obliqued to the left, and by the time they came on a line with us
we were on their right instead of being immediately in front, but as soon as I noticed this I
tried to get my men to go with me to the brigade; but the noise was so great and the line
of skirmishers so long I could not get them to hear me. I followed out with those near me,
trusting the rest would follow as soon as they noticed the mistake. At every step some
poor fellow would fall, and as his pitiful cry would come to my ear I almost imagined it
the wail of some loved one he had left at home. The ground was covered with the dead,
but not all ours, for the Federals had been driven over the same ground the day before. As
the brigade reached nearer the enemy's position the death rate increased. After terrible loss
to the regiment, brigade and division, we reached and actually captured the breastworks.
Some of the men had taken possession of the cannon, when we saw the enemy advancing
heavy reinforcements. We looked back for ours, but in vain, we were compelled to fall
back and had again as targets to their balls. Oh, it was hard to be compelled to give way
for the want of men, after having fought as hard as we had that day. The unwounded (I
among the number) soon got back to the place where we started from. We gained nothing
but glory and lost our bravest men.
Captain Houston was mortally wounded. I did not get to see him during the engagement
and cannot tell how he acted, but as he was as brave as the brave can be, no doubt as to
what and how he did. He was shot through the bowels with a Minnie ball while leading the
regiment into the thickest of the charge. General Garnett was killed on the field, General
Kemper* mortally wounded and General Armstead**slightly wounded and taken prisoner.
The only field officer left in our brigade (Kemper's) is Colonel Mayo, of the Third Virginia
Infantry, who is now in command. The other two briagades of the division are in
command of majors and captains.
The brigade went into action with fifteen hundred strong. It now numbers five hundred all
told. Owing to our unusual loss we have been placed in charge of the prisoners captured
during the three days' battle. It is even reported that we are now on the way to Richmond
Your affectionate son,
JOHN T. JAMES
** General Armstead, a skilfull officer, educated at West Point, was mortally instead of slightly wounded. I remember seeing him after his capture, being conveyed on a litter to the rear of enemy's lines. He was for a time believed by his captors to be General Longstreet, though in personal appearance there was but little, if any, resemblance between the two. When I informed the guard in charge of me that the wounded general on the litter was not Longstreet but Armstead they refused to give my statement credence, evidently thinking I was purposely deceiving them.
The value of evidence depends upon the character of the witness. It may not be out of place therefore to add a few words to what has already been said about the writer of the foregoing letter. John Thomas James was born in Fincastle, Botelourt county, Va., November 25,1841. He was the eldest son of Green James, a gentleman of considerable intelligence, long connected with the bar, press and politics of the State. In 1859, when eighteen years of age, he was entered as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, then, as now, the West Point of the South. Here he remained until the commencement of hostilities in 1861 , enjoying the esteem of the professors and unusual poularity with the corps. At the very beginning of the war it was obvious to the very sagacious leaders that large armies would have to be formed out of raw and inexperienced volunteers; that to accomplish this would require the aid of every man who had received the advantages of military training. Hence the attention of the Confederate Government at Montgomery, Ala., and the State government at Richmond, Va., was early called to the importance of securing the services of the Lexington cadets as drill officers for the raw recruits.These were cheerfully tendered. And so, early in the spring of 1861, young James, along with a number of other cadets, was sent to Richmond to assist in drilling the Southern troops that had already in large numbers reached the city. He was assigned to a Texas company. So faithfully did he discharge his duy and so popular he became with these brave and intelligent gentlemen that they offered him a commission of lieutenancy in their company - a signal honor under the circumstances. On his declination of this unexpected honor they presented him with a handsome gold ring of considerable value. While still in Richmond he received information of his election, on the 18th of July, as first lieutenant of the Fincastle Rifles, Company D, Eleventh Virginia Infantry, then near Manassas. It is somewhat singular that this election occurred the same day the Eleventh was actively engaged in the battle of Bull Run. The men never regretted their choice. He remained with them throughout the war. At Drainsville, when his company won special notice as skirmishers from General Jeb Stuart, he displayed great valor and won the lasting respect of the men. It is not the purpose of this sketch to detail the eventful war history of Lieutenant and Captain James. But apart from personal biography, one of its incidents is worthy of passing notice.
No history of the war that we have read has given sufficient importance to the battle fought on the 5th of May, 1862, between the rear division of General Joseph E. Johnston's army on the one side and more than half of General McClellan's entire Army of the Potomac on the other. In the humble judgment of the present writer it was fought on both sides, certainly on the Confederate side, with more tactical system, with closer reference to military evolutions as taught in the manual than any of the previous or subsequent engagements witnessed by him. It was a Southern victory, as every Southern soldier engaged in it knows. General Johnston with the sagacity of a great captain, had perceived that the Peninsula was untenable against a combined army and naval attack, and subsequently had wisely resolved to withdraw his lines to the Chickahominy. This movement was commenced, if we remember right on the 3d of May. Being quickly followed by McClellan, and at the same time threatened by the enemy's gunboats moving up the York river, it became necessary on the part of Johnston, for the safety of his army, to inflict a severe blow upon the enemy. Hence the battle of Williamsburg. The object was accomplished, the enemy checked, and the morning following the Army of Northern Virginia, quietly and without further molestation from McClellan's troops, proceeded on its way to the Chickahominy.
In that battle the Eleventh Virginia, then in General A.P. Hill's Brigade, bore a conspicuous if personal sadness to Lieutenant James. Early in the action, as Hill's Brigade was pressing the enemy back through a forest, Edward W. James, a brother of the Lieutenant and a private in the same company, a mere boy in years (under the age of eighteen), yet a man in battle, was instantly killed. It was a trying moment for Lieutenant James - one of those exalted moment in battle when affection draws the soldier one way, whilst duty points out another. He had seen his young brother fall, and the impulse of his nature, always exquisitely generous, prompted him, doubtlessly, to stop and assist. But stern duty prevailed. Quickly embracing the dying form of Edward, he rushed foward to the charge and five minutes afterwards was himself dangerously wounded, being shot through the thigh with a Minie ball. That night he was carried back by his comrades to William and Mary College, used at the time as a hospital. Here, the next day, he fell into the hands of the enemy. After having partially recovered he was sent with others to the old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., where he remained three months before being exchanged. After his return he continued as first Lieutenant of Company D until after the battle of Gettysburg,when, as we have seen, he was promoted to captaincy.
Captain James, after serving through the entire war, came out of the army with his strength repaired and constitution shattered. Some time after returning home he commenced the publication of the Fincastle Herald. In this business he met with the most gratifying success, and had his health permitted would doubtless have continued in it. As a writer he was clear, logical and forcible, but rarely rhetorical. He was so modest as to always under-rate his own performaces, and so generous as to over-rate those of others. He continued editing the Herald for more than three years, when he determined to try his fortunes in the great West. He left home in the spring of 1870. He died suddenly in the city of Cincinnati on the 27th of April, 1875. His remains were brought home and interred in the cemetary of his native town. None wore the gray more worthily. He did not die in battle, but for the South he gave his youth, sacrificed his health and poured out his heart. Many of his old army comrades will read the Gettysburg letter with interest, and recall as they read it the heroic virtues of the writer.