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Chapter 29: over again, to Gettysburg.

  • Popular grief for Jackson
  • -- again to the river -- Winchester and her women -- the people rejoice at the advance -- public belief in its result -- Washington to fall; the war to end -- the prelude to disaster -- second day at Gettysburg -- Pickett's wonderful charge -- some one has blundered? how the story came South -- revulsion and discontent -- Lee not blamed -- Strictures on non-retaliation -- the Marylanders.
    The campaign of the Rappahannock had shown brilliant flashes of strategy and valor. It had proved that a badly-provided army of less than 50,000 Confederates-barefooted, blanketless and halffed, but properly led-could, even when surrounded and outflanked, defeat and set at naught 120,000 of the best-appointed troops ever sent against them. It revived, in some degree, the drooping spirits of the people; but a sorrow that rose to agony wrung the heart of the South, when what was earth of her peerless, pure and idolized Jackson was laid in the Capitol, wrapped in the flag he had made immortal.

    Shattered and emaciated veterans, noble-browed matrons and pale, delicate maidens gathered around that sacred bier, in the awed hush of a common sorrow, too deep for words. Tears coursed over cheeks that had been bronzed in the fire of battle; sobs rose from hearts that had lost their dearest and nearest without a murmur, save-Thy will be done! And little children were lifted up to look upon what was left of him who would ever be the greatest one of earth to them. And through the coffin-lid, that calm, still face seemed hourly to grow more holy and more radiant; the light of battle faded out from its softening lines and the seal of the God of Peace rested in plain token upon the glorified brow.

    Truly did every one who looked upon it feel:

    O, gracious God! not gainless is the loss!
    A glorious sunbeam gilds thy sternest frown-
    For, while his country staggers ‘neath the Cross,
    He rises with the Crown!

    And when the funeral procession passed the streets of the Capital, the whole people stood bareheaded and mute. Following the wailing notes of the dirge with unsteady feet, moved the escort of ragged and war-worn soldiers-their tattered banners furled-and every torn dress and dented gun-carriage speaking eloquently of the right [252] they had earned to sorrow for him. It was no mocking pageant. No holiday soldiery, spruce and gay, followed that precious bier-no chattering crowds pointed out the beauties of the sight. Solemn and mourning the escort passed; sad and almost voiceless the people turned away and, going to their homes, sat with their sorrow.

    After the Rappahannock fights came a lull of several weeks; and it was early in June when General Lee advanced to force the enemy out of the state. His army had been reorganized and strengthened as much as possible; General R. S. Ewell was chosen successor to Jackson; and to him, Longstreet and A. P. Hill-raised now to a full lieutenant.general — was given command of the three corps.

    Diverging from the main line, after some little coquetting for position, Ewell charged Jackson's “foot cavalry” upon Winchester, capturing the town with its heavy depots of stores and munitions; while Hill kept Hooker amused, and Longstreet slowly forged his way toward the river.

    Great was the joy of the poor town when it once more welcomed the gray-jackets. From the beginning it had been battle-ground and billet of both armies a dozen times. Tossed from Federal to Confederate possession — a very shuttlecock of war — it had been harassed, robbed and pillaged by the one; drained of the very dregs by free gifts to the other. But the people of Winchester never faltered in their faith; and to-day her noble women go down the roll of heroism and steadfast truth, hand in hand with the noblest ones of our history.

    And the joy in Winchester was somewhat reflected at the harassed and eager-watching Capital. Undiminished by the sorrows of the last fall, undimmed by its reverses, still burned the southern desire to plant its victorious flag on hostile soil. It was neither a thirst for vengeance nor an empty boast; rather a yearning for relief — a craving for the rest from blood and battle-shocks that such a campaign would give.

