December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
First lieutenant on Brigadier General John Gibbon’s staff, at Gettysburg; later colonel of the 36th Wisconsin; killed at Cold Harbor.
As the sun arose to-day, the clouds became broken, and we had once more glimpses of sky, and fits of sunshine—a rarity, to cheer us. From the crest, save to the right of the Second Corps, no enemy, not even his outposts could be discovered, along all the position where he so thronged upon the Third Corps yesterday. The men were roused early, in order that the morning meal might be out of the way in time for whatever should occur. Then ensued the hum of an army, not in ranks, chatting in low tones, and running about and jostling among each other, rolling and packing their blankets and tents.
They looked like an army of rag-gatherers, while shaking these very useful articles of the soldier’s outfit, for you must know that rain and mud in conjunction have not had the effect to make them clean, and the wear and tear of service have not left them entirely whole. But one could not have told by the appearance of the men, that they were in battle yesterday, and were likely to be again to-day. They packed their knapsacks, boiled their coffee and munched their hard bread, just as usual—just like old soldiers who know what campaigning is; and their talk is far more concerning their present employment—some joke or drollery—than concerning what they saw or did yesterday.
The dispositions to-day upon the left are as follows:
The Second and Third Divisions of the Second Corps are in the position of yesterday; then on the left come Doubleday’s—the Third Division and Col. Stannard’s brigade of the First Corps; then the First Division of the Second Corps; then the Third Corps, temporarily under the command of Hancock, since Sickles’ wound. Note well the position of the Second and Third Divisions of the Second Corps—it will become important. There are nearly six thousand men and officers in these two Divisions here upon the field, who occupy a line of about a thousand yards. The most of the way along this line upon the crest was a stone fence, constructed of small, rough stones, a good deal of the way badly pulled down, but the men had improved it and patched it with rails from the neighboring fences, and with earth, so as to render it in many places a very passable breastwork against musketry and flying fragments of shells.
These works are so low as to compel the men to kneel or lie down generally to obtain cover. Near the right of the Second Division, and just by a little group of trees, this stone fence made a right angle, and extended thence to the front, about twenty or thirty yards, where with another less than a right angle it followed along the crest again.
[ The “little group of trees” mentioned by Haskell was, and remains, one of the landmarks of the battlefield. Situated near the center of the Second Corps line, it was the guide for the men in Pickett’s charge; they aimed at it, they got to it, and a good many of them died near it. The trees, or their descendants, are still there, enclosed by a little iron fence, and today’s visitor can see them; and in front of them there is the old stone wall, making an angle which, to the men who fought at Gettysburg, was “the” angle. A great many young men lost their lives in and about the trees and the angle, and a visitor to the spot somehow can feel their presence there .]
The lines were conformed to these breastworks and to the nature of the ground upon the crest, so as to occupy the most favorable places, to be covered, and still be able to deliver effective fire upon the enemy should he come there. In some places a second line was so posted as to be able to deliver its fire over the heads of the first line behind the works; but such formation was not practicable all of the way. But all the force of these two divisions was in line, in position, without reserves, and in such a manner that every man of them could have fired his piece at the same instant.
I could not help wishing all the morning that this line of the two divisions of the Second Corps was stronger; it was, so far as numbers constitute strength, the weakest part of our whole line of battle. What if, I thought, the enemy should make an assault here today, with two or three heavy lines—a great overwhelming mass; would he not sweep through that thin six thousand?
But I was not General Meade, who alone had power to send other troops there; and he was satisfied with that part of the line as it was. He was early on horseback this morning, and rode along the whole line, looking to it himself and with glass in hand sweeping the woods and fields in the direction of the enemy, to see if aught of him could be discovered. His manner was calm and serious, but earnest. There was no arrogance of hope, or timidity of fear discernible in his face; but you would have supposed he would do his duty conscientiously and well and would be willing to abide the result. You would have seen this in his face.
The enemy, so far as we could see, was very quiet all the morning. Occasionally the outposts would fire a little, and then cease. Movements would be discovered which would indicate the attempt on the part of the enemy to post a battery. Our Parrotts would send a few shells to the spot, then silence would follow.
