Historic America

Civil War Ballads: High Water Mark

“High Water Mark” is part three in a three-part, 32-minute epic appearing on heavy metal band Iced Earth’s album The Glorious Burden (2004). The three-song serial commemorates the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1861. Former Judas Priest frontman Tim “Ripper” Owens provided vocals on the album. The songs appear to be based on either the novel The Killer Angels (1987) by Michael Shaara or the movie Gettysburg (1993), which was also based on the novel.

“It was very close yesterday
I thought for sure they would break
But this attack that I have planned
A massive strike across open land
In the center they will break
Plan it well, everything’s at stake
We’ll hit ’em hard, not a silent gun
Before the infantry’s begun.

Execute it well, we risk everything.
It’s in God’s hands now.”

“General Lee I must tell you straight
That I believe this attack will fail.
No 15,000 men ever made
Will overtake that ridge today.
A mile charge over open ground
With Yankee cannon gunnin’ us down.”

“We do our duty, We do what we must
And in my plan you will trust.”
(Thousands die on this day)
“Execute it well, we risk everything.
It’s in God’s hands now.”

The rebel cannon break the silence
150 guns make up their cannonade
They must destroy the Union center
Before the infantry can launch their grand assault

The Yankees are returning fire
(The earth shakes violently)
In Washington, D.C. Lincoln feels the earth shake

Lithograph depicting the Confederate high tide at Gettysburg

What happens here this day
The fate of this nation
In the balance it will hang
Consumed with the pain
The courage of the blue
The valor of the gray
So very sad but true
Consumed with the pain

The Virginians are the chosen
In wait behind the trees on Seminary Ridge
Longstreet’s slow to give the order
The lines emerge, a mile, 15,000 men
The charge begins in all its grandeur
(To the copse of trees)
For many of these men they know it is their last

The slaughter now ensues
Bodies fall like rain
They valiantly pursue
Yet doomed to remain
At the double quick they charge
The canister rips through them
To the mouth of hell they march
Glory the only gain

“We’re almost there, my boys
I’ve never served with finer
We must push forward boys
And bayonet the Yankee tyrants
To the copse of trees we charge
To crush the Union center
And when they turn and run
An open road leads us to freedom!”

“It’s over now, we are retreating
I never thought that we’d be beaten
All this blood is on my hands
The thousands dead due to my plan
I am responsible, all of this is my fault
I thought us invincible
Is this God’s will after all?
I look across this blood-soaked land
All this blood is on my hands
God forgive me, please forgive me
It’s all my fault, the blood is on my hands.”

Painting by Mort Künstler depicts General Lee after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge

This song loosely describes the events of July 3, 1863, the third day of the battle, and its title refers to Pickett’s Charge, what many believe was the “high tide” of the Confederacy. Like The Killer Angels and Gettysburg, the song describes Pickett’s Charge mostly from Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead’s perspective, with exchanges between General Robert E. Lee and First Corps commander Lt. General James Longstreet. Armistead was a brigade commander in Major General George Pickett’s division, who famously raised his hat on his sword and led a final desperate push into Union lines.

Lee put Longstreet in charge of planning and executing the grand assault, but Longstreet was skeptical it would succeed. “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position,” he told Lee. Fifteen thousand was an estimate. The real number of Confederate soldiers who participated in the attack was somewhere between 10,500 and 12,500. In addition to Pickett’s Division, divisions under the command of Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew and Major General Isaac R. Trimble also made the charge. They formed a front over a mile long.

Pickett’s Charge was a disaster for the Confederacy. They suffered 6,555 killed, wounded, or captured, over 50% of the attacking force. Lee, who believed his army could accomplish anything, was visibly shaken. He told returning troops, “It is my fault.” Iced Earth’s song highly dramatizes this moment, but in fact, Lee never spoke of it again. Pickett remained bitter about the defeat. Years after the war, when asked why the assault failed, he responded, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

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