- 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
We saw the missiles tear and plow the ground. All in rear of the crest for a thousand yards, as well as among the batteries, was the field of their blind fury. Ambulances, passing down the Taneytown road with wounded men, were struck. The hospitals near this road were riddled. The house which was General Meade’s headquarters was shot through several times, and a great many horses of officers and orderlies were lying dead around it. The percussion shells would strike, and thunder, and scatter the earth and their whistling fragments; the Whitworth bolts would pound and ricochet, and bowl far away sputtering, with the sound of a mass of hot iron plunged in water; and the great solid shot would smite the unresisting ground with a sounding “thud,” as the strong boxer crashes his iron fist into the jaws of his unguarded adversary.
[ The Whitworth bolts referred to by Haskell came from a few artillery pieces imported from England: Whitworth guns, breech-loaders, with a range of four or five miles, which fired hexagonal shells out of barrels which were hexagonal in cross section, twisted to give the missiles the effect of rifling. The shells made a horrendous noise in flight, and although they were no more effective than those of the other field pieces—Civil War artillerists had not yet learned the trick of indirect fire, and the Whitworths had more range than could profitably be used—troops on the receiving end of such fire had come to detest the weapons, and hugged the ground intently when Whitworth projectiles came over. Technically, a bolt from a field piece was a solid shot, but Whitworth missiles were uniformly given that name even though they usually carried a charge of high explosive .]
Such were some of the sights and sounds of this great iron battle of missiles. An hour has droned its flight since first the war began. There is no sign of weariness or abatement on either side. So long, it seemed, that the din and crashing around began to appear the normal condition of nature there, and fighting man’s element.
The General proposed to go among the men and over to the front of the batteries, so at about two o’clock he and I started. We went down in front of the line some two hundred yards, and as the smoke had a tendency to settle upon a higher plain than where we were, we could see near the ground distinctly all over the fields. No infantry was in sight, save the skirmishers, and they stood silent and motionless—a row of gray posts through the field on one side confronted by another of blue. Under the grateful shade of some elm trees, where we could see much of the field, we made seats of the ground and sat down.
On either crest we could see the great flaky streams of fire, and they seemed numberless, of the opposing guns, and their white banks of swift, convolving smoke; but the sound of the discharges was drowned in the universal ocean of sound. Over all the valley the smoke, a sulphury arch, stretched its lurid span; and through it always, shrieking on their unseen courses, thickly flew a myriad iron death. With our grim horizon on all sides round toothed thick with battery flame, under that dissonant canopy of warring shells, we sat and heard in silence. What other expression had we that was not mean, for such an awful universe of battle?
Half-past two o’clock, an hour and a half since the commencement, and still the cannonade did not in the least abate; but soon thereafter some signs of weariness and a little slacking of fire began to be apparent on both sides. The General and I started to return, passing towards the left of the division, and crossing the ground where the guns had stood. Our infantry was still unshaken, and in all the cannonade suffered very little. The batteries had been handled much more severely. Guns had been dismounted. A great many caissons, limbers and carriages had been destroyed, and usually from ten to twentyfive men to each battery had been struck, at least along our part of the crest. Altogether the fire of the enemy had injured us much; the scenes that met our eyes on all hands among the batteries were fearful.
All things must end, and the great cannonade was no exception. In the number of guns active at one time, and in the duration and rapidity of their fire, this artillery engagement, up to this time, must stand alone and pre-eminent in this war. It has not been often, or many times, surpassed in the battles of the world. Two hundred and fifty guns, at least, rapidly fired for two mortal hours. Cipher out the number of tons of gunpowder and iron that made these two hours hideous.
At three o’clock almost precisely the last shot hummed, and bounded and fell, and the cannonade was over. Men began to breathe more freely, and to ask, What next, I wonder? There was a pause between acts, with the curtain down, soon to rise upon the great final act, and catastrophe of Gettysburg.