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“A Day of Jubilee, A Day of Rejoicing for the Faithful” July 4th 1863

gburg retreat

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I will continue on with a section of my Gettysburg text that coincides with Independence Day. The victory at Gettysburg combined with the capture of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg the same day was a decisive defeat for the Rebels. Grants capture of the Vicksburg Garrison on Meade’s defeat of Lee at Gettysburg took nearly 60,000 Confederate troops out of the war. While Lee’s Army fought on, Grant’s victory cut the Confederacy in two and opened the door to the campaign of Sherman in Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas the following year. It became known as “The Most Glorious Fourth.” From that time on the Confederacy was doomed. 

It is a day still fully worth celebrating, unless you are an unreconstructed Secessionist, Confederate Nationalist, or White Supremacist. In which case you don’t have my sympathy. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

A Union soldier, Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) wrote of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty 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…” 

Long after the Battle Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine in its defense of Little Round Top said:

“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.” [2]

The ground may have been consecrated by the blood of the men who fell there, and like Chamberlain whenever I visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg I have a sense that the spirits of those men still linger.

“The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now 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.

Early in the morning, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and just how his own decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates. He was now aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on the 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The at times torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of the 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quiet. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

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.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

00844v-lc_confederate-graves-on-rose-farm_detail

Confederate Dead 

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses 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. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.”[23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of 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.

Notes

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

[4] Wert, Jeffry DGeneral James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

[11] Dowdy, CliffordLee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1985 p.109

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A Council Of War: Meade and His Generals the Night of July 2nd 1863

Gettysburg_Council_of_War

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The past couple of days I have been bombarding my readers with articles about the Battle Of Gettysburg leading into the 4th Of July. The are all from my Gettysburg text that I hope eventually will find a publisher, and all have been on the site before. A modified version of this article will be a vignette in the upcoming Army Doctrinal Publication on Operations. I have two more in the hopper for today. I hope you enjoy,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

While Lee took no counsel and determined to attack on the night of July 2nd little more than two miles away Major General George Meade took no chances. After sending a message to Henry Halleck at 8 PM Meade called his generals together. Unlike Lee who had observed the battle from a distance Meade had been everywhere on the battlefield during the day and had a good idea what his army had suffered and the damage that he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Likewise during the day he had been with the majority of his commanders as opposed to Lee who after issuing orders that morning had remained unengaged.

Meade wired Halleck “The enemy attacked me about 4 P.M. this day…and after one of the severest contests of the war was repulsed at all points.” [1] However Meade, realizing that caution was not a vice still needed to assess the condition of his army, hear his commanders and hear from his intelligence service. He ended his message: “I shall remain in my present position to-morrow, but am not prepared to say until better advised of the condition of the army, whether operations will be of an offensive or a defensive character.” [2]

As he waited for his commanders his caution was apparent. Before the attack on Sickles’ III Corps at the Peach Orchard Meade had asked his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Dan Butterfield to “draw up a contingency plan for withdraw to Pipe Creek.” After that attack Alfred Pleasanton said that Meade ordered him to “gather what cavalry I could, and prepare for the retreat of the army.” [3] Some of his commanders who heard of the contingency plan including John Gibbon and John Sedgwick believed that Meade was “thinking of a retreat.”[4]. Despite his flat assurances to Halleck his position was threatened on both flanks and he “foresaw disaster, and not without cause.” [5]

In assessing Meade’s conduct it has to be concluded that while he had determined to remain, that he was smart enough to plan of the worst and to consult his commanders and staff in making his decision. Meade wrote to his wife that evening “for at one time things looked a little blue,…but I managed to get up reinforcements in time to save the day….The most difficult part of my work is acting without correct information on which to predicate action.” [6]

Meade called Colonel George Sharpe from the Bureau of Military Information to meet with him, Hancock and Slocum at the cottage on the Taneytown Road where he made his headquarters. Sharpe and his aide explained the enemy situation. Sharpe noted that “nearly 100 Confederate regiments in action Wednesday and Thursday” and that “not one of those regiments belonged to Pickett.” He then reported with confidence that indicated that “Pickett’s division has just come up and is bivouac.” [7]

It was the assurance that Meade needed as his commanders came together. When Sharpe concluded his report Hancock exclaimed “General, we have got them nicked.” [8]

About 9 P.M. the generals gathered. Present were Meade, and two of his major staff officers Warren just back from Little Round Top, wounded and tired, and Butterfield his Chief of Staff. Hancock action as a Wing Commander was there with Gibbon now commanding II Corps, Slocum of XII Corps with Williams. John Newton a division commander from VI Corps who had just arrived on the battlefield now commanding I Corps was present along with Oliver Howard of XI Corps, John Sedgwick of VI Corps, George Sykes of V Corps and David Birney, now commanding what was left of the wounded Dan Sickles’ III Corps. Pleasanton was off with the cavalry and Hunt attending to the artillery.

The meeting began and. John Gibbon noted that it “was at first very informal and in the shape of a conversation….” [9]The condition of the army was discussed and it was believed that now only about 58,000 troops available to fight. Birney honestly described the condition of III Corps noting that “his corps was badly chewed up, and that he doubted that it was fit for much more.” [10] Newton who had just arrived was quoted by Gibbon as saying that Gettysburg was “a bad position” and that “Cemetery Hill was no place to fight a battle in.” [11] The remarks sparked a serious discussion with Meade asking the assembled generals “whether our army should remain on that field and continue the battle, or whether we should change to some other position.” [12]

The reactions to the question showed that the army commanders still had plenty of fight in the. Meade listened as his generals discussed the matter. Hancock said he was “puzzled about the practicability of retiring.” [13] Newton later noted that he made his observations about the battlefield based on the danger that Lee might turn the Federal left and impose his army between it and its supplies. He and the other commanders agreed that pulling back “would be a highly dangerous maneuver to attempt in the immediate presence of the enemy.” [14]

Finally Butterfield, no friend of Meade and one of the McClellan and Hooker political cabal who Meade had retained when he took command posed three questions to the assembled generals.

“Under existing circumstances, is it advisable for this army to remain in its present position, or retire to another nearer its base of supplies?”

It being determined to remain in present position, shall the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy?

If we wait attack, how long?” [15]

Gibbon as the junior officer present said “Correct the position of the army…but do not retreat.” Williams counselled “stay,” as did Birney and Sykes, and Newton after briefly arguing the dangers finally agreed. Howard not only recommended remaining but “even urged an attack if the Confederates stayed their hand.” Hancock who earlier voiced his opinion to Meade that “we have them nicked” added “with a touch of anger, “Let us have no more retreats. The Army of the Potomac has had too many retreats….Let this be our last retreat.” Sedgwick of VI Corps voted “remain” and finally Slocum uttered just three words “stay and fight.” [16]

None counselled an immediate attack; all recommended remaining at least another day. When the discussion concluded Meade told his generals “Well gentlemen…the question is settled. We remain here.” [17]

Some present believed that Meade was looking for a way to retreat to a stronger position, that he had been rattled by the events of the day. Slocum believed that “but for the decision of his corps commanders” that Meade and the Army of the Potomac “would have been in full retreat…on the third of July.” [18] Meade would deny such accusations before Congressional committees the following year.

Much of the criticism of his command decisions during the battle were made by political partisans associated with the military cabal of Hooker, Butterfield and Sickles as well as Radical Republicans who believed that Meade was a Copperhead. Both Butterfield and Birney accused Meade before the committee of wanting to retreat and “put the worst possible interpretation on Meade’s assumed lack of self-confidence without offering any real evidence to substantiate it.” Edwin Coddington notes “that Meade, other than contemplating a slight withdraw to straighten his lines, wanted no retreat from Gettysburg.”[19]

Alpheus Williams wrote to his daughters on July 6th “I heard no expression from him which led me to think that he was in favor of withdrawing the army from before Gettysburg.”[20] Likewise the message sent by Meade to Halleck indicates a confidence in the upcoming battle of July 3rd. If Meade had some reservations during the day, as he mentioned in the letter to his wife they certainly were gone by the time he received the intelligence report from Sharpe and heard Hancock’s bold assertion that the enemy was “nicked.”

As the meeting broke up after shortly after midnight and the generals returned to their commands Meade pulled Gibbon aside. Gibbon with II Corps held the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. Meade told him “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Gibbon queried as to why Meade thought this and Meade continued “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed,…and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” Gibbon wrote years later “I expressed the hope that he would, and told General Meade with confidence, that if he did we would defeat him.” [21]

If some generals believed Meade to be a defeatist it was not present in his private correspondence. He wrote to his wife early in the morning of July 3rd displaying a private confidence that speaks volumes:

“Dearest love, All well and going on well in the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking & we completely repulsing them- both armies shattered….Army in fine spirits & every one determined to do or die.” [22]

Meade did what Lee should have done, he had been active on the battlefield, he consulted his intelligence service and he consulted his commanders on the options available to him. Lee remained away from the action on July 2nd he failed to consult his commanders. He failed to gain accurate intelligence on the Federal forces facing him and he failed to fully take into account his losses. Meade better demonstrated the principles of what we now call “mission command.”

 

[1] [1] Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 pp.341-342

[2] Ibid. p.342

[3] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.355

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.524

[6] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.413

[7] Ibid. Sears p.342

[8] Ibid. Trudeau p.413

[9] Ibid. Sears

[10] Ibid. Trudeau p.415

[11] Ibid. Guelzo p.556.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. Sears p.343

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. Trudeau p.415

[16] Ibid. Guelzo p.556

[17] Ibid. Foote p.525

[18] Ibid. Guelzo

[19] [19] Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 pp.451-452

[20] Ibid. p.452

[21] Ibid. Foote p.525

[22] Ibid. Trudeau p.345

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“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday Celebrated in Such a Way Before?” July 4th 1863 at Gettysburg

gburg retreat

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A Union soldier, Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) wrote of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty 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…” 

Long after the Battle Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine in its defense of Little Round Top said:

“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.” [2]

The ground may have been consecrated by the blood of the men who fell there, and like Chamberlain whenever I visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg I have a sense that the spirits of those men still linger.

“The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now 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.

Early in the morning, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and just how his own decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates. He was now aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on the 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The at times torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of the 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quiet. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

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.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

00844v-lc_confederate-graves-on-rose-farm_detail

Confederate Dead 

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses 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. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.”[23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of 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.

Notes

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

 

[4] Wert, Jeffry DGeneral James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

[11] Dowdy, CliffordLee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1985 p.109

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

The Peach Orchard: July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt.6

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 925 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the sixth of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the critical battles on the south side of the battlefield on July 2nd 1863, the battle for Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the final repulse on Cemetery Ridge.

