Charles William Eliot.

American historical documents 1000-1904, with introductions, notes and illustrations online

. (page 41 of 48)
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sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move,
as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of
ditch» or wall oi' stream, over ridge and slope, through



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404 AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irre-
sistible. All was orderly and still upon our crest; no noise
and no confusion. The men had little need of commands,
for the survivors of a dozen battles knew well enough what
this array in front portended, and, already in their places,
they would be prepared to act when the right time should
come. The click of the locks as each man raised the ham-
mer to feel with his fingers that the cap was on the nipple;
the sharp jar as a musket touched a stone upon the wall
when thrust in aiming over it, and the clicking of the iron
axles as the guns were rolled up by hand a little further
to the front, were quite all the sounds that could be heard.
Cap-boxes were slid around to the front of the body;
cartridge boxes opened, officers opened their pistol-holsters.
Such preparations, little more was needed. The trefoil
flags, colors of the brigades and divisions moved to their
places in rear; but along the lines in front the grand old
ensign that first waved in battle at Saratoga in 1777, and
which these people coming would rob of half its stars,
stood up, and the west wind kissed it as the sergeants
sloped its lance towards the enemy. I believe that not one
above whom it then waved but blessed his God that he was
loyal to it, and whose heart did not swell with pride towards
it, as the emblem of the Republic before that treason's
flaunting rag in front. General Gibbon rode down the lines,
cool and calm, and in an unimpassioned voice he said to
the men, "Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast, let them
come up close before you fire, and then aim low and
steadily." The coolness of their General was reflected in the
faces of his men. Five minutes has elapsed since first the
enemy have emerged from the woods — ^no great space of
time surely, if measured by the usual standard by which
men estimate duration — ^but it was long enough for us to
note and weigh some of the elements of mighty moment
that surrounded us; the disparity of numbers between the
assailants and the assailed; that few as were our numbers
we could not be supported or reinforced until support would
not be needed or would be too late; that npon the ability
of the two trefoil divisions to hold the crest and repel the
assault depended not only their own safety or destruction.



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AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 405

but also the honor of the Army of the Potomac and defeat
or victory at Gettysburg. Should these advancing men
pierce our line and become the entering wedge, driven home,
that would sever our army asunder, what hope would there
be afterwards, and where the blood-earned fruits of yes-
terday? It was long enough for the Rebel storm to drift
across more than half the space that had at first separated
it from us. None, or all, of these considerations either
depressed or elevated us. They might have done the former,
had we been timid; the latter had we been confident and
vain. But, we were there waiting, and ready to do our
duty — that done, results could not dishonor us.

Our skirmishers open a spattering fire along the front,
and, fighting, retire upon the main line — ^the first drops, the
heralds of the storm, sounding on our windows. Then the
thunders of our guns, first Arnold's then Cushing's and
Woodruff's and the rest, shake and reverberate again through
the air, and their sounding shells smite the enemy. The
General said I had better go and tell General Meade of this
advance. To gallop to General Meade's headquarters, to
learn there that he had changed them to another part of the
field, to dispatch to him by the Signal Corps in General Gib-
bon's name the message, " The enemy is advancing his in-
fantry in force upon my front," and to be again upon the
crest, were but the work of a minute. All our available
guns are now active, and from the fire of shells, as the range
grows shorter and shorter, they change to shrapnel, and from
shrapnel to canister; but in spite of shells, and shrapnel and
canister, without wavering or halt, the hardy lines of the
enemy continue to mo""e on. The Rebel guns make no reply
to ours, and no charging shout rings out to-day, as is the
Rebel wont; but the courage of these silent men amid our
shots seems not to need the stimulus of other noise. The
enemy's right flank sweeps near Stannard's bushy crest, and
his concealed Vermonters rake it with a well-delivered fire of
musketry. The gray lines do not halt or reply, but withdraw-
ing a little from that extreme, they still move on. And so
across all that broad open ground they have come, nearer
and nearer, nearly half the way, with our guns bellowing in
their faces, until now a hundred yards, no more, divide our



