Personal Reminiscences of Gettysburg.
By Captain John D. S. Cook,
20th N. Y. S. M., 80th New York Infantry Volunteers.
(Read December 12, 1903)
The story of the battle of Gettysburg has been told so often in history and oration that it is quite impossible to give interest to a new account. Nevertheless a simple narrative of personal experience there by one who saw only what could be seen from the ranks, who does not undertake to discuss the plan of battle nor to describe the maneuvers of the troops, but just to tell faithfully what he saw and felt himself, may yet be interesting. This I have undertaken.
My story may seem garrulous, but that is the privilege of age; it may seem egotistical, but a personal narrative can hardly be otherwise.
I commanded a company in the regiment known in service as the 20th New York Militia. It had served three months under the first call for troops in 1861, then returned to Kingston, N. Y., reorganized as a three-years regiment, and went back to service under its former name. After it had reached Virginia it was classified in the New York rolls as the 80th Volunteers, but by special order of the Secretary of War it and several other New York Militia regiments which had gone out under similar circumstances were allowed to retain their original names and number in the field.
We served with a brigade of New York troops, all but ourselves enlisted for two years in "McDowell's Corps" until after the battle of Fredericksburg, and the famous "Mud March." We were then detached and Provost-Marshal General Patrick, our former brigade commander, exchanging for us three regiments of Pennsylvanians, had us assigned to special duty under him. The three other regiments were mustered out as their time expired, and we were thus left alone. We kept busy as provost guards at Aquia Creek, at the railroad and supply stations, on trains and mailboat until the army started to follow General Lee's invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. After it had gone, we dismantled the depot at Aquia Creek, went up to Washington by steamer, and thence marched by ourselves up the Potomac to Edwardsville to rejoin the army. Here we were ordered to report to the First Army Corps, to which we had formerly belonged, then more than a day's march in advance. We followed by forced marches, reached it, and reported to General Reynolds on the afternoon of June 30, 1863.
He assigned us to duty with the Pennsylvania brigade, which had taken our place in the line when we were detached. They were enlisted for nine months, their term was nearly out, and they had never been under fire. We very naturally were not pleased with the assignment, as we were by no means sure that we could depend on them for support in action.
I am bound to say for them in passing that our apprehensions were not well founded. They fought in their own State, on their native soil, and neither their inexperience nor the natural desire to avoid danger during the short time they still had to serve prevented them from doing their duty. With one regiment, the 151st Pennsylvania, we afterwards, as will be seen, had close relations in a trying time, and I can testify for them that they behaved as gallantly as veteran.
Next morning at daylight we received orders to march. A hundred rumors circulated through the camps as to what was going on or going to happen, but it was finally understood that General Lee and his army were coming from the northwest towards Gettysburg, that the cavalry corps was falling back before him, disputing the ground as it retreated, and that the First Corps was to go to support the cavalry.
Hurriedly the boys prepared their breakfast of hard-tack, pork, and coffee, and soon after sunrise we were on the road, forming the left of the brigade and the rear of the entire column.
Marching along the road in the early morning, we who had come from the fields of northern Virginia were impressed with the appearance of the country. Orchards, meadows, fields of grain, substantial fences, comfortable farmhouses, and above all the mighty barns, the glory of the Pennsylvania farmer, swiftly succeeded each other and showed a rich and highly cultivated land, unharried by an enemy, a striking contrast with the northern part of Virginia, over which war had swept with desolating hand.
The farmers with their families came out to see us pass, and for almost the first time since we had crossed the Potomac a year and a half before the people on our line of march gave us friendly greeting. Their good-will very generally took a more substantial form. The women brought to the roadside immense loaves of home-made bread baked after the fashion of the country in pans as large as milk-pans, and with them crocks of sweet fresh butter. As the troops passed in their rapid march they offered these dainties (for dainties they were to men who had almost forgotten the taste of good bread and butter) to the men, who one after another stopped long enough to receive the treat. I saw the women busy in the distribution. With one broad sweep of a huge knife they spread the butter over the face of the mighty loaf. A swift stroke detached a thick slice, which was quickly seized by a soldier, who hurried on to rejoin his comrades and was at once succeeded by another. For the moment my heart glowed with sympathy for these patriotic people, so freely ministering to the comfort of our comrades.
