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6th Vermont Infantry

Kimball Collection

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This address I wrote and delivered several times in 1889-90.



In all of the great wars of the world involving the destinies of nations and rulers and determining the boundaries of Kingdoms, Empires and Republics, changing the face of their political geography, it is not the number of battles, or the names and numbers of the thousands slain that remains in the minds of the people or occupy prominent places in history, but it is the one great decisive struggle for the mastery which in its immediate or remote results closes the war. Thus of the hundred battles of the great Napoleon that deluged Europe in blood and vailed it in tears Waterloo alone lingers in the memory of man. The Franco-Prussian War which so changed the political face of Europe left but one scar that can never be effaced - Sedan. The Crimean War which turned the Black Sea red only left the name of Sebasterpool, (Sevastopol) that will never die. Turning then to our own country how few battles of the Revolution in which our forefathers struggled for seven long years for liberty & for freedom, can be called to mind, yet is there a school boy or girl in the land who does not know that Bunker Hill sounded the death knell of British rule in America and reverberated across the trackless deep and echoes upon the shores of England causing King George the Third to tremble and turn pale. And now after nearly a quarter of a century of piping peace since the close at Appomatax of greatest rebellion the world has ever known, how few, even of those who were participants of those eventful scenes and whose memories are still fresh with recollections of those times that tried men's souls, can readily recall the scores of blood-stained battlefields on which our friends, our kindred and our comrades fought and fell. Yet there was not one whether he wore blue or the gray who cannot tell of Gettysburg! Its history is immortalized on pages of living light. But what of Gettysburg? Its first day was but a Union defeat with the brave Reynolds killed and troops of his command already disheartened. The second day was one of fearful carnage and slaughter around Little Round Top where steel clang to steel so close and deadly was the strife, the ground taken and retaken and the regular troops under General Sykes were upon the very verge of a stampede. At that critical juncture after a forced march of forty five miles without rest, over a micodermiged road, under the burning sun of mid-summer, with feet bleeding and blistered, the gallant and heroic old sixth (6) Corps under command of the immortal Sedgwick, reached the scene of action, and were immediately without rest or paused hurled double quick into the fiercest of the fray, and well they were for a moments delay might have been fated to the Union cause and changed the entire results of the war. Genl Sykes Division of regulars were falling back and even flying in dismay before the seemingly victorious onslaught of the rebel hords, when the 6th Corps hurried to their rescue and not only checked the wave of retreat but turned it into a victory as regarded the engagement around Little Round Top. Never can I forget that long and weary march, that fierce engagement and that night upon the battlefield as we rested upon our arms after the din of battle had ceased.

Pardon me if I refer to a touching incident of that day and night. Among the boys of my company was one more particularly than the rest with feet bleeding almost at every pour. To lighten his burden I had carried his musket for him for the most part during the day. With a brave spirit he hobbled on and would not straggle behind or leave his comrades, indicative of that true courage that actualed most of soldiers that went from the same little State. As we were hurridly forming in line for the charge he came to me and asked for his gun saying I am going with the boys, at the same time handing me a ring from his finger saying if I am killed send it to my mother. The order to forward double quick march was given and I had no time to reply. He forgot his lacerated foot for no soldier did his duty more bravely, but it was his last fight. When the rable mantle of night had closed down upon the scene and silenced the conflict for the day, Charley Whittlesey with others of my company lay dead upon the field. - brave boy - he had a soldiers burial, such only as is given the night after the battle. Some of you may know how that is performed. One of the saddest duties of my life was to comply with his request and send the ring with the particulars of his heroic death to his widowed mother in Vermont. The remains of Charley Whittesey now rest in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg while his aged mother still mourns for a loved and noble son who never returned.

The hard fighting and slaughter of the second day however grows pale when viewed in comparison with the third days conflict and clash of arms, and Gettysburg would not today stand out in history as the turning point of the great rebellion but for the immortal charge of Pickett and his brave Virginia brigades, yet it took long years of hard fighting after that to exhaust the very life blood of the rebellion and the tide of the Confederate cause never again rose high as when it beat upon the crest of Cemetery Ridge.

The storming of the heights of Inkeoman, the charge of the noble six hundred, the terrible assault of the old guards at Waterloo, the scaling of Lookout Mountain, the taking of _______ Heights ________ of Fredericksburg, the march of Sherman to the sea have all been chronicled in history and sung in story and always will be as deeds of heroic valor, yet they all turn pale beside the glory that will ever enshroud those heroic men who, not with "cannon to right of them" and "cannon to left of them", but with a hundred pieces of artillery in their very front belching forth death and slaughter at every step, hurled themselves fearless of consequences in the very center of a great army, the very jaws of death and had victory almost in their very grasp.

