Category Archives: Gettysburg

Controversy and Glory: Dan Sickles Part Six


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break for the past week or so to read and reflect. As such I am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,


Padre Steve+


Lieutenant General James Longstreet C.S.A.

President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the words of the Roman Emperor Tacitus after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told a journalist, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” The problem in doing a proper analysis of Longstreet’s assault is the fact that many of the men involved on both sides made the battle personal, issuing scathing denunciations of one another, fudging the facts to their advantage, and by making the fight political a political football in the South and in the North.

The Confederate attacks had been badly directed and uncoordinated. In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ Third Corps in the exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. The disjointed nature of their attacks and the lack of active command and control by Lee and Longstreet had much to do with the outcome. Lee’s presence was needed on the south end of the Confederate line, but he left Longstreet to his own devices.

There was much blame to go around on the Confederate side, Longstreet placed much of the blame for the defeat on Lee, which earned him the everlasting enmity of many Confederates. But Lee’s Warhorse also met with criticism, especially for his performance on July 2nd 1863. Some of the most withering came not years later, but in the days following the battle. The harshest came from Lafayette McLaws, his old friend, who had been a favorite of Longstreet. McLaws blamed his corps commander for the defeat, writing his wife, “I think that the attack was unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a very bad one. Genl Longstreet is to blame for not reconnoitering the ground and for persisting in ordering the assault when his errors were discovered. During the engagement he was very excited [,] giving contrary orders to every one, and exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug – a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish….” [1]

One of Longstreet’s biographers wrote “Longstreet’s performance during the morning deserves criticism…. Had he attended to the details that were his responsibility and not allowed his disagreement with Lee to affect his judgment and effort, the afternoon assault would have begun sooner, but not several hours earlier.” [2] That historian believes that had Sickles not moved forward that Longstreet’s attack, even if made earlier would have met success, something echoed by Porter Alexander who wrote, “There seems no doubt that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd been materially sooner, we would have gained a decided victory.” [3]

Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. Had Lee “duplicated the active role taken by his counterpart, George Meade, the outcome might have been different.” [4] But this too is speculation born of perfect 20/20 hindsight. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [5] To make matters worse, throughout the day, Robert E. Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2nd 1863 “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [6]


Major General George Meade U.S. Army

On the Federal side most of the controversy has to do with Sickles’ decision to move the Third Corps forward from Cemetery Hill to the Peach Orchard and so it is appropriate to close this chapter discussing Dan Sickles. The matter has been a long subject of controversy, especially because of the way that Sickles politicized his actions in the press and in the Congressional hearings that followed. Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg.

One can speculate that had Sickles remained in the position dictated by Meade that the Confederate assault might have gone down to an even more disastrous defeat. That being said the line that Sickles would have occupied with his 10,600 troops was long and he could not have held it in great strength, even Little Round Top would have been lightly occupied, and Meade might not have been forced to reexamine his line. It is fully possible that “had Longstreet attacked there with the same headlong fury, it is possible that the Confederates would have broken through not merely into Sickles’ rear, but into the entire Union rear and that disaster would have been the result.” [7] However, Sickles, even though he thought he was justified, was wrong in not informing Meade of the move, and leaving his army commander ignorant of the position of his left.

Sickles action, though an error, was something that could have been rationally addressed by him and Meade long before the Confederate attack began. Had the two men “worked in tandem – that is had the line taken by the Third Corps been shared by the Fifth, and had command matters been resolved and fallback plans established – Longstreet’s troops would have been hard pressed to achieve any of their goals.” [8] One historian put the matter of Sickles’s decision and the subsequent controversies into perspective:

“The entire episode has been clouded since 1863 by issues of politics and personality that hinder unbiased analysis. It is time to put aside such extraneous issues. When Sickles’s scandalous prewar behavior, postwar bombast, and special pleading are discounted and the case is considered solely on its merits, the results of the Third Corps advance speak for themselves. Dan Sickles was not perfect on July 2, 1862, but neither was he the military buffoon so often portray.” [9]

In his after action report Meade criticized Sickles and did so again before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, that latter in regard to comments made by Sickles and his supporters both to the committee and in the press. Meade not only had to deal with the diversions created by Sickles, he also had the real problem of Abraham Lincoln’s disappointment with his failure to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. Dan Sickles did not have to worry about that, and “he could play the role that politicians play best: critic and second guesser.” [10]With the press on his side the former disgraced Congressman was now a one legged war hero, and Sickles attempted to use his redemption and status of a hero “to have Meade removed from command in disgrace.” [11] Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg. Had Sickles taken the high road after the battle rather than attempting to torpedo the name and reputation of George Meade, his action might have provoked less controversy, and “Dan Sickles the historical figure has paid a permanent price for this, overshadowing the laudable work he did as an early force in establishing the Gettysburg National Memorial Park.” [12]

That was most unfortunate, for it has poisoned the discussion of the battle for over 150 years. Unlike Lee, Meade was constantly leading from the front on this long and brutal afternoon. Meade fought a magnificent defensive battle and recovered from the surprise of Sickles movement even as Sickles and his soldiers fought hard greatly impeded the Confederate plan. Sickles was praised in the press and even by long term enemies such as George Templeton Strong, who wrote, “I suppose Sickles… with his one leg, among our best volunteer officers. His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a ruined man in every sense, a pariah whom to know was discreditable.” [13]

“The whole damned field is my memorial”

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

But the continuing controversy which always seemed to swirl around him prevented him from being honored on the battlefield where he lost his leg. Alone of all the Union Corps commanders at Gettysburg Sickles has no memorial on the battlefield. When asked about the lack of a monument, Sickles, in his typical manner is reported to have said that “The whole damned field is my memorial.” [14]Despite the controversy surrounding his life, and those that swirled in the fighting and refighting of the Battle of Gettysburg, in true fashion Dan Sickles went on to further glory and scandal. Ulysses Grant never allowed him to command troops in the field, Sickles commanded the Military Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, and the Department of the South, where was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1866

He was retired as a Major General in the Regular Army in 1869 and went on to serve as Minister to Spain where he carried on an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella, a nymphomaniac who long before she ever Sickles had conducted a myriad of high profile affairs. The affair with the former queen was open and offensive to many people, but neither seemed to mind. In a sense they were kindred spirits. A Paris newspaper dubbed the one-legged General “the Yankee King of Spain.” [15]The affair with Isabella eventually burned itself out and Sickles married Senorita Caroline de Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Minister, who bore him two children. To do this he converted to Roman Catholicism, something that he had never done when Teresa was alive. After his service in Spain was ended Sickles remained in Paris for four years, where he was widely admired and “received the office of Commander of the Legion of Honor.” [16]

