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John Cabell Early Remembers Gettysburg

By John Cabell Early 
Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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>Originally published in the Journal of the Military Service Institution, June 1911

When my uncle, Gen. Jubal A. Early, was ordered north in June 1863, on the invasion which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, he wrote back to my father, Captain Samuel H. Early, of Lynchburg, Va., to join him and to bring me along with him to act as his courier, at which I was greatly elated, being then only a few months past fifteen years of age. Then followed the pleasant excitement of getting my uniform and everything necessary for me. In this I was very fortunate for those times, as there happened to be a piece of fine English gray cadet cloth in the house left over from making my father's uniform. Of course, my uniform was made by a tailor, but the underwear was made by my home folks. As I was the only boy in the family, or near connection, there was great ado about preparing this part of my outfit, especially as men wore much more elaborate shirts then than they do now. The bosoms of mine were a mass of small tucks, interspersed with puffs and finished off with ruffles which went up the opening of the sleeve. Finally, everything was ready and I started off with my father, I in great glee, my mother in a swoon, and the rest of the females in tears.

We traveled on horseback, going first to Waynesboro and thence down the valley without incident until we got near to Winchester, where we met a large body of women [nurses, wives of officers and soldiers] belonging to the Union Army which had been captured at Winchester and who were being carried under military escort to Staunton, thence to be sent by railroad to Richmond and from there down James River to their friends. It was a long, hard tramp for their unaccustomed feet, all the way down the valley from Winchester to Staunton, but there was no other way to convey them, as there was no railroad there, and the South had no wagons that could be spared from the line of march.

When we got into Maryland we found the natives very hostile and vindictive toward the South, and we were warned to be very careful, as there were a great many Union soldiers in citizen's clothes, and there had been considerable bush-whacking and might be more, as the Southern Army had gotten far away. We then went through Hagerstown to Greencastle and thence to Chambersburg, Pa., where we had quite an adventure. We went to a hotel at that place, the proprietor of which was known to Colonel Penn, he having gone to school there, I believe. We stopped at Greencastle some little time before dusk, and there occurred some friction between members of our party and some of the citizens, which, however, was apparently smoothed over, but before going to bed Colonel Penn was told by one of his friends in the town that an arrangement had been made to capture us in the early morning before we got out of bed. Colonel Penn's friends advised us to frustrate this scheme by taking our departure before it could be carried out. The leaders of our party arranged to have our horses in readiness and that we should make pretense of going to bed as if suspecting nothing, but we got up at three o'clock in the morning, took a hasty luncheon, mounted, and rode away without trouble.

We next went on to Carlisle, where we found quite a body of Southern soldiers and many friends among the officers. General Early, however, had gone on toward York and we were advised to wait in Carlisle for the present. Whilst there, we were quartered in the Carlisle Barracks, which I believe, is the seat of the Indian School to-day [now the U. S. Army War College]. This part of Pennsylvania had a great many of what were then called 'Copperheads,' who were exceedingly nice to us. Both from the orders of the officers, from General Lee down, and the dispositions of the soldiers, there had been little or no plundering; but, of course, in so large a body of men there were necessarily some wrong-doers.

General Early had gone on toward York, and General Ewell, desiring to recall him, sent my father on with orders to that effect. General Ewell himself left Carlisle shortly afterward with the soldiers under his command, marching toward Gettysburg and taking me under his especial charge. I slept with him the first night of our march at a little place called Heidlersburg. The old General was very kind to me. As we rode along, we saw many fine wax cherries on the road. I enjoyed these hugely, and so did the General. I brought him so many boughs of them for his consumption that I began to wonder, boy-like how so small a man could hold so many cherries.

An amusing incident that occurred on the march from Carlisle was the capture of a battalion of school cadets in very handsome uniforms. These had marched out gallantly to the defense of their country, but were not taken seriously by the Confederate officers, who simply transferred their army shoes and stockings to their own needy soldiers and left the lads to walk home, bare-footed, in a less dignified style than they had started out.

