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 3 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.]
END OF BATTLE JULY 2
The fight done, the sudden revulsions of sense and feeling follow, which more or less characterize all similar occasions. How strange the stillness seems! The whole air roared with the conflict but a moment since—now all is silent; not a gunshot sound is heard, and the silence comes distinctly, almost painfully to the senses. And the sun purples the clouds in the West, and the sultry evening steals on as if there had been no battle, and the furious shout and the cannon’s roar had never shaken the earth.
And how look these fields? We may see them before dark—the ripening grain, the luxuriant corn, the orchards, the grassy meadows, and in their midst the rural cottage of brick or wood.
They were beautiful this morning.
They are desolate now—trampled by the countless feet of the combatants, plowed and scored by the shot and shell, the orchards splintered, the fences prostrate, the harvest trodden in the mud. And more dreadful than the sight of all this, thickly strewn over all their length and breadth, are the habiliments of the soldiers, the knapsacks cast aside in the stress of the fight, or after the fatal lead had struck; haversacks, yawning with the rations the owner will never call for; canteens of cedar of the Rebel men of Jackson, and of cloth-covered tin of the men of the Union; blankets and trousers, and coats, and caps, and some are blue and some are gray; muskets and ramrods, and bayonets, and swords, and scabbards and belts, some bent and cut by the shot or shell; broken wheels, exploded caissons, and limber-boxes, and dismantled guns, and all these are
|Iconic image of Federal and Rebel dead strewn on the battlefield of Gettysburg was taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, one|
of several photographers in the employ of Matthew Brady. Circa July 5, 1863.
sprinkled with blood; horses, some dead, a mangled heap of carnage, some alive, with a leg shot clear off, or other frightful wounds, appealing to you with almost more than brute gaze as you pass; and last, but not least numerous, many thousands of men—and there was no rebellion here now—the men of South Carolina were quiet by the side of those of Massachusetts, some composed, with upturned faces, sleeping the last sleep, some mutilated and frightful, some wretched, fallen, bathed in blood, survivors still and unwilling witnesses of the rage of Gettysburg.
And yet with all this before them, as darkness came on, and the dispositions were made and the outposts thrown out for the night, the Army of the Potomac was quite mad with joy. No more light-hearted guests ever graced a banquet, than were these men as they boiled their coffee and munched their soldiers’ supper to-night. Is it strange?
Otherwise they would not have been soldiers. And such sights as all these, will be certain to be seen as long as war lasts in the world, and when war is done, then is the end and the days of the millennium are at hand.
The ambulances commenced their work as soon as the battle opened—the twinkling lanterns through the night, and the sun of to-morrow saw them still with the same work unfinished.
I wish that I could write, that with the coming on of darkness, ended the fight of today, but such was not the case. The armies have fought enough today and ought to sleep tonight, one would think, but not so thought the Rebel.
Let us see what he gained by his opinion. When the troops, including those of the Twelfth Corps had been withdrawn from the extreme right of our line, in the afternoon, to support the left, as I have mentioned, thereby, of course, weakening that part of the line so left, the Rebel Ewell, either becoming aware of the fact, or because he thought he could carry our right at all events, late in the afternoon commenced an assault upon that part of our line.
His battle had been going on there simultaneously with the fight on the left, but not with any great degree of obstinacy on his part. He had advanced his men through the woods, and in front of the formidable position lately held by the Twelfth Corps cautiously, and to his surprise, I have no doubt, found our strong defenses upon the extreme right, entirely abandoned. These he at once took possession of, and simultaneously made an attack upon our right flank, which was now near the summit of Culp’s hill, and upon the front of that part of the line. That small portion of the Twelfth Corps, which had been left there, and some of the Eleventh Corps, sent to their assistance, did what they could to check the Rebels; but the Eleventh Corps men were getting shot at there, and they did not want to stay.
Matters began to have a bad look in that part of the field. A portion of the First Division of the First Corps, was sent there for support—the 6th Wisconsin, among others, and this improved matters—but still, as we had but a small number of men there, all told, the enemy with their great numbers, were having too much prospect of success, and it seems that, probably emboldened by this, Ewell had resolved upon a night attack upon that wing of the army, and was making his dispositions accordingly. The enemy had not at sundown, actually carried any part of our rifle pits there, save the ones abandoned, but he was getting troops assembled upon our flank, and altogether, with our weakness there, at that time, matters did not look as we would like to have them.