[ The Parrotts mentioned by Haskell were rifled field pieces with heavy iron bands shrunk over the breach. For field artillery they came in 10-pound and 20-pound sizes—meaning that they fired shell of that weight, with a caliber of approximately three inches. The Napoleons mentioned in the following paragraph were brass smooth-bores of about 4.5 inches caliber; their range was much less than that of the Parrotts, but for close action they were extremely effective. Firing canister—which meant that they were loaded with tin cans full of round lead pellets—they were like sawedoff shotguns of stupendous size, and against closely-ranked infantry at ranges of 250 yards or less they were simply murderous .]
Eleven o’clock came. Not a sound of a gun or musket can be heard on all the field; the sky is bright, with only the white fleecy clouds floating over from the West. The July sun streams down its fire upon the bright iron of the muskets in stacks upon the crest, and the dazzling brass of the Napoleons. The army lolls and longs for the shade, of which some get a hand’s breadth, from a shelter tent stuck upon a ramrod. The silence and sultriness of a July noon are supreme.
Now it so happened that just about this time of day a very original and interesting thought occurred to Gen. Gibbon and several of his staff; that it would be a very good thing, and a very good time, to have something to eat. Of the absolute quality of what we had to eat, I could not pretend to judge, but I think an unprejudiced person would have said of the bread that it was good; so of the potatoes before they were boiled. Of the chickens he would have questioned their age, but they were large and in good running order. The toast was good, and the butter. General Hancock is of course invited to partake, and without delay we commence operations. We were just well at it when General Meade rode down to us from the line, accompanied by one of his staff, and by General Gibbon’s invitation, they dismounted and joined us. Fortunate to relate, there was enough cooked for us all, and from General Meade to the youngest second lieutenant we all had a most hearty and well relished dinner. Of the “past” we were “secure.” The Generals ate, and after, lighted cigars, and under the flickering shade of a very small tree, discoursed of the incidents of yesterday’s battle and of the probabilities of today.
And so the time passed on, each General now and then dispatching some order or message by an officer or orderly, until about half-past twelve, when all the Generals, one by one, first General Meade, rode off their several ways, and General Gibbon and his staff alone remained.
We dozed in the heat, and lolled upon the ground, with half-open eyes. Time was heavy and for want of something better to do, I yawned, and looked at my watch. It was five minutes before one o’clock. I returned my watch to its pocket, and thought possibly that I might go to sleep, and stretched myself upon the ground accordingly. My attitude and purpose were those of the General and the rest of the staff.
What sound was that? There was no mistaking it. The distinct sharp sound of one of the enemy’s guns, square over to the front, caused us to open our eyes and turn them in that direction, when we saw directly above the crest the smoke of the bursting shell, and heard its noise. In an instant, before a word was spoken, as if that was the signal gun for general work, loud, startling, booming, the report of gun after gun in rapid succession smote our ears and their shells plunged down and exploded all around us.
We sprang to our feet. In briefest time the whole Rebel line to the West was pouring out its thunder and its iron upon our devoted crest. The wildest confusion for a few moments obtained sway among us. The shells came bursting all about. The servants ran terror-stricken for dear life and disappeared. The horses, hitched to the trees or held by the slack hands of orderlies, neighed out in fright, and broke away and plunged riderless through the fields.
The General at the first had snatched his sword, and started on foot for the front. I called for my horse; nobody responded. I found him tied to a tree, near by, eating oats, with an air of the greatest composure, which under the circumstances, even then struck me as exceedingly ridiculous. He alone, of all beasts or men near was cool. I am not sure but that I learned a lesson then from a horse. General Gibbon’s groom has just mounted his horse and is starting to take the General’s horse to him, when the flying iron meets him and tears open his breast. He drops dead and the horses gallop away. No more than a minute since the first shot was fired, and I am mounted and riding after the General. The mighty din that now rises to heaven and shakes the earth is not all of it the voice of the rebellion; for our guns, the guardian lions of the crest, quick to awake when danger comes, have opened their fiery jaws and begun to roar.
