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Book challenges Pickett's legendary losses

October 29, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer

Author John Michael Priest is penning his thoughts about the Civil War again, and this time he has a slightly different take on the Battle of Gettysburg.

It's a commonly held belief that Confederate Major General George Pickett lost up to 75 percent of his men when he charged Union forces at Cemetery Ridge.

But Priest puts the number at closer to 45 percent, and tells the story of a large number of Confederate troops who turned back because they realized the assault was too dangerous.

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"There aren't going to be any shining heroes, I think," Priest said of his book on Pickett's charge, considered to be one of the main actions of the battle.

Priest, author of 10 other books on the Civil War, uses several soldiers' accounts to back up his book, including that of a Virginia soldier who tells his Florida comrade that he can't go into the battle.

The Florida soldier punches the man, giving him an excuse to retreat, said Priest.

He also uses rosters to show that Pickett's losses were not as large as many people have believed.

Priest said accounts of soldiers retreating have been written, but he is the one piecing together the story.

Although Priest was able to use soldiers' accounts of retreating men, such documentation is rare, especially given the nature of the conflict.

Priest, who teaches history and U.S. studies at South Hagerstown High School, has finished writing the book and expects it will be out next year.

Priest's last work was a two-volume book about the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. The two books, "Nowhere to Run," and "Victory without Triumph," have received good reviews and "Nowhere to Run," is in its second printing, Priest said.

Priest allows his students to participate in his work, and in his next project, South High students will help edit and transcribe a soldier's written history of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers.

Starting next fall, students will work on the project for about an hour a day, which will earn them a credit, said Priest.

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