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Appendix V: General Meade's letter to Col. G. G. Benedict of March 16, 1870, on the battle of Gettysburg. See letter of April 8, 1864, page 188, Vol. II

General Meade's letter on Gettysburg

the letter of General Meade regarding the battle of Gettysburg, written seven years after the battle, to Colonel G. G. Benedict, of Vermont, and published for the First time by Colonel Benedict, in the Weekly Press of Philadelphia of August 11, 1886, in refutation of the statements made on the battle-field by General Daniel E. Sickles, on the occasion of the Reunion, July 2, 1886, of the remnant of the Third Corps of the army of the Potomac, on the twenty-Third an-Niversary of the battle

To the editor of the Weekly Press, of Philadelphia.
Sir: A word of explanation of the circumstances which drew forth the following letter seems to be necessary.

In an oration delivered before the Reunion Society of Vermont Officers in November, 1869, the orator, Colonel W. W. Grout, of that State, who had made the acquaintance of General D. E. Sickles, and had adopted the latter's views upon certain points relating to the battle of Gettysburg, advanced the theory—more familiar now than it was then —that General Sickles's famous movement on the second day of the [351] battle was a fortunate step; that it kept General Meade from retreating to Pipe Creek, and that but for Sickles's movements the battle of Gettysburg might never have been fought, and the victory of Gettysburg never won.

In some editorial comments, published in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, on the oration, I took up the points thus made. I had had at that time no correspondence with General Meade, nor had I any personal acquaintance either with him or General Sickles, or any prejudice for or against either general. But having witnessed from the brow of Cemetery Hill on that bloody day the movement of General Sickles's corps and some of its consequences, and having made some subsequent study of the battle, I could not accept the orator's conclusions, though presented by a comrade and friend. I protested against this portion of the oration as a distortion of history and an undue exaltation of a corps commander at the expense of the commander of the army; and, by citation of undisputed facts, of orders on the order-books of the Army of the Potomac, and of General Meade's despatches to General Halleck, I showed that General Meade could not have been contemplating on the 2d of July a withdrawal of his army from Gettysburg, unless compelled to withdraw by a movement of the enemy upon his lines of communication; that, on the contrary, his determination to fight, defensively if he could, but offensively rather than not at all, at Gettysburg, was clearly demonstrated, and that the fame of General Sickles for conscious or unconscious achievements must rest on something else than the prevention of the retreat of the Army of the Potomac from Gettysburg.

The newspaper articles1 containing this view of the subject were subsequently sent to General Meade, who, in acknowledging them, gave the clear, calm, and convincing presentation of his side of the controversy printed below. This has long been held in confidence, as it was written, but, in view of the recent elaborate attack upon General Meade's military reputation, made by General Sickles in his address at Gettysburg, the interests of truth and justice seem to demand that it be given to the public.

Yours truly,

G. G. Benedict. Burlington, Vt., August 7, 1886.

General Meade's letter

Headquarters military division of the Atlantic Philadelphia, March 16, 1870.

Private) G. G. Benedict, Burlington, Vt.:
Dear Sir: I am in receipt of your letter of the 13th inst., as also the copies of the Free Press, with editorials and comments on the address of Colonel Grout before the Officers' Society and Legislature of the State. [352]

I have carefully read your articles, and feel personally under great obligations to you for the clear and conclusive manner in which you have vindicated the truth of history. I find nothing to correct in your statement except a fact you mention, which is a misapprehension.

I did not invite General Humphreys to be my chief-of-staff till after the battle, because I did not see him after assuming command till I met him on the field, and besides I relied on him as a mainstay in handling the Third Corps, and did not wish to withdraw him from that position.2 I did ask General Williams to assume the duties in addition to those of adjutant-general, but he declined. I also asked General Warren, then my chief of engineers, to act temporarily as chief-of-staff, but he also declined taking on himself additional duties. Under these circumstances I asked General Butterfield to remain till I had time to make permanent arrangements. On the third day, General Butterfield having been disabled by being struck with a fragment of a spent shell, left the army, and a few days afterwards General Humphreys accepted my invitation.

