THE SERIES CONTINUES:
A FIRST PERSON LETTER DETAILING THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
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 5 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.
AUTHOR BIO AT END OF INSTALLMENT BELOW:
THE RIDE OF HIS LIFE
[Note. The following action by Lt. Haskell was praised a century later by General Dwight Eisenhower, as a classic example of how one junior office can impact the flow of a battle to a successful conclusion.]
A great magnificent passion came on me at the instant, not one that overpowers and confounds, but one that blanches the face and sublimes every sense and faculty. My sword, that had always hung idle by my side, the sign of rank only in every battle, I drew, bright and gleaming, the symbol of command. Was not that a fit occasion, and these fugitives the men on whom to try the temper of the Solinzen steel?
All rules and proprieties were forgotten; all considerations of person, and danger and safety despised; for, as I met the tide of these rabbits, the damned red flags of the rebellion began to thicken and flaunt along the wall they had just deserted, and one was already waving over one of the guns of the dead Cushing. I ordered these men to “halt,” and “face about” and “fire,” and they heard my voice and gathered my meaning, and obeyed my commands. On some unpatriotic backs of those not quick of comprehension, the flat of my sabre fell not lightly, and, at its touch their love of country returned, and, with a look at me as if I were the destroying angel, as I might have become theirs, they again faced the enemy.
Gen. Alexander Webb soon came to my assistance. He was on foot, but he was active, and did all that one could do to repair the breach, or to avert its calamity. The men that had fallen back, facing the enemy, soon regained confidence in themselves, and became steady. This portion of the wall was lost to us, and the enemy had gained the cover of the reverse side, where he now stormed with fire. But Webb’s men, with their bodies in part protected by the abruptness of the crest, now sent back in the enemies’ faces as fierce a storm.
Some scores of venturesome Rebels, that in their first push at the wall had dared to cross at the further angle, and those that had desecrated Cushing’s guns, were promptly shot down, and speedy death met him who should raise his body to cross it again. At this point little could be seen of the enemy, by reason of his cover and the smoke, except the flash of his muskets and his waving flags. These red flags were accumulating at the wall every moment, and they maddened us as the same color does the bull. Webb’s men are falling fast, and he is among them to direct and encourage; but, however well they may now do, with that walled enemy in front, with more than a dozen flags to Webb’s three, it soon becomes apparent that in not many minutes they will be overpowered, or that there will be none alive for the enemy to overpower.
Webb has but three regiments, all small, the 69th, 71st and 72nd Pennsylvania—the 106th Pennsylvania, except two companies, is not here today—and he must have speedy assistance, or this crest will be lost.
Oh, where is Gibbon? Where is Hancock?—some general—anybody with the power and the will to support that wasting, melting line?
No general came, and no succor! I thought of Hayes upon the right, but from the smoke and war along his front, it was evident that he had enough upon his hands, if he stayed the in rolling tide of the Rebels there. Doubleday upon the left was too far off and too slow, and on another occasion I had begged him to send his idle regiments to support another line battling with thrice its numbers, and this “Old Sumpter Hero” had declined.
As a last resort, I resolved to see if Col. Norman Hall and Gen. William Harrow could not send some of their commands to reinforce Webb. I galloped to the left in the execution of my purpose, and as I attained the rear of Hall’s line from the nature of the ground and the position of the enemy it was easy to discover the reason and the manner of this gathering of Rebel flags in front of Webb. The enemy, emboldened by his success in gaining our line by the group of trees and the angle of the wall, was concentrating all his right against and was further pressing that point. There was the stress of his assault; there would he drive his fiery wedge to split our line. In front of Harrow’s and Hall’s Brigades he had been able to advance no nearer than when he first halted to deliver fire, and these commands had not yielded an inch.
To effect the concentration before Webb, the enemy would march the regiment on his extreme right of each of his lines by the left flank to the rear of the troops, still halted and facing to the front, and so continuing to draw in his right, when they were all massed in the position desired, he would again face them to the front, and advance to the storming. This was the way he made the wall before Webb’s line blaze red with his battle flags, and such was the purpose there of his thick-crowding battalions.
Not a moment must be lost. Colonel Hall I found just in rear of his line, sword in hand, cool, vigilant, noting all that passed and directing the battle of his brigade. The fire was constantly diminishing now in his front, in the manner and by the movement of the enemy that I have mentioned, drifting to the right. “How is it going?” Colonel Hall asked me, as I rode up. “Well, but Webb is hotly pressed and must have support, or he will be overpowered. Can you assist him?”
