- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

Some members of my family finally did over the holidays what we had long talked about doing; we visited Gettysburg.

You see, my great-grandfather Napoleon Bonaparte Ponton fought at Gettysburg and was a part of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863.

With such an interesting event in our family history, you would have thought someone from the family might have retraced the steps of our ancestor at some point, but it had never been done. So on Dec. 28, my Uncle Joe (the family raconteur), Paddy (the family historian), my son Brendan and I headed north in search of history.

N.B. Ponton (aka “The Tye River, Va., Thunderbolt” because of his reputed wrestling prowess) was 19 years old in July 1863. He told my grandfather that he joined the Confederacy in April 1862, serving in place of his daddy, who had to keep watch over the family farm in Nelson County, Va.

Records show that Napoleon was wounded at Gaines’ Mill in June 1862 but recovered and was ready to fight at Gettysburg a year later.

Family legend had it that Napoleon somehow had survived that fateful day by hiding behind a rock. Last summer, while doing some research, I e-mailed Carol Reardon, a Penn State University historian and author of “Pickett’s Charge in History & Memory,” asking her how she thought my great-grandfather had survived that bloody battle.

She was kind enough to reply with three possible scenarios:

1. He marched in the back of the line during the Confederate advance.

2. He was very lucky.

3. He retreated at the first opportunity. (She acknowledged that this option might not be viewed fondly by family members.)

In another e-mail, professor Reardon told me that she also had ancestors who had been part of the 19th Virginia, the same Infantry unit as my great-grandfather.

My cousin has evidence that some members of the 19th advanced pretty close to the famous “Angle” at Gettysburg, a stone wall and a stretch of ground where the survivors among Pickett’s men took refuge after being decimated by Union troops. It was close to that spot, where the fiercest fighting of that third day took place, where the flag of the 19th Virginia was captured by Union soldiers from Connecticut.

I must say we were surprised when we found that very flag (on loan from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond) framed and hanging inside the visitors center in Gettysburg. After taking several pictures, we set out to the battlefield in search of the infamous rock that supposedly saved Napoleon’s life, thus keeping him in the gene pool.

We toured the site where Pickett’s Charge began and then drove up and parked behind the Angle. From there, we walked just a few paces down from the wall, where we could find just one rock in the entire field leading to Emittsburg Road.

Of course, we knew the field probably had looked different some 142 years earlier, but we decided to take numerous pictures (with Napoleon’s picture) by that rock anyway, if not for a laugh.

It was a chilly winter afternoon, and we stood there for a moment as the weak December sun was just beginning to set. We had successfully re-enacted Pickett’s Charge (make that “Ponton’s Charge”), and just as we made our way to the car, my Uncle Joe decided to re-enact perhaps the most famous act in family history — what we now call “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”

Suffice to say, on the way home, we all agreed that we don’t much care what led my great-grandfather to head down that field on that epic day. All we know is that we are most certainly glad he did.

Thomas Ponton lives in Columbia, Md.

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