For my entire life, a letter has hung on the wall at the bottom of the steps of the old, elegant–but not grand–farm house where my mother grew up. The house sits on the western shoulder of Clark’s Mountain in the heart of Virginia’s Piedmont. Sitting on the porch looking west over the rock wall, you see why they are called the Blue Ridge Mountains.
And you can see why, after the unthinkable carnage of Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee marched his men south, through all the enemy territory he had gained, past the Mason-Dixon, around the federal city and on southward to this very mountain. His men crossed the Rapidan River and took ramparts on the high bluffs along the southern bank of the river. When General U.S. Grant finally caught up, he found himself taking cover some ways above the river, beyond the flat plains of the north bank that left his men little more than target practice for Lee’s sharpshooters.
Sometimes, watching smoky storm clouds slide across the purple background under a rolling barrage of thunder, I imagine that I am sitting in this exact spot 150 years ago, watching the fire and mortar blasts of a titanic battle and listening to distant cannon fire rumble along the valley and bounce off hillsides.
Inside, the framed letter is from Confederate General William H. Payne–written in 1882–describing the final moments and last words in the life of my grandmother’s great uncle, General Lewis A. Armistead.
Gen. Armistead died in Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. He fell farther north than any Confederate officer in the entire war, only being stopped by musket fire after placing his hand on a Union cannon atop Cemetery Ridge.
The letter describes how Gen. Armistead was shot by Union soldiers commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, his best friend before the war separated them. As he lay dying of his wounds, Gen. Armistead sent his regards to Gen. Hancock through the men who had just fired the fatal shots into him. The letter does not seek to burnish the gallantry of Gen. Armistead nor explain his decision to take up arms against his country. The letter’s only point was to emphasize that in no way did Gen. Armistead die a “repentant rebel.” And still today, the defiance remains.
Charles Hurt is a columnist for the Washington Times, a Fox News contributor, and an Editor of the Drudge Report.
Image credit: “High Water Mark” by Don Troiani