My defence against the charges and insinuations of Generals Sickles and Butterfield is to be found in my testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. I have avoided any controversy with either of these officers-though both have allowed no opportunity to pass unimproved which permitted them to circulate their ex parte statements, and, as you justly say, to distort history for their purposes. Both perfectly understand what I meant by my ante-battle order, referring to Pipe Clay Creek, also my instructions to Butterfield on the morning of the 2d, which he persists in calling an order for retreat, in the face of all my other acts, and of the fact that I did not retreat when I could have done so with perfect ease at any moment. Longstreet's advice to Lee3 was sound military sense; it was the step I feared Lee would take, and to meet which, and be prepared for which was the object of my instructions to Butterfield, which he has so misrepresented. Now, let me tell you another historical fact. Lieutenant-General Ewell, in a conversation held with me shortly after the war, asked what would have been the effect if at 4 P. M. on the 1st he had occupied Culp's Hill and established batteries on it. I told him that in my judgment, in the then condition of the Eleventh and First Corps, with their morale affected by their withdrawal to Cemetery Ridge, with the loss of over half their numbers in killed, wounded, and missing (of the 6000 prisoners we lost in the field nearly all came from these corps in the first day), his occupation of Culp's Hill, with batteries commanding the whole of Cemetery Ridge, would have produced the evacuation of that ridge and the withdrawal [353] of the troops there by the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown and Emmettsburg roads. He then informed me that at 4 P. M. on the 1st he had his corps, 20,000 strong, in column of attack, and on the point of moving on Culp's Hill, which he saw was unoccupied and commanded Cemetery Ridge, when he received an order from General Lee directing him to assume the defensive, and not to advance; that he sent to General Lee urging to be permitted to advance with his reserves, but the reply was a reiteration of the previous order. To my inquiry why Lee had restrained him, he said our troops coming up (Slocum's) were visible, and Lee was under the impression that the greater part of my army was on the ground and deemed it prudential to await the rest of his — as you quote from his report.

But suppose Ewell with 20,000 men had occupied Culp's Hill, and our brave soldiers had been compelled to evacuate Cemetery Ridge and withdraw on the roads above referred to, would the Pipe Clay Creek order have been so very much out of place?

That order was to meet the very contingency here in question, to wit: A part of my army, overwhelmed by superior numbers, compelled to fall back, and a line of battle formed to the rear of my most advanced position thus necessitated.

As to General Sickles having by his advance brought on the attack, and thus compelled the battle which decided the war, you have completely answered—and it is a very favorite theory with the partisans of this officer. But these gentlemen ignore the fact that of the 18,000 men killed and wounded on the field during the whole battle, more than twothirds were lost on the second day, and but for the timely advance of the Fifth Corps, and the prompt sending a portion on Round Top, where they met the enemy almost on the crest and had a desperate fight to secure the position—I say, but for these circumstances, over which Sickles had neither knowledge nor control, the enemy would have secured Round Top, planted his artillery there, commanding the whole battlefield, and what the result would have been I leave you to judge. Now, when I wrote my report of the battle I honestly believed General Sickles did not know where I wished him to go, and that his error arose from a misapprehension of my orders, but I have recently learned from General Geary, who had the day before been sent by Hancock to hold the left, and who in doing so had seen the great importance of Round Top and posted a brigade on it, that on the morning of the 2d, when he received my order that he would be relieved by the Third Corps, and on being relieved, would rejoin his own corps (Twelfth) on the right, after waiting for some time to be relieved he sent to General Sickles a staff officer with instructions to explain the position and its importance, and to ask, if troops could not be sent to relieve him, that General Sickles would send one of his staff to see the ground, and to place troops there on their arrival. He received for reply that General Sickles would attend to it in due time. No officer or troops came, and after waiting till his patience was exhausted, General Geary withdrew and joined his corps. Now my first orders to General Sickles were to relieve the Twelfth Corps division [354] (Geary's) and occupy their position. Here is evidence that he knew the position occupied by Geary's division, or could have known, and yet failed to occupy it. Furthermore, when he came to my headquarters at about noon, and said he did not know where to go, I answered, ‘Why, you were to relieve the Twelfth Corps.’ He said they had no position; they were massed, awaiting events. Then it was I told him his right was to be Hancock's left, his left on Round Top, which I pointed out. Now his right was three-quarters of a mile in front of Hancock's left, and his left one-quarter of a mile in front of the base of Round Top, leaving that key-point unoccupied, which ought to have been occupied by Longstreet before we could get there with the Fifth Corps. Sickles's movement practically destroyed his own corps, the Third, caused a loss of 50 per cent. in the Fifth Corps, and very heavily damaged the Second Corps; as I said before, producing 66 per cent. of the loss of the whole battle, and with what result—driving us back to the position he was ordered to hold originally. These losses of the first and second day affected greatly the efficiency and morale of the army, and prevented my having the audacity in the offense that I might otherwise have had.

If this is an advantage,—to be so crippled in battle without attaining an object,—I must confess I cannot see it.

Pardon my writing with so much prolixity, but your generous defence and the clear view you have taken of the battle have led me to wander thus far.

Very truly yours,

1 The substance of these editorials in the Burlington Free Press will be found in the appendix to the second edition of Colonel Benedict's admirable little work, ‘Vermont at Gettysburg.’—Ed. Weekly press.

2 General Meade's recollection on this point seems to be slightly at fault. He did see General Humphreys on the morning he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, at Frederick City, and he at that time expressed his desire of appointing him his chief-of-staff, but after discussion it was agreed between them that this officer could be of greater service by retaining command of his division in the Third Corps during the impending battle.—(General Humphreys' testimony before Committee on Conduct of War.)

3 To move from his right upon General Meade's communications.

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