Such was then the posture of affairs, when the fight upon our left, that I have described, was done. Under such circumstances it is not strange that the Twelfth Corps, as soon as its work was done upon the left, was quickly ordered back to the right, to its old position. There it arrived in good time; not soon enough, of course, to avoid the mortification of finding the enemy in the possession of a part of the works the men had labored so hard to construct, but in ample time before dark to put the men well in the pits we already held, and to take up a strong defensible position, at right angles to, and in rear of the main line, in order to resist these flanking dispositions of the enemy.
The army was secure again. The men in the works would be steady against all attacks in front, as long as they knew that their flank was safe. Until between 10 pm and 11 pm (July 2), the woods upon the right, resounded with the discharges of musketry. Shortly after or about dark, the enemy made a dash upon the right of the Eleventh Corps. They crept up the windings of a valley, not in a very heavy force, but from the peculiar mode in which this Corps does outpost duty, quite unperceived in the dark until they were close upon the main line. It is said, I do not know it to be true, that they spiked two guns of one of the Eleventh Corps’ batteries, and that the battery men had to drive them off with their sabres and rammers, and that there was some fearful “Dutch” swearing on the occasion, “donner wetter” among other similar impious oaths, having been freely used.
The enemy here were finally repulsed by the assistance of Col. Sam Carroll’s brigade of the Third Division of the Second Corps, and the 106th Pa., from the Second Division of the same Corps, was by Gen. Howard’s request sent there to do outpost duty. It seems to have been a matter of utter madness and folly on the part of the enemy to have continued their night attack, as they did upon the right. Our men were securely covered by ample works and even in most places, a log was placed a few inches above the top of the main breastwork, as a protection to the heads of the men as they thrust out their pieces beneath it to fire. Yet in the darkness, the enemy would rush up, clambering over rocks and among trees, even to the front of the works, but only to leave their riddled bodies there upon the ground or to be swiftly repulsed headlong into the woods again. In the darkness the enemy would climb trees close to the works, and endeavor to shoot our men by the light of the flashes. When discovered, a thousand bullets would whistle after them in the dark, and some would hit, and then the Rebel would make up his mind to come down.
Our loss was light, almost nothing in this fight—the next morning the enemy’s dead were thick all along this part of the line. Near eleven o’clock the enemy, wearied with his disastrous work, desisted, and thereafter until morning, not a shot was heard in all the armies.
JULY 2 COUNCIL OF WAR
So much for the battle. There is another thing that I wish to mention, of the matters of the 2nd of July.
After evening came on, and from reports received, all was known to be going satisfactorily upon the right, Gen. Meade summoned his Corps Commanders to his Headquarters for consultation. A consultation is held upon matters of vast moment to the country, and that poor little farmhouse is honored with more distinguished guests than it ever had before, or than it will ever have again, probably.
Do you expect to see a degree of ceremony, and severe military aspect characterize this meeting, in accordance with strict military rules, and commensurate with the moment of the matters of their deliberation?
Name it “Mayor General Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, with his Corps Generals, holding a Council of War, upon the field of Gettysburg,” and it would sound pretty well,—and that was what it was; and you might make a picture of it and hang it up by the side of “Napoleon and his Marshals,” and “Washington and his Generals,” maybe, at some future time. But for the artist to draw his picture from, I will tell how this council appeared. Meade, Sedgwick, Slocum, Howard, Hancock, Sykes, Newton, Pleasanton—commander of the cavalry—and Gibbon, were the Generals present.
Hancock, now that Sickles is wounded, has charge of the Third Corps, and Gibbon again has the Second. Meade is a tall, spare man, with full beard, which with his hair, originally brown, is quite thickly sprinkled with gray—has a Romanish face, very large nose, and a white, large forehead, prominent and wide over the eyes, which are full and large, and quick in their movements, and he wears spectacles. His fibres are all of the long and sinewy kind. His habitual personal appearance is quite careless, and it would be rather difficult to make him look well dressed.
