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Chapter 41:

  • Movement to draw forth the enemy
  • -- advance to Culpeper Court House -- cavalry engagement at Beverly's and Kelly's fords -- movement against Winchester -- Milroy's force captured -- the enemy Retires along the Potomac -- Maryland entered -- advance into Pennsylvania -- the enemy driven back toward Gettysburg -- position of the respective forces -- battle at Gettysburg -- the army Retires -- the Potomac swollen -- no interruption by the enemy -- strength of our force -- strength of the enemy -- the campaign closed -- Kelly's Ford -- attempt to surprise our army -- system of breastworks -- prisoners.

In the Spring of 1863 the enemy occupied his former position before Fredericksburg. He was in great strength, and, so far as we could learn, was preparing on the grandest scale for another advance against Richmond, which in political if not military circles was regarded as the objective point of the war. The consolidated report of the Army of the Potomac, then under the command of Major General Hooker, states the force present on May 10, 1863, to be 136,704.

General Lee's forces had been reorganized into three army corps, designated the First, Second, and Third Corps. In the order named, they were commanded by Lieutenant Generals Longstreet, Ewell, and A. P. Hill.

The zeal of our people in the defense of their country's cause had brought nearly all of the population fit for military service to the various armies then in the field, so that but little increase could be hoped for by the Army of Northern Virginia. Under these circumstances, to wait until the enemy should choose to advance was to take the desperate hazard of the great inequality of numbers, as well as ability to reenforce, which he possessed. In addition to the army under General Hooker, a considerable force occupied the lower part of the Valley of the Shenandoah.

It was decided by a bold movement to attempt to transfer hostilities to the north side of the Potomac, by crossing the river and marching into Maryland and Pennsylvania, simultaneously driving the foe out of the Shenandoah Valley. Thus, it was hoped, General Hooker's army would be called from Virginia to meet our advance toward the heart of the enemy's country. In that event, the vast preparations which had been made for an advance upon Richmond would be foiled, the plan for his [367] summer's campaign deranged, and much of the season for active operations be consumed in the new combinations and dispositions which would be required. If, beyond the Potomac, some opportunity should be offered so as to enable us to defeat the army on which our foe most relied, the measure of our success would be full; if the movement resulted only in freeing Virginia from the presence of the hostile army, it was more than could fairly be expected from awaiting the attack which was clearly indicated.

Actuated by these and other considerations, the campaign was commenced on June 3, 1863. Our forces advanced to Culpeper Court House, leaving A. P. Hill to occupy the lines in front of Fredericksburg. On the 5th Hooker, having discovered our movement, crossed an army corps to the south side of the Rappahannock, but, as this was apparently for observation, it was not thought necessary to oppose it.

On the 9th a large force of the enemy's cavalry crossed at Beverly's and Kelly's Fords and attacked General Stuart. A severe engagement ensued, continuing from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, when Stuart forced his assailant to recross the river with heavy loss, leaving four hundred prisoners, three pieces of artillery, and several stands of colors in our hands.

Meantime General Jenkins with a cavalry brigade had been ordered to advance toward Winchester, to cooperate with an infantry expedition into the lower Valley, and General Imboden made a demonstration toward Romney to cover the movement against Winchester, and prevent reenforcements from the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Both these officers were in position when Ewell left Culpeper Court House on the 6th. Crossing the Shenandoah near Front Royal, Rodes's division went to Berryville to dislodge the force stationed there, and cut off the communication between Winchester and the Potomac. General Ewell, on June 13th, advanced directly upon Winchester, driving the enemy into his works around the town. On the next day he stormed the works, and the whole army of General Milroy was captured or put to flight. Most of those who attempted to escape were intercepted and made prisoners. Unfortunately, among the exceptions was their commander, who had been guilty of most unpardonable outrages upon defenseless noncombatants.

