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Local author challenges Pickett's charge

June 27, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Local author challenges Pickett's charge

BOONSBORO - The scene is one of the most enduring in American military history, as thousands of Confederate soldiers charged gallantly through the fields outside Gettysburg, Pa., into a hail of Union artillery and gunfire.

And ever since July 3, 1863, that's the way Pickett's Charge has been written, rewritten, told and retold.

"There's just this romantic image that lingers with it," said John Michael Priest, a history teacher at South Hagerstown High School who has written 11 books on the Civil War.

According to Priest, there is a problem with that image: It's wrong.

In his new book "Into the Fight: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg," Priest shakes the foundation of the commonly told version of the ill-fated charge by using personal accounts of the battle to allege several errors in what has been considered fact over the years.

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Perhaps the most significant, and controversial, of Priest's allegations is that more than half of the Confederate soldiers participating in the charge never made it to the most severe fighting. Many of those soldiers simply turned around, disheartened by the impending massacre, Priest said.

"I think I came up with a very realistic portrayal of what happened," he said, sitting in the family room of his home.

But he's sure there will be debate over his revisionist views.

"I'm kind of hoping it causes a little bit of stir," he said, smiling.

Priest said he selected Pickett's Charge as a subject for a book three years ago assuming there would be a wealth of accurate reference works for him to use.

"I figured everything was written about it. There can't be anything new," he said.

But then his research started showing gaps, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in past books and written material. He said one mystery was that most historical accounts had the Confederate artillery assault lasting for two hours prior to the charge, but the personal accounts of the colonel in charge of the artillery said the barrage lasted about an hour.

"It led me to look at what really did transpire," Priest said.

Priest said personal accounts from those taking part in the charge, which make up nearly all of the research in the book, pointed out several other inconsistencies with the traditional Pickett's Charge story, such as location of troops and timing of certain events.

Priest said the inconsistencies have always been there but were not reconciled in earlier books about the charge. Incorrect information in some books often was used in others, he said.

"After a while, the myth perpetuates itself," he said.

Priest estimates 11,500 Confederates participated by the charge, named for Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. But by the time the soldiers reached the Emmitsburg Road - before facing the heaviest of Union fire - their ranks had been reduced to about 5,000, he said.

"Those men (missing before the Emmitsburg Road) had to be going somewhere," Priest said.

About 1,000 were killed or wounded by Union artillery and others fell victim to the afternoon heat, he said. But Priest believes that many just walked away. Others found cover in the sunken Emmitsburg Road and stayed there for the remainder of the charge, refusing to go forward.

They had good reason, Priest said. The casualty rate for those who made it across the Emmitsburg Road, and up the sloping land into the teeth of the Union forces, was extremely high.

"They were just slaughtered," Priest said.

Scott Hartwig, supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, said there is no doubt that many, possibly hundreds, of Confederates may have turned away, either discouraged by their chances or tired from the previous two days of battle. But he said the figure probably isn't in the thousands.

"I don't find an awful lot of evidence that there were a lot of men going to the rear," Hartwig said.

He said there could not have been too many men leaving the fight or else the Southerners, who generally fought with "unbelievable courage and gallantry," would not have had the force necessary to reach the federal troops atop Cemetery Ridge.

"Into the Fight" ($34.95, White Mane Books) is available at Waldenbooks, the Sharpsburg Arsenal and the Antietam Gallery in Sharpsburg.

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