The Campaign in Pennsylvania. — A Thrilling Account of the Three Days' Battle.
I. — The Preliminary Campaign.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF POTOMAC,
Near Gettysburg, Saturday Evening, July 4.
The campaign which ahs practically terminated in the rout whose last sullen echoes are now dying away among the hills beyond Gettysburg, was the most significant and remarkable of the war. It has solved more riddles; it has taught more lessons; it has been a brighter advantage to the cause of the Union, and a more signal disaster to that of the rebellion, than any victory won by the federal armies since McClellan hurled back the rebel legions to Virginia from the memorable field of Antietam. The army of the Potomac, under a cloud since of Antietam. The army of the Potomac, under a cloud since the slaughter at Fredericksburg and the blunder at Chancellorsville, has deemed itself in the eyes of the nation and the world, to a level with its standard of the days when it was led to victory by the leader whose heart may well leap within him as he contemplates this last achievement of his beloved old time comrades. Theories of its inferiority, born of the mistakes of Pope, Burnside and Hooker, and nurtured by the contrast of its failures with the recent victories of western troops, are effectually shattered. It is shown to the public — it has always been evident to military judges — that this army has the capacity for fight, the endurance, the clan, and the energy to render it invincible in the hands of a cool and skillful general.
The first movement towards the invasion of Pennsylvania was opened soon after the battle of Chancellorsville by a cavalry movement, which was met and quashed at Brandy Station by Gen. Pleasanton, about the 1st of June. On the 13th ultimo, General Milroy was attacked at Winchester by the advance of Lee's army under Gen. Ewell, and fled disgracefully, after a effort conflict, to Harper's Ferry, abandoning all his stores and cannon to the rebels. This opened the way for the advance of the foe across the Potomac. Another force of cavalry crossed, the upper Potomac on the 15th, causing great consternation in Maryland and lower Pennsylvania. It entered Chambersburg and Mercersburg in the evening. The alarm caused by this raid was unnecessarily great, for the main army of Lee had not yet reached the south side of the Potomac. The Union garrison at Frederick, Md, fell back to the Relay House on the 16th. A detachment of the enemy attacked Harper's Ferry the same day, but was shelled back by Gen. Tyler from Maryland Heights. Ten thousand rebel infantry crossed the Potomac at Williamsburg in the night, beginning in earnest, the great invasion which was now fully shown to be intended. The fights at Aldie, on the 18th and 19th, were between Gen. Pleasanton's and a body of the enemy's cavalry, which is supposed to have flanked the rear. More rebels constantly poured across the Potomac, and on the 19th Ewell's entire division occupied Shamsburg, in Maryland. By this time Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, began their great effort to repel Lee's advance from the north. Hooker reposing in pastoral quiet at Fairfax Station, in Virginia, did not disturb himself with any such activity. He watched, waited, and was puzzled. Milroy's stampede, the clamor of which, it seems might have come to him from over the western mountains; the cries of help from Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Carlisle, and minor Pennsylvania and Baltimore — all these did not serve to arouse him from his lethargy, or give him the least idea of where his enemy was. It was not until a voice of command from Washington, inspired, it is believed, from the midst of his own army, came sounding in his ears like a fire-bell in the night, that he ordered up his tent-stakes and began his march northward over the Potomac. Meanwhile, Gen. Couch had commenced the organization of a militia force at Gettysburg to check the twenty thousand men under Ewell, who were raiding like banditti through the country. The main rebel army was entirely across the Potomac below Williamsburg on the 26th, moved northward via McConnellsburg and Chambersburg, and began in partially scattered columns its advance through Pennsylvania in the direction of Philadelphia and Baltimore. The rashness and audacity of this movement seemed to confound the general then in command of this army. Every mile over which Lee now marched lengthened his lines of communication in such a degree as would have imperiled it beyond peradventure had Hooker seen fit to improve his advantage. Forty thousand troops and a hundred pieces of rebel artillery passed through Chambersburg on the 27th. On Sunday York was occupied by Gen. Early, who made his famous levy on its citizens. Harrisburg, long threatened, was not yet attacked.
Gen. Meade took command of this army on Sunday, the 28th ult. At that time his headquarters were at Frederick, and Lee's at Hagerstown. It will be seen that he was in the southwest, and consequently in the rear of the foe, imminently threatening his line of retreat. The army of the Potomac began its campaign from that moment. Orders were issued to the several corps to move early in the evening, and on the morning of the 29th our whole brilliant and hopeful host was in motion toward Pennsylvania. The 1st, 3d and 11th corps encamped on Tuesday at Emmettsburg; the 2d and 12th also pitched their tents near by. The 6th corps marched to Carlisle Wednesday morning, the first day of this month, forever memorable. The 1st corps, under Maj. Gen. Howard, started for Gettysburg, Reynolds in command, where they arrived at 10 o'clock A. M. The 1st corps, in the advance, marched directly through the town. The enemy was discovered posted in a wood to the westward, near the Lutheran Theological Seminary. The beginning of the three days' conflict was at hand.