Haskell: “You cannot be too quick.”
Hall: “I will move my brigade at once.”
Hall gave the order, and in briefest time I saw five friendly colors hurrying to the aid of the imperilled three; and each color represented true, battle-tried men, that had not turned back from Rebel fire that day nor yesterday, though their ranks were sadly thinned, to Webb’s brigade, pressed back as it had been from the wall, the distance was not great from Hall’s right.
The regiments marched by the right flank. Col. Hall superintended the movement in person. Col. Arthur Devereux coolly commanded the 19th Massachusetts. His major, Rice, had already been wounded and carried off. Lieut. Col. George Macy, of the 20th Mass., had just had his left hand shot off, and so Capt. Henry Abbott gallantly led over this fine regiment. The 42d New York followed their excellent Colonel James Mallon. Lieut. Col. Amos Steele, 7th Mich., had just been killed, and his regiment, and the handful of the 59th N.Y., followed their colors. The movement, as it did, attracting the enemy’s fire, and executed in haste, as it must be, was difficult; but in reasonable time, and in order that is serviceable, if not regular, Hall’s men are fighting gallantly side by side with Webb’s before the all important point.
I did not stop to see all this movement of Hall’s, but from him I went at once further to the left, to the 1st brigade. Gen. Harrow I did not see, but his fighting men would answer my purpose as well. The 19th Me., the 15th Mass., the 82d N.Y. and the shattered old thunderbolt, the 1st Minn.—poor Farrell was dying then upon the ground where he had fallen,—all men that I could find I took over to the right at the double quick.
As we were moving to, and near the other brigade of the division, from my position on horseback, I could see that the enemy’s right, under Hall’s fire, was beginning to stagger and to break. “See,” I said to the men, “See the chivalry! See the gray-backs run!” The men saw, and as they swept to their places by the side of Hall and opened fire, they roared, and this in a manner that said more plainly than words—for the deaf could have seen it in their faces, and the blind could have heard it in their voices—the crest is safe!
The whole Division concentrated, and changes of position, and new phases, as well on our part as on that of the enemy, having as indicated occurred, for the purpose of showing the exact present posture of affairs, some further description is necessary. Before the 2nd Corps 2d Division the enemy is massed, the main bulk of his force covered by the ground that slopes to his rear, with his front at the stone wall. Between his front and us extends the very apex of the crest.
|White Trefoil of the II Corps Army of the Potomac during|
the Civil War
All there are left of the White Trefoil Division—yesterday morning there were 3,800, this morning there were less than 3,000—at this moment there are somewhat over 2,000;—12 regiments in three brigades are below or behind the crest, in such a position that by the exposure of the head and upper part of the body above the crest they can deliver their fire in the enemy’s faces along the top of the wall. By reason of the disorganization incidental in Webb’s brigade to his men’s having broken and fallen back, as mentioned, in the two other brigades to their rapid and difficult change of position under fire, and in all the division in part to severe and continuous battle, formation of companies and regiments in regular ranks is lost; but commands, companies, regiments and brigades are blended and intermixed—an irregular extended mass—men enough, if in order, to form a line of four or five ranks along the whole front of the division.
The twelve flags of the regiments wave defiantly at intervals along the front; at the stone wall, at unequal distances from ours of 40, 50 or 60 yards, stream nearly double this number of the battle flags of the enemy. These changes accomplished on either side, and the concentration complete, although no cessation or abatement in the general din of conflict since the commencement had at any time been appreciable, now it was as if a new battle, deadlier, stormier than before, had sprung from the body of the old—a young Phoenix of combat, whose eyes stream lightning, shaking his arrowy wings over the yet glowing ashes of his progenitor.
The jostling, swaying lines on either side boil, and roar, and dash their flamy spray, two hostile billows of a fiery ocean. Thick flashes stream from the wall, thick volleys answer from the crest. No threats or expostulation now, only example and encouragement. All depths of passion are stirred, and all combative’s fire, down to their deep foundations.