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106 AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

ready left from their advancing right. The eager men there
are impatient to begin. Let them. First, Harrow's breast-
works flame; then Hall's; then Webb's. As if our bullets
were the fire coals that touched off their muskets, the enemy
in front halts, and his countless level barrels blaze back upon
us. The Second Division is struggling in battle. The rat-
tling storm soon spreads to the right, and the blue trefoils
are vieing with the white. All along each hostile front, a
thousand yards, with narrowest space between, the volleys
blaze and roll; as thick the sound as when a summer hail-
storm pelts the city roofs; as thick the fire as when the in-
cessant lightning fringes a summer cloud. When the Rebel
infantry had opened fire our batteries soon became silent, and
this without their fault, for they were foul by long previous
use. They were the targets of the concentrated Rebel bul-
lets, and some of them had expended all their canister. But
they were not silent before Rhorty was killed, Woodruff had
fallen mortally wounded, and Gushing, firing almost his last
canister, had dropped dead among his guns shot through the
head by a bullet. The conflict is left to the infantry alone.
Unable to find my general when I had returned to the crest
after transmitting his message to General Meade, and while
riding in the search having witnessed the development of
the fight, from the first fire upon the left by the main lines
until all of the two divisions were furiously engaged, I gave
up hunting as useless — ^I was convinced General Gibbon could
not be on the field ; I left him mounted ; I could easily have
found him now had he so remained — ^but now, save myself,
there was not a mounted officer near the engaged lines — and
was riding towards the right of the Second Division, with
purpose to stop there, as the most eligible position to watch
the further progress of the battle, there to be ready to take
part according to my own notions whenever and wherever
occasion was presented. The conflict was tremendous, but
I had seen no wavering in all our line. Wondering how
long the Rebel ranks, deep though they were, could stand
our sheltered volleys, I had come near my destination, when
— ^great heaven ! were my senses mad ? The larger portion of
Webb's brigade — ^my God, it was true — ^there by the group
of trees and the angles of the wall, was breaking from the



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AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 407

cover of their works, and, without orders or reason, with no
hand lifted to check them, was falling back, a fear-stricken
flock of confusion! The fate of Gettysburg hung upon a
spider's single thread I A great magnificent passion came on
me at the instant, not one that overpowers and confounds,
but one that blanches the face and sublimes every sense and
faculty. My sword, that had always hung idle by my side,
the sign of rank only in every battle, I drew, bright and
gleaming, the symbol of command. Was not that a fit oc-
casion, and these fugitives the men on whom to try the tem-
per of the Solinzen steel? All rules and proprieties were for-
gotten; all considerations of person, and danger and safety
despised; for, as I met the tide of these rabbits, the damned
red flags of the rebellion began to thicken and flaunt along
the wall they had just deserted, and one was already wav-
ing over one of the guns of the dead Gushing. I ordered
these men to "halt," and **face about" and "fire," and
they heard my voice and gathered my meaning, and obeyed
my commands. On some unpatriotic backs of those not
quick of comprehension, the flat of my sabre fell not lightly,
and, at its touch their love of country returned, and, with
a look at me as if I were the destroying angel, as 1 might
have become theirs, they again faced the enemy. General
Webb soon came to my assistance. He was on foot, but
he was active, and did all that one could do to repair the
breach, or to avert its calamity. The men that had fallen
back, facing the enemy, soon regained confidence in them-
selves, and became steady. This portion of the wall was
lost to us, and the enemy had gained the cover of the re-
verse side, where he now stormed with fire. But Webb's
men, with their bodies in part protected by the abruptness
of the crest, now sent back in the enemies' faces as
fierce a storm. Some scores of venturesome Rebels, that
in their first push at the wall had dared to cross at the
further angle, and those that had desecrated Cushing's guns,
were promptly shot down, and speedy death met him
who should raise his body to cross it again. At this point
little could be seen of the enemy, by reason of his cover
and the smoke, except the flash of his muskets and his wav-
ing flags. These red flags were accumulating at the wall



