previous next

History of Lane's North Carolina brigade.

by Brigadier-General James H. Lane.

The Gettysburg campaign.

[For General Lane's report of Gettysburg, see Vol. V, Southern Historical Society Papers, page 41, and for his account of other details see his letter in the same volume, page 38. And for further mention of the operations of this gallant brigade, see the report of their corps commander, Lieutenant-General A. P. Hill, which was published in our Papers, Vol. II, page 222. We regret that our space will not permit us to reprint these documents, even to preserve the continuity of General Lane's narrative; but we give with pleasure the following letter from the gallant General Trimble, of Maryland, under whose immediate eye these brave North Carolinians fought on the third day at Gettysburg.]

Letter from General Trimble.

Baltimore, October 15th, 1875.
S. D. Pool,--I see by your October number of “Our Living and Our Dead,” that you defend the reputation of the North Carolina troops as earnestly as ever, while doing full justice, as you do at all times, to those from other States.

On page 457, October number, under the heading, Another witness — Gettysburg, you have taken in hand the now stale, though yet oft-repeated, assertion, that Pickett's division was repulsed on the 3d of July, because not supported by other troops, and have shown that the erroneous statements first made by writers, both from the North and South, are still blindly adhered to by all who attempt to describe the operations of that day.

No account of the three days fighting at that noted town has yet been given that is not full of errors of fact and errors of inference, and a truthful relation of the occurrences of those days has yet to be given. The reason why these mistakes have been made, is, that no careful study of the subject, with documentary and other evidences at hand, has as yet been made by a competent writer. Those who have treated the subject have been eye-witnesses of but a part of the lines, near six miles in circuit, and hence to make up a full relation of the whole, must adopt the hasty and erroneous accounts of others, or even [30] call in the aid of their own imagination to fill up and embellish the picture.

That mistakes, misstatements, or even intentional perversions of truth in the accounts given of hostile armies, should be made, is both natural and unavoidable during the heat and bitterness of the conflict. These and other errors of the war, on either side, must, for the present, be borne patiently, but corrected assiduously, fairly and generously by North and South, that each section may the sooner appreciate the other.

So far as relates to the good conduct of North Carolina troops, from the beginning to the close of the war, I think their unpretending courage in action, their patient submission to the privations of the camp and the march, their almost child-like docility and acceptance of discipline everywhere, and when circumstances needed it, their daring valor, are now recognized and highly appreciated by all — thanks to your journal. Why should the conduct of men from any State be extolled at the expense of those from their sisters?

Brave “Johnny Rebs” belonged exclusively to no State, but made glory enough for all, whether in the sore privations of the camp, or in the heat of the conflict, as they sent up to the welkin that dauntless shout, so often the harbinger of victory.

No officer who commanded North Carolina troops has ever, that I know of, complained of their behavior.

At the risk of being tiresome, I propose to make a brief statement of what passed under my own eye luring the third day's fight on the right of our army. A topographical sketch of that part of the field can alone convey a full understanding of the movements of our troops, but a brief description of ridges, woods and roads, will help much to elucidate the situation and conduct of divisions.

Cemetery Ridge, or plateau, extends from the town of Gettysburg to Round Top Hill, say two to three miles long. The Emmettsburg road runs northeasterly not far from the western edge of this plateau, but generally below it in elevation, entering Gettysburg on the south, directly below the cemetery. Tracing the Emmetsburg road southwesterly from Gettersburg, it is found to diverge more and more from the plateau of Cemetery Ridge. At and near the town, the road lies at the foot of this abrupt slope, but about a mile south, in front of Pickett's division, the road is over half a mile from the elevation on which the Federal lines were posted, with a smallstream and valley between. These lines, infantry and artillery, occupied moderately elevated ground commanding the fields between them and the southern lines on Seminary [31] Ridge to the westward. This last ridge makes a considerable angle with the Emmettsburg road. At the point occupied by General Pickett, the crest of the ridge is about a third of a mile from the road; at the point from which Pettigrew started it is over a mile from the road.

General Pickett's line was formed about one hundred yards from and west of the Emmettsburg road, at that point occupied by Southern troops the day previous. That part of the road in Pettigrew's front was occupied by the Federal troops, and not over one hundred yards from the Federal line on the crest of Cemetery Ridge.

From the preceding it can be understood that Pickett started in his charge from the Emmettsburg road, and Pettigrew and Trimble started .from the top of Seminary Ridge. The former about three-fourths of a mile, the latter one mile and a quarter from the enemy's line.