As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the what they encountered on the battlefield, for that understanding of people is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

It was now time for Longstreet to commit the last brigades of McLaws’ division, the Georgians of William Wofford, and the Mississippians of William Barksdale. These units had been waiting west of the Peach Orchard, and the delay of Barksdale’s brigade getting into the fight had greatly chagrinned Joseph Kershaw when his South Carolinians made their attack without the Mississippi brigade supporting their left. “Longstreet never fully explained how he timed his order for Barksdale’s advance, nor did he specify why he allowed Kershaw to attack without Barksdale’s support.” [1] However, the delay was not easy on McLaws, or his brigade commanders, “particularly William Barksdale, whose thirst for glory was as sharp in Pennsylvania as it had been on his great day at Fredericksburg, where Lee to his delight had let him challenge the entire Yankee army.” [2]During the seemingly endless wait, the aggressive Barksdale plead with both McLaws and Longstreet to be allowed to attack, telling Longstreet, “I wish you would let me go in General!” “Wait a little,” answered Longstreet, “we are all going in presently.” [3] In the acrimonious post-war feud between the Confederate generals, Longstreet blamed McLaws for the delay, and Lafayette McLaws blamed Alexander’s slowness in bringing up his artillery for it, and while Alexander complained of “four partial attacks of two brigades each [in Hood and McLaw’s divisions], requiring each an hour and a half to be gotten into action; where one advance by the eight brigades would have won a quicker victory with far less loss.” [4]

However, McLaws was now ready, and Longstreet gave the order to attack. Porter Alexander’s massed artillery opened the battle for the Peach Orchard opening fire on the Federal troops with fifty-four guns which were drawn up to within five hundred yards of the Federal position. Henry Hunt saw the Confederate build-up and brought up more artillery and by four o’clock and they went “into battery not a minute too soon, the Rebel artillery that Hunt had spied moving into position let loose with a converging fire” [5] against Sickles’ troops. The Confederate artilleryman “hoped, with my 54 guns & close range, to make it short, sharp, and decisive. At close ranges there was less inequality in our guns, & especially in our ammunition, & I thought if I could ever overwhelm & crush them I would do it now.” [6]

The effect the barrage was dramatic as the Confederate guns blasted away at the men of Graham’s brigade of Birney’s division who held the angle of the Federal salient. Even so, Henry Hunt had managed to get “an impressive array of ordnance totaling thirty-two guns ready to take on the looming Confederate attack.” [7] By the time McLaws’s infantry attacked, “the three batteries in the Peach Orchard area had been increased to seven. A virtual solid line of forty Federal guns extended south from the Sherfy house to the Peach Orchard and east from there along the Wheatfield Road to Trostle’s Woods and the stony hill.” [8] Exposed to the massed fire of Alexander’s batteries the Federal artillery replied furiously and with more effects than Alexander or the other Confederate commanders expected. Alexander recalled that “they really surprised me, both in the number of guns that they developed, & the way they stuck to them. I don’t think that there ever in our war a hotter, harder, sharper artillery afternoon than this.” [9] In the artillery slugfest Alexander reported losing 144 men and 116 horses to the Federal batteries, He wrote, “So accurate was the enemy’s fire, that two of my guns were fairly dismounted, and the loss of men so great that I had to ask General Barksdale, whose brigade was lying down close to the wood, for help to handle the heavy 24-pounder howitzers of Moody’s battery.” [10] He noted that it was a higher toll than the artillery had suffered at Antietam during the entire battle. Henry Hunt’s gunners tenaciously held on to their exposed positions and with “waves of gray rolling all around them, some of the batteries in the forefront of the line went under, sucked into the vortex of death and devastation. Yet despite the opposition and the ninety-two-degree heat…other batteries held one stubbornly, hurling single and double charges of canister at their opponents, determined to seal up the holes in Meade’s line created by Dan Sickles’s impetuosity.” [11]

general-barksdale

Leading the assault now was the battle-hardened Mississippi brigade of Brigadier General William Barksdale, a former congressional colleague of Sickles whose time in Congress was not without a journey or two into infamy. Barksdale was born in Smyrna Tennessee in 1822. He was a Mississippi lawyer, newspaper editor and politician. Barksdale served in Mexico as a quartermaster officer of a militia unit, but though he was an administrator he did not shy away from battle. He “frequently appeared at the front during heavy fighting, often coatless and carrying a large sword.” [12]

While most of the former Regular Army Confederate officers supported and defended the institution of slavery and secession, many were less than passionate about either and would have preferred that the Union had been preserved. However, Barksdale was one of the few generals serving in Lee’s Army who in the decade leading up to the war had become “violently pro-slavery and secessionist.” [13] But his views regarding secession had evolved since he had first entered politics. When Barksdale entered Mississippi politics he was not a proponent of secession. In fact he was solidly against it and in one debate remarked that “no occasion for the right of [secession] existed.” [14] However, over time he became a reluctant supporter of secession and eventually “came to passionately embrace the Southern dream of an independent nation.” [15]

Barksdale was a passionate and sometimes violent man. As a state legislator and Congressman Barksdale was involved in a number of violent altercations with political opponents. In an 1853 incident at Vicksburg he was attacked and stabbed a number of times before knocking his assailant, his former commander during the War with Mexico out with one punch.

However, the incident for which Barksdale became most famous was an altercation which occurred when Representative Preston Brooks nearly killed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber. During that brawl Representative Elihu Washburne of Illinois landed a blow on Barksdale that sent Barksdale and his previously unsuspected wig flying. Someone snatched the wig from the floor and “waved it about like a captured flag.” When Barksdale finally recaptured the hairpiece he “and plopped it on his head wrong side out, the absurdity of the scene giving the combatants pause.” [16] As the scrum broke up Barksdale was left “sputtering about his shame.” [17]

At the outbreak of the war Barksdale volunteered for service and enlisted as a private. Shortly thereafter he was elected Colonel of the 13th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Barksdale took command of the Mississippi Brigade during the Seven Days Battles at Malvern Hill and he was promoted to Brigadier General in August 1862.

At Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville he and his Mississippi brigade were always in the thick of the fight. “He possessed a “thirst for battle glory” wrote one Mississippian….Inspiring by example, Barksdale was a leader who dared to go where many other high-ranking officers would not go in a crisis situation.” [18] He had a strong bond with his soldiers which made them willing to follow him anywhere, one soldier wrote “of the comfort of his men he was most considerate, would tolerate no neglect of denial of their rights, or imposition of anyone.” [19]

The other brigade commander of McLaws’s division final strike was Brigadier General William Wofford. Wofford was the newest of McLaws’ brigade commanders, and in many respects was Barksdale’s opposite in temperament and politics, particularly in regard to secession. Wofford was born in Habersham County, Georgia in 1824. Educated a local schools “he studied law, was elected to the bar, and began a practice in Cassville, Georgia.” [20] In addition to his law practice Wofford served as the editor for the Cassville Standard newspaper, and was a respected leader in his community. Though he had no military education Wofford volunteered to serve during the Mexican War, as a Captain of “a battalion of Georgia mounted volunteers” [21] where he experienced a great deal of fighting.

Wofford was considered a man of “high moral bearing…of the strictest sobriety, and, indeed of irreproachable moral character.” [22] Demonstrating the political tensions of the day Wofford was a “staunch Unionist Democrat” who “opposed secession and voted against it at the Georgia secession convention.” [23]

Despite his opposition to secession, Wofford, like others, considered loyalty to his state a higher ideal than to the Union, and when Georgia seceded he volunteered for service and was “elected colonel of the first Georgia regiment to volunteer for the war.” [24] Despite the contradiction of volunteering to serve his home state, Wofford “was a decided Union man from first to last during the whole war” and saw “with exceptional prescience…the certain fatality” of secession, but once the deed was done, he closed ranks…” [25] This may seem hard to comprehend in our present day, to to men like Wofford it was not. When he went to war Wofford served well as the regimental commander of the 18th Georgia regiment, and served as an acting brigade commander during the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Now the able and experienced the Georgia Unionist was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in January 1863 and given command of the brigade of Thomas Cobb who had been mortally wounded at Fredericksburg.

These two men would lead Longstreet’s final attack of July 2nd 1863. The fiery Mississippian and the pragmatic Georgian would lead their devoted soldiers in one of the fiercest charges of the war, one which pushed their Federal opponents to the limit before it was repulsed on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge.

When the order to attack was relayed to Barksdale by McLaws’ aide-de-camp, Captain G.B. Lamar reported, when I carried him [Barksdale] the order to advance, his face was radiant with joy. He was in front of his brigade, his hat off, and his long white hair reminded me of ‘the white plume of Navarre.’” [26] Barksdale told his regimental commanders “The line before you must be broken – to do so let every office and man animate his comrades by his personal presence in the front line.” [27]

As McLaws division attacked, Barksdale’s Mississippians broke through Federal salient, “charged straight through a picket fence, knocking it down by sheer impact, and they shot and stabbed a Pennsylvania regiment that was dug in behind it, and after a flurry of hand-to-hand fighting under the shattered peach trees the Union defenders turned and ran and the peach orchard was gone.” [28] Porter Alexander wrote, “McLaws’s division charged past our guns, and the enemy deserted their line in confusion. Then I believed that Providence was indeed “taking the proper view,” and that the war was very nearly over.” [29] But like many that day Alexander’s instinct was wrong.

Barksdale’s Mississippians drove forward through the Peach Orchard, through the men of Graham’s brigade, cheering and making the rebel yell, continuing to Plum Run, driving broken Federal regiments and batteries before them. “The Mississippi brigade drove forward at the double-quick and “literally rushed the goal,” tipping the rebel yell “with the savage courage of baited bulls” [30] Barksdale continued to lead his brigade forward though it had suffered significant casualties and was losing cohesion. Barksdale insisted on continuing to advance and would not stop to take time to reform his lines shouting at one of his regimental commanders “No! Crowd them – we have them on the run. Move your regiments.” [31] General Graham, attempted to rally his men and rode forward where he had his mount shoot out from under him. He then encountered Barksdale’s Mississippians who called on him to surrender. Graham, who had taken his adjutant’s mount replied “I won’t surrender. I’m a Brigadier General, and I won’t surrender.” [32] Undeterred the Mississippians shot his second mount out from under him and took him prisoner. “Graham had followed Sickles from their old days together in New York all the way to the Peach Orchard, and now would spend the next several months in captivity as his reward.” [33] As the Mississippians drove the remnants of Graham’s brigade to the rear, “the shattered line was retreating in separate streams[,] artillerists heroically clinging to their still smoking guns, and brave little infantry squads assisting their endangered cannon over soft ground…” [34]

As the Third Corps line collapsed the Trostle farm where Sickles had made his headquarters became hot to remain in. At about six-thirty P.M. Sickles was riding up to a hill just above the Trostle barn which would allow him a better view of his troops, the General was stuck by a Confederate round shot which stuck him in his right leg while leaving his mount unharmed. Sickles wrote:

“I never knew I was hit. I was riding the lines and was tremendously interested in the terrific fighting which was going on along my front. Suddenly I was conscious of dampness along the lower part of my right leg, and I ran my hand down the leg of my high-top boots and pulling it out I was surprised to see it dripping with blood. Soon I noticed the leg would not perform its usual functions. I lifted it carefully over my horse’s neck and slid to the ground. Then I was conscious of approaching weakness, and the last thing I remembered was designating the surgeons of my staff who should examine the wound and treat it. They found that the knee had been smashed, probably by a piece of shell, and that the leg had been broken above and also below the knee; but while all this damage had been done I had not been unhorsed, and never knew exactly what hurt had been received.” [35]

fig23

Sickles ordered Major Tremain to find General Birney and said “Tell General Birney he must take command.” [36] as a tourniquet was placed on his leg and his soldiers prepared to evacuate him to the rear, thinking that his wound might well be mortal. When the stretcher bearers arrived the wounded general, never missing a chance to build upon his legacy, “had an NCO light his cigar, and that was how he was carried away, cap over his eyes, cigar in mouth, hands folded on chest.” [37] Sickles was taken to the rear by ambulance where his leg was amputated in a field hospital that night. A soldier of the 17th Maine wrote, “Our last sight of him in the field ambulance is one we shall long remember….He was sitting in an ambulance smoking and holding his shattered limb and appeared as cool as though nothing had happened.” [38] His surgeon was using a new method of amputation and he had read that “the Army Medical Museum in Washington was advertising for samples, and so, instead of throwing the limb into a heap, he had it wrapped in a wet blanket and placed in a small coffin for shipment to Washington.” [39] In the years following Sickles paid his leg many visits and it can still be viewed along with a round shot similar to the one that wounded him at National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C.

