A FIRST PERSON LETTER DETAILING THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
THROUGH THE EYES OF AN OFFICER IN THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC. JULY 1 THRU 3, 1863, Part 2 of 6.
By Colonel Frank Aretas Haskell, United States Army (1828-1864). In the public domain.
Despite a terrible loss at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, a defeat that verged on humiliation at the hands of Robert E. Lee...the Union Army would not go away and by the end of June, 1863, one Union officer, a veteran of Gettysburg wrote that on the eve of that great Pennsylvania battle: “the [Union] Army of the Potomac was no band of school girls...”
--Frank A. Haskell.
[Frank Aretas Haskell was born at Tunbridge, Vermont, on July 13, 1828. He graduated at Dartmouth College in 1854, and went to Madison, Wisconsin, to practice law. On the outbreak of the War, he received a commission as First Lieutenant of Company I, of the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, and served as Adjutant of his regiment until April 14, 1862, when he became aide-de-camp to General John Gibbon, commander of the Iron Brigade. This was his rank in the battle of Gettysburg. On Feb. 9, 1864, Haskell was appointed Colonel of the Thirty-sixth Wisconsin; and on June 3, of the same year, he fell and died when leading a charge at the battle of Cold Harbor, one of the most distinguished soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.
This account of Gettysburg was written by Haskell to his brother, shortly after the battle, and was not intended for publication. This fact ought to be borne in mind in connection with some severe reflections cast by the author upon certain officers and soldiers of the Union army. The present text follows the unabridged reprint of the Wisconsin Historical Commission; and the notes on Haskell’s estimates of numbers and losses have been supplied by the late Colonel Thomas L. Livermore, the well-known authority on this subject.]
At three o’clock am of the second of July, the sleepy soldiers of the Corps were aroused; before six the Corps was up to the field, and halted temporarily by the side of the Taneytown road, upon which it had marched, while some movements of the other troops were being made, to enable it to take position in the order of battle. The morning was thick and sultry, the sky overcast with low, vapory clouds. As we approached all was astir upon the crests near the Cemetery, and the work of preparation was speedily going on. Men looked like giants there in the mist, and the guns of the frowning batteries so big, that it was a relief to know that they were our friends.
Without a topographical map, some description of the ground and location is necessary to a clear understanding of the battle. With the sketch I have rudely drawn, without scale or compass, I hope you may understand my description.
The line of battle as it was established, on the evening of the first, and morning of the second of July was in the form of the letter “U,” the troops facing outwards. And the “Cemetery,” which is at the point of the sharpest curvature of the line, being due South of the town of Gettysburg. “Round Top,” the extreme left of the line, is a small, woody, rocky elevation, a very little West of South of the town, and nearly two miles from it.
The sides of this are in places very steep, and its rocky summit is almost inaccessible. A short distance North of this is a smaller elevation called “Little Round Top.” On the very top of “Little Round Top,” we had heavy rifled guns in position during the battle. Near the right of the line is a small, woody eminence, named “Culp’s Hill.” Three roads come up to the town from the South, which near the town are quite straight, and at the town the external ones unite, forming an angle of about sixty, or more degrees. Of these, the farthest to the East is the “Baltimore Pike,” which passes by the East entrance to the Cemetery; the farthest to the West is the “Emmetsburg road,” which is wholly outside of our line of battle, but near the Cemetery, is within a hundred yards of it; the “Taneytown road” is between these, running nearly due North and South, by the Eastern base of “Round Top,” by the Western side of the Cemetery, and uniting with the Emmetsburg road between the Cemetery and the town. High ground near the Cemetery, is named “Cemetery Ridge.”
The Eleventh Corps—Gen. Howard—was posted at the Cemetery, some of its batteries and troops, actually among the graves and monuments, which they used for shelter from the enemy’s fire, its left resting upon the Taneytown road, extending thence to the East, crossing the Baltimore Pike, and thence bending backwards towards the South-east; on the right of the Eleventh came the First Corps, now, since the death of Gen. Reynolds, commanded by Gen. John Newton, formed in a line curving still more towards the South. The troops of these two Corps, were re-formed on the morning of the second, in order that each might be by itself, and to correct some things not done well during the hasty formations here the day before.
To the right of the First Corps, and on an extension of the same line, along the crest and down the South-eastern slope of Culp’s Hill, was posted the Twelfth Corps—Gen. Slocum—its right, which was the extreme right of the line of the army, resting near a small stream called “Rock Run.” No changes, that I am aware of, occurred in the formation of this Corps, on the morning of the Second.
The Second Corps, after the brief halt that I have mentioned, moved up and took position, its right resting upon the Taneytown road, at the left of the Eleventh Corps, and extending the line thence, nearly a half mile, almost due South, towards Round Top, with its Divisions in the following order, from right to left: The Third, Gen. Alexander Hays; the Second (Gibbon’s), Gen. William Harrow, (temporarily); the First, Gen. John Caldwell.
