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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
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. It should be enough, perhaps, to say that men who have knowledge enough of military affairs to entitle them to express an opinion on such matters 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. Complaint has been, and is, made specially against Meade, that he did not attack Lee 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 Sharpesburg to Hagerstown, Md. 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, but at daylight on the morning of the 14th, strong reconnaissances showed that between the enemy, except a thousand or fifteen hundred of his rear guard, who fell into our hands, and the Army of the Potomac, rolled the rapid unbridged river. 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 against the propriety of attack at that time were the following: The army was wearied and worn down by four weeks of constant forced marching or battle. 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. The men were near the point when further efficient physical exertion was quite impossible.
The enemy was 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. 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.
I felt the probability of defeat strongly at the time. 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.
[ Abraham Lincoln was one who felt that Meade should not have permitted Lee to get his army back across the Potomac into Virginia, and he expressed himself in a rather bitter letter which he wrote, in the White House—and then decided not to send. It may be worth noting that in the summer of 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, sauntering about the field at Gettysburg, came to much the same conclusion Lincoln had reached: that Lee should not have been allowed to get his beaten army back to safety. At the same time it should be remembered that Lincoln did not actually send Meade his letter of criticism, and that he retained Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac to the end of the war .]
… At about six o’clock on the afternoon of the 3d of July, my duties done upon the field, I quitted it to go to the General. My brave horse Dick was a sight to see. He was literally covered with blood. Struck repeatedly, his right thigh had been ripped open in a ghastly manner by a piece of shell, and three bullets were lodged deep in his body. Dick’s was no mean part in that battle. Most horses would have been unmanageable with the flash and roar of arms about and the shouting. Dick was utterly cool, and would have obeyed the rein had it been a straw. To Dick belongs the honor of first mounting that stormy crest before the enemy, not forty yards away, whose bullets smote him, and of being the only horse there during the heat of the battle. Even the enemy noticed Dick, and one of their reports of the battle mentions the “ solitary horseman ” who rallied our wavering line.