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.
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.
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!
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 .]
The enemy, emboldened by his success in gaining our line by the group of trees and the angle of the wall, was concentrating all his right against and was further pressing that point. There was the stress of his assault; there would he drive his fiery wedge to split our line. In front of Harrow’s and Hall’s Brigades he had been able to advance no nearer than when he first halted to deliver fire, and these commands had not yielded an inch. To effect the concentration before Webb, the enemy would march the regiment on his extreme right of each of his lines by the left flank to the rear of the troops, still halted and facing to the front, and so continuing to draw in his right, when they were all massed in the position desired, he would again face them to the front, and advance to the storming. This was the way he made the wall before Webb’s line blaze red with his battle flags, and such was the purpose there of his thickcrowding battalions.
Not a moment must be lost. Colonel Hall I found just in rear of his line, sword in hand, cool, vigilant, noting all that passed and directing the battle of his brigade. “How is it going?” Colonel Hall asked me, as I rode up. “Well, but Webb is hotly pressed and must have support, or he will be overpowered. Can you assist him?” “Yes.” “You cannot be too quick.”
He gave the order, and in briefest time I saw five friendly colors hurrying to the aid of the imperilled three. The regiments marched by the right flank. Col. Hall superintended the movement in person. The movement was difficult; but in reasonable time, Hall’s men are fighting gallantly side by side with Webb’s before the all important point. I did not stop to see all this movement of Hall’s, but from him I went at once further to the left, to the 1st brigade. Gen’l Harrow I did not see, but his fighting men would answer my purpose as well. All men that I could find I took over to the right at the double quick .
As we were moving to, and near the other brigade of the division, from my position on horseback I could see that the enemy’s right, under Hall’s fire, was beginning to stagger and to break. “See,” I said to the men, “see the chivalry ! See the gray-backs run!” The men saw, and as they swept to their places by the side of Hall and opened fire, they roared, and this in a manner that said more plainly than words—for the deaf could have seen it in their faces, and the blind could have heard it in their voices— the crest is safe !
[ Pickett’s men advanced over a very wide front, but wheeled together as they neared the crest in order to mass numbers in front of the chosen objective—the ground in and around the little group of trees and the angle in the stone wall. A certain part of the Confederate maneuvers here were not so much due to the punishing effect of Union rifle fire as to the tactical necessity for massing men at the decisive point .]
Before the 2nd Division the enemy is massed, the main bulk of his force covered by the ground that slopes to his rear, with his front at the stone wall. Formation of companies and regiments in our ranks is lost; but commands, companies, regiments and brigades are blended and intermixed—an irregular extended mass—men enough, if in order, to form a line of four or five ranks along the whole front of the division. The twelve flags of the regiments wave defiantly at intervals along the front; at the stone wall, at unequal distances from ours of forty, fifty or sixty yards, stream nearly double this number of the battle flags of the enemy. Now it was as if a new battle, deadlier, stormier than before, had sprung from the body of the old.
The jostling, swaying lines on either side boil and roar and dash their flamy spray, two hostile billows of a fiery ocean. Thick flashes stream from the wall, thick volleys answer from the crest. All depths of passion are stirred, and all combatives fire, down to their deep foundations. Individuality is drowned in a sea of clamor, and timid men, breathing the breath of the multitude, are brave. The men do not cheer or shout; they growl, and over that uneasy sea, heard with the roar of musketry, sweeps the muttered thunder of a storm of growls.
Now the loyal wave rolls up as if it would overleap its barrier, the crest. These men of Pennsylvania, on the soil of their own homesteads, the first and only to flee the wall, must be the first to storm it.
“Major—, lead your men over the crest, they will follow.” “By the tactics I understand my place is in rear of the men.” “Your pardon, sir; I see your place is in rear of the men. I thought you were fit to lead.” “Sergeant, forward with your color. Let the Rebels see it close to their eyes once before they die.”