But this feeling was somewhat disturbed when some of our regiment came cursing back from an application for their bounty, and said it had been refused because they were New Yorkers and not Pennsylvanians. I do not know that all made that distinction but some of these people certainly did, and as we were there to repel a hostile invasion of Pennsylvania, we thought it hardly fair to us.
But a difficulty like that could never prevent our men from getting their share. It was easy enough to say that they were Pennsylvanians, and a little thing like that hardly troubled the consciences of an old campaigner, however much he might resent the necessity for the subterfuge. Our boys got their portion all right
A little after nine o'clock we turned out from the road into a woods pasture, a beautiful grove of large trees with a carpet of springy sod. Here we were drawn up in line to form the left wing of the corps. For a short time we enjoyed the cool shade and quiet of the position. But it was not to last, and we were soon marched out by the right flank to follow the column which moved up to connect with the rest of the corps. Our route took us into broad meadows, which from the forest on the left hand extended. back to a line of fence enclosing a field with a large public building, which we afterwards learned was the Theological Seminary, while beyond it in the distance appeared the roofs and spires of the town. We were finally halted in line in the meadow fronting the woods and with the Seminary a few hundred yards behind us.
As we had approached the place where we turned out of the road we heard from time to time the sound of cannon and the occasional crackling of musket fire, and as we moved out of the woods towards our new position one of the men fell suddenly, stricken down by a stray bullet from the forest. Our surgeon leaped from his horse and ran to help the wounded man, and as we swept past in hurrying march we had an impressive intimation of what was to come. The incident thrilled every one with a sense of danger as great perhaps as that felt during the battle itself.
We were first posted in a swale of the meadow behind a slight rolling elevation. The left of the line thus terminated in an open field without any support or anything on which to rest. The line was as long as the numbers of the force would permit, but its left extremity held by us was technically "in the air." Here we lay down and listened with acute interest to the roar of artillery on our right and to the shriek of shells that passed overhead.
In a short time an order came to our regiment to advance and take position on the top of the ridge behind which we were sheltered. This of course made us conspicuous and a swarming flight of artillery missiles showed that we were seen by the enemy. As usual, some of the men began to grumble at what seemed needless exposure. But it was reported that it was necessary to occupy that ground; that General Wadsworth, who had been our first brigade commander and was then with the next division of the corps, had recommended us for the duty; that he knew our regiment would go where it was sent and stay where it was put. This story spread quickly along the line, and whether true or not, I know it helped to console us for the exposure to which we were subjected. Pride in the supposition that we had been selected for the post of danger by a general whom we all loved and honored compensated even the most inveterate grumbler for the risk that selection imposed.
Soon afterwards the two left companies of the regiment were deployed as skirmishers, extending the line to the left and advanced a little to the front to resist and to give warning of any attempt to outflank us. In this position, with the noise of battle roaring on our right and a constant succession of missiles from the enemy's batteries flying over our heads and occasionally striking someone in the ranks, we laid down on the grass and waited.
How long I cannot tell. It must have been along in the early afternoon when Lieutenant Jack Young came in from the left skirmishing company to report. Jack was a character. He had served as a sergeant in the Mexican War and a field-piece captured at Cerro Gordo still bears as a trophy his name as one of the captors. High-spirited and insensible to fear, as an officer he had but one fault. He would get drunk and when drunk was riotous. There was a verse of a bawdy ballad, which, when in that condition, he used to sing, or, rather, shout with the voice of a Stentor. He had been put in arrest for an escapade as we passed through Washington, but at his earnest petition had been released to share in the action. He was too good a man in a fight to be left out. The excitement acted on him like a stimulant, and as he came up along the front of the line of men lying down almost rigidly nervous under the prolonged exposure, with shot and shell whistling around him, he roared out the utterly unrepeatable verse of his favorite ballad at the top of his voice, and, raising his cap and wiping his heated face, shouted, "Colonel, it's d----d hot out there." The whole line broke into a roar of laughter, and the cool insouciance of Jack did more to relieve the mental strain which the long waiting under fire had caused than anything else could have done.
