- 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
Such was really the closing scene of the grand drama of Gettysburg. After repeated assaults upon the right and the left, where, and in all of which repulse had been his only success, this persistent and presuming enemy forms his chosen troops, the flower of his army, for a grand assault upon our center. The manner and result of such assault have been told—a loss to the enemy of from twelve thousand to fourteen thousand, killed, wounded and prisoners, and of over thirty battle-flags. This was accomplished by not over six thousand men, with a loss on our part of not over two thousand five hundred killed and wounded.
[ Haskell substantially overstates the total of Confederate losses in this fight. The three Confederate divisions involved in the attack had total casualties of approximately 7,600 men at Gettysburg. Two of these divisions had incurred a good part of these losses in the fighting on the first day; and the over-all losses in the charge on July 3 were undoubtedly much nearer 5,000 than the 12,000 to 14,000 mentioned by Haskell. Pickett’s own division, of course—numbering about one-third of the total in the assaulting column—was practically wrecked by its losses .]
Would to Heaven General Hancock and Gibbon could have stood there where I did, and have looked upon that field! It would have done two men, to whom the country owes much, good to have been with their men in that moment of victory. But they are both severely wounded and have been carried from the field. One person did come then that I was glad to see there, and that was no less than Major General Meade, whom the Army of the Potomac was fortunate enough to have at that time to command it.
To appreciate the incident I give, it should be borne in mind that one coming up from the rear of the line, as did General Meade, could have seen very little of our own men. One who did not know results, so coming, would have been quite as likely to have supposed that our line there had been carried and captured by the enemy—so many gray Rebels were on the crest—as to have discovered the real truth.
General Meade rode up, accompanied alone by his son, who is his aide-de-camp. The principal horseman was no bedizened hero of some holiday review, but he was a plain man, dressed in a serviceable summer suit of dark blue cloth, without badge or ornament, save the shoulder-straps of his grade, and a light, straight sword of a General or General staff officer. He wore heavy, high-top boots and buff gauntlets, and his soft black felt hat was slouched down over his eyes. His face was very white, not pale, and the lines were marked and earnest and full of care.
As he arrived near me, coming up the hill, he asked, in a sharp, eager voice: “How is it going here?”
“I believe, General, the enemy’s attack is repulsed,” I answered.
Still approaching, and a new light began to come in his face, of gratified surprise, with a touch of incredulity, of which his voice was also the medium, he further asked: “What! Is the assault already repulsed?” his voice quicker and more eager than before. “It is, sir,” I replied.
By this time he was on the crest, and when his eye had for an instant swept over the field, taking in just a glance of the whole, he said, impressively, and his face lighted: “Thank God.” And then his right hand moved as if it would have caught off his hat and waved it; but this gesture he suppressed, and instead he waved his hand, and said “Hurrah!” The son, with more youth in his blood and less rank upon his shoulders, snatched off his cap, and roared out his three “hurrahs” right heartily. The General then surveyed the field, some minutes, in silence. He at length asked who was in command—he had heard that Hancock and Gibbon were wounded—and I told him that General Caldwell was the senior officer of the Corps and General Harrow of the Division.
He asked where they were, but before I had time to answer that I did not know, he resumed: “No matter, I will give my orders to you and you will see them executed.” He then gave direction that the troops should be reformed as soon as practicable, and kept in their places, as the enemy might be mad enough to attack again. He also gave directions concerning the posting of some reinforcements which he said should soon be there, adding: “If the enemy does attack, charge him in the flank and sweep him from the field; do you understand.” The General then, a gratified man, galloped in the direction of his headquarters.
[ Haskell’s description of his meeting with Meade drew the sarcasm of the survivors of Webb’s brigade when they read his story in 1909. In a pamphlet which they published the survivors referred scornfully to Haskell as “this Wellington of Lee’s Waterloo,” and suggested that Meade would hardly have left all arrangements for a counterattack in the hands of a mere first lieutenant. Since Meade’s army made no gesture toward such an attack the point hardly seems to be of great importance .]