A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
XV. The First Day's Fight at Gettysburg
The sanguinary struggle which now ensued between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac continued for three days, and the character of these battles, together with their decisive results, have communicated to the events an extraordinary interest. Every fact has thus been preserved, and the incidents of the great combat, down to the most minute details, have been placed upon record. The subject is, indeed, almost embarrassed by the amount of information collected and published; and the chief difficulty for a writer, at this late day, is to select from the mass such salient events as indicate clearly the character of the conflict.
This difficulty the present writer has it in his power to evade, in great measure, by confining himself mainly to the designs and operations of General Lee. These were plain and simple. He had been forced to relinquish his march toward the Susquehanna by the dangerous position of
General Meade so near his line of retreat; this rendered a battle unavoidable; and Lee was now moving to accept battle, designing, if possible, to secure such a position as would give him the advantage in the contest. Before he succeeded in effecting this object, battle was forced upon him--not by General Meade, but by simple stress of circumstances. The Federal commander had formed the same intention as that of his adversary--to accept, and not deliver, battle--and did not propose to fight near Gettysburg. He was, rather, looking backward to a strong position in the direction of Westminster, when suddenly the head of his column became engaged near Gettysburg, and this determined every thing.
A few words are necessary to convey to the reader some idea of the character of the ground. Gettysburg is a town, nestling down in a valley, with so many roads centring in the place that, if a circle were drawn around it to represent the circumference of a wheel, the roads would resemble the spokes. A short distance south of the town is a ridge of considerable height, which runs north and south, bending eastward in the vicinity of Gettysburg, and describing a curve resembling a hook. From a graveyard on this high ground it is called Cemetery Hill, or Ridge. Opposite this ridge, looking westward, is a second and lower range called Seminary Ridge. This extends also north and south, passing west of Gettysburg. Still west of Seminary Ridge are other still lower ranges, between which flows a small stream called Willoughby Run; and beyond these, distant about ten miles, rise the blue heights of the South Mountain.
Across the South Mountain, by way of the village of Cashtown, Lee, on the morning of the 1st of July, was moving steadily toward Gettysburg, when Hill, holding the front, suddenly encountered the head of the enemy's column in the vicinity of Willoughby Run. This consisted of General Buford's cavalry division, which had pushed on in advance of General Reynolds's infantry corps, the foremost infantry of the Federal army, and now, almost before it was aware of Hill's presence, became engaged with him. General Buford posted his horse-artillery to meet Hill's attack, but it soon became obvious that the Federal cavalry could not stand before the Southern infantry fire, and General Reynolds, at about ten in the morning, hastening forward, reached the field. An engagement immediately took place between the foremost infantry divisions of Hill and Reynolds. A brigade of Hill's, from Mississippi, drove back a Federal brigade, seizing upon its artillery; but, in return, Archer's brigade was nearly surrounded, and several hundred of the men captured. Almost immediately after this incident the Federal forces sustained a serious loss; General Reynolds--one of the most trusted and energetic lieutenants of General Meade--was mortally wounded while disposing his men for action, and borne from the field. The Federal troops continued, however, to fight with gallantry. Some of the men were heard exclaiming, "We have come to stay!" in reference to which, one of their officers afterward said, "And a very large portion of them never left that ground."
[Footnote 1: General
Doubleday: Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part I., p. 307.]
Battle was now joined in earnest between the two heads of column, and on each side reenforcements were sent forward to take part in this unexpected encounter. Neither General Lee nor General Meade had expected or desired it. Both had aimed, in manoeuvring their forces, to select ground suitable for receiving instead of making an attack, and now a blind chance seemed about to bring on a battle upon ground unknown to both commanders. When the sound of the engagement was first heard by Lee, he was in the rear of his troops at the headquarters which Hill had just vacated, near Cashtown, under the South Mountain. The firing was naturally supposed by him to indicate an accidental collision with some body of the enemy's cavalry, and, when intelligence reached him that Hill was engaged with the Federal infantry, the announcement occasioned him the greatest astonishment. General Meade's presence so near him was a circumstance completely unknown to Lee, and certainly was not desired by him. But a small portion of his forces were "up." Longstreet had not yet passed the mountain, and the forces of General Ewell, although that officer had promptly fallen back, in obedience to his orders, from the Susquehanna, were not yet in a position to take part in the engagement. Under these circumstances, if the whole of General Meade's army had reached Gettysburg, directly in Lee's front, the advantage in the approaching action must be largely in favor of the Federal army, and a battle might result in a decisive Confederate defeat.
No choice, however, was now left General Lee. The head of his advancing column had come into collision with the enemy, and it was impossible to retire without a battle. Lee accordingly ordered Hill's corps to be closed up, and reenforcements to be sent forward rapidly to the point of action. He then mounted his horse and rode in the direction of the firing, guided by the sound, and the smoke which rose above the tranquil landscape.
It was a beautiful day and a beautiful season of the year. The fields were green with grass, or golden with ripening grain, over which passed a gentle breeze, raising waves upon the brilliant surface. The landscape was broken here and there by woods; in the west rose the blue range of the South Mountain; the sun was shining through showery clouds, and in the east the sky was spanned by a rainbow. This peaceful scene was now disturbed by the thundering of artillery and the rattle of musketry. The sky was darkened, here and there, by clouds of smoke rising from barns or dwelling-houses set on fire by shell; and beneath rose red tongues of flame, roaring in response to the guns.