Pickett's line being in view of the enemy at the start, and nearest to him, would naturally attract the most attention, and receive at first the severest fire from his front, and his division be the first to suffer; as the one which most threatened the enemy, and, therefore, the first to be crushed. As soon, however, as Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions fairly appeared in the open ground at the top of Seminary Ridge, furious discharges of artillery were poured on them from the line in their front, and from their left flank by the line which overlapped them near Gettysburg. To the artillery fire was soon added that of small arms in a ceaseless storm as they marched down the smooth, even slope.

It will be easily understood that as Pickett's line was over-lapped by the Federal lines on his right, and Pettigrew and Trimble's front by the Federal lines on their left, each of these commands had a distinct and separate discharge of artillery and musketry to encounter, the one as severe and incessant as the other, although Pickett's men felt its intensity sooner than the others, and was the first to be crushed under fire, before which no troops could live, while Pettigrew and Trimble suffered as much or more before the close, because longer under fire, in consequence of marching further.

The returns of killed and wounded show that the other commands lost as heavily as Pickett's; some brigades more. Not one of my staff escaped severe wounds, and all had their horses killed.

It would have been more in accordance with military principles had Pettigrew and Trimble started fifteen minutes before Pickett, so as to have brought them all to the enemy's line at the same moment. The result would probably have been the same, yet ten or fifteen minutes [32] sooner or later in the movement of a heavy column often produces a decided difference in the result of a battle.

Both Northern and Southern descriptions of the battle of Gettysburg, in the third days' contest have, without perhaps a single exception down to the present time, given not only most conspicuous prominence to General Pickett's division, but, generally by the language used, have created the impression among those not personally acquainted with the events of the day, that Pickett's men did all the hard fighting, suffered the most severely, and failed in his charge, because not promptly or vigorously supported by the troops on his right and left. It might with as much truth be said that Pettigrew and Trimble failed in their charge because unsupported by Pickett, who had been driven back in the crisis of their charge, and was no aid to them.

These statements or inferences do such great injustice to other troops, who displayed equal daring, and are so contrary to well known facts, that the errors can only be accounted for by one or two considerations, viz:

First--That Pickett's division being much nearer the enemy when it began the charge, became at the start the most prominent body in the field, the most to be dreaded, and which would, if any did so, be the first to pierce the Federal lines and decide the contest.

Second--As these were the first who “shattered to atoms,” and recoiled from the advance, the fate of the day seemed solely to rest with them, and that when they fell back the contest was over. No one acquainted with the facts can for a moment doubt the intrepid bravery and splendid bearing of Pickett's men; they did all that any men could do under the circumstances, but others did as well, went as far, or further, fought longer, and lost as heavily. The simple truth is, that Pickett's, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions were literally “shot to pieces,” and the small remnants, who broke the first Federal line, were too feeble to hold what they had gained.

So the result of that charge only proved over again the axiom in war, that “no single line of infantry without artillery can carry a line protected by rifle pits, knapsacks, and other cover, and a numerous artillery, if the assaulted party bravely avails itself of its advantages.” It was so at Fredericksburg, reversing the parties, and will be so everywhere.

Now a word about North Carolinians in this charge at Gettysburg, and of what I was an eye witness.

On the morning of the 3rd I had been put in command, by order of General Lee, of two of the brigades of General Pender, who had been [33] wounded. These were both of North Carolina troops, commanded by J. H. Lane and Alfred M. Scales. On taking command of these troops, entire strangers to me, and wishing as far as I could to inspire them with confidence, I addressed them briefly, ordered that no gun should be fired until the enemy's line was broken, and that I should advance with them to the farthest point.

When the charge commenced, about 3 P. M., I followed Pettigrew (Heth's division) about one hundred and fifty yards in rear, a sufficient distance to prevent the adverse fire raking both ranks as we marched down the slope. Notwithstanding the losses as we advanced, the men marched with the deliberation and accuracy of men on drill. I observed the same in Pettigrew's line. When the latter was within one hundred, or one hundred and fifty yards from the Emmettsburg road, they seemed to sink into the earth under the tempest of fire poured into them. We passed over the remnant of their line, and immediately after some one close by my left, sung out, “Three cheers for the old North State;” when both brigades sent up a hearty shout; on which I said to my aid, “Charley, I believe those fine fellows are going into the enemy's line.”

They did get to the road, and drove the opposing line from it. They continued there some minutes, discharging their pieces at the enemy. The loss here was fearful, and I knew that no troops could long endure it. I was anxious to know how things went on with the troops on our right, and taking a quick but deliberate view of the field over which Pickett had advanced, I perceived that the enemy's fire seemed to slacken there, and men in squads were falling back on the west side of the Emmettsburg road. By this I inferred that Pickett's division had been repulsed, and if so, that it would be a useless sacrifice of life to continue the contest. I therefore did not attempt to rally the men who began to give back from the fence.