The disaster that engulfed Sickles’ Third Corps now threatened the Federal center. Meade and Hancock rushed reinforcements in the form of Fifth Corps and much of Second 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.” [40] This exposed the left of Humphrey’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 Fifth Corps fighting along Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and Second Corps along the central portion of Cemetery Ridge.

The Battle on the Plum Run Line July 2nd

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 thick of the fighting providing invaluable support to Sickles’ hard pressed and outnumbered corps. Firing canister and grapeshot they cut swaths of death and destruction through the massed ranks of wildly cheering Confederates of Kershaw and Semmes and Barksdale’s brigades of McLaws’ division. Kershaw recalled:

“The Federals…opened on these doomed regiments a raking fire of grape and canister, at short distance, which proved most disastrous, and for a time destroyed their usefulness. Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell….” [41]

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Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilveryThis Fiery Line

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. But they were to befall another furiously conducted defense, this by artillery hastily collected along what is known as the Plum Run Line.

Among the artillery called into action was the First Volunteer Brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery. McGilvery was a Maine native and a former sea captain who had left the high seas to volunteer to serve the Union cause, and it was fortunate for the Union that this officer, knew how to inspire his artillerymen feats many thought unattainable in combat. On obtaining his commission as a Captain of Maine Volunteers, McGilvery organized and commanded the 6th Battery of the 1st Maine Volunteer artillery in January 1862.

McGilvery commanded that unit with distinction in a number of engagements. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9th 1863, “During the battery’s baptismal fire, McGilvery and his Maine cannoneers, in one general’s opinion, had “saved the division from being destroyed or taken prisoners.” [42] A few days later, operating without infantry support yet again, “The battery performed spectacularly during the Second Manassas campaign, bringing recognition to its salty commander.” [43] He was promoted to Major in early 1863 and assumed command of the brigade during the Chancellorsville campaign. Following Chancellorsville McGilvery was given command of the newly formed First Volunteer Brigade of the Artillery Reserve. Barley a month later as the Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s Army through Virginia and into Maryland he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

McGilvery’s battalion was directed by Brigadier general Tyler of the Artillery Reserve to assist Sickles, and Henry Hunt met them on the road and directed them into position. McGilvery’s batteries arrived in the sector between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. and “he was told by Sickles to examine the ground and pace the guns where he saw fit.” [44] He placed his four batters, some twenty-two guns in the Peach Orchard to support the artillery of Third Corps. Three batteries were placed in the Orchard itself near the Emmitsburg Road, and the fourth, the 9th Massachusetts under the command of Captain John Bigelow was deployed near the Trostle Farm. Without infantry support “It would be their job to hold the road down to the stony ridge by themselves.” [45] “Though hurt by enfilading fire from some of Alexander’s batteries, McGilvery’s guns in company with others from the reserve and the Third Corps had exchanged blow for blow with Confederate artillerymen for about two hours and had broken up the movements of some enemy infantry columns.” [46] These batteries were key in the first repulse of Kershaw and Semmes’ brigades at the stony ridge and which mortally wounded Semmes. McGilvery wrote:

“At about 5 o’clock a heavy column of rebel infantry made its appearance in a grain field, about 850 yards in front, moving at quick time toward the woods on our left, where infantry fighting was going on (front of the Round Tops). A well directed fire from all the batteries was brought to bear on them, which destroyed their order of march and drove many back into the woods on the right… In a few minutes another and larger column appeared, at about 750 yards, presenting a slight left flank to our position. I immediately trained the entire line of guns upon them and opened fire with various kinds of ammunition. The column continued to move on at double quick until it reached a barn and farm house immediately in front of my left battery (Bigelow’s) about n450 years distant. When it came to a halt (a shot had killed its commanding officer) I gave them canister and solid shot with such good effect, that, I am sure that several hundred were put hors du combat in a short time….” [47]

The Union batteries continued a destructive fire against various Confederate regiments and brigades but suffered from Confederate artillery fire and close in infantry assaults. Finally, “the pressure of the rebels became too great, and all of McGilvery’s batteries except Bigelow’s retired from this part of the field.” [48] Bigelow wrote, “No friendly supports of any kind were in sight…but Johnnie Rebs in great numbers. Bullets were coming in to our midst from many directions and a Confederate battery added to our difficulties.” [49]

McGilvery rode into the maelstrom of the retreating Third Corps soldiers and guns broken by Alexander’s withering fire. As he rode to and from each battery his horse was hit four times by enemy fire, but the salty artilleryman remained unwounded despite “exposing himself to enemy missiles on all parts of the field from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard.” [50] As he surveyed the scene he realized that there was no infantry in the immediate area that could plug the gap in the line. Taking the initiative, McGilvery acted instantly on his own authority to make a decision that in all likelihood saved the Union line.

In the confusion of the Third Corps disintegration, with soldiers fighting their way back to Cemetery Ridge and small groups and batteries attempting to keep their guns from being captured, McGilvery rode up to Bigelow and his 9th Massachusetts battery, which now stood alone at the Trostle farm. McGilvery told Bigelow, who was starting to make preparations to withdraw back to Cemetery Ridge, that he and his battery must “hold at all hazards.” [51]

Bigelow later explained that McGilvery told him 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…” [52] 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.” [53]

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.” [54]

Henry Hunt described the action, “Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts made a stand close by the Trostle house in the corner of the through which he had withdrawn with prolonges fixed. Although already much cut up he was directed by McGilvery to hold that point until a line of artillery could be formed in front of the wood beyond Plum Run; that is, on what we now call the “Plum Run line.” [55]

fig20

Bigelow’s Drawing of the action at Trostle Farm

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.” [56] 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.” [57] A German born gunner noted “we mowed them down like grass, but they were thick and rushed up.” [58] A hand to hand fight ensued among the guns but the Massachusetts men escaped losing 28 of its 104 men engaged,[59] their 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 half an hour to set up a new line of guns along Plum Run, it was a masterful exercise of improvisation under incredible pressure. “This line was formed by collecting the serviceable batteries, that were brought off, with which, and with Dow’s Maine battery fresh from the reserve, the pursuit was checked. Finally some twenty-five guns formed a solid mass, which unsupported by infantry held this part of the line, aided General Humprheys’s movements, and covered by its fire the abandoned guns until the could be brought off, as all were, except perhaps one. When, after accomplishing its purpose, all that was left of Bigelow’s battery was withdrawn.” [60] Hunt praised the effort of Bigelow’s men to give McGilvery the necessary time to form his new gun line. “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.”[61]

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 the line was composed of about fifteen guns of four different batteries and McGilvery was he was joined by two more batteries. This gave him a total of about twenty-five guns on the new line. Subjected to intense Confederate artillery fire and infantry attacks McGilvery’s batteries 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.” [62]

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” [63] 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.

It 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 Tenth Corps. He was slightly wounded in a finger at the battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864. The wound did not heal properly so surgeons decided to amputate the finger. However, during the operation they administered a lethal dose of chloroform anesthesia to the brave colonel and he died on September 9th 1864. When he died the Union lost one its finest artillerymen. His body was returned to his native Maine and buried. However, he was not forgotten. In 2001 Maine legislature designated the first Saturday in September as Colonel Freeman McGilvery Day.

As Barksdale’s Mississippians advanced, Wofford’s Georgians moved forward on their right. It was the advance of Wofford’s men that caused Crawford’s men to pull back from the stony hill and the Wheatfield. That brigade “drove into the gap between the Peach Orchard and de Trobriand’s old position on Stony Hill. The Georgians were an especially welcome sight to Kershaw’s weary South Carolinians, trying to sort themselves out on Rose’s farm.” [64] The remnants of Kershaw’s brigade joined in the advance to the right of Wofford and forced the survivors of Zook, Kelly, and Sweitzer’s brigades from the stony hill. The Confederates advanced driving the Union troops before them and plunged into the valley at the base of Little Round Top. Here that were met by the fresh division of the Pennsylvania Reserves which launched a counterattack, “driving the Southerners back across the ridge and into the Wheatfield…and the fighting on that section of the battlefield on that section abated into deadly sharpshooting.” [65] Longstreet, knowing that nothing more could be done in the sector ordered his troops back.

Barksdale’s advance also affected the Humphrey’s division which up to this point had not been severely engaged and had acquitted itself well against elements of Richard Anderson’s division of A.P. Hill’s corps. When Sickles was wounded he turned command of the Third Corps over to Birney. In spite of being flanked by Barksdale and pressed by Anderson, Humphreys planned to counter attack, but Birney order him back to Cemetery Ridge. One of Humphreys’ aides recalled the scene, “The crash of artillery and the tearing rattle of our musketry was staggering, and added to the noise on our side, the advancing roar & cheer of the enemy’s masses, coming on like devils incarnate.” [66] Pressed hard, Humphreys pulled his troops back in a delaying action and the division suffered about 1,200 casualties, “but it came out intact with morale sound and still full of fight.” [67]

fig22

The High Water Mark

Led by their exuberant commander the brigade pushed past the Trostle farm and into the Plum Run Valley, continuing to take casualties from the stubborn survivors of Third Corps. Now unsupported Barksdale continued to press forward toward cemetery Ridge, a soldier of the 13th Mississippi “recalled the sight of the mounted Barksdale encouraging the boys onward, yelling, “Forward through the brushes.” [68] Barksdale believed that he and his Mississippians could still wrest victory from defeat and he kept urging his decimated brigade forward in spite of the odds.

However, the tide was about to shift for the last time, as Barksdale’s survivors reached the lower portion of Cemetery Ridge a fresh Federal brigade arrived. Commanded by Colonel George Willard this brigade, struck the Mississippians. Willard’s brigade was seeking redemption having been one of the units forced to surrender at Harpers Ferry the previous September. His troops were fresh and full of fight fell upon the Mississippians. “Taking advantage of the downhill grade, they charged headlong into the right flank of Barksdale’s brigade.” [69] As they did so the New Yorkers shouted, “Remember Harper’s Ferry! Remember Harpers Ferry!” “A short but terrible contest ensured in the bushes in the swale” and the Mississippians; “fire slackened and they began to give back.” As they did, “large numbers of them, staring at “the very points of our bayonets,” surrendered and “lay down in ranks.” [70]

The attack by Willard’s brigade broke the Mississippians who had swept so many others before them, but now Barksdale’s troops were spent and disorganized having reached their culminating point of their attack. When the two sides collided in the swale, “the New Yorkers were at the peak of their frenzy, while the Mississippians had spent theirs.” [71] Barksdale “in his gold-braided roundabout jacket, was “almost frantic with rage” at the repulse of his brigade, and “was riding at the front of his troops” and trying to make his men stand.” [72] He was now a conspicuous target and the men of 125th and 126th New York opened fire on him, hitting him “in the chest, puncturing a lung, and in his left leg fracturing a bone.” [73] The gallant officer fell from his horse, mortally wounded as his troops driven back by the New Yorkers. A party of Union soldiers recovered him and took him to a Federal field hospital where he “told his minders “tell my wife I fought like a man and I will die like one.” [74] The former Congressman died the next “morning, his thirst for glory slaked at last.” [75] His final opponent, Colonel George Willard did not live long to savor the redemption that he and his brigade won that afternoon as he was hit “full in the face by a fragment of a shell and died instantly.” [76]

To the north of the salient Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps made a disjointed and uncoordinated attack at toward Cemetery Ridge. Due to apparently garbled orders from Anderson, neither Carnot Posey’s or “Little Billy” Mahone’s brigades advanced. Ambrose Wright’s troops went forward, but his claims to have breached the Federal line are romantic fiction at best, and David Lang’s tiny Florida brigade made only a desultory advance before retiring. Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade advanced unsupported up to Cemetery Ridge which due to the dispatch of troops to the Peach Orchard was only lightly defended.

