Gettysburg: The Sergeant

The noted chronicler of U.S. military history explores the thoughts of a fictional Confederate fighter as he prepares his troops for Pickett’s Charge

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Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War

July 3, 1863 They had marched most of the night, the early morning spent in whatever sleep the men could find. As the noonday sun slid overhead, they were moved forward, ordered to gather close within a thicket of tall trees. The sergeant did as he always did, cursed his way through the men in his squad, keeping them in tight quarters, with an eye on those few who might slip away to scrounge for something to eat. Through the trees, he could see the other squads of G Company and, beyond them, the entire 9th Virginia. He had no pocket watch, knew only it was early afternoon, knew that very soon the orders would come from the captain that the great plan was to begin, the strategy plotted by generals to be carried forward on the backs of the men with the muskets. The captain had told them all it was to be a glorious day, repeating words passed down from George Pickett himself. The sergeant could feel an odd sense of presence: far beyond where he could see, a great many more men were spread all through this wide tree line, perhaps the entire division, perhaps the entire army, an enormous force ordered into stillness, waiting, knowing that when the bugles sounded, the command was simple: Rise, fall into line, and move forward. One more glorious fight.

Colonel Owens had spent much of the morning farther back in the woods with his company commanders, a cluster of brass that the sergeant avoided. Too many of those men were younger than he was, some of them yet to face the enemy at all. But there were the others, the good ones, the men you wanted to follow, his own lieutenant for one. There was no friendship between them, just that unspoken obedience that had to be earned, no matter what the manuals said, what had been taught back in the training camps. But the lieutenant had been unflinching, had led them straight into the worst hell the sergeant had ever seen, a fight on the Virginia Peninsula at a place called Seven Pines. Those who survived that were more than just veterans. They were the iron in this regiment, and whether or not those men wore the stripes on their sleeves, the sergeant knew they were just as capable as he was of pulling the shirkers into line. This morning, as they reached the camps near this Pennsylvania town, it was the veterans who carried the grim enthusiasm, the talk flowing through the column so that when the bugles sounded, it would be serious and deadly and would give them victory.

The sergeant had been through the fights since the peninsula, the second brawl at Manassas Junction, the gut-churning slaughter of the Yankees at Fredericksburg. All the men who had marched out of those fights were prepared for this one, and when the captain told them what they were to do, there was no confusion. The enemy they would face was a mile away, and if they won the day, they could end the war. All they had to do was make it through the Yankee lines, drive the bluebellies away, and have enough strength left to hold the ground.

Sure, he thought. Why not? If it will end the war …

He scanned them, the veterans easiest to spot, most sitting alone with their muskets resting against them, a kind of partnership only veterans understand. But there were others too, the replacements, green and stupid, big talkers, those who still believed in the adventure of it all. He looked them over, one at a time, boys who thought they were soldiers, who had never seen the enemy, never sighted down the musket at a target, at a man, that soldier in blue who might be aiming back at you. Unlike the veterans, they were excited, babbling nervous chatter, sitting in clusters, imagining, predicting, anticipating the order, gripping the muskets tight against their chests. They will run, he thought. Some of them. Some won’t. Some will stand tall and not flinch, and so they will be the first ones to die. Or, if they survive this day, they’ll have changed, be just like these veterans, the men who know of blood and wounds and killing. And the boys will be men.

He glanced up, a hard breeze rustling the tree limbs, green leaves holding away the blanket of heat from a blistering sun. Cooler here, he thought. Out there … wide open grass, rolling ground. We’ll be hidden for a while, maybe. The canteens are filled, but there won’t be time for that, not in the wide open. The Yankees will see us soon enough … and then it will start. He rubbed his beard with a rough hand, nervous himself now, tried to hide it. He couldn’t stay still, saw the lieutenant pacing behind them, and he moved that way, the officer so much younger than he was, sweating, hands in motion, lips moving, and the sergeant backed away, thought, Let him be. He’s in his own place, prayers I guess, maybe just trying to remember what an officer is supposed to do. My job’s easier. Walk out behind these boys and keep them in line, and when they start to go down, fill the gaps. Nothing complicated about it. Might even get to shoot a Yankee myself. Only thing for certain: when it begins, I won’t be the first one to go down. Men in front of me. Now, there’s somebody’s really good idea. Put the sergeants in back. Some general figured that out, and sure as the dickens, he used to be a sergeant.

Far to one side, a sharp clap of thunder punched the air, jolting him, a stab at the cold fear he tried to ignore. More now, an eruption of sounds from both directions, what had to be dozens of guns, and he tried to see, as they all did. But there was nothing in view, just the terrifying roar, like nothing he had ever heard, a hundred cannons, his brain telling him it was every gun in the army. He felt the power of it all, marvelous artillery, what it would do out there, blasting and obliterating Yankee cannons, killing men, terrifying the rest, driving them away. He inched forward, the tree line ending a few yards to the front, but the colonel was there now, saw him, shook his head, a silent order, motioning him back. Not yet.

