Wednesday, July 3, 2019

With Pickett

Looking east towards Cemetery Ridge, south of Gettysburg
Google Street View
Rafe Jackson and Tom Benson were a couple of good old boys from Fairfax County, Virginia. They'd mustered into Captain James Thrift's company back in July of '61. Now known as "G" Company, 8th Virginia Infantry, commanded by Colonel Eppa Hutton. They'd seen a lot of hard action since the beginning of the war. They'd taken so many casualties that the Colonel always called the outfit "The Bloody Eighth."

Tom and Rafe were the only boys in "G" left from the old days, there were a lot of replacements these days but the regiment still had high morale and considered themselves to be in the "best damn brigade" in the Army of Northern Virginia, Garnett's Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett.

Court-martialed after Kernstown by old "Mad Tom" Jackson, Garnett, and his brigade had something to prove. Even if Jackson was dead, the Brigade still smarted from the insult to their commander's honor.

As they waited in the shelter of a copse of trees next to a wide field sloping upwards to a ridge a long way's off, the men waited for, as Rafe called it, the "day's festivities" to begin.

Tom just shook his head as Rafe, his childhood best friend, broke off a chaw and offered it to one of the greenhorns, kid looked like he was about to wet himself. Rafe chuckled and offered it to Tom instead. Tom took it and told Rafe to leave the young fellows be. Tom remembered First Manassas, he had wet himself at that one, as had a lot of other fellows.

The day was already terribly hot and Tom and Rafe were glad of the shade. Around 1 of the clock, Tom reckoned by the height of the sun, the Confederate guns started to thump. Looked like the bluebellies up on the ridge were going to catch Hell today!
"Rafe!" Tom nudged his buddy with the toe of his shoe, "Get up, look's like we's fixin' to advance."

Rafe Jackson got up onto one knee, doffed his kepi and mopped his brow, then he spit out the rest of his chaw, "Can't believe I fell asleep, Tom. What with all the ruckus from those cannon. We'ums ready to drive the bluebellies back to Washington?"

"Yup, I reckon so. There's our general on his horse, what's he thinking?"

Sergeant Parsons, a real hard case from the Alexandria docks, was walking by and heard Tom's remark, he smacked Benson on the back of the head and leaned into him, telling him:

"General's got a damned fever and he can barely walk, damned horse done kicked him. But he's not gonna sit this one out. Not with the ghost of old Mad Tom looking down on 'im. No sir, now you just keep your eyes to the front and do your damned job, Tom Benson. Or sure as Bobby Lee commands this army, I'll have your guts for garters!"

"More likely looking up!" Rafe chuckled as he nudged Tom in the ribs.

"I got my eye on you too, Jackson." He growled as he went further down the line, getting the laggards to their feet.

Now the commands were ringing out to form up. Rifles were shouldered, the lines were dressed, and the men made ready to advance. As they did so, old George Pickett himself thundered down the line on horseback waving his kepi in the air:

"Go get 'em boys! For the honor of Old Virginny! Let's drive those Yankees so hard they'll wish they'd never been born!"




The drums began to rumble and thump as the three brigades of Virginia infantry under Dick Garnett stepped out on the long march to the other side of the field. Glory awaited.
Pickett's charge from a position on the Confederate line looking toward the Union lines,
Ziegler's grove on the left, clump of trees on right.
Painting by Edwin Forbes
One of the first cannon rounds aimed their way took Sergeant Parson's head off at the shoulders. Bone, blood, and brain matter spattered the men in the nearby file. Parsons never felt a thing.

"Jesus, and here I've been telling folks that old Sarge didn't have any brains at all. Seems like he did after all!"

A young lieutenant behind the two Fairfax County boys began to vomit as more men fell around him.

"Rafe, ain't ya got no sentiment at'all?"

"Sure I do Tom, just not for sergeants." Turning to the young officer behind him who looked to be sick again, Rafe laughed and said, "Ya know lieutenant, you could get in a lotta trouble for puking up them army rations. Some fellers didn't get that much!"

The lieutenant stumbled again, looking to vomit once more, but this time it was blood pouring from his mouth as a piece of shell from a nearby burst had torn into his chest. He fell to the ground and died without a sound. He was only twenty years old.

"Close it up boys, close it up! We're damned near there!" The captain had his hat on the tip of his sword and was waving them forward. Sure enough, there was a wall up ahead with what had to be all the damned Yankees in the world behind it.