Though a Democrat he supported Republican Presidential candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the latter against a long time Democratic rival from New York. As he got older Gettysburg became an increasing part of his life and in 1892 he ran for Congress in order to spearhead efforts to preserve the battlefield. He was elected and it was in large part due to his efforts that what we now know as the Gettysburg National Military Park exists. In 1893, Sickles met James Longstreet at a Gathering in Gettysburg, and the two men became lifelong friends. Since the war both men had been refighting the battle and the controversies that hung over their decisions that July 2nd like a pall. Longstreet, for his actions on the battlefield, and his decision to become a Republican and serve in the post-war Reconstruction efforts was a pariah in much of the South. That “unpopularity was painful to him, and he was glad to find a sympathetic ally in Sickles. Each of the two generals agreed that the other had moved with blameless skill that day,” [17] and both would defend the other in the succeeding years. As the continuing battle of Gettysburg was fought in the press and in histories written by various participants, Longstreet wrote of Sickles, “I believe it is now conceded that the advanced position at the peach orchard, taken by your Corps and under your orders, saved that battlefield for the Union cause.” [18]

Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897, the citation stating, “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Sickles long to outlived George Meade who died in 1872 and all of the other Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, not to mention most of his friends and enemies. His father George Sickles died in 1887 leaving Dan an estate of nearly five million dollars. His daughter by Teresa, Laura, whose life had been so scarred by the events of 1859 died alone and estranged from her father. In 1896, disgusted by the nomination of William Jennings Bryant as the Democratic Presidential nominee, the one-legged Sickles went to work with his old Gettysburg comrade, the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard to campaign for the Republican William McKinley. They were quite a pair, the religious Howard, and the libertine Sickles, but they helped McKinley defeat Bryant, and McKinley remained grateful to them until his death by an assassin’s bullet.

In 1913 he attended the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies at Gettysburg where he watched the white haired survivors of Pickett’s Charge hobble across the wide battlefield into the arms of their former opponents on Cemetery Ridge. Helen Longstreet, James Longstreet’s second wife and widow quoted the words of a poet named Horatio King, for the event for a southern newspaper.

I see him on that famous field,

The bravest of the brave,

Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive

The Third Corps to its grave

The fight was bloody, fierce and long,

And Sickles’ name shall stay

Forever in the hall of fame

As he who saved the day [19]

While Helen Longstreet’s claim that Sickles was “forever in the hall of fame” is a tad farfetched, there is no doubt that scoundrel had found redemption. When Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94, his funeral was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, his flag-draped casket carried on an artillery caisson accompanied by a rider-less horse and artillery salutes. His funeral, in a military cemetery among other soldiers was “proof that he was no longer an attorney, politician, or even the murderer of Barton Key,” [20] he was a soldier. His tombstone simply reads:

Daniel E. Sickles

Medal of Honor

Maj. Gen. U.S. Army

May 3 1914

sickles grave

The New York Times made a comment that no one, be they an admirer or enemy could deny. “He was a truly adventurous spirit.” [21]


[1] Ibid. Oeffinger A Soldier’s General p.197

[2] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[3] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.278

[4] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[5] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

[6] Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[8] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.421

[9] Robertson, William Glenn The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863 in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio and London, 1993 p.56

[10] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 244

[11] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 401

[13] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.244-245

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

[15] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.321

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.339

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.367

[18] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.341

[19] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.353

[20] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 385

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390



Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, historic preservation, History, Military

“I Have the Most Loyal People” Trump and Those Who Believe Anything


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late and great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote:

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

Hatred is an amazing emotion to which demagogues seem most adept at tapping into and harnessing.  Such leaders and propagandists channel the anger and hatred of their followers by identifying enemies and then with every statement, speech, or tweet reinforcing those beliefs, even if their claims are devoid of logic or substance.

Over the past week the language of NRA leaders Wayne Lapierre and Dana Loesch does much to incite anger and potential violence against their mostly imagined political and ideological enemies. The unmitigated volcanic reaction of Lapierre and Loesch, as well as others who share their views about socialists attempting to destroy the Second Amendment in order to overthrow the Constitution and destroy “freedom” were turned with a vengeance against anyone proposing any kind of restriction on weapons which are based on well proven military rifles of the M-16 family. In response, President Trump reaffirmed his support and admiration for Lapierre and the NRA agenda.

The invective of the NRA was profoundly disturbing especially when Right Wing bloggers, meme generators, “news” sites, and politicians attacked the students that spoke out after the Parkland attacks, calling them “crisis actors” and labeling the massacre as a “false flag” attack engineered by the “deep state” in order to take do away with the Second Amendment and take people’s guns away. This is nothing new, the NRA and its allies have done so after every mass killing. The young people who spoke out and continue to do so, as well as their families, and law enforcement are the “the devil.” 

Truth does not matter to the people who need scapegoats, or who need a “devil” in order to have meaning for themselves and the movements that they find their salvation in.  Hoffer was quite correct in his words that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements in history understood this, as do Lapierre and President Trump. The President does this by labeling his opponents “enemies” as he does with the free press, and his political opponents outside and inside the Republican Party, but he is not the first to do so.

For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen. For American Southerners of the Lost Cause following the Civil War and Reconstruction it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Roman Catholic. For the leaders of the Islamic State and others like them, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. For Stalin it was anyone who opposed his Sovietization of life and society. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg and they are not limited to the past, they are happening today in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and gaining traction in other western European countries; including Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and yes, the United States where President Trump is leading the parade, or possibly is being led by the people at Fox News.

President Trump has managed to demonize and dehumanize more people and groups than I had thought possible for an American political leader of any party or persuasion. I honestly believe that we have reached a tipping point where any severe crisis, one Reichstag Fire moment, one major terrorist attack, or war from pogroms, ethnic or religious cleansing, mass imprisonments, or even genocide. The words and actions of many of his followers and allies, including Lapierre, Loesch, and so many others reinforces that belief on a daily basis. They are taking advantage of political and social tumult to increase the fear and anxiety of all of us, their supporters and opponents alike.


