Table of Contents
The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz
Volume Three (1863-1906)
THE story of the Gettysburg campaign has so often and so elaborately been rehearsed, that it is hardly possible to add anything of value to the familiar tale. I shall, therefore, put down only some individual impressions and experiences which may be of interest at least to the circle of my personal friends.
On the 30th of June, on our march through Maryland, I had the good fortune of finding shelter in a nunnery, the St. Joseph's College at Emmitsburg, in Maryland, a young ladies' school, carried on by a religious order. I waited upon the Lady Superior to ask her for permission to use one of her buildings as my headquarters for a night, suggesting, and with perfect sincerity, that her buildings and grounds would be better protected by our presence within than by any guards stationed without. The Lady Superior received me very graciously, and at once put one of the houses within the enclosure at my disposal. She even sent for the chaplain of the institution, Father Borlando, to conduct us through the main edifice, and permitted one of my officers, a good musician, to play on the organ in the chapel, which he did to the edification of all who heard him. The conduct of my troops camped around the institution was exemplary, and we enjoyed there as still and restful a night as if the outside of the nunnery had been as peaceful as daily life was ordinarily within it. I mention this as one of the strange contrasts of our existence, for at daybreak the next morning I was waked up by a marching order, directing me to take the road to Gettysburg.
We did not know that we were marching towards the most famous battlefield of the war. In fact, we, I mean even the superior officers, had no clear conception as to where the decisive battle of the campaign was to take place. Only a few days before, General Hooker had left the command of the Army of the Potomac — he had been made to resign, as rumor had it — and General Meade had been put into his place. Such a change of commanders at the critical period of a campaign would ordinarily have a disquieting effect upon officers and men. But in this case it had not, for by his boastful proclamation and his subsequent blunders and failures at Chancellorsville, General Hooker had largely forfeited the confidence of the army, while General Meade enjoyed generally the repute, not of a very brilliant, but of a brave, able and reliable officer. Everybody respected him. It was at once felt that he had grasped the reins with a firm hand. As was subsequently understood, neither he nor General Lee desired or expected to fight a battle at Gettysburg. Lee wished to have it at Cashtown, Meade on Pipe Creek. Both were drawn into it by the unexpected encounter of the Confederate general Heth, who hoped to find “some shoes” for his men in the town of Gettysburg, and a Federal cavalry general on reconnaissance, both instructed not to bring on a general engagement, but rather cautioned against it. When we left Emmitsburg at 7 a. m. we were advised that the First Army Corps, under General Reynolds, was ahead of us, and there was a rumor that some rebel troops were moving toward Gettysburg, but that was all. At 10:30, when my division had just passed Horner's Mills, I received an order from General Howard to hurry my command forward as quickly as possible, as the First Corps was engaged with the enemy in the neighborhood of Gettysburg. This was a surprise, for we did not hear the slightest indication of artillery firing from that direction. I put the division to the “double quick,” and then rode ahead with my staff. Soon I met on the road fugitives from Gettysburg, men, women and children, who seemed to be in great terror. I remember especially a middle-aged woman, who tugged a small child by the hand and carried a large bundle on her back. She tried to stop me, crying out at the top of her voice: “Hard times at Gettysburg! They are shooting and killing! What will become of us!” Still I did not hear any artillery fire until I had reached the ridge of a rise of ground before me. Until then the waves of sound had passed over my head unperceived.
About 11:30 I found General Howard on an eminence east of the cemetery of Gettysburg, from which we could overlook a wide plain. Immediately before us Gettysburg, a comfortable-looking town of a few thousand inhabitants. Beyond and on both sides of it, stretching far away an open landscape dotted with little villages and farmhouses and orchards and tufts of trees and detached belts of timber; two creeks, Willoughby's Run on the left and Rock Creek on the right; radiating from the town westward and eastward, well-defined roads — counting from right to left the Hanover road, the York Pike, the Gettysburg and Hanover railroad, the Hunterstown road, the Harrisburg road, the Carlisle road, the Mummasburg road, the Cashtown and Chambersburg Pike, the Hagerstown road, and behind us the roads on which our troops were coming — the Emmitsburg road, the Taneytown road, and the Baltimore road. The elevated spot from which we overlooked this landscape was Cemetery Hill, being the northern end of a ridge which terminated due south in two steep, rocky knolls partly wooded, called the Round Tops — half a mile distant on our right a hill called Culp's Hill, covered with timber; and opposite our left, about a mile distant, a ridge running almost parallel with Cemetery Ridge, called Seminary Ridge, from the Lutheran Seminary buildings on its crest — the whole a smiling landscape inhabited by a peaceable people wont to harvest their crops and to raise their children in quiet and prosperous contentment.
From where we stood we observed the thin lines of troops, and here and there puffy clouds of white smoke on and around Seminary Ridge, and heard the crackle of the musketry and the booming of the cannon, indicating a forward movement of our First Corps, which we knew to be a little over 8000 men strong. Of the troops themselves we could see little. I remember how small the affair appeared to me, as seen from a distance in the large frame of the surrounding open country. But we were soon made painfully aware of the awful significance of it. The dead body of General Reynolds, the commander of the First Corps, was being carried away from the field. He had been too far forward in the firing-line and the bullet of a Southern sharpshooter had laid him low. So the action had begun with a great loss. He was known as an officer of superior merit, and in the opinion of many it was he that ought to have been put at the head of the Army of the Potomac. General Reynolds' death devolved the command of the First Corps upon General Doubleday, the command of all the troops then on the field upon General Howard, and the command of the Eleventh Corps upon me.
The situation before us was doubtful. We received a report from General Wadsworth, one of the division commanders of the First Corps, that he was advancing, that the enemy's forces in his front were apparently not very strong, but that he thought that the enemy was making a movement towards his right. From our point of observation we could perceive but little of the strength of the enemy, and Wadsworth's dispatch did not relieve our uncertainty. If the enemy before us was only in small force, then we had to push him as far as might seem prudent to General Meade. But if the enemy was bringing on the whole or a large part of his army, which his movement toward General Wadsworth's right might be held to indicate, then we had to look for a strong position in which to establish and maintain ourselves until reinforced or ordered back. Such a position was easily found at the first glance. It was Cemetery Hill on which we then stood and which was to play so important a part in the battle to follow. Accordingly General Howard ordered me to take the First and Third Divisions of the Eleventh Corps through the town and to place them on the right of the First Corps, while he would hold back the Second Division under General Steinwehr and the reserve artillery on Cemetery Hill and the eminence east of it, as a reserve.
About 12:30 the head of the column of the Eleventh Corps arrived. The weather being sultry, the men, who had marched several miles at a rapid pace, were streaming with perspiration and panting for breath. But they hurried through the town as best they could, and were promptly deployed on the right of the First Corps. But the deployment could not be made as originally designed by simply prolonging the First Corps' line, for in the meantime a strong Confederate force had arrived on the battlefield on the right flank of the First Corps, so that to confront it, the Eleventh had to deploy under fire at an angle with the First. General Schimmelfennig, temporarily commanding my, the Third, Division, connected with the First Corps on his left as well as he could under the circumstances, and General Francis Barlow, commanding our First Division, formerly Devens', deployed on his right. General Barlow was still a young man, but with his beardless, smooth face looked even much younger than he was. His men at first gazed at him wondering how such a boy could be put at the head of regiments of men. But they soon discovered him to be a strict disciplinarian, and one of the coolest and bravest in action. In both respects he was inclined to carry his virtues to excess. At the very time when he moved into the firing line at Gettysburg I had to interfere by positive order in favor of the commander of one of his regiments, whom he had suspended and sent to the rear for a mere unimportant peccadillo. Having been too strict in this instance, within the next two hours he made the mistake of being too brave.
I had hardly deployed my two divisions, about 6000 men, on the north side of Gettysburg, when the action very perceptibly changed its character. Until then the First Corps had been driving before it a comparatively small force of the enemy, taking many prisoners, among them the rebel general Archer with almost his whole brigade. My line, too, advanced, but presently I received an order from General Howard to halt where I was, and to push forward only a strong force of skirmishers. This I did, and my skirmishers, too, captured prisoners in considerable number. But then the enemy began to show greater strength and tenacity. He planted two batteries on a hillside, one above the other, opposite my left, enfilading part of the First Corps. Captain Dilger, whose battery was attached to my Third Division, answered promptly, dismounted four of the enemy's guns, as we observed through our field-glasses, and drove away two rebel regiments supporting them. In the meantime the infantry firing on my left and on the right of the First Corps grew much in volume. It became evident that the enemy's line had been heavily reinforced, and was pressing upon us with constantly increasing vigor. I went up to the roof of a house behind my skirmish line to get a better view of the situation, and observed that my right and center were not only confronted by largely superior forces, but also that my right was becoming seriously overlapped. I had ordered General Barlow to refuse his right wing, that is to place his right brigade, Colonel Gilsa's, a little in the right rear of his other brigade, in order to use it against a possible flanking movement by the enemy.
But I now noticed that Barlow, be it that he had misunderstood my order, or that he was carried away by the ardor of the conflict, had advanced his whole line and lost connection with my Third Division on his left, and in addition to this, he had, instead of refusing, pushed forward his right brigade, so that it formed a projecting angle with the rest of the line. At the same time I saw the enemy emerging from the belt of woods on my right with one battery after another and one column of infantry after another, threatening to envelop my right flank and to cut me off from the town and the position on Cemetery Hill behind.
