Letter from Major-General Henry Heth, of A. P. Hill's Corps, A. N. V.
[The following letter from General Heth was originally addressed to the Secretary of our Society, and was duly forwarded to our distinguished foreign correspondent, whose letter of enquiry to us called it forth.
It has been recently published in the Philadelphia Times, but will be none the less acceptable to
our readers as one of our Gettysburg series.]
Richmond, Va., June, 1877.
Rev. J. Wm. Jones, D. D.,
Secretary Southern Historical Society.
My Dear Sir: ----, referring to the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, says "The Army of Northern Virginia, when it invaded the Northern States, was more powerful than it had ever been
before." If----, in using the term "more powerful" means that the numerical strength of the Army
of Northern Virginia, on this occasion, was greater than ever before, he is wrong, as the subjoined
statement of the strength of that army, taken from the official returns now on file in Washington,
Seven days' fight, 1862........................................80,000.................115,000
Wilderness, 1864................................................. 63,981...............141,000
(*Field return, Army of Northern Virginia, May 31, 1863: Infantry, 54,356; artillery, 4,460; cavalry, 9,563. Total, 68,352. From this total must be deducted Ewell's loss at Winchester, the details left on the south side of the Potomac to guard persons and property captured at Winchester, and also the loss in the cavalry, It must be borne in mind that the cavalry did not join General Lee at Gettysburg until late in the evening of July 2.
**Hooker telegraphs to Stanton, June 27, 1863: Strength of rank and file, 105,000 adding
commissioned officers not included in above, 7,000. Total, 112,000.)
It has been said that the morale of an army is to numbers as three to one. If this be correct the Army of Northern Virginia was never stronger than on entering Pennsylvania, and I am perfectly satisfied in my own mind, that this fact entered very largely in determining General Lee to make the attack on the 3d of July, at Gettysburg; for there was not an officer or soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia, from General Lee to the drummer boy, who did not believe, when we invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, that it was able to drive the Federal army into the Atlantic ocean. Not that the fighting capacity of its great adversary was under-estimated, but possibly the Army of Northern Virginia had an overweening opinion of its own prowess.
Just here let us take a retrospective view, and consider what the Army of Northern Virginia had in one year accomplished. In 1862, eighty thousand strong, it attacked the Federal army, one hundred thousand strong, and after seven days' fighting drove that army to shelter under its gunboats. Following up this success, after a series of engagements, Pope was driven across the Potomac. Then followed the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), when possibly the fighting capacity of the Army of Northern Virginia never shone brighter. Its numbers reduced by fighting, fatigue, and hard marching to less than forty thousand strong, it gained a drawn battle against its adversary, who numbered nearly, if not quite one hundred thousand men. Then came Fredericksburg, where, with its ranks recuperated to seventy-eight thousand, it hurled across the Rappahannock river an adversary who had crossed with one hundred and ten thousand men. Then follows that most daring and wonderful battle, Chancellorsville, where it again triumphed, fifty thousand strong, against its adversary, numbering one hundred and thirty-two thousand, compelling him again to seek shelter behind the Rappahannock. After such a series of successes, with such disparity of numbers, is it wonderful that the Army of Northern Virginia and its great leader should have believed it capable of accomplishing any thing in the power of an army to accomplish ?
----says "it was a mistake to invade the Northern States at all," and then gives very clearly and concisely his reasons for entertaining this opinion. Some of the reasons substantiating this view I shall answer hereafter. I think from ----'s standpoint, and especially looking at the sequel of the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, he is correct, and I have no doubt that by far the greater number of historians who may follow him will entertain like opinions. It is, possibly, very natural for myself and other officers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia to permit our judgments to be biased by the opinions of one whom we loved, admired and trusted in, as much as we did, in any opinion entertained by our great Commander. I will state General Lee's views in regard to the invasion of Pennsylvania, as given by him to me and to another. A short time before General Grant crossed the Rapidan, in the spring of 1864, General Lee said to me: "If I could do so--unfortunately I cannot--I would again cross the Potomac and invade Pennsylvania. I believe it to be our true policy, notwithstanding the failure of last year. An invasion of the enemy's country breaks up all of his preconceived plans, relieves our country of his presence, and we subsist while there on his resources. The question of food for this army gives me more trouble and uneasiness than every thing else combined; the absence of the army from Virginia gives our people an opportunity to collect supplies ahead. The legitimate fruits of a victory, if gained in Pennsylvania, could be more readily reaped than on our own soil. We would have been in a few days' march of Philadelphia, and the occupation of that city would have given us peace." It is very difficult for any one not connected with the Army of Northern Virginia to realize how straitened we were for supplies of all kinds, especially food. The ration of a general officer was double that of a private, and so meager was that double supply that frequently to appease my hunger I robbed my horse of a handful of corn, which, parched in the fire, served to allay the cravings of nature. What must have been the condition of the private ?