I think a lot of this situation is because humanity is not nearly as advanced as most of us would like to presume. In times of crisis human beings are particularly susceptible to believing the unbelievable. The perpetual unsettledness that people like Trump, Lapierre, Loesch, Sean Hannity, and the people at Fox and Friends thrive on concocting helps prepare people for believing the unbelievable and for later doing what would have been unimaginable to them at one time. Hannah Arendt noted in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” 

No wonder then candidate Trump observed:

“You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.” 

He understands his followers and since his election they have proven to be quite loyal even when his policies and programs work to their detriment.

Those that follow my writings on this site know how much I love the various Star Trek television series and movies. There is an episode (The Siege of AR-558) of Star Trek Deep Space Nine where the Ferengi bartender Quark, makes a truly astute observation about humanity during a battle for survival at an isolated outpost:

“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people… will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes.”

Quark’s words remind me of those of Dr. Timothy Snyder who noted:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

I don’t think that we are too far from some tipping point where the Trinity of Evil, the politicians, pundits and preachers, especially of the political right and the media whores at Fox News who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose for their actions. The President’s CPAC speech, which I just re-read was full of such references.

Sadly in past few years, and especially since President Trump took office, many of those ruthless and often racist ideologies have seen a resurgence in many parts of the world, including in Europe and the United States. While these movements have existed  underground for years they have seen a dramatic resurgence following the election of President Trump, for whom many of their leaders credit with their rise; regardless of whether the President actually holds those views or not. The scary thing is that such groups count him as being an inspiration to them.

That being said the President routinely talks about crushing, eliminating, or destroying his political opponents as well as the racial, ethnic, and religious groups that he uses as straw men and declares to be enemies; enemies who must be sought out.

In a Star Trek the Next Generation episode, one called The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lt Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”

Picard pauses and then notes:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

To claim Picard’s words for myself I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either, and that thought frightens me; especially when the the followers of the President behave exactly how he said that they would.


Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under ethics, faith, film, Gettysburg, History, LGBT issues, Political Commentary

Recommitting to A New Birth of Freedom: The Gettysburg Address at 154 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In November 1863 President Abraham Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg Pennsylvania yards behind the temporary to attend and say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers Cemetery where the remains of the Union dead who had not been recovered by their families and taken home for burial were being interred by local laborers. When Lincoln arrived the process was barely halfway complete. The ground on West Cemetery Hill was still scarred by the battle that took place barely four and a half months prior, a battle that was the deadliest in United States military history in which the Army of the Potomac under the command of George Gordon Meade defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia.

Lincoln was not the primary speaker, that honor went to Edward Everett, former Secretary of State, Senator, and Representative from Massachusetts. Everett, an academic from Harvard was also a leader in the Greek Revival and the Rural Cemetery movement in the United States. Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery, less than 100 yards behind the temporary structure from which Everett and Lincoln would speak was a legacy of the movement that Everett had helped to begin. Now Everett was the primary orator at the dedication of of this cemetery dedicated to the Union dead, and Lincoln, the President there as more of window dressing.

Everett spoke for nearly two hours providing an impressive narrative of the battle. When he ended his speech, which was not long by the standards of his day it was left to Lincoln to say a few words. Those few words are now part of the lexicon of American secular scripture along with the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the United States Constitution, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, andDr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

His words are the antithesis of what is so often heard in American political discourse today. The fact is that while many Americans give lip service to all of these speeches, we have to admit that there is a significant portion of our population that not only give lip service to their ideas but actually oppose them, instead valuing theocracy, racism, authoritarianism, and militarism more than the ideals that the United States was founded upon. Despite that, they remain something that we must strive to pursue until this nation actually experiences the new birth of Freedom that Lincoln ended up dying to see established.

Lincoln’s words which he penned over a number of days were not long, and while some like Everett himself thought that they eclipsed his own words, many politicians and members of the press thought little of them. However, those words probably encapsulate the ideas of the founders better than any words outside of the Declaration of Independence. I will leave you with those words. So until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+

Four score 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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not 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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Political Commentary

Talking About Bad Ground: Walking the Gettysburg Battlefield, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheat Field and more…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I wrote about my walk around the areas of the Battle of Gettysburg which transpired on the afternoon of July 1st 1863. Today was my crack at doing my best to experience walking the areas of the battlefield that were contested on July 2nd 1863 when Robert E. Lee ordered James Longstreet to assault the Federal left on the basis of Dick Ewell and Jubal Early’s intransigence in ordering a follow up assault on the Federal right, coupled with inaccurate information Lee had about where the end of the Federal line was. The result was the attacks by Longstreet’s divisions which came perilously close to succeeding but which after some of the bloodiest fighting during any three and a half hour period of the war were repulsed by Union troops the Third, Second, and Fifth Corps.

The engagements of that afternoon and evening are etched in our national conscience. Devil’s Den, Little around Top, the Bloody Wheat Field, and the Peach Orchard, not to mention the fights along Rose’s Woods, the Stoney Ridge, Trostle Farm, and Plum Run are each microcosms of the battle, each with heroes, villains, and tactical geniuses and idiots. But my purpose tonight is not to dissect those battles, I am doing that in a text about the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead it is to reflect upon military history and what the men who fought the battle endured.

If you want to understand military history and want to do so without having actually been to war or having taken the time to try to see and walk the ground the soldiers trod firsthand make a critical mistake, especially in campaigns where the soldiers had to walk into combat. As Guy Sager, who endured the Russian Front as an infantryman in the Second World War wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

Like yesterday I walked. I left my car at my hotel and put on my boots and my three-day pack from Iraq. I ate a biscuit with a little bit of gravy, and had a small cup of coffee at the hotel before I set off. Since the hotel didn’t serve hardtack it was the closest I could get to a Civil War breakfast. From the hotel it is about a two mile walk to get to General Lee’s HQ on Seminary Ridge. Since Longstreet’s advanced elements were about that far back from Lee’s HQ on that morning I thought that it would approximate the march of some of his troops while understanding that some of his Corps had to march far more just to get there before beginning their movement to the south part of the battlefield.

Upon reaching Seminary Ridge I began walking down what would have been the areas occupied by A.P. Hill’s Third Corps that Longstreet’s troops would have passed as they moved south. The distance that they covered was about five miles as the crow flies, but due to bad staff work and coordination most of the men of John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws divisions had to go further just to get to their start point for the attack. In the case of Evander Law’s brigade of Hood’s division which had the mission of being the furthest south of the attacking Confederates, they had marched over twenty miles before beginning their attack on Little Round Top. When I reached the area that they did I had only walked about seven and a half miles as opposed to the men of Evander Law’s brigade who had marched over twenty miles to get into their attack positions, but as a mater of fact they were almost all a couple of decades or more younger than me.