Individuality is drowned in a sea of clamor, and timid men, breathing the breath of the multitude, are brave. The frequent dead and wounded lie where they stagger and fall—there is no humanity for them now, and none can be spared to care for them. The men do not cheer or shout; they growl, and over that uneasy sea, heard with the roar of musketry, sweeps the muttered thunder of a storm of growls. Webb, Hall, Devereux, Mallon, Abbott among the men where all are heroes, are doing deeds of note.
Now the loyal wave rolls up as if it would overleap its barrier, the crest. Pistols flash with the muskets. My “Forward to the wall” is answered by the Rebel counter-command, “Steady, men!” and the wave swings back. Again it surges, and again it sinks. These men of Pennsylvania, on the soil of their own homesteads, the first and only to flee the wall, must be the first to storm it.
“Major—, lead your men over the crest, they will follow.” “By the tactics I understand my place is in rear of the men.” “Your pardon, sir; I see your place is in rear of the men. I thought you were fit to lead.” “Capt. Suplee, come on with your men.” “Let me first stop this fire in the rear, or we shall be hit by our own men.” “Never mind the fire in the rear; let us take care of this in front first.” “Sergeant, forward with your color. Let the Rebels see it close to their eyes once before they die.”
The color sergeant of the 72d Pa., grasping the stump of the severed lance in both his hands, waved the flag above his head and rushed towards the wall. “Will you see your color storm the wall alone?” One man only starts to follow. Almost half way to the wall, down go color bearer and color to the ground—the gallant sergeant is dead.
The line springs—the crest of the solid ground with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load, men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass. It rolls to the wall—flash meets flash, the wall is crossed—a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, and undistinguishable conflict, followed by a shout universal that makes the welkin ring again, and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.
Many things cannot be described by pen or pencil—such a fight is one. Some hints and incidents may be given, but a description or picture never. From what is told the imagination may for itself construct the scene; otherwise he who never saw can have no adequate idea of what such a battle is.
When the vortex of battle passion had subsided, hopes, fears, rage, joy, of which the maddest and the noisiest was the last, and we were calm enough to look about us, we saw that, as with us, the fight with the Third Division was ended, and that in that division was a repetition of the scenes immediately about us.
In that moment the judgment almost refused to credit the senses. Are these abject wretches about us, whom our men are now disarming and driving together in flocks, the jaunty men of Pickett’s Division, whose steady lines and flashing arms but a few moments since came sweeping up the slope to destroy us? Are these red cloths that our men toss about in derision the “fiery Southern crosses,” thrice ardent, the battle flags of the rebellion that waved defiance at the wall? We know, but so sudden has been the transition, we yet can scarce believe.
Just as the fight was over, and the first outburst of victory had a little subsided, when all in front of the crest was noise and confusion—prisoners being collected, small parties in pursuit of them far down into the fields, flags waving, officers giving quick, sharp commands to their men—I stood apart for a few moments upon the crest, by that group of trees which ought to be historic forever, a spectator of the thrilling scene around. Some few musket shots were still heard in the Third Division; and the enemy’s guns, almost silent since the advance of his infantry until the moment of his defeat, were dropping a few sullen shells among friend and foe upon the crest.
Rebellion fosters such humanity. Near me, saddest sight of the many of such a field and not in keeping with all this noise, were mingled alone the thick dead of Maine and Minnesota, and Michigan and Massachusetts, and the Empire and Keystone States, who, not yet cold, with the blood still oozing from their death-wounds, had given their lives to the country upon that stormy field.
So mingled upon that crest, let their honored graves be. Look with me about us. These dead have been avenged already. Where the long lines of the enemy’s thousands so proudly advanced, see how thick the silent men of gray are scattered. It is not an hour since these legions were sweeping along so grandly; now 1,600 of that fiery mass are strewn among the trampled grass, dead as the clods they load; more than 7,000, probably 8,000, are wounded, some there with the dead, in our hands, some fugitive far towards the woods, among them
Rebel commanders Gen. James Pettigrew, Gen. Richard Garnett, Gen. James Kemper and Gen. Lewis Armstead, the last three mortally, and the last one in our hands.
Armstead: “Tell General Hancock,” he said to Lieutenant Mitchell, Hancock’s aide-de-camp, to whom he handed his watch, “that I know I did my country a great wrong when I took up arms against her, for which I am sorry, but for which I cannot live to atone.”
Four thousand, not wounded, are prisoners of war. More in number of the captured than the captors. Our men are still “gathering them in.” Some hold up their hands or a handkerchief in sign of submission; some have hugged the ground to escape our bullets and so are taken; few made resistance after the first moment of our crossing the wall; some yield submissively with good grace, some with grim, dogged aspect, showing that but for the other alternative they could not submit to this.