    It was with deep satisfaction, then, that Richmond heard that Ewell had crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, pushed on through Hagerstown and, leaving Early at York, had passed to Carlisle; that Longstreet had followed him at Williamsport; and that A. P. Hill had crossed at Shepherdstown and pushed for Chambersburg, reaching there on the 27th of June. [253]

    Hooker, falling rapidly back upon Washington-at which point he believed the movement aimed-had been sacrificed, and with more justice than usual, to popular clamor. General Geo. G. Meade replaced him in command, and strained every nerve to collect numbers of men, irrespective of quality — seeming to desire to crush the invasion by weight alone.

    Wild was the alarm in the North when the rebel advance had, penetrated the heart of Pennsylvania; when York was held by Early and laid under contribution and Harrisburg was threatened by Ewell. The whole North rose in its might. Governors Seymour, of New York, Andrew, of Massachusetts, and Curtin, of Pennsylvania, put their whole militia at the service of the President; the energy at Washington, momentarily paralyzed, soon recovered; and by the last day of the month, Meade had collected an army of near 200,000 men. Many of these were, of course, new levies and raw militia; but near one-half were the veterans of the armies of McClellan, Burnside and Hooker; men who had fought gallantly on southern soil and might be expected to do so on their own.

    It seems that Lee's intention was to flank Meade; and leaving him in Maryland, to pass into Pennsylvania, occupy Harrisburg, destroy communications between Washington and the North and reduce Philadelphia.

    Such, at least, was the universal belief of the southern people; and so rapidly did their mercurial temperament rise under it, and so great was their reliance in the army that was to accomplish the brilliant campaign, that they looked upon it already as a fixed fact. Now, at last, they felt, we will teach the Yankees what invasion really means. With their Capital leaguered, their President and Cabinet fugitives by water, and their great thoroughfare and second city in our hands, we will dictate our own terms, and end the war.

    Such might have been the case, had Gettysburg been won, or had that battle never been fought.

    If Lee's intention was to flank Meade and avoid a fight at the outset of the campaign, it was thwarted by the rapid concentration of troops in his front, near Gettysburg. To prevent being struck in detail and secure his communications, Lee was forced to recall Ewell and to concentrate his army. Hill and Longstreet were ordered up from Chambersburg; and by July 1st the opposing armies faced [254] each other; each feeling its way cautiously and knowing that the result of this grapple of the giants must in a great measure decide the war. Meade's defeat would lose Washington, leave the heart of the North open, and demoralize the only army in that section. Lee's defeat, on the other hand, would jeopardy his very existence and probably leave Richmond an easy prey to fresh advance.

    But in Richmond none of this was felt; for all that was known of the army was its victorious entry into Pennsylvania; and absurdly exaggerated stories of the dire panic and demoralization of the enemy received perfect credence.

    Then the shock came.

    On the 1st of July, Hill's advance encountered the enemy under Reynolds; and-after a fierce struggle, in which their general was killed-drove them back into and through the town. Here they were reformed on a semi-circular crest of hills; massing their artillery and holding their position until dark. Their loss was heavier far than Hill's, and the men not in as good fighting trim; but it was very late, and General Lee feared pressing their reserve. Had he known that it was only the advance of Meade, broken and demoralized, that held the crest, he could undoubtedly have carried and occupied it. The fearful battles of the next two days, with their terrific loss of life, doubtless hung on this lost opportunity.

    By next morning the enemy had massed the remainder of his army behind these hills, now frowning with two hundred guns and blue with one dense line of soldiery. Under a fearful cannonade, through a hail of bullets that nothing living might stand, Stewart works his way slowly and steadily forward on the enemy's left; driving him from line after line of works and holding every inch gained, by dogged valor and perseverance. Hays and Hoke (of Early's) advance into the ploughing fire of the rifled guns-march steadily on and charge over their own dead and dying, straight for Cemetery Heights. This is the key of the enemy's position. That once gained the day is won; and on the brave fellows go, great gaps tearing through their ranks-answering every fresh shock with a savage yell. Line after line of the enemy gives way before that terrible charge. The breastwork is occupied — they are driven out! Melting under the horrid fire, unfaltering still — the gray-jackets reach the very hill! [255]

    Nothing mortal can stand the enfilading fire. They give wayagain they charge — they are at the very works! But the fire is too heavy for their thinned ranks to stand; and night falls over the field, illumined by the red flash of cannon-drenched with blood and horrid with carnage of friend and foe. But there is no advantage gained, save a slight advance of Stewart's position on their left.