The formation was in line by brigade in column, the brigade being in column by regiment, with forty paces interval between regimental lines, the Second and Third Divisions having each one, and the First Division, two brigades—there were four brigades in the First—similarly formed, in reserve, 150 paces in the rear of the line of their respective Divisions. That is, the line of the Corps, exclusive of its reserves, was the length of six regiments, deployed, 1 and the intervals between them, some of which were left wide for the posting of the batteries, and consisted of four common deployed lines, each of two ranks of men, and a little more than one-third over in reserve.
The five batteries, in all 28 guns, were posted as follows: George Woodruff’s regular, six, twelve-pound Napoleon’s, brass, between the two brigades, in line of the Third Division;
-- William Arnold’s “A” first R.I., six, three-inch Parrotts, rifled,
--and Alonzo Cushing’s Regular, four, three-inch Ordinance, rifled, between the Third and Second Division;
--John Hazard’s, (commanded during the battle by Lieut. Fred Brown,) “B” first R. I.,
--and James Rhorty’s N. G. each, six 12-pound Napoleon’s, brass, between the Second and First Division.
I have been thus specific in the description of the posting and formation of the Second Corps, because they were works that I assisted to perform; and also that the other Corps were similarly posted, with reference to the strength of the lines, and the intermixing of infantry and artillery. From this, you may get a notion of the whole.
The Third Corps—Gen. Sickles—the remainder of it arriving upon the field this morning, was posted upon the left of the Second extending the line still in the direction of Round Top, with its left resting near “Little Round Top.” The left of the Third Corps was the extreme left of the line of battle, until changes occurred, which will be mentioned in the proper place.
The Fifth Corps—Gen. George Sykes—coming on the Baltimore Pike about this time, was massed there, near the line of the battle, and held in reserve until some time in the afternoon, when it changed position, as I shall describe.
I cannot give a detailed account of the cavalry, for I saw but little of it. It was posted near the wings, and watched the roads and the movements of the enemy upon the flanks of the enemy, but further than this participated but little in the battle. Some of it was also used for guarding the trains, which were far to the rear. The artillery reserve, which consisted of a good many batteries, were posted between the Baltimore Pike and the Taneytown road, on very nearly the center of a direct line passing through the extremities of the wings. Thus it could be readily sent to any part of the line.
The Sixth Corps—Gen. John Sedgwick—did not arrive upon the field until some time in the afternoon, but it was now not very far away, and was coming up rapidly on the Baltimore Pike. No fears were entertained that “Uncle John,” as his men call Gen. Sedgwick, would not be in the right place at the right time.
These dispositions written above were all made early, I think before 8 am.
Skirmishers were posted well out all around the line, and all put in readiness for battle. The enemy did not yet demonstrate himself. With a look at the ground now, I think you may understand the movements of the battle. From Round Top, by the line of battle, round to the extreme right, I suppose is about three miles. From this same eminence to the Cemetery, extends a long ridge or hill—more resembling a great wave than a hill, however—with its crest, which was the line of battle, quite direct, between the points mentioned.
To the West of this, that is towards the enemy, the ground falls away by a very gradual descent, across the Emmetsburg road, and then rises again, forming another ridge, nearly parallel to the first, but inferior in altitude, and something more than a 1000 yards away. A belt of woods extends partly along this second ridge, and partly farther to the West, at distances of from 1000 to 1300 yards away from our line. Between these ridges, and along their slopes, that is, in front of the Second and Third Corps, the ground is cultivated, and is covered with fields of wheat, now nearly ripe, with grass and pastures, with some peach orchards, with fields of waving corn, and some farm houses, and their out buildings along the Emmetsburg road.
There are very few places within the limits mentioned where troops and guns could move concealed. There are some oaks of considerable growth, along the position of the right of the Second Corps, a group of small trees, sassafras and oak, in front of the right of the Second Division of this Corps also; and considerable woods immediately in front of the left of the Third Corps, and also to the West of, and near Round Top.
At the Cemetery, where is Cemetery Ridge, to which the line of the Eleventh Corps conforms, is the highest point in our line, except Round Top. From this the ground falls quite abruptly to the town, the nearest point of which is some 500 yards away from the line, and is cultivated, and checkered with stone fences.
The same is the character of the ground occupied by, and in front of the left of the First Corps, which is also on a part of Cemetery Ridge. The right of this Corps, and the whole of the Twelfth, are along Culp’s Hill, and in woods, and the ground is very rocky, and in places in front precipitous—a most admirable position for defense from an attack in front, where, on account of the woods, no artillery could be used with effect by the enemy. Then these last three mentioned Corps, had, by taking rails, by appropriating stone fences, by felling trees, and digging the earth, during the night of the first of July, made for themselves excellent breast works, which were a very good thing indeed.