Colonels, and all less grades of officers, in the usual proportion are among them, and all are being stripped of their arms. Such of them as escaped wounds and capture are fleeing routed and panic stricken, and disappearing in the woods. Small arms, more thousands than we can count, are in our hands, scattered over the field. And these defiant battle-flags, some inscribed with “First Manassas,” the numerous battles of the Peninsula, “Second Manassas,” “South Mountain,” “Sharpsburg,” (our Antietam,) “Fredericksburg,” “Chancellorsville,” and many more names, our men have, and are showing about, over 30 of them.
Such was really the closing scene of the grand drama of Gettysburg. After repeated assaults upon the right and the left, where, and in all of which repulse had been his only success, this persistent and presuming enemy forms his chosen troops, the flower of his army, for a grand assault upon our center. The manner and result of such assault have been told—a loss to the enemy of from 12,000 to 14,000, killed, wounded and prisoners, and of over 30 battle-flags.
This was accomplished with a federal loss of 6,000 and not over 2,500 killed and wounded.
Would to Heaven Generals Hancock and Gibbon could have stood there where I did, and have looked upon that field! It would have done two men, to whom the country owes much, good to have been with their men in that moment of victory—to have seen the result of those dispositions which they had made, and of that splendid fighting which men schooled by their discipline, had executed.
But they are both severely wounded and have been carried from the field. One person did come then that I was glad to see there, and that was no less than Major General Meade, whom the Army of the Potomac was fortunate enough to have at that time to command it.
See how a great General looked upon the field, and what he said and did at the moment, and when he learned of his great victory. To appreciate the incident I give, it should be borne in mind that one coming up from the rear of the line, as did General Meade, could have seen very little of our own men, who had now crossed the crest, and although he could have heard the noise, he could not have told its occasion, or by whom made, until he had actually attained the crest.
One who did not know results, so coming, would have been quite as likely to have supposed that our line there had been carried and captured by the enemy—so many gray Rebels were on the crest—as to have discovered the real truth. Such mistake was really made by one of our officers, as I shall relate.
General Meade rode up, accompanied alone by his son, who is his aide-de-camp, an escort, if select, not large for a commander of such an army. The principal horseman was no bedizened hero of some holiday review, but he was a plain man, dressed in a serviceable summer suit of dark blue cloth, without badge or ornament, save the shoulder-straps of his grade, and a light, straight sword of a General or General staff officer.
He wore heavy, high-top boots and buff gauntlets, and his soft black felt hat was slouched down over his eyes. His face was very white, not pale, and the lines were marked and earnest and full of care.
As he arrived near me, coming up the hill, he asked in a sharp, eager voice: “How is it going here?” “I believe, General, the enemy’s attack is repulsed,” I answered. Still approaching, and a new light began to come in his face, of gratified surprise, with a touch of incredulity, of which his voice was also the medium, he further asked: “What! Is the assault already repulsed?” his voice quicker and more eager than before.
“It is, sir,” I replied. By this time he was on the crest, and when his eye had for an instant swept over the field, taking in just a glance of the whole—the masses of prisoners, the numerous captured flags which the men were derisively flaunting about, the fugitives of the routed enemy, disappearing with the speed of terror in the woods—partly at what I had told him, partly at what he saw, he said, impressively, and his face lighted: “Thank God.” And then his right hand moved as if it would have caught off his hat and waved it; but this gesture he suppressed, and instead he waved his hand, and said “Hurrah!”
The son, with more youth in his blood and less rank upon his shoulders, snatched off his cap, and roared out his three “hurrahs” right heartily. The General then surveyed the field, some minutes, in silence. He at length asked who was in command—he had heard that Hancock and Gibbon were wounded—and I told him that General Caldwell was the senior officer of the Corps and General Harrow of the Division. He asked where they were, but before I had time to answer that I did not know, he resumed: “No matter; I will give my orders to you and you will see them executed.” He then gave direction that the troops should be reformed as soon as practicable, and kept in their places, as the enemy might be mad enough to attack again. He also gave directions concerning the posting of some reinforcements which he said would soon be there, adding: “If the enemy does attack, charge him in the flank and sweep him from the field; do you understand.”
