|The two officers to oversee the April 12, 1865 surrender ceremony at Appomattox, Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Confederate General John B. Gordon. “The Last Salute” by Don Troiani, 1988.|
It would be difficult to group together words more concisely and clearly descriptive of General Lee's purposes in crossing the Potomac, both in '62 and '63. It must be added, however, that while the movement into Maryland in 1862, and into Pennsylvania in 1863, were each defensive in design, they differed in some particulars as to the immediate object which General Lee hoped to accomplish.
Each sought to force the Union army to retrace its steps; " each sought to render strength useless by skill;" but in 1862 there was not so grave a necessity for subsisting his army on Union soil as in 1863. The movement into Maryland was, of course, a more direct threat upon Washington. Besides, at that period there was still a prevalent belief among Southern leaders that Southern sentiment was strong in Maryland, and that an important victory within her borders might convert the Confederate camps into recruiting stations, and add materially to the strength of Lee's army.
|Major Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA|
The movement into Pennsylvania in 1863 was also, in part at least, a recruiting expedition. We did not expect, it is true, to gather soldiers for our ranks, but beeves for our commissary. For more than two years the effort to fill the ranks of the Southern armies had alarmingly reduced the ranks of Southern producers, with no appreciable diminution in the number of consumers.
Indeed, the consumers had materially increased; for while we were not then seeking to encourage Northern immigration, we had a large number of visitors from that and other sections, who were exploring the country under such efficient guides as McClellan, Hooker, Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and others. We had, therefore, much need of borrowing supplies from our neighbors beyond the Potomac. The bill of fare of some commands was already very short and by no means appetizing.
General Ewell, having exhausted the contents of his larder, thought to replenish it from the surrounding country by a personal raid, and returned after a long and dusty hunt with a venerable ox, which would not have made a morsel, on division, for one percent of his command. Ewell's ox had on him, however, that peculiar quality of flesh which is essential in feeding an army on short rations. It was durable—irreducible.
The whole country in the Wilderness and around Chancellorsville, where both Hooker's and Lee's armies had done some foraging, and thence to the Potomac, was well-nigh exhausted. This was true, also, of a large portion of the Piedmont region and of the Valley of Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains ; while the lower valley, along the Shenandoah, had long been the beaten track and alternate camping-ground of both Confederate and Union armies.
It had contributed to the support of both armies until it could contribute no more. How to subsist, therefore, was becoming a serious question. The hungry hosts of Israel did not look across Jordan to the vine-clad hills of Canaan with more longing eyes than did Lee's braves contemplate the yellow grain-fields of Pennsylvania beyond the Potomac.
Again, to defend Richmond by threatening Washington and Baltimore and Philadelphia was perhaps the most promising purpose of the Confederate invasion Incidentally, it was hoped that a defeat of the Union army in territory so contiguous to these great cities would send gold to such a premium as to cause financial panic in the commercial centers, and induce the great business interests to demand that the war should cease.
But the hoped-for victory, with its persuasive influence, did not materialize. Indeed, the presence of Lee's army in Pennsylvania seemed to arouse the North to still greater efforts, as the presence of the Union armies in the South had intensified, if possible, the decision of her people to resist to the last extremity.
The appearance of my troops on the flank of General Meade's army during the battle of Gettysburg was not our first approach into that little city which was to become the turning-point in the Confederacy's fortunes. Having been detached from General Lee's army, my brigade had, some days prior to the great battle, passed through Gettysburg on our march to the Susquehanna.
|General Gordon and his officers overnighted at this New Oxford, Pennsylvania home en route from Gettysburg to York PA, June 28, 1863. The dwelling is now the excellent Barker House Bed & Breakfast along U.S. route 30.|
The insignificant encounter I had had on those hills impressed their commanding importance upon me as nothing else could have done.
The Valley of Pennsylvania, through which my command marched from Gettysburg to Wrightsville on the Susquehanna, awakened the most conflicting emotions. It was delightful to look upon such a scene of universal thrift and plenty. Its broad grain-fields, clad in golden garb, were waving their welcome to the reapers and binders. Some fields were already dotted over with harvested shocks.