The position of the First and Twelfth Corps was admirably strong, therefore. Within the line of battle is an irregular basin, somewhat woody and rocky in places, but presenting few obstacles to the moving of troops and guns, from place to place along the lines, and also affording the advantage that all such movements, by reason of the surrounding crests, were out of view of the enemy.
On the whole this was an admirable position to fight a defensive battle, good enough, I thought, when I saw it first, and better I believe than could be found elsewhere in a circle of many miles.
Evils, sometimes at least, are blessings in disguise, for the repulse of our forces, and the death of Reynolds, on the first of July, with the opportune arrival of Hancock to arrest the tide of fugitives and fix it on these heights, gave GEN MEADE HQ HOUSE image
us this position—perhaps the position gave us the victory. On arriving upon the field, Gen. Meade established his headquarters at a shabby little farm house on the left of the Taneytown road, the house nearest the line, and a little more than 500 yards in the rear of what became the center of the position of the Second Corps, a point where he could communicate readily and rapidly with all parts of the army.
The advantages of the position, briefly, were these: the flanks were quite well protected by the natural defenses there, Round Top up the left, and a rocky, steep, untraversable ground up the right. Our line was more elevated than that of the enemy, consequently our artillery had a greater range and power than theirs.
On account of the convexity of our line, every part of the line could be reinforced by troops having to move a shorter distance than if the line were straight; further, for the same reason, the line of the enemy must be concave, and, consequently, longer, and with an equal force, thinner, and so weaker than ours.
Upon those parts of our line which were wooded, neither we nor the enemy could use artillery; but they were so strong by nature, aided by art, as to be readily defended by a small, against a very large, body of infantry. When the line was open, it had the advantage of having open country in front, consequently, the enemy here could not surprise, as we were on a crest, which besides the other advantages that I have mentioned, had this: the enemy must advance to the attack up an ascent, and must therefore move slower, and be, before coming upon us, longer under our fire, as well as more exhausted.
These, and some other things, rendered our position admirable—for a defensive battle.
So, before a great battle, was ranged the Army of the Potomac. The day wore on, the weather still sultry, and the sky overcast, with a mizzling effort at rain. When the audience has all assembled, time seems long until the curtain rises; so to-day. “Will there be a battle today?” “Shall we attack the Rebel?” “Will he attack us?” These and similar questions, later in the morning, were thought or asked a million times.
Meanwhile, on our part, all was put in the last state of readiness for battle. Surgeons were busy riding about selecting eligible places for Hospitals, and hunting streams, and springs, and wells. Ambulances, and ambulance men, were brought up near the lines, and stretchers gotten ready for use. Who of us could tell but that he would be the first to need them? The Provost Guards were busy driving up all stragglers, and causing them to join their regiments.
Ammunition wagons were driven to suitable places, and packed mules bearing boxes of cartridges; and the commands were informed where they might be found. Officers were sent to see that the men had each his hundred rounds of ammunition. Generals and their Staffs were riding here and there among their commands to see that all was right. A staff officer, or an orderly might be seen galloping furiously in the transmission of some order or message.—All, all was ready—and yet the sound of no gun had disturbed the air or ear to-day.
And so the men stacked their arms—in long bristling rows they stood along the crests—and were at ease. Some men of the Second and Third Corps pulled down the rail fences near and piled them up for breastworks in their front. Some loitered, some went to sleep upon the ground, some, a single man, carrying 20 canteens slung over his shoulder, went for water. Some made them a fire and boiled a dipper of coffee. Some with knees cocked up, enjoyed the soldier’s peculiar solace, a pipe of tobacco. Some were mirthful and chatty, and some were serious and silent. Leaving them thus—I suppose of all arms and grades there were about a 100,000 of them somewhere about that field—each to pass the hour according to his duty or his humor, let us look to the enemy.
Here let me state, that according to the best information that I could get, I think a fair estimate of the Rebel force engaged in this battle would be a little upwards of a 100,000 men of all arms. Of course we can’t now know, but there are reasonable data for this estimate. At all events there was no great disparity of numbers in the two opposing armies. We thought the enemy to be somewhat more numerous than we, and he probably was. But if 95,000 men should fight with a 105,000, the latter would not always be victors—and slight numerical differences are of much less consequence in great bodies of men.
Skillful generalship and good fighting are the jewels of war. These concurring are difficult to overcome; and these, not numbers, must determine this battle.
During July 2 from midnight through and into early morning—the skirmishers of the enemy had been confronting those of the Eleventh, First and Twelfth Corps. At the time of the fight of the First, he was seen in heavy force North of the town—he was believed to be now in the same neighborhood, in full force. But from the woody character of the country, and thereby the careful concealment of troops, which the Rebel is always sure to effect, during the early part of the morning almost nothing was actually seen by us of the invaders of the North.
