Remembering Pickett’s Charge

As has become our July 3 custom at ECW, we offer you Faulkner’s famous reflection in remembrance of Pickett’s Charge:

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….

— William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

16 Responses to Remembering Pickett’s Charge

  1. That passage always makes me cringe. Taken out of context, it’s beyond me why any truly American author could have written that as if it set forth some kind of noble objective. Of course, context matters – Faulkner’s book deliberately leaves one with the impression that the 14-year-old boy’s vision was on the wrong side of history in 1948. Thank God for Alonzo Cushing and those like him who paid the ultimate price in successful defense of the noblest experiment on earth on this hot, humid day in southern Pennsylvania 153 years ago..

  2. The Cushing family had been leaders of the Know-Nothing, or American, party and were strongly opposed to immigrants coming to the U.S. By our standards Cushing was “on the wrong side of history.” This is why I find phrases such as “wrong side of history” to be utterly meaningless. It is a presentist concept and means that all of the people of the past are wrong since they do not share the values of today.

    1. You’re smarter than that. I don’t give a load of bear scat what Cushing’s “family” did. Anybody who evaluates his actions at Gettysburg based on what his “family” did needs a good course in logical reasoning. Here’s the right side of history, and it doesn’t fit low-hanging fruit such as labels like “pc” or “presentism”. On July 3, 1863 Alonzo Cushing and Battery A of the 4th US stood squarely in the path of an assault by an enemy army which was fighting against our nation’s flag and was bent on destroying the union which the founders had painstakingly put together. He gave his life in the defense of that union and its flag, in furtherance of the solemn oath which he took – an oath which others across the way had violated. His actions were the same as thousands of other good Americans have taken at Belleau Wood, the Meuse Argonne, Iwo Jima, Anzio, Inchon,Fallujah, etc., etc. Some things are enduring and can’t be dismissed by cheap labels.

    2. You’re exactly right Dr. Bradley. It is, I believe, the “moral reformer” perspective of history. Here’s a brief synopsis of the “courage and carnage” context of Pickett’s charge, as expressed in Ken Burns’ Civil War.

      1. This is enlightening. We probably need to stop evaluating WWII from a modern “presentist” perspective, as well.

  3. He charged, and in that charge condensed
    His all of hate and all of fire;
    He sought to blast us in his scorn,
    And wither us in his ire.
    Before him went the shriek of shells-
    Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
    Then the three waves in flashed advance
    Surged, but were met, and back they set:
    Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
    And Right is a strong-hold yet.

    –Melville, “Gettysburg”

  4. I think, Mr. Foskett, that your emotions have outrun your reason. If “the right side of history” means conforming to what we think today then all the people of the past are wrong. You are also applying our current definition of “union” to the past when a very different definition was held by many. The Founders did not write United States in the Declaration of Independence, they wrote “united States.”

    By the way, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, was no longer Cushing’s battery. He was, and had been for a time, a staff officer. His real courage is returning to the men he had once commanded to share their danger.

    1. Oh, he was definitely in command of the battery at Gettysburg, an assignment he took in spring, 1863. Prior to that he had extensive service as a staff officer. Actually I suspect that it is your “emotions” which may have taken control here. We salute all of those who have fought for this great country and who have stood true to their solemn oaths in defending it against those who would destroy it. It is no more “presentism” to salute Cushing for defending our flag than it is to salute Medal of Honor winners from WWI or WWII.

      1. You are correct, Cushing commanded the battery; it was only on July 1 that he was seconded to staff duty by Hancock, a role he had filled earlier.

        You are also right that it is not “presentism” to honor the bravery of Cushing. It is ‘presentism” to export the post-war concept of Union as permanent & indissoluble to the pre-war period. You do this in your comment about the Union which the Founders had painstakingly put together. The Union the founders put together was a states rights confederacy and we governed ourselves as such until 1789. When the states decided to create “a more perfect union” the nature of the relationship between the states and the new central government was not clearly defined. Hamilton & Madison, Jefferson & Marshal, and others, argued over that issue. Indeed, for the first 85 years of our national existence that relationship was a mater of contention.

        The Civil War did not completely settle the issue of state-federal relationships, it is still debated today. The war did determine that states may not voluntarily leave the Union. To say that the Confederates were trying to destroy the Union given us by the Founders is to take a later conclusion and attempt to apply it to an earlier time. The nature of the Union bequeathed by the Founders had not been settled in 1860.

  5. Note that Faulkner takes the perspective of a 14-year-old boy. As Faulkner knew and Andy Hall has pointed out, “it’s an adolescent fantasy.”

    1. Yes, an adolescent fantasy (or wish), but not one that is unique to Faulkner’s experience:

      “Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in United States history runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate. As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any pro-Confederate special pleading during my formative years. Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me.” ~ Professor Gary Gallagher writing in “The Confederate War.”

  6. I always read the quote a bit differently. Faulkner was writing about standing on the precipice of great events, balancing the all-or-nothing risks of committing to something irreversible but with a huge payoff against the risk of disaster, death, and anonymity. In Faulkner’s mind, that precipice was Pickett’s charge, which was still relatable in the late 1940s. But, he sought to reach a wider audience in describing the feeling, which was why he alluded to Columbus and sailing over the edge. In effect, he was writing about a feeling, a moment in one’s mind, more than just Pickett’s charge. Today, he might choose Japanese pilots on their flight decks before Pearl Harbor, Marines in their tanks waiting to invade Iraq, special forces about to deploy into Afghanistan, or, heck, some reality show contestant about to go on stage in front of a national audience. I’d bet a wider number of people these days relate to those kinds of things than Pickett’s charge (Longstreet’s Assault if you prefer), than an event 153 years ago. The last is a sad commentary on events that we share as a society, watching tv, but there it is.

    In any event, the quote always comes to mind for me on July 3 as well. Ironic, wouldn’t it’d be more appropriate to remember clerks scouring Philadelphia for last-minute signatures or printers working into the late hours putting up broadsheets?

  7. We’ve been publishing this quote on July 3 for several years because, frankly, I think it’s a wonderful piece of writing. I use it in my freshmen writing classes to demonstrate how, technically/mechanically, a sentence can be SO wrong and yet, artistically, be so right.

    A lot of critics point to the passage as an encapsulation of the Lost Cause mentality. Faulkner wasn’t writing to endorse anything but, rather, trying to capture a particular emotion that generations of Southern men (and women) felt. Whether we agree or disagree with the correctness of that feeling doesn’t matter–people felt it and people believed it. I was, for those characters at that moment, Truth.

    Faulkner was very much concerned in his writing with what it was like to grow up in and live in what he saw as a decaying South. The past had such allure, in part, because the present was so run down and the past always seemed so mythically glorious (whether it was or not was beside the point, historically or literarily).

    As historians, we’re right to debate the ongoing questions surrounding the significance of Pickett’s Charge and Gettysburg. As someone who appreciate great writing, though, it’s hard to look at Faulkner’s passage and not see it as spot-on art.

    1. “Faulkner wasn’t writing to endorse anything but, rather, trying to capture a particular emotion that generations of Southern men (and women) felt. Whether we agree or disagree with the correctness of that feeling doesn’t matter–people felt it and people believed it.”

      Sometimes folks read way too much into what others write and their motivations for doing so. Such is the hyper-sensitive age in which we live.

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