Ambrose Ransom Wright did not complete his after-action report for the Battle of Gettysburg until September 28, 1863—nearly three months after the battle. We do not know why it took the Confederate brigadier so long. After all, his regimental commanders had all filed their reports by July 18.
Officers from regimental commanders and battery commanders up to army commanders were required to prepare official reports of any action or operation in which they participated. Between 1881 and 1901, these after-action reports were assembled and published by the U.S. War Department as part of the massive Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. The ORs, as we know them, number 128 thick books. For example, the Gettysburg Campaign, which is covered by Volume XXVII, contains three parts that fill 3,524 pages. For serious students and historians, the ORs are the foundation of any research on the war’s military operations and administration; however, as valuable as after-action reports can be to our understanding of battles and operations, it is vital to assess them critically and not accept their contents without question. Which brings us back to Ambrose Wright.
On the late afternoon of July 2, Wright’s Brigade of three Georgia regiments and one battalion, part of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s Division, advanced from Spangler Woods on Seminary Ridge—near where the Virginia Monument is located today—to assault the Union center as part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s massive effort to roll up the opposing Army of the Potomac’s left flank. Wright’s infantry first encountered the 15th Massachusetts and 82nd New York at the Emmitsburg Road, adjacent to the Nicholas Codori Farm. “Just in rear of this line of infantry,” Wright reported, “were the advanced batteries of the enemy, posted along the Emmitsburg turnpike, with a field of fire raking the whole valley below.”
Wright’s Brigade “immediately charged upon the enemy’s line, and drove him in great confusion upon his second line, which was formed behind a stone fence, some 100 or more yards in rear of the Emmitsburg turnpike. At this point we captured several pieces of artillery, which the enemy in his haste and confusion was unable to take off the field.” So far, Wright’s report is reasonably accurate. He did overwhelm and drive the two Union regiments back in great confusion, but only after a severe and bloody fight.
As for the artillery, no Union battery was posted on the Emmitsburg Road in this area. There were three batteries a short distance east of the road—Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Artillery; Battery C, 5th U.S.; and Battery F&K, 3rd U.S.—but only Battery B stood in Wright’s path. The other two were in front of Colonel David Lang’s Florida Brigade, advancing to the Georgians’ right front. Wright’s men overran only one gun of Battery B, which was left when the team retreated behind the main Union line. A second piece was abandoned at a gateway in the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge because the horses on its limber had been shot. The Georgians never reached this gun, however.
The 22nd Georgia, on the right of the brigade, passed through three guns of Battery C, which they naturally claimed to capture. But possibly unknown to them, the guns had already been overrun by Lang’s Brigade. In the chaos and smoke of the battle, it is not surprising that mistake was made.
Wright continued his report: “We were now within 100 yards of the crest of the heights, which were lined with artillery, supported by a strong body of infantry, under protection of a stone fence. My men, by a well-directed fire, soon drove the cannoneers from their guns, and, leaping over the fence, charged up to the top of the crest, and drove the enemy’s infantry into a rocky gorge on the eastern slope of the heights, and some 80 to 100 yards in rear of the enemy’s batteries. We were now complete masters of the field, having gained the key, as it were, of the enemy’s whole line. Unfortunately, just as we had carried the enemy’s last and strongest position, it was discovered that the brigade on our right had not only not advanced across the turnpike, but had actually given way, and was rapidly falling back to the rear, while on our left we were entirely unprotected, the brigade ordered to support having failed to advance.”
Here Wright crossed the line from exaggeration to pure fiction, while also maligning the reputation of the brigades on his flanks as an excuse for why his unit was forced to retreat from its advanced position. Blaming adjacent units for not doing their full duty was a common excuse officers on both sides used to explain why they retreated. Some generals—and Wright was one of them—also sought to use their reports to burnish their reputations.
The truth was Wright’s Brigade fought with great courage but did not carry the crest or capture any other batteries or guns, though they did force Captain James M. Rorty’s Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, to displace twice almost to the Hummelbaugh Farm, which is near the Taneytown Road. The pursuit of Rorty did involve leaping over a stone fence, but at a point where there were no infantry defenders. Heavy casualties and Union reinforcements, not the failure of units on his flanks, ultimately compelled Wright’s retreat. How do we know this? From Union after-action reports, letters, journals, diaries, and regimental histories that are remarkably consistent in their description of Wright’s attack and repulse.
As for Wright’s criticism of the performance of other units, there was a reckoning. Lang’s Brigade was furious with Wright’s account and sent a representative to demand an explanation. They got one. Wright published a public letter offering the excuse that “[j]ust after a battle there are so many reports and rumors of particular commands, that it is not at all surprising that grave errors should be made by those who write hurriedly, and not alone from what they see, but from what is talked of in the camps.”
This remains an excellent caution for taking after-action reports too literally. Battles are chaotic, smoky, and terrifying events and do not lend themselves to calm, detached observation. Add to this the natural human weakness to exaggerate, cover up, deflect, and aggrandize. This is not to say these reports have no value. They have immense value to our understanding of the war, but they must be interpreted alongside other sources to verify their objectivity and accuracy.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.