- 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 have passed by the left of the Second Division, coming from the First; when we crossed the crest the enemy was not in sight, and all was still—we walked slowly along in the rear of the troops, by the ridge cut off now from a view of the enemy in his position, and were returning to the spot where we had left our horses. We were near our horses when we noticed Brigadier General [Henry J.] Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army, swiftly moving about on horseback, and apparently in a rapid manner giving some orders about the guns. Thought we, what could this mean? In a moment afterwards we met Captain Wessels and the orderlies who had our horses; they were on foot leading the horses. Captain Wessels was pale, and he said, excited: “General, they say the enemy’s infantry is advancing.” We sprang into our saddles, a score of bounds brought us upon the all-seeing crest.
None on that crest now need be told that the enemy is advancing . Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelming resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us! Regiment after regiment and brigade after brigade move from the woods and rapidly take their places in the lines forming the assault. More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the arms of eighteen thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel.
[ Haskell exaggerates slightly; Pickett had approximately 15,000 men with him when he made his charge .]
Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.
All was orderly and still upon our crest; no noise and no confusion. General Gibbon rode down the lines, cool and calm, and in an unimpassioned voice he said to the men, “Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast, let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low and steadily.” The coolness of their General was reflected in the faces of his men.
Five minutes have elapsed since first the enemy have emerged from the woods. Should these advancing men pierce our line and become the entering wedge, driven home, that would sever our army asunder, what hope would there be afterwards, and where the blood-earned fruits of yesterday? None of these considerations either depressed or elevated us. They might have done the former, had we been timid; the latter had we been confident and vain. But, we were there waiting, and ready to do our duty—that done, results could not dishonor us.
Our skirmishers open a spattering fire along the front, and, fighting, retire upon the main line—the first drops, the heralds of the storm, sounding on our windows. All our available guns are now active, and from the fire of shells, as the range grows shorter and shorter, they change to shrapnel, and from shrapnel to canister; but in spite of shells, and shrapnel and canister, without wavering or halt, the hardy lines of the enemy continue to move on. The Rebel guns make no reply to ours, and no charging shout rings out to-day, as is the Rebel wont; but the courage of these silent men amid our shots seems not to need the stimulus of other noise.
And so across all that broad open ground they have come, nearer and nearer, nearly half the way, with our guns bellowing in their faces, until now a hundred yards, no more, divide our ready left from their advancing right. The eager men there are impatient to begin.
Let them. First, Harrow’s breastworks flame; then Hall’s; then Webb’s. As if our bullets were the fire coals that touched off their muskets, the enemy in front halts, and his countless level barrels blaze back upon us. The Second Division is struggling in battle. The rattling storm soon spreads to the right. All along each hostile front, a thousand yards, with narrowest space between, the volleys blaze and roll; as thick the sound as when a summer hail-storm pelts the city roofs; as thick the fire as when the incessant lightning fringes a summer cloud.
[ The three officers mentioned by Haskell here were the brigade commanders in Gibbon’s 2nd Division—Brigadier General William Harrow, Brigadier General Alexander S. Webb, and Colonel Norman J. Hall .]
When the Rebel infantry had opened fire our batteries soon became silent. The conflict is left to the infantry alone. It was tremendous, but I had seen no wavering in all our line.
Wondering how long the Rebel ranks, deep though they were, could stand our sheltered volleys, I had come near my destination, when—great heaven! were my senses mad? The larger portion of Webb’s brigade, by the group of trees and the angles of the wall, was breaking from the cover of their works, and was falling back, a fear-stricken flock of confusion! The fate of Gettysburg hung upon a spider’s single thread!