About nine o’clock in the (July 2) morning, I should think, our field glasses began to reveal them at the West and Northwest of the town, a mile and a half a way from our lines. They were moving towards our left, but the woods of Seminary Ridge so concealed them that we could not make out much of their movements. About this time some rifled guns in the Cemetery, at the left of the Eleventh Corps, opened fire—almost the first shots of any kind this morning—and when it was found they were firing at a Rebel line of skirmishers merely, that were advancing upon the left of that, and the right of the Second Corps, the officer in charge of the guns was ordered to cease firing, and was rebuked for having fired at all.
These Rebel skirmishers soon engaged those at the right of the Second Corps, who stood their ground and were reinforced to make the line entirely secure. The Rebel skirmish line kept extending further and further to their right—toward our left. They would dash up close upon ours and sometimes drive them back a short distance, in turn to be repulsed themselves—and so they continued to do until their right was opposite the extreme left of the Third Corps. By these means they had ascertained the position and extent of our lines—but their own masses were still out of view.
From the time that the firing commenced, as I have mentioned, it was kept up, among the skirmishers, until quite noon, often briskly; but with no definite results further than those mentioned, and with no considerable show of infantry on the part of the enemy to support. There was a farm house and outbuildings in front of the Third Division of the Second Corps at which the skirmishers of the enemy had made a dash, and dislodged ours posted there, and from there their sharp shooters began to annoy our line of skirmishers and even the main line, with their long range rifles.
I was up to the line, and a bullet from one of the rascals hid there, hissed by my cheek so close that I felt the movement of the air distinctly. And so I was not at all displeased when I saw one of our regiments go down and attack and capture the house and buildings and several prisoners, after a spirited little fight, and, by Gen. Alexander Hays’ order, burn the buildings to the ground. About noon the Signal Corps, from the top of Little Round Top, with their powerful glasses, and the cavalry at the extreme left, began to report the enemy in heavy force, making disposition of battle, to the West of Round Top, and opposite to the left of the Third Corps. Some few prisoners had been captured, some deserters from the enemy had come in, and from all sources, by this time, we had much important and reliable information of the enemy—of his disposition and apparent purposes.
The Rebel infantry consisted of three Army Corps, each consisting of three Divisions, Gens. James Longstreet, Richard Ewell—the same whose leg Gibbon’s shell knocked off at Gainesville on the 28th of August last year—and Gen. A. P. Hill, each in the Rebel service having the rank of Lieutenant General, were the commanders of these Corps.
--Gen. Longstreet’s Division commanders were Gen. John Hood, Gen. Lafayette McLaws and Gen. George Pickett;
--Gen. Ewell’s were Gen. Robert Rodes, Gen. Jubal Early and Gen. Edward Johnson, and;
--Gen. Hill’s were Gen. William Pender, Gen. Henry Heth and Gen. Richard Anderson.
--Gen. James E. B. Stuart and Gen. Fitzhugh Lee commanded Divisions of the Rebel cavalry. The rank of these Divisions commands, I believe, was that of Major General.
The Rebels had about as much artillery as we did; but we never have thought much of this arm in the hands of our adversaries. They have courage enough, but not the skill to handle it well. They generally fire far too high, and the ammunition is usually of a very inferior quality. And, of late, we have begun to despise as superior the enemies’ cavalry too. It used to have enterprise and dash, but in the late cavalry contests ours have always been victor, and so now we think about all this chivalry is fit for is to steal a few of our mules occasionally, and their negro drivers.
This army of the rebel infantry, however, is good—to deny this is useless. I never had any desire to—and if one should count up, it would possibly be found that they have gained more victories over us, than we have over them, and they will now, doubtless, fight well, even desperately. And it is not horses or cannon that will determine the result of this confronting of the two armies, but the men with the muskets must do it—the infantry must do the sharp work.
So we watched all this posting of forces as closely as possible, for it was a matter of vital interest to us, and all information relating to it was hurried to the commander of the army. The Rebel line of battle was concave, bending around our own, with extremities of the wings opposite to, or a little outside of ours. Longstreet’s Corps was upon their right; Hill’s in the center. These two Rebel Corps occupied the second or inferior ridge to the West of our position, as I have mentioned, with Hill’s left bending towards, and resting near the town, and Ewell’s was upon their left, his troops being in, and to the East of the town. This last Corps confronted our Twelfth, First, and the right of the Eleventh Corps.
When I have said that ours was a good defensive position, this is equivalent to saying that that of the enemy was not a good offensive one; for these are relative terms, and cannot be both predicated of the respective positions of the two armies at the same time. The reasons that this was not a good offensive position, are the same already stated in favor of ours for defense. Excepting, occasionally, for a brief time, during some movement of troops, as when advancing to attack, their men and guns were kept constantly and carefully, by woods and inequalities of ground, out of our view.