The huge barns on the highest grounds meant to my sore-footed marchers a mount, a ride, and a rest on broad-backed horses. On every side, as far as our alert vision could reach, all aspects and conditions conspired to make this fertile and carefully tilled region a panorama both interesting and enchanting.
In both these lovely valleys were the big red barns, representing in their silent dignity the independence of their owners. In both were the old-fashioned brick or stone mansions, differing in style of architecture and surroundings as Teutonic manners and tastes differ from those of the Cavalier. In both were the broad green meadows with luxuriant grasses and crystal springs.
One of these springs impressed itself on my memory by its great beauty and the unique uses to which its owner had put it. He was a staid and laborious farmer of German descent. With an eye to utility, as well as to the health and convenience of his household, he had built his dining-room immediately over this fountain gushing from a cleft in an underlying rock. My camp for the night was near by, and I accepted his invitation to breakfast with him. As I entered the quaint room, one half floored with smooth limestone, and the other half covered with limpid water bubbling clear and pure from the bosom of Mother Earth, my amazement at the singular design was perhaps less pronounced than the sensation of rest which it produced.
For many days we had been marching on the dusty turnpikes, under a broiling sun, and it is easier to imagine than to describe the feeling of relief and repose which came over me as we sat in that cool room, with a hot breakfast served from one side, while from the other the frugal housewife dipped cold milk and cream from immense jars standing neck-deep in water.
We entered the city of York on Sunday morning. A committee, composed of the mayor and prominent citizens, met my command on the main pike before we reached the corporate limits, their object being to make a peaceable surrender and ask for protection to life and property. They returned, I think, with a feeling of assured safety. The church bells were ringing, and the streets were filled with well-dressed people.
The appearance of these church-going men, women, and children, in their Sunday attire, strangely contrasted with that of my marching soldiers. Begrimed as we were from head to foot with the impalpable gray powder which rose in dense columns from the macadamized pikes and settled in sheets on men, horses, and wagons, it is no wonder that many of York's inhabitants were terror-stricken as they looked upon us. We had been compelled on these forced marches to leave baggage-wagons behind us, and there was no possibility of a change of clothing, and no time for brushing uniforms or washing the disfiguring dust from faces, hair, or beard. All these were of the same hideous hue. The grotesque aspect of my troops was accentuated here and there, too, by barefooted men mounted double upon huge horses with shaggy manes and long fetlocks.
Confederate pride, to say nothing of Southern gallantry, was subjected to the sorest trial by the consternation produced among the ladies of York. In my eagerness to relieve the citizens from all apprehension, I lost sight of the fact that this turnpike powder was no respecter of persons, but that it enveloped all alike—officers as well as privates. Had I realized the wish of Burns, that some power would "the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us," I might have avoided the slight panic created by my effort to allay a larger one. Halting on the main street, where the sidewalks were densely packed, I rode a few rods in advance of my troops, in order to speak to the people from my horse.
As I checked him and turned my full dust-begrimed face upon a bevy of young ladies very near me, a cry of alarm came from their midst; but after a few words of assurance from me, quiet and apparent confidence were restored. I assured these ladies that the troops behind me, though ill-clad and travel-stained, were good men and brave; that beneath their rough exteriors were hearts as loyal to women as ever beat in the breasts of honorable men; that their own experience and the experience of their mothers, wives, and sisters at home had taught them how painful must be the sight of a hostile army in their town; that under the orders of the Confederate commander-in-chief both private property and non-combatants were safe; that the spirit of vengeance and of rapine had no place in the bosoms of these dust-covered but knightly men; and I closed by pledging to York the head of any soldier under my command who destroyed private property disturbed the repose of a single home, or insulted a woman.