    With the morning of the third day came the conviction that the vital struggle must be made for Cemetery Heights. Lee must win them-and then for victory!

    All the artillery was massed upon this point. Then awoke the infernal echoes of such an artillery duel as the war was never to see again. The air was black with flying shot and shell, and their wild whoo! made one continuous song through the sultry noon. Forth from the canopy of smoke and their screen of trees, comes the chosen storming party-Pickett's division of Virginians; supported on the right by Wilcox and on the left by Heth's division under Pettigrew, its own general having been wounded in the head the day before.

    Unmindful of the fire-sheeted storm into which they march-down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death stride that devoted band. Now, they emerge into the Emmetsburg road, straight on for the coveted heights. On! never blenching, never faltering — with great gaps crashing through them-filling the places of the dead with the living next to die-On! into the jaws of death goes the forlorn hope! They are at the rise — they reach the crest; and then their batteries are suddenly silent!

    Behind them is the ghastly road, furrowed and ploughed by ceaseless shot, slippery with blood and dotted thick with their writhing, bleeding brothers. Behind them is death-defeat! Before them a hundred belching cannon — a dense, dark mass of blue, relieved only by the volleying flash that shakes and rolls along their shattered line! Still up they go! on-ever on! That small Virginia division, shattered, bleeding-and alone reaches the works-fights for one moment and then — has won them!

    But there are no supports-Pettigrew has not come up; and the decimated Virginians are literally overwhelmed by the fresh masses poured upon them. Broken, torn, exhausted, they fall backscat-tered into terrible death-dealing knots, that fight their way sullenly and terribly home to their own lines! [256]

    That charge-unequaled in history — has fearfully crippled the enemy. He can not pursue. But it has failed, and the battle of Gettysburg is over!

    That night General Lee fell back toward Hagerstown, turning in his retreat to show front to the enemy that dared not attack. Nine days he stayed on the Maryland shore, waiting the advance that never came; then he recrossed the river, on the night of the 13th, and again fell back to the Rappahannock lines.

    The second Maryland campaign had failed!

    Into the midst of the general elation in Richmond crashed the wild rumors from the fight. We had driven the enemy through the town; we held the height; we had captured Meade and 40,000 prisoners. Washington was at our mercy; and Lee would dictate terms of peace from Philadelphia!

    These were the first wild rumors; eagerly sought and readily credited by the people. They were determined to believe and would see no change of plan in General Lee's forced battle at Gettysburg, instead of on the plains at Harrisburg.

    Then over the general joy, creeping none knew whence nor how, but rapidly gaining shape and substance, came a shadow of doubt. Crowds besieged the War Department, anxious, excited, but still hopeful. Then the truth came; tempered by the Government, but wildly exaggerated by northern sources.

    Down to zero dropped the spirits of the people; down to a depth of despairing gloom, only the deeper from the height of their previous exultation. The dark cloud from Gettysburg rolled back over Richmond, darkened and made dense a hundred fold in the transit.

    The terrible carnage of that field was exaggerated by rumor. Pickett's gallant division was declared annihilated; it was believed that the army had lost 20,000 men; and it was known that such priceless blood as that of Garnett, Pettigrew, Armistead, Pender, Kemper, Semmes and Barksdale had sealed the dreadful defeat.

    It only needed what came the next day, to dash the last drop from the cup of hope the people still tried to hold to their lips; and that was the news of the fall of Vicksburg, on the 4th of July.