But the report he brought was not reassuring. The enemy had developed in force in front of the thin and unsupported line of skirmishers on our left and the latter could not hold its ground. Our colonel, Theodore B. Gates, could only give him a message to his captain to hold on as long as possible, and he returned to his company.
Hardly had he gone when from the forest in front appeared a long brown line of the enemy's infantry. In poetry and romance the Confederate uniform is gray. In actual service it was a butternut brown, and on those fellows who faced us at short range was, owing to their long campaign, as dirty, disreputable, and unromantic as can well be imagined. They exhibited no more of "the pomp and circumstance of glorious war" than so many railroad section-hands. But they could shoot all right, and as they stood out there in line in the open field and poured in a rapid fire of musketry they gave us no time to criticize their appearance. Our men sprang to their feet, returned their fire, and the battle was on.
As one after another fell killed or wounded the survivors closed up towards the colors and kept up their fire until more than half the men in line had fallen, and until the enemy, driving before them the line of skirmishers, had marched in column companies completely past our left flank, wheeled into line, poured in an enfilading fire. Our position was untenable and the order was given to fall back to the Seminary.
On the march that morning it had been agreed by my first lieutenant and myself that we would keep special watch over of our men whose courage was doubtful; two, of American birth, fell to me, and the lieutenant undertook to look out for a couple of husky Irishmen. In the thick of the firing one of the men I was watching turned to run. I stopped him by presenting my revolver and turned him back into the line. As he turned he fell mortally wounded by a shot from the enemy and the next moment he had me clasped by the legs and begged piteously for help. Of course I could do nothing then to relieve him and he sank down in death. Almost at the same moment one of the two Irishmen started to run. The. lieutenant stopped him with his drawn sword and as he did so the man fell, instantly killed by the enemy. The other two, got away in the confusion of the retreat and reached the field hospitals, where sickness, real or pretended, enabled them to avoid a return to the command. I never saw them again.
As we fell back we came to a high rail-fence, which bounded the grounds in the rear of the Seminary, where men from the different regiments of the brigade intermingled and formed an improvised line. They tore down the fence, piled the rails into a temporary breastwork, and behind this rallied for another struggle. Two or three times the enemy advanced upon this position and were checked by an incessant and well-directed fire, until a body of their troops again got past our left flank and compelled another retreat.
I had moved down towards the extremity of this line and was directing the fire of the men there on the troops who were outflanking us, and did not hear the order to retreat. Suddenly, however, all the men about me began to run, and, looking back towards the Seminary, I saw the regimental colors falling back. I knew that meant an order to retreat and I hurried towards the Seminary to join the colors.
As I reached the building I found there on the ground Captain Dan McMahon, one of our best and bravest officers, with a shattered thigh, and beside him a man of his company, who was unwilling to leave him. The captain entreated me to help him away and I could not resist his appeal. His soldier took off a belt and with it bound his legs together, then taking him by the legs, I took one shoulder and a man of my company, who had clung to me like a shadow, took the other, and we carried the captain around the building and started down the walk that sloped from its front across the lawn. The weight was too much for us, but I stopped a Pennsylvanian who came running after us, and he took my place while I held up their captain's head. It was soon evident that we could not get very far with him, much less keep up with our retreating troops, and 1 directed our course toward a small house on the left of the lawn, where I meant to leave him. Just as we turned the corner of its door-yard fence we all fell in a bunch, two of the men wounded. I looked back and saw the line of the enemy in front of the Seminary. They had seen us and fired on our group. For a moment I felt sure I must be taken, and the thought of Libby Prison was anything but cheering.
The attention of the enemy was, however, diverted to the line of our soldiers who were firing as they retreated, and hastily arranging McMahon in the ditch in which he was lying. I bade him good-bye and crept along the fence till I came to a road leading across a bridge and into the town. As I reached the bridge General Wadsworth and staff galloped across it, followed by the rush of a battery of artillery, which thundered behind him. I quickly followed in a throng of retreating soldiers and soon found myself in the town.