As I followed the retiring line on horseback, at a walk, to the crest of Seminary ridge, under the increasing discharge of grape, shell and musketry, I had cause to wonder how any one could escape wounds or death.

On reaching the summit of the ridge, I found the men had fallen into line behind some rude defences. I said, “That is right, my brave fellows, stand your ground, and we will presently serve these chaps as they have us.” For by all the rules of warfare, the Federal troops should (as I expected they would) have marched against our shattered columns and sought to cover our army with an overwhelming defeat.

In turning over the command to General Lane, I used some emphatic [34] expression of commendation for the gallant behavior of these men, but I am sure did not use the profane terms which General Lane quotes as my language.

Being severely wounded, and unable to follow the army in its retreat, I made no report of the battle, or return of the killed and wounded. General Lane and General Scales have done this, which shows the fearful loss of these two brigades in the charge of July 3rd.

S. D. Pool: I laid aside what is written above, but delayed to send it to you. Having since then attended the ceremonies of unveiling the Jackson statue at Richmond on the 26th October, and while there, heard the brilliant address of J. W. Daniel, of Lynchburg, on the battle of Gettysburg, intended to be a correct account of the occurrences of the 3d July, in which I find the same old errors repeated. I was preparing, as General Wilcox has done, a brief article to correct the mistakes of Mr. Daniel, in what he says of the troops on Pickett's left, when I received from him the following letter, which, with my reply, will close this defence of North Carolina troops.

Lynchburg, November 22d, 1875.
General I. R. Trimble:
Dear General--General Wilcox thinks I have made some errors as to the third day's charge at Gettysburg. If I have made any in respect to the troopswhich came under your command or observation, will you do me the honor and kindness to point out my error, and thus greatly oblige,

Yours, with much respect,

Baltimore, November 24th, 1875.
Jno. W. Daniel, Esq.:
Dear Sir,--Your favor of 22d received. As respects the errors made in your able address in Richmond, as to the action of Pender's division, under my command, they are not very important, but may as well be corrected.

First. You state that “Our left, under Trimble, staggered at the start,” &c. That is an error; there was no hesitation in my command at the start, for at first the .fire of the enemy did not reach us, being directed at Heth's division, in advance, under Pettigrew.

Secondly. You say “Pettigrew's and Trimble's men had broken before the tornado of canister in their front, and had disappeared,” [35] inferring that these men quit the assault and left Pickett's men unsupported, whereas my men were the last to leave the field (or the charge).

This I know, as I rode in the line between the two brigades, from the start down to the Emmettsburg road, passing over the wreck of Heth's division (Pettigrew's). Before my line recoiled under a concentrated fire from my front and left, I looked to the right where Pickett's men had been seen to advance, and beheld nothing but isolated and scattered remnants of that splendid line.

When we reached the Emmettsburg road, the terrific fire right in their faces, with their comrades melting away around them, our line slowly began to yield, or rather ceased to advance beyond the road. It was there, as I still sat on my horse, wounded and at the road, that my aid, Charley Grogan, said: “General, the men are falling back, shall I rally them?” Before replying, I looked again to our right for the effect of Pickett's charge, but could see nothing but a few men in squads moving to the rear, and at considerable distance from the Emmettsburg road. It was there, after a brief but deliberate view of the field, that I said, “No, Charley, the best thing these brave fellows can do, is to get out of this.” So, mounting my horse, from which I had alighted with help of Grogan, we followed, at a walk, our men to the rear, who marched back sullenly and slowly, in almost as good order as they had advanced, and I halted them on the summit of Seminary ridge. On the presumption that the enemy would pursue us, I here prepared for defence, and feeling faint from my wound, turned over the command to General Lane.

Thus I am sure that my command continued the contest some time after Pickett's force had been dispersed. Not that we fought better, but because, as a second line, we did not reach the enemy quite as soon as the troops on our right, but maintained our ground after they had been driven back.

It was hard, in your splendid composition, to avoid some errors. Not until every one puts down what actually took place under his own eye in a battle, can its true and exact history be related by one writer.

Pickett's men were nearer the enemy at the start, and did bear the brunt bravely, but they were not the only “heroes of Gettysburg.”

Yours truly,

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 People (automatically extracted)
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 3rd (3)
October (2)
November 24th, 1875 AD (1)
November 22nd, 1875 AD (1)
October 15th, 1875 AD (1)
October 26th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: