Confederate flag flew proudly during 152nd anniversary of Pickett’s Charge
The Confederate battle flag, a symbol of heritage for Southerners, which has been recreated as a symbol of racial hatred for the less enlightened, fluttered proudly in Gettysburg on the 152nd anniversary of the battle. What in truth was the soldier’s battle flag was on prominent display at The Virginia Memorial on Confederate Blvd. in Gettysburg National Historic Park on Friday July 3 as well as in the historic downtown the entire weekend. The site was the spot where Confederate General Robert E. Lee sat astride his horse Traveler as he watched elements of his army march across the field during what would come to be called Pickett’s Charge. Today Lee and Traveler still sit gracefully atop the Virginia memorial as they still gaze across the field.
On July 3, 152 years ago, about 15,000 Confederate soldiers marched from a line of trees along what is now West Confederate Avenue toward the Union line a mile away. Less than an hour later, only about half of them returned in a crushing defeat. The North Carolina troops had made it to the bloody angle and were soon driven back. Having made the march in searing heat, under relentless artillery fire, the Confederates were near exhaustion by the time they reached the stone wall.
While historians have long debated what Lee must have been thinking to order his men across that expanse of open ground toward withering fire, what is less questionable is what effect the assault had on the fate of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as on the remainder of the war. David Wright and I walked the field from the Union line across the mile expanse and then back as the Confederates did. David was quick to note that the Confederates were in the open from almost the time they stepped off. He was mentally measuring where they came under US artillery fire, then small arms, then canister. The horde of tourists at the Bloody Angle gave an eerie feel in the distance as one thought of the men marching toward the distant images 152 years before. It was easy to wonder what they saw and felt on that fateful day.
Lee had felt his army was invincible after victories in Virginia against significantly larger forces. James Longstreet didn’t help the situation either by disagreeing with his commander and then being hesitant about ordering Pickett to move forward. Precious time was lost in which Union commanders could adjust for the attack they knew was coming.
It was the day that would become the “high water mark of the Confederacy”; the South had won on the first day and had some small, but costly victories on the second day. On day three, Lee decided to toss the dice, and go for the center of the Union lines. The Federal forces had ample time to figure out where the attack was coming from and strengthen their lines. Why Lee chose this wide open frontal assault will forever be questioned.
The Gettysburg National Military Park was packed with visitors, perhaps more heavily this year because the biggest re-enactment of the season being postponed because the rainy June weather left the fields too soggy for use. There was a lot of debate about this, with most feeling the cancelation was over the flag issue. The Confederate flag was out in force from cars, to T-shirts, caps, or just carried around. If the underlying reason was the Confederate symbol, it was to be seen everywhere in Gettysburg.
The large contingent of Confederate re-enactors bore various versions of Southern Battle flag and were unapologetic in its display….rightfully so.
One resident of Pennsylvania that portrays a soldier of the 8th Georgia told of that unit which fought under the command of Gen. James Longstreet. He stood at the base of the memorial, bearing a regulation, 51-by-51-inch battle ensign, an exact replica of the flag that would have appeared at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Several of those gathered at the memorial, which features the statue of Lee and his horse looking out over the field, said they wish the banner they cherish had never been usurped for the cause of racism. “There were brave men from both sides who fought here,” said one New Jersey resident. “I am here because it’s my duty to honor them. We need, as a culture, to realize what those men did here. Most people miss the reason those Confederate soldiers walked out of this tree-line here and into that fight. They knew that if they were victorious, the war would be over and they would have their own nation.”
Those visiting the Virginia monument found General Lee and his lovely wife near the base. Frank Orlando and his wife Bonnie portray the Lees. Visitors flocked about to hear them talk, answer questions and to pose for pictures with them. Several African Americans as well as a group from Japan eagerly posed with the general and his wife. It added a nice touch to the solemn moment. It was easy to see that General Lee is still held in a most high regard, and a certain reverence permeated the air.
David and I discussed the fact that we could never know what or how the soldiers felt as they walked the bloody mile across the field. As we walked, we could only imagine what staring death in the face could have been like. We could only imagine the fear, the exhaustion, and the thirst. We could only imagine the smell, the feel of being splattered with warm blood, or of feeling your body ripped apart. On this day, as we retraced the footsteps of those brave men, our only solace was that we knew we were not someone’s target.
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