General Rodes marched from Berryville to Martinsburg, entering the latter place on the 14th and capturing seven hundred prisoners, five pieces of artillery, and a considerable quantity of stores. These operations cleared the Valley of the enemy. More than four thousand prisoners, [368]

Operations in Kentucky and Tennessee

[369] [370] twenty-nine pieces of artillery, two hundred seventy wagons and ambulances, with four hundred horses, were captured, besides a large amount of military stores. Our loss was small. On the night that Ewell appeared at Winchester, the enemy at Fredericksburg recrossed the Rappahannock, and on the next day disappeared behind the hills of Stafford.

The whole army of General Hooker, in retiring, pursued the roads near the Potomac, offering no favorable opportunity for attack. His purpose seemed to be to take a position which would enable him to cover the approaches to Washington city. To draw him farther from his base, and to cover the march of A. P. Hill, who had left for the Valley, Longstreet moved from Culpeper Court House on the 15th, and occupied Ashby's and Snicker's Gaps. The cavalry under General Stuart was in front of Longstreet to watch the enemy, and encountered his cavalry on the 17th near Aldie, and drove it back. The engagement was renewed on the next day, but the cavalry of the latter being now strongly supported by infantry, Stuart was compelled to retire. He had, however, taken in these engagements about four hundred prisoners and a considerable number of horses and arms.

Meantime General Ewell, with the advance of his corps, had entered Maryland. Jenkins, with his cavalry, penerated as far as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. As these demonstrations did not cause the hostile army to leave Virginia, nor did it seem disposed to advance upon Longstreet's position, he was withdrawn to the west side of the Shenandoah. General Hill had already reached the Valley. General Stuart was left to guard the passes of the mountains and observe the movements of the enemy, whom he was instructed to harass and impede as much as possible should he attempt to cross the Potomac. In that event General Stuart was directed to move into Maryland, crossing the Potomac east or west of the Blue Ridge, as in his judgment should seem best, and take position on the right of our column as it advanced. General Longstreet says:

General Stuart held the gap for a while, and then hurried around beyond Hooker's army, and we saw nothing more of him until the evening of July 2d, when he came down from York and joined us, having made a complete circuit of the Federal army.

Longstreet and Hill crossed the Potomac, to be within supporting distance of Ewell, and advanced into Pennsylvania, encamping near Chambersburg on June 27th. The cavalry, under Colonel White, advanced to the Susquehanna.

On the night of the 27th information was received that General [371] Hooker had crossed the Potomac and was advancing northward, and that the head of the column had reached South Mountain. This menaced our communications, and it was resolved to prevent his further progress by concentrating our army on the east side of the mountain. Accordingly, the different commands were ordered to proceed to Gettysburg. This march was conducted more slowly than it would have been had the movements of Hooker been known. Heth's, the leading division of Hill's corps, met the enemy in front of Gettysburg on the morning of July 1st, driving him back to within a short distance of the town; the advance there encountered a larger force, with which two of Hill's divisions became engaged. Ewell, coming up with two of his divisions, joined in the engagement; the opposing force was driven through Gettysburg with heavy loss, including about five thousand prisoners and several pieces of artillery.

Under the instructions given to them not to bring on a general engagement, these corps bivouacked on the ground they had won.

In an address delivered at Lexington, Virginia, on January 17, 1873, General W. N. Pendleton, chief of artillery, makes the following statement:

