Battle Of Gettysburg
Facts, Summary and History Net Articles about the Battle Of Gettysburg during the American Civil War
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in Adams County
Union General: George G. Meade
Confederate General: Robert E. Lee
Union Army: 82,289
Confederate Army: 75,000
Battle Dates: July 1-3, 1863
Important Events & Figures
The Devil’s Den
Assault of Culp’s Hill
Assault of Cemetery Hill
Defense of Little Round Top
Defense of Big Round Top
The Peach Orchard
20th Maine Regiment
Battle Of Gettysburg:Day 2
The Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address Text
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View maps of the Gettysburg Battlefield
» Battle Images, Pictures and Photos
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Battle Dates: July 1-3, 1863
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Battle Summary: The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1–July 3, 1863), was the largest battle of the American Civil War as well as the largest battle ever fought in North America, involving around 85,000 men in the Union’s Army of the Potomac under Major General George Gordon Meade and approximately 75,000 in the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert Edward Lee. Casualties at Gettysburg totaled 23,049 for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing), more than a third of Lee’s army.
These largely irreplaceable losses to the South’s largest army, combined with the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, marked what is widely regarded as a turning point—perhaps the turning point—in the Civil War, although the conflict would continue for nearly two more years and witness several more major battles, including Chickamauga, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Mononacy, Nashville, etc.
A Note on Military Ranks
Ranks shown for regular army Union officers at the Battle of Gettysburg are their ranks as commanders of U.S. Volunteers; their ranks in the U. S. Army were usually lower. Meade, for example, was a Major General of United States Volunteers (USV) but only a brigadier general in the regular army when he was placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac. “Old Snapping Turtle,” as he was called, was brusque with subordinates and superiors alike and would not be promoted to major general in the regular army until August 18, 1864.
The Gettysburg Campaign
In the wake of Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia (May 1–4, 1863), Robert E. Lee decided to attempt a second invasion of the North. This would take pressure off Virginia’s farms during the growing season, especially in the “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the Shenandoah Valley. Additionally, any victories won on Northern soil would put political pressure on Abraham Lincoln’s administration to negotiate a settlement to the war, or might lead to the South’s long hoped-for military alliance with England and France.
The campaign began under a dark shadow: Lee’s creative and aggressive corps commander, Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had been mortally wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville. The Army of Northern Virginia reorganized from two corps to three, with Lt. Gen. Richard “Dick” Ewell replacing Jackson in the Second Corps and Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill commanding the newly formed Third Corps. Lieutenant General James Longstreet—Lee’s “Old War Horse”—retained command of the First Corps. The Army of Northern Virginia was about to invade enemy territory with two of its three corps commanders newly appointed to their positions, and the secretive, self-reliant Jackson had done little to prepare them for this level of command.
This would be Lee’s second incursion into the North. The previous one ended in the bloodiest single day in America’s history, the Battle of Antietam (called the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South) in Maryland on September 17, 1862. Total casualties from that one-day battle exceeded 23,000.
In order to mask the army’s movement up the Shenandoah Valley into western Maryland and central Pennsylvania, Lee depended upon his renowned cavalry leader J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. Upon crossing into Maryland, Stuart loosely interpreted Lee’s ambiguous orders and began raiding Union supply trains. Cut off by the advancing Army of the Potomac, from June 25 until the night of July 2, Stuart lost all communication with the rest of the Confederate army, leaving Lee to operate blindly deep in enemy territory.
Meanwhile, on the Union side, the Army of the Potomac was still under the command of General Joe Hooker, who had lost the Chancellorsville battle, diminishing his reputation as “Fighting Joe.” As reports arrived that the Confederates had crossed the Potomac and were on Northern soil, Hooker dispersed his army widely, trying to simultaneously protect the approaches to Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He’d lost Lincoln’s confidence, and the president made the difficult choice to replace an army commander in the face of an enemy invasion. On June 28, a military engineer, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade—who had only been promoted to corps command less than six months earlier—was placed in charge of the Union’s largest army. He immediately ordered his scattered corps to concentrate in a manner that would allow each to be quickly reinforced by another. He hoped to draw Lee into attacking him on high ground along Pipe Steam Creek.
As Meade’s corps moved closer to each other, Lee’s army was scattered, moving along multiple roads. He issued orders to his subordinates to not bring on a general engagement until the army could concentrate its forces. Fate had other plans.
On the morning of July 1, Major General Henry Heth, of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, sent his 7,500-man division down the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg. Encountering resistance, they initially assumed it was more of the hastily assembled Pennsylvania Emergency Militia that they’d been skirmishing with during the campaign.
In reality, Colonel John Buford had deployed part of two brigades of Union cavalry as skirmishers in the brush along Willoughby’s Run three miles west of town. Just two weeks previously, they’d been issued breech-loading carbines, and they used the guns’ fast-loading capability to create the impression of a much larger force, slowing the advance of Hill’s brigades for a time before falling back.
The Confederates followed them across the stream, only to meet a line of Union infantry on McPherson’s Ridge. The Army of the Potomac was arriving piecemeal, and among the first to arrive was a brigade of Western regiments that had earned the nickname “Iron Brigade of the West.” Confederates recognized these “fellows in the black hats” and realized they were in for a rougher day than expected.
Union major general John Reynolds, commander of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac (I, III and XI corps), arrived and took charge of the defense. His men fought tenaciously, and Reynolds was shot dead during the fighting.
From his headquarters at Taneytown, Meade dispatched Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to take command at Gettysburg—although Major General O. O. Howard was already on the field—and assess whether or not the battle should be fought there. Hancock, seeing the strong defensive position offered by the hills near Gettysburg, chose to stand, and Meade ordered the other corps to the little crossroads town.
By afternoon, Confederate reinforcements had also arrived, and the general engagement Lee hadn’t wanted at this stage of the campaign was a fait accompli.
The Union’s XI Corps was driven back through the town of Gettysburg, losing 4,000 men, and by evening was entrenching on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town.
Lee expressed a desire for General Ewell to assault the hills without waiting for further reinforcement, but he failed to make it an express order. Ewell did not press his tired men forward, giving Meade time to reinforce the troops on the hills.
James Longstreet’s corps had arrived, and his 20,000 men were sent to outflank the Union left, which was anchored to the south by two eminences known as Little Round Top and Big Round Top. But the Federals had failed to place troops upon those hills, as Lee learned from an early morning reconnaissance report. Ewell was to make a demonstration against Culp’s and Cemetery hills on the Union right and to use his own discretion about launching a full-scale attack.
Longstreet’s men, moving toward their objective, had to reverse, countermarch and take a different route after Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws discovered the planned route would put them in full view of the Federals, negating any advantage of surprise. This cost valuable time but, as events turned out, a Union general was about to present them an unexpected opportunity.
All but one of Meade’s seven corps were now on the field, deployed in a fish-hook shape with its center along Cemetery Ridge; the defensive positions on Culp’s and Cemetery hills formed the hook at one end. The left was held by Major General Daniel Sickles, who owed his military rank to his political importance in the essential state of New York.