THE STORM WAS NEAR
Noon (July 2) is past, 1 pm is past, and, we save the skirmishing that I have mentioned, and an occasional shot from our guns, at something or other, the nature of which the ones who fired it were ignorant, there was no fight yet. Our arms were still stacked, and the men at ease. As I looked upon those interminable rows of muskets along the crests, and saw how cool and good spirited the men were, who were lounging about on the ground among them, I could not, and did not, have any fears as to the result of the battle.
The storm was near, and we all knew it well enough by this time, which was so rain death upon these crests and down their slopes, and yet the men who could not, and would not escape it, were as calm and cheerful, generally, as if nothing unusual were about to happen. You see, these men were veterans, and had been in such places so often that they were accustomed to them. But I was well pleased with the tone of the men today—I could almost see the foreshadowing of victory upon their faces, I thought.
And I thought, too, as I had seen the mighty preparations go on to completion for this great conflict—the marshaling of these 200,000 men and the guns of the hosts, that now but a narrow valley divided, that to have been in such a battle, and to survive on the side of the victors, would be glorious. Oh, the world is most unchristian yet!
Somewhat after 1 pm—the skirmish firing had nearly ceased now—a movement of the Third Corps occurred, which I shall describe. I cannot conjecture the reason of this movement. From the position of the Third Corps, as I have mentioned, to the second ridge West, the distance is about a 1000 yards, and there the Emmetsburg road runs near the crest of the ridge. Gen. Sickles commenced to advance his whole Corps, from the general line, straight to the front, with a view to occupy this second ridge, along, and near the road. What his purpose could have been is past conjecture. It was not ordered by Gen. Meade, as I heard him say, and he disapproved of it as soon as it was made known to him. Generals Hancock and Gibbon, as they saw the move in progress, criticized its propriety sharply, as I know, and foretold quite accurately what would be the result. I suppose the truth probably is that General Sickles supposed he was doing for the best; but he was neither born nor bred a soldier.
But one can scarcely tell what may have been the motives of such a man—a politician, and some other things, exclusive of the Barton Key affair—a man after show and notoriety, and newspaper fame, and the adulation of the mob!
O, there is a grave responsibility on those in whose hands are the lives of ten thousand men; and on those who put stars upon men’s shoulders, too! Bah! I kindle when I see some things that I have to see. But this move of the Third Corps was an important one—it developed the battle—the results of the move to the Corps itself we shall see. O, if this Corps had kept its strong position upon the crest, and supported by the rest of the army, had waited for the attack of the enemy!
It was magnificent to see those 10,000 or 12,000 men—they were good men—with their batteries, and some squadrons of cavalry upon the left flank, all in battle order, in several lines, with flags streaming, sweep steadily down the slope, across the valley, and up the next ascent, toward their destined position!
From our position we could see it all. In advance Sickles pushed forward his heavy line of skirmishers, who drove back those of the enemy, across the Emmetsburg road, and thus cleared the way for the main body. The Third Corps now became the absorbing object of interest of all eyes. The Second Corps took arms, and the 1st Division of this Corps was ordered to be in readiness to support the Third Corps, should circumstances render support necessary.
As the Third Corps was the extreme left of our line, as it advanced, if the enemy was assembling to the West of Round Top with a view to turn our left, as we had heard, there would be nothing between the left flank of the Corps and the enemy, and the enemy would be square upon its flank by the time it had attained the road. So when this advance line came near the Emmetsburg road, and we saw the squadrons of cavalry mentioned, come dashing back from their position as flankers, and the smoke of some guns, and we heard the reports away to Sickles’ left, anxiety became an element in our interest in these movements.
The enemy opened slowly at first, and from long range; but he was square upon Sickles’ left flank. General John Caldwell was ordered at once to put his Division—the 1st of the Second Corps, as mentioned—in motion, and to take post in the woods at the left slope of Round Top, in such a manner as to resist the enemy should he attempt to come around Sickles’ left and gain his rear.
The Division moved as ordered, and disappeared from view in the woods, towards the point indicated at between 2 pm and 3 pm and the reserve brigade—the First, Col. Francis Heath temporarily commanding—of the Second Division, was therefore move up and occupied the position vacated by the Third Division. About the same time the Fifth Corps could be seen marching by the flank from its position on the Baltimore Pike, and in the opening of the woods heading for the same locality where the 1st Division of the Second Corps had gone.
The Sixth Corps had now come up and was halted upon the Baltimore Pike. So the plot thickened. As the enemy opened upon Sickles with his batteries, some five or six in all, I suppose, firing slowly, Sickles with as many replied, and with much more spirit. The artillery fire became quite animated, soon; but the enemy was forced to withdraw his guns farther and farther away, and ours advanced upon him. It was not long before the cannonade ceased altogether, the enemy having retired out of range, and Sickles, having temporarily halted his command, pending this, moved forward again to the position he desired, or nearly that.
