- 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
I overtake the General half way up to the line. Before we reach the crest his horse is brought by an orderly. Leaving our horses just behind a sharp declivity of the ridge, on foot we go up among the batteries. How the long streams of fire spout from the guns, how the rifled shells hiss, how the smoke deepens and rolls. The men of the infantry have seized their arms, and behind their works, behind every rock, in every ditch, wherever there is any shelter, they hug the ground, silent, quiet, unterrified, little harmed.
[ General Lee had a long rank of guns in line, and all of these opened fire in an attempt to soften the Union line for Pickett’s charge. The Union guns instantly replied, and for an hour or thereabouts the greatest artillery duel yet seen on the American continent was waged. The fire was so intense and the racket was so terrific that Union gunners confessed afterward that they could hardly hear the noise their own guns made. The Union line might have been obliterated by the bombardment except for the fact that the Confederate gunners for some reason were firing just a little too high. Most of their shell exploded on the reverse slope of Cemetery Ridge .]
The enemy’s guns now in action are in position at their front of the woods. A hundred and twenty-five rebel guns, we estimate, are now active, firing twentyfour pound, twenty, twelve and ten-pound projectiles, solid shot and shells, spherical, conical, spiral. The enemy’s fire is chiefly concentrated upon the position of the Second Corps. From the Cemetery to Round Top, with over a hundred guns, and to all parts of the enemy’s line, our batteries reply.
Who can describe such a conflict as is raging around us? To say that it was like a summer storm, with the crash of thunder, the glare of lightning, the shrieking of the wind, and the clatter of hailstones, would be weak. The thunder and lightning of these two hundred and fifty guns and their shells, whose smoke darkens the sky, are incessant, all pervading, in the air above our heads, on the ground at our feet, remote, near, deafening, ear-piercing, astounding; and these hailstones are massy iron, charged with exploding fire. And there is little of human interest in a storm; it is an absorbing element of this. You may see flame and smoke, and hurrying men, and human passion at a great conflagration; but they are all earthly and nothing more. These guns are great infuriate demons, not of the earth, whose mouths blaze with smoky tongues of living fire, and whose murky breath, sulphur-laden, rolls around them and along the ground, the smoke of Hades. These grimy men, rushing, shouting, their souls in frenzy, plying the dusky globes and the igniting spark, are in their league, and but their willing ministers.
We thought that at the second Bull Run, at the Antietam and at Fredericksburg on the 13th of December, we had heard heavy cannonading; they were but holiday salutes compared with this. Besides the great ceaseless roar of the guns, which was but the background of the others, a million various minor sounds engaged the ear. The projectiles shriek long and sharp. They hiss, they scream, they growl, they sputter; all sounds of life and rage; and each has its different note, and all are discordant. We see the solid shot strike axle, or pole, or wheel, and the tough iron and heart of oak snap and fly like straws. And these shot and shells have no respect for men. We see the poor fellows hobbling back from the crest, or, unable to do so, pale and weak, lying on the ground with the mangled stump of an arm or leg, dripping their lifeblood away; or with a cheek torn open or a shoulder mashed. And many, alas! hear not the roar as they stretch upon the ground with upturned faces and open eyes, though a shell should burst at their very ears. Their ears and their bodies this instant are only mud.
We watched the shells bursting in the air, as they came hissing in all directions. Their flash was a bright gleam of lightning radiating from a point, giving place in the thousandth part of a second to a small, white, puffy cloud, like a fleece of the lightest, whitest wool. These clouds were very numerous. We could not often see the shell before it burst; but sometimes, as we faced towards the enemy, and looked above our heads, the approach would be heralded by a prolonged hiss, which always seemed to me to be a line of something tangible, terminating in a black globe, distinct to the eye, as the sound had been to the ear. The shell would seem to stop, and hang suspended in the air an instant, and then vanish in fire and smoke and noise.