When Hancock saw the threat he ordered the 1st Minnesota commanded by Colonel William Covill, all of 262 men to charge the advancing Confederates. Hancock told Covill: “Colonel, do you see those colors?…Then take them.” [77] Second Lieutenant Lochran of the regiment remembered the moment “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant, – death or wounds to us all; the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time to save the position, and probably the battlefield…” [78] Covill’s tiny force “of a little over three hundred men tore into Wilcox’s right and stopped it cold.” [79] But the cost to the regiment was high, “Covill and all but three of his officers were killed or wounded, together with 215 of his men.” [80] Covill’s gallant troops bought time for Hancock to bring up Gibbon’s division which forth a heavy fire of musketry and were joined by the artillery which just minutes before had ravaged Barksdale’s Mississippians Wilcox, now staggered Wilcox’s regiments. Having taken a fair number of casualties he saw that he had no help or support from the rest of Anderson’s division, and reluctantly he withdrew his brigade from Cemetery Ridge .He later reported, “With a second supporting line the heights could have been carried. Without support on either my right or my left, my men were withdrawn to prevent their entire destruction or capture.” [81]

By the evening fresh Federal troops directed by Meade, Hancock and Hunt poured into the sector. Dan Sickles’ impetuous gamble was a near disaster for the Army of the Potomac, but the cool determination of his soldiers, the outstanding work of the Federal artillery, and the active leadership provided by Meade, Hancock, Warren, and Hunt enabled the army to repulse the Confederate assault. But it had been “another close call, staving off another Chancellorsville through unscripted decisions and split second timing.” [82] By the end of the day despite sustaining massive casualties the Federal Army held its ground and the Confederates, with the exception of their lodgment at Devil’s Den returned to their start positions.

The fighting around the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den was confusing as units of both sides became mixed up and cohesion was lost. Both sides sustained heavy casualties but Lee’s Army could ill afford to sustain such heavy losses. By the end of the evening both McLaws and Hood’s divisions were spent having lost almost half of their troops as casualties. Hood was severely wounded early in the fight, and many other Confederate commanders were killed or mortally wounded including the irrepressible Barksdale and Paul Semmes of McLaws’ division.

Amid the carnage there were acts of kindness shown towards one another by men who not long before had been mortal enemies. Private John Coxe of the 2nd South Carolina wrote:

“I felt sorry for the wounded enemy, but we could do little to help them. Just before dark I passed a Federal officer sitting on the ground with his back resting against a large oak tree. He called me to him, and when I went he politely asked me to give him some water. There was precious little in my canteen, but I let him empty it. His left leg was crushed just above the ankle, the foot lying on the ground sidewise. He asked me to straighten it up, and as I did so I asked him if the movement hurt him. “There isn’t much feeling in it now,” he replied quietly. Then before leaving him I said, “Isn’t this war awful?” “Yes, yes,” said he, “and all of us should be in a better business….” [83]

That evening the exhausted Confederate troops consolidated their positions on the few places where they had made lodgments in near the Federal line, tending to their wounded and seeking shelter among the rocks, trees and the dead. The Federal troops tended to the wounded around their lines while Henry Hunt’s artillerymen repaired their batteries as the night fell and their generals took counsel.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.193

[2] Ibid. Foote The Stars in Their Courses p.136

[3] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgment by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.580

[4] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.193

[5] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns p.165

[6] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.239

[7] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery at Gettysburg p.119

[8] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, the Second Day p. 312

[9] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.239

[10] Alexander, Edward Porter. The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III The Tide Shifts Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.360

[11] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns p.167

[12] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg pp.217-218

[13] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.217

[14] Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, July 2nd, 1863 Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia and Oxford 2013 p.14

[15] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.15

[16] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.144

[17] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.140

[18] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.18

[19] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.17

[20] Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of Confederate Commanders Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge 1959, 1987 p.343

[21] Ibid. Warner. Generals in Gray p.343

[22] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.296

[23] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.221

[24] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.297

[25] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.296-297

[26] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Army at Gettysburg p.221

[27] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 193

[28] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.295

[29] Ibid. Alexander The Great Charge and the Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg p.360

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.308

[31] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.368

[32] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.310

[33] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 202

[34] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.368

[35] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 202

[36] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.217

[37] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.288

[38] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 207

[39] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.289

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

[41] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg p.335

[42] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.188

[43] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery at Gettysburg p.97

[44] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery at Gettysburg p.97

[45] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg p.307

[46] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.415

[47] Bigelow, John The Peach Orchard Gettysburg, July 2nd 1863, Explained by Official Reports and Maps. Primary Source edition., Originally published by Kimball-Storer Co. Minneapolis 1910 p.20

[48] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.416

[49] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.384

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

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

[52] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg p.314

[53] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.385

[54] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.385

[55] Hunt, Henry. The Second Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.310

[56] 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 http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/gett/gettysburg_seminars/5/essay4.htm#52

[57] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.416

[58] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg the Last Invasion pp.314-315

[59] Ibid. Hunt Proceeded to Cemetery Hill p.379

[60] Ibid. Hunt The Second Day at Gettysburg p.310

[61] Ibid. Hunt Proceeded to Cemetery Hill p.379

[62] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.417

[63] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.417

[64] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.302

[65] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.262

[66] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.379

[67] Nofi, Albert A. The Gettysburg Campaign June – July 1863 Third Edition Combined Publishing, Conshohocken, PA 1986 p.128

[68] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.221

[69] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.417

[70] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.325

[71] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.388

[72] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.325

[73] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.262

[74] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.325

[75] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.509

[76] Ibid. Tucker Barksdale’s Charge p.231

[77] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.393

[78] Ibid. Gragg The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader p.222

[79] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.423

[80] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.509

[81] Ibid. Luvaas and Nelson Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.128

[82] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.334

[83] Ibid. Gragg The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader p.205

 

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July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 5: The Wheatfield

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 925 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the fifth of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the critical battles on the south side of the battlefield on July 2nd 1863, the battle for Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the final repulse on Cemetery Ridge.

As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the what they encountered on the battlefield, for that understanding of people is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

To the left of Benning, “Tige” Anderson’s brigade and two of Robertson’s orphaned regiments assaulted the remaining elements of Hobart Ward’s brigade along the western section of Houck’s Ridge and Rose’s Woods. Ward had been assigned by his division commander, David Birney to defend the left flank of Sickles over-extended line. To do so he had already placed the men of the 124th New York and the 4th Maine on his left, while those remaining took position on Houck’s Ridge and in Rose’s Woods. Like the other units of Third Corps, these troops were all veterans led by veteran officers and they would not give ground without a fight. However, Ward’s troops had not taken the time to erecting any hasty fortifications or breastworks, as one “veteran remembered it, “we had not yet learned the inestimable value of breastworks, and instead of spending time rolling the loose stones into a bullet-proof line, we lounged about on the grass and rocks.” [1] But when the Confederate assault began, these men took advantage of the nature terrain features which made it formidable even without such efforts.

As the Confederates moved against Ward’s troops on the ridge and in Rose’s Woods their left flank made contact with the adjoining brigade of Regis de Trobriand, the leftmost regiment of which, the 17th Maine was posted at the southwest corner of the Wheatfield. As the Union infantry regiments braced for the attack, the Confederate formations were shredded by the shells of the Federal artillery which crashed upon them. “I could hear bones crash like glass in a hail storm,” asserted a Georgian. Colonel Dudley M. DuBose of the 15th Georgia avowed, “I never saw troops move on more steadily & in better order than these did on that occasion.” [2] Despite the carnage the Georgians continued on, and when they got within seventy-five yards of the 17th Maine opened a blistering fire which “slowed Anderson’s brigade’s assault but certainly did not stop it.” [3] Lieutenant Colonel Charles Merrill of the 17th Maine wrote:

“We opened fire on the enemy, then within 100 yards of us. The contest became very severe, the enemy at times being driven back by our line, then by superior numbers compelling us in turn to give way. The ground was hotly contested, but we held our position till, finding the right of my regiment outflanked and exposed to murderous fire from the enemy’s reinforcements, I was obliged to form a new line, changing the right wing of the regiment into position at a right angle to the left. This movement was executed in good order, under a heavy fire from the advancing foe. In this position we continued to fight, checking the enemy till, receiving orders to retire, we fell back across a wheat-field in our rear to the edge of the woods.” [4]

Anderson’s Confederates continued their attack and as they advanced Anderson was wounded and Colonel W.W. White took command, and while the Georgians had succeeded in taking some ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the Federal troops, the brigade was spent. Attesting to the severity of the fight Colonel White wrote, “From the exhausted condition of the men, together with the fact that the enemy were pouring in large re-enforcements on the right, it was deemed impractical to follow him further… The brigade retired in good order across the ravine, and went into bivouac for the night…. The loss of the brigade was heavy…. 105 killed, 512 wounded, and 146 missing.” [5]

The fight in Rose’s Woods and the Wheatfield between Birney’s division and the men of Benning and Anderson’s brigades drew in other units and McLaws’ division entered the fight and the men of Caldwell’s division of the Federal Fifth Corps entered the battle. Initially, the Union infantry was outnumbered but it had the support of the artillery that Henry Hunt had rushed into the fight. The brigades to the right of the woods on the rocky hill commanded by Tilton and Sweitzer were rapidly becoming isolated as the Confederates advanced to their rear and Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade “appeared through the smoke” like a malevolent fury, “moving with shout, shriek, curse, and yell…loading and firing with deliberation as they advanced, begrimed and dirty-looking fellows in all sorts of garb, some without hats, some without coats, none apparently in the real dress or uniform of a soldier.” [6]

Joseph Kershaw was one of the few Confederate commanders without a legacy to protect to write in detail about the battle in the Wheatfield. Kershaw was a lawyer and politician who had served in the Mexican-American War with the Palmetto Regiment. After the war he went back to civilian life and served as a member of the South Carolina State Senate. When South Carolina seceded from the Union, Kershaw volunteered for service and was made Colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry which he commanded at Fort Sumter, Bull Run, and on the Peninsula. “Natural leadership and applied intelligence had advanced him to brigades command, and he was tabbed for future material for division command.” [7] As a brigade commander he distinguished himself during the Seven days, Second Bull, Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Kershaw was an natural leader and displayed an ability for “quick and rational decisions, and he never endangered his men rashly” [8] His division commander, Lafayette McLaws had a tremendous amount of trust and respect for his subordinate. “Pious, intelligent, a clear blond of high bred, clean-cut features, he had the bearing of command and a clear voice that seemed to inspire courage when it was raised in battle.” [9] Kershaw was “probably the most popular brigade commander in the entire Army of Northern Virginia. His South Carolinians – the 2,100 men of the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, and 15th South Carolina, along with the seven companies that made up the 3rd South Carolina Battalion – adored him as “a very fine man and good officer” who is liked by everyone.” Actually, this forty-one-year-old lawyer from Camden…was a chronic depressive, unhappily married, and “intensely lonely” [10] That did not diminish the love of his men for him, and His brigade had been the lead unit of the First Corps’ disastrous movement to contact that afternoon, and he had watched the contra-temps between Longstreet’s and McLaws during the march and counter-march that morning and afternoon, and upon the discovery of Sickles’ troops in the Peach Orchard. His brigade, a unit of battle-hardened veterans may not have looked like soldiers due to the wear and tear of constant campaigning and the lack of new uniforms or equipment but they were among the toughest and most disciplined brigades on either side.