Sedgwick is quite a heavy man, short, thick-set and muscular, with florid complexion, dark, calm, straight-looking eyes, with full, heavyish features, which, with his eyes, have plenty of animation when he is aroused. He has a magnificent profile, well cut, with the nose and forehead forming almost a straight line, curly, short, chestnut hair and full beard, cut short, with a little gray in it. He dresses carelessly, but can look magnificently when he is well dressed. Like Meade, he looks and is, honest and modest. You might see at once, why his men, because they love him, call him “Uncle John,” not to his face, of course, but among themselves.
Slocum is small, rather spare, with black, straight hair and beard, which latter is unshaven and thin, large, full, quick, black eyes, white skin, sharp nose, wide cheek bones, and hollow cheeks and small chin. His movements are quick and angular, and he dresses with a sufficient degree of elegance.
Howard is medium in size, has nothing marked about him, is the youngest of them all, I think—has lost an arm in the war, has straight brown hair and beard, shaves his short upper lip, over which his nose slants down, dim blue eyes, and on the whole, appears a very pleasant, affable, well dressed little gentleman.
Hancock is the tallest and most shapely, and in many respects is the best looking officer of them all. His hair is very light brown, straight and moist, and always looks well, his beard is of the same color, of which he wears the moustache and a tuft upon the chin; complexion ruddy, features neither large nor small, but well cut, with full jaw and chin, compressed mouth, straight nose, full, deep blue eyes, and a very mobile, emotional countenance. He always dresses remarkably well, and his manner is dignified, gentlemanly and commanding. I think if he were in citizens’ clothes, and should give commands in the army to those who did not know him, he would be likely to be obeyed at once, and without any question as to his right to command.
Sykes is a small, rather thin man, well dressed and gentlemanly, brown hair and beard, which he wears full, with a red, pinched, rough-looking skin feeble blue eyes, long nose, with the general air of one who is weary and a little ill-natured. Newton is a well-sized, shapely, muscular, well dressed man, with brown hair, with a very ruddy, clean-shaved, full face, blue eyes, blunt, round features, walks very erect, curbs in his chin, and has somewhat of that smart sort of swagger that people are apt to suppose characterizes soldiers.
Gen. Alfred Pleasonton is quite a nice little dandy, with brown hair and beard, a straw hat with a little jockey rim, which he cocks upon one side of his head, with an unsteady eye, that looks slyly at you and then dodges.
Gibbon, the youngest of them all, save Howard, is about the same size as Slocum, Howard, Sykes and Pleasonton, and there are none of these who will weigh 150 pounds. He is compactly made, neither spare nor corpulent, with ruddy complexion, chestnut brown hair, with a clean-shaved face, except his moustache, which is decidedly reddish in color, medium-sized, well-shaped head, sharp, moderately-jutting brow, deep blue, calm eyes, sharp, slightly acquiline nose, compressed mouth, full jaws and chin, with an air of calm firmness in his manner. He always looks well dressed.
I suppose Howard is about 35 and Meade about 45 years of age; the rest are between these ages, but not many under forty. As they come to the council now, there is the appearance of fatigue about them, which is not customary, but is only due to the hard labors of the past few days. They all wear clothes of dark blue, some have top boots and some not, and except the two-starred straps upon the shoulders of all save Gibbon, who has but one star, there was scarcely a piece of regulation uniform about them all.
They wore their swords, of various patterns, but no sashes, the Army hat, but with the crown pinched into all sorts of shapes and the rim slouched down and shorn of all its ornaments but the gilt band—except Sykes who wore a blue cap, and Pleasonton with his straw hat with broad black band.
Then the mean little room where they met,—its only furniture consisted of a large, wide bed in one corner, a small pine table in the center, upon which was a wooden pail of water, with a tin cup for drinking, and a candle, stuck to the table by putting the end in tallow melted down from the wick, and five or six straight-backed rush-bottomed chairs.