It was now about five o’clock, and we shall soon see what Sickles gained by his move. First we hear more artillery firing upon Sickles’ left—the enemy seems to be opening again, and as we watch the Rebel batteries seem to be advancing there. The cannonade is soon opened again, and with great spirit upon both sides. The enemy’s batteries press those of Sickles, and pound the shot upon them, and this time they in turn begin to retire to position nearer the infantry.
The enemy seems to be fearfully in earnest this time. And what is more ominous than the thunder or the shot of his advancing guns, this time, in the intervals between his batteries, far to Sickles’ left, appear the long lines and the columns of the Rebel infantry, now unmistakably moving out to the attack. The position of the Third Corps becomes at once one of great peril, and it is probable that its commander by this time began to realize his true situation. All was astir now on our crest. Generals and their Staffs were galloping hither and thither—the men were all in their places, and you might have heard the rattle of 10,000 ramrods as they drove home and “thugged” upon the little globes and cones of lead. As the enemy was advancing upon Sickles’ flank, he commenced a change, or at least a partial one, of front, by swinging back his left and throwing forward his right, in order that his lines might be parallel to those of his adversary, his batteries meantime doing what they could to check the enemy’s advance; but this movement was not completely executed before new
Rebel batteries opened upon Sickles’ right flank—his former front and in the same quarter appeared the Rebel infantry also.
Now came the dreadful battle picture, of which we for a time could be but spectators. Upon the front and right flank of Sickles came sweeping the infantry of Longstreet and Hill. Hitherto there had been skirmishing and artillery practice—now the battle began; for amid the heavier smoke and larger tongues of flame of the batteries, now began to appear the countless flashes, and the long fiery sheets of the muskets, and the rattle of the volleys, mingled with the thunder of the guns.
We see the long gray lines come sweeping down upon Sickles’ front, and mix with the battle smoke; now the same colors emerge from the bushes and orchards upon his right, and envelope his flank in the confusion of the conflict.
Note 1. “As the Second and Third Divisions had three brigades each, it follows that two brigades from each of the three divisions were in the front line.—T.L.L.
Note 2. The returns of the Union army for June 30 gave 89,238 infantry and artillery, and 14,973 cavalry “present for duty.” If there is deducted 5,520 in three brigades of the Sixth Corps and 2,337 in detachments, which, although available, were not opposed to the enemy, and the usual per cent of non-combatants, 88,289 remains for the number engaged.
The number engaged on the Confederate side in the same manner, is estimated at 75,000 from the returns of May 31, July 20 and 31. See Livermore’s “Numbers and Losses,” pp. 69, 102, 103.—T. L. L. [back]
Note 3. The returns give 12,630 “present for duty” in the Third Corps. See 43 War Records, 151.—T. L. L.
O, the din and the roar, and these 30,000 Rebel wolf cries! What a hell is there down that valley! These 10-12,000 men of the Third Corps fight well, but it soon becomes apparent that they must be swept from the field, or perish there where they are doing so well, so thick and overwhelming a storm of Rebel fire involves them. It was fearful to see, but these men, such as ever escape, must come from that conflict as best they can. To move down and support them with other troops is out of the question, for this would be to do as Sickles did, to relinquish a good position, and advance to a bad one.
There is no other alternative—the Third Corps must fight itself out of its position of destruction! What was it ever put there for?
ADJUSTMENTS TO GEN. SICKLES’ FOOLS ERRAND
In the meantime some other dispositions must be made to meet the enemy, in the event that Sickles is overpowered. With this Corps out of the way, the enemy would be in a position to advance upon the line of the Second Corps, not in a line parallel with its front, but they would come obliquely from the left.
To meet this contingency the left of the Second Division of the Second Corps is thrown back slightly, and two Regiments, the 15th Mass., Col. George Ward, and the 82nd N. Y., Lieut. Col. James Huston, are advanced down to the Emmetsburg road, to a favorable position nearer us than the fight has yet come, and some new batteries from the artillery reserve are posted upon the crest near the left of the Second Corps. This was all Gen. Gibbon could do. Other dispositions were made or were now being made upon the field, which I shall mention presently.
The enemy is still giving Sickles fierce battle—or rather the Third Corps, for Sickles has been borne from the field minus one of his legs, and Gen. David Birney now commands—and we of the Second Corps, a 1000 yards away, with our guns and men are, and must be, still idle spectators of the fight.
The Rebel, as anticipated, tries to gain the left of the Third Corps, and for this purpose is now moving into the woods at the west of Round Top. We knew what he would find there. No sooner had the enemy gotten a considerable force into the woods mentioned, in the attempted execution of his purpose, than the roar of the conflict was heard there also.
The Fifth Corps and the First Division of the Second were there at the right time, and promptly engaged him; and there, too, the battle soon became general and obstinate. Now the roar of battle has become twice the volume that it was before, and its range extends over more than twice the space.
