This Day (High Water Mark Edition)

On this day 150 years ago, the third day of the Battle of GettysburgRobert E. Lee attacked the center of the Union line in what became known as Pickett’s Charge. No chicken salad this time, unless you count the fact that somehow this huge defeat has turned into “the high water mark of the Confederacy.” From our entry:

Lee’s description of “that grand charge” foreshadowed the way in which Pickett’s Charge would be transformed from a disaster to a moment of high glory. “In less than one half century,” the historian Carol Reardon has written, “Pickett’s Charge became both historical event and emotional touchstone—history and memory—with the demarcation between the two often imperceptible.” The symbolic meeting point of history and memory became the Bloody Angle and the trees behind it, a place that in 1870 John B. Bachelder—a painter who turned himself into the unofficial historian of the Gettysburg battle—famously described as “the ‘High Water Mark’ of the rebellion.”

The scene posted above, from the film Gettysburg (1993), is ample illustration. One of the “top” commenters writes, “This particular scene is my favourite, especially because of the powerful music. This combination gives me goosebumps!” Which is the whole point, of course, because in Gettysburg, as in the larger culture, Pickett’s Charge has become, oddly, something to be proud of. And this development would have shocked no one more than Pickett himself.
A version of this post was originally published on July 3, 2011.


2 thoughts

  1. I’d like to make a comment on the 11th va inf in Pickett’s charge. The account of Capt John Holmes Smith of Co G has struck me as being very odd. I’ve also recently read Mr Priests book on the charge where he places their most advanced position along a fence that runs from the Emmittsburg Pike to the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. After walking the ground & carefully reading Smith’s account I’m nearly convinced that the Regt did make it to the Union lines & in fact there were TWO points captured or at least occupied in the attack. I believe the place taken by the 11th was by the 15th Mass monument on the battlefield today. Smith writes that “as we neared the WORKS I could see a good line of battle, thick & substantial, firing upon us. When inside of a hundred yards of them I could see, first, a few, then more & more, & presently, to my surprise & disgust, the whole line break away in flight” This I believe is his mistaken view of the redeployment of Harrow’s Brigade to the north at the clump of trees. Smith continues ” When we got to the WORKS, which were a HASTY TRENCH & EMBANKMENT, & NOT A STONE WALL AT THE POINT WE STRUCK” . This is a perfect description of the Union line along the old fence line near the crest. He further states “Not a man could I see in the enemys works, but on account of the small timber and the lay of the ground, I could not see very far along the line, either right or left”. The ground rises slightly on the right, blocking a view of the position of the Vermont Brigade. The land here is in fact in a slight saddle. There were no Union troops, they’d all left to stop the breakthru between the Angle & the Clump of Trees. Smith says they stayed there 20 minutes, in the eye of the hurricane, content to have done what was ordered, unnoticed by the enemy, & seeing none near them. The surviving officers finally ordered the men to leave, in small parties. Smith was one of the last to leave, Together with Capt Douthat who started to fire at a Union line that was advancing on them from the right. This was no doubt the Vermont troops who were mopping up the broken remains of the attack. I don’t believe anyone else has noticed this or realized it may be possible that there were TWO high water marks.


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