FROM THE FRONT LINE.
A PAPER PREPARED AND READ BEFORE
Loyal Legion of the United States,
FEBRUARY 8, 1888.
CHAPLAIN WINFIELD SCOTT, U. S. ARMY,
LATE CAPTAIN 126TH NEW YORK VOL. INFANTRY.
AS BEEN FROM THE FRONT LINE.
The battle of Gettysburg was the only great battle fought, during the war of the Rebellion, onUnion soil. The battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, fought under Hooker, had given theConfederates great encouragement. Lee thought it was time, and best, to transfer the field ofbattle to northern soil. After obtaining consent of the authorities at Richmond, he organized andbegan his great raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania. His force consisted of about 120,000 men,the Infantry divided into three army corps. The 1st, under Longstreet; the 2d, under Ewell; the3d, under A. P. Hill. Each corps had three divisions beside the artillery attached. The cavalrydivision, composed of six brigades, was under command of Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. There wasattached to it six batteries of horse artillery, under Maj. Beckham.
The artillery had 69 batteries, of 287 guns, and was under command of Gen. Pendleton.
The Army of the Potomac was under the command of Gen. Geo. G. Meade, who succeededHooker in command while on the march to Gettysburg. It consisted of seven army corps. The lst,2d, 3d, 5th, 6th, 11th, and 12th, commanded by Reynolds, Hancock, Sickles, Sykes, Sedgwick,Howard and Slocum. The corps to which our brigade belonged was the 2d, under Hancock. Thecavalry was under Gen. Pleasanton, consisting of three small divisions. The artillery had 65batteries, of 370 guns, 212 with the infantry, 50 with the cavalry, and 108 in reserve, and wasunder the command of Gen. Hunt. The whole army was composed of about 90,000 effectivemen of all arms.
When Gen. Meade assumed command on the 28th of June, Lee's army was at Chambersburg,Cashtown, and York, Pennsylvania, and threatening Harrisburg.
Our army,--each corps taking different roads--pushed along after Lee, determined to bring him toa stand, and if possible, to a battle. On the 29th, rumors began to reach those of us who were notin a position to know, that Lee was on the return and approaching Gettysburg. The 2d corpsmade a forced march of 33 miles, to Uniontown, on the 29th. The day was hot and the roadsdusty.
In the morning at about 8 o'clock we had forded a small stream just deep enough to cover ourankles, and were forbidden the privilege of removing our shoes and stockings before crossing thestream. The result was that, before five miles' march was concluded, the feet of officers and menwere parboiled and blistered. When we halted at 8 P.M., notwithstanding the heroic endeavors ofas plucky men as ever shouldered a musket, over five-sixths of the entire corps was scatteredalong the road, hors du combat, nursing sore toes and feet. I called the roll of my own companyat night, and only 12 responded, out of 60, present in the morning, and I had the largest per centpresent of any Company in the Regiment.
The next day was muster, and the corps was so crippled that it was unable to move for 24 hours. To the credit of the 2d corps nearly every man came in during the day, and was duly mustered. Our Regiment, the 126th New York, was mustered at 11 A.M., and not a man of my Companywas absent. From that day forward, on all marches, on hot days the men were always required toford the streams barefooted, and consequently another such accident never occurred.
On the 1st day of July, we were pushed forward towards Gettysburg. At Forneytown we couldhear the boom of artillery announcing the fact that the enemy had been found.
The 1st corps in advance, under Gen. Reynolds, and the 11th under Gen. Howard following, hadcome to the support of Buford's cavalry that had engaged the advance of the enemy just beyondthe town of Gettysburg.
The fight of the first day, of the 1st and 11th corps, was a very stubborn one; while only a part ofeach army was engaged, it was as severe, perhaps, as any fighting on our part during the wholebattle. It was a gallant struggle for position, successfully borne, for which great credit was dueboth Generals Reynolds and Howard. General Reynolds was killed before noon, and GeneralHoward conducted operations until he placed his force securely on the line where the remainderof the great battle was fought. A desperate charge at sunset was made to capture this position;but the assault was repulsed, and night closed the fighting of the first day.