The ground southwest of the town was carefully examined by me after the engagement on July 1st. Being found much less difficult than the steep ascent fronting the troops already up, its practicable character was reported to our commanding General. He informed me that he had ordered Longstreet to attack on that front at sunrise the next morning. And he added to myself, ‘I want you to be out long before sunrise so as to reexamine and save time.’ He also desired me to communicate with General Longstreet as well as with himself. The reconnaissance was accordingly made, as soon as it was light enough on the 2d, and made through a long distance—in fact, very close to what there was of the enemy's line. No insuperable difficulty appearing, and the marching up—far off, the enemy's reenforcing columns being seen—the extreme desirableness of immediate attack there, was at once reported to the commanding General; and, according to his wish, message was also sent to the intrepid but deliberate corps commander whose sunrise attack there had been ordered. There was, however, unaccountable delay. My own messages went repeatedly to General Lee, and his, I know, was urgently pressed on General Longstreet, until, as I afterward learned from officers who saw General Lee, as I could not at the time, he manifested extreme displeasure with the tardy corps commander. That hard-fighting soldier, to whom it had been committed there to attack early in the day, did not, in person, reach the commanding General, and with him ride to a position whence to view the ground and see the enemy's arriving masses, until twelve o'clock; and his column was not up and ready for the assault until 4 P. M. All this, as it occurred under my personal observation, it is nothing short of imperative duty that I should thus fairly state.

For the reasons set forth by General Pendleton, whose statement, in regard to a fact coming under his personal observation, none who know [372] him will question, preparations for a general engagement were unfortunately delayed until the afternoon, instead of being made at sunrise; then troops had been concentrated, and ‘Round Top,’ the commanding position, unoccupied in the morning, had received the force which inflicted such disaster on our assaulting columns. The question as to the responsibility for this delay has been so fully discussed in the Southern Historical Society papers as to relieve me from the necessity of entering into it.

The position at Gettysburg was not the choice of either side. South from the town an irregular, interrupted line of hills runs, which is sometimes called the ‘Gettysburg Ridge.’ This ridge, at the town, turns eastward and then southward. At the turn eastward is Cemetery Hill and at the turn southward Culps's Hill. From Cemetery Hill the line runs southward about three miles in a well-defined ridge, since the battle called Cemetery Ridge, and terminates in a high-rocky-and wooded peak named Round Top, which was the key of the enemy's position, as it flanked their line. The less elevated portion, near where the crest rises into Round Top, is termed ‘Little Round Top,’ a rough and bold spur of the former. Thus, while Cemetery and Culp's Hills require the formation of a line of battle to face northward, the direction of Cemetery Ridge requires the line to face westward. The crest has a good slope to the rear, while to the west it falls off in a cultivated and undulating valley, which it commands. About a mile distant is a parallel crest, known as Seminary Ridge, and which our forces occupied during the battle. Longstreet, with the divisions of Hood and McLaws, faced Round Top and a good part of Cemetery Ridge; Hill's three divisions continued the line from the left of Longstreet, fronting the remainder of Cemetery Ridge, while Ewell, with his three divisions, held a line through the town, and, sweeping round the base of Cemetery Hill, terminated the left in front of Culps's Hill.

These were the positions of the three corps after the arrival of General Longstreet's troops.

The main purpose of the movement across the Potomac was to free Virginia from the presence of the enemy. If this could be done by manoeuvering merely, a most important result would be cheaply obtained. The contingency of a battle was of course deemed probable, and, with any fair opportunity, the Army of Northern Virginia was considered sure to win a victory.

It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance as Gettysburg from our base, unless attacked; being unexpectedly confronted by the opposing army, however, it became a matter of difficulty [373] to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. At the same time the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies while in the presence of the main army of the enemy, as he was enabled to restrain our foraging parties by occupying the passes of the mountains with both regular and local troops. Encouraged by the successful issue of the engagement of the first day, and in view of the valuable results that would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade (who had succeeded General Hooker), General Lee thought it preferable to renew the attack.