The Generals came in—some sat, some kept walking or standing, two lounged upon the bed, some were constantly smoking cigars. And thus disposed, they deliberated whether the army should fall back from its present position to one in rear which it was said was stronger, should attack the enemy on the morrow, wherever he could be found, or should stand there upon the horse-shoe crest, still on the defensive, and await the further movements of the enemy.
The latter proposition was unanimously agreed to. Their heads were sound. The Army of the Potomac would just halt right there, and allow the Rebel to come up and smash his head against it, to any reasonable extent he desired, as he had today. After some two hours the council dissolved, and the officers went their several ways.
Note 1. The returns give the total loss in the battle as follows: 1,275 in First Division of Second Corps; 4,211 in Third Corps; 2,187 in Fifth Corps; 242 in Sixth Corps. Substantially all these losses were suffered July 2. See 43 War Records. The losses in the First Corps and Second Division of Second Corps on July 2 cannot be separated from those of July 1 and 3 in the War Records.
Night, sultry and starless, droned on, and it was almost midnight (between July 2 and 3) that I found myself peering my way from the line of the Second Corps, back down to the General’s Headquarters, which were an ambulance in the rear, in a little peach orchard. All was silent now but the sound of the ambulances, as they were bringing off the wounded, and you could hear them rattle here and there about the field, and see their lanterns. I am weary and sleepy, almost to such an extent as not to be able to sit on my horse.
And my horse can hardly move—the spur will not start him—what can be the reason? I know that he has been touched by two or three bullets today, but not to wound or lame him to speak of. Then, in riding by a horse that is hitched, in the dark, I got kicked; had I not a very thick boot, the blow would have been likely to have broken my ankle—it did break my temper as it was—and, as if it would cure matters, I foolishly spurred my horse again. No use, he would but walk. I dismounted; I could not lead him along at all, so out of temper I rode at the slowest possible walk to the Headquarters, which I reached at last.
Generals Hancock and Gibbon were asleep in the ambulance. With a light I found what was the matter with “Billy.” A bullet had entered his chest just in front of my left leg, as I was mounted, and the blood was running down all his side and leg, and the air from his lungs came out of the bullet-hole. I begged his pardon mentally for my cruelty in spurring him, and should have done so in words if he could have understood me.
Kind treatment as is due to the wounded he could understand and he had it. Poor Billy! He and I were first under fire together, and I rode him at the second Bull Run and the first and second Fredericksburg, and at Antietam after brave “Joe” was killed; but I shall never mount him again—Billy’s battles are over.
“George, make my bed here upon the ground by the side of this ambulance. Pull off my sabre and my boots—that will do!” Was ever princely couch or softest down so soft as those rough blankets, there upon the unroofed sod? At midnight they received me for four hours delicious dreamless oblivion of weariness and of battle.
So to me, ended the Second of July.
ENTER JULY 3, 1863
At four o’clock on the morning of the Third, I was awakened by Gen. Gibbon’s pulling me by the foot and saying: “Come, don’t you hear that?”
I sprang up to my feet.
Where was I?
A moment and my dead senses and memory were alive again, and the sound of brisk firing of musketry to the front and right of the Second Corps, and over at the extreme right of our line, where we heard it last in the night, brought all back to my memory. We surely were on the field of battle, and there were palpable evidences to my reason that today was to be another of blood.
Oh! for a moment the thought of it was sickening to every sense and feeling! But the motion of my horse as I galloped over the crest a few minutes later, and the serene splendor of the morning now breaking through rifted clouds and spreading over the landscape soon reassured me.
Come day of battle! Up Rebel hosts, and thunder with your arms! We are all ready to do and to die for the Republic!
I found a sharp skirmish going on in front of the right of the Second Corps, between our outposts and those of the enemy, but save this—and none of the enemy but his outposts were in sight—all was quiet in that part of the field. On the extreme right of the line the sound of musketry was quiet heavy; and this I learned was brought on by the attack of the Second Division, Twelfth Corps, Gen. Geary, upon the enemy in order to drive him out of our works which he had sneaked into yesterday, as I have mentioned.