I immediately gave orders to the Third Division to re-establish its connection with the First, although this made still thinner a line already too thin, and hurried one staff officer after another to General Howard with the urgent request for one of his two reserve brigades to protect my right against the impending flank attack by the enemy. Our situation became critical. As far as we could judge from the reports of prisoners and from what we observed in our front, the enemy was rapidly advancing the whole force of at least two of his army-corps — A. P. Hill's, and Ewell's, against us, that is to say, 40,000 men, of whom at least 30,000 were then before us. We had 17,000, counting in the two brigades held in reserve by General Howard and not deducting the losses already suffered by the First Corps. Less than 14,000 men we had at that moment in the open field without the slightest advantage of position. We could hardly hope to hold out long against such a superiority of numbers, and there was imminent danger that, if we held out too long, the enemy would succeed in turning our right flank and in getting possession of the town of Gettysburg, through which our retreat to the defensive position on Cemetery Hill would probably have to be effected. For this reason I was so anxious to have one of the reserve brigades posted at the entrance of the town to oppose the flanking movement of the enemy which I saw going on.
But, before that brigade came, the enemy advanced to the attack along the whole line with great impetuosity. Gilsa's little brigade, in its exposed position “in the air” on Barlow's extreme right, had to suffer the first violent onset of the Confederates, and was fairly crushed by the enemy rushing on from the front and both flanks. Colonel Gilsa, one of the bravest of men and an uncommonly skillful officer, might well complain of his fate. Here, as at Chancellorsville, he was in a position in which neither he nor his men could do themselves justice, and he felt keenly the adverse whims of the fortunes of war. General Barlow, according to his habit always in the thickest of the fight, was seriously wounded, as happened to him repeatedly, and had to leave the command of the division to the commander of its second brigade, General Adelbert Ames. This brigade bravely endured an enfilading fire from two rebel batteries placed near the Harrisburg road. But it was forced back when its right flank was entirely uncovered and heavy masses of rebel infantry pressed upon it.
About four o'clock, the attack by the enemy along the whole line became general and still more vehement. Regiment stood against regiment in the open fields, near enough almost to see the white in one another's eyes, firing literally in one another's faces. The slaughter on both sides was awful. At that moment it was reported that the right wing of the First Corps, which had fought heroically all day, had been pressed back, and one of General Doubleday's aides-de-camp brought me a request for a few regiments to be sent to his assistance. Alas, I had not a man to spare, but was longing for reinforcements myself, for at the same time I received a report that my Third Division was flanked on its left, on the very spot where it should have connected with the First, General Doubleday's corps. A few minutes later, while this butchery was still going on, an order reached me from General Howard directing me to withdraw to the south side of the town and to occupy a position on and near Cemetery Hill.
While I was doing my utmost, assisted by my staff officers, to rally and re-form what was within my reach of the First Division, for the purpose of checking the enemy's advance around my right, and to hold the edge of the town, the reserve brigade I had so urgently asked for, the First Brigade of the Second Division, Eleventh Corps, under Colonel Coster, at last arrived. It came too late for that offensive push which I had intended to make with it in order to relieve my right, if it had come half, or even quarter of an hour earlier. But I led it out of the town and ordered it to deploy on the right of the junction of the roads near the railway station, which the enemy was fast approaching. There the brigade, assisted by a battery, did good service in detaining the enemy long enough to permit the First Division to enter the town without being seriously molested on its retreat. The Third Division was meanwhile still sustaining the murderous contest. To break off an engagement carried on at long range, is comparatively easy. But the task becomes very difficult and delicate in a fight at very close quarters. Still, the Third Division, when ordered to do so, fell back in good form, executing its retreat to the town, fighting, step by step, with great firmness. I said in my official report: “In this part of the action, which was almost a hand-to-hand struggle, officers and men showed the highest courage and determination. Our loss was extremely severe. The Second Brigade, Third Division, lost all its regimental commanders; several regiments nearly half their number in killed and wounded.” Among the mortally wounded was Colonel Mahler of the Seventy-fifth Pennsylvania, who had been a revolutionary comrade of mine in the German fortress of Rastatt, in 1849. Now with death on his face he reached out his hand to me on the bloody field of Gettysburg, to bid me a last farewell. I came out unscathed, but my horse had a bullet bole clean through the fatty ridge of the neck just under the mane.
It has been represented by some writers, Southerners, that the Union forces on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg were utterly routed and fled pell-mell into the town. This is far from the truth. That there were a good many stragglers hurrying to the rear in a disorderly fashion, as is always the case during and after a hot fight, will not be denied. Neither will it be denied that it was a retreat after a lost battle with the enemy in hot pursuit. But there was no element of dissolution in it. The retreat through the town was of course more or less disorderly, the streets being crowded with vehicles of every description, which offered to the passing troops exceedingly troublesome obstructions. It is also true that Eleventh Corps men complained that when they entered the town, it was already full of First Corps men, and vice versa, which really meant that the two corps became more or less mixed in passing through. It is likewise true that many officers and men, among others General Schimmelfennig, became entangled in cross streets, and alleys without thoroughfare, and were captured by the enemy pressing after them. But, after all, the fact remains that in whatever shape the troops issued from the town, they were promptly reorganized, each was under the colors of his regiment, and in as good a fighting trim as before, save that their ranks were fearfully thinned by the enormous losses suffered during the day.
As we ascended Cemetery Hill from the town of Gettysburg we met General Hancock, whom General Meade had sent forward to take command of the field. The meeting of Generals Hancock and Howard is thus described by Major E. P. Halstead of the staff of the First Corps, who had been sent by General Doubleday to ask General Howard for reinforcements: “I returned to where General Howard sat, just as General Hancock approached at a swinging gallop. When near General Howard, who was then alone, he saluted, and with great animation, as if there was no time for ceremony, said General Meade had sent him forward to take command of the three Corps [the First, Eleventh, and his own, the Second]. General Howard replied that he was the senior. General Hancock said: 'I am aware of that, General, but I have written orders in my pocket from General Meade, which I will show you if you wish to see them.' General Howard said: 'No; I do not doubt your word, General Hancock, but you can give no orders here while I am here.' Hancock replied: 'Very well, General Howard, I will second any order that you have to give, but General Meade has also directed me to select a field on which to fight this battle in rear of Pipe Creek.' Then casting one glance from Culp's Hill to Round Top, he continued: 'But I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw, and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.' General Howard responded: 'I think this a very strong position, General Hancock, a very strong position.' 'Very well, sir, I select this as the battlefield,' said General Hancock, and immediately turned away to rectify our lines.“
This story is told by Major Halstead in the Century series of “Battles and Leaders,” and he adds this remark: “There was no person present besides myself when the conversation took place between Howard and Hancock. A number of years since I reminded General Hancock of that fact and what I had heard pass between them. He said that what I have repeated here was true, and requested a written statement, which I subsequently furnished him.”
That the appearance of Hancock as commander of the field should have sorely touched Howard's pride, is well intelligible, especially as he could hardly fail to understand it as an expression of want of confidence in him on the part of General Meade.
It was about 3:20 of the afternoon when General Buford sent a dispatch to General Meade in which he said: “In my opinion there seems to be no directing person.” This was too severe on General Howard, who, in fact, had given several directions which were unquestionably correct. But it, no doubt, expressed the prevailing impression, and under these circumstances the appearance of General Hancock at the front was a most fortunate event. It gave the troops a new inspiration. They all knew him by fame, and his stalwart figure, his proud mien, and his superb soldierly bearing seemed to verify all the things that fame had told about him. His mere presence was a reinforcement, and everybody on the field felt stronger for his being there. This new inspiration of self-reliance might have become of immediate importance, had the enemy made another attack — an eventuality for which we had to prepare. And in this preparation Howard, in spite of his heart-sore, co-operated so loyally with Hancock that it would have been hard to tell which of the two was the commander, and which the subordinate.
The line was soon formed. The Second Brigade, Colonel Orlando Smith's of Steinwehr's division, was already in position on the Cemetery Hill, fronting the town and occupying the nearest houses. Coster's brigade, and next the First Division, under Ames, were posted on the right, and my division, the Third, on his left on the cemetery itself. The First Corps was placed on my left, except Wadsworth's division, which was sent to the extreme right to occupy Culp's Hill. The batteries were put in proper position, and breastworks promptly constructed wherever necessary. All this was accomplished in a very short time. This done, General Hancock sat down on a stone fence on the brow of the hill from which he could overlook the field, on the north and west of Gettysburg, occupied by the Confederates. I joined him there, and through our field-glasses we eagerly watched the movements of the enemy. We saw their batteries and a large portion of their infantry columns distinctly. Some of those columns moved to and fro in a way the purpose of which we did not clearly understand. I was not ashamed to own that I felt nervous, for while our position was a strong one, the infantry line in it appeared, after the losses of the day, woefully thin. It was soothing to my pride, but by no means reassuring as to our situation, when General Hancock admitted that he felt nervous, too. Still he thought that with our artillery so advantageously posted, we might well hold out until the arrival of the Twelfth Corps, which was only a short distance behind us. So we sat watching the enemy and presently observed to our great relief that the movements of the rebel troops looked less and less like a formation for an immediate attack. Our nerves grew more and more tranquil as minute after minute lapsed, for each brought night and reinforcements nearer. When the sun went down the Twelfth Corps was on the field and the Third Corps arriving.
