UNWRITTEN HISTORY OF THE GETTYSBURG
Longstreet's Courier--Memorable Words of Confederate
Leaders--A Time when they were Sorely Tried--What
Might Have Been--The Part Played by Hood.
By William Youngblood, of Alabama.
For many years I have thought of writing out for the public what I know of the battle of Gettysburg; but the political surroundings of myself and of him conspicuously interested have deterred me. To every one to whom I have ever told this incident of my soldier's life he has said that I ought to reduce it to writing and give it to the world or to the people of this country--that it might go into the archives. I have determined to tell the story in this way, every word of which is the truth, absolute and pure.
In June, 1863, Lee's army commenced the movement to Pennsylvania: I was then a private soldier in the Fifteenth Alabama Regiment, commanded by Colonel William C. Oates; our division crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Ashby's Gap, and soon came to the Shenandoah River, where our Commander, General Hood, was sitting on his horse directing the crossing. I approached General Hood and asked for permission to take off my clothes before wading the river, but was told to go in-- "No time could be allowed for dressing and undressing"--so in I went with the balance; and although it was a hot June day, the water was biting cold, so cold that I crawled upon a projecting rock in the middle of the stream until I was forced to leave it. We moved down the river, where we camped for several days. At Millwood, in the Valley of Virginia, I went to General Longstreet and appealed to him to detail me to his headquarters as courier upon his staff. He sent the order to General Lee for approval, making it special, giving me ten days' leave of absence to obtain better clothes and to mount myself. Within the ten days I joined Longstreet six miles north of Hagerstown, Md., on the pike to Chambersburg, Pa., which place we reached within a day.
At Chambersburg we halted to await the movement of General A. P. Hill, who was near Gettysburg. In a few days we moved on towards Gettysburg, General Longstreet and his staff in advance of the troop. It was less than a day's ride for the General and his staff. We arrived at or near where the line of battle was being pitched about four in the afternoon. General Longstreet looked over the field and surroundings that evening, which was the first day of July, went back behind Cashtown and pitched tents for the night. The troops had approached to about three or four miles of Gettysburg, arriving about night, and had gone into camp. I had not had time to unsaddle and feed my horse before Colonel Sorrell called me to his office (a fly tent) and told me I must go back to Chambersburg for General Pickett; that I would find him on the east side of the town awaiting orders. I asked for time to feed myself and horse, and was given thirty minutes. This started me on my night's ride to Chambersburg, through an enemy's country, on a dark night. I found the ride as lonesome and dull as if no man was near or had a few hours before passed over it. As I passed the smouldering ruins of Thad Steven's iron works I could smell the unsavory smoke, and it seemed as if I was passing the burial ground of some ruined hospital with the dead and dying all around. I found General Pickett, as I expected. As I approached a sentinel called out, "Halt! Who goes there?" I answered, "A courier hunting General Pickett."
A man lying upon the ground at the foot of a tree arose into a sitting position and said, "Here is General Pickett; from whom do you come?" I replied, "Longstreet." One of his staff struck a match, and the General read the dispatches which I had brought, and said to the staff officer, "We must move at once into line and lead the movement." There was not ten minutes' time consumed in this movement. Pickett and staff were mounted and we all rode off together, the men following silently in a steady tramp behind. I had been in the saddle from early morning till then, except the thirty minutes referred to. It was about 1 o'clock A.M. at night. It was about 4 o'clock when I turned my old jaded horse into clover field, dropped his rein upon the ground, lay down in a fence corner, and a few minutes was sound asleep. I waked up about 6 o'clock by the tramp of the soldiers going by. I hurried into a long trot until I had overtaken General Pickett, told him of the road in front of him, and as he was instructed to halt near Cashtown I forced my horse and found General Longstreet in a wheat field about 8 A.M. awaiting the coming of the troops, some of whom were passing into position of battle line. I begged a morsel of food from one of the couriers; my horse ate the heads of wheat.
