Colonel Edward Porter understood the awesome task that lay before him. A tall, lanky 28 year old officer, Alexander was in charge of the Confederate I Corp artillery. Officially, Alexander was just a battalion commander, but General James Longstreet had moved him to field command of his artillery. This was the third day of battle at Gettysburg. Following a season of victories, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had taken the war to the North, marching in to Pennsylvania and dealing the Federal Army of the Potomac a staggering defeat on Gettysburg's first day. On day two, however, the men in blue - who defended strong positions on Cemetery Ridge - had turned back Confederate assaults on both flanks of the Federal line. Now Lee planned to pour everything into a mighty strike against the enemy's center. To precede the Southern infantry assault, he had directed Longstreet to unleash a massive artillery barrage against the Federal Line.
To execute the unprecedented bombardment, Longstreet turned to Alexander. Artillery crews from more than 150 guns would follow Alexander's lead - opening fire at the sound of two signal guns. After a sustained pounding of the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge, the guns would cease fire and the heart of Lee's army would go forth to break the Federal line and defeat the enemy. At approximately one o'clock, Alexander would launch the barrage. It would be the greatest field artillery bombardment of the war. "The ground fairly shook beneath the feet of the assembled armies from the terrible conclusion," a Confederate would report. "The skies were clouded with smoke, the air was filled with shrieking shot and shell until it seemed as though hell itself had broken loose."
It would not be enough. Despite Alexander's best efforts and the massive amount of Southern shot and steel hurled at the Cemetery Ridge, the Federal line would hold and Pickett's Charge would fail. Lee's greatest assault would become his greatest failure, and the course of the war would be thereafter set against the South. However, as Alexander and Longstreet watched the Confederate guns wheel into position, the fate of the South still remained cloaked by the future. The mighty bombardment and the great assault still lay ahead - and the quest for Southern independence still seemed within the grasp of Lee's legions.
Mort Künstler’s Comments:
Searching for an idea for a painting is always a difficult task and they always come about in different ways. In the case of Forming the Line, I was looking for an artillery subject because I had not done one in a number of years. The one thing that I wanted to avoid was the repetition of a work that had been done by me or by another artist. Most paintings depict the guns firing because the smoke and flames are so dramatic. Equally dramatic, I think, is the act of forming the line, when the artillery is rolled in to place, unlimbered and set up. This was especially so on the third day at Gettysburg, when Confederates were preparing for the greatest field artillery barrage in American history at that time.
In Forming the Line, we see Colonel Edward Porter Alexander and General James Longstreet overseeing the confederate artillery. Alexander, Longstreet's young chief of artillery, uses binoculars to study the distant enemy line on Cemetery Ridge, while Longstreet waits for the gifted artillerist's observations. Around them is a swirl of activity as the guns are wheeled into place.
In composing the picture, I began to realize that I could show every phase of placing the guns in line. My sincere appreciation goes to Lt. Col. David Stanley, an expert on horse drawn artillery who I met in Raleigh N.C. He was invaluable help in my understanding the complete operation needed to compose this picture including maneuvers, the positioning of the men, the harnesses, etc.
In the extreme right foreground, we see a bronze Napoleon, unlimbered, the handspike in place. Near the middle of the picture, directly behind Longstreet, the crew of another Napoleon works at putting it into firing order. Farther back behind the staff officers, another crew works on their gun that has been just unlimbered, as the horse team is seen to the extreme left of the painting, riding right to left, as they pull their caisson to the rear. The teams in the extreme left background moving left to right are bringing up their guns to set into line.
It is the early morning of July 3. The artillery crews have worked all night positioning the guns and are almost finished with their preparation. In a few hours, a massive Confederate artillery barrage will launch the most famous infantry assault of the Civil War: Pickett's Charge.
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