The color sergeant of the 72d Pennsylvania, grasping the stump of the severed lance in both his hands, waved the flag above his head and rushed towards the wall. One man only starts to follow. Almost half way to the wall, down go color bearer and color to the ground—the gallant sergeant is dead. The line springs—the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load, men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass. It rolls to the wall—flash meets flash, the wall is crossed—a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, and undistinguishable conflict, followed by a shout universal that makes the welkin ring again, and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.
[ It needs to be borne in mind in this portion of the narrative that the Union line was approximately 100 yards in front of the actual crest of Cemetery Ridge. When Pickett’s men broke through, the Union defenders retired to the crest of the ridge and held their ground there, keeping up a sharp fire; eventually they swept down the slope and drove the gallant survivors of Pickett’s spearhead out of the ground that had been seized. It should be pointed out that although the Confederates brought up the slope many more men than the Second Union Corps had for defense, their troops were actually outnumbered at the actual point of penetration. Once the Unionists were rallied for a counterattack, Pickett’s case was hopeless .]
Many things cannot be described by pen or pencil—such a fight is one. Some hints and incidents may be given, but a description or picture never. From what is told the imagination may for itself construct the scene; otherwise he who never saw can have no adequate idea of what such a battle is.
When the vortex of battle passion had subsided, hopes, fears, rage, joy, of which the maddest and the noisiest was the last, and we were calm enough to look about us, we saw that, as with us, the fight with the Third Division was ended, and that in that division was a repetition of the scenes immediately about us. In that moment the judgment almost refused to credit the senses. Are these abject wretches about us, whom our men are now disarming and driving together in flocks, the jaunty men of Pickett’s Division, whose steady lines and flashing arms but a few moment’s since came sweeping up the slope to destroy us? Are these red cloths that our men toss about in derision the “fiery Southern crosses,” thrice ardent, the battle flags of the rebellion that waved defiance at the wall? We know, but so sudden has been the transition, we yet can scarce believe.
Just as the fight was over, and the first outburst of victory had a little subsided, when all in front of the crest was noise and confusion—prisoners being collected, small parties in pursuit of them far down into the fields, flags waving, officers giving quick, sharp commands to their men—I stood apart for a few moments upon the crest, by that group of trees which ought to be historic forever, a spectator of the thrilling scene around. Some few musket shots were still heard in the Third Division; and the enemy’s guns, almost silent since the advance of his infantry until the moment of his defeat, were dropping a few sullen shells among friend and foe upon the crest.
It is not an hour since these legions were sweeping along so grandly; now sixteen hundred of that fiery mass are strewn among the trampled grass, dead as the clods. More than seven thousand, probably eight thousand, are wounded, among them Generals Pettigrew, Garnett, Kemper and Armistead, the last three mortally, and the last one in our hands. “Tell General Hancock,” he said to Lieutenant Mitchell. Hancock’s aide-de-camp, to whom he handed his watch, “that I know I did my country a great wrong when I took up arms against her, for which I am sorry, but for which I cannot live to atone.”
[ Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, commanding a brigade in Pickett’s division, had been a close friend of Hancock before the war, and the two had exchanged emotional goodbyes at a farewell party in an army post in California in the spring of 1861, when Armistead and other Southern officers resigned their commissions in order to come east and serve with the Confederacy. Armistead died among Cushing’s guns at the point where Pickett’s men briefly broke the Union line, and his last thought apparently was of Hancock .]
Four thousand, not wounded, are prisoners of war. Our men are still “gathering them in.” Some hold up their hands or a handkerchief in sign of submission; some have hugged the ground to escape our bullets and so are taken; few made resistance after the first moment of our crossing the wall; some yield submissively with good grace, some with grim, dogged aspect, showing that but for the other alternative they.could not submit to this.
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 .]