II. — The Battle of Wednesday.
One who has been in the presence, who-now sits among the echoes, and whose brain teems with rushing memories of a conflict so recent and so vast, may well pause before attempting to indicate its magnitude or describe its progress. Rash as the advance of Gen. Reynolds has been pronounced by many brother officers who now lament his death, I question whether it was not, after all, for the best. It served at once as a reconnoissance showing the enemy's exact position and probable force, and as a check upon an offensive movement which that enemy might have been intent upon. It secured the army of the Potomac the commanding position of Cemetery Hill, from which the battles of the two succeeding days were chiefly fought, and which, had the rebel commander anticipated the engagement, he would, doubtless have secured for himself. Not less, perhaps, than the skill of the generals who directed the battle on our side, it gave us the victory. When, therefore, the heroic 1st corps and its fated commander placed themselves in the terrible dilemma of Wednesday morning, they won a knowledge by their sacrifice worth all the world to us thereafter. The corps marched in the following order: 1st division under General Wadsworth; 3d division under Gen. Doubleday; five full batteries under Col. Wainwright; 4th division under Gen. Robinson.
A portion of our artillery took position half a mile south of the seminary. The enemy opened fire upon it with such fierceness as forced the batteries to retire, which they commenced during in good order. Gen. Wadsworth immediately came to their aid; two of his regiments, the 2d Wisconsin and the 24th Michigan, charged the rebel infantry, forcing them in turn to retire. The batteries assumed an excellent position further in the rear, which they held during the day. Gen. Reynolds now rode forward to inspect the field and ascertain the most favorable line for the disposal of his troops. One or two members of his staff were with him. The enemy at that instant poured in a cruel musketry fire upon the group of officers; a bullet struck Gen. Reynolds in the neck, wounding him mortally. Crying out, with a voice that thrilled the hearts of his soldiers, "Forward! for God's sake forward!" he turned for an instant, beheld the order obeyed by a line of shouting infantry, and falling into the arms of Capt. Wilcox, his aid, who rode beside him, his life went out with the words, "Good God, Wilcox, I am killed."
The command of the corps devolved upon General Doubleday, who hurried to the front, placed it in position, and awaited a charge, which it was seen the rebels were about to make. An eminence, whereon stood a piece of woods, was the important point thenceforth to be defended. The rebels advanced, and opened fire from their entire line. They were instantly charged upon by Meredith's western brigade, who, without firing a shot, but with a tremendous cheer, dashed forward with such swiftness as to surround nearly 600 of the foe, who were taken prisoners. A strong column immediately advanced against us from the woods, and, though volley after volley was poured into them, did not waver. Their proximity and strength at last became so threatening that the brigades of the 2d division were ordered to make another charge, which was even more successful than the first. Their momentum was like an avalanche; the rebels were shot, bayoneted, and driven to partial retreat, more than two regiments falling into our hands alive. Our ranks suffered fearfully in this demonstration, and it was evident that such fighting could not long go on. The 11th corps now made its appearance, and its general (Howard) assumed command of the forces. Steinwehr was ordered to hold Gettysburg and Cemetery Hill — all his artillery being placed in the latter position. The other two divisions of the 11th corps, under Shultz and Barlow, then supported the 1st corps, on the right, in time to resist two desperate charges by Ewell's troops. A third charge was now made by the entire rebel force in front, which comprised the corps of Ewell and Hill, sixty-two thousand strong. The shock was awful. The superior numbers of the foe enabled them to overlap both our flanks, threatening us with surrounding and capture. Their main effort was directed against our left wing, and nothwithstanding the gallant fighting done by our soldiers at that point, they at last obtained such advantage that Gen. Howard was forced to retire his command through the town to the east, which was done in good order, the compliments of the rebels meanwhile falling thick among it, in the shape of shells, grape and canister. The two corps were placed in line of battle on Cemetery Hill at evening, having withstood during the entire day the assaults of an enemy outnumbering them three to one. Not without grief, not without misgiving, did the officers and soldiers of those corps contemplate the days engagement, and await the onset they believed was to come. Their comrades lay in heaps beyond the village whose spires gleamed peacefully in the sunset before them. Reynolds, the beloved and the brave, was dead, and Zook slumbered beside him. Barlow, Paul, many field, and scores of line officers had been killed. The men of the 1st corps alone could, in few instances, turn to speak to the ones who stood beside them in the morning without meeting with a vacant space. The havoc in the corps was so frightful as to decimate it fully one-half, and that in the 11th corps — nobly rescued from the suspicion which rested upon it before — was scarcely less great. Yet the little army flinched not, but stood ready to tall as others had fallen, even to the last man. With what a thrill of relief Gen. Howard, who had sent messenger after messenger during the day to Slocum and Sickles, saw in the distance, at evening, the approaching bayonets of the 3d and 12th corps, only those can tell who fought beside him. Those corps arrived and assumed positions to the right and left of the 1st and 11th on the heights about Cemetery Hill at dusk. The enemy made no farther demonstration that night. Gen. Meade and staff arrived before 11 o'clock. The commander then examined the position, and posted the several corps in the following order: The 12th (Slocum) on the right, the 11th (Howard) next, the 2d (Hancock,) 1st (Doubleday,) and 3d (Sickles) in the centre, the 5th (Sykes) on the extreme left. The situation was brilliant, commanding. For almost the first time in the history of this army's career belonged the advantage in the decisive battles which ensued.