Two brigades of the Eleventh Corps had been sent forward to the aid of the first, and the crowd of retreating soldiers was made up of men from both commands, easily distinguished by their corps badges. As I reached the town I observed a street, or, rather, a road, leading to the right from the one by which I came in. At this corner the air was filled with shouts of "First Corps this way," "Eleventh Corps this way," but I could not distinguish who were giving the orders nor which way the men were invited to take. I kept straight on for about a half-block, when finding only men of the Eleventh Corps about me, I thought I had made a mistake and should have kept to the right.
It was not easy to get back through the throng, and seeing an opening like an alley leading through to the next street parallel to the one I was on, I turned into it to get through to that next street and then go down it to regain the road to the right which I should have taken.
This passage was obstructed with fences which enclosed a pig-pen, and as I clambered over theses and waded through and stirred up the odors of the mud in the stye I did not form a very favorable opinion of the sanitation of the town. But the crash of cannon-balls through the buildings near me gave me little time to think of this, and I hastened on to the opening into the next street. As I came up to its edge I saw one of our men in the middle of the street before me throw up his hands with a shriek, spin around, and fall heavily to the ground. Glancing up to the left, I saw that the shots appeared to come from that direction, while on the right a couple of hundred feet away the street was crossed by the road I had missed, along which poured a crowd of retreating soldiers. The street in front, as I had just seen, was swept by the enemy's fire, but I had no option but to make a run for the road. I did so, gained it, and joined the throng. The road we were on led away from the town, up a rather steep ascent to where we found some of the Eleventh Corps, who had not been engaged, drawn up in regular order on the height. Behind them the retreating soldiers were gathering into their respective commands and beginning to assume some sort of order. I soon found what was left of my regiment and of the 151st Pennsylvania. The rest of the brigade seemed to have taken some other place at which to assemble.
Our two companies which had been deployed as skirmishers had fallen back with little loss and formed nearly or quite one-half of the command. Those companies which had been in line were practically cut to pieces. When we first stood up to meet the enemy, I had twenty-seven enlisted men in my command, all that were left for duty after nearly two years of campaign and battle, during which we had received no recruits. When we rallied on that hill, four of these twenty-seven had been killed, fifteen wounded, one was taken prisoner, and two, as I have already told, had run away. I had but five men left for duty. The other companies had suffered severely, but I think none of the others in quite so large a proportion. My company was next to the left of the colors on which the fire of the enemy was concentrated, and so had borne the hottest of that fire.
The relics of the two regiments were placed in a small field or yard in front of a farm-house in reserve of the line, which rapidly extended as new troops from the other corps came hurrying to the scene. Except for an occasional cannon-shot, we were undisturbed for the rest of the day, and no nightfall was ever more welcome than that which came to us, wearied, dispirited, mourning our lost comrades, and filled with apprehension lest the enemy, so far successful, should attack and overwhelm us before our army could be got together to resist. Providence saved us from this misfortune, and by morning most of our army was in position and ready for the foe.
My separation from the regiment during the retreat which I have narrated had given rise to the report that I was killed, and my colored servant, upon whom I depended to bring me food, had heard the report, gone to the rear, and, joining the hospital attendants, had attached himself to one of our assistant surgeons. So I had nothing to eat that night or the next morning except what some of the others shared with me. We slept on the ground and in the summer night slept well.
We spent the forenoon in the same place. About eleven o'clock a full brigade of Vermont troops came up and were posted near us. Occasionally a stray shell would explode over head to make us uncomfortable, but we laid down and kept quiet. One bullet from a spherical case-shot struck between me and one of my company lying beside me, narrowly missing our legs and hitting his bayonet in its scabbard between us. It was a close call but we hardly minded it. We had become hardened.
In the afternoon we saw the Third Corps crossing the road to the left of our position to take their place in this line. As is now well known, they advanced, under the direction of a gallant but reckless leader, much to the front of the position assigned them, exposed themselves to attack, and were badly cut up and driven back. Of course we knew nothing then of how it happened, but soon after their advance we heard in that direction the sound of desperate fighting, and I well remember how my heart sank within me as I saw the broken line retreating apparently in disorder back across the road over which it had advanced.