There has been much speculation as to whether the Confederates would not have won the battle of Gettysburg had they pressed the attack on the first day after the substantial overthrow of the First and Eleventh Corps. Southern writers are almost unanimous in the opinion that Lee would then without serious trouble have achieved a great victory. It is indeed possible that had they vigorously pushed their attack with their whole available force it the moment when the First and Eleventh Corps were entangled in the streets of the town, they might have completely annihilated those corps, possessed themselves of Cemetery Hill, and taken the heads of the Federal columns advancing toward Gettysburg at a disadvantage. But night would soon have put an end to that part of the action; that night would have given General Meade time to change his dispositions, and the main battle would in all likelihood have been fought on Pipe Creek instead of Gettysburg, in the position which General Meade had originally selected.
Nor is it quite so certain, as Southern writers seem to think, that the Confederates would have had easy work in carrying Cemetery Hill after the First and Eleventh Corps had passed through the town and occupied that position. When they speak of the two corps as having fled from the field in a state of utter demoralization, they grossly exaggerate. Those troops were indeed beaten back, but not demoralized or dispirited. Had they been in a state of rout such as Southern writers describe, they would certainly have left many of their cannon behind them. But they brought off their whole artillery save one single dismounted piece, and that artillery, as now posted, was capable of formidable work. The infantry was indeed reduced by well-nigh one-half its effective force, but all that was left, was good. Besides, the Confederates, too, had suffered severely. Their loss in killed and wounded and prisoners was very serious. Several of their brigades had become disordered during the action to such an extent that it required some time to re-form them. It is therefore at least doubtful whether they could have easily captured Cemetery Hill before the arrival of heavy reinforcements on our side. Another disputed point is whether we did not make a great mistake in continuing the bloody fight north of the town too long.
Thirty-eight years after the event I was called upon by Mr. John Codman Ropes, the eminent historian of the Civil War, who unfortunately for the country has died before finishing his work. He had then the history of the battle of Gettysburg in hand and wished to have my recollections as to certain details. In the course of our conversation I asked him what his criticism was of our conduct on the first day. He said that on the whole we fought well and were obliged to yield the field north and east of the town, but that we committed a great mistake in not retreating to our second position south and west of Gettysburg an hour and perhaps two hours earlier. The same opinion was expressed by General Doubleday in his official report. In referring to about that time of the day he says: “Upon taking a retrospect of the field it might seem, in view of the fact that we were finally forced to retreat, that this would have been the proper time to retire; but to fall back without orders from the commanding general might have inflicted lasting disgrace upon the corps — nor would I have retreated without the knowledge and approbation of General Howard, who was my superior officer. Had I done so, it would have uncovered the left flank of his corps. If circumstances required it, it was his place, not mine, to issue the order. General Howard, from his commanding position on Cemetery Hill, could overlook all the enemy's movements as well as our own, and I therefore relied much upon his superior facilities for observation to give me timely warning of any unusual danger.”
That General Howard ought to have given the order to retreat at an earlier period of the action will, in the light of subsequent events, seriously be doubted. He may, in the first place, well have hesitated to retreat without orders from General Meade for reasons perhaps not quite as good, but nearly as good, as those given by General Doubleday for not having retreated without orders from General Howard.
But there was another consideration of weightier importance. Would not the enemy, if we had retreated two hours, or even one hour earlier, have been in better condition, and therefore more encouraged to make a determined attack upon the cemetery that afternoon, — and with better chance of success? The following occurrence subsequently reported, indicates that he would. Three or four companies of my regiments, led by Captain F. Irsch, became separated from the main body while retreating through the streets of Gettysburg. Hotly pressed by the pursuing enemy, they threw themselves into a block of buildings near the market place, from which they continued firing. A rebel officer approached them under a flag of truce, and summoned them to surrender. Captain Irsch defiantly refused, saying that he expected every moment to be relieved, as the Army of the Potomac was coming on. The rebel officer replied that the whole town was in the possession of the Confederates, and he offered Captain Irsch “safe conduct” if he would look for himself. The Captain accepted, and saw on the market place General Ewell on horseback, at the moment when an officer approached him (General Ewell) in hot haste, and said to him within the Captain's hearing that General Lee wished him, General Ewell, forthwith to proceed to attack the Federals on Cemetery Hill, whereupon General Ewell replied in a low voice, but audible to Captain Irsch, that if General Lee knew the condition of his, Ewell's, troops, after their long march and the fight that had just taken place, he would not think of such an order, and that the attack could not be risked. This story, which I have from Captain Irsch himself and which is corroborated by other evidence, would seem to show that by continuing as long as we did, our fight in the afternoon, in spite of the losses we suffered, we rendered the enemy unable, or at least disinclined, to undertake a later attack upon Cemetery Hill, which might have had much more serious results. There is, therefore, very good reason for concluding that General Howard rendered valuable service in not ordering the retreat as early as General Doubleday thought he ought to have ordered it.
I remember a picturesque scene that happened that night in a lower room of the gate house of the Gettysburg Cemetery. In the center of the room a barrel set upright, with a burning tallow candle stuck in the neck of a bottle on top of it; around the walls six or seven generals accidentally gathered together, sitting some on boxes but most on the floor, listening to the accounts of those who had been in the battle of the day, then making critical comments and discussing what might have been and finally all agreeing in the hope that General Meade had decided or would decide to fight the battle of the morrow on the ground on which we then were. There was nothing of extraordinary solemnity in the “good-night” we gave one another when we parted. It was rather a commonplace, business-like “good-night,” as that of an ordinary occasion. We of the Eleventh Corps, occupying the cemetery, lay down, wrapt in our cloaks, with the troops among the grave-stones. There was profound stillness in the graveyard, broken by no sound but the breathing of men and here and there the tramp of a horse's foot; and sullen rumblings mysteriously floating on the air from a distance all around.
The sun of the 2nd of July rose brightly upon these two armies marshalling for battle. Neither of them was ready. But as we could observe the field from Cemetery Hill, the Confederates were readier than we were. The belts of timber screening their lines presented open spaces enough, in which we could see their bayonets glisten and their artillery in position, to permit us to form a rough estimate of the extent of the positions they occupied and of the strength of their forces present. There was a rumor that Lee's army was fully as strong as ours — which, however, was not the case — and from what we saw before us, we guessed that it was nearly all up and ready for action. We knew, too, that to receive the anticipated attack, our army was, although rapidly coming in, not nearly all up. It was, indeed, a comforting thought that Lee, who, as rumor had it, had wished and planned for a defensive battle, was now obliged to fight an aggressive one against our army established in a strong position. Yet we anxiously hoped that his attack would not come too early for our comfort. Thus we watched with not a little concern the dense columns of our troops as they approached at a brisk pace on the Taneytown road and the Baltimore Pike to wheel into the positions assigned to them. It was, if I remember rightly, about 8 o'clock when General Meade quietly appeared on the cemetery, on horseback, accompanied by a staff officer and an orderly. His long-bearded, haggard face, shaded by a black military felt hat the rim of which was turned down, looked careworn and tired, as if he had not slept that night. The spectacles on his nose gave him a somewhat magisterial look. There was nothing in his appearance or his bearing — not a smile nor a sympathetic word addressed to those around him — that might have made the hearts of the soldiers warm up to him, or that called forth a cheer. There was nothing of pose, nothing stagey, about him. His mind was evidently absorbed by a hard problem. But this simple, cold, serious soldier with his business-like air did inspire confidence. The officers and men, as much as was permitted, crowded around and looked up to him with curious eyes, and then turned away, not enthusiastic, but clearly satisfied.
With a rapid glance he examined the position of our army, which has often, and quite correctly, been likened to a fishing hook, the long shank of which was formed by Cemetery Ridge, running south from the cemetery to Round Top; the head by the cemetery itself, and the hook, receding toward the southeast, by the woods of Culp's Hill. The General nodded, seemingly with approval. After the usual salutations I asked him how many men he had on the ground. I remember his answer well. “In the course of the day I expect to have about 95,000 — enough, I guess, for this business.” And then, after another sweeping glance over the field, he added, as if repeating something to himself: “Well, we may fight it out here just as well as anywhere else.” Then he quietly rode away.
The Second Corps of our army had arrived about seven; two divisions of the Fifth about the same time; several brigades of the Third Corps came up about nine; the Artillery Reserve and the large ammunition train was parked in the valley between Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill by eleven; the Sixth Corps under Sedgwick reached Rock Creek after a march of thirty-four miles, about four of the afternoon. Thus our line was gradually filled. But, the forenoon passed without any serious attack from the Confederates. There were only, as the two armies “felt” one another, occasional sputterings of musketry and abrupt discharges of cannon, like growling barks of chained watch-dogs when you approach them too closely. At last, between three and four, the expected attack came. Our position had its weak points. On our extreme right the Twelfth Corps under General Slocum held Culp's Hill — Wadsworth's division of the First Corps joined the Twelfth Corps to the Eleventh under Howard, which occupied the cemetery, forming the bend of the fishing hook; to the left of the Eleventh on Cemetery Ridge, the “long shank,” stood Doubleday's division of the First, then the Second Corps under Hancock, and on its left the Third under Sickles, which, to gain a higher and apparently more advantageous position, was moved forward on the Cemetery Ridge line to a peach orchard, hence become famous, the two divisions of the corps forming a projecting angle, provoking attack. The Round Tops on the left of the Third Corps were unoccupied. These were the weak points which General Lee's keen eyes quickly perceived. Our Fifth Corps stood in reserve, and our Sixth Corps under Sedgwick had not yet arrived. Lee's army formed a large semicircle fronting our lines — Ewell's Corps on its left, facing Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill; A. P. Hill's Corps in the center, occupying Seminary Ridge and facing part of Cemetery Ridge held by the Second and the Third Corps, and Longstreet's facing our left.