When I got to the point of the Confederate attack I walked a path that intersected with the soldiers of Law’s brigade and Robertson’s Texas brigade, both of Hood’s division. Hood had vigorously protested the attack to Longstreet due to the bad ground that his troops would have to traverse to reach their objectives. As I wrote in my draft book on the battle:

Hood was never one to hesitate to attack, but when he saw the situation that faced First Corps, he objected to the attack. “For the first time in his army career Hood suggested a change of orders to his commanding general,” and pleaded with Longstreet to change it. “From his own observations and those of his scouts he concluded that the attack would be futile and result in wanton wage of life.” The fierce Texan “recognized that the battle order, written more than two miles away on mistaken information…did not fit existing conditions.” His objections included the rocky terrain which he believed would break up his battle formations, as well as “the concave character of the enemy’s line from the north end of Cemetery Ridge to Big Round Top would expose his division to a “destructive fire in flank and rear, as well as in front” if his men attacked it obliquely.” He told Longstreet that it was “unwise to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, as ordered” and requested that he be allowed to “turn Round Top and attack the enemy flank and rear.

Meanwhile, the debate between Longstreet and Hood continued as Hood objected and Longstreet reiterated Lee’s insistence on the planned attack. McLaws noted that Hood “found that the enemy were strongly posted on two rocky hills, with artillery and infantry…” and he pleaded for freedom of maneuver. He believed that an attack up the rocky hills was doomed and later noted “it seemed to me that the enemy occupied a position so strong- I may say impregnable – that independently of their flank fire, they could easily repulse our attack by merely throwing or rolling stones down the mountainside as we approached.”

One can look at the ground and one can study it on maps, but until you walk that bad ground, even without doing it while subjected to enemy fire you won’t understand how bad it is. I made my way down a walking path and then tried to move off of it in order to get to Devil’s Den. It was awful, reeds, thrushes, a stream, boulders, and heavy brush prevented me from moving forward. So I went back, followed a trail to Big Round Top and then headed over to Devil’s Den. General Hood was right, the ground to use the words that he spoke to Longstreet after he was wounded “it was the worst ground I ever saw” is not an exaggeration. But the diversion allowed me to find the part of the battle where Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth, after having unsuccessfully resisted orders from Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick was forced to attack the well dug in Confederate infantry of Lafayette McLaw’s division on July 3rd.

From Devil’s Den I worked my way to Little Round Top. Most of the front slope is inaccessible due to the National Park Service doing a reclamation project, but there is a trail that leads up to it that many of the Confederates would have used. It was steep, and the ground was rugged. By the time I reached the top near the New York Monument I was exhausted. Despite having been in combat and being shot at I cannot imagine how the Confederate soldiers threw themselves up that hill facing small arms and artillery fire at point blank range. Their cause may have been wrong but they were valiant and tough soldiers. The fact that I am 30 to 40 years older than most of them is irrelevant, that ground was a bitch.

After that I went back over to the part of the battlefield occupied by the famous 20th Maine Infantry under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, and then followed their counter-attack down the hill. From there I went back across the rear slope of Devil’s Den to Houck’s Ridge where heavily outnumbered Union Regulars held their own against Hood and McLaw’s soldiers. From there I went over to the Bloody Wheat Field. Like the Bloody Corn Field at Antietam this was a killing ground which exchanged hands several times during the battle, about 30% of the 20,000 or so soldiers engaged there became casualties. When on looks it the field it is hard to imagine that so many men were killed and wounded in such a short amount of time. Walking across the ground I could not help thinking about the thousands of souls who suffered and died there.

From there I continued through Rose’s Woods and the Stoney Ridge where still more Union and Confederate soldiers fell in desperate fights before walking back west to the Peach Orchard. This was another bloody contest in which General Dan Sickles of the Union Third Corps surprised both the Confederates and his own Commander, General George Meade by moving his corps into an exposed position. The battle there cost many lives and apologists for Sickles, Meade, and the Confederates have used for their own benefit. Sickles is claimed to have nearly lost the battle for the Union, but Longstreet said that his movement and defense of the Peach Orchard was key to the Union victory. Again my purpose in this article is not to take a side in that controversy but to imagine the carnage of the battlefield as well as the bravery of the soldiers on it. It is hard to imagine being a Third Corps Soldier at the Peach Orchard as Confederate artilleryman Porter Alexander’s guns swept their positions, nor being one of McLaw’s infantrymen who were being slaughtered by the experienced Union artillerymen of Third Corps and the Artillery Reserve.

By the time I got to the Peach Orchard I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and my feet were hurting. I had a choice. I could simply walk up the Emmitsburg Road and head back to the hotel or I could continue to follow the route of the Confederate advance spearheaded by General Barksdale’s brigade. I went back across Excelsior Field and to the Trostle Farm where Sickles fell wounded, before crossing Plum Run and heading up Cemetery Ridge where the Confederate advance was halted. I then walked back to the hotel via Cemetery Ridge, the Taneytown Road and the Soldiers Cemetery, before making a brief stop on East Cemetery Hill.

Since I was exhausted and darkness and rain were beginning to close in I decided not to do my walk around the Culp’s Hill battlefield. That will have to wait for another time. Since the rain is expected to continue into the morning and I hate getting wet I’ll put off my walk around Culp’s Hill until another time.

Tomorrow I will head home early to help Judy do some work around our house. My friend Bill who met me last night had take care of a business emergency call from one of his customers in the Shenandoah Valley this morning and since it’s just me I figure I can head back home. Lord willing there is always tomorrow right?

But as a closing commentary:

In the past couple of months I have walked nearly 50 miles across two of the nation’s bloodiest battlefields, Antietam and Gettysburg. Honestly I don’t know a lot of people in policy making positions who do things like that. The tragedy of the American Civil War and the nearly three quarters of a million soldiers of both sides who died during it seems to me to have been forgotten or relegated to the realm of myth by too many Americans, including the President and many of his advisers and supporters. If we forget the cost and meaning of the Civil War, the validation of the proposition of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal then we do a grave injustice to those who fell in that war, unless we want to support Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who said that slavery was the Cornerstone of the Confederate nation. The costs to our nation are too great to let the the lessons of our Civil War be relegated to myth or exploited to reimagine a recreated Confederacy dominating the rest of the country are too great to allow the President, who has called violent neo-Confederates and White Supremacists “very fine people” or to fail to resist theocratic people from imposing their religious beliefs on others as did the Southern clergy who helped break the bonds of the Union beginning in their own denominations in the 1840s.