Toward midday, upon approaching a rather high hill which the road crossed, there was an alarm of the enemy in front, and skirmishers deployed. It proved to be a mistake, however, and we resumed our march. As we neared Gettysburg, we met General Early returning with his forces from York. Upon seeing me, the latter said to my father that I was so much smaller than he had expected that he was afraid I would not do, but at any rate, he wished my father to keep me out of the battle that was then impending. I was greatly crestfallen, but determined, so I just kept out of General Early's way the rest of the time. We marched up the road which leads directly into the main street of Gettysburg. My father and I were then with Peck's [Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays'] brigade.

When we got very near to Gettysburg there was a road that crossed at right angles the road we came by. Firing had already begun in front of and to the right of us. The head of the column of Peck's brigade turned to the right and marched up the road at right angles with the one we came by, the tail of the brigade going down the same road, but to the left of the first-named one, so the brigade was strung out along this road which was immediately in front of Gettysburg.

Artillery firing then commenced on the part of the enemy, and our men were ordered to lie down in this road, which was a few feet below the general level of the adjacent fields, and so it perfectly protected our men against the enemy's balls.As I said before, artillery firing on us had commenced and all our foot soldiers were lying down, but the officers were on horseback on the bank back of the road, and my father and I with them. I proposed to my father that we also should lie down with the soldiers, but he laughed, and told me to keep my seat. The balls began to come thicker and closer and to be mixed with grape or canister. One ball seemed to come so close that I thought it would take my head off, so I bent my shoulders to the horse's neck, whereon my father teased me much, telling me that the ball was at least a mile off, also asking me how I thought I would like the life of a soldier. I replied, with much feeling, that I wouldn't be surprised if Uncle Jubal was right and I was too small and too young to be a soldier.

All this time we were immediately in front of Gettysburg, and we could see the different [enemy] regiments as they formed in line in front of a large barn on the edge of the town. We captured a great many of them before they had ever fired a shot. The Eleventh Corps of the enemy was opposed to us.

Soon orders were given for the advance. There was a rail fence in front of us, and the first man I saw killed was shot by a rail falling on the hammer of his own gun, the ball striking him on the chest and coming out at the back of his head. We marched on and soon musketry firing commenced, and did not cease until we took the town.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Major General Early, the author's uncle, served as division commander under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, the Second Corps commander. Early's troops helped drive the Union XI Corps back through Gettysburg to the rising ground south of town, but Early, along with Ewell, was later blamed for failing to press the attack before the Federals dug in. In this article, perhaps written to defend his uncle, the young Early remembers that General Lee, not Early or Ewell, advised against pressing an attack.

At the time of the first advance Major Hale, Inspector on General Early's staff, came up, and my father told me to stay with him and help him about the wounded and prisoners, as he would press on and try to reach General Early. We both acted on his advice, and I did not see my father again till late that night. I started at once, by Major Hale's directions, to make the stretcher men carry the wounded as fast as possible to the ambulances, that they might be taken to their respective hospitals, and was thus engaged till the fight was over and the wounded and prisoners cared for. A good many little incidents occurred during this time which I remember now with amusement. One was as follows: I found two stretcher men lagging behind, and upon my insistence that they should go at once to the front with me, there were some very lively words used on both sides, which culminated in their proposing to thrash me if I was off my horse. I immediately jumped off and started to pull off my jacket, when I was interrupted by hearing a noise behind me which, I found, proceeded from an officer who gave all three of us a severe scolding. I got back on my horse and went back to work, and the stretcher fellows also did the latter.

Another incident was this: As soldiers know, the only way you can keep up with the progress of a fight, that is, out of sight, is by listening to the cheers of the soldiers on the different sides. I, boy-like, was intensely interested in listening to these evidences of the fray, when a tall, handsome, bearded officer rode slowly by from the direction in which the fiercest fighting seemed to be going on. I asked him, eagerly, 'What news of the fight?' To which he made no reply. On my repeating the question, he still continued silent, but on my third inquiry, he burst out with these words, 'Boy, I am shot through the body and am trying to make my way, before I die, to the Mississippi hospital, and it is hard that in my extremity I should be annoyed by a little whipper-snapper like you.'

