How Would You Interpret the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge?

Pete Carmichael and Scott Hartwig led a field experience at the CWI Future of Civil War History Conference that sought to provide an alternative suggestion for interpreting an event.  There are some big questions involved, such as, What does it mean to be a nation at war?  What’s the cost?  Is it worth it?

We met in front of the Virginia Memorial.

246732_2008581169247_6904216_n 226462_2008591729511_500702_n 227122_2008582849289_4872984_n What does this memorial tell us?  What is its message?  Is this Lee watching his men assault Cemetery Ridge and fail?  Is this how the charge should be remembered?

Let’s contrast that with this image:

4513659-Dramatic_memorial_to_the_dead_of_the_69th_Division_Verdun_sur_Meuse  This is the Memorial to the 69th Division at Verdun.  What message does this send to us?  Is this how a great battle should be remembered?  What if the Virginia Memorial looked more like this?

If you move away from the Virginia Monument about twenty yards toward Cemetery Ridge and turn around, what would you have seen on July 3, 1863?  Remember the area had been under an artillery bombardment.  You would have seen the results of that bombardment–men torn apart by the shells, a busy aid station, couriers moving back and forth.  Of course you need to discuss why Lee made the decision to attack on July 3, and why he decided to attack in the manner he did.  It may not have been his most brilliant move, but it was still a reasonable decision based on what he knew at the time.

Moving along the route we could discuss the undulating terrain and watch how at one point Cemetery Ridge disappears from our view, meaning also that we can’t be seen from Cemetery Ridge.  We could talk about the fences along the Emmitsburg Road, about how some of them would have already been down but others would still be standing; about what the troops would have to do to get over the fences that were still intact.

On getting near the stone wall, we’d talk about the Federals, and about what they faced.  At some point we’d look at the field.

246827_2008585969367_2309342_n 247897_2008588049419_6864047_n  We could compare that with, perhaps, what we would see at Verdun:

800px-Battelfield_Verdun  Would we have a different memory of the war if our battlefields were left in this condition?

The point is not to give the visitors the answers, but rather to get them thinking about the questions.

What do you think?


  1. One of the most interesting moments in my Civil War study was walking the Charge w/ Brian Hampton, who was visiting Gettysburg for the first time. His reactions at various points were priceless, especially when we got to where the field of artillery fire from the Federal left became obvious.

  2. Interesting point. My wife used to say that her biggest problem with Civil War battlefields we visited was that they were so beautiful. “Did they always pick the most scenic spot in the area so later on tourism would be helped?” Her point was a good one though.. The battlefields today obviously have few of the land-scars that were recorded by soldiers who fought their in diaries and letters.

  3. Do we have any pictures/drawings showing the terrain of the Pickett/Pettigrew charge area prior to Camp Colt?

    1. Good question. I do believe there may be some around. I’ll have to check Frassanito.

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