The heights on which our troops were posted sloped gently downward from our front. The line stretched in a semi-circle — its convex centre toward Gettysburg, the extremes toward the southwest and south. Ledges on the interior sides gave our soldiers in some instances a partial shelter from artillery. Every road was commanded by our cannon, and the routes by which Lee might otherwise soonest retreat in case of his defeat were all in our possession. At every one weaker than others, our reserves were judiciously posted, and the cavalry — an arm of the service scarcely brought into play in some recent and destructive battles — protected both our flanks in immense numbers.
Thus the great army lay down to sleep at midnight, and awoke on the morn of a day more sanguinary than the last.
III. — The Battle of Thursday.
On what a spectacle the sun of Thursday rose, the memory of at least that portion of our forces who witnessed it from Cemetery Hill will linger forever. From its crest the muzzles of fifty cannon pointed toward the hills beyond the town. From the bluffs to the right and left, additional artillery frowned, and away on either side, in a graceful and majestic curve, thousands of infantry moved into battle line, their bayonets gleaming like serpents' scales. The roofs of Gettysburg in the valley below, the rifts of woodland along the borders of Rock creek, the orchards far down on the left, the fields green and beautiful, in which the cattle were calmly grazing, composed a scene of such peace as it appeared was never made to be marred by the clangor of battle. I strolled out to the cemetery ere the dew was yet melted form the grass, and leaned against a monument to listen to the singing of birds. One note, milder than the rest, had just broken form the throat of an oriole in the foliage above me, when the sullen rattle of musketry on the left told that skirmishing had begun. Similar firing soon opened along the entire rebel line, and although no notable demonstration was made during the forenoon, it was apparent that the enemy was feeling our strength, preliminary to some decisive effort.
The day wore on full of anxious suspense. It was not until 4 o'clock in the afternoon that the enemy gave voice in earnest.
He then began a heavy fire on Cemetery Hill. It must not be thought that this wrathful fire was unanswered. Our artillery began to play within a few moments, and hurled back defiance and like destruction upon the rebel lines. Until 6 o'clock the roar of cannon, the rush of missiles, and the bursting of bombs filled all the air. The clangor alone of this awful combat might well have confused and awed a less cool and watchful commander than Gen. Meade. It did not confuse him. With the calculation of a tactician and the eye of an experienced judge, he watched from his headquarters on the hill whatever movement under the murky cloud which enveloped the rebel lines might first disclose the intention which it was evident this artillery firing covered. About 6 o'clock p. m., silence, deep, awfully, impressive, but momentary, was permitted, as if by magic, to dwell upon the field. Only the groans, unheard before, of the wounded and dying, only the murmur — a morning memory — of the breeze through the foliage, only the low rattle of preparation for what was to come, embroidered this blank stillness. Then, as the smoke beyond the village was lightly borne to the eastward, the woods on the left were seen filled, with dark masses of infantry, three columns deep, who advanced at a quickstep. Magnificent! Such a charge by such a force — full 45,000 men, under Hill and Longstreet — even though it threatened to pierce and annihilate the 3d corps, against which it was directed, drew forth cries of admiration from all who beheld it. Gen. Sickles and his splendid command withstood the shock with a determination that checked, but could not fully restrain it. Back, inch by inch, fighting, falling, dying, cheering, the men retired. The rebels came on more furiously, halting at intervals, pouring volleys that struck our troops down in scores. General Sickles, fighting desperately, was struck in the leg and fell. The 2d corps came to the aid of his decimated column. The battle then grew fearful. Standing firmly up against the storm, our troops, though still out numbered, [unknown] back shot for shot, volley for volley, almost death for death. Still the enemy was not