Letter from Maj. Scheibert, of the Prussian Royal Engineers.
[As the opinion of a distinguished foreigner who witnessed the battle of Gettysburg and has
manifested the liveliest interest in the discussion concerning it, the following letter will have an
interest for all of our readers; but for those who knew the gallant Prussian, and appreciated his
warm sympathy for our struggling people, it will have a peculiar interest.]
Stuttgart, 21st Nov., '77.
Rev. J. Wm. Jones,
Sec'y S. H. Soc'y :
Dear Sir: You will, perhaps, be surprised that a foreigner should desire to mingle in the discussion of the battle of Gettysburg; but I have some reasons which urge me to give you my opinion about that affair. 1. I was an impartial observer; 2. I was, so far as I know, the only man on the Southern side who could see everything going on in that battle, having climbed into the top of a very tall tree near Gettysburg, which overlooked all the woody country. I had so good a view that Gen'l Lee himself came up to the tree twice to ask about the positions and movements of the enemy.
It was the same tree upon which Col. Freemantle sat (see Gen'l Hood's letter) until the opening of the battle, when (longing to see a fight, which he had never seen before,) be left his position.
The questions of the English author, whose name I do not know, lead me to suppose that either he is not a soldier or has never studied the war, and they remind me of the questions asked by the famous "Committee on the Conduct of the War," which made the officers of our army smile.
But the result of those poor questions is a splendid, rich, military harvest, which will most deeply interest every European soldier.
I cannot remember, notwithstanding my earnest studies in military history, one case where the history of a battle has been so full illustrated and illuminated by individual reports given by all of the prominent leaders--not immediately after the battle, when personal impressions are conflicting, but after a lapse of more than ten years, when time and matured judgement have ripened the fresh sketch into a splendid picture. The result is so impressive that if I were professor of military science, I would choose the battle of Gettysburg for the special study of my students. My personal impressions about the poor result of the battle of Gettysburg have been exactly expressed by Gen'l Heth, whose letter I fully endorse. But he, as well as the other writers, has omitted one element which seems to me to be of the highest importance. I refer to the individual character of Gen'l Lee. I have made the military character of this General, who has never had an admirer of such fervour as myself, my peculiar study, and have written a biographical sketch of him, which appeared in a German paper.
Lee was, in my opinion, one of the ablest leaders of this century in two great qualities. He weighed everything, even the smallest detail, in making his general plan of battle, and he made the boldest dispositions with heroic courage and the most stubborn energy. He gave to every link the right place in the construction of a chain which became a masterpiece of military workmanship.
He did not reach his conclusions, as Jackson and Stuart did, by an instinctive, sudden impulse; his plans did not come upon him like the lightning's flash followed by the thunder's crash: but he painfully and studiously labored in order to arrange those splendid dispositions fraught with the keenest and most hardy enterprises, and well worthy of the troops which were ordered to execute them.
General Lee, in speaking to me of his dispositions, said: "Captain, I do everything in my power to make my plans as perfect as possible, and to bring the troops upon the field of battle; the rest must be done by my generals and their troops, trusting to Providence for the victory."
Thus he would successfully oppose immense odds, as the result of his thorough preparation, so long as he was minutely advised of the whereabouts, strength, and intentions of the enemy. "The eyes" by which he saw these things, as my friend Colonel Taylor justly observes, was his cavalry, and without these he was groping unsafely in the dark night.
But in all these cases General Jackson (who had his special information coupled with his natural instincts, his sudden impulses, and his peculiar ideas,) came or was ordered to headquarters to give his personal opinions to the Commanding-General, who linked the genial thoughts of Jackson to his own beautiful chain: e. g., before the battle of Chancellorsville these famous leaders met on a hill near the Aldrich house to mature those plans which resulted in the unequaled battles of the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. Each of these generals was the supplement to the other; just as in the family, both man and wife are necessary to keep up the household.
When Jackson fell, Lee, as he himself said, lost his right arm, the army lost the mother, and thus the void which had been made was too great to be so soon closed, the wound which the army received too deep to be healed in four weeks. Thus the carefully planning general encountered the fearful odds at Gettysburg without his faithful mirror, the cavalry, and without his ready counselor, General Jackson. He himself felt this great loss in making his dispositions. He felt uneasy, as Hood justly remarks.
All who saw him on these two occasions, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, will remember that Lee at Chancellorsville (where I had the honor of being at his side in the brunt of the struggle), was full of calm, quiet, self-possession, feeling that he had done his duty to the utmost, and had brought the army into the most favorable position to defeat the hostile host. In the days at Gettysburg this quiet self-possessed calmness was wanting. Lee was not at his ease, but was riding to and fro, frequently changing his position, making anxious enquiries here and there, and looking care-worn. After the shock of battle was over he resumed his accustomed calmness, for then he saw clearly and handled the army with that masterly ability which was peculiar to him. This uneasiness during the days of the battle was contagious to the army, as will appear from the reports of Longstreet, Hood, Heth, and others, and as appeared also to me from the peep I had of the battle-field. What a difference from the systematic advance of the army from the Wilderness to the assault of the breastworks at Chancellorsville, where a unity of disposition and a feeling of security reigned in all the ranks. At Gettysburg there was cannonading without real effect, desultory efforts without combination, and lastly, the single attack which closed the drama, and which I, from my outlook in the top of the tree, believed to be only a reconnaissance in heavy force.
Want of confidence, misapprehensions, and mistakes were the consequences, less of Stuart's absence than of the absence of Jackson, whose place up to this time had not been filled.
After this it was filled by Lee himself, who, like a father when the mother dies, seeks to fill both her place and his own in the house. He doubled his fighting qualities, he made the most judicious use of his cavalry, and the result was splendid, for the campaign of 1864 to the closing scene at Appomattox was the most brilliant which Lee ever fought.
We European soldiers have only one wish, and that is that, like the battles of 1861 to 1863, the last campaign may find Southern authors and authorities to give special narratives and correct details of that famous series of battles, concerning which we are in comparative ignorance.
The battle of Gettysburg would have been won by Lee's army if it could have advanced at any time and on any part of the field to one concentrated and combined attack on the enemy's position. This is the impression I have received from my personal observation, and from the valuable details of your exceedingly interesting papers.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 5, pages 90-93)