By reason of its semicircular form a disaster on its extreme southeast would have brought the victorious enemy's left square upon the rear of Gen. Meade's centre, no more than a mile away. Moreover, such a defeat involved the instant loss of the Baltimore pike, along which, in case of misfortune elsewhere on the field, the Unionist must necessarily retreat. Once on this great road. The Confederates were between the Union Army and Baltimore, which Gen. Meade had been ordered to cover, for which purpose he had concentrated his army to give Lee general battle. Therefore, the maintenance of the Union right was essential to the integrity of the Union Army and the campaign, if not the cause itself.
At one critical stage of Union affairs it looked as if this vital point was lost. To the coolness, alert courage and signal ability of one of the finest officers whose names ever graced our army rolls. Gen. Meade owed the safety of his right on the night of July 2, 1863. That officer was the identical Gen. George S. Greene who died a week ago yesterday at Morristown, N.J., of "old age." Which, indeed, well be so, for he was but two years short of a century. On this great day at Gettysburg, nearly thirty-six years ago, this heroic centenarian was already an old man, having passed his sixty-second year. Think of that! And carrying himself in a sudden emergency on the field of battle like a mere youth of 30! He was one of the real heroes of Gettysburg. An ordinary man in Greene's place, and Gettysburg would have been the North's Waterloo, in all probability.
Let us see what happened on Meade's right flank on the evening of the second day's battle of Gettysburg.
The extreme Union right, covering the Baltimore road, was held by the Twelfth Army Corps. numbering 8,587 men "present for duty equipped" commanded by Major-Gen. Henry W. Slocum, a distinguished New York soldier. His lines ran along the brow of the hills and bluffs facing mainly northeast toward Rock Creek, and during the night of the 1st and morning of the 2d had been strengthened with temporary breastworks of logs, stones and earth. By noon the men were well covered. Nothing more serious than artillery firing at long range and skirmishing occurred here up to late in the afternoon of the 2d, nor does it appear that the Union leaders were expecting anything serious in this quarter. Yet the marshalling of Confederate troops to and fro east of Rock Creek and the movements of their batteries upon the hills beyond plain- ly observed to portend action. But at 4 P. M. every thing still remained quiet on Slocum's front.
Then something happened. About that hour the Confederate Gen. James Longstreet delivered his tremendous attack on the Union left, which he partially drove in, and subsequently things "up the Emmittsburg road" began to have a black look under Longstreet's heavy persistent blows. Gen. Meade hastily reinforced Sickles with troops from nearly every portion of his lines not under immediate pressure from the enemy. Among others the troops of Gen. Slocum were called for. So great must have appeared the necessity, or so confident were Meade and his corps commander- both able and experienced officers- in the immunit, of the right from attack on that day, that about 6:30 P. M. everything of Slocum's but the small brigade of Gen. Greene was withdrawn and pushed over to the support of the staggering lines against which Longstreet was surging. In this hasty movement some of the Twelfth Corp breastworks were actually abandoned, through orders were left by Gen. Geary to Gen. Greene to spread out as well as possible over the entire line with his small force. It very nearly resulted in a terrible disaster.
About the time these events were taking place on the Union side, its extreme right was confronted by Major- Gen. Edward Johnson's division of Confederate veterans, numbering approximately 8,000 effectives and perfectly fresh, not having participated in the bloody battle of the 1st. It was composed of fourteen regiments of Virginians, five of Louisiana, two of North Carolina and a battalion of Marylanders. Near at hand was Gen. Jubal A. Early's division, preparing for the assault on Cemetery Hill. These 15,000 seasoned troops were waiting the word of command to attack. And just about the moment when Gen. Meade, in his great straits, had thus stripped his right flank. Gen. Ewell directed Johnson and Early to advance.
Meanwhile Gen. Greene endeavored to carry into effect Geary's order to spread out over the whole of the intrenchments with his single brigade, numbering but 1,350 men. This stalwart command was composed wholly of New York troops, viz., the Sixteenth Regiment, Col. Abel Godard, recruited at Ogdensburg and vicinity; the Seventy-eighth Regiment, Lieut.- Col. Herbert von Hammersteir, from Utica and New York city; the 102d Regiment, Col. James C. Lane, a New York city organization; the 137th Regiment, Col. David Ireland, organized at Binghamton, and the 140th Regiment, Col. Henry A. Barnum, recruited at Syracuse and vicinity. It was the Third Brigade, Second Division, Twelfth Army Corps. The five regiments contained an average of 270 fighting men each. It is quite clear that Greene had not sufficient strength to man the entire line of breastworks. But he had no time to demonstrate the fact; while the movement was in progress he was attacked fiercely along the whole front by a large force. The attack was delivered a few minutes before 7 P. M.
