Although literature on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg is abundant, this letter by Confederate Captain Joseph Graham offers a different perspective on the fight, particularly its final hours. An eyewitness, Graham notes “too feeble determination” as a reason for the failure of “Pickett’s Charge,” a famous, desperate rush against the center of the Union lines on July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle.
This letter to his father, William A. Graham, a former Whig governor and conservative Confederate senator-elect, is characteristically thoughtful and literate. However, in his enthusiasm for Confederate arms Captain Graham errs when he concludes that Confederate artillery had silenced the Union’s guns just before the awesome charge. To the contrary, Federal artillery was concentrated and effective, as Major General George E. Pickett’s Southerners discovered.
Joseph Graham (1837-1907) graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1857 and from the University of North Carolina in 1859. When war came, he abandoned his nascent medical practice to join the “Charlotte Artillery.” This unit entered state service as Company C, 10th North Carolina (later the 1st North Carolina Artillery). At Gettysburg, armed with three 3-inch rifled cannon, one 12-pounder howitzer, and two bronze 6-pounder smoothbore guns, “Graham’s Battery” was assigned to Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Corps. Young Graham had four brothers who were Confederate officers, and was cousin-in-law to general officers Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Daniel Harvey Hill, and Rufus Barringer.
Graham’s original letter is in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It was published in The Papers of William A. Graham.
Joseph Graham to
William A. Graham
Culpepper [Culpeper] County,
July 30th., 1863.
Since I left Kinston, I have travelled between seven and Eight Hundred miles, and have been engaged in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the War. We met the Enemy about two miles from Gettysburg, Pa., on the 1st. day of this month, and drove him, after a sharp contest, lasting all day, to Cemetery Hill, beyond town, distant about half a mile. During the next morning, nothing more than skirmishing occurred, until about two and a half P.M. When Longstreet’s Corps arrived upon the Enemy’s left, and commenced engaging him in his fortified position on the “Hill.” In about half an hour, the fight became general, along our right, and right centre, (the right half of our Corps.) Our men advanced and fell back, in succession, until about six o’clock, when a desperate charge dislodged the Enemy from his position, but unfortunately our reserve was not near enough to support the brave, but decimated ranks of the assailants. Just at this time, the sun being nearly down, our Battalion was ordered up at a gallop, under the thickest fire I ever experienced to support our men, who had been overpowered by the enemy’s reinforcements, and compelled to fall back with great loss. Darkness soon put an end to the operations, and the night passed off very quietly. This night and the night previous, the Enemy spent in fortifying his positions, already very strong from the nature of the ground. it was equal, if not superior to his situation at Malvern Hill. And that I think, naturally, the finest position for defence I ever saw.
We slept upon the field, and no sound was audible, except continuous din of the enemy’s tools, and the awful groans of the wounded and dying. The next sun brought the fatal 3rd. day of July. Everything remained quiet ’till about 12 1/2 P.M. (by the watch I saw) when we began shelling their positions. On both sides I think there must have been between 350 and 400 guns in action. And after the heaviest Artillery duel of the war, (and said to have been heavier than the cannonade at Balaklava) and lasting about one hour and ten minutes, we silenced all their guns. They report that we killed and disabled nearly all their cannoneers, and they were compelled to get detachments from their Infantry to man their pieces. My men behaved very handsomely indeed, and shells from my guns blew up two of their Caissons loaded with Ammunition. The firing was terrific, and I never expect to hear anything to compare with it. We whipped them fairly in the Artillery, and they were in an elevated and fortified position, and we have no works at all. The distance was about 1 1/4 miles, over an open and gradual slope. The Infantry were to have charged through the dense smoke immediately upon the cessation of our fire, but by some mismanagement, there was quite a delay, until everything became settled, and the Enemy had time to prepare for the charge.
It was a very oppressive day, and our troops were much fatigued by the work of the two days previous, and consequently had to advance very slowly, exposed all the time to the Enemy’s fire. The most of our Artillery Ammunition then expended, we could not do much towards driving off their batteries. However, our men advanced steadily, but I fear with too feeble determination, some, up to the work, others, not so far, and so on, ’till some did not go more than 150 yds. Gen’l Pettigrew told me that when the front line gave way, (we advanced in two lines) he could see their Artillery limbering up their guns to retire from the works. Our second line was 1000 yards from the first, and of course not near enough to support it. This being the case, the first was completely routed, and broke through the second, spoiling the whole affair. I saw the whole charge, the view was open from my position, to the Enemy’s works, on the Heights. The lines moved right through my Battery, and I feared then I could see a want of resolution in our men. And I heard many say, “that is worse than Malvern Hill,” and “I don’t hardly think that position can be carried,” etc., etc., enough to make me apprehensive about the result. Davis’ Miss. Brigade was the first to give way. The slaughter is represented as terrible, but so far as I would judge, it was not near as bad as reported. And much is owing to the cowardice of the enemy, for when our men retreated, so much disordered, if they had charged upon them, our Army would have been utterly routed and ruined. It is painful to make such admissions, but they are nevertheless true. this part being over, the day passed off quietly in the centre. Gen’l Lee’s plan was excellent, but some one made a botch of it indeed. Had we carried those Heights, that Army would have been ruined. There were only two avenues of escape, and Ewell had one, and Longstreet the other. So that they must have surrendered or been cut to pieces, and entirely ruined. They would have been scattered over the whole country, and we must have had Washington City, and Baltimore. And I hoped a speedy peace. But the fortune of war was otherwise. On the night of the 3rd. Inst., after the crippling of that day, the Enemy began to retire his Artillery, and kept moving out all night, Longstreet having moved back when we could not carry their works. On the 4th. Inst. they threw out heavy lines of skirmishers, and pretended as if they intended to advance upon us. That night, about dusk, both Armies, badly crippled, retired in different directions. they towards Baltimore and we towards Hagerstown. If we had only remained ’till the next day we could have claimed the victory. But our supplies were exhausted, and a retrograde movement absolutely necessary. And for want of transportation, we left about 4500 wounded to fall into their hands. Neither side buried the dead of July 3rd. before leaving. It was an awful affair altogether.