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Chapter 7: the Gettysburg campaign

The reoccupation of its old position in the vicinity of Fredericksburg by the Army of the Potomac was of short duration. General Lee made that impossible by beginning another advance toward Washington by way of the Shenandoah Valley and to defeat this movement, General Hooker, who had recovered his energy, and had spent the intervening time in refitting and restoring the shattered morale of his army, began a rapid movement northward, virtually over the same ground on which the advance had been made. The first feature of this movement was another crossing of the river at the old place, called Franklin's Crossing. This movement began on the 6th of June, and the crossing was made by Howe's Division on the 6th with little loss. The 1st Division crossed on the evening of the 6th, occupying about the same ground as on the previous crossing. Rifle pits were immediately dug and preparations made to resist attack. But none was made. Several days transpired and then the Corps recrossed the river and prepared for the march northward by sending everything and everybody that were not needed to Washington. In the race with Lee's army for Pennsylvania and Gettysburg, the Sixth Corps brought up the rear and the rearmost position was assigned to the 121st. It was sent down the river several miles with orders to establish a picket line from the river towards White Oak Church. By the 14th of June it became [85] evident that the Confederate army had crossed the river and was pushing rapidly northward, and the regiment was recalled and joined in the movement northward. The position of rear guard is always a wearisome one, because of the fact that the uncertainty of the movement of the troops ahead often leaves long distances between the different corps which must be closed by forced marching by those in the rear. But in this case the disadvantage was increased by midnight start, in pouring rain, and dense darkness, lit only by vivid flashes of lightning with accompanying peals of thunder. The roads were rendered difficult for both man and teams, and for two days the march was tedious and toilsome. To quote again from Comrade Beckwith, “Abandoned and burning camps along our line of march and the moving of the general field hospital, indicated a general movement, and our march was continued to Stafford Court House, to Dumfries, thence to Fairfax Station. Here a day's rest was very grateful to us, because we had been passing over ground which had been the continual scene of march, camp and battle, and had been stripped of everything that would sustain troops. The roads were deep with the red-clay dust which created a choking thirst, as it rose in a thick cloud from the tread of the moving thousands of all arms. Water that was fit to use was scarce, and difficult to obtain, and in consequence we suffered greatly. To relieve ourselves we threw away all our baggage not necessary to existence. The day's rest at Fairfax Station, and the rain of the night and early morning greatly refreshed us, so that on the 18th of June when we moved out again it was with lighter steps and more cheerful feelings.” The march that day was only continued until noon and ended at Fairfax Court House, where a halt [86] of a week was made, and everything that could be spared was shipped to Washington, and the Corps was stripped to light marching order. On the 25th of June the regiment was sent in skirmish formation about three miles towards Leesburgh, through a rather difficult country and returned to camp very much fatigued. Colonel Cronkite calls this a skirmish drill, but it was probably a feeler to determine whether any large portion of the Confederate army was in the vicinity. If it was not near, evidently Lee had abandoned all hope of interposing between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, and had advanced into Maryland.

Here (at Fairfax Court House) we gathered some idea of what was going on from the Washington newspapers. A lot of Rebel prisoners under a cavalry escort coming along, gave us information of a cavalry fight and confirmed the newspaper reports of Lee's movements. We moved on to Germantown, to Bristoe Station and Centerville, to Dranesville and on the 27th crossed the Potomac at Edward's Ferry and camped for the night near Poolsville, Md., and the next day marched beyond Hyattstown to near the defenses of Washington and began making plans to visit the city. But the next day we moved rapidly from camp by way of New Market to New Windsor. On the next day we moved with quickening steps from New Windsor to Manchester, and the first indications of serious business began to show. The men were urged and commanded to keep well closed up and in ranks, and mile after mile was passed over faster than a walk. Several hours we covered a distance of five miles an hour, as indicated by the milestones we passed, but we were now seasoned and more comfortable than at the beginning of the march. Jests were passed along the ranks about the officers horses' [87] playing out, and frequently a song would be started and taken up by several companies, and swinging along by its rhythm would make the distance seem shorter and the time pass quicker. Few thought of the morrow, or realized that our hurried steps were taking us rapidly to the fated field where the hopes of the South were to be shattered.

Going into camp near Manchester on the evening of June 30th we prepared for a good night's rest in the thick cool woods. We had our supper and spread our blankets, and were lounging about and chatting till bedtime, when an order came to pack up, and in a little time we moved out into the road and started on the longest continuous march we made during the war. About an hour after we started, while resting in the road, there was a noise in the direction from which we had come, and someone said “Look out for Rebel cavalry.” Instantly the whole column as far as I could see or hear, made a rush for the side of the road, and if there had been a squadron or two of Rebel cavalry coming along, they would have owned the road sure enough. On the evening of July 1st we rested a few hours and then marched all night long towards the field of Gettysburg. Passing Winchester, where we heard rumors of the day's battle and its disastrous result, we stepped off the weary miles which separated us from our comrades at the front. The night was dark so that crossing a little stream I got my feet wet, and soon they began to hurt me like the mischief. The dust worked into the shoes and wet socks, and irritated the blisters, and to me the miles grew longer and longer and my misery more intense and I longed for the daylight. When it came I went to the first water I could find, washed my feet, put on my last pair of socks and for a while was more comfortable. As soon as daylight fairly [88] broke we began to see evidences of the battle in men along the roadside who had run away from the battlefield the day before; and reaching Littletown we saw a great many men wearing the crescent, the badge of the eleventh corps; and some wounded men had reached there from the field. From them we learned of the battle, of the fearful loss of the First Corps, and the skedaddle of a part of the Eleventh, and the saying of one member of the corps, “I fights mit Siegel but runs mit Howard,” seems to have been verified in many instances on the first day at Gettysburg. We were rushed and crowded along, no time was given us to prepare anything to eat, and raw pork and hardtack was our bill of fare that day. Many men became exhausted and dropped down from fatigue in spite of the energetic efforts of the officers to urge them on. Orders were given the officers to shoot stragglers, and every man was impressed with the seriousness of the situation. As we approached Gettysburg the sound of artillery and musketry became more distinct, and from its weight and volume we knew a terrific combat was progressing. The roadside and fields along our route were occupied by various trains of wagons. Scattered along, there seemed to be a vast number of stragglers, and the wounded among them became thicker. Crossing a considerable stream called Pipe Creek we shortly after filed off the Baltimore pike to the left and in sight of Cemetery Hill where we could see our batteries at work. We moved over toward the left near Little Round Top and had a long rest. (B.)