After the battle of Gettysburg the President of the Confederate States, desiring to communicate with General Lee, sent Major Seddon, a brother of the -Secretary of War, to General Lee's headquarters, when the following conversation took place: General Lee said, "Major Seddon, from what you have observed, are the people as much depressed at the battle of Gettysburg as the newspapers appear to indicate?" Upon Major Seddon's reply that he thought they were, General Lee continued: "To show you how little value is to be attached to popular sentiment in such matters, I beg to call your attention to the popular feeling after the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. At Fredericksburg we gained a battle, inflicting very serious loss on the enemy in men and material; our people were greatly elated--I was much depressed. We had really accomplished nothing; we had not gained a foot of ground, and I knew the enemy could easily replace the men he had lost, and the loss of material was, if any thing, rather beneficial to him, as it gave an opportunity to contractors to make money. At Chancellorsville we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight--I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued. After the battle of Chancellorsville matters stood thus: Hooker in my front, with an army more than a hundred thousand strong; Foster preparing to advance into North Carolina; Dix preparing to advance on Richmond from Fortress Monroe; Tyler in the Kanawha Valley preparing to unite with Milroy, who was in the Valley of Virginia, collecting men and material for an advance on Staunton. To oppose these movements I had sixty thousand men. It would have been folly to have divided my army; the armies of the enemy were too far apart for me to attempt to fall upon them in detail. I considered the problem in every possible phase, and to my mind it resolved itself into the choice of one of two things either to retire on Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania. I chose the latter. Milroy was in my route; I crushed him, and as soon as the First corps of my army crossed the Potomac, orders were issued countermanding the advance of Foster and Dix. As soon as my Second corps crossed, Hooker loosened his hold, and old Virginia was freer of Federal troops than she had ever been since the commencement of the war. Had my cavalry been in place my plans would have been very different, and I think the result very different."
In speaking of the fight of the 3d of July at Gettysburg, General Lee said: "I shall ever believe if General Pender had remained on his horse half an hour longer we would have carried the enemy's position. After Pender fell the command of his division devolved on an officer*(*I am perfectly satisfied that General Lee did not intend by his remark to cast the slightest censure upon the officer referred to. He simply stated a fact which all military men will understand and appreciate. General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had full confidence in this officer's skill. His courage was known to the entire army.) unknown to the division; hence the failure of Pickett's receiving the support of this division. Our loss was heavy at Gettysburg; but in my opinion no greater than it would have been from the series of battles I would have been compelled to fight had I remained in Virginia." "General Lee," says Major Seddon "then rose from his seat, and with an emphatic gesture said, 'and sir, we did whip them at Gettysburg, and it will be seen for the next six months that that army will be as quiet as a sucking dove.'" The Army of the Potomac made no aggressive movement, saving the fiasco known as Mine Run, from the 3d of July, 1863, until General Grant crossed the Rapidan in May, 1864, precisely ten months afterward.
Whatever opinions may be entertained in regard to the details of the battle of Gettysburg, whether if Stonewall Jackson had been in command of Hill's corps on the first day--July 1st--a different result would have been obtained; whether Longstreet unnecessarily delayed his attack on the second day; whether, as ---- expresses it, "the way in which the fights of the second day were directed does not show the same co-ordination which insured the success of the Southern armies at Gaines' Mill and Chancellorsville;" whether the fight on the second of July should have been at all; whether the attack on the third, known as "Pickett's charge," should have been made, or, whether the failure of this attack was due to the fact that General Lee's orders were shamefully disobeyed, in its not being supported, thereby causing him to lose the battle--or, whether General Lee, seeing the great strength of the enemy's position should have turned it, are opinions upon which men will differ; but they sink into insignificance, in my judgment, when compared with the great cause which brought about the failure of the Pennsylvania campaign of 1863.
The failure to crush the Federal army in Pennsylvania in 1863, in the opinion of almost all the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, can be expressed in five words--the absence of our cavalry.
