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Captured on July 1, 1863, and assigned to tend to wounded troops, this spunky Union cavalryman had an unforgettable experience: he watched Pickett’s Charge from a grandstand seat on a rooftop.

From 50 years ago: The author of this hitherto unpublished eyewitness account of the Battle of Gettysburg was Asa Sleath Hardman, who served with the 3rd Indiana Cavalry. After his discharge on September 7, 1864, Hardman was married to Louisa Sheads, sister of Carrie Sheads, who ran a girls’ school on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. Hardman lived in Gettysburg for three years after the war. After the death of his wife, he remarried and moved to Indianapolis as a postal employee. In 1882 he moved to Florida, becoming postmaster of Leesburg in 1892. He died there on February 14, 1920, at the age of 81, a venerated civic leader. Although Hardman’s account of the Battle of Gettysburg does not jibe with published studies in all particulars, it is remarkable for its human interest aspects as well as the unusual description of Pickett’s Charge. His reminiscence was made available to Civil War Times Illustrated by a granddaughter, Mrs. Elisabeth Geiger, of Leesburg, Fla. The editors have eliminated certain passages dealing with events at Gettysburg which Hardman did not actually witness and in several instances have left out irrelevant personal comments.

Buford’s Cavalry Division, to which I belonged, was the first to enter Gettysburg on the afternoon of June 29, 1863. Early on July 1 it was ordered into line of battle just west of Seminary Ridge, and advanced to meet the enemy, then marching in full force upon Gettysburg. This division did not advance far before it met Hill’s corps, 10,000 strong, with Heth’s division leading. When Buford drew up his line, he seemed to sense the desperate work before him and ordered all poorly mounted men to the rear. Five men were ordered out of our company, myself among them. Going to the rear, we turned our disabled horses into the corral and three of us returned. Not finding our regiment where we expected, we lingered near the crest of Seminary Ridge until the approach of Wadsworth’s division of Reynolds’ corps, when we at once became spectators of the operations in our front between Willoughby Run and Seminary Ridge.

Shortly after Wadsworth’s division took position, I had the satisfaction of seeing General Archer with 800 of his command captured at Willoughby Run, and after the Rebels had turned Cutler’s right, I saw the majority of General Davis’ Mississippi brigade surrounded in the railroad cut and compelled to surrender.

Later in the day when our forces had fallen back to Seminary Ridge, my post of observation was on the south bank of the railroad cut, near the stone barn belonging to the venerable Mary Marshall.

Up to two o’clock the battle was in our favor, but it then became evident that our hard pressed line would be compelled by overpowering numbers to retire from Seminary Ridge. Already the combined forces of Rodes and Early were chasing the XI Corps through the streets of Gettysburg in the rear of I Corps.

Slowly the veterans of the I Corps turned to obey the order to retire, and although hard pressed they stubbornly contested every inch of ground and retired in good order.

Among the last regiments to leave the field was the 97th New York, commanded by Colonel Charles Wheelock. I followed this regiment, but the men were almost instantly surrounded, standing in a vortex of fire from both flanks and rear, with their cartridge boxes empty. Colonel Wheelock encouraged them to fight with the naked bayonet, hoping to cut his way out, but finding all efforts in vain, he took from my pocket a white handkerchief and waved it in token of surrender.

For an instant the firing ceased and a Rebel officer jumped onto the railroad grade and asked if we wished to surrender. A Union sergeant, whose leg  was shattered by a cannon ball, was lying just around the angle of the house near by. He had not seen the colonel’s signal, and fired at the Rebel on the railroad, wounding him. The Rebels opened fire again with tremendous effect.

The colonel then went to the house and asked for a large white cloth. A table cloth was handed to him by a lady inside. This the Rebels acknowledged, and quit firing. The colonel went into the basement and sat down near the door, for he was thoroughly exhausted. I followed to where the colonel was sitting when a Rebel sergeant came in with a file of men and declared that he would show us some “Southern grit.”

Seeing Colonel Wheelock trying to break his sword, he demanded the weapon, but the colonel declared he would never surrender it. The Rebel drew a revolver and told him to surrender his blade or die. But the colonel had been in close quarters before. Still grasping his sword, he drew himself up proudly and throwing open his uniform said, “Shoot if you will, but I will guard this sword with my life.”

At this moment an old gentleman who belonged to the house, stepped between them and begged them “not to be rash,” but he was thrust aside and the Rebel repeated his threat. Then the old man’s daughter stepped between them, and begged the enemy not to kill a man so completely in his power; there was enough bloodshed, and why add another victim to the list? Then turning to the colonel, she pleaded to him to yield his sword and save his life, that by refusing he would lose both, and the government would lose a valuable officer.

But the colonel still refused, saying, “The sword was given to me by friends for meritorious conduct, and I promised to guard it sacredly, and I will, while I live.”