Why should Genl Lee with all his known caution and forethought have undertaken such a hazardous risk and responsibility?

His victorious army of Virginia fresh and flush from its achievements at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and buoyed with hope of greater triumph had crossed the Potomac and invaded the hitherto quiet denisons of Maryland & Pennsylvania carrying dismay and consternation to every home and hamlet with none to oppose their onward march of spoil and plunder. The Army of the Potomac under Command of Gen Meade ever watchful of the movements of their old enemy, by forced marches saught to circumvent the cunning Lee and repel the invaders. They crossed the Potomac at their separate points and pierced the North in quest of the invading army. It was not until the first day of July that they encountered their old foeman at Gettysburg and were driven back after a fierce encounter with Genl Reynolds killed. This was disappointing to our troops. Add to this the terrible bloody conflict and slaughter of the second day and although our forces held us with an iron grasp and dogged determination the position it had gained yet - I know painfully well that they were to a very great extent disheartened. Many of our best Generals dead or wounded and the command of Regiments, Brigades & Divisions had fallen to subordinate officers. Scenes of Regiments nearly wiped out and batteries almost exterminated. Sickles lines were broken and driven in and his position was held by Longstreet. Little Round Top, the key of the position held only a terrible loss of life. The rebel army was in high hopes and expectant of victory. This was the situation of affairs when the morning of the third day opened bright - and clear with one hundred thousand veteran soldiers facing each other awaiting the signal of final conflict to the death. Silence purified as death reigned over the battlefield through the morning hours of that memorable day save the rumbling of artillery as it was being massed by Lee around Seminary Ridge and by Meade around Cemetery Ridge painfully telling the scarred veterans of many battles as they rested upon their arms and watched movements as with an eagle eye that e'ev the set of sun 10,000 brave men must die.

Twelve o'clock arrived. The burning sun looked down. Dead silence reigned. Lee was in the cupola of the Pennsylvania College surveying the Union lines. Meade was in the saddle upon his firy war horse in the rear of Hancocks Corps on Cemetery Ridge surveying too with his field glass the lines of the enemy. Lee it seems had decided to strike Hancocks center. Genl Pickett in the meantime with his three brigades of Virginians, too brave to be slaughtered as they were, had arrived and taken shelter in the timber near Seminary Ridge. Lee had determined upon a plan of attack. He called a council of his Generals and Longstreet we are informed objected to his plans, which if tried only gave another exhibition of his good generalship. Desperate in the extreme must have been Lees convictions when he determined to send those skelliton brigades of battle worn Virginians numbering barely five thousand men into the very jaws of death. Where 100 cannons were ready to open fire a moments signal and which were supported by 50,000 as brave men as ever bore arms for their country and whose valor and prowess he too had tested on many a field of carnage, and too where twice the number of Picketts men had been nearly wiped out but the day before in a vain attempt to break the Union lines. Lee then turned and looked upon his handful of Virgina troops that he was about to hurl into that vortex of death his feelings must have been deeply moved.

The blunder that sent the light-brigade to death at Balaklava was bad enough, but this charge is unequalled in history. At a little past one o'clock the first gun rang out upon the stifled air; a moment later another gun broke the stillness. Then followed nearly 150 rebel cannons in quick succession which rent the air with deadening roar. A hundred Federal guns immediately responded and then began in awful fury the most appalling & terrific artillery battle the world ever saw. Shot and shell shrieked and _____, screamed and hissed through the air, crashing through batteries killing and wounding men and horses and piling them dead and dying in frightful heaps around their guns.

The very earth seemed to quiver and shake and the hills and trees fairly trembled and reeled as the thundering of that terrible cannonading echoed and reached among them. For more than an hour every conceivable form of ordinance that could be rallied on either side fairly yelled with fury and rage as they sent forth on its mission of death every kind of missel known to modern gunnery and until the gunners from shear exhaustion and excitement ceased firing and all again was silent.

The hour had come - Pickett was seen forming his brave legions for the struggle of death. They were but the remnants of three Brigades Commanded by General Garnett, Armistead & Kemper, all Virginia Regiments. Their tattered battle flags showed too plainly the scars of many battles, and their thinned ranks that the merciless bullet had been unerring in its flight from the Union muskets for more than half of their number was gone - few yet fearless still.

