Masonic Spotlight: Brother Against Brother – Picket’s Charge

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

(Editor’s Note: Reference related video and publications at the end of the article to view and read more about the events mentioned below)

They gathered at the base of the hill, uncertain of what lay ahead, yet proud and determined to succeed. In the heat of summer fate had brought them to this place, previously unmemorable, but one that, by days end, would never be forgotten.  Among the men were those who would lead them in their pursuit, including Lewis, who was well trained and experienced in his profession.  As he pondered his task, his thoughts included his friend of seventeen years.

Likewise, others would gather at the peak of the hill, uncertain of what lay ahead, yet proud and determined to succeed. In the heat of summer fate had also brought them to this place, previously unmemorable, but one that, by days end, would never be forgotten.  Among the men were those who would lead them in their pursuit, including Winfield, who was well trained and experienced in his profession.  As he pondered his task, his thoughts included his friend of seventeen years.

Soon the bloody events would unfold, when men in blue and gray would violently face each other for a third consecutive day, a day where death and destruction would tragically reign.  It was a day that reminds us of the vicious brutality that mankind can wrought upon one another.  It was just another instance of a conflict that pitted brother against brother, and Brother against Brother.

Armistead and Hancock – An unbroken friendship

Brigadier General Lewis “Lo” Addison Armistead, born February 18, 1817 and from Virginia, and Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, born February 14, 1824 and from Pennsylvania, became close friends while serving in the 6th U.S. Infantry. Armistead came from a family of military men, including his father who fought in the War of 1812.  His uncle, Major George Armistead, commanded the American troops at Fort McHenry during the 1814 battle that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner. Hancock, who would later run for U.S. President in 1880, and Armistead, who married Cecelia Lee Love, a distant cousin of Robert E. Lee, both fought in the Mexican – American War (1846-1848) along with Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and other military leaders who would serve opposite each other less than two decades later. Both Armistead and Hancock attended West Point Military Academy. Hancock graduated; Armistead resigned, but later, with the help of his father, obtained a commission as an infantry second-lieutenant.

Tragedy brought these friends closer together when Hancock supported Armistead after the death of Armistead’s wives and children.1 In 1850 Armistead’s daughter, Flora, died in April and then his wife, Cecilia, in December, leaving only his son Walker. Armistead married Cornelia Taliaferro Jamison in 1853, but she tragically died in 1855, predeceased in 1854 by their son, Lewis B. Armistead.

Masonry was a common bond between these close friends.  Armistead was a member of Alexander-Washington Lodge #22 in Alexandria, Virginia and a charter member of Union Lodge 37 in Fort Riley, Kansas.  Hancock, a member of Charity Lodge #190, Norristown, Pennsylvania, also belonged to Royal Arch Mason, #90, and Hutchinson Commandery, Knights Templar #22.  In the heat of battle their Masonic connection would serve as a poignant reminder of how brotherly love can rise above the carnage mankind often rains upon each other.

As 1861 approached, Armistead and Hancock, like thousands of other soldiers, had to decide which side to support as the drums of war grew louder.  Several future war heroes were stationed in California where, on June 15, according to the memoirs of Lewis’ wife, Allie, she and Winfred hosted a farewell party. This was just two months after the shelling of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, marking the beginning of the American Civil War.  While attending the party Lewis Armistead gave his bible and personal belonging to Allie for safekeeping, to be opened only in the event of his death.2 Allie writes that, “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.” Armistead resigned and supported his state of Virginia and is believed to have said, “Hancock, goodbye; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.” Hancock remained in the Army, saying, “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided”.

Pickett and BinghamCourage and compassion

Like so many others who served in battle during the American Civil War, there were some who’s name would be forever remembered and some who would remain virtually unknown.  General George Pickett would be remembered for his bravery under fire in a charge that bears his name; Captain Henry H. Bingham would demonstrate human compassion that to this day is known only by a few.  History and fate brought them together on opposite sides of a stone wall, situated on a grassy ridge that stood forty feet above the surrounding terrain.  It was here the tides of war would change, what some call the high-water mark of the Confederacy – its deepest penetration into Union lines. It was here, as part of a larger attack, 15,000 Confederate soldiers charged 6,500 Union forces in fierce combat involving more than 200 cannons, countless rounds of bullets that tore into human flesh, and hundreds of bayonets that reflected the bright afternoon sun.

