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Incidents of the first day at Gettysburg.1

by E. P. Halstead, Brevet-Major and Assistant Adjutant-General, U. S. V.

Counting the scars in the colors.

Soon after daylight on July 1st, General Reynolds, then at Marsh Run, gave orders to move with all possible dispatch to Gettysburg, where General Buford, with a small division of cavalry, was contending against Heth's division of infantry and vastly superior numbers.

The First Corps moved promptly, covered a distance of nearly eight miles, and the First Division, commanded by General Wadsworth, reached the field about 10 o'clock in the forenoon.

In returning for the Second and Third divisions I met John Burns in the field east of the Seminary, with an old musket on his shoulder and a powder-horn in his pocket, hurrying to the front, looking terribly earnest. When near me he inquired, “Which way are the rebels? Where are our troops?” I informed him that they were just in front, that he would soon overtake them. He then said, with much enthusiasm, “I know how to fight, I have fit before!”

Wadsworth's division was immediately engaged, except the Sixth Wisconsin, held in reserve by General Doubleday's orders. General Robinson and General Rowley were soon up with their divisions [285] and hotly engaged, the former on the right of the line, extending to near the Mummasburg road, and the latter in the center between Meredith's and Cutler's brigades of Wadsworth's division.

The advantages of position were, perhaps, favorable to us, but in numbers the enemy was vastly superior. We had 6 brigades, numbering, with the artillery assigned to duty with us, 8200 men, and we maintained our position for six hours and a half against General A. P. Hill's corps of 13 brigades. General Archer and most of his brigade were captured early in the day by Meredith's “Iron Brigade.” He evidently had expected an easy “walk over,” judging from his disappointed manner after he was captured. A guard brought him back to General Doubleday, who, in a very cordial manner,--they having been cadets at West Point together,--said: “Good-morning, Archer! How are you? I am glad to see you!” General Archer, replied: “Well, I am not glad to see you, by a----sight!” Very soon after this episode the 6th Wisconsin, under Lieutenant-Colonel Dawes, made a successful charge, resulting in the capture of a force of the enemy in the railroad cut north of the Cashtown road, and a little later General Baxter captured nearly all of Iverson's [Confederate] brigade.

About 2 o'clock in the afternoon the Eleventh Corps reached the field and formed in line of battle at about a right angle to the general line of the First Corps, but did not connect with its right by several hundred yards, so that both flanks were in the air. When Ewell's troops approached from Carlisle and York they struck the Eleventh Corps in front and on both flanks almost simultaneously. The result was an easy victory to the enemy, giving them possession of Gettysburg before the First Corps had ceased fighting or had left its position west of the Seminary. Thus the First Corps was enveloped on its right and rear and was contending against vastly superior numbers in its front.

About 4 o'clock in the afternoon General Doubleday sent me to General Howard for reenforcements and orders. I found the latter in the cemetery near the gate. He looked the picture of despair. On receipt of the message he replied: “Tell General Doubleday that I have no reenforcements to send him. I have only one regiment in reserve.” I then asked if he had any orders to give, and called his attention to the enemy then advancing in line of battle overlapping our left by nearly half a mile. He looked in that direction and replied rather sharply: “Those are nothing but rail fences, sir!” I said: “I beg your pardon, General; if you will take my glass you will see something besides rail fences.” Turning to a staff-officer, he bade him take the glass and see what it was. The officer looked, and in an instant lowered the glass, saying: “General, those are long lines of the enemy!” General Howard then turned to me and said: “Go to General Buford, give him my compliments, and tell him to go to General Doubleday's support.” When asked where General Buford could be found, he replied: “I don't know! I think he is over this way,” pointing toward the east.

After riding in that direction as far as I deemed it wise or prudent, 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. 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 battle-field.” General Howard responded: “I think it a very strong position, General Hancock; a very strong position!” “Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field.” General Hancock immediately turned away to rectify our lines.

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.

When I left General Howard to return to the front, I discovered General Buford's cavalry only a little to the west of the cemetery and delivered the order I had received from General Howard. Buford rose in his stirrups upon his tiptoes and exclaimed: “What does he think I can do against those longlines of the enemy out there?” “I don't know anything about that, General; those are General Howard's orders.” “Very well,” said he, “I will see what I can do,” and, like the true soldier that he was, he moved his command out in plain view of the enemy and formed for the charge. The enemy, seeing the movement, formed squares in echelon, which delayed them and materially aided in the escape of the First Corps, if it did not save a large portion of the remnant from capture. The formation of squares by the enemy that day has been doubted by nearly every one with whom I have conversed upon the subject, and not until the meeting of the survivors of the First Corps at Gettysburg, in May, 1885, was I able to satisfy Colonel Bachelder, who has made a study of that battle, of the correctness of my statement, and only then after it had been corroborated by two of Buford's officers who were in the engagement. [286]

From a photograph taken during the War or soon after.

1 from a paper read before the District of Columbia Commandery of the loyal Legion, march 2d, 1887.--editors.

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