Confederate General “Rans” Wright put poison in his pen and wrote a controversial letter that accused fellow officers of failing to do their duty at Gettysburg.
July 2, 1863, was a frustrating day for Brigadier General Ambrose Ransom “Rans” Wright.While his infantrymen in the 3rd, 22nd and 48th Georgia infantry and the 2nd Georgia Battalion shouldered their muskets in the late afternoon and marched east to assault the death-dealing Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, the general remained sick in an ambulance, far to the rear.
His brigade, a part of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s Division of Lt. Gen.A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, was the left flank of a massive Confederate assault that was designed to hammer the Union left and center.Wright’s men weathered a storm of Yankee gunfire to reach their objective, moving over the same fields that Pickett’s Charge would cross the next day and striking the Union line just south of the famous “Copse of Trees”at the High Water Mark area.The Georgians’ success was fleeting, however,and before long the survivors of the attack were fleeing back to their Seminary Ridge starting point.
Wright, a prewar attorney and politician,was known in the army for having a temper and not always looking before he leaped. Some officers in the 3rd Georgia, for example, claimed the general had a “harsh discourteous temperament”and was “too self-willed and combative. He could not temporize enough,often raising temporary antagonisms.”
That “combative” temper flared as Wright learned the details of his brigade’s attack.The general believed that the weak efforts of comrades,particularly Brig.Gen. Edward Perry’s Florida Brigade, commanded by Colonel David Lang,and Brig. Gen.Carnet Posey’s Brigade of Mississippi regiments, both also of Anderson’s Division,had cheated his men of victory.
The general was still fuming five days after the battle when he penned a letter to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg, telling her that his Georgians had done their duty,but that Lang,Posey and others had quailed and had not provided the proper support.The angry missive ended up being published in the July 27 edition of the Augusta,Ga.,Daily Constitutionalist.
How the letter ended up in the paper is uncertain,but other Southern newspapers picked up Wright’s account. Anderson arrested Wright and filed court-martial charges against him for “disobedience towards superior officers and for matters connected with publications which appeared in the Augusta Constitutionalist.” General Wright,however,was acquitted of wrongdoing in August 1863.
The controversy Wright caused has lingered through the years as historians contest the accuracy of his statements and the successes of his brigade on July 2.There is little doubt today that his men did temporarily break the Union positions held by Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s men on July 2. The extent of the breakthrough and the number of cannons his men overran is still up for debate.
The general’s letter is reprinted below in its most complete form since it was originally published in 1863. Note that Wright refers to his brigade in the first person and that paragraph breaks have been added to enhance readability.
From Wright’s Brigade
Head Qrs Wright’s Brigade,
Camp near Hagerstown, Md.
July 7th, 1863
…Wednesday,the 1st of July…we took up this march for Gettysburg, Pa. about 25 miles east of Chambersburg…we had to cross South Mountain…. It rained at intervals all day, and we had a most distressing march, going to within two miles of Gettysburg before halting. I was very sick all day, and at 2 o’clock, P.M. could no longer ride in my saddle, and had to seek shelter and a bed in a house by the wayside, the brigade continuing, as before going to within a mile or two of Gettysburg.About 10 or 11 o’clock,A.M. [Maj. Gen. Henry] Heth’s Division, which was in advance,encountered the enemy some three or four miles from Gettysburg,pretty strongly posted on a range of hills.He soon drove them back for a mile or so, when [Maj.Gen.Dorsey] Pender’s Division,also of our ([Lt.Gen.A.P.] Hill’s) corps,coming up,they pressed the enemy vigorously and drove him back to the town. Late in the evening two divisions of [Lt. Gen. Richard] Ewell’s corps—[Maj.Gen.Jubal] Early’s and [Maj.Gen.Robert] Rhodes— came up on the right of the enemy’s line, and drove him into and through the town to a mountain range on the south side of the town,when the fight closed.None of [Lt.Gen.James] Longstreet’s corps,nor our division in Hill’s corps, nor [Maj. Gen. Edward] Johnson’s Division of Ewell’s corps,were engaged in this day’s fight.The enemy were badly whipped, and driven for more than three miles, with great loss in killed, wounded and prisoners—3,000 of the latter being taken.
