Monday, March 19, 2012

`A Dandy in Uniform'

In a scene set immediately before the start of Pickett’s Charge in the film Gettysburg (1993), based on Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels (1974), we see Lt. Gen. James “Pete” Longstreet conferring with his senior officers, including Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. It’s the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the third day of battle. Gen. Robert E. Lee has ordered a frontal assault on the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet disapproves, believing the strategy will prove futile and bloody, but delivers Lee’s orders to his staff.

During the briefing we see Pickett, played by actor Stephen Lang, holding a stalk with blue flowers on it, unmistakably a sprig of chicory (Cichorium intybus), the sky-blue florets contrasting nicely with the officers’ gray uniforms. Pickett/Lang does nothing with the flower but hold it in his left hand. In subsequent scenes, we see chicory, as well as Queen Anne’s lace and Scottish thistle, growing in the field where the Confederacy reached its high-water mark. The film was shot on the Gettysburg National Military Park and on a nearby farm. Who, I wonder, decided that Pickett should hold the blue flower? The gesture is consistent with the general’s foppish image. In General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Lesley J. Gordon reports the Virginian showed “excessive concern with his physical appearance” and goes on:
“George Pickett was thirty-eight years old in the summer of 1863, and by then, he had made quite an impression on his military contemporaries. Many of them commented on his hair, his dress, his arrogance, his temper, and his drinking. To white southern men, Pickett seemed a strange mix of femininity and masculinity, a dandy in uniform.”
In the film, Pickett comes off as a histrionic martinet besotted with the romance of the antebellum South. He even looks a little like John Wilkes Booth (and Edgar Allan Poe – Paul Metcalf conflates them in his 1982 book Both). Perhaps the chicory is a subliminal nod to “die Blaue Blume,” Novalis’ Blue Flower in Heinrich von Ofterdingen (beautifully fictionalized by Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower, 1995). I’m not sure we can expect such symbol-mongering in a Ted Turner production, but for many of the Romantics a blue flower represented Inspiration, a striving after the unreachable – in this case, Southern victory.
Some 12,500 Confederates advanced across an open field for almost a mile under concentrated Union artillery and rifle fire. The Confederate casualty rate exceeded fifty percent. At least 1,123 were killed and 4.019 wounded, and Union forces reported taking 3,750 prisoners. The Civil War continued for another twenty-one months, and thousands more were to die, but the failure of Pickett’s Charge and Lee’s resulting defeat at Gettysburg signaled the end. In Flora Britannica (1996), Richard Mabey reminds us that chicory was once commonly known as succory, and was cultivated in Britain for salads and greens by early in the sixteenth century. The etymology is murky but perhaps, on the eve of defeat, Pickett’s succory suggests succor.


George said...

Pickett displayed poor judgment before the war, in the bloodless so-called "Pig War" in the San Juan Islands. In that case, though, there were no serious consequences.

Mark Twain suggests in Life on the Mississippi that the south marred its judgment by too much reading of Sir Walter Scott, and would have been better served by reading Cervantes.

William A. Sigler said...

A fascinating foray into some mythic American history here. The charge was named after Pickett’s division (one of three under Longstreet) because his troops were the only ones from Virginia, “the flower of Virginia manhood,” and this appealed to the local newspaper writers. Chicory has long been used to protect against parasites, which perhaps led to its flower's long use as a symbol for protection against enemies, wounding or evil – especially in martyrdom (see this article from the Journal of Experimental Botany). I would imagine this was behind the symbolism in the movie, although the hopelessness of the Southern cause adds a poetic flair to it.

Faulkner wrote about the special pathos of this particular assault in Intruder in the Dust: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin.”