Dissatisfied with his position at the lower end of Cemetery Ridge, he took it upon himself to advance his III Corps nearly a half-mile west toward the Emmitsburg Pike and open high ground in a wheat field near a peach orchard. The move dangerously stretched his 10,000-man corps. Longstreet’s men attacked Sickle’s new position, and the fighting at rocky Devil’s Den, the wheat field and the peach orchard was among the fiercest and bloodiest of the three days.
Meade, faced with Sickles’ blunder, sent V Corps and part of the XI to reinforce him. New York’s Irish Brigade received Last Rites from a Catholic priest before charging into the fray; 198 of them would not return from the desperate fighting in the hot, sultry afternoon.
Above the blood-soaked fields, a similar drama was playing out on Little Round Top. Around 4:30 p.m., men of Alabama, Texas and Arkansas, from John Bell Hood’s Division in Longstreet’s Corps, began ascending the steep hill from the west. Had they arrived two hours earlier, they would have captured the heights unopposed, but by the time they arrived Meade’s chief of engineers, Brig. Gen. Gouveneur K. Warren, had discovered the potentially disastrous situation and sent messages to Sickles, who could not send even a single regiment by that time.
One message found its way to Colonel Strong Vincent, commanding 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, of the Federals’ V Corps. He double-timed his men and deployed them among the rocks and trees of Little Round Top’s western and southern slopes. The fate of the Union Army, at that moment, rested on the shoulders of 1,350 men of the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, 16th Michigan and 20th Maine regiments. Vincent’s orders were to “hold this ground at all costs!”
Nearly 650 Rebels of the 15th Alabama stormed into the saddle between the Round Tops around 6:00 p.m., and into the muzzles of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. After an hour of intense fighting, Chamberlain’s 300-plus men had nearly exhausted their 15,000 rounds of ammunition. He ordered a countercharge. The surprised Alabamians fell back and attempted to make a stand, but Company B of the 20th Maine, which had been detached to cover the regiment’s flank, and fourteen of Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters rose from behind a stone wall and charged the Confederates’ flank. Convinced they were outnumbered, the men of the 15th and 47th Alabama retreated onto Big Round Top.
On the western slope, Colonel Vincent’s other regiments also stood firm until part of the 16th Michigan was pushed back. Gouvenor Warren, receiving a plea for reinforcements, ordered the 140th New York Zouaves to charge, and they broke the Rebels’ line long enough for more reinforcements to arrive.
By the time the sun went down on the second day at Gettysburg, the Union left still held, but III Corps would no longer be a significant factor in the battle, and V Corps had been badly mauled. Meanwhile, a desperate contest was taking place on the slope of Cemetery Hill.
Ewell’s troops had advanced from around the town of Gettysburg to assault Culp’s and Cemetery hills. For an hour they struggled across rough ground while Union batteries threw shot and shell among them, but when they got far enough up the slopes, the Federals could not depress their barrels enough to fire into them, and the Rebels routed infantry of the XI Corps. Union regiments pulled from one area of Cemetery Hill to plug a gap created by the retreat created their own gap, and Confederate infantry poured through.
Down on Cemetery Ridge, Winfield Hancock sent the 14th Indiana and 7th West Virginia regiments to reinforce Cemetery Hill. Arriving after dark, they formed up and charged into the Rebels who were fighting with artillerymen around the Union guns. The Confederates fell back. In one of the ironic events of the war, the 7th West Virginia, which had been the 7th Virginia (Union) until June 20 when West Virginia was admitted as a state, fought hand to hand with the 7th Virginia of the Confederacy, capturing a nephew of their own regimental commander.
The long day of bloodshed finally ended. Meade called together his commanders for a council of war. He’d already sent a message to the War Department stating that he intended to stay and fight; he may have called the council in order to make sure no one would do the next day what Sickles had done. Meade’s army had been attacked on the left and the right; that fact, combined with other intelligence he’d received, led him to believe his center would be the target the next day.
Read more about General Lee’s plan for Gettysburg Day 2
Throughout the war, Robert E. Lee had always sought a way to “get at those people over there.” His aggressiveness had served the Confederate cause well on many battlefields, but on July 3, 1863, it led to disaster.
Despite the passionate arguments of Longstreet, Lee instructed his “Old War Horse” to strike the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, using the divisions of Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, and the recently arrived division of Maj. Gen. George Pickett. In all, approximately 15,000 men were to advance three-quarters of a mile across open ground, climb fences along the roads, and charge up the gradual but steep slope of Cemetery Ridge to assail a force of about 6,500, but the Federals had reinforcements close by.
At 1:00 in the afternoon, a prolonged artillery barrage by the Confederates, utilizing an unprecedented number of guns spread two miles wide, preceded the assault, intended to silence the Union’s cannons and weaken the infantry. Most of its shells went high, plunging to earth behind the Federals’ line, though some found their mark. One nearly struck Meade, standing outside his headquarters.
For a time, Federal guns replied, until the order came down to conserve ammunition for the attack that was obviously coming. When the Union cannons fell silent, Lee’s artillery chief, Col. Edward Porter Alexander, sent word for Longstreet to bring up his men.
Pettigrew’s division of four brigades formed the left of the attack line, with two of Trimble’s brigades behind them and to their right for support. Pickett’s men stepped out on the right.
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The advance was disordered by terrain and by flanking fire on Pettigrew’s left as it neared the Union line. Pickett’s advance drifted left, exposing his right to enemy fire. Through shot, shell, canister and rifle fire, the long Confederate line surged forward. Near the Union center, it broke through temporarily until reinforcements drove it back. As the survivors straggled back to Confederate lines at Seminary Ridge, many of them passed Robert E. Lee, who told them, “It is my fault.”
The day also saw cavalry action, as the horsemen of brigadier generals George Custer and David Gregg stymied Stuart’s attempt to get into the Union rear..
On July 4, Lee started a 27-mile-long train of hospital wagons down the road to Virginia. His army halted at the flooded Potomac River and entrenched for another battle, but Meade’s army, too, was battered and exhausted and had consumed much of its ammunition. The Army of the Potomac did not pursue, for which Meade would be soundly criticized. He remained in command of that army for the rest of the war, even after Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general, placed over all Northern armies and attached himself to the Army of the Potomac. Lee offered his resignation to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, but it was refused and he, too, remained in command for the rest of the war.
Notable Facts about the Battle of Gettysburg
Ammunition at Gettysburg: An estimated 569 tons of ammunition was fired during the three days of fighting.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the “Soldiers’ National Cemetery” at Gettysburg. The speech was extremely short by the standards of the day and received scant notice at the time, but its concise, powerful wording has made it one of the best-known public addresses in all of history. Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln did not scribble the speech on the back of an envelope on his way to Gettysburg but wrote several drafts. The last bodies would not be retrieved from battlefield graves and reinterred in the cemetery until months after the dedication ceremonies.
John Buford, whose cavalry fired the first shots of the battle, died December 16, 1863. His death is thought to have resulted from typhoid fever and a body weakened by exhaustion. He received a deathbed promotion to major general, post-dated to July 1, 1863.
Civilians at Gettysburg were left to deal with the thousands of wounded. Homes and public buildings became hospitals, and diseases born of infection and unsanitary conditions made living in the town risky. Volunteers came from the North and the South, however, to aid in caring for the wounded, burying the dead, and piling and burning carcasses of horses and mules killed in the fighting.