As we moved along the street after this episode, a little girl, probably twelve years of age, ran up to my horse and handed me a large bouquet of flowers, in the centre of which was a note, in delicate handwriting, purporting to give the numbers and describe the position of the Union forces of Wrightsville, toward which I was advancing. I carefully read and reread this strange note. It bore no signature, and contained no assurance of sympathy for the Southern cause, but it was so terse and explicit in its terms as to compel my confidence.
The second day we were in front of Wrightsville, and from the high ridge on which this note suggested that I halt and examine the position of the Union troops, I eagerly scanned the prospect with my field-glasses, in order to verify the truth of the mysterious communication or detect its misrepresentations.
As I have intimated, the orders from General Lee for the protection of private property and persons were of the most stringent character. Guided by these instructions and by my own impulses, I resolved to leave no ruins along the line of my march through Pennsylvania; no marks of a more enduring character than the tracks of my soldiers along its superb pikes. I cannot be mistaken in the opinion that the citizens who then lived and still live on these highways will bear me out in the assertion that we marched into that delightful region, and then marched out of it, without leaving any scars to mar its beauty or lessen its value.
Perhaps I ought to record two insignificant exceptions.
Going into camp in an open country and after dark, it was ascertained that there was no wood to be had for even the limited amount of necessary cooking, and I was appealed to by the men for permission to use a few rails from an old-fashioned fence near the camp. I agreed that they might take the top layer of rails, as the fence would still be high enough to answer the farmer's purpose.
When morning came the fence had nearly all disappeared, and each man declared that he had taken only the top rail! The authorized (?) destruction of that fence is not difficult to understand! It was a case of adherence to the letter and neglect of the spirit; but there was no alternative except good-naturedly to admit that my men had gotten the better of me that time.
The other case of insignificant damage inflicted by our presence in the Valley of Pennsylvania was the application of the Confederate "conscript law" in drafting Pennsylvania horses into service. That law was passed by the Confederate Congress in order to call into our ranks able-bodied men at the South, but my soldiers seemed to think that it might be equally serviceable for the ingathering of able-bodied horses at the North.
The trouble was that most of these horses had fled the country or were in hiding, and the owners of the few that were left were not submissive to Southern authority. One of these owners, who, I believe, had not many years before left his fatherland and was not an expert in the use of English, attempted to save his favorite animal by a verbal combat with my quartermaster.
That officer, however, failing to understand him, sent him to me. The " Pennsylvania Dutchman," as his class was known in the Valley, was soon firing at me his broken English, and opened his argument with the announcement: "You be's got my mare." I replied, "It is not at all improbable, my friend, that I have your mare, but the game we are now playing is what was called in my boyhood 'tit for tat' " ; and I endeavored to explain to him that the country was at war, that at the South horses were being taken by the Union soldiers, and that I was trying on a small scale to balance accounts. I flattered myself that this statement of the situation would settle the matter; but the explanation was far more satisfactory to myself than to him. He insisted that I had not paid for his mare. I at once offered to pay him—in Confederate money; I had no other. This he indignantly refused.
Finally, I offered to give him a written order for the price of his mare on the President of the United States. This offer set him to thinking. He was quite disposed to accept it, but, like a dim ray of starlight through a rift in the clouds at night, there gradually dawned on him the thought that there might possibly be some question as to my authority for drawing on the President.
The suggestion of this doubt exhausted his patience, and in his righteous exasperation, like his great countryman hurling the inkstand at the devil, he pounded me with expletives in so furious a style that, although I could not interpret them into English, there was no difficulty in comprehending their meaning. The words which I did catch and understand showed that he was making a comparison of values between his mare and his "t'ree vifes." The climax of his argument was in these words: "I've been married, sir, t'ree times, and I vood not geef dot mare for all dose voomans."
With so sincere an admirer of woman as myself such an argument could scarcely be recognized as forcible; but I was also a great lover of fine horses, and this poor fellow's distress at the loss of his favorite mare was so genuine and acute that I finally yielded to his entreaties and had her delivered to him.