The Third Corps has been pressed back considerably, and the wounded are streaming to the rear by hundreds, but still the battle there goes on, with no considerable abatement on our part. The field of actual conflict extends now from a point to the front of the left of the Second Corps, away down to the front of Round Top, and the fight rages with the greatest fury. The fire of artillery and infantry and the yells of the Rebels fill the air with a mixture of hideous sounds.
When the First Division of the Second Corps first engaged the enemy, for a time it was pressed back somewhat, but under the able and judicious management of Gen. Caldwell, and the support of the Fifth Corps, it speedily ceased to retrograde, and stood its ground; and then there followed a time, after the Fifth Corps became well engaged, when from appearances we hoped the troops already engaged would be able to check entirely, or repulse the further assault of the enemy.
But fresh soldiers of the Rebels continued to advance out of the woods to the front of the position of the Third Corps, and to swell the numbers of the assailants of this already hard pressed command. The men there begin to show signs of exhaustion—their ammunition must be nearly expended—they have now been fighting more than an hour, and against greatly superior numbers.
From the sound of the firing at the extreme left, and the place where the smoke rises above the tree tops there, we know that the Fifth Corps is still steady, and holding its own there; and as we see the Sixth Corps now marching and near at hand to that point, we have no fears for the left—we have more apparent reason to fear for ourselves.
The Third Corps is being overpowered—here and there its lines begin to break—the men begin to pour back to the rear in confusion—the enemy are close upon them and among them—organization is lost to a great degree—guns and caissons are abandoned and in the hands of the enemy—the Third Corps, after a heroic but unfortunate fight, is being literally swept from the field. That Corps gone, what is there between the Second Corps, and these yelling masses of the enemy?
Do you not think that by this time we began to feel a personal interest in this fight? We did indeed. We had been mere observers—the time was at hand when we must be actors in this drama.
Up to this hour Gen. Gibbon had been in command of the Second Corps, since yesterday, but Gen. Hancock, relieved of his duties elsewhere, now assumed command. Five or 600 yards away the Third Corps was making its last opposition; and the enemy was hotly pressing his advantages there, and throwing in fresh troops whose line extended still more along our front, when Generals Hancock and Gibbon rode along the lines of their troops; and at once cheer after cheer—not Rebel, mongrel cries, but genuine cheers—rang out all along the line, above the roar of battle, for “Hancock” and “Gibbon,” and “our Generals.”
These were good. Had you heard their voices, you would have known these men would fight. Just at this time we saw another thing that made us glad:—we looked to our rear, and there, and all up the hillside which was the rear of the Third Corps before it went forward, were rapidly advancing large bodies of men from the extreme right of our line of battle, coming to the support of the part now so hotly pressed.
There was the whole Twelfth Corps, with the exception of about one brigade, that is, the larger portion of the Divisions of Gens. Seth Williams and John Geary; the Third Division of the First Corps, Gen. Doubleday; and some other brigades from the same Corps—and some of them were moving at the double quick.
They formed lines of battle at the foot of the Taneytown road, and when the broken fragments of the Third Corps were swarming by them towards the rear, without halting or wavering they came sweeping up, and with glorious old cheers, under fire, took their places on the crest in line of battle to the left of the Second Corps.
Now Sickles’ blunder is repaired. Now, Rebel chief, hurl forward your howling lines and columns! Yell out your loudest and your last, for many of your best will never yell, or wave the spurious flag again!
The battle still rages all along the left, where the Fifth Corps is, and the West slope of Round Top is the scene of the conflict; and nearer us there was but short abatement, as the last of the Third Corps retired from the field, for the enemy is flushed with his success. He has been throwing forward brigade after brigade, and Division after Division, since the battle began, and his advancing line now extends almost as far to our right as the right of the Second Division of the Second Corps.
The whole slope in our front is full of them; and in various formation, in line, in column, and in masses which are neither, with yells and thick volleys, they are rushing towards our crest. The Third Corps is out of the way. Now we are in for it. The battery men are ready by their loaded guns. All along the crest is ready. Now Arnold and Brown—now Cushing, and Woodruff, and Rhorty!—you three shall survive today! They drew the cords that moved the friction primers, and gun after gun, along the batteries, in rapid succession, leaped where it stood and bellowed its canister upon the enemy.
The enemy still advance.
The infantry open fire—first the two advance regiments, the 15th Mass. and the 82d N. Y.—then here and there throughout the length of the long line, at the points where the enemy comes nearest, and soon the whole crest, artillery and infantry, is one continued sheet of fire. From Round Top to near the Cemetery stretches an uninterrupted field of conflict. There is a great army upon each side, now hotly engaged.
To see the fight, while it went on in the valley below us, was terrible,—what must it be now, when we are in it, and it is all around us, in all its fury?