restrained. Down he came upon our left with a momentum that nothing could check. The rifled guns that lay before our infantry on a knoll were in danger of capture. Gen. Hancock was wounded in the thigh, Gen. Gibbon in the shoulder. The 5th corps, as the 1st and 2d wavered anew, went into the breach with such shouts and such volleys as made the rebel column tremble at last. Up from the valley behind, another battery came rolling to the heights and flung its contents in an instant down in the midst of the enemy's ranks. Crash! crash! with discharges deafening, terrible, the musketry firing went on; the enemy, reforming after each discharge with wondrous celerity and firmness, still pressed up the declivity. What hideous carnage filled the minutes between the appearance of the 5th corps and the advance to the support of the rebel columns of still another column from the right, I cannot bear to tell. Men fell as the leaves fall in autumn, before those horrible discharges. Faltering for an instant, the rebel columns seemed about to recede before the tempest. But their officers, who could be seen through the smoke of the conflict, galloping and swinging their swords along the lines, rallied them anew, and the whole line sprang forward as if to break through our own by mere weight of numbers. A division from the 12th corps, on the extreme right, reached the scene at this instant, and at the same time Sedgwick came up with the 6th corps, having finished a march of nearly thirty-six hours. To what rescue they came, their officers saw and told them. Weary as they were, bare-footed, hungry, fit to drop for slumber as they were, the wish for victory was so blended with the thought of exhaustion that they cast themselves in turn en masse into the line of battle, and went down on the enemy with death in their weapons and cheers on their lips. The rebel camel's back was broken by this "leather." His line staggered, reeled, and drifted slowly back, while the shouts of our soldiers, lifted up amid the roar of musketry over the bodies of the dead and wounded, proclaimed the completeness of their victory. Meanwhile, as the division of Slocum's corps, on the extreme right, left its post to join in this triumph, another column of the enemy, under command of Gen. Ewell, had dashed savagely againsts our weakened right wing, and, as the failure to turn our left became known, it seemed as if determination to conquer in this part of the field overcame alike the enemy's fear of death and his plans for victory elsewhere. The fight was terrific, and for fifteen minutes the attack to which the three divisions of the 12th corps were subjected was more furious than anything ever known in the history of this army. The 6th corps came to their support, the 1st corps followed, and from dusk into darkness, until half-past 9 o'clock, the battle raged with varied fortune and unabated fury. Our troops were compelled, by overpowering numbers, to fall back a short distance, abandoning several rifle pits and an advantageous position to the enemy, who, haughty over his advantage and made desperate by defeat in other quarters, then made a last struggling charge against that division of our right wing commanded by Gen. Geary. Gen. Geary's troops immortalized themselves by their resistance to this attempt. They stood like adamant, a moveless, death-dealing machine, before whose volleys the rebel column withered and went down by hundreds. After a slaughter inconceivable, the repulse of Ewell was complete, and he retired at ten o'clock p. m., to the position before referred to. The firing from all quarters of the field ceased soon after that hour, and no other attack was made until morning.
IV. — The Battle of Friday.
As one who stands in a tower and looks down upon a lengthy pageant marching through a thoroughfare, finds it impossible at the close to recall in order the appearance and the incidents of the scene, so I, who sit this evening on a camp-stool beside the ruins of the monument against which I leaned listening to the robin of yesterday, find it impossible to recall with distinctness the details of the unparalelled battle just closed. The conflict, waged by 160,000 men, which has occupied with scarce an interval of rest the entire day, from 4 a. m. until 6 o'clock this evening, contains so much, so near, and such voluminous matter of interest as one mind cannot grasp without time for reflection.