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408 AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

every moment, and they maddened us as the same color
does the bull. Webb's men are falling fast, and he is among
them to direct and encourage; but, however well they may
now do, with that walled enemy in front, with more than a
dozen flags to Webb's three, it soon becomes apparent that in
not many minutes they will be overpowered, or that there will
be none alive for the enemy to overpower. Webb has but
three regiments, all small, the 69th, 71st and 72nd Penn-
sylvania — ^the io6th Pennsylvania, except two companies,
is not here to-day — ^and he must have speedy assistance,
or this crest will be lost. Oh, where is Gibbon? where is
Hancock? — some general — ^anybody with the power and the
will to support that wasting, melting line ? No general came,
and no succor! I thought of Hayes upon the right, but
from the smoke and war along his front, it was evident
that he had enough upon his hands, if he stayed the in-
rolling tide of the Rebels there. Doubleday upon the left
was too far off and too slow, and on another occasion I
had begged him to send his idle regiments to support an-
other line battling with thrice its numbers, and this "Old
Sumpter Hero " had declined. As a last resort I resolved
to see if Hall and Harrow could not send some of their com-
mands to reinforce Webb. I galloped to the left in the
execution of my purpose, and as I attained the rear oi
Hairs line from the nature of the ground and the position
of the enemy it was easy to discovef the reason and the
manner of this gathering of Rebel flags in front of Webb.
The enemy, emboldened by his success in gaining our line
by the group of trees and the angle of the wall, was con-
centrating all his right against and was further pressing
that point. There was the stress of his assault; there would
he drive his fiery wedge to split our line. In front of Har-
row's and Hall's Brigades he had been able to advance no
nearer than when he first halted to deliver fire, and these
commands had not yielded an inch. To effect the con-
centration before Webb, the enemy would march the regi-
ment on his extreme right of each of his lines by the left
flank to the rear of the troops, still halted and facing
to the front, and so continuing to draw in his right, when they
were all massed in the position desired, he would again face



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AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 409

them to the front, and advance to the storming. This was
the way he made the wall before Webb's line blaze red with
his battle flags, and such was the purpose there of his thick-
crowding battalions. Not a moment must be lost. Colonel
Hall I found just in rear of his line, sword in hand, cool,
vigilant, noting all that passed and directing the battle
of his brigade. The fire was constantly diminishing now
in his front, in the manner and by the movement of the
enemy that I have mentioned, drifting to the right. " How
is it going?" Colonel Hall asked me, as I rode up. "Well,
but Webb is hotly pressed and must have support, or he
will be overpowered. Can you assist him? " " Yes." " You
cannot be too quick." "I will move my brigade at once."
" Good." He gave the order, and in briefest time I saw
five friendly colors hurrying to the aid of the imperilled
three; and each color represented true, battle-tried men,
that had not turned back from Rebel fire that day nor
yesterday, though their ranks were sadly thinned, to Webb's
brigade, pressed back as it had been from the wall, the
distance was not great from Hall's right. The regiments
marched by the right flank. Col. Hall superintended the
movement in person. Col. Devereux coolly commanded the
19th Massachusetts. His major, Rice, had already been
wounded and carried off. Lieut. Col. Macy, of the 20th
Mass., had just had his left hand shot off, and so Capt.
Abbott gallantly led over this fine regiment. The 426.
New York followed their excellent Colonel Mallon. Lieut.
Col. Steel, 7th Mich., had just been killed, and his regi-
ment, and the handful of the 59th N. Y., followed their
colors. The movement, as it did, attracting the enemy's
fire, and executed in haste, as it must be, was difiicult; but
in reasonable time, and in order that is serviceable, if not
regular, Hall's men are fighting gallantly side by side with
Webb's before the all important point. I did not stop to
see all this movement of Hall's, but from him I went at
once further to the left, to the ist brigade. Gen'l Harrow
I did not see, but his fighting men would answer my pur-
pose as well. The 19th Me., the isth Mass., the 826 N. Y.
and the shattered old thunderbolt, the ist Minn. — ^poor Far-
rell was dying then upon the ground where he had fallen, —



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all men that I could find I took over to the right at the
double quick.

