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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
A great magnificent passion came on me at the instant. My sword, that had always hung idle by my side, the sign of rank only in every battle, I drew, bright and gleaming, the symbol of command. All rules and proprieties were forgotten; all considerations of person and danger and safety despised; for, as I met the tide of these rabbits, the red flags of the rebellion began to thicken and flaunt along the wall. I ordered these men to “halt,” and “face about” and “fire,” and they heard my voice and gathered my meaning, and obeyed my commands. On some unpatriotic backs of those not quick of comprehension, the flat of my sabre fell not lightly, and at its touch their love of country returned, and, with a look at me as if I were the destroying angel, as I might have become theirs, they again faced the enemy.
[ Haskell’s paragraphs about the supposed rout of Webb’s brigade drew down on him, early in the twentieth century, the distilled wrath of the organized survivors of that brigade. Reading his narrative after it had been reprinted by the Wisconsin History Commission, the survivors assembled and passed a series of resolutions upholding the valor of their own brigade and denouncing Haskell as a vainglorious person who had denigrated the bravery of a combat unit in order to magnify his own role as staff officer. The fact seems to be that Webb’s brigade was driven away from the stone wall but that nothing like a genuine rout took place. The Confederates did break the Union line at this point, but the break was not large enough for them to exploit properly .]
The men that had fallen back, facing the enemy, soon regained confidence in themselves, and became steady. This portion of the wall was lost to us, and the enemy had gained the cover of the reverse side, where he now stormed with fire. But our men, with their bodies in part protected by the abruptness of the crest, now sent back in the enemies’ faces as fierce a storm. Little could be seen of the enemy, by reason of his cover and the smoke, except the flash of his muskets and his waving flags. These red flags were accumulating at the wall every moment, and they maddened us as the same color does the bull.
Webb’s men are falling fast, and he is among them to direct and to encourage; but, however well they may now do, with that walled enemy in front, with more than a dozen flags to Webb’s three, it soon becomes apparent that in not many minutes they will be overpowered, or that there will be none alive for the enemy to overpower. Webb has but three regiments, all small, the 69th, the 71st and 72d Pennsylvania—the 106th Pennsylvania, except two companies, is not here to-day—and he must have speedy assistance, or this crest will be lost.
Oh, where is Gibbon? where is Hancock?—some general—anybody with the power and the will to support that wasting, melting line? No general came, and no succor! I thought of Hayes upon the right, but from the smoke and war along his front, it was evident that he had enough upon his hands, if he stayed the inrolling tide of the Rebels there. Doubleday upon the left was too far off and too slow, and on another occasion I had begged him to send his idle regiments to support another line battling with thrice its numbers, and this “Old Sumpter Hero” had declined. As a last resort I resolved to see if Hall and Harrow could not send some of their commands to reinforce Webb. I galloped to the left in the execution of my purpose, and as I attained the rear of Hall’s line, from the nature of the ground and the position of the enemy it was easy to discover the reason and the manner of this gathering of Rebel flags in front of Webb.
[ Haskell obviously had a low opinion of Major General Abner Doubleday, who had been a member of the original garrison at Fort Sumter (which Haskell, like many others in that day, consistently misspelled “Sumpter”). His assertion that Doubleday on an earlier occasion had refused to send help may refer to the battle of Antietam, in which Gibbon’s brigade was very heavily engaged, with severe losses. In that fight Doubleday had succeeded to the command of the division in which Gibbon’s brigade belonged, and Haskell seems to have blamed him for Gibbon’s inability to get reinforcements. It might be noted that at Gettysburg, when Reynolds was killed, Doubleday took over command of the First Corps by right of seniority, but that Meade refused to let him retain the command; while the battle was still being fought, Meade detached Major General John Newton from command of a division in the Sixth Corps and sent him over to replace Doubleday at the head of the First Corps. The “Hayes” Haskell mentions was Brigadier General Alexander Hays, commander of the 3rd Division of the Second Corps .]