Fortunately, at this moment the attention of the Rebel was drawn away by the entrance of other prisoners, and the young lady quickly unclasped the colonel’s sword and hid it in the folds of her dress. When the Rebel returned, the colonel told him he had surrendered and had given his sword to someone who had gone on out.

This artifice succeeded and the colonel, with the rest of us, fell in line to march to the rear, many no doubt to find a more terrible death, and fill an unknown grave.

By an impulse of common humanity, the Southern officer left seven of us to tend the wounded, and by some unaccountable good fortune, I was one of the seven selected, and remained on the field in that immediate vicinity during the remainder of the battle.

After the Rebel lines had swept past, the wounded in our immediate vicinity claimed our undivided attention, and as fast as possible we carried into the house, a large two-story building with full basement, 72 of the worst wounded that lay in the yard.

All the night we worked, doing the best we could for the wounded who lay on the field; the most we could do was to provide temporary shelter, remove their bloody garments, bathe their wounds, and see that they had plenty of water. If they had any desire to eat and their own haversacks were empty, we supplied their wants from the full haversack of the nearest dead soldier.

Never while I live shall I forget that awful night! To hear a dozen poor fellows calling in God’s name for a drop of water, while at the same instant I held the head of another on my knee trying to force a few drops down his fast closing throat, is a sound when once heard can never be forgotten. But it was not those who clamored loudest who received our first attention. We learned to listen for the low, half-smothered groan, the long drawn fluttering sigh, the quick convulsive gasp, followed by the death rattle. The light was too dim to tell the blue from the gray, had we wished to, so both were treated alike.

The night passed like a brief dream, but with the returning day came other men, and we returned to look after those we had carried into the building. While we were making our wounded comfortable, a passing Rebel brigade halted nearby, and soon quite a crowd gathered near the well, filling canteens.

Going to the well, I engaged in conversation by a major of a Mississippi regiment, who exultantly boasted that “in less than ten days the Confederate flag would float in Baltimore, and possibly in….” The sentence was never finished, for a shell from a battery on Cemetery Hill struck the foundation of the building and shattered, hurling a fragment of granite into the major’s face, tearing away his entire lower jaw. As he lurched forward, I caught him in my arms to keep him from falling, but at that instant another Southerner—probably maddened at the death of a favorite officer—struck me a powerful blow which piled me unceremoniously in a heap in the angle of the portico, where I lay stunned for a time.

The second shell thrown by our battery was not so well aimed, and falling short, bounded with terrible force against the foundation very close to the window of a basement room, in which seven women who belonged to the house had sought refuge. If a shell should burst in that room, only a miracle could save those trembling, fainting women from death. With the help of some students, we moved the heaviest stones we could handle, and barricaded their windows to make the hiding place secure against accident.

During the preceding night, Lee’s men had planted a battery in the rear of this seminary building on the crest of the ridge. When firing opened at noon the next day, the shells from our battery searching for the Rebel battery were uncomfortably thick, and any projectile falling a little short would be very likely to strike the house. Several did crash through it and caused the wildest alarm, lest by bursting in the garret they would set fire to the house. The old gentleman who owned the house suggested that we take tubes to the roof and fill them with water to provide for possible danger from fire.

Going to the roof, I found that I had a splendid view of the battlefield in all directions. During the remainder of the battle, whenever the firing became particularly heavy, I would steal up to the roof and lying behind the big chimney to guard against a stray minie ball, would become an interested spectator for the battle.

From this post, I could see every portion of the Rebel line except Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps, which lay beyond the angle of Culp [sic] Hill and out of my line of vision.

Here I witnessed the famous charge of Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps on the third day of battle, known in history as Pickett’s Charge. There had been comparative silence along the line until nearly 2 p.m. All the forenoon Lee had been reconnoitering Meade’s position, and I knew by the continual movement of artillery and infantry that some important move was in progress.

At first, I thought Lee was preparing to retreat, but I soon found that the troops which I had seen, apparently passing to the rear, were being massed in column behind the woods west of the crest of Seminary Ridge and south of the theological seminary. I also discovered that two batteries stood where only one soon before. I did not have to wait long for an explanation of all this maneuvering, when the guns on the left of Hill’s corps gave the signal and suddenly, at two o’clock, 215 guns concentrated on Meade’s left center at the cemetery and Ziegler’s Grove. [Editor’s note: The best authorities today state that the signal gun was fired at 1 p.m. at the Peach Orchard and that 138 guns took part in the bombardment.]

For nearly two hours the horrid uproar continued. At first our batteries on Cemetery Ridge replied with spirit, but after a while the firing slackened, and then ceased. I went up to the roof to learn the cause of the silence on our side. I could see our batteries in the same place, but did not understand that the order had been given to cease firing to allow the guns to cool.