Second Day’s Battle
On Thursday morning,July 2d,our whole army having been placed in position, except General [George] Pickett’s Division, of Gen. Longstreet’s corps…which had not come up, we prepared to attack the enemy…strongly posted on a mountain range—a spur of South Mountain (Blue Ridge) which runs from Gettysburg nearly south.The town being situated at the base of its extreme northern end,their right resting on the crest of the mountain overlooking Gettysburg,and their left resting upon a sharp peak, which rises abruptly from the general elevation of the range several hundred feet,at the distance of about three or four miles from the town.The timber on the east side of the mountain had, except in small patches, been removed,and the slope was in cultivation—the fields yellow with ripening grain.The valley below was all in cultivation, and varying in width from a mile to a mile and a half,and thickly studded with farmhouses and barns.
Fronting this range on the west was a long broken and mostly wooded hill,running nearly parallel with the mountain, and a mile and a half to two miles from it; along the west slope of this hill our line was formed—Ewell on the left, commencing at Gettysburg, Hill in the centre and Longstreet on the right….About the middle of the afternoon, Longstreet attacked their left with two divisions, [Maj. Gen. John] Hood’s and [Maj. Gen. Lafayette] McLaw’s, and soon after Hill’s corps was ordered to attack their centre. Anderson’s Division, being next to Longstreet’s left,was to commence the pursuit, which was to be followed up immediately by Pender’s and Heth’s Divisions.
“At 5 o’clock,Wright’s Brigade, was ordered to advance and charge the enemy’s work as soon as the movement com menced on the right. Our Division (Anderson’s) was formed, thus: [Brig. Gen. Cadmus] Wilcox on the right, (next to McLaw’s left),then Perry [commanded by Colonel Lang],Wright,[Brig.Gen.] Posey, [Brig.Gen.William] Mahone.At 5 o’clock Wilcox advanced, Perry’s and Wright’s Brigades moving off simultaneously with him. As soon as we emerged from the woods and came into the open fields the enemy poured a most terrific fire of shells into our ranks.We rushed down the hillside and reaching the valley found it was broken by a series of small ridges and hollows, running parallel with the enemy’s line on the mountain; and in the first of these depressions or hollows our line paused for breath.Then we rushed over the next ridge into the succeeding hollow and thus we worked our way across that terrible field for more than a mile, under the most furious fire of artillery I had ever seen.When we reached the base of the range upon which the enemy were posted, they opened upon us with their infantry, and raked our whole line with grape and canister from more than twenty guns.We were now within a few hundred yards of the enemy’s guns,and had up to this time suffered but little loss—the small ridges I have spoken of protecting our men from the enemy’s fire, except as we would pass over their tops, which we always did in a run,thus exposing ourselves but very little to the enemy’s fire.But here we were in a hot place,and looking to the left through the smoke, it was apparent that neither Posey nor Mahone had advanced,and that Wright’s left was wholly unprotected.A courier was dispatched to Gen.Anderson, informing him of the fact, who answered that both Posey and Mahone had been ordered in, and that he would reiterate the order that our Brigade go on.
Before the courier returned, Perry’s Brigade on the right gave way,and shamefully ran to the rear.Wright’s Brigade had now climbed up the side of the mountain nearly to the enemy’s guns,and being left without support either on the right or left, enabling the enemy to concentrate a heavy fire upon it. But the brave men pressed rapidly and steadily on, until we approached within fifty or sixty yards of the enemy’s batteries, when we encountered a heavy body of infantry posted behind a stone fence.
The side of the mountain was so precipitate here that the men could with difficulty climb it, but we strove on, and reaching the stone fence drove the Yankee infantry from behind it, and then taking cover from the fence we soon shot all the gunners of the enemy’s artillery and,rushing over the fence seized the guns.We had now accomplished our task—we had stormed the enemy’s strong position, had drove off his infantry, had captured all his guns in our front, except a few which he succeeded in running off, and had up to this moment suffered but comparatively small loss.Just after taking the enemy’s batteries, we perceived a heavy column of Yankee infantry on our right flank.They had taken advantage of the gap left in our line by the falling back of Perry’s Brigade, and had filed around a piece of timber on our right…and were rapidly getting into our rear. Posey had not advanced on our left,and a strong body of the enemy were advancing down the side of the mountain to gain our left flank and rear.Thus we were perfectly isolated from any portion of our army, a mile in its advance, and although we had gained the enemy’s works and captured his guns, we were about to be sacrificed to the bad management and cowardly conduct of others.For a moment it seemed that all was lost, and that our little band would all be inevitably killed or captured.Col.[Joseph] Wasden of the 22d, had been killed,Col.[William] Gibson,of the 48th,seriously wounded,and while at the enemy’s guns with his hands on the hausse, Major [George] Ross, of the 2d Battalion, had just been shot down, and nearly all the company officers were killed or wounded. Everything looked gloomy in the extreme,but the men remained firm and cool to the last.The enemy had now got completely in our rear, and were advancing upon us over the very ground we had passed in attacking them.A large force concentrated in our front and artillery brought into position and opened upon us.There was a hope still.We must face about and cut our way out of the net work of bristling bayonets which stretched around us on every side.With cheer and in good order we turned our faces to the enemy in our rear, and abandoning our captured guns we rushed upon the flanking column of the enemy and literally cut our way out, and fell back about one half the distance we had gone over, and then reformed our lines.