During the battle, a random bullet went through the door of a house, striking and killing 20-year-old Mary Virginia (Jenny) Wade. She was the only civilian killed during the battle.
Banner image by Brian King.
Articles Featuring Gettysburg From History Net Magazines
Battle of Gettysburg Finale
‘It was all my fault this time. Form your ranks again when you get back to cover. We want all good men to hold together now.
With these words, General Robert E. Lee exhorted the broken remnants of George Pickett’s and Joseph Pettigrew’s divisions to regroup as they staggered back from the hail of Union gunfire on Cemetery Ridge outside the village of Gettysburg, Pa. For three long days, Lee had hurled his army against the Federal positions, storming their right, left and center in turn. Although badly mauled, the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade held firm and ultimately drove back the Rebel fury.
After the bloody repulse known as Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s army was spent, incapable of further offensive operations. Maintaining a prolonged defense in central Pennsylvania was now impossible, and the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had only one choice left open to him — retreat. Nevertheless, Lee would not move hastily and determined to remain in the field for 24 hours to prepare his retreat, especially the transportation of his wounded.
At 5 o’clock on the afternoon of July 3, Lee recalled the divisions of Brig. Gen. Evander Law and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws from their positions near the two Round Top hills. Meade then ordered a reconnaissance in force by Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ V Corps, which came under fire from Confederate batteries, forcing its withdrawal. This brief skirmish probably served to strengthen Meade’s conviction that he must proceed with caution against his still-dangerous foe.
Both armies had been badly bloodied. The Army of the Potomac began the battle with 83,289 men. In three days it suffered total losses in killed, wounded and missing of 17,684 men, or 21.2 percent.
All the army’s corps except the VI had long casualty lists. The I and III Corps were so badly decimated that they were ultimately combined into the II Corps. Of Meade’s initial corps commanders, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds was dead and Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles and Winfield Scott Hancock were both seriously wounded.
Lee had brought 75,054 men across the Potomac into Pennsylvania. His unsuccessful attempts to punch a hole through the Union lines had cost him 22,638 casualties, or 30.2 percent of his total force. The heavy loss of field-grade officers at Gettysburg would prove a drag on the Army of Northern Virginia for the remainder of the war.
Meade would later be severely criticized for his failure to launch a counterattack on the broken Confederates. No doubt the chaotic circumstances in his own army — as well as a healthy respect for Lee’s — convinced Meade that an immediate counterattack was too dangerous to undertake. Nevertheless, immediately after the failure of Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s line was in tatters, and both Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet fully expected a strong Federal counterattack. As he was being taken from the field with a serious wound, Hancock, commander of the Federal II Corps, wrote a message to Meade stating, If the VI and V Corps have pressed up, the enemy will be destroyed. However, when he arrived on the scene, Meade was satisfied with having turned back the Confederate assaults, and whatever chance a counterattack had of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia rapidly vanished.
On July 5, after Lee had withdrawn from Gettysburg, Meade wrote his wife his assessment of the battle and set down his reasons for not launching an attack: It was a grand battle, and is in my judgment a most decided victory, though I did not annihilate or bag the Confederate Army. This morning they retreated in great haste into the mountains, leaving their dead unburied and their wounded on the field. They awaited one day, expecting that flushed with success, I would attack them, when they would play their old game of shooting us from behind breastworks. This time, Meade pointed out, he refused to play their game.
During the night of July 3-4, Lee continued the rearrangement of his lines, withdrawing Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps from Culp’s Hill, which then joined Lt. Gens. A.P. Hill’s and James Longstreet’s corps in a generally straight defensive line on Seminary Ridge. Most accounts describe Lee riding alone among his army long into the night. He finally met up with Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, who was to provide the cavalry escort for the wagon train of wounded. General, this has been a hard day on you, Imboden said to his commander. Yes, Lee replied, it has been a sad, sad day to us. Lee lauded the performance of Pettigrew’s and Pickett’s men and added: If they had been supported as they were to have been — but for some reason not fully explained to me were not — we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad, too bad. Oh, too bad.
We must now return to Virginia, Lee continued. As many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home. As Lee gave Imboden his orders, he added: The duty will be arduous, responsible and dangerous, for I am afraid you will be harassed by the enemy’s cavalry. How many men do you have? Imboden replied that he had 2,000 men and 23 cannons available for the task.
On the 4th, as both armies stared at each other in stunned silence and exhaustion, messengers rode back and forth across the lines. Lee held about 4,000 Federal troops prisoner and asked for an exchange. Meade declined, reasoning that guarding and feeding 4,000 prisoners during the retreat would work against the Confederates. Lee ordered his troops in front of Seminary Ridge to go through the motions of entrenching to deceive Meade as to his true intentions. Willing away the sense of despair and disappointment that had characterized his mood the night before, Lee affected an outward show of confidence. On greeting Longstreet, whose corps had borne the brunt of the fighting on the second and third days of the battle, Lee called out, Well, here is my old war horse. To Longstreet he repeated his remarks at the failure of Pickett’s Charge: It is all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.
While Lee was preparing his retreat, Meade issued General Orders No. 68, congratulating his men for their performance during the battle. His message concluded, Our task is not yet accomplished and the commanding general looks to the Army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.
Although Meade clearly showed signs of strain from the burden of command in a crucial campaign, he ordered Maj. Gen. William French, stationed at Frederick, Md., to proceed to the ford at Falling Waters, near Williamsport, and destroy the pontoon bridge there. Meade apparently had some hope of trapping Lee north of the Potomac and assumed another major battle would be fought outside Virginia. Nevertheless, he only began his pursuit on July 5, a day after Lee’s withdrawal, leading with the relatively unbloodied VI Corps.
As both the Federal and Confederate armies commenced their race to the Potomac, they left a terrible scene of death and pain. Thousands of bodies lay blackened, bloated and festering in the sun. Before leaving Gettysburg, Meade contracted with a local resident, Samuel Herbst, to organize able-bodied citizens to bury the dead. Additionally, Pennsylvania militiamen, who had been ordered out to meet the emergency of Lee’s invasion, were pressed into the grisly work, fashioning hooks from bayonets and pulling bodies into shallow graves by their belts. There were still more than 21,000 wounded in Gettysburg, 14,500 Northerners and 6,800 Southerners. Since another battle with Lee was expected, most of the Army medical units marched off with Meade, leaving only 106 medical officers, about one-third of whom were operating surgeons. Volunteer nurses from the U.S. Sanitary Commission arrived to help, and fresh food and vegetables purchased from local sources also aided the convalescence of those who were not too seriously hurt.
Of course, in both burials and medical treatment, Northern soldiers received care first. According to some accounts, it took surgeons five days to complete their amputations, while Rebel soldiers lay dying. Not that Confederate soldiers were purposely treated callously — when a torrential rain began on July 4, hundreds of Southern wounded lying near a field hospital in danger of drowning were carried to higher ground by Northern soldiers. There were also instances of Southern women coming north to tend wounded Confederates and being permitted to carry our their mercy missions unhindered.
Some idea of the horrific conditions at Gettysburg in the wake of the battle can be gathered from the account of Cornelia Hancock, a New Jersey Quaker, who arrived to nurse the wounded: A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead on which the July sun was mercilessly shining, and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable, horrible density that could be felt and cut with a knife. At a field hospital the first sight that met our eyes was a collection of semi-conscious but still living human forms, all of whom had been shot through the head and were considered hopeless….Yet a groan came from them and their limbs tossed and twitched.