But we did not have much time for observation or regret. About sunset an order came to the two regiments, ours and the 151st Pennsylvania, and to the Vermont brigade, to go to the front, and we advanced across the fields in face of a sharp fire. But the enemy who had failed to take Round Top on the left of the line could not pursue the advantage they had gained over the Third Corps and fell back to their former position. The Second Corps advanced on our right and partly behind us, and night fell upon us in that position near a high rail-fence, which was quickly torn down, the rails piled up for such protection as they could give, and darkness closed about us there. A little to the left and before us was the ground over which the 120th New York, a regiment Of the Third Corps, had fought that afternoon. This regiment was raised in our town after we had entered the service, and several of its officers had been connected with our regiment. It had suffered severe loss. The lieutenant-colonel in command, who had been one of our captains, had lost a leg, and another officer, one of the most promising and popular young men in our home town, was mortally wounded.
Colonel Gates took me for a companion and we spent much of the night going over the field searching for wounded and directing the ambulances as they came up to those we found. Mingled with ours we found many Confederates in the same condition, and I am glad to be able to remember that neither the colonel nor myself considered or treated them as enemies. We did what we could to make them comfortable and found them very grateful for the small assistance we could render. Late at night we again laid down on the ground and slept till daylight.
Morning found us in a singular position. The two skeleton regiments hurried forward the night before were in the very front of the line and seemed to have been misplaced and forgotten. None of the command to which we properly belonged and no others of our brigade or division were with us. On our left was the Vermont brigade, which had only joined the army the day before, and on our right and behind us were the troops of the Second Corps, with whom we had no connection. Colonel Gates was senior to the colonel of the Pennsylvania regiment and assumed command of the demi-brigade, which thus formed practically an isolated force.
General Doubleday had succeeded to the command of the First Corps when Reynolds was killed until the arrival of General Meade, who, I have always thought rather ungraciously, had given General Newton the command of the corps, leaving Doubleday in charge of what was left of his division. This, except our two regiments, was posted, as I afterwards learned, farther to the left and in rear of us. I have been thus particular in stating our position to show how it came about that we took so prominent a part in the struggle which ensued, the glory of which has been largely monopolized by the Second Corps. Our little half-brigade, a detachment and nothing more, was in the very front rank of the troops who held the Cemetery Ridge, and was wet with the spray of the topmost wave of the "high tide of the Rebellion."
But to resume. In our position there was, of course, no chance to cook anything and the boys explored their haversacks for the trifle of food they had left. A corporal of my company found a whole hard-tack, which he shared with me. It was all we had to eat that day and all I had eaten since the morning before.
During the morning a sharp artillery duel was begun between the enemy and some of the batteries on our right and behind us, and the roar of cannon, the crack of exploding shells, and the rush of solid shot filled the air. Several times the enemy succeeded in blowing up one of our caissons, and the crash, the burst of flames, and cloud of smoke were tokens of disaster. About noon the firing died down and gave us nearly an hour of quiet. But this was only an interlude--General Lee had determined to break our army in two by an attack upon the left center, and massed nearly all his artillery in front of our position to clear the ground for this attack. Between twelve and one o'clock nearly or quite two hundred guns opened their fire upon us and from that time until about four a continuous storm of missiles of every kind poured in upon and over our heads, and the "shriek of shot, the scream of shell," and the sounds of exploding missiles seemed incessant. We hugged the ground behind the low pile of rails which partly concealed us, and awaited our destiny with such composure as we could muster. Again and again a shot struck one of these rails and knocked it around to kill or cripple men lying behind it. Again and again pieces of exploded shells would hit someone in the line with disabling or fatal effect. There was no getting away. To retreat would have been disgrace, and even had we wished it, a retreat would have to be made under the guns of the enemy and almost as dangerous as to remain where we were. Our artillery replied for a while, it seemed to us ineffectually, and the reply fire gradually slackened and nearly ceased.
I recall two incidents of that bombardment. A short distance behind and to my left lay a soldier with head towards the front. The peculiar swish of a solid round shot passed. The ball struck the ground almost at his head and rebounded, carrying with it his cap twenty feet into the air. As it rebounded he gave a curiously awkward "flop" and whirled almost end for end. It was so queer and so awkward that the men near him laughed heartily at what seemed a ridiculous attempt to dodge a shot after it had struck. But he lay perfectly still and some of us went up to investigate. He was found apparently uninjured, but quite dead. I have often heard it said that a man can be killed by the wind of a cannon-ball, but never witnessed it but this once, and even in this case the man may have been killed by the violence with which he was flung around.
