Letter from General James H. Lane.
Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College,
Blacksburg, October 20, 1877.
Rev. J. Wm. Jones, Secretary Southern Historical Society,
My Dear Sir: As great injustice has been done my gallant old brigade of North Carolinians in all the published accounts of the battle of Gettysburg that I have seen, and as you are now publishing in the Southern Historical Society Papers the brigade reports of that great battle, I hope you will also publish mine, which I herewith enclose. I am sure the public will consider this official paper, written about a month after the battle, a more valuable historical document than the many recent articles written from memory, which is at all times treacherous, and, as every Confederate soldier knows, particularly so as regards the incidents, &c., of our heroic struggle for independence. For instance, General Heth, in his letter in the October No., 1877, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, in speaking of the fight of the 3d of July at Gettysburg, makes General Lee say, "I shall ever believe if General Pender had remained on his horse half an hour longer we would have carried the enemy's position," when the facts are, General Pender was mortally wounded on the right of his line by an artillery shot on the afternoon of the 2d of July, and was taken to the rear, where he was on the 3d of July, and could not even mount his horse. Surely General Heth could not have read the report of General A. P. Hill in the November No., 1876, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, in which he says: "On the morning of the 3d the divisions of my corps occupied the same positions as on the 2d. * * * * I was directed to hold my line with Anderson's division and the half of Pender's, now commanded by Gen. Lane, and to order Heth's division, commanded by Pettigrew, and Lane's and Scales' brigades, of Pender's division, to report to Lieutenant-General Longstreet, as a support to his corps in the assault on the enemy's lines." It is also evident that Gen. Heth had not read the report of General Lee, which appeared in the July No., 1876, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, in which he says, in speaking of the fight on the 2d of July: "General Ewell had directed General Rodes to attack in concert with Early, covering his right, and had requested Brigadier-General Lane, then commanding Pender's division, to co-operate on the right of Rodes. * * * * General Lane was prepared to give the assistance required of him, and so informed General Rodes; but the latter deemed it useless to advance after the failure of Early's attack." And further: "In this engagement our loss in men and officers was large. Major-Generals Hood and Pender, Brigadier-Generals Jones, Semmes, G. T. Anderson, and Barksdale, and Col. Avery (commanding Hoke's brigade) were wounded, the last two mortally. Generals Pender and Semmes died after their removal to Virginia."
In his "Memorandum" (August No., 1877, of the Southern Historical Society Papers), Colonel Walter H. Taylor, in speaking of the fight oil the 3d of July, says: "Had Hood and McLaws followed or supported Pickett, and Pettigrew and Anderson have been advanced, the design of the Commanding-General would have been carried out--the world would not be so at a loss to understand what was designed by throwing forward, unsupported, against the enemy's stronghold, so small a portion of the army." Now I happen to know, as one who had his horse shot under him in that celebrated charge, by the enemy which flanked us on the left, that Pettigrew, with his wounded hand in a sling, did advance Heth's division, and that very gallantly. After such a declaration, strange to say, Col. Taylor, in his "second paper" (September No., 1877, of the Southern Historical Society Papers), admits that Pettigrew advanced on the left of Pickett, and that he witnessed it. I suppose he was at the time on the left of the assaulting column with General Lee, who, he states, "finally took position about the Confederate centre, on an elevated point, from which he could survey the field and watch the result of the movement." The Colonel states further, that from that position to the left, "to one who observed the charge, it appearedthat Pettigrew's line was not a continuation of that of Pickett's, but that it advanced in echelon." Further on he adds: "The assaulting column really consisted of Pickett's division two brigades in front, and one in the second line as a support, with the brigade of Wilcox in the rear of its right to protect that flank; while Heth's division moved forward on Pickett's left in echelon, or with the alignment so imperfect and so drooping on the left as to appear in echelon, with Lane's and Scales' brigades in rear of its right." This statement does great injustice to Heth's division, under Pettigrew, as the line was neither drooping nor did it move in echelon. Colonel Taylor seems not to have been aware, or to have forgotten that the assaulting column was not formed parallel to the enemy's position, but decidedly oblique to it; according to General Trimble, "Pickett being about three-fourths of a mile and Pettigrew one mile and a quarter from the enemy's line." From Colonel Taylor's position, then, to the left, the apparent drooping of Pettigrew's line and its apparent echelon advance must, I think, have been the result of his right-oblique view of the charge.
Colonel Taylor is again at fault when he says "the charge was made down a gentle slope, and then up to the enemy's lines, a distance of over half a mile, denuded of forests, and in full sight of the enemy and perfect range of their artillery. These combined causes produced their natural effect upon Pettigrew's division and the brigades supporting it--caused them to falter, and finally retire. Then Pickett's division, continuing the charge, without supports and in sight of the enemy, was not half so formidable or effective as it would have been had trees or hills prevented the enemy from so correctly estimating the strength of the attacking column, and our own troops from experiencing that sense of weakness which the known absence of support necessarily produced. In spite of all this it steadily and gallantly advanced to its allotted task." Why "to falter and finally retire," from the causes enumerated, should have been the "natural effect" upon Heth's division, under the noble and gallant Pettigrew, and Lane's and Scales' brigades, under that old hero Trimble, who lost a leg in the charge, and not upon Pickett's command, is something that I cannot comprehend. I know, however, personally, that my old brigade, in all its glorious achievements, never behaved more gallantly than on that terrible and bloody battlefield. As General Trimble says, "the truth is, Pickett's, Pettigrew's, and Trimble's divisions were literally shot to pieces, and the small remnants who broke the first Federal line were too feeble to hold what they had gained," and as he also adds, from close personal observation, "notwithstanding the losses as we advanced, the men (in Lane's and Scales' brigades) marched with the deliberation and accuracy of men on drill." In that much-talked-of and generally misunderstood charge, my brigade were as much the "heroes of Gettysburg" as any other troops that took part in it, and when we were driven back we were among the first to re-form, and we did so immediately in rear of the artillery, and not at the hospitals.
Yours, very respectfully,
James H. Lane.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 5, pages 38-40)