In compact ranks they formed with flags flying and bayonets gleaming as if for a parade and not for death. Genl Pickett dashed up to Longstreet and said, "Sir shall I go forward?" Longstreet had not a _____ to send those brave men to what he knew was certain death and distruction, and he turned away his head with replying. Pickett then with an impetuous air exclaimed "Sir, I shall lead my division forward." Turning to his men the order, Attention, attention rang out upon the silent air. His men knew what it meant and they realized that death was near and _____ said they cried out to their comrades - "Good bye boys, good bye." Almost immediately with sabre flashing from its scabbard Pickett commanded "Column forward quick center march" and the brigades of Armistead, Kemper & Garnett moved as one man toward the union lines. Soon two divisions of rebel troops moved from the woods and followed in support of Pickett forming on the right and left flanks respectively and moving in echelon. There then being in all about 15,000 men.

The selection of those troops called to Pickett's support was indeed a bad one for Pickett. Pettigrews division was composed mostly of sea troops and had been roughly handled & offered great loss in the first few days fight and hence were in no condition as frame of mind to take any post in such a forlorn hope. Wilcox Division, it being the other, had also been severely punished in his attack upon Cemetery Ridge the day before. Tis a wonder now that Lee did not support Pickett with fresh troops.

The advance however was begun and no doubt Lee with other Generals (from the cupola of the Penn College) watched nervously the result. It was nearly a full mile to Hancocks lines on Cemetery Ridge and as they advanced across this open plain entirely exposed the Federal artillery opened fire upon them plowing great gaps through their ranks, still they closed up and moved on. When mid way upon this plain Pickett halted his columns in the face of showers of shot & shell, and changed his direction by an oblique movement as coolly as though on dress parade. This proved a great mistake as one of the supporting divisions - Wilcox paid no notice of this but moved straight forward, thus exposing Picketts right flank to the terrible consequences that followed, by soon making a great gap between the two columns.

Any one who has ever faced the fire of artillery knows it was indeed marvelous how men could possibly have lived & much less advance for a mile under such a withering fire of a hundred pieces of artillery where every nick of space was literally filled with missils of death.

Still they pressed on and even with well formed lines until within the range of musketry, then rose the blue lines that were prepared and waiting their coming and poured a deafening and deadly volley into their ranks. Hundreds _____ the dust, yet with a wild and maddening yell the rebels pushed on and even crossed the federal line and laid hold of several cannon. Twas then hand to hand. Men fired into each others faces, muskets were clubbed, bayonets thrust and sabres gleamed and clashed. The combat was to the death. Curses yells, oaths and _____ filled the air and the ground was covered with the stain.

At that moment Hancock's Corps fell quickly back behind the artillery to give the cannon play. They were already and with double charges of grape & canister they turned loose upon Picketts broken ranks only a few paces off and his dead and wounded lay in ghastly piles upon the ground. Still they pushed on to the very muzzles of the guns and were blown from the cannons mouths and yet they had not wavered.

Pickett had really taken the key to the position and with out exultant shout we forced his men to the very crest of the hill. Two of his brigades had pierced Hancock's lines, scaled the hill and planted their flags upon its very top, but they were there not to stay. Armistead was killed at that moment when cheering on his men and Kemper wounded. Hancocks lines again closed in upon them and they were forced back. They could do no more. For bravery they had _____ glory but they could not conquer our army. Pettigrews division, one of the support of Pickett, was sent flying and well nigh annihilated. Wilcox division having by a blunder became detached from the flank of Picketts was easily routed and sent reeling back, broken demoralized and with heavy loss. General Stannard's 2nd Vt. Brigade was thrown into this gap and poured murderous fire into Picketts flank with a fearful slaughter.

Pickett realized that his case was hopeless then - his Generals all killed or wounded. The supporting columns of Pettigrews & Wilcox routed & flying, his field officers all gone and more than three forths of his men lying dead upon the field or captured, turning gave the order to retreat. Strange they did not fly, but no, in good order they fell back, but a handful of brave men, brave almost to a fault _____ a the _____ continuous, terrific fire they retreated slowly & sullenly across that field of gore, all that was left of them barely a few out of five thousand. Thus ended the most desperate charge known in modern times. Had Pickett been supported by troops that displayed the same discipline under such withering fire, and had they possessed the same wreckless courage as did those valorous Virginians the results of that attack even against great odds might perhaps been different. And not only that charge but that battle and possibly the war itself.

Other battlefields are well nigh forgotten, and the plow has nearly obliterated all traces, yet Cemetery Ridge will forever proudly sustain the monuments & tablets that are scattered here & there upon it telling to future generations the imperishable renown war upon that bloody field, not only of the Blue but also the Grey.

And our children's children as they visit that sacred spot and stand upon its crest will listen with enraptured interest to the thrilling story of Picketts wonderful charge and the historian will class it as the turning point of the great rebellion.

Note: No Charley Whittlesey died at Gettysburg or was listed in a Vermont Regiment. There was a Charles Whitney of the 13th from Wolcott, VT who died at Gettysburg and is buried there.



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