H.Q. 6th A. Corps
September 6th, 1863
On the night of July 1st, 1863, the Fifth Corps lay near a pretty little town, Manchester, Maryland, and some twenty miles from the rest of the army. A ball was to be given that evening in the town and we were occupied in looking up our disused finery and in anticipating so unaccustomed a pleasure. Capt. Halstead, whose turn it was to go to army Head Quarters for orders, says he is not well, Gen. Sedgwick sent me and told me he wished me to go; so, reluctantly giving up the coming festivity, I mounted my white horse and, accompanied by Major Biddle of Gen. Meade's staff and a couple of orderlies, set out about six o'clock p.m. The first nine miles of the way were wild and torturous, now through thick forests, now winding around every man's farm, so it was dark before we had reached the pike on which our journey lay. We then met a number of citizens hurrying away with their horses in a high stat of consternation and telling us the rebel cavalry had just passed in the direction we were going. Cautiously we proceeded until we saw, on a cross road, some horsemen disappearing in the moonlight and learn that the road was clear. Then at a gallop, past pretty villages and county seats, soothed by the sound and scents of a perfect summer night, we hurried on till approaching Tarrytown about 11 p.m., overtook Maj. Gen. Hancock who was hastening to Head Quarters from the scene of the first day's fight, and from him I heard that the ball was opened, Reynolds dead and the cause in the greatest peril. On to Head Quarters, a mile beyond the town, and there the horses were all saddled and dozens of aids standing about in a subdued quiet unlike their usual demeanor. Reporting to Gen. Williams, A.A.G., I was told that Gen. Meade would see me immediately. I was ushered into a large hospital tent and found I was standing in the presence of a council of the prominent Generals of the Army. Said Gen. Meade, "Gentlemen, we will fight the decisive battle of the war tomorrow." "Where is Gen'l Sedgwick's officer?" As he said this, he took me by the arm, drew me aside and asked in a quick, nervous manner - "Do you know the roads in this country?" "Come here," and drawing me to the table where a large map was stretched out, "Here is the Littletown turnpike Gen. Sedgwick must march his Corps to Gettysburg by that road and, if he can arrive in time, I shall throw him in at the decisive point, and gain the victory. He is now marching on the road you came which takes him out of his way. Tell Gen. Newton to report to me with all possible dispatch to take command of the First Corps. Have you a good horse? The road is not safe. I will send a squadron with you." "Gen''l," said I, "I think I can get through without." "Very well," said he, "act your judgment and remember how important your errand is tonight." So off I started, swelling with importance, but little realizing that had I lost my way or been captured, that the battle had been lost and the fate of the country changed. Upon such little things the destiny of nations sometimes hang. My horse did not flag, and after 15 miles of hard riding I heard horsemen coming in front and, thinking them guerillas, I drew up in the shade, but soon recognized the General's old straw hat and had delivered my message. Back we turned at a tearing gallop and came to the head of the column, now already six miles on the wrong road and pressing on - its rear not yet out of camp. General Sedgwick was acting under orders previous to those I brought. To turn this mass was not easy, but it was soon done, and I found the right road upon which we marched in clouds of dust without halting till ten o'clock the next forenoon.