The other incident was less tragic. While the storm was at its height General Gibbons, of the Second Corps, in full uniform, with folded arms and in cool dignity walked up and down in front of the line, apparently indifferent to the rain of shot and shell that hurtled around him. His purpose was manifest. He wished by an example of indifference to the danger to relieve the mental tension of the soldiers, a tension that might easily degenerate into a panic. I thought as I saw him that the force of his example might be lost and it even prove disheartening if, as seemed probable, he should be struck down while teaching us to despise the danger. Fortunately for him and perhaps for the men, nothing of the kind happened and he paraded slowly back and forth along the line several times, uninjured and admired.
About four o'clock this fire slackened and almost ceased. Then its purpose was disclosed. In front of our position appeared a long line of infantry covered in front by a lighter line of skirmishers advancing in admirable order directly toward us. 0f course we began to fire upon them and their skirmishers returned the fire. No one who saw them could help admiring the steadiness with which they came on, like the shadow of a cloud seen from a distance as it sweeps across a sunny field.
As it approached the line slightly changed direction by what is known in ancient tactics as "advancing the right shoulder." This brought its course a little to the right of where we stood. Colonel Gates gave an order to march by the right flank, and the two regiments moved along the front of the Second Corps towards the point of danger, firing as they went.
One reckless fellow rested the muzzle of his gun on my left shoulder and banged away. The report, not six inches from my ear, made me jump, and as I turned to blow up the offender I was overwhelmed by the laughter of the men at the start it had given me. It was more funny for them than for myself.
As our troops rose up to meet them their artillery again opened fire to cover their advance, and the rain of cannon shot, the fire of the advancing line, the rush of the enemy to break through, and the eager efforts of our men to stop them made a scene of indescribable excitement. Suddenly I felt a blow on the outside of my leg, a little below the hip. For the moment I thought the leg was broken. I stopped, stepped aside, and let down my trousers to see how I was hit. It was a glancing shot, which gave a severe bruise, but had not broken the skin, and I turned and followed the command. By this time the enemy, or what was left of them, had reached our men, and the struggle was hand-to-hand.
A curious thing about this fighting was, that although all the men, were armed with bayonets, no one seemed to be using them. Those nearest clubbed their muskets and beat each other over the head, while those not so close kept loading and firing as fast as they could.
A few minutes ended the fray. The charge had failed and the foe turned to retreat. But as the ground over which they had come was swept by our fire, most of those near our line sank to the ground and gave up the attempt to get away.
Our men shouted to them to come in and promised not to hurt them, and at the word hundreds rose us and came into our lines, dropping their arms and crouching to avoid the fire of their own artillery, which was pouring upon our position. I recall one instance. A short distance in front was a clump of bushes among which appeared a white cloth. At first I thought it a rag caught in the brush, but it soon appeared that someone was waving it as a signal. Our boys shouted, "Come in, Johnnie; come in, we won't hurt you," and from behind the bush nearly or quite a dozen men arose and came hurrying and dodging into our line. A line of skirmishers was thrown out to the front, and most of those who had not got away were thus enclosed and captured.
The fire upon us soon died away and we had leisure to look about us. The ground near and in front of us was almost literally covered with killed and wounded.
Just in front of us and not twenty yards away lay a group of Confederate officers, four or five in number, all dead but one, and he stretched across the body of another, gasping his last breath. As soon as he was dead some of our men went to see who they were. The one across whose body the other had died wore the uniform of a colonel, and one of the men found upon him a map of Virginia with a diary of the marches his command had made, and gave it to our colonel. His sword and scabbard were shot to pieces, but one of our sergeants detached his belt and gave it to me, and I occasionally wore it during my service and still have it. It has a curiously formed buckle, showing when clasped the arms of Old Virginia, with the motto "Sic semper tyrannis," afterwards made so fatally notorious by Wilkes Booth.(1)
Soon afterward we detected a Confederate officer trying to got away. He was wounded and could hardly got along. Our men called to him to halt, and he looked back and saw several muskets pointed at him. The view was not encouraging and he surrendered. He was shot in the hip, and our colonel directed me take him to a hospital, and at the same time see if my own injury needed attention. I found a field hospital about a quarter of a mile to the rear, where I turned over the prisoner with injunctions to the attendants to see that he did not get away. The doctor examined my leg, which was badly swollen and discolored, but as I could get about on it, and he had nothing there suitable to relieve a contusion, I did not think it worth while to bother with it and returned to the regiment.
