Daily Archives: July 4, 2012

Four Score and Seven: July 4th at Gettysburg

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty [3] of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery)

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac remained on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead.  Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ullysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders.

It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreets’ Corps Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Mead attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans. It was Lee’s hope that Meade would attack and possibly give him the opportunity to inflict a defeat on the Union forces.  Meade, still new to command and cautious did not renew the engagement and Lee began to withdraw the battered Army of Northern Virginia from the field.

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost a chance at trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River.  Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on the 14th and his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought an action against Union forces at the in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863.  Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East.  In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.

Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.

The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive and when Grant came East at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of their grip.

In November 1863 Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery and commemorate the dead. He penned a short speech which still echoes in the hearts of Americans as one of the greatest tributes ever spoken. His Gettysburg Address is a speech that still calls Americans to the cause of freedom and the to remember the great cost of liberty with renewed passion.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”


Padre Steve+

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Gettysburg Day Three: The Tragedy of Friends at War; Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock

“Armistead at Gettysburg” by Keith Rocco

The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere.  Those bonds are formed by military professionals in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military over years of deployments, isolated duty, combat and a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society.

When the people of a nation goes to war against each other the military is often the last to split and when it does men that were friends and comrades turn their weapons against each other and seldom with pleasure. Mass levies of civilian volunteers motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred tend to take up such causes with great aplomb. But those that serve together, even those that may believe in their cause are often torn between oaths that they swore to defend their country and their family and home. When their decisions are made they often part with great sadness knowing that they could one day meet each other on a battlefield.

The American Civil War has many such tales. One of the most remembered due to it being a key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. This friendship was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA

Hancock was from Pennsylvania was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions and in 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston. One of his fellow officers, who he and his wife Almira became fast friends with was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command. Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812, a battle which occasioned Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner.  Armistead had academic difficulties at West Point and also had an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head.  His father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer and his career was similar to many other officers of his day, Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.

As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers were torn between their oath, their friendships with their fellow officers and their deep loyalty to their home state and families even if they personally opposed secession. In the end it was a decided minority of of Southern born officers that remained loyal to the Union, the most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. Both men were pilloried and demonized in the most base ways by many in the South, during and after the war. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when captured, George Pickett, who called for Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina and he was not alone.

Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA

Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided” 

The Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends departing from the service to join the Confederacy. Almira Hancock wrote that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.”with the Johnston’s wife Eliza singing the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen:

“Mavourneen, mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, To think that from Erin and thee I must part!

It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?…”

Armistead was tearful and said “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.”

At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears to his comrades, including Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of his comrades from the California days as they met the night before the fateful charge of July 3rd. The next afternoon Armistead and Garnett led their brigades of Pickett’s Division against Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.

During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, leading his brigade breached the Union line with his black hat atop his sword was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff who was responding to Armistead’s making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” He gave Bignham a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to give to Almira Hancock, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.” 

“Minnesota Forward” Hancock directing the Defense by Dale Gallon

Armistead would die from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. Hancock would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war. He was the Democratic nominee for President losing a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by under 40,000 votes.  It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said “[i]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

The story of Hancock and Armistead is one that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and use their ideology to enslave or brutalize their political opponents.

The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the human suffering brought about by unrestrained ideologues.


Padre Steve+


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