The federal attack was made at the earliest moment in the morning when it was light enough to discern objects to fire at. The enemy could not use the works, but was confronting Geary in woods, and had the cover of many rocks and trees, so the fight was an irregular one, now breaking out and swelling to a vigorous fight, now subsiding to a few scattering shots; and so it continued by turns until the morning was well advanced, when the enemy was finally wholly repulsed and driven from the pits, and the right of our line was again reestablished in the place it first occupied.
The heaviest losses the Twelfth Corps sustained in all the battle, occurred during this attack, and they were here quite severe. I heard Gen. Meade express dissatisfaction at Gen. Geary for making this attack, as a thing not ordered and not necessary, as the works of ours were of no intrinsic importance, and had not been captured from us by a fight, and Geary’s position was just as good as they, where he was during the night. And I heard Gen. Meade say that he sent an order to have the fight stopped; but I believe the order was not communicated to Geary until after the repulse of the enemy.
Late in the forenoon the enemy again tried to carry our right by storm. We heard that old Rebel Ewell had sworn an oath that he would break our right. He had Stonewall Thomas Jackson’s Corps, and possibly imagined himself another Stonewall, but he certainly hankered after the right of our line—and so up through the woods, and over the rocks, and up the steeps he sent his storming parties—our men could see them now in the day time. But all the
Rebel’s efforts were fruitless, save in one thing, slaughter to his own men. These assaults were made with great spirit and determination, but as the enemy would come up, our men lying behind their secure defenses would just singe them with the blaze of their muskets, and riddle them, as a hailstorm, the tender blades of corn.
The Rebel oath was not kept any more than his former one to support the Constitution of the United States. The Rebel loss was very heavy indeed, here, ours but trifling. I regret that I cannot give more of the details of this fighting upon the right—it was so determined upon the part of the enemy, both last night and this morning—so successful to us.
About all that I actually saw of it during its progress, was the smoke, and I heard the discharges. My information is derived from officers who were personally in it. Some of our heavier artillery assisted our infantry in this by firing, with the piece elevated, far from the rear, over the heads of our men, at a distance from the enemy of two miles, I suppose. Of course, they could have done no great damage.
It was nearly 11 am (July 3) that the battle in this part of the field subsided, not to be again renewed. All the morning we felt no apprehension for this part of the line, for we knew its strength, and that our troops engaged, the Twelfth Corps and the First Division, Wadsworth’s, of the First, could be trusted.
For the sake of telling one thing at a time, I have anticipated events somewhat, in writing of this fight upon the right. I shall now go back to the starting point, 4 am July 3, and, as other events occurred during the day, second to none in the battle in importance, which I think I saw as much of as any man living, I will tell you something of them, and what I saw, and how the time moved on.
The outpost skirmish that I have mentioned, soon subsided. I suppose it was the natural escape of the wrath which the men had, during the night, hoarded up against each other, and which, as soon as they could see in the morning, they could no longer contain, but must let it off through their musket barrels, at their adversaries.
At the commencement of the war such firing would have awaked the whole army and roused it to its feet and to arms; not so now. The men upon the crest lay snoring in their blankets, even though some of the enemy’s bullet dropped among them, as if bullets were as harmless as the drops of dew around them. As the sun arose today, the clouds became broken, and we had once more glimpses of sky, and fits of sunshine—a rarity, to cheer us.
From the crest, save to the right of the Second Corps, no enemy, not even his outposts could be discovered, along all the position where he so thronged upon the Third Corps yesterday. All was silent there—the wounded horses were limping about the field; the ravages of the conflict were still fearfully visible—the scattered arms and the ground thickly dotted with the dead—but no hostile foe.
The men were roused early, in order that the morning meal might be out of the way in time for whatever should occur. Then ensued the hum of an army, not in ranks, chatting in low tones, and running about and jostling among each other, rolling and packing their blankets and tents. They looked like an army of rag-gatherers, while shaking these very useful articles of the soldier’s outfit, for you must know that rain and mud in conjunction have not had the effect to make them clean, and the wear and tear of service have not left them entirely whole.
But one could not have told by the appearance of the men, that they were in battle yesterday, and were likely to be again today. They packed their knapsacks, boiled their coffee and munched their hard bread, just as usual—just like old soldiers who know what campaigning is; and their talk is far more concerning their present employment—some joke or drollery—than concerning what they saw or did yesterday.