Bingham was born on December 4, 1841. Just 21 years old when he served on General Hancock’s staff as Judge-Advocate during the Battle of Gettysburg, he would later receive the Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership at the Battle of the Wilderness.  After the war Bingham became Postmaster of Philadelphia, then served as a U.S. Congressman from 1878 until his death in 1912. Brother Bingham was a member of Chartiers Lodge #297, Cannonsburg, PA and a life member of Union Lodge #121 in Philadelphia.

Pickett was born on January 16, 1825.  Known as a dandy for his flamboyant look that included ruffled shirts, an elegant riding whip, long ringlets of hair falling on his shoulders, and a curled beard, he graduated last in his Class of 1846 at West Point. He served with distinction during the Mexican-American War, later resigning his commission in the United States Army to join the Confederate States Army.   A year before his death on July 30, 1875, Pickett was granted a full pardon for his actions during the Civil War.  George Picket was a member of Dove Lodge No. 51 in Richmond, Virginia. During the Civil War some believe he was also a member of military lodge Old Guard Lodge No. 211. Pickett was a member of St. Alban’s Chapter Royal Arch Masons and Richmond Commandery No. 2, Knights Templar.

Gettysburg – July 3, 1863

As dawn broke on the morning of July 3, 1863, battle preparations were already underway by the Confederate soldiers serving under the command of General Robert E. Lee. The day was clear and bright; an eerie silence lay over the field.  A week earlier brought no indication the tiny town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania would play host to the formidable forces of Lee and Union General George G. Meade.

Two days of battle had already taken its toll at the Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, and elsewhere as the Confederates tried unsuccessfully to take the Union right and left flanks. The Confederate forces occupied the high ground on Seminary Ridge, where they placed approximately 140 cannons.  This deadly artillery pointed across the expansive and rising field that gradually led up to a stone wall located on Cemetery Ridge, situated on the side of Cemetery Hill. Here the Union forces were committed to holding off a possible advance up to the wall. Against the better wishes of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, known for his expertise in defensive tactics, General Lee desperately sought a victory and exclaimed, “The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.”  In the end, General George Pickett was ordered to lead 15,000 troops in an open field assault on 6,500 Union infantrymen.

The Confederate plan of attack was set in motion. In preparation for a frontal infantry assault a cannon barrage would attempt to soften the Union defensive line.  Longstreet would then engage six Southern battalions as well as a division under General Pickett, who would lead his division up the right side of the hill toward the stone wall defended by the Union forces. After reaching the Union left-center, Pickett’s troops would pivot left to roll up its line and face the Northerners head on. One of his brigades was led by Masonic Brother and general, Lewis Armistead. As they advanced the infantry had to cross, midway, the Emmitsburg Road before reaching the treeless void leading up to the stone wall. The focal point of Pickett’s Charge would forever be known as The Angle. To Longstreet it was a suicide mission.

Pickett’s Charge (click HERE to view a map of the attack and related pictures)

At 1:00 pm, in 87-degree heat after a morning of relative quiet, Union generals were enjoying lunch, naps, and cigars in the shade of a small tree at the rear of the Union line. Suddenly, two Confederate cannon signal shots were fired from Seminary Ridge, followed by a thunderous Rebel cannonade. It was quickly met by an equally thunderous Northern cannonade.  One account called it “heaven’s thunder” while Longstreet thought it was like “mighty wild beasts growling at each other and preparing for a death struggle”.3

Two hours later, as the cannonades began to subside, Pickett prepared his advance over a mile of open ground toward the top of the ridge where General John Gibbon led his forces in the center of the Union line. Pickett exclaimed, “Up men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia.”, after which the fateful advance began with Pickett riding at the head of his division.4 Armistead was said to have shouted, “Rise men. Men remember what you are fighting for. Remember your homes, your firesides, your wives, mothers, sisters and your sweethearts.”.5 The slow and deliberate advance, given the distance and heat of day, would take almost 20 minutes to cross the open terrain.