The General then, a gratified man, galloped in the direction of his headquarters.
Then the work of the field went on. First, the prisoners were collected and sent to the rear. “There go the men,” the Rebels were heard to say, by some of our surgeons who were in Gettysburg, at the time Pickett’s Division marched out to take position—“There go the men that will go through your d—d Yankee lines, for you.” A good many of them did “go through our lines for us,” but in a very different way from the one they intended—not impetuous victons, sweeping away our thin lines with ball and bayonet, but crestfallen captives, without arms, guarded by the true bayonets of the Union, with the cheers of their conquerors ringing in their ears. There was a grim truth after all in this Rebel remark. Collected, the prisoners began their dreary march, a miserable, melancholy stream of dirty gray, to pour over the crest to our rear. Many of the officers were well dressed, fine, proud gentlemen, such men as it would be a pleasure to meet, when the war is over.
I had no desire to exult over them, and pity and sympathy were the general feelings of us all upon the occasion. The cheering of our men, and the unceremonious handling of the captured flags was probably not gratifying to the prisoners, but not intended for taunt or insult to the men; they could take no exception to such practices.
When the prisoners were turned to the rear and were crossing the crest, Lieut. Col. Morgan, General Hancock’s Chief of Staff, was conducting a battery from the artillery reserve, towards the Second Corps. As he saw the men in gray coming over the hill, he said to the officer in command of the battery: “See up there! The enemy has carried the crest. See them come pouring over! The old Second Corps is gone, and you had better get your battery away from here as quickly as possible, or it will be captured.” The officer was actually giving the order to his men to move back, when close observation discovered that the gray-backs that were coming had no arms, and then the truth flashed upon the minds of the observers. The same mistake was made by others.
In view of the results of that day—the successes of the arms of the country, would not the people of the whole country, standing there upon the crest with General Meade, have said, with him: “Thank God?”
I have no knowledge and little notion of how long a time elapsed from the moment the fire of the infantry commenced, until the enemy was entirely repulsed, in this his grand assault. I judge, from the amount of fighting and the changes of position that occurred, that probably the fight was of nearly an hour’s duration, but I cannot tell, and I have seen none who knew. The time seemed but a very few minutes, when the battle was over.
When the prisoners were cleared away and order was again established upon our crest, where the conflict had impaired it, until between 5 pm and 6 pm, I remained upon the field, directing some troops to their position, in conformity to the orders of General Meade.
The enemy appeared no more in front of the Second Corps; but while I was engaged as I have mentioned, farther to our left some considerable force of the enemy moved out and made show of attack. Our artillery, now in good order again, in due time opened fire, and the shells scattered the “Butternuts,” as clubs do the gray snow-birds of winter, before they came within range of our infantry. This, save unimportant outpost firing, was the last of the battle.
Of the pursuit of the enemy and the movements of the army subsequent to the battle, until the crossing of the Potomac by Lee and the closing of the campaign, it is not my purpose to write. Suffice it that on the night of the 3rd of July the enemy withdrew his left, Ewell’s Corps, from our front, and on the morning of the 4th we again occupied the village of Gettysburg, and on that national day victory was proclaimed to the country; that floods of rain on that day prevented army movements of any considerable magnitude, the day being passed by our army in position upon the field, in burying our dead, and some of those of the enemy, and in making the movements already indicated; that on the 5th the pursuit of the enemy was commenced—his dead were buried by us—and the corps of our army, upon various roads, moved from the battlefield.
With a statement of some of the results of the battle, as to losses and captures, and of what I saw in riding over the field, when the enemy was gone, my account is done.
Our own losses in killed, wounded and missing I estimate at 23,000. Of the “missing” the larger proportion were prisoners, lost on the 1st of July. Our loss in prisoners, not wounded, probably was 4,000. The losses were distributed among the different army corps about as follows:
--Second Corps, which sustained the heaviest loss of any corps, a little over 4,500, of whom the missing were a mere nominal number;
-- First Corps a little over four thousand, of whom a great many were missing; ---Third Corps 4,000, of whom some were missing;
--Eleventh Corps nearly 4,000 of whom the most were missing;
--and the rest of the loss, to make the aggregate mentioned, was shared by the Fifth, Sixth and Twelfth Corps and the cavalry. Among these the missing were few; and the losses of the Sixth Corps and of the cavalry were light. I do not think the official reports will show my estimate of our losses to be far from correct, for I have taken great pains to questions staff officers upon the subject, and have learned approximate numbers from them. We lost no gun or flag that I have heard of in all the battle. Some small arms, I suppose, were lost on the 1st of July.