But alas, very few of the brave spirits who so recently had passed over that line buoyant in spirit and confident of success, now answered to the order that calmly sang out upon the air,“Fall in,Wright’s Brigade, and here we’ll stand again.” Of over 1,600 that went into the fight, 600 were all that answered to that sad task. What a small force. 1,000 men in a small Brigade, killed, wounded and taken prisoners. I hope and believe that quite a number were captured uninjured,and particularly so in the 48th and 2d Battalion, as they were completely surrounded and somewhat detached from the balance of the Brigade.A great many of our wounded were necessarily left in the enemy’s hands, as we had to fall back too rapidly to permit our bringing them off.
I do not recollect an instance in ancient or modern warfare where so small a body of troops, entirely unsupported, as this Brigade was, has accomplished so much; charging through an open field for more than a mile; attacking a vastly superior force, strongly posted on a mountain, climbing the side of the mountain, driving the enemy’s infantry from behind a stone wall, shooting off the gunners and capturing twenty pieces of artillery, then when completely surrounded by swarms of the enemy’s infantry, literally cutting their way out and retiring in good order, preventing the enemy from pursuing them.This Wright’s Brigade has done,and the fear-scorning heroes may well be proud of their achievement.
Although I know their character well knew they were capable of doing what any other troops dare do,I must confess that I was surprised at the vigor of their attack and the tenacity with which they held their ground under such adverse circumstances; and above all, at the true heroism displayed in their determination not to be captured, when the enemy’s lines were almost completely around them.Of all the field officers engaged in this fearful assault Col. [E. J.] Walker alone came out untouched.One Captain and one Lieutenant are all the officers left in the 2d Battalion, the balance either killed or wounded. In the 3d Ga.,all have fallen but two.The loss is equally great in the 48th and 22d.Each regiment lost its Adjutant, though I hope none are mortaly wounded. Adjutant Cummings, of the 48th is in the hands of the enemy.His wound is not a dangerous one. So is Adjutant Daniels, of the 22d, who is reported dangerously wounded: No troops were ever led by braver men than the gallant officers who led this charge.Many instances of individual bravery occurred, which I would gladly give you, but it would swell my letter into too large proportion.Their country will do them justice,when the history of this campaign.
But while our loss is heavy,we are gratified to know that the enemy’s is tenfold greater.Their dead lay in piles around their guns,and the mountain side from the foot of the slope to the summit was literally covered with their dead and wounded. While our Brigade was thus contending in the centre two divisions of Longstreet’s corps were vigorously pushing them on our right.I learn that Hood and McLaws drove the enemy for some distance,inflicting considerable loss but were unable to dislodge them from their strong inner line on the crest of the mountain.Wilcox also, in our division, drove them for some distance,and would no doubt have succeeded in getting into their stronghold but not Perry’s Brigade,which was on his left,(our right,) gave way in the manner in which I have already described.
Night now having set in, the battle closed,and the survivors of that bloody day were engaged until nearly dawn in bringing out and taking care of their wounded comrades. I need not tell you that sleep was not thought of by us on that night.
Third Day’s Battle
Early next morning 55 pieces of artillery were placed in position just in front of the right of our Brigade and sixty odd pieces put in position on my left. Pickett’s Division of Longstreet’s corps…had come up during the night, and were put in position….I heard that a general attack was to be made along our whole line,first making feints upon the enemy’s extreme right and left flanks,and then concentrating the fire of the 120 guns,which I have just spoken of upon their centre, to make a vigorous assault with a heavy fire upon that portion of their line, (the centre) which we had carried the day before. All the arrangements having been made…at ten minutes before 1 P.M., our batteries opened fire.