When the infantry firing between the two lines eventually commenced, shot, shell, and shrapnel rained down with the only cover being the lingering cannonade smoke.6 Although words cannot adequately describe the carnage that transpired that hot and fateful afternoon, one soldier wrote “Men went down like grain before the reaper.”   Stretching along both sides of the Emmitsburg Road, immovable five-foot post and rail fences slowed the advancing line and the Confederate soldiers where cut down, and yet the advance continued, with Armistead yelling, “Steady, men! Steady”.7 As the smoke cleared nearly two-thirds of Pickett’s division had become casualties8, but the advance still continued toward the stone wall. They formed a wheeling movement, exposing the right flank. Union troops responded by firing at point blank range, inflicting severe casualties.  By the time it reached the stone wall Pickett’s division was a fraction of its original strength – just 200 men9.

Cul-De-Sac of Death

As Armistead’s brigade approached the stone wall the colors fell to the ground where President Tyler’s grandson, Robert Tyler Jones, retrieved and raised them. Armistead yelled, “Run ahead, Bob, and cheer them up”, prompting a wild charge.10 Upon reaching the stone wall Armistead was observed with his black hat on the tip of his sword, raised high over his head, leading his men in combat. With his hat aloft he told his men to “Follow me, boys, give them the cold steel”, after which they followed him over the barrier into the “cul-de-sac- of death”.11 Moments later, Armistead was shot, falling to the ground along with his sword and hat.  It is said, but not proven, that as Armistead fell he gave the Masonic sign asking for assistance.  Taken prisoner he was rushed to a Union field hospital.

Noticing the call of distress Brother Henry Bingham came to Armistead’s aid.  Upon learning that Bingham was on the staff of his close friend and Brother, General Hancock, Armistead handed Bingham his watch and other personal effects. Armistead asked Bingham if he could speak with Hancock, upon which Bingham explained that Hancock had been badly wounded – just 100 yards from each other.  In response, Armistead reportedly said, “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” Two days later Armistead died from his wounds.

Watching the events unfold on the field of battle was Brother Pickett, who ordered the artillery battalion to open fire on the federal troops advancing on his left flank. When told there was little remaining ammunition Pickett knew that failure was imminent. Eventually the Confederate forces retreated toward Seminary Ridge; the advance and retreat lasted just 50 minutes. The Confederate casualties (killed, wounded, or captured) exceeded 6,000, while the Union side suffered 2,500 casualties defending 300 yards of battle front. In utter defeat Picket was believed to have said, “Where oh where is my division?” to which Lee reportedly responded, “All this has been my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out the best way you can.”

Remembrance

The Battle of Gettysburg brought 163,800 men on both sides into mortal combat. According to the Grand Lodge of Masons in Pennsylvania, when the Civil War began there were an estimated 500,000 Masons in America.  Of those 500,000 it is believed that 18,000 participated in the Battle of Gettysburg. Today there stands on the south side of Gettysburg, in the National Cemetery Annex, a sculpture depicting the moment Captain Bingham cradles his mortally wounded Masonic Brother, General Lewis Armistead.  This Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial was dedicated in 1993 and includes a plaque with the following inscription: “This monument is presented by the Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania and dedicated as a memorial to the Freemasons of the Union and the Confederacy. Their unique bonds of friendship enabled them to remain a brotherhood undivided, even as they fought in a divided nation, faithfully supporting the respective governments under which they lived.”

1 PadreSteve.com, The Tragedy of Friends at War Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock on Cemetery Ridge, March 4, 2014.
2 CivilWarWomenBlog.com/almira-hancock.
3 John C. Waugh, The Class of 1846, (Ballentine Books, 1994), p. 466 “(Hereafter referred to as Waugh, Class of 1846.)”
4 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 470.
5 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 471.
6 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 476.
7 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 476.
8 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 478.
9 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 479.
10 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 480.
11 Waugh, The Class of 1846, p. 481.

Related Videos and Brochure

Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial – Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_nR25JFxRs
Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial – Brochure: http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/other-monuments/friend-to-friend-masonic-memorial/
Hancock at Gettysburg video from the movie “Gettysburg”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xoFsQJjNBQ
Final Request from Armistead video from movie “Gettysburg”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm6kHM2TPuE