Since I have now eaten and had a few beers  I will take my 57 year old body to bed and get ready to head home in the morning.

So until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military, Political Commentary

Walking the Good and Bad Ground at Gettysburg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m in Gettysburg this weekend getting a chance to do some research and walking areas of the battlefield that I have stopped at but never fully explored on foot. Trust me, there is a difference when you actually walk the ground versus making stops and looking around.

I drove up this morning and thankfully traffic was light and there were no traffic jams at any point along the way which meant I made the trip in just a bit over four hours. When I got here I checked into my hotel, unloaded my stuff and set to work walking the route I had planned out. My hotel is right at the base of East Cemetery Hill where the Union troops rallied on the night of July 1st 1863. I decided that I would walk through the town and up to McPherson’s Ridge where John Buford’s cavalry and John Reynolds’s First Corps fought A.P. Hill’s Third Confederate Corps, before turning north past the unfinished Railroad Cut and Oak Ridge on my way to Oak Hill where Confederate General Robert Rhodes’ division of Dick Ewell’s Second Confederate Corps went into action.

Oak Hill is the site of the Eternal Peace Monument which was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 as a symbol of reconciliation between the North and South. It bears the words “Peace Eternal in a Nation United”. That was a mere seventy-nine years ago and my heart breaks when I see the same forces at work which tore apart the nation in the years before the Civil War, and sadly they are being stirred up by President Trump who more resembles the incompetence of James Buchanan coupled with the malevolence of Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln, or the loyal opposition of Stephen Douglas.

As I looked out from that high ground I saw the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside still covered in Fall foliage with fields of Sorghum ready for harvest, and cornfields waiting to be plowed over for the next season. Directly in front of me was the ground that two of Rodes’s brigades, those of Alfred Iverson and Edward O’Neal, both incompetent pro-secession political generals sent their units into the attack leading to their slaughter. As I walked into the field where those soldiers fell I felt a certain amount of sadness for them. Yes, most of them made the choice to enlist in the Confederate cause, while others joined out of peer pressure, or others because they were drafted: but none signed up to be slaughtered at the hands of their incompetent commanders. One regiment, the 23rd North Carolina lost 89% of the men it took into battle in barely half an hour of combat. As I walked across that swale in front of Oak Ridge where the men of John Robinson’s division awaited them I was struck by the tragedy of men who went into battle for an unjust and unrighteous cause who fell in such large numbers on July 1st 1863. I wrote in the draft of my yet unpublished Gettysburg book:

When the Confederates got to about fifty yards of Baxter’s troops the commander of the 83rd New York, the Swiss born lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Moesch shouted: “Up men, and fire.” Moesch rode behind his line cheering his men on, but they needed no urging. In the words of one of one, “The men are no longer human, they are demons; a curse from the living here, a moan from the dying there. ‘Give them — shouts one.’ See them run’ roars another.” The well concealed veterans of Baxter regiments slaughtered them as they had O’Neal’s men just minutes before. “One regiment went down in such a neat row that when its survivors waves shirt tails, or any piece of cloth remotely white, Iverson thought that the whole regiment of live men were surrendering.” As the Confederate attack collapsed some “of the regiments in Robinson’s division changed front again, charged, and captured nearly all the men who were left unhurt in three of Iverson’s regiments.” Official Confederate reports list only 308 missing but that number differs from the Union reports, Robinson reporting 1000 prisoners and three flags and Baxter’s brigade nearly 400. As Robinson’s troops smashed the brigades of O’Neal and Iverson, they were joined by the remnants of Cutler’s brigade which changed its face from west to north to deliver more devastating fire into the Confederates.

From there I went over to Oak Ridge and then made my way to Blocher’s Knoll, now know as Barlow’s Knoll. Once you leave Oak Ridge the ground to the east is flat and relatively devoid of any good defensive positions. The Union Eleventh Corps Commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard sent two of his understrength divisions under the command of Carl Schulz to link up with the right flank of Robinson’s division and extend the Federal line to prevent it from being flanked. Unfortunately, one of the division commanders, Francis Barlow decided to advance his division to Blocher’s Knoll which was a mile in front of where Schurz and Howard intended. Noticing what was going on Schurz ordered the other division under the command of Schimmelpfenning to extend its line to maintain contact with Barlow’s division. But there were not enough troops to fill the gap. The line was barely a skirmish line and with no good defensive ground it could do little to stop a determined Confederate attack. Which was exactly what occurred.

George Doles’s brigade of Rodes division, strongly supported by artillery attacked the thin blue line of Schimmelpfenning’s division just as Gordon and Hays Brigades of Jubal Early’s division enveloped Barlow’s terribly exposed division. The men of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divisions made a spirited and fierce defense before they were overwhelmed and retreated to Gettysburg, some making a fighting retreat, others fleeing the Confederate advance, many were killed, wounded or captured. Barlow lay wounded and was given aid by John Gordon who later became a lifelong friend. Schimmelpfennig was rescued from certain capture by a woman in the town who allowed him to hide in a shed behind her home as the Confederates moved into the town.

The memorials to these forgotten and often slandered soldiers line the road from the Mummasburg Road to Barlow’s Knoll. They did fight hard as A private of the 61st Georgia Infantry of Gordon’s brigade noted that the XI Corps troops “stood firm until we got near them. Then they began to retreat in good order. They were harder to drive than we had known them before….Their officers were cheering their men and behaving like heroes and commanders of ‘the first water’”

The 157th New York, was order to help shore up the line. The regiment advanced and engaged in a furious twenty minute fight, continuing the battle “in Indian fashion” until Schurz ordered them to retreat. The gallant 157th sacrificed itself buying time for others to withdraw and left over 75 percent of its men on the battlefield, when the order came, “less than fifty of the 157th were able to rise out of the wheat and follow.” “So the horrible screaming, hurtling messengers of death flew over us from both sides,” recollected a New York soldier. “In such a storm it seemed a miracle that any were left alive.” Krzyzanowski described the scene as “a portrait of hell.”

When one walks that ground it is impossible how that any unit of similar size or composition could have held against the massive pincer attack of Doles’s brigade and Early’s division on Barlow’s exposed position.

