previous next

The council of war on the second day.1

by John Gibbon, Major-General, U. S. V.
Soon after all firing had ceased a staff-officer from army headquarters met General Hancock and myself and summoned us both to General Meade's headquarters, where a council was to be held. We at once proceeded there, and soon after our arrival all the corps commanders were assembled in the little front room of the Liester HouseNewton, who had been assigned to the command of the First Corps over Doubleday, his senior; Hancock, Second; Birney, Third; Sykes, Fifth; Sedgwick, who had arrived during the day with the Sixth, after a long march from Manchester; Howard, Eleventh; and Slocum, Twelfth, besides General Meade, General Butterfield, chief of staff; Warren, chief of engineers; A. S. Williams, Twelfth Corps, and myself, Second. It will be seen that two corps were doubly represented, the Second by Hancock and myself, and the Twelfth by Slocum and Williams. These twelve were all assembled in a little room not more than ten or twelve feet square, with a bed in one corner, a small table on one side, and a chair or two. Of course all could not sit down; some did, some lounged on the bed, and some stood up, while Warren, tired out and suffering from a wound in the neck, where a piece of shell had struck him, lay down in the corner of the room and went sound asleep, and I don't think heard any of the proceedings.

The discussion was at first very informal and in the shape of conversation, during which each one made comments on the fight and told what he knew of the condition of affairs. In the course of this discussion Newton expressed the opinion that “this was no place to fight a battle in.” General Newton was an officer of engineers (since chief-engineer of the army), and was rated by me, and I suppose most others, very highly as a soldier. The assertion, therefore, coming from such a source, rather startled me, and I eagerly asked what his objections to the position were. The objections he stated, as I recollect them, related to some minor details of the line, of which I knew nothing except so far as my own front was concerned, and with those I was satisfied; but the prevailing impression seemed to be that the place for the battle had been in a measure selected for us. Here we are; now what is the best thing to do? It soon became evident that everybody was in favor of remaining where we were and giving battle there. General Meade himself said very little, except now and then to make some comment, but I cannot recall that he expressed any decided opinion upon any point, preferring apparently to listen to the conversation. After the discussion had lasted some time, Butter-field suggested that it would, perhaps, be well to formulate the question to be asked, and General Meade assenting he took a piece of paper, on which he had been making some memoranda, and wrote down a question; when he had done he read it off and formally proposed it to the council.

I had never been a member of a council of war before (nor have I been since) and did not feel very confident I was properly a member of this one; but I had engaged in the discussion, and found myself (Warren being asleep) the junior member in it. By the custom of war the junior member votes first, as on courts-martial; and when Butterfield read off his question, the substance of which was, “Should the army remain in its present position or take up some other?” he addressed himself first to me for an answer. To say “Stay and fight” was to ignore the objections made by General Newton, and I therefore answered somewhat in this way: “Remain here, and make such correction in our position as may be deemed necessary, but take no step which even looks like retreat.” The question was put to [314] each member and his answer taken down, and when it came to Newton, who was the first in rank, he voted in pretty much the same way as I did, and we had some playful sparring as to whether he agreed with me or I with him; the rest voted to remain.

The next question written by Butterfield was, “Should the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy?” I voted not to attack, and all the others voted substantially the same way; and on the third question, “How long shall we wait?” I voted, “Until Lee moved.” The answers to this last question showed the only material variation in the opinion of the members.

When the voting was over General Meade said quietly, but decidedly, “Such then is the decision” ; and certainly he said nothing which produced a doubt in my mind as to his being perfectly in accord with the members of the council.

In 1881 (eighteen years after the battle) I was shown in Philadelphia, by General Meade's son [Colonel George Meade], a paper found amongst General Meade's effects after his death. It was folded, and on the outside of one end was written, in his well-known handwriting, in ink, “Minutes of council, July 2d, ‘63.” On opening it, the following was found written in pencil in a handwriting [General Daniel Butterfield's] unknown to me:

Minutes of Council, July 2d, 1863.

Page 1, Questions asked:

1. Under existing circumstances is it advisable for this army to remain in its present position, or to retire to another nearer its base of supplies?

2. It being determined to remain in present position, shall the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy?

3. If we wait attack, how long I

Page 2, Replies.

Gibbon:1. Correct position of the army, but would not retreat. 2. In no condition to attack, in his opinion. 3. Until he moves.
Williams:1. Stay. 2. Wait attack. 3. One day.
Birney:Same as General Williams.
Sykes:Same as General Williams.
Newton:1. Correct position of the army, but would not retreat. 2. By all means not attack. 3. If we wait it will give them a chance to cut our line.
Page 3. 
Howard:1. Remain. 2. Wait attack until 4 P. M. tomorrow. 3. If don't attack, attack them.
Hancock:1. Rectify position without moving so as to give up field. 2. Not attack unless our communications are cut. 3. Can't wait long; can't be idle.
Sedgwick:1. Remain. [2.] and wait attack. [3.] At least one day.
Slocum:Stay and fight it out.

[On the back, or first page of the sheet]:

Slocum stay and fight it out. Newton thinks it a bad position; Hancock puzzled about practicability of retiring; thinks by holding on inviting2 to mass forces and attack. Howard favor of not retiring. Birney don't know. Third Corps used up and not in good condition to fight. Sedgwick doubtful whether we ought to attack.3 Effective strength about 9000, 12,500, 9000, 6000, 8500, 6000, 7000. Total, 58,000.


Minutes of Council, held Thursday, P. M., July 2d, 1863. D. B., M. G., C. of s. [Daniel Butterfield, Major-General, Chief of Staff].

The memoranda at the bottom of the paper were doubtless made while the discussion was going on, and the numbers at the foot refer probably to the effective strength of each corps.4

Several times during the sitting of the council reports were brought to General Meade, and now and then we could hear heavy firing going on over on the right of our line. I took occasion before leaving to say to General Meade that his staff-officer had regularly summoned me as a corps commander to the council, although I had some doubts about being present. He answered, pleasantly, “That is all right. I wanted you here.”

Before I left the house Meade made a remark to me which surprised me a good deal, especially when I look back upon the occurrence of the next day. By a reference to the votes in council it will be seen that the majority of the members were in favor of acting on the defensive and awaiting the action of Lee. In referring to the matter, just as the council broke up, Meade said to me, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” I asked him why he thought so, and he replied, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” I expressed the hope that he would, and told General Meade, with confidence, that if he did we would defeat him.

1 taken by permission from the “Philadelphia Weekly press” of July 6th, 1887, and condensed.--editors.

2 The words in italics, noted as illegible in the “Official Records,” have been deciphered on a careful examination of the original document deposited by Colonel George Meade with the Penn. Hist. Society.--editors.

3 The words in italics, noted as illegible in the “Official Records,” have been deciphered on a careful examination of the original document deposited by Colonel George Meade with the Penn. Hist. Society.--editors.

4 A careful study of the original suggests that these notes “at the bottom” (on the back) were made before the questions were formulated. See p. 313.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Manchester (New Hampshire, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July 2nd, 1863 AD (2)
July 6th, 1887 AD (1)
1881 AD (1)
July 2nd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: