July 3, 1863, 12:15 p.m.
‚That’s it Stribling, feed it into them, feed it into them!‘
Sitting down to see under the smoke, Major James Dearing braced his elbows on his knees and trained his field glasses on the column of Union infantry coming across the open field.
The first piece of Stribling’s four Napoleons and two Parrotts recoiled with a thunderous boom, smoke jetting from the muzzle and touchhole. A yellow blossom of fire ignited several dozen yards short of the Yankee column. The shell of the second gun slammed into the flank of the column and detonated, toylike figures of men tumbling over.
Captain Robert Mackey Stribling, whose Fauquier Virginia Artillery had been in action for at least the quarter of an hour, came up to the major. ‚Sir, ammunition?‘ he asked, his voice hoarse from breathing dust during the long march in the morning.
‚I am bringing up more‘, Dearing said. ‚Just pour it into them, you have got infantry columns in front, by God. The arrogance of those bluecoats is amazing.‘
He started to turn away.
Dearing looked back.
‚Sir, I am not sure what shall be accomplished here today…‘
‚We hold this ground, this town until the last man, the last gun. And even if you are the last man standing, these guns do not move back another inch.‘
The crews had finished reloading and began to fire the next salvo. Dearing tried to turn his attention back, but the smoke was too thick.
He walked off, barely moved by the fact that a shot plowed through the air over his head. To his front, he watched the Confederate infantry bracing themselves for the coming attack. It was the largest of Pickett's brigades, maybe 2,000 men who looked eager to prove themselves.
An officer with a slouched black hat, sporting the insignia of a brigadier general, came off the line, approached and gave a friendly salute. ‚Major Dearing, I see you are giving the enemy a warm welcome.‘
‚General, sir, my batteries will do what they can, but we are counting on you to cover my guns. If it comes to canister rounds, I need clear fields of fire in front. When the time comes, I kindly ask you to pull back in around my guns and clear the field for my canister.‘
‚Do not worry, James, every man here knows his duty. The cowards and shirkers are long gone, those men will stand with you until Judgement Day‘, Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead replied.
Dearing saluted, turned and continued down the line. Armistead was one of the most reliable men he knew. And he had charism. He would not have to worry about them.
Next to Stribling, to the north, were the four guns of Macon’s Richmond Fayette Virginia Artillery. They were opening up with case shot right at that moment. Guns recoiled, their thunder joined by the other batteries around the town. Dearing heard the sharp whine of shells dropping down into the Federal ranks, detonating with deadly accuracy. He went back towards Stribling, knowing the advance elements of the enemy would hit there first.
'Canister! Switch to canister!' the major roared. The gunners working at the caissons picked up the tins holding several dozen iron balls. Gun sergeants actually raised the elevation slightly to loft the canister rounds across the two hundred yards to the closing enemy lines. The first gun fired, its brethren soon joining in, then lifting up by the massive recoil. The scream of canister tins bursting echoed around Dearing, iron balls shrieking eastward. If one was close enough, a man could hear the sickening sound of hot iron tearing into limbs and bodies.
Still the bluecoats came on. Their lines were spreading out, a brigade or more coming straight at Stribling and Armistead's center regiment. The 53rd Virginia Infantry opened up with a sharp volley, tearing gaping holes into the front ranks of the advancing yankees. Another volley from them and then the men started to pull back, not running, but being directed orderly by Armistead himself and their young colonel William Roane Aylett. The sight of the 53rd pulling back heartened the Federals, who let loose a triumphal triple huzzah and pressed on.
As the Virginians filled in around the guns, hunkering down, rifles poised, the distance lessened to one hundred fifty yards.
'They are actually going to try for it!', Armistead exclaimed. Now one could make out enemy flag bearers at the fore, colors leaning forward, officers waving swords. At a hundred yards, they were breaking into a run.
'Stribling, double canister!'
The battery commander did not need to be told. The charge was coming on fast. Aylett's men were pouring it on, volleys by companies, then the roar of independent fire.
The gunners waited, crouching low, gripping the lanyards tight. As the yankees were realizing what was ahead of them, a full battery loading with double canister, they slowed, until officers, screaming for the charge, pushed them forward.
Stribling's guns recoiled, each discharging nearly one hundred fifty iron balls, turning the space ahead into a killing zone.
The impact was terrifying. Entire lines went down, men were pitched backward several yards, bodies were decapitated, limbs broken and torn.
'That is it!' Dearing shouted. 'Another one, give it to them!'
Amazingly, out of the dust and smoke, a blue battle line appeared. There were wide holes in the ranks, but they still came on. The sound of the battle crescended into a thundering roar. A gun sergeant in front of Dearing, ready to pull the lanyard, suddenly collapsed in a bloody heap.
Beyond the gun, Dearing could see them poring in. Several of the yankees, the bravest of the brave, dashed already up onto the lunette, bayonets poised, as the men of the 53rd Virginia rose up to meet them. Close combat exploded around the guns.
He looked forward. Soldiers in blue were emerging out of the smoke, a color bearer leading them. Dearing jerked the lanyard of the fallen gunner and the artillery piece lept back with a roar. Those men in front of the bore simply disappeared.
As the major pulled out his handgun, there was nothing left to shoot at, only the smoke of the countless discharges engulfing him and the Virginians around. He caught glimpses of Yankees retreating, running, disappearing into the smoke. The charge was broken.