As I walked back into town I could imagine the chaos of the retreating Union troops as well as the victorious Confederates as day turned into evening. The Union troops who escaped made their way to link up with Steinwehr’s division and the Eleventh Corps artillery which had been positioned on Cemetery Hill as well as the survivors of the Union First Corps which had fought the Confederate Third Corps to a standstill before being forced back due to weight of numbers. I finished my walk by going up to Cemetery Hill where with the sun beginning to go down I walked among the graves of the fallen Union soldiers and a monument to John Reynolds who fell on McPherson’s Ridge.

As I noted a couple of months ago when I described my walk at Antietam, there is something immensely valuable about walking these battlefields. First, one gets to experience the elements of weather, distance, and terrain which are helpful in understanding what it was like for the soldiers involved. Second, one can see the battle from the perspective of those soldiers, imagining what it would be like to be deal with being under fire on that ground. One understands what men like John Buford and John Reynolds meant when they said that certain terrain was “good ground.” You don’t understand that until you walk it.

I finished tonight with a friend who met me here going to a number of pubs and walking through the town. While walking I saw a number of the churches that served as field hospitals, including Christ Lutheran. The horror of those hospitals is unimaginable to most of us. I have worked in inner city trauma centers and been in field hospitals in Iraq with our wounded and nothing can really prepare you for the horror of blown up, destroyed, and burned bodies of still living men on a such a massive scale.

But what I have experienced pales in comparison to what occurred at Gettysburg and Antietam, and what will certainly happen if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. I have been in the military all my adult life and I dread what I see coming, but since I know that chances are that it will happen I prepare myself and the men and women who serve under me for it. Sadly, most people, even those who have experienced combat in our recent wars are capable of imagining the carnage and horror of the next war. As a historian and a chaplain who has seen combat and a lot of other violent death I can well imagine it and no I don’t sleep well with that knowledge, especially when I see our President rattling sabers so often with seemingly little concern for the men and women that he will be committing to combat. In light of how he has dealt with the deaths of U.S. military personnel since he has been in office, taking no responsibility for any of them, passing the responsibility to military leaders, I tremble at the thought of what his next tweet might bring, but I digress.

Anyway, tomorrow begins another day of exploring parts of the battlefield on foot. Today I walked just over thirteen miles. I think that tomorrow I may well exceed that. I will tell you about that walk tomorrow night.


Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

The Tragedy of Friends Divided By War: Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis Armistead on Cemetery Ridge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been rating but continuing to work on my Civil War and Gettysburg texts this weekend, and because of that I am retiring to an older post about the relationships of close friends in war. In this case, friends who had served together for many years who ended up fighting each other at Gettysburg. The story is tragic, because none of them hated each other, or held any animosity towards each other, but instead had followed what they believed to be their duty, some in the continued service of the Union, and others to that of their home states. Even so the bonds of friendship were never severed. Of course, unless you have served with people in war and in the military it it hard to comprehend such a fate. Even now, I know men that I consider friends, men who now hold very different political and social beliefs than me, and if God forbid there was ever another civil war, we would be on opposite sides, but they would still be friends, and I would grieve the fact that we would be fighting. 

I do plan on reworking this section of my Gettysburg text again, adding to it and further exploring the dynamics of the relationships at play in this story. But for now, since I have been working on other things, this will have to do.

Have a great day,


Padre Steve+

The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere.  For American military professionals those bonds are formed in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military. They are formed in war and peace, and are marked by years of deployments, isolated duty and combat. They are part of a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society. That is the case now as it was in 1860.

When the Southern States seceded from the Union men who had spent much of their adult lives serving together discovered had to say goodbye and prepare to fight each other. Most did so with a heavy heart even though many had strong convictions about the rightness of their region’s cause. Those who left the army to serve the Confederate states were often torn by doubt and questions of where their loyalty lay. Robert E. Lee was a good example of the conflict that many Southern officers faced. “The Southern professional officer in 1861 was confronted with a cruel choice symbolized by Lee’s anguished pacing at Arlington. On one hand, the Southern officer’s political allegiances drew him to the Confederacy; on the other his professional responsibility drew him to the Union.” [1] They wrestled with their oath of office and the costs of perhaps having to face their dearest friends on future battlefields. Lee’s letter to his sister Ann Marshall, who remained a supporter of the Union, after he resigned from the army he had served for 32 years reflects that anguish, torn between his loyalties Lee wrote “With all my devotion to the Union, and the dear feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” [2] He added: “I know you will blame me…but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I think right.” [3]

They were different from the mass levies of civilian volunteers who rallied to the flags of the Union and Confederacy in 1861. The volunteers, most of whom did not have the deep and abiding friendships of the professionals were often motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred of the other and went to war with great aplomb. However, the professionals for the most part went to war against former comrades with heavy heart, “old army colleagues found themselves wrenched from the normal course of their lives when their states joined the Confederacy.” [4]

The American Civil War has many such tales. Porter Alexander wrote of his final words with his superior James B. McPherson, who later went on to be a highly successful corps commander under Grant and Sherman before being killed outside Atlanta in 1864. McPherson desired that Alexander remain in California as an Engineering officer and warned him about the nature of the coming war and gave him his counsel as a friend:

“Now this is not going to be any 90 day or six months affair as some of the politicians are predicting. Both sides are in deadly earnest & it is long & desperate & fought to the bitter end. ..God only knows what may happen to you individually, but for your cause there can be but one possible result. It must be lost….” [5]

Alexander wrote: “Nothing could exceed the kindness & real affection with which McPherson urged these views on me…. His earnest talk impressed me deeply & made me realize that a crisis in my life was at hand. But I felt helpless to avert it or even to debate the question what I should do. I could not controvert one of McPhersons’ statements or arguments; I could only answer this: “Mac, My people are going to war, & and for their liberty. If I don’t come & bear my part they will believe me a coward…” [6]

One of the most remembered is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. It was key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.

                                                                            Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA

Hancock was from Pennsylvania. He was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions. In 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston with the Sixth Infantry Regiment. One of his fellow officers was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command, and Richard Garnett commanding a company at Fort Yuma. Hancock and his wife Almira became fast friends with the widowed Virginian.

Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812. Armistead had academic and personal difficulties at West Point and “was bounced out, not once but twice.” [7] His troubles included an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head.  Between his academic difficulties and the fight with Early he resigned from the Academy. However, his father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer in 1839. Armistead’s career from that point on was similar to many other officers of his day. He served with distinction in Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.