It was from Longstreet's Corps, therefore, that the attack upon our weak points came. A brisk cannonade preceded it, which, to judge by the missiles which whirred over our heads, was partly directed upon Cemetery Hill, and to which the batteries near us replied at a lively rate. Then we heard a confused noise on our left, a continuous rattle of musketry, discharge of artillery now thundering with rapid vehemence; then slackening as if batteries were silenced; then breaking out again with renewed violence; and from time to time something like an echo of a Union cheer or a rebel yell. Owing to a projecting spur of Cemetery Ridge, we on the cemetery itself could not see what was happening on our extreme left — nothing but the rising clouds of white smoke. Neither did the sounds we heard indicate which side had the advantage in the battle. But looking to our rear we observed how regiment after regiment was taken from our right wing to be hurried as quickly as possible toward the left of the army as reinforcement. The fire grew more furious from minute to minute, and about half after six, the roar of the battle actually seemed to indicate that our line was yielding. A moment later Captain Dilger of my artillery, who had gone to the ammunition train to get a new supply, came galloping up Cemetery Hill in great agitation with the report that the enemy had overwhelmed the Third Corps in the peach orchard and pressing after our flying troops had pierced our left center; that his musket balls were already falling into our ammunition train, and that unless the rebels were beaten back at once, they would attack us in the rear and take us prisoners in half an hour. It was a moment of most anxious suspense. But it did not last long. Loud and repeated Union cheers on our left, which could be heard above the din of battle, told us that relief had come in time and had rolled back the hostile wave. General Meade had skillfully used the advantage afforded us by the “interior line” in rapidly shifting forces from one point to another as the necessities of the moment required, and thus succeeded in meeting the assault of the enemy with superior numbers. As evening came the battle on the left sank into a lull and we were assured that, although the enemy had gained some ground, we had won a secure lodgment on the Round Tops, owing to General Warren's keen discernment of the situation, and our line from there to Cemetery Hill was substantially restored.
In the meantime the enemy, noticing the withdrawal of some of our troops from Culp's Hill, had tried to capture that vitally important position. But there, too, although the enemy possessed himself of some of the breastworks left by the brigades that had been called away to assist in beating back the attack on our left, he was checked by our troops left in position, especially General Greene's brigade — the same General Greene who lived in New York to reach, in honor and health, the age of ninety odd years — which heroically maintained itself alone until succored by reinforcements, among which were several of my regiments. A part of my First Brigade was sent to strengthen General Ames, who was hard pressed, and some of the Second Brigade pushed to the support of General Wadsworth, which they did very efficiently — for which thanks were returned.
But the dangers of the day were not yet ended. It was already dark when we on Cemetery Hill were suddenly startled by a tremendous turmoil at Wiedrich's and Rickett's batteries placed on a commanding point on the right of Cemetery Hill. General Howard and I were standing together in conversation when the uproar surprised us. There could be no doubt of its meaning. The enemy was attacking the batteries on our right, and if he gained possession of them he would enfilade a large part of our line toward the south as well as the east, and command the valley between Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill, where the ammunition trains were parked. The fate of the battle might hang on the repulse of this attack. There was no time to wait for superior orders. With the consent of General Howard I took the two regiments nearest to me, ordered them to fix bayonets, and, headed by Colonel Krzyzanowski, they hurried to the threatened point at a double-quick. I accompanied them with my whole staff. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by a rushing crowd of stragglers from the already broken lines. We did our best, sword in hand, to drive them back as we went. Arrived at the batteries, we found an indescribable scene of mêlée. Some rebel infantry had scaled the breastworks and were taking possession of the guns. But the cannoneers defended themselves desperately. With rammers and fence rails, hand spikes and stones, they knocked down the intruders. In Wiedrich's battery, manned by Germans from Buffalo, a rebel officer, brandishing his sword, cried out: “This battery is ours!” Whereupon a sturdy artilleryman responded: “No, dis battery is unser,” and felled him to the ground with a sponge-staff. Our infantry made a vigorous rush upon the invaders, and after a short but very spirited hand-to-hand scuffle tumbled them down the embankment. As General Hunter said in his contribution to the Century series: “The Dutchmen showed that they were in no way inferior to their Yankee comrades, who had been taunting them ever since Chancellorsville.” Our line to the right, having been reinforced by Carroll's brigade of the Second Corps, which had hurried on in good time, also succeeded in driving back the assailants with a rapid fire, and the dangerous crisis was happily ended. I could say with pride in my official report that during this perilous hour my officers and men behaved splendidly. During the night the regiments that had been withdrawn from my command to give aid elsewhere, returned to their former positions.
The net result of the second day's battle was, on the whole, not encouraging to either side. The Confederates had gained some ground — the position of the Emmitsburg road on their right and some Union breastworks on Culp's Hill on their extreme left; but they had also failed in several of their attacks, and become aware how difficult it would be to break the Union lines at any point in a manner to secure a decisive result. On the other hand, our army had lost some ground, but at the same time made its position stronger by the secure occupation of the Round Tops and the rectification of its line between them and Cemetery Hill. But both armies had suffered enormous losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners, and the commander of each, as has appeared from subsequent revelations, profoundly wished he were well out of the mess, while neither could see how he could do else than continue on the line on which he had begun. A council of the corps commanders held by General Meade that night was unanimous in that decision.
At dawn of day on the 3rd of July we were roused from sleep by a fierce rattle of musketry in the woods of Culp's Hill. As already mentioned, the withdrawal of several brigades from our right to assist our left in the fights of the preceding day had enabled the enemy to get possession of several breastworks abandoned by the Twelfth Corps. General Meade decided that for the security of our right flank those positions must be retaken, and the Twelfth Corps went at the task with great spirit. It was a little battle of its own, of which, owing to the woods on the field of action, we could see nothing except the columns of troops sent from the center and the left wing of our army to the assistance of the right. But the firing was incessant, both of artillery and musketry, now and then swelling into a great roar, stimulating the imagination of the distant listeners into nervous activity as to what might be happening under that cloud of white smoke hovering over Culp's Hill. About half past ten the firing ceased, and it was reported that the Twelfth, after a six hours' stubborn fight, not too bloody on our side, had retaken the positions held by the enemy during the night.
And then came that interval of perfect stillness of which most of the descriptions of the battle of Gettysburg have so much to say. That the battle should have come to a short stop would have surprised nobody. But when that stop lengthened from minute to minute, from half hour to half hour, and when it settled down into a tranquillity like the peaceful and languid repose of a warm midsummer morning in which one might expect to hear the ringing of the village church-bells, there was something ominous, something uncanny, in these strange, unexpected hours of profound silence so sharply contrasting with the bloody horrors which had preceded, and which were sure to follow them. Even the light-hearted soldiers, who would ordinarily never lose an opportunity for some outbreak of an hilarious mood, even in a short moment of respite in a fight, seemed to feel the oppression. Some sat silently on the ground munching their hard-tack, while others stretched themselves out seeking sleep, which they probably would have found more readily had the cannon been thundering at a distance. The officers stood together in little groups discussing with evident concern what this long-continued calm might mean. Could it be that Lee, whose artillery in long rows of batteries had been silently frowning at us all the morning, had given up his intention to make another great attack? If not, why had he not begun it at an earlier hour, which unquestionably would have been more advantageous to him?
Suddenly the riddle was solved. About one o'clock the long hush was broken by the booming of two guns fired in rapid succession on the enemy's right, where Longstreet's Corps stood. And at once this signal was answered by all the batteries of the Confederate army, about 130 cannon, that could be brought to bear upon Cemetery Hill and the ridge joining it to the Round Tops. Instantly about 80 pieces of our artillery — as many as could usefully be posted in our line facing west and northwest — took up the challenge, and one of the grandest artillery duels in the history of wars followed. All that I had ever read in battle-stories of the booming of heavy guns out-thundering the thunders of heaven, and making the earth tremble, and almost stopping one's breath by the concussions of the air — was here made real, in terrific effect. The roar was so incessant and at times so deafening that when I wished to give an order to one of my officers I had to put my hands to my mouth as a speaking trumpet and shout my words into his ear. Fortunately the enemy had aimed their artillery a little too high, so that most of its missiles passed over our heads. But enough of them struck the ground on the cemetery and exploded there, to scatter death and destruction among the men immediately around, and to shatter gravestones and blow up ammunition caissons. But as most of them flew over us, rushing, screaming, whirring, and as they burst above, and sent down their deadly fragments, they added to the hellish din a peculiarly malicious noise of their own. How would the men endure this frightful experience? One of the hardest trials of the courage and steadfastness of the soldier is to stand still and be shot at without being able to reply. This ordeal is especially severe when the soldier is under a heavy artillery fire which, although less dangerous than that of musketry, is more impressive on the nerves. It bewilders the mind of the bravest with a painful sense of helplessness as against a tremendous power, and excites to peculiar vivacity the not unnatural desire to get into a safer place out of range. As a matter of course we ordered the troops to lie down flat on the ground, so as to present the smallest possible target. But when I observed the effect of the dropping of a shell right into the midst of a regiment which caused some uneasy commotion, I thought it my duty to get upon my feet and look after it. I found that it had a very steadying and cheering effect upon the men to see me quietly walking up and down in front smoking a cigar. I could not speak to them, for the incessant roar of the cannonade would not let them hear me. But I noticed that many of them returned my smile in a sort of confidential way when I happened to catch their eyes, as if to say: “It is not jolly, but we two will not be frightened by it.” Indeed it was not jolly, for I felt as if the enemy's projectiles rushing over me were so near that I might have touched them with my riding-whip held up at full length of my arm. But observing the good effect of my promenade in front, I invited, by gesture, some of the regimental officers to do likewise. They promptly obeyed, although, I suppose, they liked the stroll no more than I did.