Greene's immediate front was struck by Gen. John M. Jones's brigade, composed of the Twenty- first, Twenty- fifth, Forty- second, Forty- fourth, Forty- eighth and Fiftieth Virginia Infantry regiments and Nicholis's brigade of Louisianians, the First, Second, Tenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth, commanded by Col. John M Williams. Further to the right, and fronting the empty lines of Slocum's absent brigades, the strong rebel brigades of Gen. George H. Stewart, the Marylander, pushed forward against the skirmishers thrown out as a precautionary measure by Greene after the other troops had moved off. These skirmishers made a good deal of resistance and Stewart reports that he lost quite heavily in this advance. But they were speedily driven back. Stewart soon occupied the abandoned breastworks, from which vantage ground he pushed a force down on Greene's right flank. Col. Ireland being attacked on the flank and rear. But Ireland promptly changed position and maintained his ground with gallantry.
Between Stewart and the Baltimore pike to the southward not a single Unions soldier now interposed. But Stewart was alone; Walker was watching the Union cavalry further out with his brigade, and did not move up to his support until night. Stewart did not dare to risk isolation by pushing out into the night he knew not whether. If at this moment Jones's Virginians and William's Louisianans had broken through the Union rear would have been unmasked and the army cut off from its trains and from Baltimore. But Jones and Williams, fortunately for the Union cause, were not going up against a skirmish line in front of unoccupied breastworks. Greene held firm. Stewart, therefore unaware in the first place of the close proximity of the Baltimore pike and handicapped by the growing darkness, and, furthermore, rendered cautious by the tremendous fight Greene was making, contented himself with holding the captured works for the remainder of the night. His movement was over by 9;30 P. M.
All now depended on Greene. And Greene kept his head. The moment Johnson's attack in force was developed he hurried his staff officers over to Gen. Wadsworth, commanding at Culp's Hill, on his left, and to Gen. Howard of the Eleventh Corps, still further to the left, representing the critical situation he was in and praying for assistance. It was promptly sent, though not in large numbers owing to Early's attack on Cemetery Hill, which made things hot for a while on that front also. But the Sixth Wisconsin, Col. Rufus R. Dawes; the Eighty- fourth New York (Fourteenth Brooklyn), Col. Fowler; the 147th New York, Major Harney, from Wadsworth's division, and Gen. Carl Schurz, with some 400 men of the Eleventh Corps, soon appeared upon the scene and rendered efficient aid to Greene.
Four distinct assaults were made upon Greene's lines by Jones and Williams beforethey got enough of it. The last was delivered a little after 9 o'clock. The position was too strong and was held too tenaciously to be captured. At the close of the final attack, 9:30 P. M., Gen. Greene still occupied all his own trenches. He had made no attempt to hold more of the line, but had so deployed his small force as to make it dangerous for Stewart to push further down his right. In the repulse of this determined Confederate attack Greene himself explains that he was greatly favored by the ground and the breastworks. The hill on his left front was very steep, diminishing to a gentle slop on his right. The entire front was covered with a heavy growth of timber, free from underbrush, with large ledges of rock projecting above the surface here and there, affording good cover for marksmen. The value of these defenses was shown in his small loses compared with those of Stewart, Jones, and Williams. Gen. Greene's official report is a model of precision and clearness.
The Confederate official reports make it clear that they were badly whipped. Col. Williams says that he engaged the enemy (Greene) here for four hours "with an almost incessant fire" during which several charges were made to carry the works, but failed. This agrees precisely with Greene's statements. Williams sullenly says he was unsupported on the right, Jones's brigade having failed to hold its line." But under the circumstances Jones appears to have accomplished all that was possible. Soon after his troops passed up against the Federal lines Jones was severely wounded in the leg and was succeeded is command of the brigade by Lieut.- Col. Dungan, Forty- eighth Virginia. Duncan reports that he assumed "command of it as soon after it fell back from the enemy's immediate front." Dungan also uses the significant phrase, "as soon as the regiments could be collected." &c which indicates that Jones's troops had been pretty roughly handled by Greene's.