Suddenly the Rebel batteries also became silent, and while I watched, three long lines of Rebel infantry sprang out in front of their guns, and pausing a moment as if to take a long breath, seemingly pitched forward like a resistless wave that threatened to destroy everything in its path. I never saw such a sight before and I never want to see it again. It was grand, beyond my power to describe. I saw them pause an instant, and then shoot forward, with their lines as true as if on dress parade with their muskets at “right shoulder shift,” their “elbows touching the left.” As our artillery, which had suddenly found voice, ploughed great gaps in their lines, they would close up and still move forward with an impulse that seemed irresistible.

My anguish was almost unbearable as I saw them stop at the Emmitsburg Road and deliver a murderous fire. With muskets “at trail” they set up the Rebel yell, and started on a wild impetuous charge against our line only a few rods away. I heard clear and distinct above the roar of battle, the loud defiant cheer with which our men welcomed them with “bloody hands to hospitable graves,” but when I saw their first line disappear in the smoke, then their second line, and finally their third, disappear in that sulphurous canopy, and the cheering on both sides cease as the two lines locked in the strong embrace of death, it seemed my heart quit beating.

I gave up all for lost, but after waiting for what seemed to me an age, I heard the well known huzza, and immediately saw the whole earth alive with Johnnies, wildly fleeing for shelter from the pitiless storm of lead and iron. I, too, caught the spirit of the occasion, and crouching in the valley of that roof, cheered as lustily as any of them, and ten minutes later did the best job of my life to convince a Rebel sergeant that not one of our band had seen or heard anything that would create the slightest desire on our part to cheer.

As night approached, we tried to gather any information as to the condition and intentions of the enemy. As fast as any news was gained it would be brought in and reported to the wounded officers and to our surgeons, who were supposed to know more about the situation than we did.

A short time before sunset, after the repulse of Lee’s storming column, we observed an advance on our left, from the vicinity of Round Top. The firing began to give evidence of a considerable engagement, and seemed to be drawing nearer to us. Knowing that Lee’s entire right was much demoralized and not in good shape to offer formidable resistance, we dared to hope that Meade knew of this weakened condition also and was following up the repulse with a vigorous attack. But in a short time, the firing ceased altogether, and we abandoned any hope in that direction.

By the time it became fully dark, it was evident to us that Lee was preparing to retreat. When the conviction ripened into certainty, the question then was, “How could we get word into Meade’s lines?” After canvassing the matter we learned that Doctor E.W. Beck, Surgeon-in-Chief of Buford’s cavalry division, and former surgeon of the 3d Indiana Cavalry, would undertake the dangerous mission.

Dr. Beck made his way stealthily to the Union lines, and was halted by a sentry. “I then made myself known,” he wrote later, “and said I had important information for the general in command. Several officers came out, and I told them my story, and said if our lines would move immediately many of the enemy could be captured. They believed me, and quick and sharp the orders were passed along our lines, and without a moment’s delay our men pursued the retreating Rebels through the streets and alleys, and in a short time had taken four or five thousand prisoners. This was at 2:15 o’clock on the morning of July 4, long before the sun tinged the eastern horizon.” [Editor’s note: Dr. Beck’s claim of the capture of so many Confederates is unsubstantiated.]

Thus an Indiana man, at great personal risk, performed a self-imposed task, which was of great value to our forces; but in all the histories of this battle, not one writer has ever given him credit for it. He also gave information of the demoralized condition of Lee’s right flank, and of the evident intention of the enemy to retreat without a renewal of the fight, yet the historians are unanimous in saying that Meade was not informed until late on July 5 of Lee’s intention to retreat. It was Antietam repeated, Lee occupying a thin line entrenched, making a big show, while hurrying to the rear was his immense train of plunder and prisoners. As soon as Ewell’s corps was withdrawn from the town, it took position along Seminary Ridge, and at once began repairing and strengthening the breastwork, and by daylight on July 4 was apparently ready to receive any force that could be brought against it.

In fact, Lee appeared to invite attack. But the prisoners like us, who were held on the field, saw the true state of affairs. Twice during the day, we attempted to send a messenger into town, ostensibly to buy bread for the wounded, but really to carry the news to our lines of the Rebel movement to the rear. But each time our messenger was turned back with his basket empty and his message undelivered.

That night about 9 o’clock, a Rebel officer took our names and regiments and informed us that we had been paroled for the purpose of tending the Yankee wounded, and if found serving in the ranks again before we were exchanged, we would at once be shot. Of course we did not object, but found we were watched as closely as ever, and the slightest movement toward our lines was followed by the word, “Halt,” with the usual complimentary allusion to a canine ancestry, which seemed to mean business, and we concluded not to try the experiment. It was not until Sunday morning, July 5, that we saw our flag flying west of Seminary Ridge, and felt that we were again inside our own lines and free to go into town without the fear of being halted by a bullet. There were now plenty of citizens to tend the wounded, so we lost no time in reporting to the officer of the day, and were at once assigned to duty helping to care for the wounded there. This ended our captivity, during which we were in no way mistreated by the Rebels, but had not had a morsel of food, other than that obtained from haversacks of the dead.

The battle was now over, and Lee with his broken and shattered army was in full retreat.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.