There was hardly a tent to be seen. Earth was the only available bed during the first hours after the battle….A long table stood in [the] woods and around it gathered a number of surgeons and attendants. This was the operating table, and for seven days it literally ran blood. A wagon stood near, rapidly filling with amputated legs and arms. Then, wholly filled, this gruesome spectacle withdrew from sight and returned for another load.
Lee directed his army to move across South Mountain to Hagerstown and then to Falling Waters. The wounded in their wagon train left first, at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 4th. The trail of pain stretched 17 miles. The wounded were accompanied by about 5,000 able-bodied men who were hurrying back to Virginia as rapidly as possible. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps was in the van between Imboden and the rest of the army. He was continually harassed by cavalry and got involved in a nasty night fight at Monterey Pass, where the flashes of the muskets were answered with bolts of lightning. Ewell lost his wagons and about 1,500 men, but fought off the Federals.
The mood of the retreating Confederates was one of both disappointment over the failure of battle and anger over their inability to pay the Yankees back in kind for the repulses the Northerners had meted out to them. Driven by forced marches, they soon added exhaustion to their mixture of emotions and sensations. Napier Bartlett, a Louisiana artilleryman, later recalled the feelings of pressure, apprehension and relief that so many experienced: When we were permitted at length to lie down under the caissons or in fence corners and realized that we had escaped the death that had snatched away so many others, we felt too well satisfied at our good fortune.
So important was our movement that no halt for bivouac, though we marched scarcely two miles an hour, was made on our route from Gettysburg to Williamsport — a march of over forty miles. The men and officers on horseback would go to sleep without knowing it, and at one time there was a halt occasioned by all the drivers…being asleep in their saddles. In fact, the whole army was dozing while marching and moved as if under enchantment or a spell — asleep and at the same time walking.
During the retreat, Lee ordered the impressment of horses to replace those lost in battle or those too jaded for further service. The Rebels paid for the horses either in Confederate currency or by giving the owners a written description of the animals confiscated, signed by a Confederate officer. These could be, and were, used by citizens to file a claim with the U.S. government for their losses.
For the hundreds of wounded, conveyed in springless wooden wagons, the retreat proved especially horrifying. The torrential rains that began on the 4th added to the misery of the torn men being hurried south to the safety of Virginia. Imboden issued orders prohibiting a halt, and stationed sentinels every third of a mile. During the first night of the retreat he rode to the head of the column and later recalled that in four hours he was never out of the hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Scarcely one in one hundred had received adequate surgical aid….Many of the wounded in wagons had been without food for 36 hours….except for the drivers and the guards, all were wounded and utterly helpless in this vast procession of misery. During this one night I realized more of the horror of war than I had in all the two previous years.
At dawn on July 5, 30 to 40 civilians at Greencastle, Pa., attacked the wagon train and smashed the wheels of 12 wagons with axes. Imboden’s cavalry drove them off, but the Southerners were forced to fend off hit-and-run attacks from Federal cavalry detachments throughout the day. In the late afternoon Imboden’s command reached Williamsport. There they found the Potomac running exceedingly high. Some attention could finally be given to the wounded. Local residents were ordered to take them in while burial squads sought grave sites for those who had not survived the journey. Two flatboats were pressed into service taking the wounded across the swollen river. Those who could walk were ordered to proceed on foot to Winchester. Each flatboat could carry 30 wounded men, and each trip across the river took 15 minutes. It took 40 anxious hours to transport 10,000 wounded to the Virginia shore.
The next morning, about 7,000 Union cavalry arrived from Frederick and appeared before Imboden’s lines. Although he was outnumbered, Imboden’s position was strong, and he bluffed boldly. After arming his teamsters and organizing the wounded who were still able to fight, he anticipated Brig. Gen. John Buford’s attack against the easier terrain on his own right. He ordered the troops on his left to fire, and then withdrew them behind the cover of high ground and redeployed them on his right. Consequently, the Federal attacks on his strengthened right flank were beaten off.
Toward evening, Imboden received a note by courier from Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry detachment, stating: Hold your own. We will be with you in half an hour. Word of the approach of reinforcements resulted in cheers rising up along the entire Confederate line. The Northern cavalry, probably aware of the approach of Confederate cavalry, withdrew when Imboden thrust his line forward. The skirmish had cost each side about 125 prisoners. But, more important, Imboden had saved not only his wounded charges but a strong defensive position for Lee’s army. The next day, July 7, Longstreet’s corps marched into Williamsport, and the Confederates continued transforming their lines into the most formidable position possible.
Meade, operating on the edge of physical exhaustion and acutely aware of his own losses, started his cautious southward pursuit after noon on July 5, with the relatively intact VI Corps in the vanguard. Meade did not follow Lee directly but had the Army of the Potomac use three separate routes into Maryland. He then ordered his troops westward to Catoctin Mountain for a rendezvous at Middletown before sending them back across South Mountain to face Lee at Williamsport.
Meade’s gingerly pursuit of the mauled Confederates gave rise to increasing concern at the highest level of the government at Washington. President Abraham Lincoln, believing that a decisive moment in the war was at hand, grew uneasy and frustrated with what he took as Meade’s unwillingness to finish the job so boldly begun at Gettysburg. On July 6, after reading Meade’s proclamation to his troops at the government telegraph office, Lincoln returned to the White House and penned a note to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, who was functioning as a de facto chief of staff. I left the telegraph office, Lincoln wrote, a good deal dissatisfied. You know, I did not like Meade’s phrase ‘Drive the invaders from our soil.’
Halleck, who usually conveyed Lincoln’s concerns to Meade, informed the general that he had been promoted to the Regular Army rank of brigadier general. He also forwarded a letter from Lincoln confirming news of Vicksburg’s surrender and concluding with the president’s observation, Now if General Meade can complete the work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over. Halleck added a characteristic combination of praise and exhortation to quicken the pace of Meade’s pursuit. On July 7, he telegraphed Meade: You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow up and give him another before he can cross the Potomac. When he crosses, circumstances will determine whether it will be best to pursue him by the Shenandoah Valley on this side of the Blue Ridge. There is strong evidence that he is short of artillery ammunition and if vigorously pressed he must suffer.
Halleck was essentially correct. In the short run Lee had to remain at Williamsport until the Potomac dropped enough to rebuild the pontoon bridge the Federals had destroyed. Lee himself observed that he would have to accept battle if the enemy offers it whether I wish it or not. Nevertheless, his position was strong, and there remained the possibility that he might be tempted to move out from his entrenchments and seek to regain the initiative. But in addition to the pressure caused by the presence of his large number of wounded, Lee’s decision to move south owed much to the difficulties of drawing supplies from Virginia. Living off the enemy’s land had not proved feasible with Federal cavalry and Pennsylvania militia constantly harrying his foragers. Consequently, the Confederate general’s options were circumscribed by his need to support his men and animals. After the failure at Gettysburg, this could only be done in Virginia. But in the meantime, the river’s height made further retreat impossible, and Meade, however slowly, was steadily approaching while reinforcements were being hurried to the Army of the Potomac from Washington.