Then the work of the field went on. First, the prisoners were collected and sent to the rear. “There go the men,” the Rebels were heard to say, by some of our surgeons who were in Gettysburg, at the time Pickett’s Division marched out to take position—“There go the men that will go through your d——d Yankee lines, for you.” A good many of them did “go through our lines for us,” but in a very different way from the one they intended-not impetuous victors, sweeping away our thin lines with ball and bayonet, but crestfallen captives, without arms, with the cheers of their conquerors ringing in their ears. There was a grim truth after all in this Rebel remark.
In view of the results of that day-the successes of the arms of the country—would not the people of the whole country, standing there upon the crest with General Meade, have said, with him: “Thank God?”
I have no knowledge and little notion of how long a time elapsed from the moment the fire of the infantry commenced, until the enemy was entirely repulsed, in this his grand assault. I judge, from the amount of fighting and the changes of position that occurred, that probably the fight was of nearly an hour’s duration, but I cannot tell, and I have seen none who knew. The time seemed but a very few minutes, when the battle was over.
When the prisoners were cleared away and order was again established upon our crest, where the conflict had impaired it, until between five and six o’clock, I remained upon the field, directing some troops to their position, in conformity to the orders of General Meade. Of the pursuit of the enemy and the movements of the army subsequent to the battle, until the crossing of the Potomac by Lee and the closing of the campaign, it is not my purpose to write. Suffice it that on the night of the 3d of July the enemy withdrew his left from our front, and on the morning of the 4th we again occupied the village of Gettysburg, and on that national day victory was proclaimed to the country; that floods of rain on that day prevented army movements of any considerable magnitude, the day being passed by our army in position upon the field, in burying our dead, and some of those of the enemy, and in making the movements already indicated; that on the 5th the pursuit of the enemy was commenced—his dead were buried by us—and the corps of our army, upon various roads, moved from the battlefield.
With a statement of some of the results of the battle, as to losses and captures, and of what I saw in riding over the field, when the enemy was gone, my account is done.
The magnitude of the armies engaged, the number of the casualties, the object sought by the Rebel, the result, will all contribute to give Gettysburg a place among the great historic battles of the world. That General Meade’s concentration was rapid—over thirty miles a day was marched by some of the Corps—that his position was skillfully selected and his dispositions good; that he fought the battle hard and well; that his victory was brilliant and complete, I think all should admit. I cannot but regard it as highly fortunate to us and commendable in General Meade, that the enemy was allowed the initiative, the offensive, in the main battle; that it was much better to allow the Rebel, for his own destruction, to come up and smash his lines and columns upon the defensive solidity of our position, than it would have been to hunt him, for the same purpose, in the woods, or to unearth him from his rifle-pits. In this manner our losses were lighter, and his heavier, than if the case had been reversed. And whatever the books may say of troops fighting the better who make the attack, I am satisfied that in this war, Americans, the Rebels as well as ourselves, are best on the defensive.
[ Haskell’s remark that both Federals and Confederates “are best on the defensive” simply highlights the fact that Civil War weapons had been improved much more than infantry tactics. The rifled infantry musket, muzzle-loader though it was, had vastly increased defensive fire power. The old smooth-bore, on which infantry tactics were still based, was very inaccurate, and was so limited in range that it was ineffective at any distance greater than about 150 yards. The rifle used by Civil War troops could begin to kill at half a mile or more, and the advance in the massed formation—still standard, by the old tactics—was simply out of date. A straight frontal assault against good troops in a properly chosen defensive position had very little chance to succeed, by the 1860’s: a lesson that was impressed on the Unionists at Fredericksburg, on Lee at Gettysburg, and on U. S. Grant at the battle of Cold Harbor .]
But men there are who think that nothing was gained or done well in this battle, because some other general did not have the command, or because any portion of the army of the enemy was permitted to escape capture or destruction. It should be enough, perhaps, to say that men who have knowledge enough of military affairs to entitle them to express an opinion on such matters will be most likely to vindicate the Pennsylvania campaign of Gen. Meade, and to see that he accomplished all that could have been reasonably expected of any general of any army. Complaint has been, and is, made specially against Meade, that he did not attack Lee before he had time to withdraw across the river. These were the facts concerning this matter:
The 13th of July was the earliest day when such an attack, if practicable at all, could have been made. The time before this, since the battle, had been spent in moving the army from the vicinity of the field, finding something of the enemy and concentrating before him. On that day the army was concentrated and in order of battle near the turnpike that leads from Sharpesburg to Hagerstown, Md. The mean distance to the Potomac was some six miles, and the enemy was between Meade and the river.