When General Early reached York a few days later, he entered into some business negotiations with the officials and prominent citizens of that city. I was not advised as to the exact character of those negotiations, but it was rumored through that portion of the army at the time that General Early wanted to borrow, or secure in some other way, for the use of his troops, a certain amount of greenbacks, and that he succeeded in making the arrangement. I learned afterward that the only promise to repay, like that of the Confederate notes, was at some date subsequent to the establishment of Southern independence.
It will be remembered that the note concealed in the flowers handed me at York had indicated a ravine down which I could move, reaching the river not far from the bridge. As my orders were not restricted, except to direct me to cross the Susquehanna, if possible, my immediate object was to move rapidly down that ravine to the river, then along its right bank to the bridge, seize it, and cross to the Columbia side. Once across, I intended to mount my men, if practicable, so as to pass rapidly through Lancaster in the direction of Philadelphia, and thus compel General Meade to send a portion of his army to the defense of that city.
This program was defeated, first, by the burning of the bridge, and second, by the imminent prospect of battle near Gettysburg. The Union troops stationed at Wrightsville had, after their retreat across it, fired the bridge which I had hoped to secure, and had then stood in battle line on the opposite shore. With great energy my men labored to save the bridge. I called on the citizens of Wrightsville for buckets and pails, but none were to be found. There was, however, no lack of buckets and pails a little later, when the town was on fire.
The bridge might burn, for that incommoded, at the time, only the impatient Confederates, and these Pennsylvanians were not in sympathy with my expedition, nor anxious to facilitate the movement of such unwelcome visitors. But when the burning bridge fired the lumber-yards on the river's banks, and the burning lumber fired the town, buckets and tubs and pails and pans innumerable came from their hiding-places, until it seemed that, had the whole of Lee's army been present, I could have armed them with these implements to fight the rapidly spreading flames. My men labored as earnestly and bravely to save the town as they did to save the bridge.
In the absence of fire-engines or other appliances, the only chance to arrest the progress of the flames was to form my men around the burning district, with the flank resting on the river's edge, and pass rapidly from hand to hand the pails of water. Thus, and thus only, was the advancing, raging fire met, and at a late hour of the night checked and conquered.
There was one point especially at which my soldiers combated the fire's progress with immense energy, and with great difficulty saved an attractive home from burning. It chanced to be the home of one of the most superb women it was my fortune to meet during the four years of war. She was Mrs. L. L. Rewalt, to whom I refer in my lecture, "The Last Days of the Confederacy," as the heroine of the Susquehanna.
I met Mrs. Rewalt the morning after the fire had been checked. She had witnessed the furious combat with the flames around her home, and was unwilling that those men should depart without receiving some token of appreciation from her. She was not wealthy, and could not entertain my whole command, but she was blessed with an abundance of those far nobler riches of brain and heart which are the essential glories of exalted womanhood.
Accompanied by an attendant, and at a late hour of the night, she sought me, in the confusion which followed the destructive fire, to express her gratitude to the soldiers of my command and to inquire how long we would remain in Wrightsville.
On learning that the village would be relieved of our presence at an early hour the following morning, she insisted that I should bring with me to breakfast at her house as many as could find places in her dining-room. She would take no excuse, not even the nervous condition in which the excitement of the previous hours had left her.
At a bountifully supplied table in the early morning sat this modest, cultured woman, surrounded by soldiers in their worn, gray uniforms. The welcome she gave us was so gracious, she was so self-possessed, so calm and kind, that I found myself in an inquiring state of mind as to whether her sympathies were with the Northern or Southern side in the pending war. Cautiously, but with sufficient clearness to indicate to her my object, I ventured some remarks which she could not well ignore and which she instantly saw were intended to evoke some declaration upon the subject.
She was too brave to evade it, too self-poised to be confused by it, and too firmly fixed in her convictions to hesitate as to the answer. With no one present except Confederate soldiers who were her guests, she replied, without a quiver in her voice, but with womanly gentleness: " General Gordon, I fully comprehend you, and it is due to myself that I candidly tell you that I am a Union woman. I cannot afford to be misunderstood, nor to have you misinterpret this simple courtesy. You and your soldiers last night saved my home from burning, and I was unwilling that you should go away without receiving some token of my appreciation.