Meade’s pursuit seemed unreasonably slow not only to Lincoln and Halleck but also to some Confederates. Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery chief, later compared Meade’s march to a mule [who] goes on the chase of a grizzly bear. As if catching up with us was the last thing he wanted to do. Meade was cautious, but he was not unwilling to fight. He stated his belief in the inevitability of a battle and his own condition in a July 8 letter to his wife: I think we shall have another battle before Lee can cross the river….For my part, as I have to follow and fight him, I would rather do it at once in Maryland than follow into Virginia….From the time I took command till today, now over ten days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety. Indeed I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.
On the same day, Halleck telegraphed Meade — incorrectly — that Lee was crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost, Halleck urged. The president is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him. Meade replied that the Potomac was still high and Lee was crossing slowly. He blamed the heavy rains for slowing his march and impeding the concentration of his forces. He told Halleck he preferred battle in Maryland rather than Virginia. The next day, July 9, as the bulk of the Army of the Potomac reached Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport, Meade telegraphed Halleck: I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days….I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgement will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.
The Confederates used the time Meade had given them to good purpose, and their position, as Meade had anticipated, was formidable. Moreover, the Army of Northern Virginia had already recovered its combative spirit. The Reverend Alexander Falk of St. James College near Williamsport visited the Confederate bastion and heard many officers of the highest rank confide that they ardently wanted to be attacked. Now we have Meade where we want him, they claimed. If he attacks us here, we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the Old Fox is too cunning. That this was no idle boast for the benefit of visitors is borne out by the memoirs of Porter Alexander, who remembered: Oh! How we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open and attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg. But they had had their lesson, in that sort of game, at Fredericksburg, and did not care for another.
While Meade considered what to do, Lee was increasingly anxious to get his army back to the safety, supplies and reinforcements in Virginia. While at Williamsport he took time to write his wife about his concerns and tribulations: Had the river not unexpectantly risen, all would have been well with us. But God in his all-wise providence ruled otherwise, and our communications have been interrupted and almost cut off. The waters have subsided to about four feet, and if they continue, by tomorrow I hope our own communications will be open. I trust that a merciful God, our only hope and refuge, will not desert us in this hour of need.
After having finally concentrated his army to his satisfaction, Meade convened a council of war, ignoring Halleck’s famous admonition that councils of war never fight. Of the corps commanders and senior officers present at the meeting, only three voted for immediate attack: Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had succeeded the slain John Reynolds to the command of I Corps; Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commander of the hard-luck XI Corps; and cavalry brigadier Alfred Pleasonton. Lieutenant Frank Haskell, a II Corps staff officer, wryly observed that in the event of an attack, only Wadsworth and I Corps would be likely to see much action. Although the majority voted against attack, Meade, for once exercising Lincolnian decisiveness, ordered one anyway. He was a day too late.
By the 13th, the Potomac had fallen and one of Stonewall Jackson’s old quartermaster officers, Major John Harman, had rigged a pontoon bridge from disassembled houses and a warehouse. The sections of the bridge were constructed at the source of the supplies and then floated down to the site, where the bridge was quickly thrown across the river. The bridge, described by Lee as a good one, was rickety and swaying, but it held.
The Confederate army began crossing the Potomac in the early morning hours. Longstreet’s corps went first, followed by A.P. Hill’s. The river had fallen enough that Ewell’s corps could ford the river at Williamsport. The roads between Falling Waters and Williamsport had been transformed into quagmires by the frequent heavy rains. The wagons were mired in mud, and the men had to keep their hands on the backs of their file leaders to know when they were to move or halt. Major General Robert Rodes of Ewell’s corps remembered that the men scrambled down the steep bank of soft and slippery mud. The water was cold, deep and rising. Some small men had to be carried over by their comrades. The water was up to the armpit of a full-sized man.
Although Union cavalry were aware of Lee’s crossing by 3 a.m., no attack came until after dawn. Meade then ordered his horsemen to carry out a reconnaissance in force. Major General Henry Heth’s division, acting as Lee’s rear guard, was still on the Maryland side when they were hit by Buford’s and Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, with George Armstrong Custer’s brigade driving the attack home. Several hundred prisoners were taken and Maj. Gen. Joseph Pettigrew, who had survived the carnage of Pickett’s Charge, was killed. But Lee was across the river, and the Gettysburg campaign was over.
Then the recriminations and second-guessing began. Following Lee’s withdrawal, Meade inspected the Confederate positions and congratulated himself on not attacking blindly, feeling that it would have been a Gettysburg in reverse. Others were less satisfied. The same day, Halleck sent Meade another telegram: I need hardly say that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the president, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.
Lincoln himself was distressed enough to pen a personal missive to his general: [Lee] was in your easy grasp, and to have closed up on him would, in connection with our other successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely….Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurably because of it. Having written those bitter lines Lincoln thought the better of it and never sent them. He did, however, vent his frustrations with Simon Cameron, his secretary of war, writing: I would give much to be relieved of the impression that Meade, Couch, Smith and all, since the battle of Gettysburg, have striven only to get Lee over the river, without another fight.
Feeling totally ill-used and harried by uncomprehending politicians, Meade responded to Halleck by asking to be relieved of command. Halleck (and undoubtably Lincoln, for whom he was acting) backed off. Whatever Meade’s limitations, he had won a great victory and driven the invading Rebels back to Virginia — no small feat. Halleck replied that his comments regarding the president’s disappointment at the escape of Lee’s army were not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to active pursuit. He added, It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.
Meade, however, was barely mollified and fully vented his spleen in a letter to his wife: My army (men and animals) is exhausted; it wants rest and reorganization; it has been greatly reduced and weakened by recent operations, and no reinforcements of any practical value have been sent. Yet in the face of all these facts, well known to them, I am urged, pushed and spurred….This has been the history of all my predecessors, and I clearly saw that in time their fate would be mine. This was the reason I was disinclined to take the command, and it is for this reason I would gladly give it up.
One of Meade’s predecessors, who himself had been charged with insufficient military energy, sent the first letter of congratulations to reach Meade. I don’t know that, George McClellan wrote, situated as I am, my opinion is worth much to any of you — but I can trust in saying that I feel very proud of you and my old army.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a major defeat for the South. Lee’s army, dangerous as it was until the very last, would never again have the punch — in numbers, morale, quality and quantity of officers — that it took into Pennsylvania in June 1863. Whether or not Meade could have made the wound he had inflicted a mortal one remains one of the great unanswerable questions of the war. Lincoln clearly oversimplified matters when he said that Meade had Lee in his grasp. The Army of the Potomac was itself grievously hurt at Gettysburg. Yet, with its superior resources, a more energetic pursuit might have bagged more prisoners and equipment before Lee got behind his entrenchments at Williamsport.
The odds of a successful Union frontal assault at the crossing, however, are problematic. Meade — too late — was willing to risk it even though most of his senior officers were against such an attack. Porter Alexander’s ultimate assessment comes remarkably close to Lincoln’s: If [Meade] had [attacked] he would not have had an easy task, though with his superior resources and forces, and the rare chance of ruining us which success would have given, he certainly should have tried it for all he was worth.