Many years later I found in Tolstoy's great novel, “War and Peace,” a description of the conduct of a Russian regiment at the battle of Borodino, which had to remain motionless under a fearful fire of French batteries, the men sitting on the ground and diverting their minds under the deadly hail by braiding the blades of grass within their reach. It reminded me vividly of what I saw on the cemetery of Gettysburg, where, while that tremendous cannonade was going on, some of the men occupied their minds by cleaning their gun-locks, others by polishing the buttons of their uniforms, still others by sewing up rents in their clothes. Evidently Tolstoy wrote from the personal experience of battles.
I had the good fortune of saving in a curious way the life of one of my aides, Captain Fritz Tiedemann, one of whose daughters more than thirty years later was to become the wife of one of my sons. During an interval between two of my front promenades I stretched myself on the ground, my aide Fritz by my side. Feeling a nagging desire to eat something, I shouted into his ear: “Fritz, go and see whether you cannot borrow a cracker for me from somebody. I am desperately hungry.” Fritz had hardly moved two paces away from me when a piece of a burst shell about half as large as my hand fell upon the place on which he had been lying, and buried itself several inches in the soil. Thus the life of my son's father-in-law that was to be, was saved by the craving of my stomach.
The furious bombardment had lasted more than an hour when the excellent Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, General Hunt, passed along the line the order to “cease firing”; not all the batteries to become silent at once, but one after another. The intention, and the actual effect, was, not only to prevent the further useless expenditure of ammunition, but principally to make the enemy believe that our artillery was in great part seriously crippled and would no longer be able to offer effective resistance to a vigorous attack. In fact the actual effect of the enemy's grand bombardment of our lines had been very trifling. A few pieces had been dismounted, but they were easily replaced from the reserve artillery. A few caissons had been exploded, but there was plenty of ammunition left. Some men and some horses had been killed or wounded, but, their number was astonishingly small considering the awfulness of the turmoil, and there was nothing of the terror and demoralization which the enemy, no doubt, had expected to produce. To judge by my own command, which occupied one of the positions most exposed to the enemy's fire, we had suffered very little in killed and wounded, and I did not hear of a single man that had skulked away from the ranks.
But the enemy seemed to think differently. As our batteries grew silent, so did his. And then came forth that famous scene which made the battle of Gettysburg more dramatic than any other event of the Civil War, and which more nearly approached the conception of what a battle is in the imagination of persons who have never seen one. I will describe only what we observed of it from the crest of Cemetery Hill. From a screen of woods opposite our left center emerged a long line of Confederate infantry, mounted officers in front and behind; and then another, and another — about 15,000 men. The alignment was perfect. The battle-flags fluttered gaily over the bayonets glittering in the sunlight. The spectacle has often been truly likened to a grand holiday parade on a festive ground. A mile of open field separated them from our line of defense. They had hardly traversed one-tenth of that distance when they became fully aware that those of them who had counted upon our artillery having been much disabled, had grievously deceived themselves. No sooner had the attacking column appeared on the open than our batteries, which had in the meantime been re-formed and well supplied with ammunition, opened upon them from the front and from the right and left, with a terrific fire. Through our field-glasses we could distinctly see the gaps torn in their ranks, and the ground dotted with dark spots — their dead and wounded. Now land then a cheer went up from our lines when our men observed some of our shells striking right among the advancing enemy and scattering death and destruction around. But the brave rebels promptly filled the gaps from behind or by closing up on their colors, and unshaken and unhesitatingly they continued their onward march. Then the Confederate artillery behind them, firing over their heads, tried to silence our batteries or at least to attract their fire so as to divert it from the infantry masses advancing in the open field. But in vain. Our cannon did not change their aim, and the number of dark spots dotting the field increased fearfully from minute to minute. So far not a musket had been discharged from behind the stone fences protecting our regiments. Now the assailants steadily marching on seemed to disappear in a depression of the ground, where they stopped for a little while to readjust their alignment. But when they emerged again, evidently with undismayed courage, and quickened their pace to make the final plunge, a roar of cannon and a rattle of musketry, so tremendous, received them that one might have thought any force coming against it would have been swept from the face of the earth. Still the attacking lines, although much thinned and losing their regularity, rushed forward with grim determination. Then we on the cemetery lost sight of them as they were concealed from our eyes by the projecting spur of the ridge I have already spoken of. Meanwhile a rebel force, consisting apparently of two or three brigades, supporting the main attack on its left, advanced against our position on Cemetery Hill. We had about thirty pieces of artillery in our front. They were ordered to load with grape and canister, and to reserve their fire until the enemy should be within four or five hundred yards. Then the word to fire was given, and when, after a few rapid discharges, the guns “ceased” and permitted the smoke to clear away, all we saw of the enemy was the backs of men hastily running away, and the ground covered with dead and wounded. Our skirmishers rushed forward, speeding the pace of fugitives and gathering in a multitude of prisoners.
But on our left the struggle, which from the cemetery we could not see, still continued. We could only hear a furious din which seemed to be stationary. Could it be that the rebels were breaking our lines? With nervous anxiety we turned our eyes upon the valley behind us. But there we saw, not fugitives or skulkers from our positions, but columns of troops hurrying to the scene of the decisive conflict. This was reassuring. At last, looking again at the field which had been traversed by the splendid host of assailants we saw, first little driblets, then larger numbers, and finally huge swarms of men in utter disorder hurrying back the way they had come, and then, soon after, in hot pursuit, clouds of blue-coated skirmishers from our front rushing in from both sides, firing and capturing prisoners. This spectacle could have but one meaning. The great attack had failed disastrously. That magnificent column that had so proudly advanced upon us, was not only defeated, but well-nigh annihilated. A deep sigh of relief wrung itself from every breast. Then tremendous cheers arose along the Union lines, and here and there the men began to sing “John Brown's Soul.” The song swept weirdly over the bloody field.
The general feeling in our ranks was that we had won a victory, and that we had now to reap its fruits. The instinct of the soldiers demanded a prompt, aggressive movement upon the enemy, and I think the instinct of the soldiers was right. The strongest of our army corps, the Fifth, kept in reserve, was substantially intact. Hardly any of the other corps had suffered so much as to be incapable of vigorous action. Their spirits were elated to genuine enthusiasm by the great event of the day. An order for a general advance seemed to be the natural outcome of the moment, and many men in the ranks fairly cried for it. But it did not come. Our skirmishers followed the retreating enemy for a certain distance, and then returned with their prisoners without having touched the positions from which the attacking force had emerged. Then two or three batteries of rebel artillery galloped forth from the belt of timber which screened the enemy's scattered forces. They advanced a short distance, unlimbered, fired a few discharges, limbered up again and galloped back — probably to make us believe that the enemy, although repulsed, was still on the ground in fighting trim. (I do not remember having seen this fact stated in any of the histories of the battle of Gettysburg, but I observed it with my own eyes, and the impression is still vivid in my memory.)
Soon darkness and deep silence fell upon the battlefield. Officers and men, utterly exhausted by the fatigues and excitements of the past three days, just dropped down on the ground. In a moment my people around me were soundly asleep among the shattered gravestones. About two o'clock in the morning I was suddenly aroused by a sharp but short rattle of musketry, the sound coming clearly from the plain on the north side of the town. It lasted only a few seconds — then complete stillness again. What could it mean? Only that the enemy was withdrawing his pickets, and some of our outposts sent a volley after them. This was my own opinion, and that of my officers. The next minute we were fast asleep again, and woke up only when daylight was upon us. Early in the morning I sent a detachment of my second brigade, under my chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Otto, into the town to reconnoiter. They took prisoners over 250 rebel stragglers, who remained behind while the enemy had during the night quietly evacuated Gettysburg. I at once rode in with some staff-officers and orderlies to satisfy myself whether there were any wounded men left in the houses or on the fields beyond, where my troops had been engaged on the first day of the battle. Then I enjoyed a most delightful surprise.