Greene's magnificent fight and his clever disposition had arrived. About half past 10 o'clock at night, Longstreet's fight on the other front having exhausted itself, the detached brigades of the Twelfth Corps began to return to their own position. By midnight, or shortly afterward, all had arrived in the immediate vicinity to find their line of breastworks occupied by the enemy, much to their astonishment. The Generals held a hasty conference and made dispositions to attack the Confederate interlopers at daylight and drive them out, after which the tired troops sunk to rest. On the morning of the 3d the fight for the breastworks opened as soon as it was light enough to see. Finally, after many vicissitudes and several charges and countercharges. Johnson's Confederates sullenly retired back into Rock Creek Valley. This occurred between 10 and 11 o'clock A. M. and with their retreat ended the infantry fighting on the right flank of Ge. Meade's army.
In this short, sharp and decisive flight, of so vast importance to the nation. Gen. Greene's brigade lost no more than 62 men killed, 213 wounded and 32 missing; total 307. The Confederate loss was much heavier, of course, but in this particular fight is not separately stated. Incomplete returns give the aggregate loss of Johnson's four brigades in the evening's and morning's struggle at 219 killed. 1,228 wounded and 324 missing; total 1,771. Some of the missing were among the killed. Jones's brigade lost 421 and that of Williams 388, total, 809, most were certainly lost in front of Greene on the night of the 2d. But the Confederate losses were undoubtedly greater on this part of the field than they reported them. Greene, a careful and conscientious officer, reported 391 Confederate dead immediately in front of his lines and 150 additional bodies visible across the creek. This alone was more than double the number reported killed by the Confederate officers.
At first Greene's signal service to his commander and his country met with scant appreciation; his distinguished part in the battle of Gettysburg passed almost unnoticed. In his report Gen. Meade did not mention Greene's name, but more than six months afterward, when his attention had been called to this injustice in connection with other gross oversights in his original report, he so far amended it as to include a paragraph reciting that Greene made a "gallant defense" and "succeeded in repulsing all the efforts of the enemy to dislodge him." Even this eleventh- hour tribute failed to reach up to the height of Greene's great deserts.
At first Gen. Slocum did even worse. He made it appear in his report that the abandoned intrenchments were lost in Greene's fight. But six months afterward a great light broke on Slocum. He wrote from Tennessee to Gen. Meade an explanatory letter, or sub- report, covering several controverted points about the abandonment of those breastworks, and among other things said:
"The failure of the enemy to gain entire possession of our works was due entirely to the skill of Gen. Greene and the heroic valor of his troops."
But as time passed and its minutest details were laid bare in the ensuing controversies and by the official records the world began more fully to grasp the meaning and bearing of various events of the battle of which, perchance, it had been wholly ignorant, or at best, but vaguely understood. With this light the magnitude of Gettysburg constantly increased in whole and in all its parts. The Green exploit grew and grew, until now it indisputably stands out as a salient feature of one of the century's greatest battles, one of the turning points of the struggle. Greene wasn't promoted, wasn't even thanked by his superiors at the time for his momentous victory, but he lived long enough to know that his great work was understood and appreciated by his fellow countrymen at something like its proper value.
Green was a West Pointer. Born in Rhode Island May 6,1801, he entered the Military Academy in 1819 from which he was graduated in 1823 No. 2 in a class of thirty- five members. Although highly qualified for the engineers, he was assigned to the artillery. After reaching the grade of First Lieutenant he resigned in 1836 to engage in railroad engineering and kindred work. He was engaged upon the Croton water works extension just previous to the outbreak of the rebellion. Jan 18, 1862, he was made Colonel of the Sixtieth New York Volunteers and was promoted to Brigadier General April 26 following. He participated in a number of the great battles in the Eastern military theatre, and accompanied the Twelfth Corps to reinforce Rosecrans. At the battle of Wauhatchie, Oct. 28, 1863, he was severely wounded and thrown out of the service for a long while. He took part in the final operations against Gen. Joe Johnson in North Carolina.
Mustered out April 30, 1866, Gen. Greene resumed his connection with the Croton water works, and subsequently at different times engaged in engineering duties of every description in various parts of the country, but mainly in New York city and vicinity. His active life ceased about twenty years ago. In 1894, under a special act of Congress, he was made a First Lieutenant of artillery, the rank he had held when he resigned nearly sixty years before, and was retired; so he died an officer of the army.
Leslie J. Perry