As we were moving to, and near the other brigade of
the division, from my position on horseback I could see
that the enemy's right, under Hall's fire, was beginning to
stagger and to break, " See," I said to the men, " See the
chivalry! See the gray-backs run! " The men saw, and as
they swept to their places by the side of Hall and opened
fire, they roared, and this in a manner that said more plainly
than words — for the deaf could have seen it in their faces,
and the blind could have heard it in their voices — the
crest is safe!

The whole Division concentrated, and changes of posi-
tion, and new phases, as well on our part as on that of the
enemy, having as indicated occurred, for the purpose of
showing the exact present posture of affairs, some further
description is necessary. Before the ad Division the enemy
is massed, the main bulk of his force covered by the ground
that slopes to his rear, with his front at the stone wall.
Between his front and us extends the very apex of the
crest. All there are left of the White Trefoil Division'—
yesterday morning there were three thousand eight hun-
dred, this morning there were less than three thousand — at
this moment there are somewhat over two thousand ;— twelve
regiments in three brigades are below or behind the crest,
in such a position that by the exposure of the head and
upper part of the body above the crest they can deliver their
fire in the enemy's faces along the top of the wall. By
reason of the disorganization incidental in Webb's brigade
to his men's having broken and fallen back, as mentioned,
in the two other brigades to their rapid and difficult change
of position under fire, and in all the division in part to
severe and continuous battle, formation of companies and
regiments in regular ranks is lost; but commands, com-
panies, regiments and brigades are blended and intermixed
— ^an irregular extended mass — ^men enough, if in order,
to form a line of four or five ranks along the whole front
of the division. The twelve flags of the regiments wave
defiantly at intervals along the front; at the stone wall,
at unequal distances from ours of forty, fifty or sixty



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AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 411

yards, stream nearly double this number of the battle
flags of the enemy. These changes accomplished on either
side, and the concentration complete, although no cessation
or abatement in the general din of conflict since the com-
mencement had at any time been appreciable, now it was
as if a new battle, deadlier, stormier than before, had
sprung from the body of the old — a young Phoenix of com-
bat, whose eyes stream lightning, shaking his arrowy wings
over the yet glowing ashes of his progenitor. The jostling,
swaying lines on either side boil, and roar, and dash their
flamy spray, two hostile billows of a fiery ocean. Thick
flashes stream from the wall, thick volleys answer from the
crest. No threats or expostulation now, only example and
encouragement. All depths of passion are stirred, and all
combatives fire, down to their deep foundations. Individ-
uality is drowned in a sea of clamor, and timid men, breath-
ing the breath of the multitude, are brave. The frequent dead
and wounded lie where they stagger and fall — there is no
humanity for them now, and none can be spared to care for
them. The men do not cheer or shout; they growl, and
over that uneasy sea, heard with the roar of musketry,
sweeps the muttered thunder of a storm of growls. Webb,
Hall, Devereux, Mallon, Abbott among the men where all arc
heroes, are doing deeds of note. Now the loyal wave rolls
up as if it would overleap its barrier, the crest. Pistols
flash with the muskets. My " Forward to the wall " is an-
swered by the Rebel counter-command, " Steady, men ! **
and the wave swings back. Again it surges, and again
it sinks. These men of Pennsylvania, on the soil of their
own homesteads, the first and only to flee the wall, must
be the first to storm it. "Major — , lead your men over
the crest, they will follow." "By the tactics I understand
my place is in rear of the men." "Your pardon, sir; I
see your place is in rear of the men. I thought you were
fit to lead." " Capt. Suplee, come on with your men." " Let
me first stop this fire in the rear, or we shall be hit by our
own men." " Never mind the fire in the rear ; let us take
care of this in front first." " Sergeant, forward with your
color. Let the Rebels see it close to their eyes once be-
fore they die." The color sergeant of the 726, Pa., grasp-



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412 AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

ing the stump of the severed lance in both his hands,
waved the flag above his head and rushed towards the
wall. " Will you see your color storm the wall alone ? "
One man only starts to follow. Almost half, way to the
wall, down go color bearer and color to the ground — ^the
gallant sergeant is dead. The line springs — ^the crest of
the solid ground with a great roar, heaves forward its mad-
dened load, men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass. It
rolls to the wall — ^flash meets flash, the wall is crossed —
a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, and un-
distinguishable conflict, followed by a shout universal that
makes the welkin ring again, and the last and bloodiest
fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.
Many things cannot be described by pen or pencil — such a
fight is one. Some hints and incidents may be given, but a
description or picture never. From what is told the imagina-
tion may for itself construct the scene; otherwise he who
never saw can have no adequate idea of what such a bat-
tle is.