Of all the losses we had suffered in the first day's bloody battle, that of my old friend Schimmelfennig went nearest to my heart. He had not only been an officer of exceptional ability, but my military instructor in the old German days, and a dear personal friend. We did not know what had become of him — whether he lay dead on the field, or had been wounded, or made a prisoner by the enemy. Some of his officers had last seen him in the thickest of the fight, and how, when the order to retreat was given, he had left the field in the rear of his command. Further, their accounts did not go. Now, when early in the morning after the three-days' struggle I entered the town — what should I see? In the door of one of the houses on the main street, General Schimmelfennig, alive and waving his hat to me. “Halloh!” he shouted. “I knew you would come. I have been preparing for you. You must be hungry. I found some eggs in this house and saved them for you. We shall have them fried in a few minutes. Get off your horse and let us take breakfast together.” It was a jolly repast, during which he told us his story. When, during that furious fight of the first day, the order to retreat reached him, he did his best to take his command out of the fire-line in as orderly a shape as possible — a very difficult operation under any circumstances — and, therefore, left the field in the rear of his troops. But when he reached the town he found the streets crowded with a confused mass of artillery and vehicles of all sorts, and disorganized men. Somehow he was crowded into a blind lane, and suddenly ran against a high fence, barring his progress, while some rebel infantrymen, in hot pursuit, were yelling close behind him. To clear the tall fence on horseback was impossible. He therefore dismounted and climbed over it. While he was on the top rail, his pursuers came up to him, and one of them knocked him on the head with the butt of his gun. The blow did not hurt him much, but he let himself drop on the other side of the fence as if he were dead, or at least stunned. Fortunately, he wore an ordinary cavalry overcoat over his general's uniform, so that no sign of his rank was visible. The rebel soldiers, thus taking him for a mere private, then passed by him. After a little while he cautiously raised his head and discovered that he was alone in a little kitchen garden, and that within a few yards of him there was a small stable or shed that might serve him as a temporary shelter. He crawled into it, and found a litter of straw on the ground, as well as some bread crumbs and other refuse, which seemed to have been intended for pigs. Soon he heard voices all around him, and from the talk he could catch he concluded that the rebels had taken possession of the town and were making preparations for its defense.
There he lay, then, in his pig-sty, alone and helpless, surrounded on all sides by enemies who might have discovered him at any moment, but fortunately did not, and unknown to the inhabitants of the house to which the kitchen garden belonged. He had nothing to eat except the nauseous scraps he found on the ground, and nothing to drink except the few drops that were left in his field flask. And in this condition he lay from the afternoon of the 1st of July until the early morning of the 4th. But worse than hunger and thirst during those two and a half days and three nights was his feverish anxiety concerning the course of the battle. There was an ill-omened silence during the first night and the early forenoon of the second day. Had our army withdrawn? From the noises be heard he could only conclude that the enemy held the town of Gettysburg in force. But the roar of cannon and the rattle of the musketry during the afternoon assured him that our army was present in force, too. Only he could not tell which side had the advantage, or whether there was any advantage achieved by either side. And so it was on the third day, when the battle seemed to rage furiously, at different times and at different points, apparently neither advancing nor receding, until late in the afternoon the artillery became silent, and a mighty Union cheer filled the air. Then his hope rose that something favorable to us had happened. Still, he was disquieted again by the continued presence of the rebel infantry around him, until late in the night he heard something like the passing around of an order among them in a low voice, whereupon they seemed quietly to slink away. Then perfect stillness. At break of day he ventured his head out of the pig-sty, and finding the kitchen garden completely deserted, he went into the house, the inhabitants of which greeted him first with some apprehension, but then, upon better knowledge of the situation, with great glee. A happy moment it was to me when I could telegraph to Mrs. Schimmelfennig, who was, with my family, at Bethlehem, Pa., that her husband, who had been reported missing after the first day's battle, had been found, sound and safe!
No contrast could have been gloomier than that between the light-hearted hilarity of our breakfast and my visit to the battlefield immediately following it. The rebels had removed many if not most of their dead, but ours lay still in ghastly array on the ground where they had fallen. There can be no more hideous sight than that of the corpses on a battlefield, after they have been exposed a day or more to the sun in warm weather — the bodies swollen to monstrous size, the faces bloated and black, the eyes bulging out with a dead stare, all their features puffed out almost beyond recognition, some lying singly or in rows, others in heaps, having fallen over one another, some in attitudes of peaceful repose, others with arms raised, others in a sitting posture, others on their knees, others clawing the earth, many horribly distorted by what must have been a frightful death-struggle. Here I stood on the ground occupied by my division during that murderous conflict, around me the dead bodies of men who, but three days ago, had cheered me when I rode along their front, and whose greetings I had responded to with sincere affection, the features of some of whom I now succeeded in recognizing after a painful effort; some officers whom I had known well, with whom I had talked often, and who now lay here, struck down in the flower of their young manhood, now horrible to look at like the rest — and over yonder, only a few paces away, some Confederate dead, whom their comrades had left on the field, now looking just like our men, and having in all probability died with the same belief in the justice of their cause. Was it possible that any of them should have been sincerely convinced of the righteousness of the cause they fought for — the cause of slavery? I had to say to myself that it was possible, and in many cases even certain; for did I not know from history that in many religious wars men had cut one another's throats with the fierceness of fanatical conviction concerning differences of opinion on doctrinal points which to-day would call forth from any educated person only a smile of pity? I rode away from this horrible scene in a musing state of mind, finally composing myself with the reaffirmed faith that in our struggle against slavery we could not possibly be wrong; that there was an imperative, indisputable necessity of fighting for our cause; that the belief of the rebels in the righteousness of their cause might be ever so sincere, and that they might individually deserve ever so much credit for that sincerity, but that their error stood offensively in the way of justice, and that their challenge had to be met.
There were more harrowing experiences in store for me that day. To look after the wounded of my command, I visited the places where the surgeons were at work. At Bull Run, I had seen only on a very small scale what I was now to behold. At Gettysburg the wounded — many thousands of them — were carried to the farmsteads behind our lines. The houses, the barns, the sheds, and the open barnyards were crowded with moaning and wailing human beings, and still an unceasing procession of stretchers and ambulances was coming in from all sides to augment the number of the sufferers. A heavy rain set in during the day — the usual rain after a battle — and large numbers had to remain unprotected in the open, there being no room left under roof. I saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the buildings, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams. Most of the operating tables were placed in the open where the light was best, some of them partially protected against the rain by tarpaulins or blankets stretched upon poles. There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up to the elbows, their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood, their knives not seldom held between their teeth, while they were helping a patient on or off the table, or had their hands otherwise occupied; around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in heaps, sometimes more than man-high. Antiseptic methods were still unknown at that time. As a wounded man was lifted on the table, often shrieking with pain as the attendants handled him, the surgeon quickly examined the wound and resolved upon cutting off the injured limb. Some ether was administered and the body put in position in a moment. The surgeon snatched his knife from between his teeth, where it had been while his hands were busy, wiped it rapidly once or twice across his blood-stained apron, and the cutting began. The operation accomplished, the surgeon would look around with a deep sigh, and then — “Next!”
And so it went on, hour after hour, while the number of expectant patients seemed hardly to diminish. Now and then one of the wounded men would call attention to the fact that his neighbor lying on the ground had given up the ghost while waiting for his turn, and the dead body was then quietly removed. Or a surgeon, having been long at work, would put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance — not seldom hysterical tears streaming down his face. Many of the wounded men suffered with silent fortitude, fierce determination in the knitting of their brows and the steady gaze of their bloodshot eyes. Some would even force themselves to a grim jest about their situation or about the “skedaddling of the rebels.” But there were, too, heart-rending groans and shrill cries of pain piercing the air, and despairing exclamations, “Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” or “Let me die!” or softer murmurings in which the words “mother” or “father” or “home” were often heard. I saw many of my command among the sufferers, whose faces I well remembered, and who greeted me with a look or even a painful smile of recognition, and usually with the question what I thought of their chances of life, or whether I could do anything for them, sometimes, also, whether I thought the enemy were well beaten. I was sadly conscious that many of the words of cheer and encouragement I gave them were mere hollow sound, but they might be at least some solace for the moment.
There are people who speak lightly of war as a mere heroic sport. They would hardly find it in their hearts to do so, had they ever witnessed scenes like these, and thought of the untold miseries connected with them that were spread all over the land. He must be an inhuman brute or a slave of wild, unscrupulous ambition, who, having seen the horrors of war, will not admit that war brought on without the most absolute necessity, is the greatest and most unpardonable of crimes.
In the course of the day the great tidings came that General Grant had taken Vicksburg and made the whole garrison of that Confederate stronghold prisoners of war. That was a great victory — a complete victory — and great was the cheering along our lines when we heard of it. But there was also among many of the officers of the Army of the Potomac, deep-down, a depressing consciousness that ours was not what it might have been, a complete victory. To be sure, we had fought a great battle — and fought it bravely; our losses were enormous, over twenty-five per cent of the whole force, and the losses of the enemy could hardly be less; we had disastrously repulsed a fierce attack of the Confederates and inflicted upon them a terrible blow. But now, on the day after that great event, there stood the enemy — having, indeed, withdrawn from the field fought over during the preceding three days, but only to concentrate his forces in a strong defensive position on that very Seminary Ridge from which he had been directing his offensive movements — there he stood, within sight of us, within cannon-shot, grimly daring us to attack him, and we did not move. The situation seemed almost humiliating when we remembered that the day before, after the repulse of Pickett's charge, with three hours of daylight to spare, we might, by a resolute and vigorous counter-charge by our whole disposable force, have achieved a real victory over Lee's army, a victory which might have stopped this mainstay of the Confederacy of most of its power of mischief. I have always esteemed General Meade's character so highly that I am loath to join his critics on any point. But I have always understood it to be one of the first of the rules of war — which, in fact, are nothing but the rules of common sense applied to the business of war — that when you have dealt the enemy a blow which destroys his strength at some important point, and which confuses and demoralizes him so as to make him stagger — or as the pugilists say, to render him “groggy” — you must follow up your advantage to the best of your ability, so as to reap its fruits. That we had dealt such a blow to Lee's army by the repulse of Pickett's charge we could see with our eyes. The attacking force of the rebels had not only been hurled back, but what was left of it had been turned into a disorderly and demoralized mob — that is, it had been substantially annihilated as a fighting body, much more apt to continue running than to offer effective resistance — for the time being, at least. On the other hand, we had one army corps that had hardly been engaged at all, and several others which, in spite of the losses they had suffered, were in good fighting form and in unusually fine fighting spirits; for at that moment the Army of the Potomac — what had not often happened to it before — felt victory in its bones. In one word, the chances of success would have been decidedly and largely in our favor. It was one of those rare opportunities in war promising great results, but, to win them, demanding instant resolution. There being no instant resolution the great opportunity was lost. Lee was given ample time to rally and re-form his shattered host, and, contracting his lines, to establish himself in his strong defensive position on Seminary Ridge. There he stood — a whole day longer, like a wounded lion — wounded, but still defiant.
