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…
Some of the most famous words ever written about the Civil War–Gettysburg in particular–are conjured here by the great southern writer William Faulkner. In his 1948 novel, Intruder In the Dust, Faulkner wrote about the promise of the afternoon of July 3, 1863. His specific reference was the moment before the Confederate attack that became known as “Pickett’s Charge.” However, I think there is more that can be read into Faulkner’s words. Readers just need to play with them a bit.
Let us go back two years earlier, to July 21, 1861. Add Northern boys into Faulkner’s paragraph and fool around with the time a bit. Substitute Beauregard and Johnston for Pickett, then add Irvin McDowell in blue. None of these young soldiers have seen the elephant yet, not even those who would be members of the USCTs. Maybe one or two caught a glance of it at Blackburn’s Ford a couple of days earlier, but none of the volunteers who answered Lincoln’s call for “75,000 Men” had any idea what he would do in an actual battle. Would he be brave or cowardly? Might he get hurt or seriously hurt someone else? What about dying? Nobody had talked very much about that part. We will share with our readers some thoughts from ordinary soldiers and officers about exactly how they saw battle, especially the first one. No hardened vets here–the last war was over twenty years ago. The reputation of the family, the town, the state, and the world seemed to be resting on many sets of slim shoulders that day.
Lesley J. Gordon’s brilliant and sensitive book A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War discusses how the repercussions that a whiff of cowardice could impugn an entire regiment. She also clarifies that there were many ways a regiment could get a reputation for fearfulness. That issue could become intermixed among soldiers, the war, and the history of that war. Ms. Gordon’s work combines her usual fine culling of resources with her unique ability to read the nuances of the letters of young men. She vetted this work by presenting it in chapbook form before sending it to her publisher, Louisiana State University.
Nevertheless, before that reputation is made and before historians start interpreting what happened–good or bad–let us remember that for all of them:
… 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… The past is not dead. It’s not even past.