"I must tell you' however, that, with my assent and approval, my husband is a soldier in the Union army, and my constant prayer to Heaven is that our cause may triumph and the Union be saved."
No Confederate left that room without a feeling of profound respect, of unqualified admiration, for that brave and worthy woman. No Southern soldier, no true Southern man, who reads this account will fail to render to her a like tribute of appreciation. The spirit of every high-souled Southerner was made to thrill over and over again at the evidence around him of the more than Spartan courage, the self-sacrifices and devotion, of Southern women, at every stage and through every trial of the war, as from first to last, they hurried to the front, their brothers and fathers, their husbands and sons.
No Southern man can ever forget the words of cheer that came from these heroic women's lips, and their encouragement to hope and fight on in the midst of despair. When I met Mrs. Rewalt in Wrightsville, the parting with my own mother was still fresh in my memory. Nothing short of death's hand can ever obliterate from my heart the impression of that parting. Holding me in her arms, my mother's heart almost bursting with anguish, and the tears running down her cheeks, she asked God to take care of me, and then said: "Go, my son; I shall perhaps never see you again, but I commit you freely to the service of your country."
I had witnessed, as all Southern soldiers had witnessed, the ever-increasing consecration of those women to their cause. No language can fitly describe their saintly spirit of martyrdom, which grew stronger and rose higher when all other eyes could see the inevitable end of the terrific struggle slowly but surely approaching.
|Road leading into Gettysburg, 1870.|
The Union forces, at first driven back, now reënforced, were again advancing and pressing back Lee's left and threatening to envelop it. The Confederates were stubbornly contesting every foot of ground, but the Southern left was slowly yielding. A few moments more and the day's battle might have been ended by the complete turning of Lee's flank. I was ordered to move at once to the aid of the heavily pressed Confederates.
With a ringing yell, my command rushed upon the line posted to protect the Union right. Here occurred a hand-to-hand struggle. That protecting Union line once broken left my command not only on the right flank, but obliquely in rear of it. Any troops that were ever marshaled would, under like conditions, have been as surely and swiftly shattered. There was no alternative for Howard's men except to break and fly, or to throw down their arms and surrender.
Under the concentrated fire from front and flank, the marvel is that any escaped. In the midst of the wild disorder in his ranks, and through a storm of bullets, a Union officer was seeking to rally his men for a final stand. He, too, went down, pierced by a Minié ball.
Riding forward with my rapidly advancing lines, I discovered that brave officer lying upon his back, with the July sun pouring its rays into his pale face. He was surrounded by the Union dead, and his own life seemed to be rapidly ebbing out.
Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear. Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me.
That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again. I learned that Mrs. Barlow was with the Union army, and near the battle-field.
When it is remembered how closely Mrs. Gordon followed me, it will not be difficult to realize that my sympathies were especially stirred by the announcement that his wife was so near him. Passing through the day's battle unhurt, I despatched at its close, under flag of truce, the promised message to Mrs. Barlow. I assured her that if she wished to come through the lines she should have safe escort to her husband's side.
In the desperate encounters of the two succeeding days, and the retreat of Lee's army, I thought no more of Barlow, except to number him with the noble dead of the two armies who had so gloriously met their fate. The ball, however, had struck no vital point, and Barlow slowly recovered, though this fact was wholly unknown to me. The following summer, in battle near Richmond, my kinsman with the same initials, General J. B. Gordon of North Carolina, was killed.
Barlow, who had recovered, saw the announcement of his death, and entertained no doubt that he was the Gordon whom he had met on the field of Gettysburg. To me, therefore, Barlow was dead ; to Barlow, I was dead. Nearly 15 years passed before either of us was undeceived.