The Potomac, swelled by the recent rain, was boiling and swift and deep, a magnificent place to have drowned all the Rebel crew. I have not the least doubt but that Gen. Meade would have liked to drown them all, if he could, but they were unwilling to be drowned, and would fight first. To drive them into the river then, they must be routed. Gen. Meade, I believe, favored an attack upon the enemy at that time, but at daylight on the morning of the 14th, strong reconnaissances showed that between the enemy, except a thousand or fifteen hundred of his rear guard, who fell into our hands, and the Army of the Potomac, rolled the rapid unbridged river. The enemy had constructed bridges, had crossed during all the preceding night, but so close were our cavalry and infantry upon him in the morning, that the bridges were destroyed before his rear guard had all crossed.
Among the considerations against the propriety of attack at that time were the following: The army was wearied and worn down by four weeks of constant forced marching or battle. What such weariness means few save soldiers know. Since the battle the army had been constantly diminished by sickness or prostration and by more straggling than I ever saw before. The men were near the point when further efficient physical exertion was quite impossible.
The enemy was in position in a ridgy, wooded country, abounding in strong defensive positions, his main bodies concealed, protected by rifle-pits and epaulements, acting strictly on the defensive. To have had a battle there then, Gen. Meade would have had to attack a cunning enemy in the dark, where surprises, undiscovered rifle-pits and batteries, and unseen bodies of men might have met his forces at every point.
I felt the probability of defeat strongly at the time. I believe the Army of the Potomac is always willing, often eager, to fight the enemy, whenever, as it thinks, there is a fair chance for victory; that it always will fight, let come victory or defeat whenever it is ordered so to do. Of course the army, both officers and men, had very great disappointment and very great sorrow that the Rebels escaped —so it was called—across the river; the disappointment was genuine, at least to the extent that disappointment is like surprise; but the sorrow to judge by looks, tones and actions, rather than by words, was not of that deep, sable character for which there is no balm.
[ Abraham Lincoln was one who felt that Meade should not have permitted Lee to get his army back across the Potomac into Virginia, and he expressed himself in a rather bitter letter which he wrote, in the White House—and then decided not to send. It may be worth noting that in the summer of 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, sauntering about the field at Gettysburg, came to much the same conclusion Lincoln had reached: that Lee should not have been allowed to get his beaten army back to safety. At the same time it should be remembered that Lincoln did not actually send Meade his letter of criticism, and that he retained Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac to the end of the war .]
… At about six o’clock on the afternoon of the 3d of July, my duties done upon the field, I quitted it to go to the General. My brave horse Dick was a sight to see. He was literally covered with blood. Struck repeatedly, his right thigh had been ripped open in a ghastly manner by a piece of shell, and three bullets were lodged deep in his body. Dick’s was no mean part in that battle. Most horses would have been unmanageable with the flash and roar of arms about and the shouting. Dick was utterly cool, and would have obeyed the rein had it been a straw. To Dick belongs the honor of first mounting that stormy crest before the enemy, not forty yards away, whose bullets smote him, and of being the only horse there during the heat of the battle. Even the enemy noticed Dick, and one of their reports of the battle mentions the “ solitary horseman ” who rallied our wavering line.
He enabled me to do twelve times as much as I could have done on foot. It would not be dignified for an officer on foot to run; it is entirely so, mounted, to gallop. I do not approve of officers dismounting in battle, which is the time of all when they most need to be mounted, for thereby they have so much greater facilities for being everywhere present.
If there be, “ut sapientibus placit,” an equine elysium, I will send to Charon the brass coin, the fee for Dick’s passage over, and on the other side of the Styx in those shadowy clover-fields he may nibble the blossoms forever.