Train a giant for an encounter and he can be whipped by a pigmy--if you put out his eyes. The eyes of an army are its cavalry. Before Ewell crossed the Potomac General Lee wrote to General Stuart, commanding the cavalry, in substance, as follows: "Ewell will cross the Potomac on a certain day, at a certain point. Hill will follow Ewell, crossing on a given day at a given point; Longstreet will hold the gaps in the mountains and protect the crossing of these two corps; after Hill has crossed Longstreet will vacate the gaps, and follow Hill; on Longstreet vacating the gaps in the mountains, you will seize them and protect Longstreet's crossing; then follow Longstreet, throw yourself on the right flank of the army, watch the enemy, give me all the information you can gather of his movements, and collect supplies." General Stuart, probably thinking be could carry out General Lee's orders, and at the same time make a brilliant dash toward and threatening Washington, worked by his right flank, separating himself from Longstreet, crossing the Potomac between the enemy and Washington city--making a swoop toward Washington, then turning west to join the Army of Northern Virginia, when he found the enemy had crossed the Potomac and were between him and that army. This necessitated his riding entirely around the Federal army, and brought him, whether from necessity or not, I cannot say, to Carlisle, Pa. From this point he struck south and joined the Army of Northern Virginia, being late in the evening of July second. It is thus evident that so far as deriving any assistance from his cavalry from the -- of June to the evening of July 2, it might as well have had no existence. Every officer who conversed with General Lee for several days previous to the battle of Gettysburg, well remembers having heard such expressions as these: "Can you tell me where General Stuart is?" "Where on earth is my cavalry?" "Have you any news of the enemy's movements?" "What is the enemy going to do?" "If the enemy does not find us, we must try and find him, in the absence of our cavalry, as best we can!" The eyes of the giant were out; he knew not where to strike; a movement in any direction might prove a disastrous blunder.
I have stated above that General Lee's purpose in invading Pennsylvania was to break up the enemy's combinations, to draw him from our own territory, and to subsist his army on that of the enemy's. While this is true, his intention was to strike his enemy the very first available opportunity that offered--believing he could, when such an opportunity offered, crush him. And I here beg leave to differ from ----, when referring to the invasion of Pennsylvania, he says: "The proof is that as soon as the latter (Meade) began to move, Lee, who had undertaken nothing but a raid on too large a scale, found himself so much endangered that he was obliged to fight an offensive battle on the ground where Meade chose to await him." This determination to strike his enemy was not, from the position he found himself, consequent upon invasion, but from a leading characteristic of the man. General Lee, not excepting Jackson, was the most aggressive man in his army. This cannot and will not be contradicted, I am satisfied. General Lee had he seen fit, could have assumed a defensive position, and popular opinion in the Northern States would have forced the commander of the Federal army to attack.
And further, to corroborate the fact that General Lee was not compelled to attack Meade "where Meade chose to wait for him," I will show, I am confident, that the "Battle of Gettysburg" was the result purely of an accident, for which I am probably, more than anyone else, accountable. Napoleon is said to have remarked that "a dog fight might determine the result of a great battle." Almost as trivial a circumstance determined the battle of Gettysburg being fought at Gettysburg. It is well known that General Meade had chosen another point as his battlefield. On the 29th of June, 1863, General Lee's army was disposed as follows: Longstreet's corps, at or near Chambersburg; Ewell's corps, which had been pushed east as far as York, had received orders to countermarch and concentrate on Hill's corps, which lay on and at the base of South Mountain; the leading division (Heth's) occupying Cashtown, at the base of the mountain; the cavalry not heard from, probably at or near Carlisle. Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg, eight miles distant from Cashtown, and greatly needing shoes for my men, I directed General Pettigrew to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.
On the 30th of June General Pettigrew, with his brigade, went near Gettysburg, but did not enter the town, returning the same evening to Cashtown, reporting that he had not carried out my orders, as Gettysburg was occupied by the enemy's cavalry, and that some of his officers reported hearing drums beating on the farther side of the town; that under these circumstances he did not deem it advisable to enter Gettysburg. About this time General Hill rode up, and this information was given him. He remarked, the only force at Gettysburg is cavalry, probably a detachment of observation. I am just from General Lee, and the information he has from his scouts corroborates that I have received from mine--that is, the enemy are still at Middleburg, and have not yet struck their tents." I then said, if there is no objection, I will take my division to-morrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes! Hill replied, "None in the world."
On July 1st I moved my division from Cashtown in the direction of Gettysburg, reaching the heights, a mile (more or less) from the town, about 9 o'clock A. M. No opposition had been made and no enemy discovered. While the division was coming up I placed several batteries in position and shelled the woods to the right and left of the town. No reply was made. Two brigades were then deployed to the right and left of the railroad leading into Gettysburg, and, with the railroad as a point of direction, were ordered to advance and occupy Gettysburg. These brigades, on moving forward, soon struck the enemy, which proved to be Reynolds' corps of the Federal army, and were driven back with some loss. This was the first intimation that General Lee had that the enemy had moved from the point he supposed him to occupy, possibly thirty miles distant.