This last engagement has been the fiercest and most sanguinary of the war. It was begun at daylight by General Slocum, whose troops, maddened by the loss of many comrades, and eager to retrieve the position lost by them on the preceding evening, advanced and delivered a destructive fire against the rebels under Ewell. That general's entire force responded with a charge that is memorable even beyond those made by them yesterday. It was desperation against courage! The fire of the enemy was mingled with yells, pitched even above its clangor. They came on, and on, while the national troops, splendidly handled and well posted, stood unshaken to receive them. The fire with which they did receive them was so rapid and so thick as to envelope the ranks of its deliverers with a pall that shut them from sight during the battle which raged thenceforward for six dreary hours. Out of this pall no straggler came to the rear. The line scarcely flinched from its position during the entire conflict. Huge masses of rebel infantry threw themselves into it again and again in vain. Back, as a ball hurled against a rock, these masses recoiled, and were re-formed to be hurled anew against it, with a fierceness unfruitful of success — fruitful of carnage, as before. The strong position occupied by Gen. Geary, and that held by Gen. Birney, met the first and hardest assaults, but only fell back a short distance, before fearful odds, to re-advance, to re-assume and to hold their places in company with Sykes' division of the 5th corps and Humphrey's (Berry's old division) of the 3d, when, judiciously reinforced with artillery, they renewed and continued the contest, until its close. It seemed as if the gray-uniformed troops, who were advanced and re-advanced by their officers up to the very edge of smoke in front of our infantry, were impelled by some terror in their rear, which they were as unable to withstand as they were to make headway against the fire in their front. It was hard to believe such desperation voluntary. It was harder to believe that the courage which withstood and defeated it was mortal.
The enemy gradually drew forward his whole line until in many places a hand to hand conflict raged for minutes. His artillery, answered by ours played upon our columns with frightful result, yet they did not waver. The battle was in this way evenly contested for a time, but, at a moment when it seemed problematical which side would gain the victory, a reinforcement arrived and were formed in line at such a position as to enfilade the enemy and teach him at last the futility of his efforts. Disorded, routed, and confused, his whole force retreated, and at 11 o'clock the battle ceased and the stillness of death ensued. This silence continued until 2 P. M. At this moment the rebel artillery from all points, in a circle radiating around our own, began a terrific and concentrated fire on Cemetery Hill, which was held, as I have previously stated, by the 11th and 2d corps. The flock of pigeons, which not ten minutes previous had darkened the sky above, were scarcely thicker than the flock of horrible missiles that now, instead of sailing harmlessly above, descended upon our position. The atmostphere was thick with shot and shell. The storm broke upon us so suddenly that soldiers and officers — who leaped, as it began, from their tents, or from lazy siestas on the grass — were stricken in their rising with mortal wounds and died, some with cigars between their teeth, some with pieces of food in their fingers, and one at least — a pale young German from Pennsylvania — with a miniature of his sister in his hands, that seemed more meet to grasp an artist's pencil than a musket. Horses fell, shrieking such awful cries as Cooper told of, and writhing themselves about in hopeless agony. The boards of fences, scattered by explosion, flew in splinters through the air. The earth, torn up in clouds, blinded the eyes of hurrying men; and through the branches of the trees and among the grave-stones of the cemetery a shower of destruction crashed carelessly. As, with hundreds of others, I groped through this tempest of death for the shelter of the bluff, an old man, a private in a company belonging to the 24th Michigan, was struck scarcely ten feet away by a cannon ball, which tore through him, extorting such a low, intense cry of mortal pain as I pray. God I may never again hear. The hill which seemed alone devoted to this rain of death, was clear in nearly all its unsheltered places within five minutes after the firing began.
Our batteries responded immediately. Three hours of cannonading ensued, exceeding in fierceness any ever known. Probably three hundred cannon were fired simultaneously until 4 o'clock, when the rebel infantry were again seen massing in the woods fronting our centre, formed by the 1st and 2d corps. Gen. Doubleday's troops met this charge with the same heroic courage that had so often repelled the enemy in his desperate attempts. The charge was made spiritedly but less venomously the 2d brigade, 2d division of the 2d corps, met the stern fury of the attack with a steady fire that served to retard the enemy's advance for a moment. That moment was occupied by the rebel General Armistage in steadying his troops behind the fence. General Webb immediately ordered a charge, which was made with such eagerness and swiftness, and supported by such numbers of our troops, as enabled us to partially surround the enemy, and capture Gen. Armistage and 3,000 of his men. The carnage which accompanied this charge and the terror inspired by it were so great as to reduce numbers of the foe to actual cowardice. They fell upon their knees and faces, holding forward their guns and begging for mercy, while their escaped comrades, panic stricken and utterly routed, rushed down across the ditches and fences, through the fields and through Gettysburg. Not a column remained to make another start. The triumph fought for during these three terrible days belonged at last to the noble army of the Potomac.
With a pen that falters; with a hand and a heart heavy even in the presence of this great conquest; saddened by the death of not a few friends, and sick of the sights and sounds that have so long shocked my eyes and numbed my thoughts; with a vision deceived, perhaps, in many instances, by the mere tumult of the conflict; and with ears filled by divers reports and estimates of officers and surgeons, I cannot, I dare not attempt to give you an account or opinion of our losses. They are great. But compared with those of the enemy, they are like as pebbles to grains of sand along the shore. BONAPARTE.