Never before have I witnessed or heard such a cannonade.The earth fairly trembled under the shock, as peal after peal in rapid succession rolled along the mountain side.Then the enemy’s guns opened, some seventy-five or a hundred.My heavens! You can’t imagine the noise—the trembling of the leaves—the rocking of the hills—the awful reverberation from the mountain side—the sudden roar which continuously rolled along the beneath— the shrieking of the shells as they came thick as hail around, above and below you—everywhere the air was filled with hideous noise,the bursting of shells,the incessant cracking and crashing of falling trees and boughs which were cut down by solid shot.The pattering of shrapnel as they were literally poured along our whole line, combined to make a scene which once witnessed can never be forgotten, and which no pen, however gifted, can adequately describe. God grant that I shall never witness such another.And thus for one hour and a half the fire continued, during which time nearly all the enemy’s guns were silenced.
Now the infantry is brought up for the assault,Pickett’s Division in advance,then Heth’s (now commanded by Gen. [J. J.] Pettigrew, senior Brigadier) in enchelon on the left. On the men swept. Our Brigade being held in reserve, enabled us to take a position where we had a fair view of the whole field, and I am sure that I have never seen troops start better than this storming party did.Pickett pushed firmly and steadily forward,going over the identical ground our Brigade had passed the day before. Pettigrew followed in fine order.Our artillery now ceased firing,and upon inquiry,I learned they had exhausted their ammunition! And at such a time! There is Pickett and Pettigrew half across the valley; the enemy have run up their guns, and are pouring a deadly fire into their flank—The enemy’s infantry have opened upon them—they fall on every side—Generals, Colonels, Captains, Lieutenants,privates,all thick as autumn leaves they strew the plain.
And our guns, will they not re-open? Is there no succor for those brave spirits who are so nobly and steadily bearing their country’s flag in that terrible fight? Surely our artillery will help them now—this is the crisis! My God! all is as silent as death along our whole line of artillery;one hundred and twenty pieces of cannon standing mute and dumb while the very flower of the Confederate army is grappling on unequal terms in a struggle of life and death with an enemy strongly posted in a mountain fastness, and admirably protected by well served artillery. I ask myself, “can they stand this fire much longer?”and I see Pickett still vigorously pushing on dealing a deadly fire at every step. The enemy fell back from his front—they take shelter behind the stone wall—still Pickett advances. On the left Pettigrew’s line wavers—it pauses—all is lost—it falls back—it runs. Some of the officers attempt to rally their men,but a great many are scampering away in front of their men helter-skelter, pel-mell; here they come.
But one thought seems to actuate them all, and that is to gain a safe place in the rear. Pickett left alone, gained the stone wall—has gone over it—is in the enemy’s works—has silenced their guns. I can see with my glass our battle flag waving in the enemy’s batteries, where but a moment since the Yankee colors floated in the breeze.Take care,brave Virginians,you are in a trap;the support on your right and left has fallen back. Our Brigade was caught there yesterday,and there upon their right a heavy column of Yankee infantry is deploying around a point of woods to gain their rear—it is done—they are surrounded.They now attempt to cut their way out,but many are killed and wounded, and many more are taken prisoners.
I learn that a stand of colors fell into the enemy’s hands,and the greater part of the regiments.And thus again after whipping the enemy, after driving him from and capturing his guns,our gallant men are driven back because they were not properly supported.Seeing Pickett falling back, with the enemy pursuing,without orders, Wright’s Brigade went to his support,and protected his retreat….
…I cannot understand why Ewell’s corps and all of A. P. Hill’s were not engaged in this day’s fighting. I am satisfied that if they had been, our victory would have been complete.As it was, while we inflicted terrible loss upon the enemy— greatly larger than our own—we failed to carry his position.We captured in the two days’ fighting between ten and twelve thousand prisoners, and I have no doubt that their loss in killed and wounded amounts to over thirty thousand. Still, we did not carry their works, and we cannot fairly claim any decided victory.
Our loss has been quite heavy—principally sustained during in the charge of our brigade on the 2d,and Pickett’s Division on the 3d….
Among our killed and wounded we have seventeen Generals; Major Generals Hood, in arm; Pender in leg; Heath, in head, neither very seriously; [Maj. Gen. Isaac] Tremble in leg,which has been amputated; and Brig. Gen’ls [Richard] Garnet, [James] Kemper and [William] Barksdale, [A.M.] Scales, [Paul] Semmes, [James] Archer and [Wade] Hampton, wounded. I learn that five other Brig. Gen’ls were wounded, but do not recollect their names.
On Saturday, the fourth, there was no general engagement. Indeed, both armies seemed to need and take rest…. On Saturday evening our army commenced moving.
Eric A. Campbell is a park ranger-historian at Gettysburg National Battlefield and a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War. He is the author of AGrandTerrible Dramma:TheCivil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.