"Lee said again with absolute calm, 'General, you must look to your division,'
Pickett said tearfully, voice of a bewildered angry boy.
'General Lee, I have no division.'"
"…there ought to be a heaven for young soldiers, especially young soldiers…"
-Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
The scent of war: ever-permeating, the smell of horses and gunpowder and the sweat of many men trapping in uniforms under the day's long sun. A constant smell that burned into one's nostrils, a smell that he had learned to love and to hate. Today had a new aroma to add to the mix- excitement, electric in the air. The knowledge that something large and great and historical was about to happen, sitting on the edge of the most pivotal moment in the history of the long war. Hearts, young and old, swelled with love and admiration- for the Generals, eccentric and lovable Pickett, God-like Lee, and love for the Cause. Yes, the Cause.
For every man, the Cause was different. The right to own slaves, the right to choose whether or not to own slaves, or simply rights as a whole. For Reed Johnson, and many of his fellow soldiers, the Cause was to return home to his sweetheart after serving his country as honor required. The secession had happened, and is had been done, and it was now time to serve his beloved North Carolina and his waiting lady at home.
His mind slipped back into a time past; lovely Anne on the porch step, hair escaping into brown wisps, fingers of a chill wind brushing her blue dress- her best dress. Their goodbyes had been said, he had just began to move away from the small house with a promise fresh off his lips. Anne kissed her hand and held it out to him, and for a moment, he almost turned back to her- forget the war, forget the North, let us be married now and sit back and watch as the North and South collide around us.
The shoulder of another man brushed against his own, bringing back the scent of war. Anne's blue dress and her tear-streaked face dissipated into memory once more. Armistead's call went up- for your sweethearts, for your wives, for Virginia,
For Anne and for North Carolina
The line shifted; Pickett's soldiers moved ahead, up the slight incline of the hill. Some of the younger men spoke and were hushed by the older soldiers. Reed could sense the apprehension of the more wizened soldiers, the suggestion that they were not certain about this attack. But youth and pride overwhelmed the concerns of the grizzled old men. He caught a glimpse of Garnett; the injured commander could not miss this battle, even if it meant that he would have to traverse the field on horseback. The dark horse's nostrils flared, ears laid back at the thud of a cannon. For a moment, Reed was reminded of his older brother- a cavalry man with a spunky cinnamon colored horse. He swore up and down that the mare had Arabian blood in her; Reed consistently did not believe him. He had meant to speak to his brother before the charge, but had become too caught up in pre-battle chatter with the rest of Armistead's men. Stuart's cavalry, including Reed's brother, would be watching now, with no place in a battle such as this.
Alexander's gunners saluted them as they passed. It was always a comfort to have the aid of Alexander's cannon. Alexander, just two years his senior, was an excellent gunner.
A voice spoke from behind him, slightly to the left. Reed knew that voice all too well; it was a voice always with a touch of test, a teller of amusing stories. He inclined his head to meet a set of grinning blue eyes.
William Isaacs' grin grew ever wider.
"It appeared as though you weren't paying very much attention. Spending time with Anne?"
Isaacs was a Virginia boy, but he had become Reed's steadfast friend from the day they came under the command of Lo Armistead.
"If only," Johnson replied.
"I hear you, brother," Bill said. He glanced forward to the backs of Garnett and Kemper's brigades. They were cresting the hill now. For a moment, Reed thought he saw a rare glint of fear in Isaacs' pale eyes.
"Fight hard for your girl, Reed," He said solemnly. "That is the best strength you can have."
Bill fell into silence, and Reed could think of no statement to add to it.
Cannon fire began now, but not from Alexander's guns. The entire brigade tensed as a cannonball met earth and bodies to their left; several of Trimble's men disappeared in a cloud of dirt and smoke.
"Here is comes," an old soldier beside Reed hissed.
The commanders continued to spur their men on, even as cannon fire met their lines. More bursts of smoke showed in the brigades ahead. Reed found himself marching of the twisted bodies of Garnett's men. And then the cannonballs met Armistead's brigade.
A chunk of the brigade's extreme right disappeared; limbs torn from torsos flew into the air. The ground several yards ahead of Reed exploded; he blinked past the dust and acrid smoke. Garnett and Kemper's men were slowing, swelling back, met by the wooden fence that stretched across the field. Had the mile march already moved so quickly?
He could spot the Union soldiers clearly now; bluecoats lined up behind a wall of wood and stone. The men above pushed against the fence, clamoring over it now, and the real slaughter began.
Reed barely saw a man move post the fence; most fell against it or only a few feet from it. Canister fire sent sprays of shrapnel in all directions, tearing flesh, blinding eyes, tugging at guts. The firm shield of Garnett and Kemper's brigades had collapsed, like an ocean wave against firm rocks, into a mountain of bodies. Armistead's men met the broken remains of the fence and the brigades. Reed's fingers slipped on the blood-soaked wood of the fence as he climbed over. An explosion suddenly went off behind him; he was propelled towards the ground of bodies. He groped for his rifle, propped himself up on one hand, looked over his shoulder to see the gaping hole where Bill had once been. The hole quickly filled over shrapnel-encrusted bodies.
"Come on, men!" Armistead howled. Reed found his footing at last and fell back into the remaining men. Garnett and Kemper and collapsed into writhing, wounded bodies and stiffening corpses- it was up to Armistead to take the lead. Fear was enveloped in the roar of the charge. Armistead's men ran up the hill; Reed could sense the bluecoats faltering and moving with uncertainty. Armistead's brigade had risen up like a great snarling beast, a stinging grey monster with a hide of silver thorns. The charge was all-consuming; for Virginia, for North Carolina, for the damn cinnamon mare and Anne's blue dress dancing across the farthest corners of his vision-
It felt like a bee sting. Just a bee sting- only a pinch of pain, a minor inconvenience. His conscious mind ordered him to ignore it, but involuntary action demanded otherwise. He placed a hand against his stomach, fingers scraping the rough cotton material of his uniform. It felt strangely warm. His mind was screaming- ignore it, put it aside for later! But his hand returned. For a moment, he thought his eyes were lying to him; his fingers were coated in crimson.
Reed felt the full force of the shot, realization and pain spreading across his body. The ground fell out from underneath him and he was moving in an open space, before his knees met the earth. He looked down- a single hole was punched in his uniform, ringing in an expanding stain of red.
It was agonizingly difficult to raise his head again and watch as his brigade met the Union wall. Armistead shouted to his men with sword raised- his voice was no longer clear. The glint of the bayonets was dulled, the field layered with stricken Southern bodies blended into a mass of twisting maggots. The whole world was rotting around him, the reek of death and blood and decay choking the air. He was going to suffocate in the rot, into the dead…
A flash of blue cut across his sight. That cinnamon mare, eyes wild and snout flaring, ran across the sea of fly spawn. Its hoof steps made the filth dissipate, repulsing the darkness. Maybe it was an Arabian- the eyes were so wild…Anne.
She followed in the horse's wake, dark hair worn free. Suddenly nothing mattered- not the Confederacy, not the Union, only his Cause was important. Only his Anne.
Reed Johnson fell into the warm blue darkness of hope and memory.
From July 1st, 1863, to July 3rd, 1863, Robert E. Lee's forces struggled against the Union army at Gettysburg. It was intended be Lee's first offensive victory of his career.
Pickett's charge became the bloodiest moment of the battle. While most of North Carolina's casualties did not occur in Pickett's Charge, North Carolina's losses were some of the highest overall.