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.