In the afternoon about 2 o'clock General Barksdale's brigade of Mississippians having taken position, General Wofford, of Georgia, with his brigade of Georgians, filing in on Barksdale's right, and a South Carolina Brigade passing very near to General Lee, Longstreet and Hood getting into position upon Wofford's right, while the Alabama (Law's) Brigade was being put into position on facing Round Top, and upon the South Carolinians' right; this was our extreme right. I was sitting on my horse within hearing of Generals Lee, Longstreet and Hood. There were some others (I don't remember who) nearby. General Lee was standing upon the ground; an orderly was holding his gray nearby; all others were in their saddles. General Hood said to General Lee: "My scouts report to me that there is a wagon road around Round Top, at its foot, which has been used by farmers in getting out timber, over which I can move troops. I believe I can take one of my brigades, go around this mountain and simultaneously attack from the flank or rear, with the men in front, and capture Round Top." General Lee asked General Longstreet's opinion, Longstreet said "I have great faith in General Hood's opinions and his ability to do whatever he plans to do." This was all the reply Longstreet made. General Lee stood with head bowed, looking upon the ground in deep thought, for, it seemed, a long time. When he raised his face to look at Generals Longstreet and Hood he said: "Gentlemen, I cannot risk the loss of a brigade; our men are in fine spirits, and with great confidence will go into this battle. I believe we can win upon a direct attack." Extending his hand to General Longstreet, he said: "Good-by, General, and may God bless you"; turned and, shaking General Hood's hand in farewell, said, "God bless you, General Hood; drive them away from you, take Round Top and the day is ours," and with tears in his eyes he turned, mounted the iron gray and rode away.
Hood went to his command. Longstreet dismounted and held his reins over his arms, dispatched his staff officers and couriers along the line of battle to note and watch the movements and report to him, selecting me to remain with him. The South Carolina men had passed and the line was formed, and thirty minutes after General Lee left us cannonading gave the signal for attack. General Longstreet quickly threw himself into the saddle. I followed suit, and side by side we spurred to the front, and the men were upon the charge.
Just as we rode from the timber into the open, which brought us face to face with the Union army, I noticed that we were riding in front of Wofford's men. I called General Longstreet's attention to this, and suggested the danger of being shot down by our own troops. He checked his horse andheld him until Wofford's men had gotten in front of us. The Union army was found between our people and the peach orchard upon a road along which they had piled rails and whatever else they could get that would aid in making a breastworks, and were lying behind these rails awaiting our attack. The peach orchard was on Wofford's left and Barksdale's right. General Longstreet from the minute he came into the open where could see Round Top, had his field glasses constantly upon that end of his line, deeply interested in Hood's efforts. Upon approaching the peach orchard the Union forces had fallen back beyond the orchard; our people were driving them, but General Barksdale's Brigade had halted behind the small breastworks which the enemy had abandoned, while Wofford's men had gone on. I called General Longstreet's attention to this, and said, "Do you want General Barksdale to halt?" He turned his head and said, "No; go tell him to retake his position in the line." I turned my horse and dashed to Barksdale's, jumping a fence to do so, when I fell, pulling myself back into the saddle by my horse's neck. I found General Barksdale on his horse standing behind a brick milkhouse, and giving him the order from General Longstreet he put spurs to his horse, dashed a little ways along his line, giving the order to charge at double-quick, when I distinctly heard a shot strike him and saw him fall from his horse. I went back to General Longstreet, who was guiding his horse into the peach orchard, told him of Barksdale's fall; when he said, "Go on beyond this orchard and tell General Alexander to advance his artillery, and to keep in touch with Wofford's left. I hunted my way to this battery. The smoke, noise of shells, thunder of cannon, the hissing of balls so thick and so great that one of the artillerymen led my horse to General Alexander, whom I found a few feet in front of his own guns, his glasses to his eyes, standing the bravest of the brave. I gave the order; he pointed and said, "Tell General Longstreet that as soon as I drive back this column of advancing enemy I will advance." This column was coming into the vacuum caused by Barksdale's halt.
