1863: “Oh, If I Could Just Come Out Of This Charge Safely”

(Spelling and emphasis is original)

July 3, 1863

Our artillery has now ceased to roar and the enemy have checked their fury, too. The time appointed for our charge has come.

I tell you, there is no romance in making one of these charges. You might think so from reading “Charlie O’Mallery,” that prodigy of valour, or in reading of any other gallant knight who would as little think of riding over gunners and sich like as they would of eating a dozen oysters. But when you rise to your feet as we did today, I tell you the enthusiasm of ardent breasts in many cases ain’t there, and instead of burning to avenge the insults of our country, families and altars and firesides, the thought is most frequently, Oh, if I could just come out of this charge safely how thankful would I be!

We rise to our feet, but not all. There is a line of men still on the ground with their faces turned, men affected in 4 different ways. There are the gallant dead who will never charge again; the helpless wounded, many of whom desire to share the fortunes of this charge; the men who have charged on many a battlefield, who who are now helpless from the heat of the sun; and the men in who there is not sufficient courage to enable them to rise, – but of these last there are but few.

Up, brave men! Some are actually fainting from the heat and dread. They have fallen to the ground overpowered by the suffocating heat and the terrors of that hour. Onward – stead – dress to the right – give way to the left – stead, not too fast – don’t press upon the center – how gentle the slope! stead – keep well in line – there is the line of guns we must take – right in front – but how far they appear! Nearly one third of a mile, off on Cemetery Ridge, and the line stretches round in almost a semicircle. Upon the center of this we must march. Behind the guns are strong lines of infantry. You may see them plainly and now they see us perhaps more plainly.

To the right of us and above the guns we are to capture, black heavy monsters from their lofty mountain sites belch forth their flame and smoke and storms of shot and shell upon our advancing line; while directly in front, breathing flame in our very faces, the long range of guns which must be taken thunder on our quivering melting ranks. Now truly does the work of death begin. The line becomes unsteady because at every step a gap must be closed and thus from left to right much ground is lost.

Close up! Close up the ranks when a friend falls, while his life blood bespatters your cheek or throws a film over your eyes! Dress to left or right, while the bravest of the brave are sinking to rise no more! Still onward! Capt. Hallinan has fallen and I take his place. So many men have fallen now that I find myself within a few feet of my old Captain (Norton). His men are pressing mine out of place. I ask him to give way a little to the left, and scarcely has he done so than he leaps into the air, falling prostrate. Still we press on – oh, how long it seems before we reach those blazing guns. Our men are falling faster now, for the deadly musket is at work. Volley after volley of crashing musket balls sweeps through the line and mow us down like wheat before the scythe.

On! men, on! Thirty more yards and the guns are ours; but who can stand such a storm of hissing lead and iron? What a relief if earth, which almost seems to hurl these implements of death in our faces, would open now and afford a secure retreat from threatening death. Every officer is in front….

Just here – from right to left the remnants of our braves pour in their long reserved fire; until now no shot had been fired, no shout of triumph had been raised; but as the cloud of smoke rises over the heads of the advancing divisions the well known southern battle cry which marks the victory gained or nearly gained bursts wildly over the blood stained field and all that line of guns is ours.

Shot through both thighs, I fall about 30 yards from the guns. By my side lies Lt. Kehoe, shot through the knee. Here we lie, he in excessive pain, I fearing to bleed to death, the dead and dying all around, while the division sweeps over the Yankee guns. Oh, how I long to know the result, the end of this fearful charge! We seem to have victory in our hands; but what can our poor remnant of a shattered division do if they meet beyond the guns an obstinate resistance? 

There – listen – we hear a new shout, and cheer after cheer rends the air. Are those fresh troops advancing to our support? No! no! That huzza never broke from southern lips. Oh God! Virginia’s bravest, noblest sons have perished here today and perished all in vain!

Oh, if there is anything capable of crushing and wringing the soldier’s hearth it was this day’s tragic act and all in vain!

Lieutenant John Dooley, 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment; July 3, 1863

Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg

Gettysburg – Day Three

On July 3, 1863 – after two days of heavy fighting – the Confederates made new battle plans. After failing to break the Union defensive lines on the flanks, General Robert E. Lee decided to attack the center of General George Meade’s position along Cemetery Ridge. John Dooley’s account gives us a glimpse into that experience from a Confederate infantryman’s perspective.

The Union lines held and the Confederate attack – known popularly as “Pickett’s Charge”, though more properly called “Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge” failed.

For complete details about the three day Battle of Gettysburg, please click here to read other material on the blog.

John Dooley

John Dooley

John Dooley served as a lieutenant in the 1st Virginia Regiment. On July 3, 1863, he was wounded during the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack, became a prisoner, and was eventually sent to Johnson’s Island Military Prison. He survived his painful injuries.

Dooley kept a fantastic journal, detailing his experiences during the Civil War and giving readers a glimpse of “common soldier” experiences on the march, in the camps, and during battle.

Historical Musings

I decided to share the entire journal excerpt for the Confederate charge, even though it’s longer than the usual primary sources for this series. Why?

  • Dooley reminds us about the horrors of war and the terror of that charge which has been romanticized too often in Civil War Memory.
  • He gives us an honest look at the bravery and fear of the moment

Once upon a time – when I was about ten years old – a friend gave me a children’s book about Gettysburg. It included excerpts from Dooley’s journal, edited to be a little less graphic. It was one of the first times I learned the startling “magic” of reading the words of someone who was really there (reading primary sources.) Many years later as I studied Gettysburg and its aftermath, I wanted to know what happened to Lt. Dooley – what happened after the children’s book excerpts faded into ellipses. So I read his journal and learned the rest of his story.

It’s not my absolute favorite primary source, but I am indebted to John Dooley for teaching me the power of primary sources, and his words come to mind as I think about the Gettysburg on the 155th anniversary since the battle.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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5 Responses to 1863: “Oh, If I Could Just Come Out Of This Charge Safely”

  1. Pingback: Tea With Sarah: Let’s Talk About Gettysburg… | Gazette665

  2. historyweaver says:

    My greatgrandfather was assistant surgeon in the 11th PA. From July 1 to July 3 he was a prisoner under the Confederates as they held Gettysburg. He made it safely from Seminary Ridge on Day 1 to Christ Luther where the 2nd division had their hospital. As he rushed up into the safety of the church a chaplain came out to see what the commotion in the town was about (20,000 Union soldiers rushing to Cemetery Ridge) and was shot dead by a sniper. He had to wear a white piece of cloth around his arm to identify him as a surgeon for those two days. On day 3 he was allowed to return to Seminary Ridge to look after the wounded. He was there when part of the charge swept back up onto the school. Treated the wounded on both side.

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