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

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.

Around 1 pm, Mayo later described, "the blazing sun [had] reached and passed the meridian" when the men in the 3rd Virginia were exposed to the "full fury" of a "tempest of shot and shell." "Indescribable horror" was what Mayo remembered: There was an explosion in an apple tree that he and his men had taken cover under; then a "piercing shriek," several men killed, more wounded, another cry from another apple tree, two brothers horribly hit; "nearly every minute the cry of mortal agony was heard above the roar and rumble of the guns." Bodies and limbs began to fly; "a handful of earth mixed with blood and brains struck my shoulder." This hourlong barrage was followed by a deceptive lull; through it Pickett came riding, exhorting them to "remember Old Virginia," rise and advance. By that time the 3rd Virginia had already been "decimated," Mayo said; but they rose, among them, presumably, my ancestor.

As we stood looking toward the ridge, Robert argued that what was about to take place should not be called Pickett's Charge. True, Pickett had responsibility for what was happening here on the right side of the assault, where he commanded brigades led by Generals James Kemper, Richard Garnett, and Lewis Armistead. These brigades were to sweep up the hill and wheel around to the left, where they would be met by other brigades, not commanded by Pickett, coming from the left and moving right. Robert argued that the entire charge should have been called "Longstreet's Assault," but after the war, Longstreet was happy to let posterity attribute the disaster to Pickett.

So what they had to do, now, was ascend the hill, making their way for about three quarters of a mile. Our group did the same; as we hiked up toward Emmitsburg Road, where Union soldiers would have been waiting, we could see how the smallest change in topography altered what any one person could see and understand. We frequently lost sight of one another. Much of the time I felt confused by what was north and what was south and what was Seminary Ridge, where they started, and what was Cemetery Ridge, where they were headed; in this, I figured I mirrored the bewilderment of the ordinary soldier.

Incredibly, the soldiers were expected to march in close formation through the carnage, moving at quick pace, keeping together as they were pounded by artillery and soldiers shooting at them directly. Several members of our group were retired military: they marveled that the soldiers had not yet adopted the style of darting here and there, taking cover and covering each other. "I'll give you one reason: West Point," said one, meaning they were hewing to old strategy taught in classrooms. We could see how easily it would be to be disrupted by a fence, or a lane, or a structure: At one point a large barn separated Pickett's men, some going to one side, some to the other. The plan had been that Kemper's and Garnett's brigades would advance together. Armistead, slightly to the rear, was supposed to "catch up and extend the line on the left," as Mayo put it, but this broke down. In his account, Mayo describes passing the dead body of their color bearer; passing Captain Lewis, of Company C, looking "lazy and lackadaisical;" seeing a "splendid looking Federal officer" riding at full speed along a crest, so magnificent that he ordered the men not to shoot him; Kemper "rising in his stirrups and pointing to the left with his sword," shouting "There are the guns, boys, go for them."

But quickly all was chaos; the folly of the attack emerged as the 3rd Virginia passed one "Captain Fry," whose horse had blood pouring from his neck. They learned that Kemper had been struck; a group of Vermonters were coming at them from the rear; soon everything was a "wild kaleidoscopic whirl" of destruction and smoke. Mayo saw a colonel knocked out of his saddle and killed by falling on his own sword; he heard an explosion; was knocked down, and "when I got on my feet again there were splinters of bone and lumps of flesh sticking to my clothes." The brigades that were supposed to be coming from the left were disrupted. The Union troops held, and with them, eventually, the nation.

Somehow, O.G. Delk survived; in some ways he had been fortunately located. The 3rd Virginia was part of Kemper's brigade, which was at the far right of the advancing line. Their precise placement was in the leftmost section of that brigade, which protected them from artillery fire of Union troops coming from the right. To their left were Garnett's men. In the end, Robert pointed out, the 3rd Virginia suffered casualties of about 38 percent, which was high, but not compared to the rest of Pickett's division. The 8th Virginia, belonging to Garnett, suffered casualties of 92 percent. They were positioned near the 3rd Virginia. As Robert put it, "Go figure."

Those Southerners who made it to the top had a choice: They could run and risk being shot; they could be captured; or they could try to make their way back to Confederate lines. "These guys were leaderless," said Robert. Kemper had been shot off his horse; Garnett and Armistead both were fatally wounded. Of the 3rd Virginia, 10 were captured, of whom 6 died in prison. O.G. Delk made it back, somehow, and would serve until the beginning of 1865, when he was afflicted with "a severe attack of rheumatism" and retired months before Lee's surrender.

In a recent article about how the Civil War is being re-evaluated by scholars, Tony Horwitz points out that the view of this conflict as a "good war," resulting in the integrity of the union and the abolition of slavery, is giving way to a view of it as a bloodbath of carnage and cruelty, whose end result might have been achieved by less horrific means. Though the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery were essential goals, the means by which they were achieved was more tragedy, in the end, than triumph. The Civil War cost more American lives than the wars from the Revolutionary War to the Korean combined--over 600,000, and recent estimates have adjusted the number upward. This was the message our group took, that afternoon, standing at the top of the hill. Many who survived Gettysburg would never be the same. Many would be back in action too soon, not fully recovered from their wounds. And then there were the dead: lives lost, future generations truncated. "If O.G. Delk had taken a bullet, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Robert told me later. "Your children wouldn't exist." We thought of the potential extinguished that day, the losses and voids that would reverberate down the generations. It's just one more way in which the Civil War is still with us, whether we know it or not.