We passed through a cornfield and in riding through it seemed to me that the grape and canister mowed down the cornstalks over me and around me and under me in every direction, so it seemed a miracle that none of them struck me or my horse. I stopped a few minutes behind a large Dutch barn to blow, and while there I saw a dead officer with his pockets turned out. There were two papers lying on the ground close by him, one of them a furlough which was to have commenced two days before the battle and which was granted to allow him to go home and get married, and the other was a letter from his bride-to-be, expressing her happiness on the approaching event. The man was from New York, seemed to be about twenty-five years old, and was a tall, well-made blond. He had on a solid steel waistcoat, but this had not protected him, as his left arm had been torn from the socket, and he had bled to death. I saw another man, a German, this (Wednesday) afternoon, lying on the ground with the whole top of his skull taken off, and a mass of blood and brain on the ground. I did not attempt to move him, as there was no possibility of his recovery, but the citizens did, for I saw him on the following Friday afternoon several hundred yards from where he had fallen, and he was still alive.

In gathering up the prisoners amongst a party of young officers, I saw one wearing a beautiful pair of silver spurs which I coveted very much, but was ashamed to ask for, although, as it afterward turned out, others were not so squeamish. Several days later I met the same officer with his spurs missing, and when he saw that I observed this, he said he was very sorry I had not asked for them.

The hours of the fight passed so quickly that I could scarcely believe my senses when I had gotten through my work and found it was nearly midnight. I then went to try and find our headquarters. On my way I came across a log corn-house, and as my horse had had nothing to eat since early morning, I filled my blanket with corn and discontinued my search. In a little while I saw a light, and going to it, found General Early was there, and when he saw I had corn he told me to ride in and give it to our horses, which I did, riding up to a small house with a porch in front of it. I gave the corn to the horses standing around, and then walked up to the porch, in which were General Lee, General Ewell, General Rodes, and others whom I did not know. I found them in the midst of an earnest discussion, which has since become famous the world over, though little did I dream then, in my boyish inexperience, of the overwhelming importance of this conference, of which I heard every word, for either owing to the fact of my being almost a child, or of my being General Early's nephew, they made no objection to my presence or perhaps did not even notice it.

While I do not, after the lapse of so many years, recall all the details of this conference, yet the substance of it is distinctly fixed in my memory. The main subject of debate was as to whether General Lee should advance that night and occupy the hills which, when the fighting commenced next morning, were occupied by General Meade's army. The conference was divided into two parties, one advising an immediate advance and occupation and the other, including General Lee, cautious and doubting the wisdom of an advance. Whilst General Lee fully admitted the advantage of a strong defensive position, he said his men had made a fatiguing march and gone through a battle, whereas most of Meade's men were fresh. He said he did not know whether Meade was already occupying those hills or, if so, in what force, and consequently he could not tell what resistance he might have to encounter and even if he could take possession of those hills, he might be surrounded, and the escape of his army would be difficult in view of the fact that he was without the possibility of assistance, whereas his opponent would have almost unlimited reinforcements and resources at his command, that the loss of his (Lee's) army would mean the loss of the Southern cause; whereas in case of defeat, he could withdraw in comparative safety as long as he did not allow himself to be cooped up.

There was also some discussion as to the advisability of occupying, with artillery, two high, but small topped hills round to the Confederate left. Some objected to this, as they thought artillery could not be gotten to these hilltops on account of their roughness and the lack of roads. At this point General Early left the porch and walked out into the yard as if tired of the discussion. His volunteer aide, Capt. Robert D. Early, came up to him and, after saluting, said, 'General, I think I can get guns up those hills and place them where they can do good work,' to which General Early replied, 'If you think so, take certain batteries (designating them) and place them there at once.' On this, Captain Early galloped away, and I suppose did as he was ordered, as when firing next commenced, it was joined in by guns placed on these hills [Benner's]. On one of them (I don't know which) a caisson was blown up next day. About the end of the discussion my father came up, and I went away with him and spent the night in camp, but first we got sufficient corn from the same corn-house to feed our horses night and morning. I found out next day that this corn-house was at the Gettysburg poor-house and that the house that General Lee and the other generals had occupied was the house of the superintendent of the Gettysburg poorhouse.