As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers from the South were torn between their oath, their friendships and their deep loyalty to their home states and families. In the end most Southern officers resigned their commissions, many with mixed feelings and quite often sadness. A large minority, some “40 to 50 per cent of Southern West Point graduates on active duty in 1860 held on to their posts and remained faithful to the Union.” [8] The most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Likewise Union Brigadier General John Buford’s family in Kentucky supported the Confederacy.

For those southern officers who remained loyal to the Union to was often at a great personal cost. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. He and others were pilloried and demonized in the basest ways by many in the South. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when they were captured. George Pickett, who called for his fellow Virginian Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians who he captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina to be executed. Pickett was not alone in such sentiments.

                                                                               Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA

However, for most it was different. As talk of secession and war heated up officers stationed on the frontier debated the issues and asked each other what they would do if war came. In California Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat and not openly hostile to the South, 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” [9]

The parting came in 1861. When it was apparent that many officers would be resigning and heading home to join their state’s forces the Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends. Almira Hancock wrote of the party that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.” [10]

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s wife Eliza went to a piano and sang sentimental songs such as Mary of Argyle and the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen. [11] Almira Hancock wrote “Those songs…will ever be remembered by survivors of that mournful gathering.” [12]

“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?

The parting was especially emotional for Armistead who had been a friend of the Hancock’s for 17 years. They had helped in following the death of both of his wives and children. He was tearful. He put his arm on his friend’s shoulder as he 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.” [13] As he departed Armistead gave a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to Almira Hancock, in case of his death, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.” [14]

Armistead led his brigade during the Peninsula campaign and battles around Richmond and his brigade was decimated in Lee’s failed assault on prepared Federal positions at Malvern Hill. Armistead did not endear himself to many of the volunteer officers who served in the Confederate ranks. One of his Colonels resigned over Armistead’s supposedly harsh treatment to which Armistead replied: “I have felt obliged to speak to him as one military man would to another and as I have passed nearly all my life in camps my manner may not be understood or appreciated by one who has been all his life a civilian.” [15] Armistead’s words can easily be understood by military professionals whose lives have been shaped in a different manner than their civilian counterparts.

At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears about the charge to his comrades. One was Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of Armistead and Hancock’s comrades from the California days on the night of July 2nd. Garnett’s career had paralleled that Armistead, the same age Garnett struggled at West Point in his third year “he failed and withdrew. Taking the same courses again during the next term, he finished fourteenth among his new classmates, then graduated in 1841 standing 29th of fifty-two graduates.” [16]

Armistead and Garnett served together in the Sixth Infantry for most of their careers. They were promoted at similar times, a pattern of promotion that continued into their Confederate service. The next afternoon, the two friends who had served together so long and whose careers were so similar led their brigades of Pickett’s Division across the valley between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge against their friend and comrade Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.

Garnett had to lead his brigade on horseback, having been injured during the army’s march to Gettysburg. During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, lead the remnants of his decimated brigade to the Stone Wall, near the Copse of Trees. He rallied his troops fearing that some were faltering calling out: “Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” [17]

His troops breached the Union line and his black hat atop his sword led his troops forward. He reached the now unmanned artillery of Cushing’s battery and called to his remaining men “The day is ours men, come and turn this artillery on them.” [18] It was then that he met more Federal troops who unleashed a volley of musket fire that cut down many of the survivors. Armistead 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. Bingham, a Mason noticed that Armistead was making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Say to General Hancock for me that I have done him, and you all, an injury, which I shall always regret.” [19]

The meaning of those words is debated, especially by Southerners who cherish the myth of the Lost Cause. However, based on Armistead’s conduct and behavior in the time before he left California, it is not unreasonable to assume that as he lay dying he truly regretted what he had done. Armistead died from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. A Union surgeon described him as: “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited.” [20]

Garnett’s body was never found and was probably buried in a mass grave with other Confederate soldiers and was likely taken after the war to his native Virginia “together with thousands of unidentified bodies from Gettysburg, for burial in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.[21] Armistead was buried by a member of the 107th Ohio near the XI Corps field hospital. About a month later a physician from Philadelphia tracked down the soldier and “dug up the “Rough box” containing the body and embalmed poor Armistead’s remains for sale to grieving family members.” [22] Armistead’s family buried the remains in Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore.

Robert Krick wrote: “Death on adjacent bits of blood soaked ground in Adams County, Pennsylvania, yielded a final common thread, that of indignity: Lewis Armistead’s corpse wound up a hostage to petty human greed, while Dick Garnett’s entirely disappeared.” [23]

Hancock’s injuries were severe, but he recovered. He 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.

In 1880 Hancock was the Democratic nominee for President. He lost a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by fewer than 40,000 votes. It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures viewed favorably for his integrity. Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said:

“if 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.” [24]

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.” [25]

The story of Hancock, Armistead and Garnett is one that reminds us of the depth of friendships that many military professionals develop and cherish. It is also a story 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 uses their ideology to slander, demean or even enslave and 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 tragedy of war, especially war that forces the dearest of friends to fight and even kill one another.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1957 p.212

[2] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 p.188

[3] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.230-231

[4] Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.33

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.24

[6] Ibid. Alexander. Fighting for the Confederacy p.25

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.379

[8] Ibid. Huntington The Soldier and the State p.213

[9] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.33

[10] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[11] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[12] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[13] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[14] Krick, Robert K. The Parallel Lives of Two Virginia Soldiers Armistead and Garnett in The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond edited by Gary Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1994 p.112

[15] Tagg, Larry The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle Da Capo Press Cambridge MA 1998 Amazon Kindle Edition p.244


[16] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.101

[17] Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3rd 1863 Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1959 pp.216-217

[18] Hess, Earl J. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.262

[19] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254-255

[20] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254

[21] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[22] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[23] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[24] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.319

[25] Stone, Irving They Also Ran Doubleday, New York 1943 and 1981 pg. 188

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

This Fiery Line: Freeman McGilvery at Plum Run

Artillery at the Trostle Farm

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today another excursion into my archives dealing with the Battle of Gettysburg as I muse about my Independence Day article. I hope you enjoy.


Padre Steve+

The disaster that engulfed Sickles’ III Corps now threatened the Federal center. Meade and Hancock rushed reinforcements in the form of V Corps and much of II Corps. The tip of the Sickle’s salient at Sherfy’s Peach Orchard manned by Graham’s brigade of David Birney’s division was overwhelmed and retreated in disorder. Once “the angle had been breached, the lines connecting to it on the east and north were doomed.” [1] This exposed the left of Humphery’s division and it too was forced to retreat under heavy pressure sustaining heavy casualties. The final collapse of Humphrey’s division a large gap opened in the Federal lines between the elements of V Corps fighting along Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and II Corps along the central portion of Cemetery Ridge.