General Meade held the high ridge above described, along which he had massed a large amount of artillery. General Ewell occupied the left of our line, General Hill the center, and General Longstreet the right. In front of General Longstreet the enemy held a position from which, if he could be driven, it was thought that our army could gain the more elevated ground (Round Top) beyond, and thus enable our guns to rake the crest of the ridge. That officer was directed to endeavor to carry this position, while General Ewell attacked directly the high ground on the enemy's right, which had already been partially fortified. General Hill was instructed to threaten the center of the line, in order to prevent reenforcements to either wing, and to avail himself of any opportunity that might present itself to attack. After a severe struggle Longstreet succeeded in getting possession of and holding the ground in his immediate front. Ewell also carried some of the strong positions which he assailed, and the result was such as to lead to the belief that he would ultimately be able to dislodge the force in his front. The battle ceased at dark. These partial successes determined Lee to continue the assault on the next day. Pickett, with three of his brigades, joined Longstreet on the following morning, and our batteries were moved forward to the position gained by him on the day before. The general plan of attack was unchanged, except that one division and two brigades of Hill's corps were ordered to support Longstreet.

General Meade, in the meantime, had strengthened his line with earthworks. The morning was occupied in necessary preparations, and the battle recommenced in the afternoon of the 3d, raging with great violence until sunset. Our troops succeeded in entering the advanced works of the enemy, and getting possession of some of his batteries; our artillery having nearly expended its ammunition, the attacking column became exposed to the heavy fire of the numerous batteries near the summit of the ridge, and, after a most determined and gallant struggle, were compelled to relinquish their advantage and fall back to their original positions with severe loss. [374]

Owing to the strength of the enemy's position and the exhaustion of our ammunition, a renewal of the engagement could not be hazarded, and the difficulty of procuring supplies rendered it impossible to continue longer where we were. Such of the wounded as could be removed and a part of the arms collected on the field were ordered to Williamsport. The army remained at Gettysburg during the 4th, and at night began to retire by the road to Fairfield, carrying with it about four thousand prisoners. Nearly two thousand had been previously paroled; the numerous wounded that had fallen into our hands after the first and second day's engagements were left behind. Little progress was made that night, owing to a severe storm, which greatly embarrassed our movements. The rear of the column did not leave its position near Gettysburg until after daylight on the 5th. The march was continued during that day without interruption by the enemy, except an unimportant demonstration upon our rear in the afternoon, when near Fairfield, which was easily checked. The army, after a tedious march rendered more difficult by the rains, reached Hagerstown on the afternoon of the 6th and morning of the 7th of July.

The Potomac was so much swollen by the rains that had fallen almost incessantly since our army entered Maryland, as to be unfordable. A pontoon train had been sent from Richmond, but the rise in the river gave to it a width greater than was expected, so that additional boats had to be made by the army on its retreat. Our communication with the south side was thus interrupted, and it was found difficult to procure either ammunition or subsistence, the latter difficulty being enhanced by the high water impeding the working of the mills. The trains with the wounded and prisoners were compelled to wait at Williamsport for the subsiding of the river or the construction of additional pontoon boats. The enemy had not yet made his appearance, but as he was in a condition to obtain large reenforcements and our want of supplies was daily becoming more embarrassing, it was deemed advisable to recross the river. By the 13th a good bridge was thrown over at Falling Waters. On the 12th Meade's army approached. A position had been previously selected to cover the Potomac from Williamsport to Falling Waters, and an attack was awaited during that and the succeeding day. This did not take place, though the two armies were in close proximity, the enemy being occupied in fortifying his own lines.

General Meade, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, said that he ordered an attack on our forces on the morning of the 14th, and, if it had been made, it was his opinion that ‘it would [375] have resulted disastrously.’ When asked the reasons for that opinion, he replied:

If I had attacked the enemy in the position which he then occupied—he having the advantage of position, and being on the defensive, his artillery in position, and his infantry behind parapets and rifle-pits—the very same reasons and causes which produced my success at Gettysburg would have operated in his favor there, and be likely to produce success on his part.

