- Historic Sites
The Third Day at Gettysburg
First lieutenant on Brigadier General John Gibbon’s staff, at Gettysburg; later colonel of the 36th Wisconsin; killed at Cold Harbor.
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
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 victors, sweeping away our thin lines with ball and bayonet, but crestfallen captives, without arms, with the cheers of their conquerors ringing in their ears. There was a grim truth after all in this Rebel remark.
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 five and six o’clock, I remained upon the field, directing some troops to their position, in conformity to the orders of General Meade. 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 3d of July the enemy withdrew his left 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.
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 thirty 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 make the attack, I am satisfied that in this war, Americans, the Rebels as well as ourselves, are best on the defensive.
[ Haskell’s remark that both Federals and Confederates “are best on the defensive” simply highlights the fact that Civil War weapons had been improved much more than infantry tactics. The rifled infantry musket, muzzle-loader though it was, had vastly increased defensive fire power. The old smooth-bore, on which infantry tactics were still based, was very inaccurate, and was so limited in range that it was ineffective at any distance greater than about 150 yards. The rifle used by Civil War troops could begin to kill at half a mile or more, and the advance in the massed formation—still standard, by the old tactics—was simply out of date. A straight frontal assault against good troops in a properly chosen defensive position had very little chance to succeed, by the 1860’s: a lesson that was impressed on the Unionists at Fredericksburg, on Lee at Gettysburg, and on U. S. Grant at the battle of Cold Harbor .]