Of the next two days and the cannonading thereof, I myself did not see so much as, unfortunately for us, our wounded were not so accessible, nor prisoners so plentiful as they had been the day before. On the third day my father was wounded, a ball striking him on the shinbone halfway between the knee and foot. I was not with him when this occurred, and when he rejoined me he did not mention it, but after we had been together at least an hour my horse shied toward him and he said, 'Be careful, or you will hurt me.' This remark seemed so unusual in a man of his character that I looked at him wonderingly, and he then said, 'Don't you see I have been shot?' and directed my attention to his bandaged leg. He then told me that General Early had ordered him to go home and take me to wait on him.

We went on to the place where the headquarters wagons were just outside of the town, and spent the night there. I recollected having seen under the shed of the corn-house where I had gotten the corn a buggy and went early the next morning (Saturday) to get it, hitching my father's riding horse to it. A few Confederate soldiers were scattered around and they called out in fun, 'There goes General Rodes.' This officer [Rodes] had been so sick that he was compelled to ride in an ambulance, whenever practicable, during the fight. By the way, I saw him make what seemed to me a miraculous escape. He was riding down the streets of Gettysburg, my father on one side of him and I on the other, when a percussion shell struck the pavement in less than a yard of his horse's feet and exploded without doing any harm whatever.

There had been a great drought in this part of Pennsylvania and great suffering for water. All the wells, springs, and cisterns had guards over them to reserve the water for the wounded. The small streams had ceased to run and dead fish floated on the top of pools, but on this Saturday it commenced to rain which, I believe, was always the case after heavy firing, the showers being at first light, but afterward becoming very heavy.

As soon as I got back with the buggy we started southward, soon forming a part of Lee's wagon train, which was then in retreat. About dusk an army wagoner, attempting to drive past us, struck the end of the buggy axle and bent it almost double. Fortunately for us, there was an army forge in sight, where we had the buggy repaired, but this took until almost midnight. This seemed, at the time, an annoying accident, but it proved a blessing, as next morning we passed heaps of burnt and burning wagons belonging to those we had parted from when we stopped to have our buggy repaired. The horses and men had been captured and carried off, and but for our lucky detention we would have shared the same fate.

We pressed on southward, traveling almost day and night. Nothing of note occurred till we reached the Potomac River at Williamsport. There we found General Lee's wagon train encamped on the bottoms, as the heavy rains had produced a flood that rendered the river unfordable. While we were waiting there a raiding party attacked the town hoping to capture the wagon train, but with what soldiers were available, together with the wagoners, the attack was repelled. The road to the river crossed a high bridge over the canal and there was a very narrow pass here at which we were encamped. My father and I defended this, allowing no stragglers to pass, and in this way saved many men for the defense who would have preferred to swim their horses across to the other side.

After the fight they put cables to the heavy boats in the canal and pulled them to the river where they were converted into ferry-boats, and we soon got across the river to the Virginia side and started down the valley homeward. We reached Lexington, Va., without accident, but before doing so found ourselves entirely without money. There was a large class of noncombatants from religious motives in the Valley of Virginia and the Confederate authorities had given them many privileges, fearing that any hardship might turn them to the Union side. These people charged us so high that we arrived at Lexington bare of funds. We made arrangements, however, with the captain of the packet boat to carry my father to his home in Lynchburg. I myself went back there on horseback, and was received with greater joy and gratulation than even the prodigal son in Scriptural times.

Following his experience at Gettysburg, John Cabell Early enrolled as a student at Virginia Military Institute, from which he graduated in 1867. For the rest of his life he engaged in farming, lumbering and other business. He died in 1909.

 


 

This article was originally published in the August 2005 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

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