The smoke drifted through the trees now, hard stink of sulfur, tearing the eyes, but he fought through that, actually enjoyed the smell. His own men were reacting with coughing, wiping of eyes, some, like him, knowing that those guns had a purpose, opening the way for all these men, knowing that out there, the Yankees were suffering a brutal destruction, guns and wagons and the men themselves.

He moved slowly through them, some lying flat, some against trees, the calm and the terrified. He saw tears on a man’s face, but it wasn’t the sulfur. The man was staring out with wide-eyed animal fear and, the sergeant saw now, a wad of letters in his hand. The sergeant knelt, put a hand on his shoulder, steel in his grip. The man was shaking, more tears, and he reached out to the sergeant, handed him the letters, mouthed the words, something about … home. The sergeant stuffed the papers in his pocket, a sharp nod. He had done this before. It was the one piece of gentleness he could offer them, the one pause in the cursing toughness they expected from him. He studied the man’s eyes, saw a change, a strange acceptance, the perfect certainty that death was very close, very soon, and the sergeant knew there was no argument, no order that could erase that.

He stood, backed away, looked over them all, their surprise from so much artillery fire starting to pass. Many had their heads down, nothing else to do, the veterans knowing that when the guns stopped, the order would come. He looked for the lieutenant, saw him kneeling, checking his pistol, one hand moving the sword out of the scabbard. Good, he thought. Be ready. Do your job.

The first incoming shell whistled far overhead, exploding in the woods behind him, a burst of fiery smoke. Now more, shrieks that tore through the air to one side, a scattering of blasts in the trees. He cursed, dropped to one knee, felt the familiar anger, knew it was the answer, the Yankees’ role in the duel. They’re aiming at our guns and overshooting. Damn fools. Killing men who haven’t even started moving.

The ground jumped with each incoming shell, some of the new men squirming with fear, but there was nowhere to go, no other place to be. A sharp scream blew through a tree he could see, and he flinched, unavoidable. Through the ongoing roars of the guns came a man’s cry, a different kind of scream. Eyes stared that way, and he held up his hand, a furious glare they knew well, held them in place. The heads dropped again, many of the men pulling themselves into a tighter ball, becoming smaller, the only protection.

The artillery fire was numbing now, long minutes, maybe an hour, his lungs growing used to the smoke, the stink absorbed all through him, the impacts in a soft rhythm that made him sleepy. His eyes drifted shut, his shoulders slumped, the musket leaning up across one leg, his brain drifting off, thoughts of home, Virginia, his wife, tears and pleading, and finally, her surrender. He had marched away from her breathing the dust of 200 others, following the colonel’s horse, proud, energized men, filled with the spirit of this magnificent adventure, manufactured hatred for the Yankees, those dastardly devils, an army off to fight a war that no one really believed would happen. There were reasons why it did, of course, the most pronounced coming from the men who would stay home.

On the march, they had been swallowed by fury and dedication, officers inspiring them with raucous boasts of the weakness of the men in blue. The generals had come, great gatherings in open fields where men with clean uniforms told them of the honor of Virginia, as though some of the men might forget just why they had volunteered. Now, two years later, the energy remained, strengthened this time by the march into Pennsylvania, treading on Yankee soil. The generals came again, Pickett himself, rousing enthusiasm, so much talk of victory. He thought again of her, drying her eyes, and he missed her painfully. I will be home soon …

The artillery stopped.

He jolted awake, saw officers hustling to the front, the colonel, the company commanders, a horseman riding past, a staff, flags, the lieutenant rushing past him, calling out, the men standing up. The drums began now, punching the ice in his chest, and he added to the shouts, pulling the men into formation, the annoyance from the parade ground replaced by the urgency to get it done right. He stepped up close, men in two lines in front of him, jerked one man’s shoulder, closing the gap, straightening the line. He shivered, couldn’t avoid that, angry at himself, distracted himself by staring down the lines, rows of men stretching far out into the woods, drums all around, nervous talk, more shouted orders. The drums seemed to grow louder, filling him, and he fought to keep control, to keep them in control, his sweating fist gripping the musket tight by his side. Farther out front he saw the captain, motioning them forward, slowly, more focus on the lines, the formation. He looked to the side, other sergeants down the line, a quick glance, a nod, fire in the eyes, and now the new sound, felt a surge of relief … and panic. It was the bugle.

Out front, the officers watched as they stepped out from the woods. His own men cleared the trees, the lines perfect, and he looked to the left, saw entire brigades and much more, endless formations, more men than he had seen before. He felt his hands shaking, gripped the musket, shouted out something, angry words, needless, the men feeling their part in what he could see, this glorious unstoppable wave. He stared out past the men in front of him, the vast open field, the breeze rippling through tall grass, the enemy so very far away.

The drums pushed them forward, farther into the sunlight, the heat, the rhythm of the march, the sergeants doing what he did, keeping the men together. Now, from far to the front the first streaks of fire came toward him, and he knew it was Yankee artillery, all those guns that were supposed to be obliterated, wiped away. But they were there, and now, the Yankee gunners had targets. Far across the field, up the sloping hill, he could see motion, traces of blue, lines of men, the enemy peering up over their low stone walls, their protection, waiting.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, TIME has published a richly illustrated 192-page book, Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. To buy a copy, go to

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