He gave the order to retreat across the Potomac on the afternoon of July 4th. There we had another opportunity to win great results by a vigorous pursuit. Lee's retreat was a difficult one, owing to his encumbrances and the heavy rains spoiling the roads. But our pursuit was not vigorous. We started the next day, exerted hardly any pressure at all upon his rear, marched by circuitous routes more or less parallel with Lee's line of retreat, and when, after several days, we caught up with him in an entrenched position, we put off the attack long enough to give him time to withdraw his whole army across the river without any serious loss. Thus it happened that General Lee saved from the battlefield at Gettysburg an army still capable of giving many anxious hours to the defenders of the Union. Indeed, the political value of the results achieved at Gettysburg can hardly be overestimated. Had Lee defeated us on that battlefield, and marched with his victorious hosts upon Baltimore and Washington, there would have been complications of incalculable consequence. The lines of communication between the seat of our government and the North and West might have been seriously interrupted. A new secession movement might possibly have been started in Maryland. The disloyal partisan elements in the Northern States might have been greatly encouraged to aggressive activity. New attempts might have been made in England and France to bring about the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by those powers, and eventual intervention in its favor. I am far from believing that all this would have resulted in the final breaking down of the Union cause, for the North would no doubt have risen to a supreme effort, but our situation would certainly have been beset with most perplexing troubles for a time, and the war might have been materially prolonged. On the other hand, Lee's failure at Gettysburg — if we call it only that — had dashed the highest hopes of the Southern people. The invasion of the North and the attempt to transplant the war upon Northern soil had so decidedly miscarried that so ambitious a plan would hardly again be thought of. The hope of supplying the meager and constantly dwindling resources of the South with rich Northern spoil had to be given up forever. Moreover, Lee's army, which so far had thought itself invincible, and looked upon the Northern soldiers with haughty contempt, had been seriously weakened in the self-reliance which had inspired its daring in many battles. Thenceforth it felt itself on the defensive. And the defensive, although still formidable, was bound gradually to grow weaker as the Confederacy found it more and more difficult to fill the widening gaps in the ranks of its armies, and to furnish its fighting forces with the necessaries of warfare.
It has been a common saying that the capture of Vicksburg, giving us the free command of the Mississippi, and the battle of Gettysburg, forcing the best Southern army back upon Southern soil, broke the backbone of the rebellion. This is substantially true. But it is equally true that, had our success at Gettysburg been so followed up as to destroy Lee's army, or at least to render it unable to keep the field, the war would probably have been a year shorter.
When General Lee had recrossed the Potomac, our army leisurely followed rather than pursued him upon the old, well-trodden field of operations in Virginia. An amusing little adventure happened to me on that occasion. When we were passing through Loudoun County, Virginia, my division had the rear of the marching column, and I observed on a ridge of ground on our left, running nearly parallel with our line of march, at a distance of about two miles, groups of horsemen, who would quickly disappear again after having for a moment shown themselves. Owing to the distance we could not make out through our glasses whether they looked like Union or rebel cavalry, or guerrillas, of whom there were a good many in that part of Virginia, under their famous chief, Colonel Mosby. But it was my own opinion, as well as that of my staff-officers, that they must be detachments of Union cavalry, charged with the duty of guarding the flank of the army on its march. This would have been the correct thing. Not having any cavalry to investigate the matter at a distance, I had to content myself with pushing out a little farther my infantry flanking parties and my rear guard. That night we camped at a place called Mountsville, where we were to rest two or three days. The next morning it was reported to me that Mosby's guerrillas were hovering all around us, and had already picked up some army vehicles and sutlers' wagons, as well as a number of stragglers.
At once I ordered out several strong infantry patrols to scour the country in all directions, and one of them I accompanied myself for the special purpose of establishing an outpost at a mill situated on a water-course, near which I had noticed on yesterday's march several loiterers of suspicious appearance. I rode ahead of the patrol, accompanied by an officer of my staff, two orderlies, and my staff bugler. Light-heartedly we enjoyed the freshness of the morning.
To get to the mill we had to pass through a little defile — a narrow, sunken road, slightly descending, and bordered on each side by an abrupt rise of ground covered with trees and underbrush. We had hardly entered this defile, when, at the lower end of it, perhaps two hundred yards ahead of us, we observed a troop of horsemen, ten or twelve of them, who advanced toward us. They looked rather ragged, and I took them for teamsters or similar folk. But one of my orderlies cried out: “There are the rebels!” And true enough, they were a band of Mosby's guerrillas. Now they came up at a gallop, and in a minute they were among us. While we whipped out our revolvers, I shouted to my bugler: “Sound the advance, double-quick!” which he did; and there was an instant “double-quick” signal in response from the infantry patrol, still hidden by the bushes, but close behind us. We had a lively, but, as to my party, harmless conversation with revolvers for a few seconds, whereupon the guerrillas, no doubt frightened by the shouts of the patrol coming on at a run, hastily turned tail and galloped down the road, leaving in our hands one prisoner and two horses. We sped after them, but as soon as they had cleared the defile they scattered over the fields, and were soon lost to sight in the ravines and among the timber-belts around. The infantry patrol, of course, could not overtake them, but it found in a sheltered nook, at a distance from the road, several army vehicles, two sutlers' wagons, and a lot of our stragglers that had been captured.
About ten years later, when I was a member of the Senate of the United States, I was one day passing through the great rotunda of the Capitol, and was stopped by an unknown person with the question: “General, do you remember me?” He was a man of middle stature, a lean, close-shaven face, and a somewhat high-pitched voice. I should have judged him to be a genuine Yankee, especially as I thought I detected in his speech something of the nasal twang usually attributed to the New Englander. I had to confess that I did not remember him. “Well,” he replied; “but you surely recall a lively meeting you had with some of Mosby's men on a shady road near Mountsville, Loudoun, County, Virginia, on a fine July morning in 1863! I am Colonel Mosby, and I was there. You and I were together at arm's length on that occasion.” Of course, there was a hearty handshake and a merry laugh. And we good-naturedly confessed to one another how delighted each one of us would have been to bag the other. Shortly after the close of the Civil War, Colonel Mosby, the nimble and daring marauder, who had often given us much annoyance, “accepted the situation,” joined the Republican party, and was employed by the Union Government in various capacities.
During the summer weeks which followed, my command did not again come into contact with the enemy. We were occasionally shifted from one place to another, as the safety of the communications of the army required. We led, therefore, a rather dull life, but that period is especially memorable to me, because it was there that I committed a breach of discipline for which I might have been — and perhaps ought to have been — cashiered.
The case was this: A private in one of my regiments had been tried by court-martial for desertion, and, according to law, sentenced to death. I was directed to see to the execution of that sentence, for which a special day was appointed. It was reported to me that the culprit was a mere boy, who had been seduced to desert by two older men, bad characters, who succeeded in getting away, while he was caught. I was also informed that he had been in the custody of my provost-guard on the battlefield of Gettysburg, and I had an idea that if a soldier sentenced to death was brought under the fire of the enemy again, he was, according to military custom, relieved of that mortal sentence and entitled at least to some commutation of it. I went to see the poor fellow, and found him to be a young Bohemian, a remarkably handsome lad of hardly more than eighteen, who looked at me with the honest eyes of a child. He told me his side of the story of his desertion in a simple way, confirming what I had heard of his being taken with them by two much older comrades, and that he did not know how serious a thing it was, and how he had intended to come back, and how he would try to die bravely if die he must — but his mother — oh, his mother! The poor woman was a widow, and lived in New York. She was not alone, and not destitute, but she loved him much, and would miss him dreadfully.
I at once made up my mind that, in spite of my orders, I would not direct that boy to be shot, and that I would save him from being shot by anybody else if I could.
