Walking in the Steps of an Ancestor in Pickett's Charge

150 years ago today, the author's forbear survived one of the bloodiest failed assaults of the Civil War

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Pickett's Charge, seen from the Confederate position (Edwin Forbes/Wikimedia Commons)

Any individual life depends for its existence on a series of prior accidents, strokes of luck, tragedies, decisions, and near-misses that happened to the people who came before us --a chain of chance and happenstance stretching back for generations. If any one of innumerable events had not occurred--if this particular man had not emigrated; if this particular woman had not moved to a new city; if a man and a woman had not met on a street corner and married--then you or I might not have occurred, either. Little things happen, and big ones, and eventually these things add up to us.

With these thoughts in mind I recently found myself standing in a Pennsylvania field, on a bright and windy day, squinting at a ridge and wondering what my great-great-grandfather was thinking on the morning of July 3, 1863, as he lay in the sweltering heat, waiting to take part in the military assault that would come to be known as Pickett's Charge. Nearby was a property known as the Spangler farm; the farm, now part of the Gettysburg National Park, was one of the spots from which the Southerners launched their assault on the third and conclusive day of a battle that marked a turning point in the war. Standing here, in a small depression in the countryside, it was possible to see that the soldiers would have had little idea what was waiting for them; the ripples and folds of the land obscured the ridge that was their ultimate objective, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago today.

The ancestor I was curious about was a man named O'Wighton Gilbert Delk. Born in 1838 in the Tidewater region of Virginia, he left his country store in 1861 to volunteer with a unit that became part of the 3rd Virginia infantry regiment. By the time he found his way to Gettysburg, Captain O.G. Delk had survived Second Manassas and a number of the war's signal engagements. Many of the men he joined with were now dead. At the time of Pickett's charge he had not yet married my great-great grandmother, nor had children with her. Just as our nation owes its integrity in part to the fact that the assault on Cemetery Ridge was a failure, I personally owe my own existence to the fact that this one Southern soldier survived. It's an uncomfortable position for a descendant: Of course I deplore the cause the South and by extension my ancestor were fighting for. But at the same time I can't help but be glad he made it.

Family lore held that O.G. lucked out by being in a protected position, but standing here it was easy to see that there were few truly safe havens. Just ahead was Confederate artillery whose aim was to pound the Union troops before the charge started; problem for them was, the Union artillery was firing back.

To trace Captain Delk's exact path would be impossible; it was typically commanders who wrote the after-accounts of battles, and so many Southern officers would die in these hours that there were not many around later to do so. But evidence suggests O.G. started out in a cheerful mood:.Colonel Joseph Mayo, one of the 3rd Virginia field officers, would later report that his men were "unusually merry and hilarious" as they assembled. It's not clear where their high spirits sprang from: It's true that they missed the first two days of the Gettysburg battle, but only because they were engaged around Chambersburg, where Robert E. Lee had directed them to protect the wagon train of supplies. Summoned as reinforcements, they had marched 25 miles to get here for the culminating engagement of the battle. They were fresh only in a very relative sense.

It could be they were taking their cues from the commanding officers: Pickett that morning "seemed very sanguine," recalled a young artillery officer whose written recollections were read aloud by Robert Freis, the guide who was ushering thirty of so of us along the path of the charge. Robert, a Civil War scholar, learned from the late historian Jay Luvaas that there is something unique to be gained from walking the actual ground of a battlefield, to understand the importance of a fence, or a barn, or a ridge, or a swale. The members of our group came from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other mid-Atlantic states. Some had ancestors on both sides--I also have family roots in Pennsylvania--some of whom may have been shooting each other that day.

As men prepared for the attack, larger events were converging. Stonewall Jackson was dead, the cavalry leader Jeb Stuart had been absent at the outset. After two inconclusive days of fighting, Robert E. Lee hoped to breach the Union line near its center, flooding that opening to break their ranks and continue his foray into northern soil. Longstreet, the general in charge of making sure this happened, did not agree with the tactic, and was sullen and disengaged. So that was how things lay: Shortly before the attack the 3rd Virginia were told their division had "the post of honor," which seems to have been a euphemism for being given the most dangerous task: striking at the very center of the Union line. After this, Col. Mayo recalled, they became "still and thoughtful as Quakers at a love feast." Mayo for his part had been chatting with a commander who had ventured out and gotten a sense of the advantage enjoyed by the Northerners, by dint of the fact that they held the high ground.

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Liza Mundy is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.

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