Not till its arrival at Manchester did the men of the Sixth Corps learn of the change of the commander of the army, that General Meade had superseded General Hooker. The change was a surprise to most of the men and created no little discussion, [89] but looking back upon the affair from the viewpoint of the present, it is not to be wondered at that the Government at Washington could not risk the destiny of the country, in so grave a danger as was involved in the battle of Gettysburg, to a commander who had so signally failed in the crisis of the previous battle, and the event proved that the change was wisely made. The battle of Gettysburg decided the issue of the war, and ought to have ended it. The repulse of Pickett's charge was virtually the downfall of the Confederacy and insured its failure.

At Gettysburg the 121st occupied an advanced position under cover of a narrow strip of woods, along which were scattered a number of large rocks. Behind these the men were comparatively safe from the fire of the enemy, and its only loss was two men wounded by stray bullets. “The next day little fighting was done on the left of the line but the culmination of the battle in the charge and repulse of General Pickett was watched eagerly by the regiment as by all the unengaged part of the army; and with infinite relief they saw the charging force, shattered and torn by shot and shell, fall back in confusion.” (B.)

The next day, the 4th of July, was dark and cloudy and the smoke of the previous day's battle settled down upon the field so as to hide the movements of the enemy, and the retreat of Lee's army was not observed. But on the 5th the Sixth Corps began the pursuit, the First Division having the lead, marching by the Fairfield road. The rear guard of the enemy was soon encountered and brisk skirmishing ensued, but no general attack was made. General Sedgwick decided to attempt to cut off the crossing of the Potomac by the enemy, by a flank movement over South Mountain and led the Corps by a steep and rugged pass [90] farther to the south. The march up the pass was very difficult and was rendered more so by a heavy rain, so that late in the night a halt had to be made to give the men time to eat and rest. They were worn out by fatigue and hunger, and could not continue the ascent until rested and fed. The next morning the ascent was completed and the corps descended the western slope and in the vicinity of Middletown rested and received the much needed supplies. The advance continued until near Boonsborough the enemy was again encountered. Preparations for attack were made but the enemy retired without fighting. Following at daybreak the next morning the advance soon found the enemy in position, and the 121st, or a part of it, was thrown out as skirmishers, and in the engagement that followed the enemy were driven back with slight loss to our forces. On Sunday, the 12th of July, the enemy was again found in the vicinity of Williamsport, entrenched and ready for battle with both flanks resting on the Potomac River. The Corps advanced, passed to the left of Funkstown from which the enemy had precipitately retreated before our cavalry, and we soon found the main body of the enemy. The deploying of the various commands for attack took considerable time and the little distance between the lines made the firing of the Confederate skirmishers exceedingly annoying. They were located in a wheatfield behind the shocks, and along a rocky ledge. Three strong mortised fences and a field of standing wheat separated the opposing forces at one point. About 5 P. M. Companies I and E of the 121st and a detachment of the 5th Maine were ordered on skirmish duty and Captain Cronkite, being the senior officer of the detail, reported for instructions to General Wright then in command of the 1st Division. The General led to the nearest elevation [91] and pointed to the position of the enemy's skirmish line, said, “Captain, the sun is now an hour high, and you must occupy that ledge before sunset.” Some minor instructions followed, and immediately after the line was deployed and moved forward on the run with orders not to fire until the last fence was passed. The men were obliged to scale fences and run through the standing wheat and on reaching the last fence were nearly exhausted. Here a halt was ordered to correct the line and then a bold sally followed, and the position was ours. Seven or eight of the 121st were wounded, five in Company E. Three Rebels were found among the slain. The above facts are from Colonel Cronkite's account of the affair. The next day was spent in skirmishing, throwing up rifle pits and preparing for an assault in the morning. But when morning came no enemy was there. General Lee had succeeded in again escaping across the river with his shattered army in spite of what seemed an insurmountable difficulty on account of the swollen condition of the water. A small detachment at Dam No. 4 was attacked and captured.

Two changes were made in the staff of the regiment during June. Chaplain Sage resigned and was honorably discharged and Dr. John 0. Slocum was commissioned and assigned to the 121st, vice Dr. E. C. Walker resigned. General Meade has been considerably criticized for not renewing the battle on the repulse of Pickett on the ground that the Sixth Corps had come up and had not been engaged in the battle, and so might have been used to Lee's utter defeat.

To any Sixth Corps man it is sufficient answer to their criticism that General Sedgwick advised against such an attack, on the ground of the absolute exhaustion of his men by the previous forced [92] marches to bring them onto the field at all. The delay in attacking the Confederates at Williamsport was necessary in order to bring up a sufficient force to make the attack successful. Lee had his army in the same formation which the Sixth Corps held at Salem Heights: both flanks on the bank of the river, the three sides protected by earthworks of a formidable character, and manned by veteran infantry supported by numerous batteries. It is a serious matter to assail such an enemy in such a position except with an overwhelming force. When the necessary force arrived the foe was gone as if by magic.

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