Our preparations being completed, and the Potomac, though still deep, being pronounced fordable, the army commenced to withdraw to the south side on the night of the 13th. Ewell's corps forded the river at Williamsport, those of Longstreet and Hill crossed upon the bridge. Owing to the condition of the roads the troops did not reach the bridge until after daylight on the 14th, and the crossing was not completed until 1 P. M., when the bridge was removed. General Lee said that the enemy offered no serious interruption, and the movement was attended with no loss of material except a few disabled wagons and two pieces of artillery, which the horses were unable to move through the deep mud. During the slow and tedious march to the bridge, in the midst of a violent storm of rain, some of the men lay down by the way to rest. Officers sent back for them failed to find many in the obscurity of the night, and these, with some stragglers, a few of Heth's division most remote from the bridge, were captured. On the following day the army marched to Bunker Hill in the vicinity of which it encamped for several days. Owing to the swollen condition of the Shenandoah River, the campaign which was contemplated when the Potomac was recrossed could not be immediately commenced. Before the waters had subsided, the movements of the enemy required us to cross the Blue Ridge and take position south of the Rappahannock.

The strength of our army at Gettysburg is stated at 62,000 of all arms.1 The report of the Army of the Potomac under General Meade, on June 30, 1863, states the force present at 112,988 men. Before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, General Meade, in reference to his force at Gettysburg, said, ‘Including all arms of the service, my strength was a little under 100,000 men—about 95,000.’

If the strength of General Lee's forces, according to the last accessible report before the movement northward, be compared with that made after his return into Virginia, there is a decrease of nineteen thousand of the brave men who had set the seal of invincibility upon the Army of Northern Virginia. [376]

Map: battle of Gettysburg.


General Lee, in his report, noticing the large loss of men and officers, says:

I can not speak of these brave men as their merits and exploits deserve. Some of them are appropriately mentioned in the accompanying reports, and the memory of all will be gratefully and affectionately cherished by the people in whose defense they fell.

The loss of Major-General Pender is severely felt by the army and the country. . . . Brigadier-Generals Armistead, Barksdale, Garnet, and Semmes, died as they had lived, discharging the highest duty of patriots with devotion that never faltered, and courage that shrank from no danger.

The testimony of General Meade, above mentioned, contains this statement respecting his losses:

On the evening of the 2d of July, after the battle of that day had ceased, and darkness had set in, being aware of the very heavy losses of the First and Eleventh Corps on the 1st of July, and knowing how severely the Third Corps, the Fifth Corps, and other portions of the army, had suffered in the battle of the 2d of July—in fact, as subsequently ascertained, out of the twenty-four thousand men killed, wounded, and missing, which was the amount of my losses and casualties at Gettysburg—over twenty thousand of them had been put hors de combat before the night of the 2d of July.

Thus closed the campaign in Pennsylvania. The wisdom of the strategy was justified by the result. The battle of Gettysburg was unfortunate. Though the loss sustained by the enemy was greater than our own, theirs could be repaired, ours could not.

Had General Lee been able to compel the enemy to attack him in position, I think we should have had a complete victory, and the testimony of General Meade quoted above shows that he was not at all inclined to make the experiment. If General Lee, by moving to the right, would only have led General Meade to fall back on his preferred position of Pipe Creek, his ability to wait and the impossibility under such circumstances for General Lee to supply his army for any length of time seem to me an answer to that point in the criticism to which our great captain has been subjected. To compel Meade to retire would have availed but little to us, unless his army had first been routed. To beat that army was probably to secure our independence. The position of Gettysburg would have been worth nothing to us if our army had found it unoccupied. The fierce battle that Lee fought there must not be considered as for the position; to beat the great army of the North was the object, and that it was of possible attainment is to be inferred from the various successes of our arms. Had there been a concentrated attack at sunrise on the second day, with the same gallantry and skill which were exhibited in the partial assaults, it may reasonably be assumed that the [378] enemy would have been routed. This, from the best evidence we have, was the plan and the expectation of General Lee. These having failed, from whatever cause, and Meade having occupied in force the commanding position of Round Top, it must be conceded that it would have been better to withdraw than to renew the attack on the third day. The high morale and discipline of our army, together with the unqualified confidence of the men in their commanding general, excluded the supposition that they would be demoralized by retreat. Subsequent events proved how little cause there was to fear it. It is not admitted that our army was defeated, and the enemy's claim to a victory is refuted by the fact that, when Lee halted on the banks of the Potomac, Meade, instead of attacking as a pursuing general would a defeated foe, halted also, and commenced entrenching.