I lay down on top of a stone wall by the roadside and caught an hour's sleep, while someone stole my cap off my head and I had to wear Bennett's the rest of the day. The heat became intense and the dust blinding. About three p.m. we drew up in mass behind a range of hills beyond which was Gettysburg and above which continually curled the smoke we knew so well. While waiting here I went to several houses for something to eat but the people were too frightened or stingy to give or sell. We had marched 34 miles - I had ridden 67, with an hour's rest, but I did not feel tired, but fearfully hungry. While I was thus occupied I heard a furious storm of musketry upon the left and saw Gen. Sedgwick at the head of the column now again in motion, and making its way rapidly across the field in the direction of the fire. Few of the staff were there as I caught up, being sent to the rear to hurry up troops. On we went with utter disregard of roads - in a straight line to the hottest part of the music now seeming nearer and nearer. Passing up and over the steep ascents the men, almost barefoot, scrambling after, until three or four shells whistling and bursting overhead warned us that we were on the scene of action. Gen. Sedgwick formed the first Brigade himself, and said, 'Now some staff officer go in with these men.' There were only three of us there, so I started, rather reluctantly I must own, for the hole we were charging into was all that my imagination ever pictured the 'valley of the shadow of death.' I hastened on with the left of the line, and passing round it, and smoke being so thick I could not see, I found myself exposed to our own fire - so going more tot he left I became mixed up in a furious charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves, 5,000 strong. I remember seeing the lamented Col. Taylor on foot cheering his men. Finding I was where I had no business, I went further to the left, as I could not get back to our Corps without running the gauntlet of the most terrible musketry I had ever heard, and passing Gen. Weed, just killed by a sharp shooter and Hazlett's battery - disabled but still firing, I found myself though on horseback on the high peak of Devil's Den. The dead were lying thick and bullets from sharpshooters warned me from my exposed position. The sun was just setting and threw red glare upon the smoke in the deep and ghastly valley beneath. You could see the strife dimly below, while hundreds of shells above sounded as if howling a constant death knell. This charge had already saved the day upon the left and reestablished our line. I went back to the General who was in earnest consultation with Gen. Sykes and was busied in the care of prisoners till 11 o'clock that night - when I lay down with my overcoat for blanket and pillow and slept peacefully through rain and dropping shots till morning.
Daylight awoke us from our sleep in the long wet grass. About ten o'clock I started to find the
depot for prisoners, and losing my way happened to run across Neill's Brigade with the Seventh
Maine, then detached to the 12th Corps; offering my services to Gen. Neill, he told me he was
just going to put three of his regiments upon the extreme right of the army which it though Ewell
was trying to turn. Col. Connor, Gen, Neill and I rode ahead of the troops and, having passed
through an orchard, were climbing up a steep hill upon the top of which I had been advising the
General to put his line, when from the summits about 30 rebel skirmishers let fly at us before we
had suspected we were within a mile of the enemy. They had gained this hill, completely flanking
us, and from which in a moment more they would open fire upon the road where were all our
trains and ammunition and which was our only line of retreat. Quick action was necessary. We
formed the troops and took the hill in which little fight eight of the Seventh Maine were killed
and wounded. An immense disaster was here temporarily averted for a few shots into the army
trains would have made a most ungovernable stampede. Fearing with increased numbers they
would soon drive us from the hill, I hastened to Gen. Slocum, commanding Twelfth Corps, and
got two Regiments and put them in position on the right of Gen. Neill. As Gen. Slocum was very
anxious about the position, I thought I would make sure, so, as Capt. Long of Neill's staff was
going to scout a little on the right, I went with him. We ran across some of our cavalry who had
lost their way, and placed them as a chain of videttes so they could see any movement of the
enemy on our right. Then passing on we saw a body of 5,000 or 6,000 cavalry at a gallop, and
were glad to recognize them with a glass to be one of our Division on their way to turn the rebel
left. Then I went to my regiment again, being obliged to crawl up to them on account of rebel
sharpshooters. Then I went down the hill to our hospital a barn near the road and found some of
my old Antietam friends lying wounded. One of the men insisted on getting me some coffee, so I
stayed with the sounded for a while. Soon the battle broke out with greater fierceness in Gen.
Slocum's front, and going to see it I stayed with him till it was over and then found my way back
to the extreme left and received a gentle scolding from Gen. Sedgwick for going unnecessarily
under fire. Very tired I went a little way back to one of the wagons that had come up and got a
bit of ham and a few minutes' sleep, but was awakened by the heaviest cannonade the country
ever heard of field artillery at haste over 300 pieces a constant roar no one discharge could be
recognized. This was the prelude to their main attack on our center which I did not see and which
closed the day's fighting, with the exception of some in our front which I saw but was not
engaged in. We lay there the next day the fourth. Of all the exciting incidents of the pursuit, I
may write some other time.
Thos. W. Hyde.
(Source: Civil War Letters by General Thomas W. Hyde,
published by John H. Hyde, privately printed, 1933)