The enemy’s loss in killed, wounded and prisoners I estimate at 40,000, and from the following data and for the following reasons: So far as I can learn, we took 10,000 prisoners, who were not wounded—many more than these were captured, but several thousands of them were wounded. I have so far as practicable ascertained the number of dead the enemy left upon the field, approximately, by getting the reports of different burying parties. I think his dead upon the field were 5,000, almost all of whom, save those killed on the first of July, were buried by us—the enemy not having them in their possession.
In looking at a great number of tables of killed and wounded in battles I have found that the proportion of the killed to the wounded is as one to five, or more than five, rarely less than five. So with the killed at the number stated, 25,000 mentioned. I think 14,000 of the enemy, wounded and unwounded, fell into our hands.
Great numbers of his small arms, two or three guns, and 40 or more—was there ever such bannered harvest?—of his regimental battle-flags were captured by us.
Some day possibly we may learn the enemy’s loss, but I doubt if he will ever tell truly how many flags he did not take home with him. I have great confidence however in my estimates, for they have been carefully made, and after much inquiry, and with no desire or motive to overestimate the enemy’s loss.
KUDOS TO GENERAL MEADE
The magnitude of the armies engaged, the number of the casualties, the object sought by the Rebel, the result, will all contribute to give Gettysburg a place among the great historic battles of the world. That General Meade’s concentration was rapid—over 30 miles a day was marched by some of the Corps—that his position was skillfully selected and his dispositions good; that he fought the battle hard and well; that his victory was brilliant and complete, I think all should admit. I cannot but regard it as highly fortunate to us and commendable in General Meade, that the enemy was allowed the initiative, the offensive, in the main battle; that it was much better to allow the Rebel, for his own destruction, to come up and smash his lines and columns upon the defensive solidity of our position, than it would have been to hunt him, for the same purpose, in the woods, or to unearth him from his rifle-pits.
In this manner our losses were lighter, and his heavier, than if the case had been reversed. And whatever the books may say of troops fighting the better who makes the attack, I am satisfied that in this war, Americans, the Rebels, as well as ourselves, are best on the defensive. The proposition is deducible from the battles of the war, I think, and my own observation confirms it.
BROTHELS OF POLITICS
But men there are who think that nothing was gained or done well in this battle, because some other general did not have the command, or because any portion of the army of the enemy was permitted to escape capture or destruction. As if one army of 100,000 men could encounter another of the same number of as good troops and annihilate it!
Military men do not claim or expect this; but the McClellan destroyers do, the doughty knights of purchasable newspaper quills; the formidable warriors from the brothels of politics, men of much warlike experience against honesty and honor, of profound attainments in ignorance, who have the maxims of Napoleon, whose spirit they as little understand as they most things, to quote, to prove all things; but who, unfortunately, have much influence in the country and with the Government, and so over the army.
It is very pleasant for these people, no doubt, at safe distances from guns, in the enjoyment of a lucrative office, or of a fraudulently obtained government contract, surrounded by the luxuries of their own firesides, where mud and flooding storms, and utter weariness never penetrate, to discourse of battles and how campaigns should be conducted and armies of the enemy destroyed.
But it should be enough, perhaps, to say that men here, or elsewhere, who have knowledge enough of military affairs to entitle them to express an opinion on such matters, and accurate information enough to realize the nature and the means of this desired destruction of Lee’s army before it crossed the Potomac into Virginia, will be most likely to vindicate the Pennsylvania campaign of Gen. Meade, and to see that he accomplished all that could have been reasonably expected of any general of any army.
IN DEFENSE OF MEADE
Complaint has been, and is, made specially against Meade, that he did not attack Lee near Williamsport before he had time to withdraw across the river. These were the facts concerning this matter:
The 13th of July was the earliest day when such an attack, if practicable at all, could have been made. The time before this, since the battle, had been spent in moving the army from the vicinity of the field, finding something of the enemy and concentrating before him. On that day the army was concentrated and in order of battle near the turnpike that leads from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown, Md., the right resting at or near the latter place, the left near Jones’ crossroads, some six miles in the direction of Sharpsburg, and in the following order from
left to right: the 12th corps, the 2d, the 5th, the 6th, the 1st, the 11th; the 3d being in reserve behind the 2d.
