Right about now, 149 years ago, more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General Robert E. Lee set off across three-quarters of a mile of open field in Pennsylvania, just south of the town of Gettysburg, in a desperate attempt to break the Union line.
The Rebels advanced under withering artillery and musket fire from their front and flanks, but were not turned until after their charge reached the Union line and they were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They suffered greater than 50% casualties.
This moment will forever hold me in its grip, and I’ll be damned if I really know why. But William Faulkner spelled it out to an extent in Intruder in the Dust:
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 than 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.
And apparently that instant is there for Southern boys thirty-three years old, too, because it is there for me right now. Every time I read an account of the battle. Every time I watch Gettysburg. Every time I even think about it, I find myself crossing my fingers and whispering, maybe this time it will work. Maybe this time we will win. I don’t know if I can really explain it to you any more clearly if it’s not lodged into your psyche the way it is lodged into mine. I think its something that has to be felt: brave and sad, hopeful and hopeless.
But whether you understand it or not, I do, and so I salute the heroes who fell on that day.