My return led me past the house where General Meade had established headquarters. He rode up with his staff as I came along. I heard him inquiring about the report that General Longstreet had been killed, and told him I had just come from the front with a captured officer of Pickett's division and that the report was current that General Longstreet had been killed under one of our guns at the head of the charge. He doubted whether the report could be true, and remarked that, "Any army must be in a desperate condition when a corps commander led a charge like that." His instinct was right. The charge was led by a general officer, who fell at our guns and died in a few minutes. Before he died he gave his name as General Armistead. Some of the men near him thought he said "Longstreet" and the report quickly spread that the famous corps commander had fallen. It was this mistaken report which I had heard and repeated to General Meade, who readily showed its improbability.
I returned to the command and we remained in the same position till nearly nightfall, when our two regiments were ordered back to near Meade's headquarters.
On our way back we passed a battery of heavy guns which was also falling back. But two were fit for use, two had only one wheel each to their carriages, and the others were variously disabled. The limbers and what caissons were left were crippled. As the horses were straining to draw these relics from the field one of their men amused us by shouting, "Look at that, will you; ain't we a h--l of a battery?" We thought he had it about right, though its condition was no discredit to the men who had served it.
On the way back we met some of the Third Corps and among them the 141st Pennsylvania, and I can hardly express the delight with which I encountered Captain Jo. Atkinson, of that regiment, alive and unhurt. Since I had enlisted he had married my much-loved sister and joined the service himself, and for her sake as well as his own I rejoiced in his safety. My greeting, though brief, was exuberant.
When we reached the bivouac our men began to feel the pangs of hunger which had been forgotten in the previous excitement. I went to the colonel to find out what could be done. He told me he had made request for relief from General Doubleday, but, evidently to prevent its being forgotten, directed me to go to the general and report the condition of the men. I was to find him by going down the road to the second fence running towards the front and then along that fence till I found him.
I set out and soon came to a small farm-building used as a hospital, outside which some doctors and attendants were talking with a mounted man in civilian dress. He told us that he was a scout and had been sent by General French to report his command to General Meade for orders; that General Crook's command had similar orders and that this would add twenty thousand men to our force. In return for this cheering news I told him the success of the afternoon struggle.
But what interested me most in him was the fact that he was eating one of those big slices of bread and butter of which I have told. I asked him if he had any more--told him of how long I had fasted and that I would like a share of his supply. "You are," he replied, "just the man I want to see," and pulled out of his saddle pocket another slice, cut and folded like a sandwich, and an enormous onion, both of which he handed to me. He would accept nothing in payment, saying he could easily get more along the road on his return and only regretted that he had no salt for the onion. This was, however, to me a superfluous luxury, and I went on to find the general, biting alternately at the bread and the onion. I soon found the general preparing to pass the night on his saddle-blanket in a fence corner. His throat had been grazed by a bullet and the white bandage around his neck gave him quite a clerical appearance. I saluted, raising my hand with the bread and butter in it to my cap, and could hardly refrain from taking a bite as I brought my hand down from the salute. As directed, I reported our need of food. He laughed and said, "Well, captain, you seem to have a supply." I told him of my meeting with the scout, and interested him greatly by the report of the reinforcement. After a little talk about the events of the day, he told me that he had arranged to have rations for us early in the morning. As it was then nine at night, there was of course no more to be done, and I returned and reported his answer to Colonel Gates.
Early next morning a squad of men of the commissary department drove a young heifer to our camp and butchered it on the grounds and several boxes of hard-tack and some coffee, sugar, and salt were brought up and distributed. By the time the beef was cut up the boys had their fires going and coffee ready and the meat was speedily distributed and cooked.