Kershaw’s brigade as well as the Georgia brigade of Brigadier General Paul Semmes, the brother of Rafael Semmes, the Captain of the raider CSS Alabama, formed the right flank of Lafayette McLaws’ attack on the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield. Kershaw understood from his discussions with McLaws and Longstreet that his attack was supposed to be coordinated with that of Hood’s division on his right, which was “sweep down the Federal line in a direction perpendicular to our line of battle.” [11] and with Barksdale’s brigade on his left. However, as his troops prepared to jump off to start their attack Kershaw “got his first unpleasant surprise when he observed Hood’s brigades moving “independently against Round Top,” a departure from the plan that meant they would not “directly participate in the joint attack.” [12] Without Hood’s support on his right Kershaw was now completely dependent on Barksdale’s brigade on his left to hit the Peach Orchard to protect his left flank from the massed Federal artillery on that height.

When Kershaw received word to advance his troops moved off followed by Semmes’ brigade while Longstreet accompanied the brigade until it reached the Emmitsburg Road. Kershaw made a tactical decision which made sense but which had a major impact on his attack. “All field and staff officers were dismounted on account of the many obstacles in the way.” [13] Kershaw chose to move with his right regiments and being dismounted this diminished his ability to see what was going on with his left, and limited his ability to provide command and control. This was not a mistake, it was a sound tactical move due to the terrain and the exposure of mounted officers to sharpshooters and artillery directed specifically at them.

As Kershaw’s men advanced he looked for Barksdale’s brigade, and only then “heard Barksdale’s drums beat the assembly, and I knew then that I should have no immediate support on my left, about to be squarely presented to the heavy force of infantry and artillery at and in the rear of the Peach Orchard.[14] Without Barksdale on his flank Kershaw was forced to improvise, he divided his regiments with “two going straight toward the stony hill, he sent two to their left to take the Union batteries in the back of the peach orchard.” [15] Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery noted that “Barksdale’s delay “ was especially unfortunate in this case, because advancing Kershaw without advancing Barksdale would expose Kershaw to enfilade by troops who Barksdale would easily drive off. Few battlefields can furnish examples of worse tactics.” [16]

Up to the point of crossing the Emmitsburg Road, Kershaw’s regiments had a relatively easy advance, but as Kershaw feared, they were hit from the front and flank by rifle fire, and by artillery fire. “We saw plainly that their artillerists were loading their guns to meet our assault, while their mounted officers went dashing wildly from gun to gun, to be sure that all were ready,” recalled one soldier of the 2nd South Carolina, and when they opened fire, “every Federal cannon let fly at us” with solid shot and canister.” [17] The effect on Kershaw’s troops was devastating. Scores of his troops were cut down as they advanced, even so they continued to move forward. Private William Shumate of the 2nd South Carolina described the effect of the massed Union artillery fire on Kershaw’s troops. “Kershaw’s brigade moved…in perfect order and with the precision of brigade drill, while upon my right and left comrades were stricken down by grape and canister which went crashing through our ranks. It did not seem to me that none could escape.” [18] Kershaw’s left regiments were now approaching the Federal artillery and Kershaw had lost contact with them. As they approached the Union guns, those batteries ceased fire and prepared to withdraw.

Victory seemed assured and then the unthinkable happened, as it so often does in the confusion of battle and the fog of war; an order was issued by an unknown officer to change the direction of the attack. Evidently someone misunderstood “Kershaw’s orders or his intent and with this false order aborted the attack.” [19] The change of direction resulted in those regiments making a right flank and presenting their exposed left to the Federal artillery men, who now remained their guns and opened a devastating and merciless fire into the flank of the South Carolinians. Kershaw was livid and later wrote:

“The Federals returned to their guns and opened on these doomed regiments a raking fire of grape and canister, at short distance, which proved most disastrous, and for a time destroyed their usefulness. Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell, victims of this fatal blunder.” [20]

A Massachusetts infantryman walked the field after the charge and noted, “Masses of Kershaw’s and Wofford’s brigades had been swept from the muzzles of the guns, which had been loaded either with double-shotted, or spherical case, with fuses being cut to one second, to explode near the muzzles. They were literally blown to atoms. Corpses strewed the ground at every step. Arms, heads, legs and parts of dismembered bodies were scattered all about, and sticking among the rocks and against the trunks of trees, hair, brains, entrails, and shreds of human flesh still hung, a disgusting, sickening, heart-rending spectacle to our young minds.” [21]

While his left regiments were being manhandled by the Federal artillery due to the errant order, Kershaw’s right regiments continued their attack on troops of De Trobriand, Sweitzer, and Tilton, on the stony hill. This landmark was in the process of being cut off from the rest of the Federal army as Anderson’s troops gained control of the Wheatfield.

On the surface it seems that the three brigades should have been enough to hold the stony hill, although this is not entirely clear from contemporary accounts or from the histories published since. But, there is one overriding opinion that comes through in most of the accounts, which is that there was a problem with Federal command and control on this section of the battlefield. When the Fifth Corps units of Barnes’ division began arriving in the Third Corps section, Sickles and Birney assumed that these troops were subordinated to their command, but Meade had given contrary orders to Sykes who assumed that the changed orders “relieved his troops from “any call from the commander of the Third Corps.” [22] Whether this was Meade’s plan, Sykes’ interpretation of his orders, or Sickles’ seeking to shift some of the blame for the near disaster to someone else depends on which account one reads.

Thus when pressure began to build on the stony hill as Kershaw’s troops advanced from the front and Anderson’s worked their way to the rear, Barnes or Tilton apparently gave orders to Tilton and Sweitzer, whose “brigades had put up a brief but determined fight along their end of the stony ridge” [23] to withdraw from their position. Like the other controversies of this day this too played out in the media long after the battle was over, however, Sweitzer “clearly reported that he did not retreat until after Tilton’s brigade had fallen back, and then fell back by Barnes’ order.” [24] What appeared to have happened was that the renewed advance of Kershaw’s troops had intimidated Barnes and Tilton, and Barnes, watching the advance with anxiety “issued a precautionary order for withdraw. It seems in retrospect that caution had gone beyond prudence to pessimism.” [25] De Trobriand, who had been encouraged by the arrival of the two brigades was stunned when he saw them withdraw and wrote, “I saw these troops rise up and fall back hurriedly at the command of their officers.” [26] He realized that his position was now untenable noting, “I found myself in danger of being surrounded, and fell back out of the woods” and reforming his lines kept “the enemy at bay until the arrival of sufficient reinforcements from the Second Corps allowed us to be relieved when our ammunition was just exhausted.” [27] The end result was that Kershaw’s troops, despite the heavy casualties that they had suffered now gained the summit of the stony hill and joined forces with Anderson’s brigade. “This success, coupled with the eviction of Ward’s brigade from its position at Devil’s Den, meant that the whole left wing of Sickles’s line had been smashed and that its right wing along the Emmitsburg Road was in jeopardy.” [28]

gettysburg-blog-photo-1

The arrival of the four brigades of John Caldwell’s division of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps occurred in a nick of time for the men along Sickles’ beleaguered line along the Wheatfield. One of these brigades was the Irish Brigade formerly commanded by Dan Sickles’ friend, and former defense attorney, Thomas Meagher, and now commanded by Colonel Patrick Kelly of the 88th New York. The Irish Brigade had been decimated in fight after fight, “now numbering only about five hundred men. Indeed, as one Irish Brigade officer noted, they “were a brigade in name only.” [29] When it became clear that the brigade was about to go into action, the brigade’s chaplain and after the war, the President of Notre Dame University, Father William Corby, realized that his duties “included the lifting the burden of sin from his flock through the act of conditional absolution.” [30] What followed was one of the most remembered events of the battle. Colonel Kelly:

“called the brigade to attention and commanded it to “Order Arms.” Father Corby stepped up on a boulder about three feet high, explained what he was about to do, and ended his remarks with the observation that the “Catholic church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back on the foe or deserts his flag.” The men of the brigade knelt, each man on his right knee, head uncovered, hat in left hand, rifle in right, and head bowed, while Chaplain Corby, raised his right hand and pronounced the Latin words of absolution.” [31]

When Father Corby pronounced the words “Dominus nos Jesus Christus vos absolvat” they were made more poignant by the sound of the guns and echoing explosions to their south. The commander of the 116th Pennsylvania noted that even General Hancock, a Protestant noted for his frequent blasphemy, was “watching from his horse, removed his hat and bowed his head. It was, as Corby later declared, an absolution for them all – Catholics and Protestants, northerners and southerners, all “who were susceptible of it who were about to appear before their judge.” [32] An observer wrote “The service was more than impressive, it was awe-inspiring.” [33]

Upon receiving his orders Caldwell moved his division forward crossing Plum Run and moving toward the Wheatfield at the double-quick. Colonel Edward Cross’s brigade was on the right. When Hancock saw him he remarked “Colonel Cross, this day will bring you a star.” Colonel Cross, looking up at Hancock, shook his head and replied gravely, “No General, this is my last battle.” [34] Cross normally wore a red bandana to allow his troops to recognize him in battle, but today he wore a black scarf on his head. As his troops advanced he called out to them, “Boys, you know what’s before you…give ’em hell.” [35] His brigade was followed by Kelly’s Irish Brigade and Brigadier General Samuel Zook’s brigade and that John Brooke. When Caldwell’s division struck it struck with fury, but was met with terrific resistance by Anderson’s men in the Wheatfield and Kershaw’s on the stony hill. Cross’s brigade was stopped before it could break through the Confederate line, with their commander being mortally wounded in the attack. Cross was hit in the abdomen and realizing his wound was mortal said “I hope that peace will be restored to our distressed country. I think that the boys will miss me. Say goodbye to all.” [36]

Wheatfield-irish

Zook’s brigade came next, taking its direction from Dan Sickles. The brigade “deployed near the Trostle farm, and advanced against Kershaw’s men on the stony hill.” [37] There they were met by withering fire, and Zook leading his men from the front was mortally wounded, his brigade suffering massive casualties even as they continued to advance and many “of the companies…came out commanded by sergeants.” [38] A survivor of the brigade remembered it, “the firing became terrific and the slaughter frightful. We were enveloped in smoke and fire, not only in our front, but on our left, and even at times on our right….Our men fired promiscuously, steadily pressing forward, but the fighting was so mixed, rebel and union lines so close together, and in some places intermingled, that a clear idea of what was going on was not readily obtainable.” [39] These stalwart men were followed by Kelly’s Irish Brigade and Brooke’s brigade, Caldwell’s last available unit, which moved through the Wheatfield and up the slope of the stony hill.