As early as practicable the lines all along the left are revised and reformed, this having been rendered necessary by yesterday’s battle, and also by what is anticipated today.
It is the opinion of many of our Generals that the Rebel will not give us battle today—that he had enough yesterday—that he will be heading towards the Potomac at the earliest practicable moment, if he has not already done so; but the better, and controlling judgment is, that he will make another grand effort to pierce or turn our lines—that he will either mass and attack the left again, as yesterday, or direct his operations against the left of our center, the position of the Second Corps, and try to sever our line. I infer that Gen. Meade was of the opinion that the attack today would be upon the left—this from the disposition he ordered, I know that Gen. Hancock anticipated the attack upon the center.
The dispositions to-day upon the left are as follows:
The Second and Third Divisions of the Second Corps are in the position of yesterday; then on the left come Doubleday’s—the Third Division and Col. George Stannard’s brigade of the First Corps; then Gen. John Caldwell’s—the First Division of the Second Corps; then the Third Corps, temporarily under the command of Hancock since Sickles’ wound.
The Third Corps is upon the same ground in part, and on the identical line where it first formed yesterday morning, and where, had it stayed instead of moving to of the front, we should have many more men today, and should not have been upon the brink of disaster yesterday.
On the left of the Third Corps is the Fifth corps, with a short front and deep line; then comes the Sixth Corps, all but one brigade, which is sent over to the Twelfth. The Sixth, splendid Corps, almost intact in the fight of yesterday, is the extreme left of our line, which, terminates to the south of Round Top, and runs along its western base, in the woods, and thence to the Cemetery. This Corps is burning to pay off the old scores made on the 4th of May, there back of Fredericksburg.
Note well the position of the Second and Third Divisions of the Second Corps—it will become important.
There are nearly 6,000 men and officers in these two Divisions here upon the field—the losses were quite heavy yesterday, some regiments are detached to other parts of the field—so all told there are less than 6,000 men now in the Two Divisions, 1 who occupy a line of about 1000 yards.
The most of the way along this line upon the crest was a stone fence, constructed of small rough stones, a good deal of the way badly pulled down, but the men had improved it and patched it with rails from the neighboring fences, and with earth, so as to render it in many places a very passable breastwork against musketry and flying fragments of shells.
These works are so low as to compel the men to kneel or lie down generally to obtain cover. Near the right of the Second Division, and just by the little group of trees that I have mentioned there, this stone fence made a right angle, and extended thence to the front, about twenty or thirty yards, where with another less than a right angle it followed along the crest again.
The lines were conformed to these breastworks and to the nature of the ground upon the crest, so as to occupy the most favorable places, to be covered, and still be able to deliver effective fire upon the enemy should he come there. In some places a second line was so posted as to be able to deliver its fire over the heads of the first line behind the works; but such formation was not practicable all of the way. But all the force of these two divisions was in line, in position, without reserves, and in such a manner that every man of them could have fired his piece at the same instant.
The division flags, that of the Second Division, being a white trefoil upon a square blue field, and of the Third Division a blue trefoil upon a white rectangular field, waved behind the divisions at the points where the Generals of Division were supposed to be; the brigade flags, similar to these but with a triangular field, were behind the brigades; and the national flags of the regiments were in the lines of their regiments.
To the left of the Second Division, and advanced something over a hundred yards, were posted a part of Stannard’s Brigade two regiments or more, behind a small bush-crowned crest that ran in a direction oblique to the general line. These were well covered by the crest, and wholly concealed by the bushes, so that an advancing enemy would be close upon them before they could be seen. Other troops of Doubleday’s Division were strongly posted in rear of these in the general line.
I could not help wishing all the morning that this line of the two divisions of the Second Corps was stronger; it was so far as numbers constitute strength, the weakest part of our whole line of battle. What if, I thought, the enemy should make an assault here today with two or three heavy lines—a great overwhelming mass; would he not sweep through that thin 6,000?
