Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

High Tide at Gettysburg

T HE battle of Gettysburg, fought during the three days of July first, second, and third, 1863, marked the turning-point in the American Civil War. The Confederate armies were making headway northward, and the Union troops, veteran though they were, had been outmanœuvered time and again during the spring of that year. In spite of General Hooker's efforts, the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee crossed into Pennsylvania, and it looked as if that state would shortly be at the mercy of the invading army. There was panic at the North. President Lincoln called out 100,000 militia, and the Union General Hooker started to try to catch and check Lee. On June 27th, however, Hooker was relieved of the command at his own request, and General George G. Meade was appointed in command of the army.

The two great armies, largely ignorant of each other's plans, drew near each other during the end of June. Longstreet and Hill, of the Confederate army, had turned eastward, and Meade, having brought the Army of the Potomac across Maryland, was headed towards the enemy at right angles. Lee decided to collect his forces at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, and there his advance guard happened to come into contact with the Union troops on the morning of July first.

Gettysburg lies in a hilly country, a valley dotted with farms, protected by two ridges, Seminary Ridge on the west, and Cemetery Ridge on the southeast. This latter range begins in a cliff called Culp's Hill, and at its southern end towers a high rock known as Round Top. General Reynolds of the Union army was the first corps commander to reach Gettysburg, and as soon as he discovered that the bulk of the Confederate army was at hand he decided to join battle with them and so gain time for General Meade to mass his main army and prepare to check the enemy. In the first day's encounter the Confederates won the advantage, General Reynolds was killed, and the Union lines were swept back to the line of Cemetery Ridge.

General Lee reached Gettysburg that evening, and General Meade hurriedly brought up the scattered corps of his great army. Lee decided to attack where they were, although he had not chosen the field, and in the afternoon of July second the battle was renewed and in spite of the intense heat both armies fought with undiminished fury. The Confederates won several slight advantages, but on the whole the second day's battle was inconclusive, and the Union forces still held their lines in unbroken order.

Lee determined to renew his attack on the third day, and Meade planned to stay and receive it. Both armies spent the morning in preparation. In the afternoon Lee ordered the advance, and the Confederates charged across the valley in a line three miles long. General George Pickett, with his Virginians, supported by the men of Pettigrew, Wilcox, and Trimble, led the van, and bore the brunt of the great charge. Five thousand men under Pickett dashed against the entrenched Union lines, and though they had to face a withering fire, charged up to the very front of their enemy, and grappled with them. For a moment they gained a foothold, then the Union soldiers, massing at this crucial point, flung them back, and the charge was ended. More than two thousand men had been killed or wounded in thirty minutes. Pickett gave the order to retreat, and as his men fell back the Union soldiers sprang forward, and pursued a short distance, taking many prisoners and battle ensigns.

The Union army had also repulsed the Confederates in other parts of the field, and the day ended in victory for Meade's men. During the night Lee retreated in good order.

The Confederates never penetrated as far north again, and the point that Pickett reached at the height of his charge is often called the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." The charge, though ill-advised, was heroically carried out, and has become famous as one of the bravest events in the Civil War.

High Tide at Gettysburg

by Will Henry Thompson

A cloud possessed the hollow field,

The gathering battle's smoky shield:

Athwart the gloom the lightning flashed,

And through the cloud some horsemen dashed,

And from the heights the thunder pealed.

Then, at the brief command of Lee

Moved out that matchless infantry,

With Pickett leading grandly down,

To rush against the roaring crown

Of those dread heights of destiny.

Far heard above the angry guns,

A cry across the tumult runs;

The voice that rang through Shiloh's woods

And Chickamauga's solitudes,

The fierce South cheering on her sons!

Ah, how the withering tempest blew

Against the front of Pettigrew!

A Khamsin wind that scorched and singed

Like that infernal flame that fringed

The British squares at Waterloo!

A thousand fell where Kemper led;

A thousand died where Garnett bled:

In blinding flame and strangling smoke

The remnant through the batteries broke

And crossed the works with Armistead.

"Once more in Glory's van with me!"

Virginia cried to Tennessee:

"We two together, come what may,

Shall stand upon these works to-day!"

The reddest day in history.

Brave Tennessee! In reckless way

Virginia heard her comrades say:

"Close round this rent and riddled rag!"

What time she set her battle-flag

Amid the guns of Doubleday.

But who shall break the guards that wait

Before the awful face of Fate?

The tattered standards of the South

Were shrivelled at the cannon's mouth,

And all her hopes were desolate.

In vain the Tennesseean set

His breast against the bayonet;

In vain Virginia charged and raged,

A tigress in her wrath uncaged,

Till all the hill was red and wet!

Above the bayonets, mixed and crossed,

Men saw a gray, gigantic ghost

Receding through the battle-cloud,

And heard across the tempest loud

The death-cry of a nation lost!

The brave went down! Without disgrace

They leaped to Ruin's red embrace;

They only heard Fame's thunders wake,

And saw the dazzling sunburst break

In smiles on Glory's bloody face!

They fell, who lifted up a hand

And bade the sun in heaven to stand;

They smote and fell, who set the bars

Against the progress of the stars,

And stayed the march of Motherland.

They stood, who saw the future come

On through the fight's delirium;

They smote and stood, who held the hope

Of nations on that slippery slope,

Amid the cheers of Christendom!

God lives! He forged the iron will,

That clutched and held that trembling hill!

God lives and reigns! He built and lent

The heights for Freedom's battlement,

Where floats her flag in triumph still!

Fold up the banner! Smelt the guns!

Love rules. Her gentler purpose runs.

A mighty mother turns in tears,

The pages of her battle years,

Lamenting all her fallen sons!

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