Tom saw old Dick Garnett fall to one knee, his hat was gone. Tom wondered what had happened to the general's horse. As he lowered his rifle, the world exploded.

Just before the light and the heat washed over him, he saw Rafe's grinning face one last time. Just before a Union artillery piece emptied its load of canister right in their faces. Rafe's body had shielded Tom from the worst effects of the canister, but the blast tore most of his uniform away and knocked him unconscious.

He didn't see the rest of the brigade fall, what few men left who weren't captured streamed back across the way they had come. Dead Confederates marking the way. For all intents and purposes, Pickett's Division had ceased to exist.

Of the 8th Virginia Infantry, only eleven men and one officer survived to fight another day. On April 6, 1865, the majority of the regiment was killed or surrendered at the Battle of Sayler's Creek. The surgeon and eleven privates who escaped that battle were paroled 3 days later following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. (Source)

Private Rafael Jackson's body was never found, there was not enough left to be found. His kepi, found on the field by a ten-year old boy, survived in a cupboard on a nearby farm until 1978 when a new family moved in and threw the old moldering relic out. They had no idea what it was.

As for Private Thomas Benson, he survived Northern captivity and returned home to Fairfax County, Virginia, where he worked in a tavern until he died at the age of 46. He still carried a piece of steel from the blast which had killed his friend Rafe. One day, while moving a barrel of ale, the steel shifted, nicking his femoral artery. He was alone and bled out before he was even aware of his injury. Some local folks said he was the last casualty of Pickett's Charge.*
"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...."

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (Source)
Dedicated to the men who crossed that bloody field on the afternoon of the 3rd of July, 1863:

Heth's Division (Isaac Trimble commanding)

Pettigrew's Brigade
11th North Carolina
26th North Carolina
47th North Carolina
52nd North Carolina

Archer's Brigade
13th Alabama
5th Alabama Battalion
1st Tennessee
7th Tennessee
14th Tennessee

Davis's Brigade
2nd Mississippi
11th Mississippi
42nd Mississippi
55th North Carolina

Brockenbrough's Brigade
47th Virginia
40th Virginia
55th Virginia
22nd Virginia Battalion

Lane's Brigade
7th North Carolina
18th North Carolina
33rd North Carolina
28th North Carolina
37th North Carolina

Scale's Brigade
13th North Carolina
16th North Carolina
22nd North Carolina
34th North Carolina
38th North Carolina

Pickett's Division

Armistead's Brigade
9th Virginia
14th Virginia
38th Virginia
53rd Virginia
57th Virginia

Garnett's Brigade
8th Virginia
18th Virginia
19th Virginia
28th Virginia
56th Virginia

Kemper's Brigade
1st Virginia
3rd Virginia
7th Virginia
11th Virginia
24th Virginia

Anderson's Division

Wilcox's Brigade
8th Alabama
9th Alabama
10th Alabama
11th Alabama
14th Alabama

Perry's Brigade
2nd Florida
5th Florida
8th Florida

Long may their memory be bright.

* Rafael Jackson, Thomas Benson, and Sergeant Parsons are all fictional characters.


  1. Well done Sarge, well done. What, some 12,000 men? What a sight to have seen.........

  2. Hey AfSarge;

    Very good story, like all of yours have been. Picketts charge, considered the highpoint of the confederacy. Gettysburg tore the guts out of the Army of Northern Virginia and as I recall, Lee never forgave himself for ordering that charge. Your stories are excellent, I piggybacked a story you wrote with the KV tanks about the fortress "Tank" into a blogpost I was working on and linked it to your blog for the story. I hope you don't mind.

  3. My mom’s family was from that region of Pennsylvania. We still have a copy of a local newspaper with a story about the burning of Chambersburg. Stories about wandering the battlefield before it became hypercommercialized, and still seeing trees that had been visibly damaged by shellfire and bullets.

    I went a few times as a kid, and went back in 2011 or so. Far too many tourists for my taste. Antietam seems to me more what a battlefield *should* be like, hallowed ground.

    1. Antietam hasn't been commercialized to the extent of Gettysburg.

  4. On our last visit to Gettysburg we were standing somewhere in the Union lines and looking across the fields to where Pickett's Charge began.
    Having your feet on the actual ground and looking across the fields drives home the fact that the Confederates walked from the starting point to where we were standing while under heavy fire.

    Very well written story. Thank you.