But I was not General Meade, who alone had power to send other troops there; and he was satisfied with that part of the line as it was. He was early on horseback this morning, and rode along the whole line, looking it himself, and with glass in hand sweeping the woods and fields in the direction of the enemy, to see if aught of him could be discovered. His manner was calm and serious, but earnest. There was no arrogance of hope, or timidity of fear discernible in his face; but you would have supposed he would do his duty conscientiously and well, and would be willing to abide the result.
You would have seen this in his face. He was well pleased with the left of the line today, it was so strong with good troops. He had no apprehension for the right where the fight now was going on, on account of the admirable position of our forces there.
He was not of the opinion that the enemy would attack the center, our artillery had such sweep there, and this was not the favorite point of attack with the Rebel. Besides, should he attack the center, the General thought he could reinforce it in good season. I heard Gen. Meade speak of these matters to Hancock and some others, at about 9 am, while they were up by the line, near the Second Corps.
No further changes of importance except those mentioned, were made in the disposition of the troops this morning, except to replace some of the batteries that were disabled yesterday by others from the artillery reserve, and to brace up the lines well with guns wherever there were eligible places, from the same source. The lines is all in good order again, and we are ready for general battle.
Save the operations upon the right, the enemy so far as we could see, was very quiet all the morning. Occasionally the outposts would fire a battle, and then cease. Movements would be discovered which would indicate the attempt on the part of the enemy to post a battery. Our Parrotts would send a few shells to the spot, then silence would follow. 90
At one of these times a painful accident happened to us, this morning. First Lieut. Henry Ropes, 20th Mass., in Gen. Gibbon’s Division, a most estimable gentleman and officer, intelligent, educated, refined, one of the noble souls that came to the country’s defense, while lying at his post with his regiments, in front of one of the Batteries, which fired over the Infantry, was instantly killed by a badly made shell, which, or some portion of it, fell but a few yards in front of the muzzle of the gun. The same accident killed or wounded several others. The loss of Ropes would have pained us at any time, and in any manner; in this manner his death was doubly painful.
Between 10 am and 11 am, over in a peach orchard in front of the position of Sickles yesterday, some little show of the enemy’s infantry was discovered; a few shells scattered the gray-backs; they again appeared, and it becoming apparent that they were only posting a skirmish line, no further molestation was offered them. A little after this some of the enemy’s flags could be discerned over near the same quarter, above the top and behind a small crest of a ridge. There seems to be two or three of them—possibly they were guidons—and they moved too fast to be carried on foot. Possibly, we thought, the enemy is posting some batteries there.
We knew in about two hours from this time better about the matter.
Eleven o’clock came. The noise of battle has ceased upon the right, not a sound of a gun or musket can be heard on all the field; the sky is bright, with only the white fleecy clouds floating over from the West. The July sun streams down its fire upon the bright iron of the muskets in stacks upon the crest, and the dazzling brass of the Napoleons.
The army lolls and longs for the shade, of which some get a hand’s breadth, from a shelter tent stuck upon a ramrod. The silence and sultriness of a July noon are supreme. Now it so happened, that just about this time of day a very original and interesting thought occurred to Gen. Gibbon and several of his staff; that it would be a very good thing, and a very good time, to have something to eat.
When I announce to you that I had not tasted a mouthful of food since yesterday noon, and that all I had had to drink since that time, but the most miserable muddy warm water, was a little drink of whisky that Major Biddlep, General Meade’s aide-de-camp, gave me last evening, and a cup of strong coffee that I gulped down as I was first mounting this morning, and further, that, save the four or five hours in the night, there was scarcely a moment since that time but that I was in the saddle, you may have some notion of the reason of my assent to this extraordinary proposition.
Nor will I mention the doubts I had, as to the feasibility of the execution of this very novel proposal, except to say that I knew this morning that our larder was low; not to put too fine a point upon it, that we had nothing but some potatoes and sugar and coffee in the world. And I may as well say here, that of such, in scant proportion, would have been our repast, had it not been for the riding of miles by two persons, one an officer, to procure supplies; and they only succeeded in getting some few chickens, some butter, and one huge loaf of bread, which last was bought of a soldier, because he had grown faint in carrying it, and was afterwards rescued with much difficulty and after a long race from a four-footed hog, which had got hold of and had actually eaten part of it.