The mean distance to the Potomac was some six miles, and the enemy was between Meade and the river. The Potomac, swelled by the recent rain, was boiling and swift and deep, a magnificent place to have drowned all the Rebel crew. I have not the least doubt but that Gen. Meade would have liked to drown them all, if he could, but they were unwilling to be drowned, and would fight first. To drive them into the river then, they must be routed. Gen. Meade, I believe, favored an attack upon the enemy at that time, and he summoned his corps commanders to a council upon the subject.
The 1st corps was represented by William Hayes, the 3d by Gen. ??? French, the 5th by Sykes, the 6th by Sedgwick, the 11th by Howard, the 12th by Slocum, and the Cavalry by Pleasanton. Of the eight generals there, Wadsworth, Howard and Pleasanton were in favor of immediate attack, and five, Hayes, French, Sykes, Sedgwick and Slocum were not in favor of attack until better information was obtained of the position and situation of the enemy. Of the yes votes Wadsworth only temporarily represented the 1st corps in the brief absence of Newton, who, had a battle occurred, would have commanded. Pleasanton, with his horses, would have been a spectator only, and Howard, with the brilliant 11th corps, would have been trusted nowhere but a safe distance from the enemy—not by Gen. Howard’s fault, however, for he is a good and brave man.
Such was the position of those who felt sanguinarily inclined. Of the no votes were all of the fighting generals of the fighting corps, save the 1st. This, then, was the feeling of these generals—all who would have had no responsibility or part in all probability, hankered for a fight—those who would have had both part and responsibility, did not.
The attack was not made. At daylight on the morning of July 14, strong reconnaissances from the 12th, 2d and 5th corps were the means of discovering that between the enemy, except a 1,000 of 1,500 of his rear guard, who fell into our hands, and the Army of the Potomac, rolled the rapid, unbridged river. The Rebel General, Pettigrew, was here killed. The enemy had constructed bridges, had crossed during all the preceding night, but so close were our cavalry and infantry upon him in the morning, that the bridges were destroyed before his rear guard had all crossed.
Among the considerations influencing these generals against the propriety of attack at that time, were probably the following: The army was wearied and worn down by four weeks of constant forced marching or battle, in the midst of heat, mud and drenching showers, burdened with arms, accoutrements, blankets, 60 to a 100 cartridges, and five to eight days’ rations. What such weariness means few save soldiers know.
Since the battle, the army had been constantly diminished by sickness or prostration and by more straggling than I ever saw before. Poor fellows—they could not help it. The men were near the point when further efficient physical exertion was quite impossible. Even the sound of the skirmishing, which was almost constant, and the excitement of impending battle, had no effect to arouse for an hour the exhibition of their wonted former vigor.
The enemy’s loss in battle, it is true, had been far heavier than ours; but his army was less weary that ours, for in a given time since the first of the campaign, it had marched far less and with lighter loads. These Rebels are accustomed to hunger and nakedness, customs to which our men do not take readily. And the enemy had straggled less, for the men were going away from battle and towards home, and for them to straggle was to go into captivity, whose end they could not conjecture. The enemy was somewhere in position in a ridgy, wooded country, abounding in strong defensive positions, his main bodies concealed, protected by rifle-pits and epaulements, acting strictly on the defensive. His dispositions, his position even, with any considerable degree of accuracy was unknown, nor could they be known except by reconnaissances in such force, and carried to such extent, as would have constituted them attacks liable to bring on at any moment a general engagement, and at places where we were least prepared and least likely to be successful.
To have had a battle there then, Gen. Meade would have had to attack a cunning enemy in the dark, where surprises, undiscovered rifle-pits and batteries, and unseen bodies of men might have met his forces at every point.
With his not greatly superior numbers, under such circumstances had Gen. Meade attacked, would he have been victorious? The vote of these generals at the council shows their opinion—my own is that he would have been repulsed with heavy loss, with little damage to the enemy. Such a result might have satisfied the bloody politicians better than the end of the campaign as it was; but I think the country did not need that sacrifice of the Army of the Potomac at that time—that enough odor of sacrifice came up to its nostrils from the 1st Fredericksburg field, to stop their snuffing for some time.