My division was then formed in a wooded ravine to the right of the railroad, the ground rising in front and in rear. The enemy was evidently in force in my front. General Rodes, commanding a division of Ewell's corps en route to Cashtown, was following a road running north of Gettysburg. Rodes hearing the firing at Gettysburg, faced by the left flank and approached the town. He soon became heavily engaged, and seeing this, I sought for and found General Lee. Saying to the General: "Rodes is very heavily engaged, had I not better attack?" General Lee replied: "No; I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement to-day-- Longstreet is not up." Returning to my division, I soon discovered that the enemy were moving troops from my front and pushing them against Rodes. I reported this fact to General Lee and again requested to be permitted to attack. Permission was given. My division numbered some seven thousand muskets. I found in my front a heavy skirmish line and two lines of battle. My division swept over these without halting. My loss was severe. In twenty-five minutes I lost twenty-seven hundred men, killed and wounded. The last I saw or remember of this day's fight was seeing the enemy in my front completely and utterly routed, and my division in hot pursuit. I was then shot and rendered insensible for some hours. I mention this attack, made by my division on the first of July, and its results, to show, as far as my observation and opinion goes, that ---- is wrong in supposing that the Federal troops at Gettysburg fought "ten times better than in Virginia." The Federal troops fought quite as well when we attacked them on the second day at Chancellorsville, and better on the 5th of May in the Wilderness, and again at Spotsylvania Courthouse. I speak, of course, of my individual experience and observation in those several engagements.*(*The sentimental idea desired to be conveyed by ----, in saying that "the Federal troops fought ten times better at Gettysburg than In Virginia," is based upon the supposition that troops are much more willing to die when fighting on their own soil and in its defense. Attacking a sentiment is not popular, I know. I am not singular, I am satisfied, In expressing the opinion that not one man in a thousand engaged in battle ever thinks what soil he is fighting on, but would rather be on any other soil than just that soil at that time. Far different emotions fill the breasts of men at such times. I confess I am matter-of-fact enough to believe that Leonidas and his celebrated three hundred would not have all died at Thermopylae but for the fact that they were surrounded and could not get away. Human nature was pretty much the same two thousand three Hundred and fifty-seven years ago as it is to-day. The part that the uninitiated would have sentiment to play in warfare is very sure to be eradicated by actual participation in such a war as raged in this country from 1860 to 1864.)
The fight at Gettysburg on July 1 was without order or system, the several divisions attacking the enemy in their front as they arrived on the field--nor do I see how there could have been a systematic plan of battle formed, as I have, I think, clearly shown that we accidentally stumbled into this fight.
Longstreet's attack on July 2 was, in my judgment, made entirely too late in the day. If it could not have been made earlier, it should not have been made at all. I was by General Lee's side when this attack was made, and the thought occurred to me then that if Longstreet was successful night would rob him of the legitimate fruits of a victory. The attack on July 3, known as "Pickett's charge," made by Pickett's division, numbering some forty-five hundred strong, and my own shattered division, under General Pettigrew, numbering about forty-three hundred muskets, unsupported, was, as was said of the famous charge of the six hundred at Balaklava, "ties grande, mais c'est ne pas la guerre."
In justice to General Lee it must be here stated that orders were given by him for other troops to attack at the same time, which orders were not obeyed. Who should shoulder this responsibility I know not. I think the fight of the 3d of July was a mistake; that General Lee should have so manoeuvred as to have drawn Meade from his stronghold; and such I believe to have been General Lee's views after the fight, as he remarked to me, at Orange Courthouse, during the winter of 1863-64, when, animadverting upon the criticisms made upon the Gettysburg fight, especially referring to the fight of July 3, "after it is all over, as stupid a fellow as I am can see the mistakes that were made"; adding, "I notice, however, my mistakes are never told me until it is too late, and you, and all my officers, know that I am always ready and anxious to have their suggestions." The fact is, General Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia, as it then existed, could accomplish anything.
Had our cavalry been in position, General Lee would have known of Reynolds' approach in the direction of Gettysburg twenty-four hours before this corps reached Gettysburg. General Lee could and probably would, had he known the enemy were in motion, have occupied Gettysburg on the 29th or 30th of June, and rendered his position impregnable.
Had our cavalry been in position, General Lee, if he saw proper, could have permitted Reynolds' corps to have occupied Gettysburg as it did--but instead of this corps being unmasked by two brigades of my division, it would have been attacked by Longstreet, Ewell and Hill's corps. In that case the fate of this corps no one can doubt; and had the enemy thrown forward reinforcements as he did, they would have been crushed in detail.
Had our cavalry been in position, the chances are that the battle never would have been fought at Gettysburg; but whether there or elsewhere, the battle would have been planned and digested with that consummate skill and boldness which characterized the plans of the greatest of American soldiers in his seven days' fights around Richmond, his discomfiture of Pope, his Chancellorsville fight, and his series of battles in 1864, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 4, pages 151-160)