Meade had another option — throw a force across the Potomac, block Lee, and force the Rebels to fight their way through the Federal Army’s defenses. Meade might have been thinking of such a gambit when he ordered forces from Frederick to Falling Waters on the 4th. All that resulted from that order was the overly cautious cavalry attack on Imboden’s wagon train of wounded. As it was, Lee had no opposition on the Virginia side of the river and rightly saw it as a sanctuary and supply area.
The annihilation or capture of the Army of Northern Virginia was too much to hope for, considering the quality of its men and officers, as well as the resiliency of the Southern soldiers’ fighting spirit. Yet inflicting further serious losses on the Southern army would not have been beyond the capabilities of the Army of the Potomac and its commanders. Wounded as it was, the Army of Northern Virginia survived to refit and fight again. In the end, Lincoln was at least partly right. The rebellion would go on and the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would rip each other apart on many other battlefields before a more aggressive commander finally drove the Confederates to bay in April 1865. His name was U.S. Grant — not George Gordon Meade.
This article was written by Richard F. Welch and originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!
In the hot seat over Gettysburg
Southern vets had long blamed James Longstreet and Jeb Stuart for their loss, but had Lee called a formal inquiry?
On January 20, 1896, the members of the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans gathered in Petersburg, Va., for an evening of food, drink and nostalgia. The occasion was Robert E. Lee’s birthday, considered a national holiday in certain parts of the South. The guest speaker that evening was General Cullen A. Battle of Greensboro, N.C., formerly of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the dishes were cleared away and the gentlemen sat back with their cigars and spirits, Battle was introduced as “one of the most distinguished officers in the [late] Confederate Army.” The 67-year-old general was well known as an “elegant and eloquent” public speaker whose words on more than one occasion had inspired men to heroic actions. His audience that evening consisted of true believers in the Lost Cause who had come to relive the glory days of 1861-65.
The subject of his address was the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville. As one of a dwindling group of senior officers of the Army of Northern Virginia who could speak of those bygone days from personal experience, he held his elderly audience in the palm of his hand. Mostly his address was a routine recitation of Confederate valor in the face of overwhelming odds, producing a glorious victory for Southern arms.
But things got interesting during the question-answer session afterward. One old gentleman asked about Gettysburg, which had followed so closely on the heels of the great victory at Chancellorsville and was, hands down, the favorite topic of conversation whenever veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia gathered to reminisce.
Battle dropped a bombshell: After the battle, Lee “appointed a court of inquiry to inquire into the conduct of the Gettysburg campaign,” and Battle himself had been the court’s recording secretary. An electric charge ran through the room as the old general extemporaneously shared his recollections of events almost 33 years before. A court of inquiry is the first step in a formal military investigation to determine whether court-martial charges should be filed against an officer for misconduct. The members of the A.P. Hill Camp were fascinated if not stunned by the revelations, which none of them had ever heard before. No one knew anything about a Gettysburg court of inquiry, much less a report on it.
The Gettysburg court was held sometime in early August 1863, at Culpeper Court House, Va., Battle claimed, with Brig. Gen. William “Little Billy” Mahone presiding. Battle could not remember the other members of the court nor give the exact date.
He had no trouble remembering the gist of the court’s proceedings, however. It focused on the conduct of James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart and James Longstreet. No surprises there; most Confederate veterans who had gone on record in recent years placed the blame for Gettysburg squarely on the shoulders of one or both senior officers.
For eight days during the Gettysburg Campaign, Stuart—with the three best brigades of his cavalry division—had been completely out of touch with Lee’s headquarters while “passing around” the Army of the Potomac. Stuart had not violated orders; those had come directly from Lee through his adjutant Charles Marshall, received by Stuart on June 22 or 23. Stuart was gone by June 25 and did not return until July 2, which happened to be the second day of the great battle.
Longstreet had been slow carrying out Lee’s orders at Gettysburg, in particular taking the whole day to launch his attack on the Union left July 2 and not involving himself in Pickett’s Charge on July 3. Worse, after the war, he had the temerity to question the sainted Lee’s battle plans. For many veteran officers, the finger of blame already pointed at Longstreet even without the formality of censure. At the inquiry, Longstreet was not called to testify, according to Battle, probably because he was at that critical juncture preparing his corps, minus Pickett’s Division, to go west and join Braxton Bragg in Tennessee.
Stuart was not so lucky, Battle recalled. He was summoned before the court and “examined” about his absence during the first two days of the battle. The court specifically wanted to know why Stuart had failed to keep Lee informed “on the position of the enemy,” leaving the commander virtually blind on his march into Pennsylvania. Stuart’s defense was in two parts: First, he thought he would be able to strike “a serious blow” when he rode off to get behind the Army of the Potomac. Second, he had left the regiments of Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones and Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson behind to support Lee’s operations (screening, scouting, etc.) It is worth noting that Longstreet had originally suggested Stuart leave Wade Hampton behind, but Stuart was not willing to go into what could be heavy fighting without his best brigade.
Basically, Stuart had taken the vague orders Lee had issued him and exercised his discretion, something Lee always encouraged—but this time it backfired. Stuart complained that the cavalry was being unfairly blamed for the debacle and that the defeat at Gettysburg should be laid at Longstreet’s feet for willfully failing to follow Lee’s wishes on July 2 and 3.
The investigation was “long and careful,” Battle said, and “many officers were examined,” including Jones. After hearing all the testimony, the verdict of the court was to “censure” Stuart and Longstreet and Grumble Jones, although Battle did not detail errors serious enough to merit Jones’ censure. Battle said he wrote up the official report and forwarded it to Lee’s headquarters where the commanding general “suppressed” it, at least in part because it would “have a tendency to discredit General Longstreet” and hurt morale.
Longstreet, Stuart and Jones censured for Gettysburg? It was an incredible story—but nobody in the audience challenged the guest of honor. The members of the A.P. Hill Camp had come to the meeting that night expecting to hear a talk on the Battle of Chancellorsville and enjoy good fellowship. No one came armed with facts to debate the events of the Gettysburg Campaign, and they politely deferred to the gentleman standing before them. The chair thanked him for his “admirable address,” and the crowd departed.
But that was hardly the end of it. Cullen Battle had unwittingly stirred up a tempest. His banquet audience reflected on what they had heard, and others read summaries of his remarks in newspapers as far away as Baltimore. Then the grits hit the fan. Letters flew back and forth among the old-boys’ network of veteran officers of the Army of Northern Virginia. If Battle’s story were true, it was just that much more ammunition for those who wanted to make Longstreet and Stuart the scapegoats for Gettysburg. Walter H. Taylor, Lee’s former adjutant, was the last word on all things related to General Lee by then, so most of the correspondence was addressed to his home in Norfolk, Va. Virtually everyone who put pen to paper had the same basic questions: Was there really a court of inquiry? Why haven’t we heard of it before now?
But Battle himself had already given considerable thought to the matter. On November 21, 1895, he’d written to Taylor, prompted by news that “General Longstreet has written a book in which he indulges in animadversions on the conduct of General Lee at Gettysburg.” Battle claimed he had served on a “Board of Enquiry” that investigated “to some extent the conduct of the Gettysburg campaign,” and “I have been urged to write and publish the facts, but wish to hear from you before doing so.” Taylor reviewed the deliberations described in Battle’s letter with “great interest,” but admitted that he had “not knowledge” of the proceedings. He was not willing to dismiss Battle’s account out of hand, however. He advised Battle to “review your recollections of the events in question,” but concluded, “I see no objection to your publishing the facts as recalled by yourself.”