On the march, when no company cooks were available, each of the men made coffee for himself in a tip-cup. His tin plate served as a frying-pan, and the meat, cut into strips and salted, was cooked in it over the coals. To the gravy left in the plate a little water was added. In this were put three or four hard-tacks, which were soaked and stewed in the gravy. Then breakfast was ready and it speedily disappeared. This time very few waited to cook the first plateful of crackers, but as soon as the meat was done, it was eaten with dry crackers, and, the first edge of appetite taken off, the boys prepared another course with proper ceremony. It took two and with many of the men three platefuls to fill the void caused by their long abstinence and there was nothing left of the heifer (the intestines being buried) but the hide.
Nor did this stay long. It was an amusing sight to see the farm-boys of the neighborhood getting these hides. The one near us was seized by a solid-looking chap about twelve years old, who took the tail over his shoulder and whose strength was taxed to the utmost as he hauled it away. In the course of the morning I saw several others gathered by boys in the same way. They manifested little curiosity as to the soldiers or interest in the battle, and either did not think of what they could pick up on the field or were afraid to try it. But there were beef-hides. They knew these were valuable, and, as nobody objected, they secured them and hauled them away by the tails as their share of the spoil.
Captain J. R. Leslie, of' 'ours," who was on duty with the provost-marshal general, came to see us, and offered to send letters for us with the dispatches from headquarters. As there would be no chance to send letters by ordinary mail for an indefinite time, I gladly availed myself of this chance to pencil a note home and assure the folks of the safety thus far of Captain Atkinson and myself. I was the more pleased to be able to do so as I feared the report that I was killed the first day might have become public and give them needless distress.
During the day we remained quiet except for a little controversy with the Vermonters. A party of them came to headquarters with a lot of trophies, several Confederate flags and a large gilt eagle, which belonged to the staff of our State flag and had been shot away in the fight. We laid claim to the eagle and a sergeant of our regiment insisted, I think truly, that he had captured one of the Confederate flags and it had been snatched from him by the Vermonter who then bore it. The officers at headquarters made them restore our eagle, but declined to adjudge the relative merits of the contestants for the honor of capturing the flag--saying there was glory enough for all of us anyway.
And so it soon appeared. General Doubleday, our division commander, issued that day a general order in which he thanked the Vermont brigade and our regiment and the 151st Pennsylvania by name for the gallant service which had materially contributed to the victory. Such an order, quite usual in foreign service, was rare in ours. It gave us great pleasure then and was useful afterwards in preserving the record of our share in the work of repelling Pickett's charge--a share some historians and map-makers seemed inclined to ignore.(2)
Late in the afternoon our division was got together and marched a short distance to the south to
be ready for the pursuit of the enemy which we began next morning, and so ended our connection
with the field of Gettysburg.
(Source: War Talks in Kansas, Kansas MOLLUS, Volume 1, pages 321-341)
1.Since writing these "Reminiscences" I visited Washington on October 1, 1903, for the first time since the war. I there met Hon. John W. Daniel, of Virginia, and in conversation with him about the battle mentioned the fact that I had this belt, which had belonged to Colonel James Gregory Hodges, 14th Virginia Volunteers, and would be glad to give it to some surviving member of his family.
Senator Daniel took great interest in the matter, and upon inquiry ascertained that the widow of
Colonel Hodges still survived, and put me in communication with her. I have had the satisfaction
of being able to send her this relic of her husband and of receiving a greatly prized letter from her
in acknowledgment of its return.
2.Since the foregoing was written I have, for the first time since the battle, visited the field of Gettysburg. After the usual round with a guide, I went alone and on foot over that part of the field where we were engaged. I had no difficulty in identifying the places I have mentioned. The monument erected to our regiment is on Reynolds Avenue, very nearly on or quite at the place where we began our share of the fighting. To the left is that of the 121st Pennsylvania Regiment.
That regiment was certainly not on our left when the two companies were detached as skirmishers, but may have advanced to that position when the enemy attacked us.
At the point where Pickett's charge was repelled on the third day the United States erected a monument marking the "High Tide of the Rebellion."
On a granite platform stands a marble altar bearing a large bronze book, inscribed with the names of the brigades and regiments which were there engaged, and it was with no little pride that I saw the name of our regiment (there styled 80th New York Volunteers) and that of our gallant comrades of the 151st Pennsylvania registered among them.