- Historic Sites
“We Were There, Waiting—”
The repulse of Pickett’s charge, described in a little-known account written shortly after the battle by a Union officer
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
The reader of Haskell’s narrative needs to remember that it was written without benefit of the backward glance and without those inevitable revisions that grow out of long reflection and fuller knowledge. Haskell expresses all of the prejudices which an ardent officer in a hot combat unit might be expected to have, both toward other units in his own army and toward the enemy against whom he was fighting. He had, for example, nothing but contempt for the luckless Eleventh Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac; it was badly maided at Gettysburg, just as had been the case at Chancellorsville two months earlier, and Haskell wrote it off as a half-hearted group. He also had scant use for such Union officers as Major General Daniel Sickles and Major General Abner Doubleday, and when he wrote about the battle he saw no reason to disguise his feelings.
In addition, Haskell was (naturally enough) red-hot lor the Union, and the Confederates were in his eyes no better than outright traitors. The word “Rebel,” as he used it, was meant as a word of bitter criticism, and although he was ready to admit that the Southerners were very valiant soldiers—no veteran in the Army of the Potoniac was in any doubt on that point—he was not disposed to give them credit for anything else.
In his book, Haskell covers the entire battle of Gettysburg, even though he himself missed the action of the first day.
The great three-day fight began shortly after dawn on July 1, on the ridges west of the town, when advancing Confederate infantry in Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s Third Corps collided with Union cavalry. Major General George Gordon Meade, who had just taken command of the Army of the Potomac, had his army spread out over a considerable area, trying to find Lee’s army and bring it to battle, and his First Corps, led by Major General John F. Reynolds, was nearing Gettysburg when the firing started. Reynolds brought his troops into town fast, got to the western ridges, and the battle began. Reynolds was killed, but his troops held their ground—Gibbon’s old Iron Brigade was in the thick of the action and suffered fearful casualties—and toward midday reinforcements arrived in the shape of Major General Oliver Otis Howard and the Eleventh Corps, which promptly took position north of town.
The fortunes of war were with the Confederates that day. Lee’s Second Corps, under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell—Stonewall Jackson’s old troops, these—came into town from the north and northeast, and since Confederate army corps were a great deal larger than Union corps (although there were fewer of them) Lee had a powerful numerical advantage. The Union First and Eleventh Corps were, driven from their positions with heavy losses, and as the day ended they took position on Cemetery and Gulp’s hills, south of Gettysburg, and awaited developments.
On July 2 Lee had most of his army on hand, while a good part of Meade’s was still on the road. Lee attacked Gulp’s Hill with Ewell’s corps, and struck the extreme left of Meade’s line, at the Round Top hills, with Lieutenant General fames B. Long-street’s corps, winning a good deal of ground and knocking the Federal Third Corps completely out of action, but failing to drive the Unionists from Cemetery Ridge, the rounded stretch of high ground that goes south from dominant Cemetery Hill. Both armies remained in position overnight, and when July 3 came it was clear to everyone that the climactic assault of the battle was in the making. At a conference late on the evening of July 2, Meade had remarked that if Lee attacked on the third he would strike Gibbon’s front.
That part of Haskell’s story which is printed here picks up the situation at dawn on July 3, with Gibbon’s division waiting on the crest of Cemetery Ridge for the action which everybody was sure would come.