All senses for the time are dead but the one of sight. The roar of the discharges and the yells of the enemy all pass unheeded; but the impassioned soul is all eyes, and sees all things, that the smoke does not hide. How madly the battery men are driving home the double charges of canister in those broad-mouthed Napoleons, whose fire seems almost to reach the enemy. How rapidly these long, blue-coated lines of infantry deliver their file fire down the slope.
But there is no faltering—the men stand nobly to their work. Men are dropping dead or wounded on all sides, by scores and by hundreds, and the poor mutilated creatures, some with an arm dangling, some with a leg broken by a bullet, are limping and crawling towards the rear. They make no sound of complaint or pain, but are as silent as if dumb and mute.
A sublime heroism seems to pervade all, and the intuition that to lose that crest, all is lost. How our officers, in the work of cheering on and directing the men, are falling.
We have heard that Gen. Samuel Zook and Col. Edward Cross, in the First Division of our Corps, are mortally wounded—they both commanded brigades,—now near us Col. Ward of the 15th Mass.—he lost a leg at Balls Bluff—and Lieut. Col. Horton of the 82d N. Y., are mortally struck while trying to hold their commands, which are being forced back; Col. Paul J. Revere, 20th Mass., grandson of old Paul Revere, of the Revolution, is killed, Lieut. Col. Max Thoman, commanding 59th N. Y., is mortally wounded, and a host of others that I cannot name. These were of Gibbon’s Division. Lieut. Brown is wounded among his guns—his position is 100 yards in advance of the main line—the enemy is upon his battery, and he escapes, but leaves three of his six guns in the hands of the enemy.
The fire all along our crest is terrific, and it is a wonder how anything human could have stood before it, and yet the madness of the enemy drove them on, clear up to the muzzle of the guns, clear up to the lines of our infantry—but the lines stood right in their places. Gen. Hancock and his Aides rode up to Gibbon’s Division, under the smoke.
Gen. Gibbon, with myself, was near, and there was a flag dimly visible, coming towards us from the direction of the enemy. “Here, what are these men falling back for?” said Hancock. The flag was no more than fifty yards away, but it was the head of a Rebel column, which at once opened fire with a volley. Lieut. Miller, Gen. Hancock’s Aide, fell, twice struck, but the General was unharmed, and Hancock ordered the 1st Minn., which was near, to drive these people away. That splendid regiment, the less than 300 that are left out of 1500 that it has had, swings around upon the enemy, gives them a volley in their faces, and advances upon them with the bayonet.
The Rebels fled in confusion, but Col. William Colville, Lieut. Col. Charles Adams and Major Mark Downie, are all badly, dangerously wounded, and many of the other officers and men will never fight again. More than two-thirds fell.
Such fighting as this cannot last long. It is now near sundown, and the battle has gone on wonderfully long already. But if you will stop to notice it, a change has occurred. The Rebel cry has ceased, and the men of the Union begin to shout there, under the smoke, and their lines to advance. See, the Rebels are breaking! They are in confusion in all our front! The wave has rolled upon the rock, and the rock has smashed it. Let us shout, too!
First upon their extreme left the Rebels broke, where they had almost pierced our lines; thence the repulse extended rapidly to their right. They hung longest about Round Top, where the Fifth Corps punished them, but in a space of time incredibly short, after they first gave signs of weakness, the whole force of the Rebel assault along the whole line, in spite of waving red flags, and yells, and the entreaties of officers, and the pride of the chivalry, fled like chaff before the whirlwind, back down the slope, over the valley, across the Emmetsburg road, shattered, without organization in utter confusion, fugitive into the woods, and victory was with the arms of the Republic.
The great Rebel assault, the greatest ever made upon this continent, has been made and signally repulsed, and upon this part of the field the fight of today is now soon over. Pursuit was made as rapidly and as far as practicable, but owing to the proximity of night, and the long distance which would have to be gone over before any of the enemy, where they would be likely to halt, could be overtaken, further success was not attainable today.
Where the Rebel rout first commenced, a large number of prisoners, some thousands at least, were captured; almost all their dead, and such of their wounded as could not themselves get to the rear, were within our lines; several of their flags were gathered up, and a good many 1000 muskets, some nine or ten guns and some caissons lost by the Third Corps, and the three of Brown’s battery—these last were in Rebel hands but a few minutes—were all safe now with us, the enemy having had not time to take them off.
Not less, I estimate, than 20,000 men were killed or wounded in this fight. Our own losses must have been nearly half this number,—about 4,000 in the Third Corps, fully 2,000 in the Second, and I think 2,000 in the Fifth, and I think the losses of the First, Twelfth, and a little more than a brigade of the Sixth—all of that Corps which was actually engaged—would reach nearly 2,000 more.
Of course, it will never be possible to know the numbers upon either side who fell in this particular part of the general battle, but from the position of the enemy and his numbers, and the appearance of the field, his loss must have been as heavy, or as I think much heavier than our own, and my estimates are probably short of the actual loss.