Simultaneously Wofford's men had seen that they were not protected or supported on the left, and had begun to retreat, which Longstreet's and Wofford's personal appearance on the field prevented from becoming a panic. I aided in rallying Wofford's men get the line re-established and rested for the night. Darkness was coming upon us; a little daylight only was left. Just at this moment Major Walton, of Vicksburg, a member of Longstreet's staff, came up to me, face powder-stained from biting off the cartridges, told me that his horse was killed, and being afoot on the battlefield, he got a gun from a fallen Confederate and went into the fight. He asked me for my horse, telling me to go seek the headquarters and wait there for him. I gave him my horse, and as he rode away, leaving me there on the battlefield, I looked around for a moment, when a Georgia soldier directed my attention to a horse grazing between the two lines of battle, with saddle and bridle. I told him how dangerous it was to get that horse. He laughed and said, "It is easy." So I went upon hands and knees, keeping the horse between me and my friends, the enemy. The horse was too tired and hungry to escape. I mounted him, and, lying along his body and neck, I put both spurs into his flank and quickly had him out of range. I heard the whistle of several balls in making this run. He proved to be a good draft horse, but a poor saddle horse.
Thus with me ended the great battle day, the 2d of July. Both sides lay on their guns. General Pickett was in reserve, about four miles from the battlefield. To me, whatever was done until Pickett's charge was without not. The next day General Longstreet (Lee having consented to General Pickett that he might make the charge) took his position in full view of both lines, and upon the booming of 100 guns, which our side had placed to open upon the enemy's line, General Pickett was seen coming back in a gallop, his long black hair waving in the wind, and he was yelling, "Where is General Longstreet?" I was dispatched to intercept him, and as he approached General Longstreet in terrible agony, he cried out: "General, I am ruined; my division is gone--it is destroyed." General Longstreet consoled him by the assurance that it would not be so bad as he thought; that in a few hours he would get together quite a number of his men. What occurred after that I know not.
That night about midnight I was called to Colonel Sorrell's tent (we had headquarters near the "Black Tavern") and he told me that I was to hunt up some officers along the line and give them sealed orders. It was then drizzling and the night was dark. I had little trouble in finding the people I was sent to, except as to Colonel Walton, Chief of Artillery, Longstreet's Corps.
On my return to the Black Horse Tavern, I found General Longstreet's wagon, and he and his staff in the road, waiting on somebody of for some signal. We moved on in the rain for an hour or more. I did not know, but we had a presentment that our move was a retreat. It was a hard, very hard march. The roads were muddy, wagon ruts deep, the night awful. We had, besides our own people, about 7,000 prisoners to take care of. After a hard march of a day and night we approached falling waters on the Potomac, where the pontoons had been laid to cross into Virginia. The rain had swollen the Potomac, and all had to cross on the pontoons. I had been out doing courier work all day and night, and arrived at the pontoon a little before daylight, where General Longstreet was on the ground directing the men, wagons, artillery, etc., across. I pushed off to one side, out of the way and out of sight, squatted at the root of a tree, tied by bridle reins to my arm, and did not wake until after daylight, when to my horror, I found myself within a few feet of the river, and my horse so close that one step more would have put him over the bank. I made my way to the bridge. General Longstreet told me to go across. I went over and up the bluff into the main road. Looking to my left I saw General Lee on his horse, accompanied by some of his staff, watching the pontoon and the men coming across. While there a man whom I did not know rode up and said: "General, there is a rumor throughout the army that General Longstreet failed in his duty is the cause of our disaster at Gettysburg." General Lee, with firmness and fire, replied: "It is unjust. Longstreet did his duty. Our failure is to be charged to me. My shoulders are broad and can bear it."
Thus ends what I know of the battle of Gettysburg. Who knows what might have happened if General Hood had been permitted to make the flank movement he advised? Who knows what might have happened if General Barksdale had not lost his position in the line of battle, when we had the Union army going to the rear?
No state ever furnished braver nor better soldiers than the grand old State of Mississippi. No
troops were ever commanded by a braver man than General Barksdale. Wofford's, Kershaw's and
Law's Brigades were beyond reproach, as game and true as ever carried a sword or gun. This
was Hood's Division. "That could, with Hood to lead, cut their way through any line that could
be formed against them"--boasted General Hood.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 38, pages 312-318)