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Price of fame
By Mike Vouri, Special to the Journal
Ask any San Juan Islander or park visitor if he/she has ever heard the names Harvey A. Allen, Thomas Grey or Lewis Cass Hunt. All three of these officers were U.S. Army commanders at American Camp during the Pig War crisis and joint military occupation.
Chances are the answer will be no.
The same cannot be said for George E. Pickett. For even if they do not know his full name, or his role in the Pig War, they will have heard of the charge at Gettysburg that bears his name; the charge that culminated in disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia; the charge led to a speech by Abraham Lincoln months later, the first six words of which are known to nearly every man, woman and child in America.
That’s why we have a Pickett’s Lane; why his grandson and great grandson were included in commemorative activities in the 20th century; why there is a painting of him and his troops on the second floor of the county courthouse; why the county’s first auditor, Ed Warbass, claimed (falsely) that he lived in Pickett’s house and had a portrait of him in Confederate gray hanging over his fireplace; and, finally, why Michael Cohen and I have been telling his story over the last 17 years.
We will once again re-live Pickett’s Charge 150 years to the day of that terrible event during The Life and Times of General George Pickett at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 3 at the San Juan Community Theatre. Never has this segment of the play, which dominates the second act, seemed more immediate and important to understand.
For the last 20 years we have lived through a period of seemingly endless war, sending young (and some not so young) men and women in harm’s way halfway across the world. Some come home physically and emotionally scarred. Some never make it back. Taken at face value, war is about killing. As one of Pickett’s contemporaries, William T. Sherman put it:
“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers… it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated… that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
Pickett’s division comprised only three of the 11 total Confederate brigades involved in the charge, which is known officially as Longstreet’s Second Assault, for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who was nominally (and reluctantly) assigned the task by Gen. Robert E. Lee. But because Pickett’s division was in the main composed of Virginians and, arguably, penetrated further into the Union center than any other, the charge is closely identified with him.
After two bloody days of fighting in and around the crossroads village, Lee pinned all hope of destroying Northern morale and influencing and turning fall elections against Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans with an all-out frontal assault on the Union center across nearly a mile of open ground. Preceded by a largely ineffectual artillery bombardment (the shots were long), the Confederates approached in two battle lines nearly a mile long, which were shredded by cannon and rifle fire before a fraction of the force hit the Union line. They soon fell back, leaderless and without order, stumbling over their fallen comrades. By the end of the day Pickett’s division suffered 2,655 casualties out just over 6,000 soldiers.