When Meade realized the seriousness of the situation he gave Sickles’ free reign to call for reinforcements from Harry Hunt’s Artillery Reserve as III Corps had only batteries organic to it. Those five batteries were in the think of the fighting providing invaluable support to Sickles’ hard pressed and outnumbered corps. Firing canister they cut swaths of death and destruction through the massed ranks of wildly cheering Confederates of Kershaw and Semmes and Barkdale’s brigades of McLaws’ division.

The Confederates believed that they had cut the Union line in half and advanced through the Peach Orchard and across the Wheat Field toward Cemetery Ridge.

Among the artillery called into action was the First Volunteer Brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery. McGilvery, a Maine native was a former sea captain who had organized and commanded the 6th Maine Battery at the beginning of the war. He commanded it with distinction in a number of engagements. Promoted to Major in early 1863 he assumed command of the Brigade and fought at Chancellorsville and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in June as the Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s Army.

McGilvery rode into the maelstrom of the retreating III Corps soldiers and broken guns. His horse was hit four times but he remained unwounded despite “exposing himself to enemy missiles on all parts of the field from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard.” [2] He noted that there was no infantry anywhere that could plug the gap and acted instantly on his own authority to make a decision that likely saved the Union line. In the confusion of III Corps disintegration three of his batteries had withdrawn leaving Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts battery alone at the Trostle farm telling them they must “hold at all hazards.” [3] Bigelow later explained that McGilvery said that “for 4 or 500 yards in my rear there were no Union troops.” He was then instructed by McGilvery “For heavens [sic] sake hold that line…until he could get some other batteries in position…” [4] In another account Bigelow recorded “Captain Bigelow…there is not an infantryman back of you along the whole line which Sickles moved out; you must remain where you are and hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery if need be, until at least I can find some batteries to put in position and cover you.” [5]

The order could have been considered suicidal; the 21st Mississippi was nearly upon them and they were but one battery and barely one hundred troops. Bigelow did not hesitate to obey; he brought his guns into line at the Trostle house “facing one section slightly to the southwest and the other two sections directly into the path of the oncoming Confederates.” [6]

Bigelow’s artillerymen fought like demons he described the effect of his fire on Kershaw’s South Carolinians “the Battery immediately enfiladed them with a rapid fire of canister, which tore through their ranks and sprinkled the field with their dead and wound, until they disappeared in the woods on our left, apparently a mob.” [7] They poured a merciless stream of fire into the advancing Confederates until “they had exhausted their supply of canister and the enemy began to close in on his flanks.” [8] A German born gunner noted “we mowed them down like grass, but they were thick and rushed up.” [9] A hand to hand fight ensued among the guns but the Massachusetts men escaped losing 28 of its 104 men engaged,[10] the brave commander Bigelow was wounded and nearly captured but one of his men helped him to the rear.

Their sacrifice was not in vain. They bought McGilvery an additional 30 minutes to set up a line of guns along Plum Run. Hunt praised the battery “As the battery had sacrificed itself for the safety of the line, its work is specially noticed as typical of the service that artillery is not infrequently called to render, and did render in other instances at Gettysburg besides this one.”[11]

Barksdale’s brigade did not pause and continued in their relentless advance towards Cemetery Ridge, sweeping Union stragglers up as they moved forward led by their irrepressible Colonel. Before them was McGilvery’s new line, hastily cobbled together from any batteries and guns that he could find. Initially composed of 13-15 guns of four different batteries he was joined by two more batteries giving him about 25 guns in all. Subjected to intense Confederate artillery fire and infantry attacks his guns held on even as their numbers were reduced until only six guns remained operational. “Expertly directed by McGilvery a few stouthearted artillerymen continued to blaze away and keep the low bushes in front of them clear of lurking sharpshooters. Although they had no infantry supports, they somehow managed to create the illusion that the woods to their rear were filled with them, and they closed the breach until the Union high command could bring up reinforcements.” [12]

The reinforcements came in the form of Colonel George Willard’s “Harper’s Ferry” Brigade which was looking for revenge and redemption. This unit hit Barksdale’s now disorganized force which had reached its cumulating point hard. Willard was killed and Barksdale mortally wounded and captured in the violent clash which spelled the end of one of the greatest threats to the Union line of the entire battle. Philip Tucker in his book Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 refers to Barksdale’s charge as the real “high water mark of the Confederacy.”

Plum Run Line

However it was McGilvery who recognized the emergency confronting the line and on his own took responsibility to rectify the situation. He courageously risked “his career in assuming authority beyond his rank” [13] and without his quick action, courage under fire and expert direction of his guns Barksdale’s men might have completed the breakthrough that could have won the battle for General Lee despite all of the mistakes committed by his senior leaders that day.

The action of McGilvery was another example of an officer who had the trust of his superiors who did the right thing at the right time. It is an example of an officer used the principles of what we today call Mission Command to decisively impact a battle. McGilvery rose higher in the Federal service and was promoted to Colonel and command of the artillery of X Corps. He was slightly wounded in a finger at the battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864. The wound did not heal properly so surgeon’s decided to amputate the finger. However they administered a lethal dose of chloroform anesthesia and he died on September 9th, the Union losing one its finest artillerymen. He was buried in his native Maine and the State legislature designated the first Saturday in September as Colonel Freeman McGilvery Day in 2001.


[1] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.368

[2] Coco, Gregory A A Concise Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg Colecraft Industries, Orrtanna PA 1998 p.31

[3] Hunt, Henry I Proceeded to Cemetery Hill in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Bradford, Ned editor, Meridian Books, New York 1956 p.378

[4] Guelzo, Allen C Gettysburg, The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.314

[5] Ibid. Trudeau p.385

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bigelow, The Peach Orchard, 54; History of the Fifth, 638 retrieved from WE SAVED THE LINE FROM BEING BROKEN: Freeman McGilvery, John Bigelow, Charles Reed and the Battle of Gettysburg by Eric Campbell

[8] Coddington, Edwin. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command Touchstone Books, New York 1960 p.416

[9] Ibid. Guelzo pp.314-315

[10] Ibid Hunt p.379

[11] Ibid. Hunt. P.379

[12] Ibid. Coddington p.417.

[13] Ibid. Coddington.

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military