John Sloper
35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry
July 4, 1863 - the wee hours
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Confederate lines

In the darkness and silence following the carnage at Gettysburg, White's Rebels rode back from their mission and joined the rest of Lee's army. They got an earful. The massive charge of Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, and how it had failed. That a lot of Southern boys had died. Whole regiments utterly destroyed. "Pickett's Charge," they were calling it. The name Pickett rang a bell for John Sloper: his brother Dan was in Pickett's division: the 8th Virginia Infantry. Word was that the 8th had come back from the charge having lost 178 men out of 189 effectives.

Pete Johnson was incredulous. "Only eleven men left!"

William Snoots asked John, "Say, John, the 8th is your brother's regiment, isn't it?"

John was on the one hand relieved that his brother's desertion was still unknown to his comrades, and on the other hand fearful that the information might now come out. The fear made him react angrily. "My brother is my concern! Nobody else's!" He stalked off to cool down, which he figured would be a convincing thing to do if he wasn't harboring a secret.

Alone, he found a fallen tree to sit on. Maybe it was best that Daniel had not been in that charge; he'd likely be dead now. Then again, maybe it would be better to be dead than a deserter. John wondered again where Daniel was; if he was alive; why he'd deserted; if he was now fighting for the North.

Having cooled off for a convincing amount of time, John walked back to the battalion. He was thinking about the bigger picture; the war, this battle. Many times it was difficult to tell who'd won a battle. This time, though, it was well known who had won. The Yankees. John felt that this all sounded wrong. A frontal assault en masse was the kind of thing the Union generals had been known to do, while the Confederacy typically was the side hunkered down behind defensive works. For Robert E. Lee to have ordered such a thing seemed out of character. Apparently Tribby was thinking the same thing.

Tribby: "How could General Lee let this happen?"

John: "Now don't go puttin' it on him. He's never failed us yet."

Shreve: "Sure sounds to me like we lost this one."

Snoots: "Don't you be badmouthin' General Lee!"

John: "Simmer down. Nobody'd ever say nothin' bad 'bout Uncle Robert."

Tribby: "I thought we could never be beat! How could this happen?"

Snoots: "Lord! I thought this battle would be the great one!"

Johnson: "Me, too. The battle that would end the war. Show the North that they should sue for peace. Leave the South be."

There was much dejection in the battalion that whole night. John left the fire, went off to take care of Billy Yank. Caring for the horse helped take his mind off things for a while.

The next day was even more depressing. Some of them rode around pulling in stragglers. John was put on a burial party. As they found places where the dead lay in bunches, the party would dig what amounted to a ditch. Then multiple men could be buried all together. The weight of the loss of the big battle really came home to John throughout this somber duty. Add to that the sorts of thoughts that come to mind while burying dead comrades. It was impossible to avoid the thought, "that could be me, somebody could do this to me after I'm killed on a battlefield." He cried when he handled a dead youth. He hadn't even known the lad, but somehow the fellow's beardless face made John mindful of his own boyhood, his family, and of his missing brother.

Off towards the south, he could see Yankee burial parties at work. What with the rain and the gloom, he heard no shouted banter, which sometimes happened when blue and gray were within shouting distance.

As John shoveled, he paid little attention to a passing wagon, until he noticed that his comrades were not digging. Looking up, he saw what was occupying their attention. A couple of civilian men had set up a big box on a tripod... it was a camera. They were taking pictures of the dead boys! John could hardly believe the sacrilege. He drew his revolver and cocked the hammer.

"John." Pete Johnson pushed John's hand down. "There's enough death. Leave it be. I'll tell'em to get the hell out of here." And that's what he did.

* * *

On the 5th of July, Colonel White received an order from General Ewell to cover the army's retreat. The 35th brought up the rear as the Army of Northern Virginia abandoned the march into Pennsylvania and headed back south again. The damn Yankees, uncharacteristically, didn't just sit back the way they usually had after a big battle; this time, they hounded the retreat ferociously. Riding back towards the army after a rather sharp firefight, John wondered aloud to Tom Tribby, "Damn! What's gotten the Yanks' dander up so?"

Tribby remarked drily, "Y'think it might be because we're in their country?"

"Oh, yeah."

The retreat to the west by southwest from Gettysburg was hard-fought. Union cavalry dogged them all the way. There was a big fight on a place called Granite Hill, but the 35th had accomplished a lot; Lee's army made it to the Potomac.

The battalion had been in high spirits when riding into Pennsylvania but rode out in the depths of dejection. Because now they were bringing up the rear, the 35th had been the first Confederate unit into Gettysburg, they were also among the last out.

* * *

The author visited the Gettysburg battlefield during the Civil War centennial.

© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.