My promise of posting something every week or so seems to have devolved fairly quickly into one post every three or four weeks. This is alarming to me mostly because it indicates that I’m doing too many things this summer, not all of them by choice or by plan. Still, let’s think about photographs of Pickett’s charge. Yes, it would have been nice to get this posted a little closer to July 3, but here it is now.
“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.”
White Southern boy, Faulkner meant, or rather it went without saying; Pickett’s Charge would have had a very different meaning for a black Southern boy contemplating the meaning of the third afternoon.
I’ve probably owned ten copies of various editions of John Keegan’s Face of Battle over the years, and in one of those copies some editor or publisher had caused a few generic photographs to be bound into the book. My perhaps faulty memory is that one of those photographs showed, in a full frontal way, a massed line of attacking soldiers moving towards the camera’s position. Perhaps the photograph was from World War I or perhaps not, I just don’t remember. There was a caption that made a slightly arch comment about the understandable rarity of photographs of oncharging troops. On the other hand, there are examples of Civil War photographers who from some sort of safe perspective—a hilltop, for example—captured images of troops under fire. [examples to be inserted later, if this is ever revised for purposes beyond this blog] But it is a little much to have expected a nineteenth-century photographer to do all the wizardry that needed doing for him to make a wet plate photograph while the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia bore down on him and his position on July 3, 1863.
Which is not to say that we’re without visual images of the many moments of Pickett’s charge. There’s the Cyclorama (below), and then there’s the Rothermel painting (below) now at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, and the cinematically inclined would include The Killer Angels. And so forth: everybody knows how to use Google Images. We even have images of survivors from the two sides shaking hands 50 years later. (below)
So what would photographs from July 3, 1863 reveal? Especially since they would have had to be taken from some sort of high ground, either head on from Cemetery Ridge (the roof of the Gate House?) or looking over the shoulder of the chargers from Seminary Ridge. We’d want a time lapse series, as the Confederates gathered, and as they set off, and as they came down Seminary Ridge, and as they crossed the Emmittsburg Road, and as they came up Cemetery Ridge. And we’d want the fighting at the High Water Mark as the boys from North Carolina and wherever else were pushed back.
Better yet, it would be moving pictures, movies. I’m thinking Private Ryan, in kepis and with a lot less English Channel.
The one photograph I’d really want to see, the one that couldn’t be from too great a distance, would be the candid resulting from when Pete Longstreet is alleged to have looked at Bobby Lee and declared that he had no division left.
Next in the series: the Lincoln Assassination.