Sixty-six years after the repulse of “Pickett’s Charge,” the failed July 3, 1863 assault that represented the high-water mark of the doomed Confederate States of America, a host of devotees congregated at Seminary Ridge south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to pay homage to those North Carolinians who participated in the epic attack. Among those in the delegation was the then governor of North Carolina, O. Max Gardner, his immediate predecessor, Angus W. McLean, Mrs. E.L. McKee, the President of the North Carolina division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which sponsored the memorial, and several other enthusiastic Southern partisans. Major-General B.F. Cheatham, the Quartermaster-General of the United States Army, and son of a Confederate major general, was proud to accept this monument on behalf of the United States War Department. During the ceremony, following the addresses of Mrs. McKee and past UDC president, Mrs. Marshall Williams, Cheatham expressed his gratitude toward the ladies of the South for making this monument a reality: “If there is any one person I honor more than a Confederate soldier it is his wife or sweetheart, whose courage, self-denial and moral support made his record possible. You are the daughters of those women, and today it is your persistent effort which finally brings about the erection of monuments and the marking of historic spots where your fathers fought, more than sixty years ago. May I offer you my congratulations upon the accomplishments of your desires here and upon the superlative good taste shown in the design selected.”
The memorial, sculpted by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame, is a poignant portrayal of the common soldiers from North Carolina who fought and died in the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Battle of Gettysburg and who accounted for one out of every four Confederate casualties. According to the North Carolina State Museum, Confederates from Virginia and North Carolina Confederates bickered after one particularly fierce engagement. The Virginians, who had retreated, asked their comrades what Confederate President Jefferson Davis would do with all of the tar he got from their state. The Carolinians responded that he would put it on the feet of Virginia soldiers to keep them from running in battle. Supposedly, when General Robert E. Lee heard of this encounter he exclaimed, “God bless the Tar Heel boys,” referring to the North Carolinians.
Whether or not this was an apocryphal incident, there is no doubt that a rivalry existed between Virginia and North Carolina troops. The enmity between the two states during the war was so great that North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance was said to have quipped that his state was “a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit,” referring to Virginia and South Carolina, each of whom had a reputation of being wealthier and more prone to secessionist politics than the “The Old North State.” Looking at the casualty figures from the Battle of Gettysburg, it would appear that the Tar Heels had every right to feel slighted by their neighbor to the north. In spite of its relatively small population and initial reluctance to join the Confederacy, the state of North Carolina supplied 14, 147 soldiers in thirty-two regiments to the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg which was second only to Virginia. In his address, Governor Gardner emphasized that “On this spot, ‘The High-water Mark of the confederacy,’ the farthest waves of that bloody tide which finally spent itself and broke on the scarred crest of Cemetery Ridge were North Carolina boys, members of the immortal 26th North Carolina Regiment. Pettigrew’s Brigade did not lose a single prisoner in this charge, but it lost in killed and wounded over 1,100 men, including many of its best officers.”
Nevertheless, it was the Virginians of General George Pickett’s division who got credit for making the furthest advance inside Union lines at Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd. The Virginians also beat the Tar Heels by twelve years in placing a monument on the battlefield. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Memorial, dedicated on June 8, 1917, is also along Confederate Avenue just south of the North Carolina Memorial. The Virginia monument dominates the surrounding landscape with Lee mounted on “Traveler.” Below Lee are a handful of soldiers engaged in different warlike poses. A plaque at the foot of the memorial explains that, “The group represents various types who left civil occupations to join the Confederate Army. Left to right; a professional man, a mechanic, an artist, a boy, a business man, a farmer, a youth.”
While the Virginia Memorial boasts Lee and other soldiers representing a cross section of Virginia society, North Carolina’s monument has only a handful of ordinary Confederates clustered around their flag. For Borglum, the value of the sculpture was not in who was represented but, rather, in how the subjects were depicted. The Virginians, especially Lee, tower over the landscape but seem detached from the actual fighting. The five North Carolina soldiers, however, appear as an actual snapshot of Pickett’s Charge caught in time. General Lee is not directing them; rather, their courage and steadfast loyalty to the Confederacy compel them forward.
The picture above was taken at the dedication of the North Carolina State Memorial on July 3, 1929. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this image is that the United States flag (48 stars) is draped on a memorial to a group of individuals who fought to undermine the United States Government. The presence of Confederate monuments on Federal lands was a postwar gesture of sectional reconciliation. The Great Reunion of 1913 at Gettysburg (50th anniversary of the battle) came only four months after the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was the victor of the contentious 1912 election, and he also happened to be the first Southern-born man popularly elected to the presidency since the Civil War. Recognizing the potential political pitfalls of appearing too partisan at the reunion, Wilson instead took an impassioned yet impartial stance on the meaning of the late conflict: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes.”
The issue of slavery and its role in sparking the Civil War was inconsequential to those gathered on Seminary Ridge on July 3, 1929. For all the differences in artistic style, both the Virginia and North Carolina memorials pay tribute to the “splendid valor” and “manly devotion” of their states’ men who fought at Gettysburg. Borglum further added to the drama of the dedication ceremonies by having an airplane fly overhead and drop roses over the battlefield as a tribute to the simple soldiers he immortalized in bronze.
A recent article appeared in the Civil War Times in which the NC monument was #2 under “Gettysburg’s Best Monuments.” The article by Kim A. O’Connell can be found at: http://www.historynet.com/gettysburgs-best-and-worst-monuments.htm?pid=1152.
To see the program for the N.C. state monument: http://www.gdg.org/Research/Monuments/ncmon.html.