Taylor was intrigued sufficiently to pass Battle’s letter on to Charles Marshall. Marshall, another member of Lee’s wartime staff, did not recall any such court or report it might have produced. Like Taylor, Marshall had always blamed Stuart for the failure at Gettysburg. It was two months after that Battle-Taylor-Marshall correspondence that the question at the banquet provoked Battle to share his recollections publicly for the first time.
During the week after the banquet, at least three of the army’s Old Guard—Captain George J. Rogers, Colonel Kirkwood Otey and Lt. Col. Osmun Latrobe—fired off letters to Walter Taylor. Latrobe followed up with a letter to James Longstreet. To all the letter writers, Taylor’s response was the same: He did not remember any such court of inquiry and seriously doubted that it had ever existed except in Battle’s imagination because, as he stated, brigadier generals (i.e., Billy Mahone) do not preside over military courts investigating lieutenant generals (Jeb Stuart and James Longstreet). Furthermore, the Army of Northern Virginia was too busy in August 1863 to hold such proceedings. Taylor might also have added that the very idea of such a court went against everything Lee stood for, and the harm it would have done to a wounded army’s morale would have been devastating.
Complicating any effort to refute Cullen Battle’s recollection was the fact that all the principals in the story were either dead or far removed from the scene. Stuart had died in 1864, Lee in 1870 and Mahone in 1895. In fact, some suspicious soul might have wondered at the coincidence that this only came out after Mahone died. Longstreet, the only surviving principal, had retired to Georgia and was alienated from most of his former comrades.
And Cullen Battle could hardly be called an expert on Gettysburg. He had been in the hospital when the campaign began, rejoining the army at Greencastle, Pa., on its march north. His regiment, the 3rd Alabama, had fought on the first day, was inactive July 2 and was part of the sideshow around Culp’s Hill on July 3. Setting aside his claim to have been recording secretary of the purported court of inquiry, he had no firsthand knowledge of either Stuart’s or Longstreet’s actions, nor was he a member of Lee’s inner circle. Battle had been a peripheral player at Gettysburg.
The questions he provoked coupled with the fact that absolutely no one backed him up soon had Battle backpedaling. On January 24 he wrote another letter to Taylor, this time admitting he might have been “rattled” but insisting, “There is nothing in my whole life that I am surer of than I am that Mahone and I sat together on a court of inquiry.” He did, however, ask Taylor to suggest “a way out of this difficulty.”
Taylor replied, “I am so conscious of the fallibility of my own memory that I speak with hesitation and care.” But he took a stronger stand than he had two months before. “I have no recollection,” he wrote, “of any order issued from our army headquarters convening such a court of inquiry…nor of the receipt of any report of the findings of such a court.” Ever diplomatic, Taylor added a caveat: “Still, I will not say that you never sat on a court of inquiry with General Mahone.”
Battle could not tell from Taylor’s carefully chosen words, but the old staff officer actually agreed with Battle’s point that Stuart was largely to blame for Gettysburg. Taylor was on record saying as much 20 years earlier in a piece he did for the Southern Historical Society Papers. His criticisms had been pointed enough to sting one of Stuart’s brigadiers, Rooney Lee, to come to his former commander’s defense. At this late date, however, Taylor refused to pile on poor Stuart, who was not around to defend himself. In all his correspondence on the subject, Taylor maintained a studied agnosticism, saying he did not personally recall such a court but willing to be convinced by supporting evidence. “Of course, I acquit you of any desire or intention to do any one injustice,” he wrote in closing, because to the dwindling members of the Old Guard the guiding principle for all discussions of the Lost Cause was a variation on the Hippocratic Oath: “Above all else, do no harm.”
After February, the debate died a quiet death. Without confirmation by those who were closest to Lee and without official documentation, it all seemed to be “much ado about nothing.” But a perfectly logical explanation for Battle’s story can be constructed from the available evidence.
Much of the initial correspondence flying back and forth focused on James Longstreet and his memoirs, which contained shocking criticisms of Lee. By 1896 there was already a palpable hostility to Longstreet, dating to things he had written for The Annals of the War series (1879) and The Century magazine (1886), but it was nothing like the fury stoked by his memoirs. From Manassas to Appomattox had been floating around in draft form since late 1894, although it was not published until early 1896. Many who had seen copies of the manuscript were offended by Longstreet’s criticisms of “Marse Robert,” particularly at Gettysburg. Longstreet had uttered heresy when he said Lee was “excited and off his balance” during the battle and determined to press the fight “until enough blood was shed to appease him.” That statement alone was enough to paint a big, fat target on the author’s chest. Cullen Battle, like so many other veterans, worshipped Lee, even confessing, “I loved General Lee more than I ever loved any man except my father.” The imminent publication of Longstreet’s memoirs had a lot of old comrades ready to lynch him.
It finally took Walter Taylor to solve the mystery of the phantom court of inquiry, and to prove that it was not just a figment of Cullen Battle’s imagination. There was indeed an inquiry after Gettysburg, but William “Grumble” Jones, not Jeb Stuart or James Longstreet, was the officer on the hot seat.
During the retreat from Gettysburg, Jones’ cavalry had been assigned to guard the passes through South Mountain. Instead, he allowed Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry to capture 45 of the army’s wagons and 1,000 men of Ewell’s Corps. A court of inquiry was held at the Orange County Court House in the second week in September 1863 with Billy Mahone presiding. After hearing testimony, the court did not recommend charges against Jones.
But that was not the end of it; there was bad blood between Jones and Stuart, and Stuart now brought charges against his lieutenant for insubordination. The resulting court-martial was also held in September. The court of inquiry and the court-martial both apparently allowed “a very wide range” in taking testimony relating to the entire Gettysburg Campaign.
It would not be unreasonable to assume Jones blamed Stuart for Gettysburg; he certainly hated his commanding officer that much. But by the time Battle relayed his story to the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, Grumble Jones was not around to clear up the confusion. He had died at the Battle of the Piedmont on June 5, 1864.
Cullen Battle had actually been the recording secretary at the Jones court of inquiry. Afterward, when he went to his division commander and friend General Robert Rodes for advice about writing up the report of the proceedings, Rodes advised him to “bring out the facts and let Lee sift them.” In Battle’s mind, that was exactly what he was doing 33 years later: stating the “facts” and letting others judge.
Taylor finally cleared up the confusion by locating documentation of the Jones inquiry—a letter from Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s assistant adjutant, to Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson ordering Robertson to appear at the proceedings. This single page is the only evidence that a court of inquiry involving Mahone, Battle and Stuart had ever occurred. The order for the court must have come from Lee’s headquarters, and, Taylor said, “I do [now] recollect that General Jones had some such trouble and sought vindication through an official investigation.”
On February 5, 1896, Battle wrote a final letter to Taylor seeking his advice and approval; the tone was almost desperate. He said he had not foreseen the firestorm his off-the-cuff remarks would bring down on his head; he thought he was simply relating what happened. He even admitted that his vivid memories of being part of a court of inquiry were from the Jones proceeding. Finally, he asked Taylor if he should release all the correspondence he had received on the matter. Taylor’s response is unknown.