The battle of Gettysburg has been the subject of an unusual amount of discussion, and the enemy has made it a matter of extraordinary exultation. As an affair of arms it was marked by mighty feats of valor to which both combatants may point with military pride. It was a graceful thing in President Lincoln if, as reported, when he was shown the steeps which the Northern men persistently held he answered, ‘I am proud to be the countryman of the men who assailed those heights.’

The consequences of the battle have justified the amount of attention it has received. It may be regarded as the most eventful struggle of the war. By it the drooping spirit of the North was revived. Had their army been there defeated, those having better opportunities to judge than I or anyone who was not among them, have believed it would have ended the war. On the other hand, a drawn battle, where the Army of Northern Virginia made an attack, impaired the confidence of the Southern people so far as to give the malcontents a power to represent the government as neglecting for Virginia the safety of the more southern states.

In all free governments the ability of its executive branch to prosecute a war must largely depend upon public opinion; in an infant republic this, for every reason, is peculiarly the case. The volume given to the voice of disaffection was therefore most seriously felt by us.

Shattered, it is true, but not disheartened, the Army of Northern Virginia after recrossing the Potomac rose like the son of Terra, with renewed vigor, and entered on the brilliant campaign hereafter to be generally described.

Early in October General Lee, with two corps (Ewell's and Hill's), the First Corps of his army having been temporarily detached for service in Tennessee, crossed the Rapidan to attack the flank of the enemy, or [379] to compel him to retreat. It resulted in the capture of fifteen hundred prisoners, and forced Meade's army back to Alexandria and Centreville. The campaign was an unbroken success, with the exception of a rash and ill-conducted affair at Bristoe Station, where our advance engaged a corps, and was repulsed, losing a number of men and five guns. Thus, without a general battle, a large portion of the state was for the time liberated.

On November 7th the enemy advanced upon our force at Kelly's Ford, of the Rappahannock River, effected a crossing, and, rushing upon two brigades who were at Rappahannock Station defending the bridges, overwhelmed and captured most of them, taking between twelve and fifteen hundred men, and four pieces of artillery. The movements of the enemy were concealed by the darkness, and his attack was a surprise.

On November 26th the army under General Meade crossed the Rapidan, with the intention of interposing between the widely separated wings of his adversary. Instead of being successful, this movement resulted in an entire failure. General Meade found Lee's army posted behind Mine Run, and ready to receive an attack whenever he was disposed to make it. ‘Meade declared, it is related, that he could carry the position with a loss of thirty thousand men; but, as that idea was frightful, there seemed nothing to do but retreat.’2 Lee had inaugurated that system of breastworks which did him good service in his long campaign with General Grant. When the troops were halted in a wood, the men felled the large trees, heavy logs were dragged without loss of time to the prescribed line, where they were piled upon one another in double walls, which were filled in rapidly with earth; in a short space of time, therefore, defenses which would turn a cannon shot were often constructed. In front, for some distance, the felled timber made a kind of abatis. As General Meade did not attack, General Lee, on the night of December 1st, determined to assail his adversary on the next morning; when the dawn broke over the hills, however, his camps were seen to be deserted. General Meade had abandoned the campaign, and was in full retreat toward the Rapidan. Pursuit was immediately made, but he had too much the start, and reached the north side of the Rapidan before he could be overtaken. Both armies then retired to their original positions. We captured about seven hundred prisoners, four hundred mules and horses, and destroyed or secured one hundred twenty wagons.

1 Four Years with General Lee.

2 Life of General R. E. Lee, by J. E. Cooke.

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