These brigades, as well as Sweitzer’s, which had been commandeered by Caldwell finally wrested control of the Wheatfield from Anderson and the stony hill from Kershaw. As the Irish advanced a South Carolina officer remarked “Isn’t that a magnificent sight.” [40] Kershaw later wrote that “the fighting was general and desperate all along the time and so continued for some time….I feared the brave men around me would be surrounded by the large force of enemy constantly increasing in numbers and all the while enveloping us. In order to avoid such a catastrophe, I ordered a retreat to the buildings at Rose’s.” [41] Major St. Clair Mulholland, commanding the 116th Pennsylvania of the Irish Brigade recalled the fight for the hill:

“Having entered a dense woods, we began to ascend a hill, where large bowlders of rocks impeded our progress, notwithstanding which we advanced in good order. We soon came within sight of the enemy, who occupied the crest of the hill, and who immediately opened fire at our approach. Our brigade returned the fire with good effect. After firing for about ten minutes, the order was given to advance, which the brigade did in excellent style, driving the enemy from their position, which we at once occupied….We found the position which our enemy had occupied but a few moments before thickly strewn with the dead and wounded.” [42]

For a time the mixed units that the Federals had committed to the fight for the Wheatfield and the stony hill, along with Sykes’s division of Regulars which had moved up to their left flank stabilized the Federal line. For a time it “appeared that the Rebel effort to overwhelm the Federal flank had failed, save for Devil’s Den. But the situation was changing quickly…”[43]. But the conduct of the battle, “in large part to Sickles, and with help from Longstreet’s execution of the attack, the situation was proving to be a bloody mess on both sides.” [44] The Federal occupation of the stony hill lasted barely twenty minutes when a new threat arose from the direction of the Peach Orchard, Caldwell’s success had placed the division in an exposed position and he had no reserves left to counter any Confederate move on his right flank.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.164

[2] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.259

[3] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, the Second Day p.247

[4] Ibid. Luvaas and Nelson Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.105

[5] Ibid. Luvaas and Nelson Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.108

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.286

[7] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.197

[8] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.214

[9] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day p.151

[10] Ibid Guelzo Gettysburg, The Last Invasion p.282

[11] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg p.333

[12] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.351

[13] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg p.334

[14] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg pp.334-335

[15] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.222

[16] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.181

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.287

[18] Gottfried, Bradley The Artillery of Gettysburg Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville TN 2008 p.125

[19] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.285

[20] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg p.335

[21] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.126

[22] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.399

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.286

[24] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.187

[25] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day p.259

[26] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.286

[27] Ibid. Luvaas and Nelson Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.114

[28] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day pp.264-265

[29] Bruce, Susannah Ural The Harp and the Flag: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 New York University Press, New York and London 2006 p.160

[30] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.303

[31] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day p.268

[32] Ibid. Bruce The Harp and the Flag p.165

[33] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.303

[34] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day p.269

[35] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.291

[36] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, The Second Day p.273

[37] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.363

[38] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.295

[39] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.290

[40] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.363

[41] Ibid. Kershaw Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg pp.336-337

[42] Ibid. Luvaas and Nelson Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.117

[43] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, a Testing of Courage p.367

[44] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.192

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A Grand Sight to Witness: July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 2

sickles peach orchard

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 925 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the second of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the critical battles on the south side of the battlefield on July 2nd 1863, the battle for Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the final repulse on Cemetery Ridge.

As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the what they encountered on the battlefield, for that understanding of people is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

sickles as brigadier

The Problem of Dan Sickles and Third Corps

In the early morning hours of July 2nd 1863, George Meade had instructed Dan Sickles’ Third Corps “to go into position on the left of the Second corps [so] that his right was to connect with the left of the Second Corps, [and] he was going to prolong the line of that corps occupying the position that general Geary held the night before,” [1] that is the area of South Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. However during the night and early morning hours Sickles had not done so. However, Sickles was not comfortable with the position of his corps, especially in relation to the high ground that lay in front of him.

All morning he had been lobbying Meade, through Meade son and Aide-de-Camp Captain George Meade, the Artillery Reserve Commander Henry Hunt, Warren and even Meade himself to adjust the line held by his corps to no avail. Sickles had posted some of Birney’s division to the west of Plum Run near the Peach Orchard as pickets. His left, which should have rested on Little Round Top was located at Devil’s Den while Berdan’s Sharpshooters pushed further west as a skirmish line along with a few regiments of Birney’s division and a few squadrons of cavalry.

Sickles ordered Berdan to lead about one hundred of his sharpshooters into the woods west of the Warfield farm where they engaged part of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade and noticed “three columns in motion in the rear of the wood, changing direction… by the right flank.” [2] The troops were those of Hood and McLaws divisions moving to their start positions from which they would assault the federal left. Berdan reported the Confederate troop movements to Sickles. Additionally, Sickles was also concerned because John Buford’s Cavalry division which has been deployed on the Federal left, had just “been pulled to the rear to be refitted, but not replaced. The horsemen had been supplying him with vital information about rebel dispositions; with mobile reconnaissance now gone, Sickles felt naked and vulnerable.” [3] He believed that it was absolutely vital that he move troops onto the Peach Orchard, and to a hill known as Stony Hill, Houck’s Ridge, and another known by local children by the sinister name of Devil’s Den.

Sickles decided to voice his concerns to Meade and sent his aide de camp, Major Henry Tremain, to report those concerns at Meade’s headquarters. Tremain explained the positions of the Third Corps, as well as the skirmishers, and reminded Meade “that there were no troops on the left of Third Corps, and told him that Sickles had sent General Graham to bring up the two brigades left at Emmitsburg.” [4] Apparently Meade was not concerned and paid little attention to Sickles concerns. Later in the morning Sickles had Tremain take him to Meade’s headquarters where Sickles complained about the position. He noted that “the Ridge dipped slightly just before meeting Little Round Top,” [5] and that there was higher ground in front. Sickles “spoke of his concerns, the poor position assigned to his corps, the advantages of holding the high ground at the Peach Orchard, and his fear of an assault from his front.” [6] Meade seemed unconcerned and Sickles pressed Meade to see the ground for himself. Meade curtly refused to do so, so Sickles asked if “Meade would at least send his chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren? The answer was even more curt: no” [7]

Meade was most concerned about another Confederate assault on his right, and paid little attention to the concerns of the political general. Sickles also asked the army commander “if he was authorized to post his corps in a manner he “should deem the most suitable.” Meade replied, “Certainly, within the limits of the general instructions I have given you; any ground within those limits you choose to occupy I leave to you.” [8] Finally after some discussion Sickles was able to convince Meade to send his artillery chief, Henry Hunt to come with him to examine potential artillery positions for his corps. Had Meade not been so concerned about his right he might have paid more attention to the reports of the Signal Corps station on Little Round Top which as early as noon were reporting the Confederate troop movements being reported by Sickles and Berdan. Scoffing at Sickles Meade allegedly said, “Generals are all apt to look for the attack to be made where they are.” [9]

Hunt accompanied Sickles back to his corps and made a reconnaissance of the ground that Sickles was determined to hold. While Hunt believed that it had some advantages that those advantages were cancelled out by several factors, including the fact that the position would be a salient exposed to enemy attacks from multiple sides, and that the Third Corps “was not strong enough with only two divisions instead of the three possessed by most corps) to hold the new line and also connect Hancock’s flank in the north.”[10] Though Hunt sympathized with Sickles predicament, and recognized the inadequacies along the southern sector of Cemetery Ridge near Little Round Top, he would not authorize the insistent Knickerbocker to advance. He “suggested that Sickles talk further with headquarters, and he now advised Meade to examine the position for himself.” [11] Hunt then left Sickles in order to check on his other artillery dispositions along Cemetery Ridge.

Sickles, who lived with the vision of being ordered off of Hazel Grove by Hooker at Chancellorsville and who had seen what had happened to Howard’s Eleventh Corps when it had its flank rolled up by Jackson, now felt that history was about to repeat itself. Though his requests to Meade and Hunt had been met with a “no,” and while Hunt’s answer might have been more ambiguous, but the answer was still no, unless Meade changed his mind. That did not happen. Hunt made his report to Meade and told Meade that “the proposed line [by Sickles] was a good one in itself; that it offered favorable positions for artillery, but that its relations to other lines were such that I could not advise it, and suggested that he examine it himself before ordering occupation.” [12]

With Hunt gone, and Sickles having heard what he wanted to hear from Meade and the artillery chief, Sickles acted on his own. Sickles was determined not to be victimized a second time by Robert E. Lee and “he was not going to let his men suffer the fate of the Eleventh Corps.” [13] As he continued to get reports from Berdan’s skirmishers of the Confederate build up just to the west of the Peach Orchard, he “took it to mean that the Peach Orchard line that he coveted was about to be occupied by the enemy. At 2:00 P.M., without authorization from Meade, without even informing Meade, he ordered Third Corps forward.” [14]

It was an act of brazen insubordination, but typical of him, and while historians still debate what Sickles did, his action was not entirely without justification. Some of this is directly attributed to George Meade, whose apparent lack of empathy for Sickles’ plight as the commander on the scene, and for “the situation on his front, and so Sickles had taken the bit in his teeth and abandoned the position ordered by General Meade for one that he believed better. He defended his decision and action afterward – aggressively, if not always credibly and honorably – until his dying day, half a century later.” [15] Sickles later wrote: “Impossible to wait any longer without giving the enemy serious advantages in his attack, I advanced my line toward the highest ground to my front, occupying the Emmitsburg Road at the very point where Longstreet hoped to cross it unopposed.” [16] But Sickles, while he certainly believed that he was making the correct move, did not see the second, third, and fourth order effects of his decision on the Union defensive plan. Admittedly, had Meade paid more attention to Sickles’ pleas earlier in the day and not been consumed with concern for the Federal right, the situation might not have come to this. But like in any real world situation the clash between Sickles and Meade was not simply a matter of a disagreement in tactics, but of a profound distrust for one another. Meade, the professional, had little regard for and loathed Sickles the political general, while Sickles, ever the politician, believed that Meade was doing what he could to set him up for failure, and “that Meade had deliberately left him alone in the path of a Confederate landslide, with no cavalry screen and no supports within easy distance.” [17] Some of Sickles’ officers in Third Corps saw the situation in a similar manner. Lieutenant Colonel Rafferty “argued that no attention was paid to Sickles’ concerns and “General Sickles has one sterling quality of a good soldier, – he was equal to an emergency; and left as he was now to the exercise of his own judgement, he was prompt to act.” [18]

About mid-afternoon Sickles advanced Third Corps forward in a “mile long line of battle with waving flags and rumbling batteries rolling west into the afternoon sunlight.” [19] It was a magnificent sight that was inspiring to watch, and perplexing to other commanders Frank Haskell, wrote, “It was magnificent to see those ten or twelve thousand men – the were good men- with their batteries and some squadrons of cavalry upon the left flank, all in battle order in several lines with flags streaming, sweep steadily down the slope, across the valley, and up the next ascent towards their destined position! From our position we could see it all.” [20] Others were equally impressed with the sight that they beheld.

“The eye beheld” wrote an officer of Carr’s brigade, “battery and brigade extended from point to point,” full of “moving columns and gay banners.” It was “a grand sight to witness this little corps of two divisions gallantly move on the advance,” and despite what was taking place on what was after all a battlefield, it all “appeared to be a peaceful review….” [21]

Another wrote, “The sun shone brilliantly on their waving colors, and flashed in scintillating rays from their burnished arms, as with well aligned ranks and even steps they moved proudly across the field. Away to the right, along cemetery Ridge, the soldiers of the Second Corps, leaving their coffee and their cards, where they gazed with soldierly pride and quickened pulse on the stirring scene.” [22] As the troops advanced “the fifteen-piece brass band of the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’ Zouaves) thumped away to mark the time.” [23] Chaplain Joseph Twitchell who had been with the Excelsior Brigade from the beginning wrote, “with a firm step with colors flying the bravest men in the army marched in the open field. It was a splendid sight.” [24] The sight inspired the men, and it was remember by witnesses long after other memories had faded into time.

Sickles advance confused John Gibbon, who watched in amazement from his vantage point on Cemetery Ridge “commanding Hancock’s Second Division on Cemetery Ridge, looked out in amazement and wondered if a general order to advance upon the enemy had somehow missed him.” [25] Gibbon’s Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock saw it too and wrote: “I recollect looking on and admiring the spectacle, but I did not know the object of it.” He “quietly” remarked to his staff, “Gentlemen, that is a splendid advance” and “beautiful to look at.” But he could not imagine that Meade had sanction this parade, and he predicted that “those troops will be coming back again very soon.” [26]

The movement to the Peach Orchard placed the Third Corps nearly a mile in front of his previous position, and opened up a significant gap between his corps and Hancock’s Second Corps. Sickles was now attempting to hold a new line that was nearly twice as long as the position that Meade had designated. By advancing Sickles had “put his corps out of alignment with the rest of the army and exposed his flanks.” [27] The line Meade had prosed was essentially a straight line, only about 1,600 yards long with its left flank anchored on Little Round Top and its right tied in to the line of Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge. It was a manageable front for a small corps of less than 11,000 soldiers. The new front which Sickles occupied was some 2,700 yards long and he did not have enough men to fill it out, or extend it to Little Round Top. Instead he had to anchor his left flank on Devil’s Den, some 500 yards to the front of Little Round Top. Sickles “wanted to hold the road and the peach-orchard hill and to bend the rest of the line back to the Round Tops, and he did not have enough men for it.” [28] The line Sickles created formed a salient, which protruded toward the Confederate line, and it “would be dangerously exposed to attack from two directions – the west and the south simultaneously.” [29] Humphrey’s Second Division aligned itself on the Emmitsburg road facing west and northwest, while “Birney’s division crammed the little orchard with men and guns and extended its line back to the southeast.” [30]

He placed Humphrey’s division along the Emmitsburg Road and extended Birney’s division through the Peach Orchard, a wheat field down to Devil’s Den where Birney ran out of troops. Birney had barley 5,000 soldiers to hold the ground assigned, which stretching in an irregular pattern from the east side of the Peach Orchard, down the Stoney Hill, to Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den, “Charles Graham’s brigade on the right, at the Orchard, Regis de Trobriand’s in the center, and Hobart Ward’s on the right…. At the literal end of the line – the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac – was Captain James E. Smith’s New York 5th Independent Battery, posted on Houck’s Ridge overlooking devil’s Den.” [31] The position on the ridge was so tight that Smith could only deploy four of his six guns on it and was forced to place the other two in the Plum Run Valley, later known as the “Valley of Death,” between Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Despite his good intentions, Sickles had formed an exposed and vulnerable salient which was too thinly manned for its length. It was open to attack on three sides, had little depth, no reserves and no place to fall back to as an alternate position.[32]

While Sickles was deploying his Corps, George Meade called for a conference of his corps commanders at the Leister House. Unable to see Sickles movement as his headquarters was behind and below the crest of Cemetery Ridge, Meade was consulting with various staff members and sending messages to Washington regarding his plans. As such Meade was one of the last to find out about Sickles’ advance.

When John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps arrived Meade sent a message to Halleck informing him “The Sixth Corps is just coming in, very much worn out. I have…awaited the attack of the enemy, I having a strong position for the defensive…. He has been moving on both my flanks apparently. Expecting battle, I have ordered my trains to the rear.” [33] With Sedgwick now on the field, Meade called for a meeting of his corps commanders, sending a circular to each. Sickles received his copy and asked “to be excused, stating that the enemy was in great force on his front and preparing to attack.” [34] Meade refused to let Sickles off the hook and ordered his recalcitrant general to report to the Leister house.

Before Sickles arrived, Gouverneur Warren told Meade that Sickles’ corps was not in position, and the army commander’s volcanic tempter erupted just as Sickles rode up. An engineering officer at the headquarters wrote, “I never saw General Meade so angry if I may call it.” When Meade saw Sickles he ordered him to “retire his line to the position he had been instructed to take.” [35] Meade told Sickles to get back to Third Corps immediately, Sickles recalled that “General Meade met me just outside the headquarters and excused me from dismounting”…. He said that I should return at once and that he would follow soon.” [36] Meade soon followed after he instructed General Sykes of Fifth Corps to shift it “from its reserve position toward the left with all speed, “and hold it at all hazards.” [37] Riding with Warren, the two men saw the empty positions on Cemetery Ridge where Third Corps should have been and saw where Sickles had placed them in front of the line. Warren, most familiar with the section of the line, noted that Third Corps “was very badly disposed on that part of the field,” [38] commented to Meade, “Here is where our line should be,” and “Meade replied grimly, “it is too late now.” [39] Meade later explained, that he was, “wholly unprepared to find it [Sickles’ corps] advanced beyond the line of Second Corps. It’s lines were over a mile and a half out to the front, to the Emmitsburg Road, entirely disconnected with the rest of the army, and beyond supporting distance.” [40]

Meade had been surprised by his subordinate’s unauthorized move, and his “staff served him poorly with respect to the Third corps activities,” [41] the at times crotchety Pennsylvanian did not lose his composure. While Meade went forward to meet Sickles, he sent Warren to check what was happening at Little Round Top and authorized Warren to attend to it and would help save the exposed left flank of the army when he discovered that Little Round Top was undefended.

About the time that Meade arrived at the Peach Orchard, Sickles corps was about to be hit by the full fury and power of Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s First Corps. The Confederate infantry was supported by Porter Alexander who had situated 46 well placed artillery pieces in a perfect position to open fire on Birney and Humphrey’s Third Corps divisions in the Peach Orchard Salient. [42]

When he confronted Sickles in the Peach Orchard, George Meade was visibly perturbed. Looking at Sickles’ dispositions, Meade informed the New Yorker, “General I am afraid that you are too far out” [43] as he attempted to control his temper. Sickles disagreed and said that “if supported, the line could be held; and in my judgement it was the best one.” [44] with support he could hold the position because it was higher ground than what he had previously occupied. Meade then pointed out the obvious stating “General Sickles this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you…” [45] As the conversation progressed Meade told Sickles that “this is neutral ground, our guns command it as well as the enemy’s. The reason you cannot hold it applies to them.” [46]

Sickles now offered to withdraw, and reportedly told Meade, “General, I have received no orders. I have made these dispositions to the best of my judgement. Of course I shall be happy to modify them according to your views.” [47] But as he did so the Confederate cannonade began signaling the beginning of Longstreet’s attack. Meade told Sickles “I wish to God you could,” said Meade, “but the enemy won’t let you.” [48] Another account states that Meade told Sickles “You cannot hold this position but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight, & it may begin at any time now.” [49] Meade later wrote about the encounter, “Having found Major-General Sickles, I was explaining to him that he was too far in advance, and discussing with him the propriety of withdrawing, when the enemy opened fire on him with several batteries in his front and on his flank, and immediately brought forward columns of infantry and made a most vigorous assault.” [50] For Sickles and Meade their exchange in the Peach Orchard on the afternoon of July 2nd 1863 would develop into an acrimonious lifelong feud, with both men and their supporters bending the truth, and sometimes repeating outright lies to defend their actions before Congress, and in the press.

Since John Sedgwick’s powerful Sixth Corps had just arrived Meade ordered it into reserve to replace Sykes’ Fifth Corps which he had ordered, along with division of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps to support Sickles’ Third Corps around the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. Meade told Sickles, “I will send you the Firth Corps, and you may send for support from the Second Corps.” [51] Meade, acting decisively then told Sickles “if you need more artillery call on the reserve!” [52] Henry Hunt heard the conversation and immediately went to work to get as many guns as possible up to support Sickles. It was an action that very likely saved the day, example of Meade taking control of a bad situation, albeit one that he might have prevented by paying more attention to Sickles, but, even so, preventing it from becoming even worse. General Tyler, commander of the Artillery Reserve, “had already sent up the first two batteries Hunt had ordered; now, on his own initiative, the Reserve commander dispatched McGilvery’s First Volunteer Brigade to the scene; Hunt met it on the road and was extremely relieved by its presence.” [53] The guns that Hunt and Tyler had rushed to the front were about to be put to good use in the impending fight.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.294

[2] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.246

[3] Longacre, Edward G. The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA 2003 p.163

[4] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.90

[5] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.145

[6] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.93

[7] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.247

[8] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.250

[9] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.247

[10] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns p.162

[11] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.146

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.120

[13] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.45

[14] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.252

[15] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.103

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.279

[17] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.246

[18] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.132

[19] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[20] Oates, William C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.168

[21] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion pp.250-251

[22] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.145

[23] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.250

[24] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.145

[25] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[26] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.251

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.355

[28] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[29] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.117

[30] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[31] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.265

[32] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.496

[33] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.147

[34] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.139

[35] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[36] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.319

[37] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[38] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is not My Companion p.90

[39] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.320

[40] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.146

[41] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.141

[42] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.289

[43] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.496

[44] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.325

[45] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.251

[46] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[47] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.143

[48] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[49] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.326

[50] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.146-148

[51] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.252

[52] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.497

[53] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns pp.163-164

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Councils of War at Gettysburg: Lee & Meade July 2nd 1863

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I noted yesterday I returned from Gettysburg and another Staff Ride, and one of the questions that came up during some of our table talk, as well as on the battlefield was about the command decision process by which Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade and their subordinates planned, prepared and debated what to do on the night of July 2nd 1863, following the bloody, but unsuccessful attacks by Hood’s and McLaw’s Divisions at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, Peach Orchard and Plum Run.

To provide that overview in one article I have encapsulated a number of chapters from my Gettysburg text into one article. The contrast between Lee’s decision to attack, his refusal to take counsel of dissenting voices and views of his subordinates stand in stark contrast to those of his opponent, George Gordon Meade, his subordinate commanders and staff. Their decisions shaped the outcome of the battle of Gettysburg, and were decisive in Lee’s defeat, and instrumental in the eventual defeat of the Confederacy, just under 21 months later.

I hope you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Lee1

As night fell on July 2nd 1863 General Robert E Lee had already made his decision. Despite the setbacks of the day he was determined to strike the Army of the Potomac yet again. He did not view the events as setback, and though he lacked clarity of how badly many of his units were mauled Lee took no external council to make his decision. With the exception of A.P. Hill who came and submitted a report to him Lee neither required his other two corps commanders, James Longstreet or Richard Ewell to consult with him, nor took any action to visit them.

Lee did “not feel that his troops had been defeated” and he felt that “the failure on the second day had been due to a lack of coordination.”1

In his official report of the battle he wrote:

“The result of this day’s operations induced the belief that, with proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render to the assaulting columns, that we should succeed, and it was ultimately determined to continue the attack…” 2

While Lee’s charge of a “lack of coordination” of the attacks can certainly be substantiated, the fact of the matter was that if there was anyone to blame for his lack of coordination it was him, and  even Lee’s most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2d “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” 3 Lee’s decision to attack on July 3rd, having not taken counsel of his commanders or assessed the battle-worthiness of the units that he was planning to through into his final assault on the Union center was “utterly divorced from reality.” 4 His plan was essentially unchanged from the previous day. Longstreet’s now battered divisions were to renew their assault on the Federal left in coordination with Pickett and two of Hill’s divisions.