First, I tried the “regular official channels.” I appealed to my immediate superior, my corps commander, General Howard, asking him for authority to put off the execution, and laying before him at the same time — to be submitted to the War Department — my reasons for believing that the unfortunate young man should be pardoned. General Howard, with whom I talked the matter over personally, showed himself very sympathetic, but he told me that he had no power to suspend the order I was to execute. He would, however, forward my request to a higher authority, with a warm endorsement, which, no doubt, he did. The time set for the execution approached, but no answer from the War Department came. On the dreaded day I was ordered to take my command from New Baltimore, Virginia, to some point the name of which I have forgotten, and the poor boy was to be shot at noon on the march. I was firmly resolved not to do it. I did not advise General Howard of my resolution, because I did not wish to involve him in my responsibility. We did, indeed, stop at noon, but merely to give the troops a little rest and time to cook and eat their midday meal. My poor culprit remained undisturbed. When we had gone into camp in the evening, I had him brought into my tent. I told him that an effort was being made to save him, but that I did not know whether it would succeed. He expressed his gratitude with touching simplicity. He said that he expected to be shot that day, and that, when the column halted at noon, he was sure that his last moment on earth had come. But when he then heard the bugle signals, indicating that the troops were to be put in motion again, he suddenly wanted something to eat, and he felt a great joy in his heart which he was hardly able to repress; and would I permit him to write to his mother about it? It was hard for me to repeat to him that I could give him no definite assurance; but when the next morning no answer came from the War Department, I wrote to Mr. Lincoln directly — again in disregard of all the rules and regulations — submitting to him a full statement of the case, and asking him to pardon the boy. Then I had not long to wait for a response. The pardon came promptly, and the boy was sent back to his regiment.
The whole affair was hushed up quietly. My insubordinate conduct passed without official notice, and I never heard of the matter again until nearly forty years later, when at one of the annual banquets held by the “Eleventh Corps Association,” composed of survivors of the war, an elderly man, apparently a well-to-do mechanic, was brought to me, who introduced himself as the “deserter” condemned to death, and whose life I had saved in the summer of 1863.
During these comparatively quiet weeks after such arduous campaigns the matter of the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac came naturally to the foreground. In consequence of the casualties of the war, many of the regiments had become reduced to mere skeletons. My division, for instance, which, had all the regiments composing it been up to their original number, would have been 10,000 men strong, counted after the battle of Gettysburg hardly more than 1500 muskets. And many other commands were in a similar condition. The return from the hospitals or from furlough of men who had been wounded or sick, gradually repleted the ranks somewhat, but far from sufficiently, and the few recruits who were furnished us through conscription and the lavish bounty system, were in large part of a character by no means desirable. We became familiarly acquainted with the “bounty-jumper,” the fellow who pocketed considerable sums of money in selling himself for service as a soldier, and then would desert on the first favorable occasion, to play the same game again, at a different place and under a different name.
The task of army-reorganization brought to the front the question what would be done with the Eleventh Corps. The conduct of the corps on the battlefield at Gettysburg should have silenced the voice of detraction which had malignantly pursued it ever since it had been made the scapegoat of the Chancellorsville disaster. To be sure, we had again had the misfortune of being opposed, on the first day, to a vastly superior force of the enemy, in an unfavorable position, and we had been beaten, together with the First Corps. But we had held our ground a considerable time in a terrible fight, which inflicted enormous losses upon us; and then, after a short but very difficult retreat through the streets of a town filled with all sorts of obstructions, we instantly re-formed our thinned ranks, ready to fight again. On the next two days our men endured the great cannonade with exemplary firmness, manfully repelled the attacks made upon them, and whenever ordered, rushed with alacrity to the points where aid was required. No troops could have done their duty better. The defamatory persecution of the Eleventh Corps might then have ceased. But it did not. The “foreign legion,” as it was dubbed, was to serve as a scapegoat again for the retreat of the First Corps from a battlefield which could no longer be held against overwhelming numbers. How far this campaign of slander would go in its absolutely unscrupulous disregard of the truth, and how tenaciously the original calumny was stuck to, appears from a description of the battle of Gettysburg published by General Charles King, an officer of the regular army, over thirty years after the event. There we are told that while in the first day's battle the First Corps was making an heroic stand against the reinforced rebels, the Eleventh Corps was “losing its hold on the northward front”; that “its foreign-born, foreign-bred brigadiers were giving before the natives sweeping down upon them in those long gray lines”; and that, “just as at Chancellorsville, one sturdy Ohio brigade — McLean's command, now led by Ames — was making stanch but futile stand against the onward rush of Early and Gordon.” To characterize the cool effrontery of this tale I have only to remind my reader of the fact that at Chancellorsville McLean's brigade was at once swept away by the first onset of Jackson's attack, that the division on our extreme right at Chancellorsville, the first to be driven in, was commanded by General Devens of Massachusetts, a native, and his strongest brigade by General McLean, also a native, while only his smallest brigade had Colonel Gilsa, a foreign brigadier, at its head; that the only real fighting at Chancellorsville, which for about an hour delayed Jackson's progress, was done by “foreign brigadiers,” Schimmelfennig and Krzyzanowski of Schurz's division, and Buschbeck of Steinwehr's division; and that on the first Gettysburg day the “foreign brigadiers” did not leave the “native” Ohio brigade in the lurch, but that, on the contrary, the “foreign brigadiers” withdrew from the field even a little later than the Ohio brigade, after a valiant struggle, had found itself obliged to retreat.
The corps still continued to be used as a convenient scapegoat for all sorts of mishaps with which it had absolutely nothing to do. Officers and men still complained of being exposed to outrageous indignities. This went so far that in some instances the commanders of reinforcements that were to be attached to the corps, loudly protested against being identified with it on account of its “reputation.” I had long been in favor of maintaining the identity of the corps, and of “braving it out.” But the situation gradually became unendurable. Something had to be done, in justice to the officers and men — either to dissolve and distribute the corps among other organizations, or to take it in some way out of this noxious atmosphere.
I discussed the matter with Generals Howard and Meade, who both agreed that I should go to Washington to lay before General Halleck, who was then still in command of the Armies of the United States, the scheme proposed by me and recommended by them. The proposition was to attach two of the three divisions of the Eleventh Corps to other corps, and to send me with my division, to be reinforced by other troops available for that purpose, to Shenandoah Valley, to guard that important region, which had repeatedly been, and was again to be, the theater of rebel operations on the right flank and rear of the Army of the Potomac. Introducing me, General Howard wrote to General Halleck: “In case the proposition of General Meade, which was telegraphed to-day, respecting the Eleventh Corps, should be acted upon as desired, General Schurz would be left with an independent division. In furtherance of his own views, which he will present in person, I wish to say that the General has been prompt, energetic, and able during the operations in which I have been associated with him. Should you see fit to occupy the Shenandoah Valley with a small force, so as to co-operate with this army and prevent its occupancy by the rebels, I believe I do not flatter him when I say that General Schurz will not fail to give complete satisfaction.” In the same letter, General Howard said: “We feel sensitive under false accusations, but considering the existing prejudices in this army against the Eleventh Corps, and the great difficulty in overcoming them, we regard it better for the service to make the changes. The different corps are now so small that a consolidation is advisable. Personally, it will be gratifying to me to return to the Second Corps, but I do not feel dissatisfied with the Eleventh during the present campaign, and hope the changes referred to will not be regarded as a reflection upon the officers and soldiers of this command, who have worked so hard and done so much to carry out every order.”
All I could obtain from General Halleck was that he would take the matter into consideration. Nothing more was heard of it. The Eleventh Corps was not dissolved. It was, however, reinforced by the assignment to it of several regiments, enough of which were added to my division to enable me to form three brigades. One of these remained under the command of Colonel Krzyzanowski. The second was given to the senior colonel after him, Colonel Hecker, and the third, the old brigade of General Schimmelfennig, who was transferred to the army besieging Charleston, to a new-comer, General Hector Tyndale.
When I first saw General Tyndale, with his proud mien, his keen eye, his severely classic features framed in a brown curly beard, it struck me that so Coriolanus might have looked. A closer acquaintance with him gradually ripened into friendship. He was a few years older than I, and had already a remarkable record behind him. He was the son of a merchant in Philadelphia, and a business man himself. Although without an academic education, his appearance and conversation were those of a man of culture. His was the natural refinement of a mind animated with high ideals, pure principles, perfect honesty of intelligence, a chivalrous sense of honor, and, added to all this, artistic instinct. He had been a warm anti-slavery man, but not an extreme abolitionist. He disapproved of John Brown's attempt at slave-insurrection. But when John Brown's wife appeared in Philadelphia looking for an escort to accompany her on a last visit to her husband, in jail in Virginia under sentence of death, Hector Tyndale chivalrously offered his services, thus braving not only the fury of the mob surrounding John Brown's prison, but also the violent prejudice of his own neighbors. The news of the breaking out of our Civil War found him on a business journey in Europe, but he instantly, at great sacrifice, hastened home to enter the volunteer army. He was made a major in the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, and won promotion by efficient service on various fields. At Antietam he was severely wounded in the head, and obtained the rank of a brigadier-general for conspicuous bravery in action. Having recovered after long prostration, he was assigned to my division. As a strict disciplinarian, he was, as frequently happens, at first not popular with his soldiers, but they gradually perceived that his apparent sternness sprang from an overruling sense of duty and a conscientious care for their welfare, and then their respect turned into affection. It was this rigid, relentless, uncompromising sense of duty which years later, after he had returned to private life, made his fellow-citizens in Philadelphia more than once look to him when the civic situation demanded the services of men of uncompromising rectitude and indomitable moral courage. He never was a popular man, in the ordinary sense, for he would often appear haughty from his moral sensitiveness, and distant, owing to his very nature. Only his near friends enjoyed the real loveliness of his character. He was an aristocrat by taste, and a true democrat by principle and sympathy. I have known few men who so nearly approached the current conception of antique virtue and the ideal of the republican citizen. He died in 1880, not yet sixty years old.
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