The whole episode shows how a minor event could get blown up into a cause célèbre by some innocent remarks. The Jones court of inquiry does not even appear in the Official Records and was forgotten almost as soon as it was over. But transpose it into a Stuart or Longstreet court of inquiry and suddenly the hounds are baying in full throat. That is precisely what happened in 1896.
If the original court did indeed produce negative testimony about Stuart and Longstreet, Lee might well have suppressed it, as he did George Pickett’s after-action report on the events of July 3, in which Pickett lashed out at other senior officers for not supporting his attack properly. Lee had returned the incendiary report with a request that it be rewritten sticking to casualties and events directly observed by its author.
Battle’s faulty recollection underscores the determination of Lee’s former officers to find scapegoats for their failure. But Lee’s move after Gettysburg, including his own after-action report, was aimed at preventing a rash of finger-pointing and back-stabbing that would very likely have finished the job that Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s army had started and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia.
In both versions of Lee’s report (August 1863 and January 1864), he shouldered full responsibility for whatever failures had occurred, magnanimously “covering the omissions” of his subordinates, in the words of aide Charles Marshall, and even offering to take one for the team by resigning command of the army. In short, Lee would brook no airing of the army’s dirty laundry in either after-action reports or court proceedings. The reaction to Cullen Battle’s remarks in 1896 was only a taste of what would have happened had there been a genuine Gettysburg court of inquiry in 1863.
Richard Selcer is a professor of history at Weatherford College in Texas and an author with nine books to his credit—so far.
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The Generals at Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle, by Larry R. Tagg, avas Publishing Co., Mason City, Iowa, 1998, $29.95.
After 136 years, the gallons of ink devoted to Gettysburg probably surpass the amount of blood spilled on …
Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart, by Wiley Sword, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999, $27.95.
On the eve of the Civil War, how did Southerners perceive themselves and the cause on which they were about to embark? …
DAVIS AND LEE AT WAR
The decisive impact of politics on Civil War strategy is currently a hot topic among Civil War historians. Works analyzing thehigh commands of the Federal and Confederate armies and their complex relationships with the political …
For Home and the Southland: A History of the 48th Georgia Infantry Regiment, by John Zwemer, NButternut & Blue, Baltimore, Md., 1999, $24.95.
th Georgia Infantry Regiment went into action during the Peninsula campaign and fought in almost every significant …
Sid Meier's Gettysburg! Electronic Arts, (800) 245-4525, $49.95.
Imagine you're a Confederate general. It's July 3, 1863, and you're in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Across the open fields before you, the Union's seemingly impenetrable line on Cemetery Ridge glares at you menacingly. …
MANTLED IN FIRE AND SMOKE
By David F. Cross
The Battle of Gettysburg, and perhaps the fate of the Union, was decided in one hour of desperate fighting on the rocky ledges of Little Round Top.
In June 1863, Confederate …
The Colorful 44th New York Regiment
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine may have won the most fame during the grueling fight for control of Little Round Top, but the largest regimental monument on the battlefield today commemorates a brother regiment …
Stonewalls Only Defeat
By Lee Enderlin
A furious Stonewall Jackson watched impotently as his proud Confederates stumbled down the hillside at Kernstown, Va. "Give them the bayonet," Jackson implored–but no one obeyed.
The Confederate general didn't want to fight–he wanted …
South's Feuding Generals
By Richard Selcer
It sometimes seemed that Southern generals were more interested in fighting each other than in fighting Yankees. Their inability to get along together contributed greatly to the South's demise.
Imagine a situation in the …
The Civil War's deadliest weapons were not rapid-fire guns or giant cannon, but the simple rifle-musket and the humble minié ball.
BY ALLAN W. HOWEY
By the time the smoke had cleared and the veterans headed back to …
Just before 3 o'clock on the morning of July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee rose by starlight, ate a spartan breakfast with his staff, and mounted his famous gray horse, Traveller, for the ride up Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg. He …
In love, as in war, Confederate General John Bell Hood was the personification of bad luck.
When Confederate General John Bell Hood rode into Atlanta in July 1864 to take charge of the embattled Army of Tennessee, he was already …
Rebels in Pennsylvania!
The spearhead of Lee's army was about to strike a lethal blow at the very heart of the Keystone State when the Battle of Gettysburg interrupted.
BY UZAL ENT
Gettysburg was a small rural town with no …
The Keystone of Little Round Top
SUBMITTED BY TED KARLE, MENTOR, OHIO
NAME: Orpheus Saeger Woodward
DATES: 1837 to June 26, 1919
HIGHEST RANK: Brevet Brigadier General
UNIT: 83d Pennsylvania Infantry
SERVICE RECORD: Enlisted on August 16, …
Never Were Men So Brave
Their casualties were enormous but their courage and capacity for fun were legendary. General Lee, himself, gave highest praise to these Yankees of the Irish Brigade.
BY JOHN F. McCORMACK, JR.
Out Hanover Street in …
Out of a Frozen Hell part 2
A misplaced pocketbook jeopardizes the escape of three Rebel prisoners struggling to reach Canada.
BY ROGER LONG
Editor's Note: In our last issue, we followed four Confederate officers on their daring escape from …
Letters - Submit
Civil War Times
I read with some misgiving your announcement "Proposed Legislation Could Clear Dr. Mudd" ("News," December 1997). President Jimmy Carter did not issue a proclamation absolving Mudd of his conviction as a co-conspirator …
On a leafy side street in present-day Brooklyn, a faintecho of the Civil War can still be heard.
By John A. Barnes
The Episcopal Church of St. John, in Brooklyn, New York, is considerably less quiet today than it must …
The first Vermonter to enlist in the war,
Union General George Stannard
helped turn the tide at Gettysburg.
By Anthony Buono
The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg was hot and humid. The battlefield, littered with thousands of dead …
The hard-fighting 44th Georgia suffered some of the heaviest losses of any regiment in the Civil War.
By Gerald J. Smith
On March 10, 1862, companies of Georgians from Henry, Jasper, Clarke, Spalding, Clayton, Putnam, Fayette, Pike, Morgan, Henry and …
With a rusted sword in one hand and a Confederate battle flag
in the other,a grim-faced Stonewall Jackson desperately rallied his faltering troops. What Rebelworthy of the name could abandon
'Old Jack' in his hour of need?
By Robert C. …
VALLEY OFTHE SHADOW
Overconfident and overextended, the Union Army
of the Cumberland advanced into the deep woods
of northwest Georgia. Waiting Confederates did not
intend for them to leave. At Chickamauga Creek,
the two sides collided.
By Mike Haskew
Working side by side with soldiers, horses labored
to pull artillery pieces into battle.Without them, field artillery
could not have been used to such deadly effect.
By James R. Cotner
The field artillery of the Civil War was designed to …
TALL TALES OF THE CIVIL WAR
Being a compendium of poppycock, balderdash, and malarkey told by civil warveterans for the amusement and amazement of future generations
BY: WILLIAM C. DAVIS
Men are deceivers ever," wrote William Shakespeare in Much Ado …