In light of Lee’s belief that “a lack of coordination” was responsible for the failures of July 2nd it would have been prudent for him to ensure such coordination happened on the night of July 2nd. “Lee would have done well to have called out his three lieutenants to confer with them and spell out exactly what he wanted. That was not the way he did things however…” 5

Lee knew about the heavy losses among his key leaders but “evidently very little was conveyed to him regarding the condition of the units engaged this day.” 6 This certainly had to be because during the day his only view of the battlefield was from Seminary Ridge through binoculars and because he did not get first hand reports from the commanders involved. Lee was undeterred and according to some who saw Lee that night he seemed confident noting that when Hill reported he shook his and said “It is well, General,…Everything is well.” 7

It was not an opinion that Lee’s subordinates shared. Ewell and his subordinates were told to renew their attack on Cemetery and Culp’s Hill on the night of July 2nd, but “he and his generals believed more than ever that a daylight assault against the ranked guns on Cemetery Hill would be suicidal-Harry Hays said that such an attack would invite “nothing more than slaughter…” 8

LongstreetJ_main

James Longstreet was now more settled in his opposition to another such frontal attack and shortly after dawn when Lee visited him to deliver the order to attack again argued for a flanking movement around the Federal left. Lee’s order was for Longstreet to “attack again the next morning” according to the “general plan of July 2nd.” 9 Longstreet had not wanted to attack the previous day and when Lee came to him Longstreet again attempted to persuade Lee of his desire to turn the Federal flank. “General, I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.” 10

Lee would have nothing of it. He looked at his “Old Warhorse” and as he had done the previous day insisted: “The enemy is there,” he said, pointing northeast as he spoke, “and I am going to strike him.” 11 Longstreet’s gloom deepened and he wrote that he felt “it was my duty to express my convictions.” He bluntly told Lee:

“General, I have been a soldier all of my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” 12

But Lee was determined to force his will on both his subordinates and the battle. Lee was convinced that the plan could succeed while Longstreet “was certain” that the plan “was misguided and doomed to fail.” 13 Longstreet, now realized that further arguments were in vain recalled that Lee “was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.” 14

Even a consultation with Brigadier General William Wofford whose brigade had help crush Sickle’s III Corps at the Peach Orchard and had nearly gotten to the crest of Cemetery Ridge could not alter Lee’s plan. Wofford had to break off his attack on July 2nd when he realized that there were no units to support him. Lee asked if Wofford could “go there again” to which Wofford replied “No, General I think not.” Lee asked “why not” and Wofford explained: “General, the enemy have had all night to intrench and reinforce. I had been pursuing a broken enemy, and now the situation is very different.” 15

The attack would go forward despite Longstreet’s objections and the often unspoken concerns of others who had the ear of Lee, or who would carry out the attack. Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote to his sister a few days after the attack the “position was impregnable to any such force as ours” while Pickett’s brigadier Richard Garnett remarked “this is a desperate thing to attempt” and Lewis Armistead said “the slaughter will be terrible.” 16

Pickett’s fresh division would lead the attack supported by Johnston Pettigrew commanding the wounded Harry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps and Isaac Trimble commanding two brigades of Pender’s division, Trimble having been given command just minutes prior to the artillery bombardment. 17 On the command side few of the commanders had commanded alongside each other before July 3rd. Trimble had just recovered from wounds had never been with his men. Pettigrew had been given command when Pender was wounded was still new and relatively untested, and Pickett’s three brigadiers and their brigades had never fought together. Two of the divisions had never served under Longstreet. From a command perspective where relationships and trust count as much as strength and numbers the situation was nearly as bad is it could be. Although the Confederates massed close to 170 cannon on Seminary Ridge to support the attack ammunition was in short supply and the Lieutenant Colonel Porter Alexander who had been tasked with coordinating fires only controlled the guns of First Corps.

The assaulting troops would attack with their right flank exposed to deadly enfilade fire from Federal artillery and with the left flank unsupported and exposed to such fires from Union artillery on Cemetery Hill. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Longstreet noted “Never was I so depressed as on that day…” 18

general-george-meade

While Lee took no counsel and determined to attack on the night of July 2nd little more than two miles away Major General George Meade took no chances. After sending a message to Henry Halleck at 8 PM Meade called his generals together. Unlike Lee who had observed the battle from a distance Meade had been everywhere on the battlefield during the day and had a good idea what his army had suffered and the damage that he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Likewise during the day he had been with the majority of his commanders as opposed to Lee who after issuing orders that morning had remained unengaged, as was noted by the British observer Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle who wrote that during the “whole time the firing continued, he sent only one message, and only received one report.” 19

Meade wired Halleck that evening: “The enemy attacked me about 4 P.M. this day…and after one of the severest contests of the war was repulsed at all points.” 20 However Meade, realizing that caution was not a vice still needed to better assess the condition of his army, hear his commanders and hear from his intelligence service, ended his message: “I shall remain in my present position to-morrow, but am not prepared to say until better advised of the condition of the army, whether operations will be of an offensive or a defensive character.” 21

As Meade waited for his commanders his caution was apparent. Before the attack on Sickles’ III Corps at the Peach Orchard Meade had asked his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Dan Butterfield to “draw up a contingency plan for withdraw to Pipe Creek.” After the attack on Sickles Alfred Pleasanton said that Meade ordered him to “gather what cavalry I could, and prepare for the retreat of the army.” 22 Some of his commanders who heard of the contingency plan including John Gibbon and John Sedgwick believed that Meade was “thinking of a retreat.” 23. Despite Meade’s  flat assurances to Halleck  his army’s position had been threatened on both flanks, though both were now solidly held, but some of his subordinates believed, maybe through the transference of their own doubts, that Meade “foresaw disaster, and not without cause.” 24

In assessing Meade’s conduct it has to be concluded that while he had determined to remain, that he was smart enough to plan of the worst and to consult his commanders and staff in making his decision. Meade wrote to his wife that evening “for at one time things looked a little blue,…but I managed to get up reinforcements in time to save the day….The most difficult part of my work is acting without correct information on which to predicate action.” 25

Gettysburg_Council_of_War

Meade called Colonel George Sharpe from the Bureau of Military Information to meet with him, Hancock and Slocum at the cottage on the Taneytown Road where he made his headquarters. Sharpe and his aide explained the enemy situation. Sharpe noted “nearly 100 Confederate regiments in action Wednesday and Thursday” and that “not one of those regiments belonged to Pickett.” He then reported with confidence that indicated that “Pickett’s division has just come up and is bivouac.” 26

It was the assurance that Meade needed as his commanders came together. When Sharpe concluded his report Hancock exclaimed “General, we have got them nicked.” 27

About 9 P.M. the generals gathered. Present were Meade, and two of his major staff officers Warren just back from Little Round Top, wounded and tired, and Butterfield his Chief of Staff. Hancock action as a Wing Commander was there with Gibbon now commanding II Corps, Slocum of XII Corps with Williams. John Newton a division commander from VI Corps who had just arrived on the battlefield now commanding I Corps was present along with Oliver Howard of XI Corps, John Sedgwick of VI Corps, George Sykes of V Corps and David Birney, now commanding what was left of the wounded Dan Sickles’ III Corps. Pleasanton was off with the cavalry and Hunt attending to the artillery.

The meeting began and John Gibbon noted that it “was at first very informal and in the shape of a conversation….” 28 The condition of the army was discussed and it was believed that now only about 58,000 troops were available to fight. Birney honestly described the condition of III Corps noting that “his corps was badly chewed up, and that he doubted that it was fit for much more.” 29 Newton who had just arrived was quoted by Gibbon as saying that Gettysburg was “a bad position” and that “Cemetery Hill was no place to fight a battle in.” 20 The remarks sparked a serious discussion with Meade asking the assembled generals “whether our army should remain on that field and continue the battle, or whether we should change to some other position.” 31

The reactions to the question showed that the army commanders still had plenty of fight in the. Meade listened as his generals discussed the matter. Hancock said he was “puzzled about the practicability of retiring.” 32 Newton later noted that he made his observations about the battlefield based on his belief that that Lee might turn the Federal left and impose his army between it and its supplies, as Longstreet However Newton and the other commanders agreed that pulling back “would be a highly dangerous maneuver to attempt in the immediate presence of the enemy.” 33

Finally Butterfield, no friend of Meade and one of the McClellan and Hooker political cabal who Meade had retained when he took command posed three questions to the assembled generals:

“Under existing circumstances, is it advisable for this army to remain in its present position, or retire to another nearer its base of supplies?

It being determined to remain in present position, shall the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy?

If we wait attack, how long?” 34

Gibbon as the junior officer present said “Correct the position of the army…but do not retreat.” Williams counseled “stay,” as did Birney and Sykes, and Newton, who after briefly arguing the dangers finally agreed. Oliver Howard not only recommended remaining but “even urged an attack if the Confederates stayed their hand.” Hancock who earlier voiced his opinion to Meade that “we have them nicked” added “with a touch of anger, “Let us have no more retreats. The Army of the Potomac has had too many retreats….Let this be our last retreat.” Sedgwick of VI Corps voted “remain” and finally Slocum uttered just three words “stay and fight.” 35

None of Meade’s assembled commanders counseled an immediate attack; all recommended remaining at least another day. When the discussion concluded Meade told his generals “Well gentlemen…the question is settled. We remain here.” 36

Some present believed that Meade was looking for a way to retreat to a stronger position, that he had been rattled by the events of the day. Slocum believed that “but for the decision of his corps commanders” that Meade and the Army of the Potomac “would have been in full retreat…on the third of July.” 37 Meade would deny such accusations before Congressional committees the following year as Radical Republicans in Congress sought to have him relieved for political reasons.

Much of the criticism of his command decisions during the battle were made by political partisans associated with the military cabal of Hooker, Butterfield and Sickles as well as Radical Republicans who believed that Meade was a Copperhead. Both Butterfield and Birney accused Meade before the committee of wanting to retreat and “put the worst possible interpretation on Meade’s assumed lack of self-confidence without offering any real evidence to substantiate it.” Edwin Coddington notes “that Meade, other than contemplating a slight withdraw to straighten his lines, wanted no retreat from Gettysburg.” 38

Alpheus Williams of XII Corps, wrote to his daughters on July 6th regarding his beliefs about Meade on the night of July 2nd. “I heard no expression from him which led me to think that he was in favor of withdrawing the army from before Gettysburg.” 39 Likewise the message sent by Meade to Halleck indicates Meade’s own confidence in the upcoming battle of July 3rd. If Meade had some reservations during the day, as he mentioned in the letter to his wife they certainly were gone by the time he received the intelligence report from Sharpe and heard Hancock’s bold assertion that the enemy was “nicked.”

As the meeting broke up after shortly after midnight and the generals returned to their commands Meade pulled Gibbon aside. Gibbon with II Corps had the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. Meade told him “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Gibbon queried as to why Meade thought this and Meade continued “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed,…and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” Gibbon wrote years later “I expressed the hope that he would, and told General Meade with confidence, that if he did we would defeat him.” 40

If some of his generals and political opponents believed Meade to be a defeatist,  that defeatism was not present in his private correspondence. He wrote to his wife early in the morning of July 3rd displaying a private confidence that speaks volumes: “Dearest love, All well and going on well in the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking & we completely repulsing them- both armies shattered….Army in fine spirits & every one determined to do or die.” 41

The contrast between Lee’s and Meade’s decision making process is Meade did what Lee should have done, he had been active on the battlefield, he consulted his intelligence service and he consulted his commanders on the options available to him. Lee remained away from the action on July 2nd he failed to consult his commanders. He failed to gain accurate intelligence on the Federal forces facing him and he failed to fully take into account his losses. Meade better demonstrated the principles of what we now call “mission command.”

Notes

1 Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.558

2 Lee, Robert E, Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 594 of 743

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

4 Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 p.349

5 Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 p.455

6 Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.4117 Ibid p.412

8 Ibid. p.347

9 Ibid. p.430

10 Wert, Jeffry General James Longstreet, the Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier A Tuchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1993 p.283

11 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.529 12 Ibid. Wert p.283

13 Ibid. Sears p.349

14 Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.377

15 Ibid. Foote p.531

16 Ibid. Wert p.287

17 Ibid. Freeman p.589

18 Ibid. Wert p.290

19 Fremantle, Arthur Three Months in the Southern States, April- June 1863 William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London 1863 Amazon Kindle edition p.266

20 Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 pp.341-342

21 Ibid. p.342

22 Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.355

23 Ibid.

24 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.524

25 Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.413

26 Ibid. Sears p.342

27 Ibid. Trudeau p.413

28 Ibid. Sears p.342

29 Ibid. Trudeau p.415

30 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

31 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

32 Ibid. Sears p.343

33 Ibid. Sears p.343

34 Ibid. Trudeau p.415

35 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

36 Ibid. Foote p.525

37 Ibid. Guelzo

38 Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 pp.451-452

39 Ibid. p.452

40 Ibid. Foote p.525

41 Ibid. Trudeau p.345

 

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