When the vortex of battle passion had subsided, hopes,
fears, rage, joy, of which the maddest and the noisiest was the
last, and we were calm enough to look about us, we saw that,
as with us, the fight with the Third Division was ended, and
that in that division was a repetition of the scenes imme-
diately about us. In that moment the judgment almost re-
fused to credit the senses. Are these abject wretches about
us, whom our men are now disarming and driving together
in flocks, the jaunty men of Pickett's Division, whose steady
lines and flashing arms but a few moment's since came
sweeping up the slope to destroy us? Are these red cloths
that our men toss about in derision the "fiery Southern
crosses,*' thrice ardent, the battle flags of the rebellion that
waved defiance at the wall? We know, but so sudden has
been the transition, we yet can scarce believe.

Just as the fight was over, and the first outburst of victory
had a little subsided, when all in front of the crest was noise
and confusion — prisoners being collected, small parties in
pursuit of them far down into the fields, flags waving,
officers giving quick, sharp commands to their men — I stood
apart for a few moments upon the crest, by that group of



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{Compiled hy
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UNION rOMCK*



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414 AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

trees which ought to be historic forever, a spectator of the
thrilling scene around. Some few musket shots were still
heard in the Third Division; and the enemy's guns, almost
silent since the advance of his infantry until the moment of
his defeat, were dropping a few sullen shells among friend
and foe upon the crest Rebellion fosters such humanity.
Near me, saddest sight of the many of such a field and not
in keeping with all this noise, were mingled alone the thick
dead of Maine and Minnesota, and Michigan and Massachu-
setts, and the Empire and Keystone States, who, not yet cold,
with the blood still oozing from their death-wounds, had
given their lives to the country upon that stormy field. So
mingled upon that crest let their honored graves be. Look
with me about us. These dead have been avenged already.
Where the long lines of the enemy's thousands so proudly
advanced, see how thick the silent men of gray are scattered.
It is not an hour since these legions were sweeping along so
grandly ; now sixteen hundred* of that fiery mass are strewn
among the trampled grass, dead as the clods they load;
more than seven thousand, probably eight thousand, are
wounded, some there with the dead, in our hands, some
fugitive far towards the woods, among them Generals Pet-
tigrew, Gamett, Kemper and Armstead, the last three mor-
tally, and the last one in our hands. **Tell General Han-
codc,'' he said to Lieutenant Mitchell, Hancock's aide-de-
camp, to whom he handed his watch, **that I know I did
my country a great wrong when I took up arms against
her, for which I am sorry, but for which I cannot live to
atone.** Four thousand, not wounded, are prisoners of war.
More in number of the captured than the captors. Our
men are still ** gathering them in.'* Some hold up their hands
or a handkerchief in sign of submission; some have hugged
the ground to escape our bullets and so are taken ; few made
resistance after the first moment of our crossing the wall;
some yield submissively with good grace, some with grim,
dogged aspect, showing that but for the other alternative
they could not submit to this. Colonels, and all less grades
of officers, in the usual proportion are among them, and all

* Final returnt save 1,653 buried 1^ the First and Second Corpa* pre-
•nmably in this fieuL See 43 War Records, A64, 378.— T. I* I*



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AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 415

are being stripped of their arms. Such of them as escaped
wounds and capture are fleeing routed and panic stricken,
and disappearing in the woods. Small arms, more thousands
than we can count, are in our hands, scattered over the field.



Online LibraryCharles William EliotAmerican historical documents 1000-1904, with introductions, notes and illustrations → online text (page 41 of 48)