  5. I have stood on that field in the heat of a July day and thought of those thousands of young men, in blue and in grey, steaming in their wool uniforms, knowing that all Hell was about to envelop them. Once the artillery opened the field would have been quickly covered with thick white smoke and that would have covered the early portion of the advance. But once they became clearly visible to the Union troops death filled the air. The Union troops yelled "Fredricksburg, Fredricksburg" as they poured fire into the advancing Confederates. The number of casualties was overwhelming on both sides. I have always regretted the deaths of Generals Armistead and Dick Garnett (who died without being able to disprove the accusation of cowardice leveled against him by Stonewall Jackson). And I think it a shame that history knows it as "Pickett's Charge." George Pickett was a vain, incompetent, glory seeker who doesn't deserve the fame he has received. As usual, OAFS, you have done a magnificent job of capturing the moment. Like Faulkner's fourteen year old, the first time I stood there looking up the slope toward the corpse of trees, I thought "what if..." Your story brought all that back once more.

  6. Horrifying tale. Vivid description of the Hell of the 'modern' battlefield at the time.

    And to do this in summer, wearing wool, while malnourished and somewhat starving.

    Just... wow.

    1. It was also extremely hot and humid that July.

  7. Wonderful story Sarge. Didn't Longstreet console Lee to not go to Gettysburg?

    Pickett's Charge.

    What a waste that was.

    1. Longstreet wanted to withdraw south and position themselves between Meade and Washington DC, make the Federals attack.

      Lee would have none of that, knew his army would balk at retreating without a fight.

    nice trivia relating to uniforms...
    also, the Pickett's charge was something that could succeed in Napoleonic era, but with mass rifled muskets and shrapnel-firing artillery... hard luck

  9. Another good one, Sarge! But...
    Was the young lieutenant Siamese twins? "Y'all" is plural, never singular.
    --Tennessee Budd

    1. I thought the plural was "all y'all?"

      (Exposing my Yankee ignorance. 😉)

    2. "Y'all" is small plural, like 2-5 people, maybe up to 10ish. So, sergeant to squad, "Y'all gonna police the grounds, pronto or else."

      "All y'all" is large plural, like 6 or more. So, head sergeant to a company, "All y'all gonna police the grounds, lest I break my foot in every one of y'all's asses!" ("All y'all" is the company, then he addresses the individual as a plural in "y'all.")

      Of course, the numbers that delineate "y'all" level numbers changes depending on what dialect of Southern one may be speaking.

      It's Southern, so it's complicatd.

    3. Beans pretty much got it.
      What confuses many Northerners is that you might say "y'all" to one person, but only when making reference to a larger group. I might ask Dwayne, "Y'all doing anything this weekend?", but it would mean, "What plans have you & your family for the holiday?".

  10. USS Tornado appears to be docked in Bristol (my brother sends pics from the feery), will they let you tour it?

    1. Sometimes they do, I've toured USS Curts off of Bristol on the 4th. Tomorrow I'll be nursing a busted finger. Stay tuned.

    2. Ouch, man. Speedy recovery.

  11. Hey Sarge, sorry I haven't been much of a comment-er recently. The Navy, in its always infinite wisdom, has blocked access to The Chant. There is a way to get it unblocked, but ever since Win10 was forced on us, there's about a million sites that don't work well, time out, etc., and this includes the one to request a site be unblocked. Being a MilBlog and very Navy friendly, I doubt I'll have an issue, unless I don't get through the aforementioned issue. I would often peek at the blog at work, then comment at night, Alaska Cruise Friday. "See you" when I get back.

    1. Ah the "wisdom" of Navy IT.

      Have fun on the cruise! We're gonna need pictures ya know.

  12. I need to go there. How do I tell the one I love that I'm heading to Gettysburg to walk a battle field a century old? I've been there as a wee lad but not the same. I now have a fairly complete picture of the battle which I didn't the last time I was there or at Antietam or Bull Run. I'll figure it out. I now live next to PA, not in CA so it should be easy. A walk in the park. of course, John Ringo has given new meaning that phrase.

    1. Do it, you won't regret it.
      My mother is a history buff, too, and was always too busy to travel much. After my Dad died & she retired, I used my vacation in 2014 to accompany her to Gettysburg. Spent several days there, & it is & will remain a treasured memory.
      We went back the next year just to nose around Harper's Ferry for a couple of days.
      --Tennessee Budd


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