“There is a divinity,” etc. Suffice it, this very ingenious and unheard of contemplated proceeding, first announced by the General, was accepted and at once undertaken by his staff. Of the absolute quality of what we had to eat, I could not pretend to judge, but I think an unprejudiced person would have said of the bread that it was good; so of the potatoes before they were boiled. Of the chickens he would have questioned their age, but they were large and in good running order. The toast was good and the butter. There were those who, when coffee was given them, called for tea, and vice versa, and were so ungracious as to suggest that the water that was used in both might have come from near a barn.
Of course it did not. We all came down to the little peach orchard where we had stayed last night, and, wonderful to see and tell, ever mindful of our needs, had it all ready, had our faithful cook John. There was an enormous pan of stewed chickens, and the potatoes, and toast, all hot, and the bread and the butter, and tea and coffee. There was satisfaction derived from just naming them all over. We called John an angel, and he snickered and said he “knowed” we’d come. General Hancock is of course invited to partake, and without delay, we commence operations.
Stools are not very numerous, two, in all, and these the two Generals have by common consent. Our table was the top of a mess chest. By this the Generals sat. The rest of us sat upon the ground, cross-legged, like the picture of a smoking Turk, and held our plates upon our laps. How delicious was the stewed chicken. I had a cucumber pickle in my saddle bags, the last of a lunch left there two or three days ago, which George brought, and I had half of it. We were just well at it when General Meade rode down to us from the line, accompanied by one of his staff, and by General Gibbon’s invitation, they dismounted and joined us.
For the General commanding the Army of the Potomac George, by an effort worthy of the person and the occasion, finds an empty cracker box for a seat. The staff officer must sit upon the ground with the rest of us. Soon Generals Newton and Pleasonton, each with an aide, arrive. By an almost superhuman effort a roll of blankets is found, which, upon a pinch, is long enough to seat these Generals both, and room is made for them. The aides sit with us. And, fortunate to relate, there was enough cooked for us all, and from General Meade to the youngest second lieutenant we all had a most hearty and well relished dinner.
Of the “past” we were “secure.” The Generals ate, and after, lighted cigars, and under the flickering shade of a very small tree, discoursed of the incidents of yesterday’s battle and of the probabilities of today. General Newton humorously spoke of General Gibbon as “this young North Carolinian,” and how he was becoming arrogant and above his position, because he commanded a corps.
General Gibbon retorted by saying that General Newton had not been long enough in such a command, only since yesterday, to enable him to judge of such things. General Meade still thought that the enemy would attack his left again today towards evening; but he was ready for them. General Hancock thought that the attack would be upon the position of the Second Corps. It was mentioned that General Hancock would again assume command of the Second Corps from that time, so that General Gibbon would again return to the Second Division.
General Meade spoke of the Provost Guards, that they were good men, and that it would be better today to have them in the works than to stop stragglers and skulkers, as these latter would be good for but little even in the works; and so he gave the order that all the Provost Guards should at once temporarily rejoin their regiments.
Then General Gibbon called up Captain W.B. Farrell, First Minnesota, who commanded the provost guard of his division, and directed him for that day to join the regiment. “Very well, sir,” said the Captain, as he touched his hat and turned away. He was a quiet, excellent gentleman and thorough soldier. I knew him well and esteemed him. I never saw him again. He was killed in two or three hours from that time, and over half of his splendid company were either killed or wounded.
Heaviest cannonade that ever shook the continent. And so the time passed on, each General now and then dispatching some order or message by an officer or orderly, until about half-past twelve, when all the Generals, one by one, first General Meade, rode off their several ways, and General Gibbon and his staff alone remained.
We dozed in the heat, and lolled upon the ground, with half open eyes. Our horses were hitched to the trees munching some oats. A great lull rests upon all the field. Time was heavy, and for want of something better to do, I yawned, and looked at my watch.
It was five minutes before one o’clock.
I returned my watch to its pocket, and thought possibly that I might go to sleep, and stretched myself upon the ground accordingly.
Ex uno disce omnes.
[From one we can judge the rest]
My attitude and purpose were those of the General and the rest of the staff.