GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Bill Hewitt had his rebel brigade in formation and ready to attack. Under a hot sun, a thousand or more of his troops — in T-shirts, sneakers, and cargo shorts — waited for the command to advance.
Armed with iPads, cellphones and digital cameras, they fidgeted in the steamy field of tall grass and milkweed, as Hewitt, 63, a National Park Service ranger and former Army officer, paced.
A turkey buzzard soared overhead. It was almost time. Finally, Hewitt, sporting a trim white moustache and broad-brimmed hat, called to his forces: “Are you ready?” In unison, they responded with a savage scream that they were. And he launched them toward the “enemy.”
Hewitt’s horde, of men, women and children, were part of a huge reenactment Wednesday of Pickett’s Charge, the legendary Civil War attack that happened 150 years ago, July 3, 1863.
Several thousand people re-created the mile-long march that Pickett’s doomed men made across a broad field south of town. The event was the culmination of the ceremonies this week marking the 150th anniversary of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.
Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s charge was the final major Confederate effort on the last day of the battle, which was the turning point in the Civil War. The assault ended in a bloody repulse of the South, and it hastened the collapse of the Confederacy.
Wednesday’s march started at 3 p.m., just as the original had, and proceeded across the once-harrowing fields, which Wednesday were places of beauty.
The humid breeze was rich with the smell of clover. Small orange butterflies flew among the wild flowers. And field birds perched on the fence rails.
The Park Service had arranged for participants to walk with rangers and reenactors representing nine Confederate brigades that made the attack.
Many walked with Hewitt’s group, representing the Virginia brigade of the Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, who was under Pickett’s command.
Armistead, whose best friend was an opposing Union general, led his men with his hat on his raised sword and was killed at the height of the assault.
It was far more peaceful Wednesday, although the marchers got a feel for the distance, the ankle-turning unevenness of the ground and the difficulty of the last 50 yards uphill.
The “brigade” was led by a small group of men clad as Confederate infantry, who exhorted their comrades in ball caps and sunglasses, while Thomas M. Lee, 64, a retired Army officer from Newnan, Ga., sounded calls on an antique bugle.
The attackers scaled four sets of fences, cheering as they went. “Stay together!” someone yelled. “Virginia!” someone else cried. “Don’t get in front of your colors!”
Pickett’s Charge occupies a critical point in American history — the outcome helped to create both a United States cleansed of slavery and the lore of the South’s noble “Lost Cause.”
Historian George R. Stewart began his 1959 book on the charge:
“If we grant — as many would be ready to do — that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode of the history of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett’s Charge.”
The assault was conducted by an estimated 10,500 to 13,000 soldiers, according to a book by Carol Reardon, a professor of military history at Penn State University.
Only about half of them — in more than a dozen Virginia regiments — belonged to the division commanded by Pickett, a 38-year-old West Point graduate known for his long, perfumed hair and his 20-year-old fiancee, Sallie Corbell.
The rest of the men included soldiers from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida, according to Reardon.
In 1863, the attackers stayed mostly under the cover of trees on Seminary Ridge, slightly southwest of town, before the assault began. Their task, at the appointed time, was to descend from the ridge, cross the mile of open field and then ascend Cemetery Ridge to the east.
There, a vast host of Union soldiers waited — hunkered down behind stone walls and piled-up fence rails — and watched the rebel advance.
“We could overlook the whole valley between the two lines,” Winfield Scott, a Union captain wrote years later. “The whole line of battle looked like a stream or river of silver moving towards us.”
Another Yankee who watched was Pvt. Ralph O. Sturtevant of the 13th Vermont infantry regiment.
“It was summer,” he remembered decades later, “and all nature . . . seemed dressed in its richest color for the slaughter of precious lives.”
Sturtevant continued: “Everything had been determined, and nothing could prevent the carnage soon to follow.”
The Confederates advanced across the fields, taking increasingly murderous fire as they drew closer to the Union lines. Gradually, the Union guns battered and compressed the assault into a blunt phalanx that pushed on toward a stone wall where Union forces were.
The shredded Confederates managed to cross Emmittsburg Road and surge into the Union lines at an angle in the stone wall.
There, mobs of young men from North and South fought “like wild beasts . . . threw stones, clubbed muskets, kicked and yelled and hurrahed,” according to a Massachusetts regimental history.
“For a moment,” Gettysburg College historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote in a new book that describes the action, “the balances shivered and teetered, unsure which future world to bless.”
Finally they shifted, and Pickett’s men began to flow back down Cemetery Ridge, into the valley and across to where they started, leaving their dead behind.
Hundreds are estimated to have been killed and thousands wounded.
“See how thick the silent men of gray are scattered,” a Union officer, Frank A. Haskell, wrote in an account for his brother shortly after the battle. “It is not an hour since these legions were sweeping along so grandly.”
There was, mercifully, none of that Wednesday. As Hewitt’s “rebels” neared the stone wall, which was thronged with other marchers and bystanders, they were in full cry. “Vir-gin-ya!” they yelled.
Beyond the stone wall, a stern equestrian statue of the Union commander, and the victor in the battle, Gen. George G. Meade, loomed on the horizon, along with the towers of the television trucks.
Hewitt, perspiring and flushed from the heat, ordered a halt. “Stand by here, folks, stand by,” he called through his portable amplifier. “We’re close enough.”
“Folks, you did good today,” he called “You did good. Give yourselves a cheer.”
And those who walked in the footsteps of Pickett let out a whoop.