    And out of the thick darkness that settled on the souls of all, came up the groan of inquiry and blame. Why had the campaign failed? they asked. Why had General Lee been forced into battle [257] on ground of the enemy's choosing? Why had he attacked works that only an army like his would have made an effort to take, when he could have flanked the enemy and forced him to fight him on his own terms? Why had the Government — as was alleged-allowed the crucial test of liberty — the crisis campaign of the war — to be undertaken without proper transportation and supplies of ammunition?

    And why, above all, had the general they still loved and trusted, spite of their doubts-why had he sent their beloved Virginians unsupported to the shambles? Why had he fought the whole Yankee army with one division?

    Such were the murmurs on every side. And though they gradually died away, after the first shock of surprise and grief had passed; still they left a vague feeling behind that all was not well; that grave errors had been committed somewhere. For the southern people could not get over the feeling that there were no odds of numbers and position that could cause defeat to a southern army, properly supplied and properly handled. So, although the murmurs ceased, the conviction did not die with them that the battle of Gettysburg was a grave error; that there had been a useless waste of priceless lives; and that the campaign had been nullified, which else had ended the war.

    And unlike other post-disaster conclusions of the southern people, this did not die out. It only became strengthened and fixed, the more light was thrown on the vexed questions and the more they were canvassed. The excuses of the War Department that ammunition had given out, were scornfully rejected. Then, said the people, that was your fault. General Lee could not depend — in a campaign in the heart of an enemy's country and far away from his base-upon his captures. And as to his not intending to fight a pitched battle, how could he calculate upon that, or why then did he fight it; and upon ground of the enemy's choice?

    And with the other objections to the conduct of the campaign, came that of the general's treatment of the people of Pennsylvania. It was felt to be an excess of moderation to a people whose armies had not spared the sword, the torch and insult to our unprotected tracts; and it was argued-without a shadow of foundation-that Lee's knightly courtesy to the Dutch dames of Pennsylvania had disgusted his troops.

    Those starving and barefooted heroes would have thought it right [258] if their beloved chief had fallen down and worshiped the makers of apple-butter! They felt he could do no wrong; and it was indirect injustice to the gallant dead that dotted Cemetery Hill-and to the no less gallant living ready to march up to those frowning heights again — to intimate that any action of their general would, or could, have made them fight better.

    Excessive as was that moderation-ill advised as it might have proved, in case of a long campaign — it could have had no possible effect on the fortunes of the disastrous and brief one just ended.

    Equally unjust as that popular folly, was the aspersion upon southern sympathizers in Maryland, that they did not come forth to aid their friends. The part of Maryland through which southern armies passed in both campaigns were sparsely settled, and that with strong Union population. The Marylander of Baltimore and the lower counties-whatever may have been his wishes, was gagged and bound too closely to express, far less carry them out. Baltimore was filled with an armed guard and was, moreover, the passage-way of thousands of troops; the lower counties were watched and guarded. And, moreover, the Confederate army was not practically in Maryland, but from the 20th of June to the 1st of July.

    The taunt to the down-trodden Marylanders-oppressed and suffering bravely for conscience sake-we must in justice to ourselves believe only the result of grief and disappointment. Men, like goods, can only be judged “by sample;” and, from the beginning to the end of the war, Maryland may point to Archer, Winder, Elzey, Johnson and many another noble son-unhonored now, or filling, perhaps, a nameless grave-and ask if such men came from among a people who talked but would not act! And so in sorrow, disappointment and bitterness ended the second Maryland campaign.

    And with it ended all hopes of carrying the war beyond our own gates in future; happy could we beat it thence, baffled and crushed as ever before.

    For the short, sharp raid of General Early-penetrating to the gates of the Capital and with possible capabilities of even entering them-can hardly be considered an organized scheme of invasion. It was rather the spasmodic effort by a sharp, hard blow to loosen the tightening and death-dealing grip upon our throat, and give us time for one long, deep breath before the final tug for life.

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