I felt the probability of defeat strongly at the time, when we all supposed that a conflict would certainly ensue; for always before a battle—at least it so happens to me—some dim presentiment of result, some unaccountable foreshadowing pervades the army. I never knew the result to prove it untrue, which rests with the weight of a conviction. Whether such shadows are cause or consequenced, I shall not pretend to determine; but when, as they often are, they are general, I think they should not be wholly disregarded by the commander. I believe the Army of the Potomac is always willing, often eager, to fight the enemy, whenever, as it thinks, there is a fair chance for victory; that it always will fight, let come victory or defeat whenever it is ordered so to do.
Of course the army, both officers and men, had very great disappointment and very great sorrow that the Rebels escaped—so it was called—across the river; the disappointment was genuine, at least to the extent that disappointment is like surprise; but the sorrow to judge by looks, tones and actions, rather than by words, was not of that deep, sable character for which there is no balm.
Would it be an imputation upon the courage or patriotism of this army if it was not rampant for fight at this particular time and under the existing circumstances? Had the enemy stayed upon the left bank of the Potomac 12 hours longer, there would have been great battle there near Williamsport on the 14th of July.
After such digression, if such it is, I return to Gettysburg.
THOUGHTS RETURN TO GETTYSBURG.
As good generalship is claimed for Gen. Meade in the battle, so was the conduct of his subordinate commanders good. I know, and have heard, of no bad conduct or blundering on the part of any officer, save that of Sickles, on the 2d of July, and that was so gross, and came so near being the cause of irreparable disaster that I cannot discuss it with moderation.
I hope the man may never return to the Army of the Potomac, or elsewhere, to a position where his incapacity, or something worse, may bring fruitless destruction to thousands again. The conduct of officers and men was good. The 11th corps behaved badly; but I have yet to learn the occasion when, in the opinion of any save their own officers and themselves, the men of this corps have behaved well on the march or before the enemy, either under Siegel or any other commander. With this exception, and some minor cases of very little consequence in the general result, our troops whenever and wherever the enemy came, stood against them storms of impassable fire. Such was the infantry, such the artillery—the cavalry did less but it did all that was required.
Note 1. Final returns gave 1,653 buried by the First and Second Corps, presumably in this field. See 43 War Records, 264, 378.—T. L. L. [back]
Note 2. Final returns stated the loss as 23,049, as follows: First Corps, 3,897 killed and wounded, 2,162 missing; Second Corps, 3,991 and 387; Third Corps, 3,622 and 589; Fifth Corps, 1,976 and 211; Sixth Corps, 212 and 30; Eleventh Corps, 2,291 and 1,510; Twelfth Corps, 1,016 and 66; Artillery Reserve, 230 and 12; Cavalry, 445 and 407. See 43 War Records, 187.—T. L. L.
The enemy, too, showed a determination and valor worthy of a better cause. Their conduct in this battle even makes me proud of them as Americans. They would have been victorious over any but the best of soldiers. Lee and his generals presumed too much upon some past successes, and did not estimate how much they were due on their part to position, as at Fredericksburg, or on our part to bad generalship, as at the 2d Bull Run and Chancellorsville.
The fight of the 1st of July we do not, of course, claim as a victory; but even that probably would have resulted differently had Reynolds not been struck.
The Rebel success in Gettysburg ended on July 1.
The Rebels were joyous and jubilant—so said our men in their hands, and the citizens of Gettysburg—at their achievements on that day. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were remembered by them. They saw victory already won, or only to be snatched from the streaming coat-tails of the 11th corps, or the “raw Pennsylvania militia” as they thought they were, when they saw them run; and already the spires of Baltimore and the dome of the National Capitol were forecast upon their glad vision—only two or three days march away through the beautiful valleys of Pennsylvania and “my” Maryland.
If you were a rebel was there ever anything so fine before? How splendid it would be to enjoy the poultry and the fruit, the meats, the cakes, the beds, the clothing, the whiskey, without price in this rich land of the Yankee! It would, indeed! But on the 2d of July something of a change came over the spirit of these dreams. They were surprised at results and talked less and thought more as they prepared supper that night.
After the fight of the 3d they talked only of the means of their own safety from destruction. Pickett’s splendid division had been almost annihilated, they said, and they talked not of how many were lost, but of who had escaped. They talked of these “Yanks” that had clubs on their flags and caps, the trefoils of the 2d corps that are like clubs in cards.
[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.]
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