Each side had now sent forward reinforcements to support the vanguards, and an obstinate struggle ensued, the proportions of the fight gradually increasing, until the action became a regular battle. Hill, although suffering from indisposition, which the pallor of his face indicated, met the Federal attack with his habitual resolution. He was hard pressed, however, when fortunately one of General Ewell's divisions, under Rodes, debouched from the Carlisle road, running northward from Gettysburg, and came to his assistance. Ewell had just begun to move from Carlisle toward
Harrisburg--his second division, under Early, being at York--when a dispatch from Lee reached him, directing him to return, and "proceed to Gettysburg or Cashtown, as his circumstances might direct." He promptly obeyed, encamped within about eight miles of Gettysburg on the evening of the 30th, and was now moving toward Cashtown, where Johnson's division of his corps then was, when Hill sent him word that he needed his assistance. Rodes was promptly sent forward to the field of action. Early was ordered to hurry back, and Rodes soon reached the battle-field, where he formed his line on high ground, opposite the Federal right.
The appearance of this important reenforcement relieved Hill, and caused the enemy to extend his right to face Rodes. The Federal line thus resembled a crescent, the left half, fronting Hill, toward the northwest; and the right, half-fronting Rodes, toward the north--the town of Gettysburg being in rear of the curve. An obstinate attack was made by the enemy and by Rodes at nearly the same moment. The loss on both sides was heavy, but Rodes succeeded in shaking the Federal right, when Early made his appearance from the direction of York. This compelled the Federal force to still farther extend its right, to meet the new attack. The movement greatly weakened them. Rodes charged their centre with impetuosity; Early came in on their right, with Gordon's brigade in front, and under this combined attack the Federal troops gave way, and retreated in great disorder to and through Gettysburg, leaving the ground covered with their dead and wounded to the number of about five thousand, and the same number of prisoners in the hands of the Confederates.
The first collision of the two armies had thus resulted in a clear Southern victory, and it is to be regretted that this important success was not followed up by the seizure of the Cemetery Range, south of the town, which it was in the power of the Southern forces at that time to do. To whom the blame--if blame there be--of this failure, is justly chargeable, the writer of these pages is unable to state. All that he has been able to ascertain with certainty is the following: As soon as the Federal forces gave way, General Lee rode forward, and at about four o'clock in the afternoon was posted on an elevated point of Seminary Ridge, from which he could see the broken lines of the enemy rapidly retreating up the slope of Cemetery Range, in his front. The propriety of pursuit, with a view to seizing this strong position, was obvious, and General Lee sent an officer of his staff with a message to General Ewell, to the effect that "he could see the enemy flying, that they were disorganized, and that it was only necessary to push on vigorously, and the Cemetery heights were ours." [Footnote: The officer who carried the order is our authority for this statement.] Just about the moment, it would seem, when this order was dispatched--about half-past four--General Hill, who had joined Lee on the ridge, "received a message from General Ewell, requesting him (Hill) to press the enemy in front, while he performed the same operation on his right." This statement is taken from the journal of Colonel Freemantle, who was present and noted the hour. He adds: "The pressure was accordingly applied, in a mild degree, but the enemy were too strongly posted, and it was too late in the evening for a regular attack." General Ewell, an officer of great courage and energy, is said to have awaited the arrival of his third division (Johnson's) before making a decisive assault. Upon the arrival of Johnson, about sunset, General Ewell prepared to advance and seize upon the eastern terminus of the Cemetery Range, which commanded the subsequent Federal position. At this moment General Lee sent him word to "proceed with his troops to the [Confederate] right, in case he could do nothing where he was;" he proceeded to General Lee's tent thereupon to confer with him, and the result was that it was agreed to first assault the hill on the right. It was now, however, after midnight, and the attack was directed by Lee to be deferred until the next morning.
It was certainly unfortunate that the advance was not then made; but Lee, in his report, attributes no blame to any one. "The attack," he says, "was not pressed that afternoon, _the enemy's force being unknown, and it being considered advisable to await the arrival of the rest of our troops._"
The failure to press the enemy immediately after their retreat, with the view of driving them from and occupying Cemetery Heights, is susceptible of an explanation which seems to retrieve the Southern commander and his subordinates from serious criticism. The Federal forces had been driven from the ground north and west of Gettysburg, but it was seen now that the troops thus defeated constituted only a small portion of General Meade's army, and Lee had no means of ascertaining, with any degree of certainty, that the main body was not near at hand. The fact was not improbable, and it was not known that Cemetery Hill was not then in their possession. The wooded character of the ground rendered it difficult for General Lee, even from his elevated position on Seminary Ridge, to discover whether the heights opposite were, or were not, held by a strong force. Infantry were visible there; and in the plain in front the cavalry of General Buford were drawn up, as though ready to accept battle. It was not until after the battle that it was known that the heights might have been seized upon--General Hancock, who had succeeded Reynolds, having, to defend them, but a single brigade. This fact was not known to Lee; the sun was now declining, and the advance upon Cemetery Hill was deferred until the next day.
When on the next morning, between daybreak and sunrise, General Lee, accompanied by Hill, Longstreet, and Hood, ascended to the same point on Seminary Ridge, and reconnoitred the opposite heights through his field-glass, they were seen to be occupied by heavy lines of infantry and numerous artillery. The moment had passed; the rampart in his front bristled with bayonets and cannon. General Hancock, in command of the Federal advance, had hastened back at nightfall to General Meade, who was still some distance in rear, and reported the position to be an excellent one for receiving the Southern attack. Upon this information General Meade had at once acted; by one o'clock in the morning his headquarters were established upon the ridge; and when Lee, on Seminary Hill opposite, was reconnoitring the heights, the great bulk of the Federal army was in position to receive his assault.
The adversaries were thus face to face, and a battle could not well be avoided. Lee and his troops were in high spirits and confident of victory, but every advantage of position was seen to be on the side of the enemy.