During my second term in the United States Senate, the Hon. Clarkson Potter, of New York, was a member of the House of Representatives. He invited me to dinner in Washington to meet a General Barlow who had served in the Union army. Potter knew nothing of the Gettysburg incident. I had heard that there was another Barlow in the Union army, and supposed, of course, that it was this Barlow with whom I was to dine. Barlow had a similar reflection as to the Gordon he was to meet.
Seated at Clarkson Potter's table, I asked Barlow: " General, are you related to the Barlow who was killed at Gettysburg?" He replied: "Why, I am the man, sir. Are you related to the Gordon who killed me?" "I am the man, sir," I responded.
No words of mine can convey any conception of the emotions awakened by those startling announcements. Nothing short of an actual resurrection from the dead could have amazed either of us more. Thenceforward, until his untimely death in 1896, the friendship between us which was born amidst the thunders of Gettysburg was greatly cherished by both.
No battle of our Civil War—no battle of any war— more forcibly illustrates the truth that officers at a distance from the field cannot, with any wisdom, attempt to control the movements of troops actively engaged. On the first day neither General Early nor General Ewell could possibly have been fully cognizant of the situation at the time I was ordered to halt. The whole of that portion of the Union army in my front was in inextricable confusion and in flight.
They were necessarily in flight, for my troops were upon the flank and rapidly sweeping down the lines. The firing upon my men had almost ceased. Large bodies of the Union troops were throwing down their arms and surrendering, because in disorganized and confused masses they were wholly powerless either to check the movement or return the fire. As far down the lines as my eye could reach the Union troops were in retreat. Those at a distance were still resisting, but giving ground, and it was only necessary for me to press forward in order to insure the same results which invariably follow such flank movements. In less than half an hour my troops would have swept up and over those hills, the possession of which was of such momentous consequence. It is not surprising, with a full realization of the consequences of a halt, that I should have refused at first to obey the order.
Not until the third or fourth order of the most peremptory character reached me did I obey. I think I should have risked the consequences of disobedience even then but for the fact that the order to halt was accompanied with the explanation that General Lee, who was several miles away, did not wish to give battle at Gettysburg. It is stated on the highest authority that General Lee said, sometime before his death, that if Jackson had been there he would have won in this battle a great and possibly decisive victory.
The Rev. J. William Jones, D.D., writing of this statement of General Lee's, uses these words: " General Lee made that remark to Professor James J. White and myself in his office in Lexington one day when we chanced to go in as he was reading a letter making some inquiries of him about Gettysburg. He said, with an emphasis that I cannot forget, and bringing his hand down on the table with a force that made things rattle: 'If I had had Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg, I would have won that fight' and a complete victory there would have given us Washington and Baltimore, if not Philadelphia, and would have established the independence of the Confederacy.' "
No soldier in a great crisis ever wished more ardently for a deliverer's hand than I wished for one hour of Jackson when I was ordered to halt. Had he been there, his quick eye would have caught at a glance the entire situation, and instead of halting me he would have urged me forward and have pressed the advantage to the utmost, simply notifying General Lee that the battle was on and he had decided to occupy the heights.
Had General Lee himself been present this would undoubtedly have been done. General Lee, as he came in sight of the battle-field that afternoon, sent Colonel Walter H. Taylor, of the staff (he makes this statement clearly in his book, " Four Years with Lee ''), with an order to General Ewell to "advance and occupy the heights." General Ewell replied that he would do so, and afterward explained in his official report that he did not do so because of the report from General William Smith that the enemy was advancing on his flank and rear, the supposed enemy turning out to be General Edward Johnson's Confederate division.
Absent as General Lee necessarily was, and intending to meet General Meade at another point and in defensive battle, he would still have applauded, when the facts were made known, the most aggressive movements, though in conflict with his general plan. From the situation plainly to be seen on the first afternoon, and from facts that afterward came to light as to the position of the different corps of General Meade's army, it seems certain that if the Confederates had simply moved forward, following up the advantages gained and striking the separated Union commands in succession, the victory would have been Lee's instead of Meade's.