On the 6th of July, while my bullet bruise was yet too inflamed and sensitive for me to be good for much in the way of duty—the division was then halted for the day some four miles from the field on the Baltimore turnpike—I could not repress the desire or omit the opportunity to see again where the battle had been. With the right stirrup strap shortened in a manner to favor the bruised leg, I could ride my horse at a walk without serious discomfort. It seemed very strange upon approaching the horse-shoe crest again, not to see it covered with the thousands of troops and horses and guns, but they were all gone—the armies, to my seeming, had vanished—and on that lovely summer morning the stillness and silence of death pervaded the localities where so recently the shouts and the cannon had thundered.
The recent rains had washed out many an unsightly spot, and smoothed many a harrowed trace of the conflict; but one still needed no guide save the eyes, to follow the track of that storm, which the storms of heaven were powerless soon to entirely efface. The spade and shovel, so far as a little earth for the human bodies would render their task done, had completed their work. The scattered small arms and the accoutrements had been collected and carried away, almost all that were of any value; but great numbers of bent and splintered muskets, rent knapsacks and haversacks, bruised canteens, shreds of caps, coats, trowsers, of blue or gray cloth, worthless belts and cartridge boxes, torn blankets, ammunition boxes, broken wheels, smashed limbers, shattered gun carriages, parts of harness, of all that men or horses wear or use in battle, were scattered broadcast over miles of the field.
Never elsewhere upon any field have I seen such abundant evidences of a terrific fire of cannon and musketry as upon this. Along the enemy’s position, where our shells and shot had struck during the cannonade of the third, the trees had cast their trunks and branches as if they had been icicles shaken by a blast. And graves of the Rebel’s making, and dead horses and scattered accoutrements, showed that other things besides trees had been struck by our projectiles.
All was bustle and noise in the little town of Gettysburg as I entered it on my tour of the field. From the afternoon of the 1st to the morning of the 4th of July, the enemy was in possession. Very many of the inhabitants had, upon the first approach of the enemy, or upon the retirement of our troops, fled their homes and the town, not to return until after the battle. Now the town was a hospital where gray and blue mingled in about equal proportion.
The public buildings, the courthouse, the churches and many private dwellings were full of wounded. There had been in some of the streets a good deal of fighting, and bullets had thickly spattered the fences and walls, and shells had riddled the houses from side to side. But the people, the women and children that had fled, were returning, or had returned to their homes—such homes—and amid the general havoc were restoring as they could order to the desecrated firesides.
I rode through the Cemetery on “Cemetery Hill.” How these quiet sleepers must have been astounded in their graves when the twenty pound Parrott guns thundered above them and the solid shot crushed their gravestones! The flowers, roses and creeping vines that pious hands had planted to bloom and shed their odors over the ashes of the dead ones gone, were trampled upon the ground and black with the cannon’s soot. A dead horse lay by the marble shaft, and over it the marble finger pointed to the sky. The marble lamb that had slept its white sleep on the grave of a child, now lies blackened upon a broken gun-carriage. Such are the incongruities and jumblings of battle.
I looked away to the group of trees —the Rebel gunners know what ones I mean, and so do the survivors of Pickett’s division—and a strange fascination led me thither. How thick are the marks of battle as I approach—the graves of the men of the 3d division of the 2d corps; the splintered oaks, the scattered horses—seventy-one dead horses were on a spot some fifty yards square.
I stood solitary upon the crest by “the trees” where, less than three days ago, I had stood before; but now how changed is all the eye beholds. Do these thick mounds cover the fiery hearts that in the battle rage swept the crest and stormed the wall? I read their names—them, alas, I do not know—but I see the regiments marked on their frail monuments—“20th Mass. Vois.,” “69 P. V.,” “1st Minn. Vois.,” and the rest—they are all represented, and as they fought commingled here. So I am not alone. These, my brethren of the fight, are with me. Sleep, noble brave! The foe shall not desecrate your sleep. Yonder thick trenches will hold them. As long as patriotism is a virtue, your deeds have made this crest, your resting place, hallowed ground!