During the afternoon of this first day's battle, the ambulance containing Gen. Reynolds' bodypassed through our corps, and we began to receive some definite information of the situationbefore us. We halted at 10 P.M., within three miles of the battle line, and after resting untildaylight, moved forward and were placed in position at 8 A. M., July 2d, near Ziegler's Grove, theline stretching out towards Round Top. The impression made upon us all was that this positionwas splendid. Culp's Hill, with Rock Creek at its base, was the terminus upon which the rightcould rest. Cemetery Hill, stretching towards Ziegler's Grove, and fronting the town ofGettysburg, was naturally a strong position. At Ziegler's Grove, a rocky point, with scatteringtrees, the ridge curved, like the toe of a horse shoe, around to the left, and ran along CemeteryRidge towards Little Round Top. Between the end of Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top,there was a low swag covered with trees. This low place on the line was nearly a half milelong--the ridge extending diagonally to the front along the Emmetsburg Road to the PeachOrchard--Round Top and Plum Run were still further to the left, furnishing a good position forour left flank to rest.
It is my purpose simply to describe Pickett's Charge from the front line, and so I will give onlypositions and a general analysis of the battle.
After the line was firmly established and the troops in their position, the battle consisted of threedistinct attempts on the part of the Confederates to carry our line.
The first was the charge of Longstreet against Sickles, on the left.
Sickles had advanced his line to the Peach Orchard on the Emmetsburg Road, about a half a mileto the front of the low ground, or swag, in our line, spoken of heretofore. He had thus hung hisline out in the air, simply refusing his left. Longstreet's corps struck him about 3 P.M. of thesecond day, and soon his whole force was driven to the rear. By the timely arrival of troops sentby Gen. Hancock from the 2d corps, and the troops brought up by the heroic conduct of Gen.Warren, from the 5th corps, at Little Round Top, this savage attack of Longstreet was repulsedwith great loss to both sides.
Immediately succeeding the repulse of Longstreet's attack on our left, Ewell attacked our right atCulp's Hill, with great severity. This fight continued until after nine o'clock in the evening, withpartial success on the part of the Confederates.
The morning of the 3d of July was ushered in with terrific musketry-firing on the right, at Culp'sHill. Ewell's force had worked its way into our earthworks, overlooking the Baltimore Road. The 12th corps had occupied these works the day before, but had left them to support the 2d and5th corps in the heavy attack of Longstreet at Little Round Top. Returning in the night to theirold position, they found their works occupied by the enemy. At daylight a terrific charge wasmade by our forces which drove the enemy out, and forced them to let go and loose their grip onthe whole line in front of our right. The skirmishers of the enemy were exceedingly active duringthe forenoon of the 3d. They pressed close up to our lines on our right center.
Gen. Alex. Hays, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, commanded the 3d division of the 2d corps, whichheld this position. He was a princely soldier; brave as a lion, and was one of those dashing,reckless, enthusiastic Generals, that reminded you of one of the old cavaliers. He seemed happiestwhen in the thickest of the fight. His old brigade, then the 3d of his division, idolized him, and wewould have followed him to the death. The skirmishers of the enemy, occupied the Bliss barn,and were very annoying. The 12th New Jersey, by Gen. Hays' direction, made a very gallantcharge, and drove them out. Late in the morning when reoccupied, the 14th Conn't made anothergallant charge, drove out the enemy, captured some prisoners and burned the buildings to theground.
Four companies of the 126th New York, to which I belonged, skirmished during the forenoon,over the ground to the left of Cemetery Hill and right in front of Ziegler's Grove. Withoutexception, I think it was the hottest skirmish I was ever in. The enemy held their line at theEmmetsburg Road, and they stuck to it as though they were ordered to hold it at all hazards. Wemade a charge, drove them out, and back into the wheat field behind them, and were only stoppedby a brigade that lay concealed in this wheat field, as their picket reserve. We lost so heavily thatthere were hardly enough left to let go. The three Captains that went out with me were killed. Ilost one of my Lieutenants, the only one with my Company, and over one-third of my command. My hat, coat and pants showed the good intentions of the Johnnies to dispense with my services. At 11 A.M., we were relieved and returned to our place in the line, awaiting the further duties ofthe day.
Lee had chosen that part of Cemetery Ridge, held by the 2d and 3d divisions of the 2d corps, asthe one upon which Pickett's assault should be made. Gen. Gibbon commanded the 2d division,and Gen. Alex. Hays the 3d. The 3d division had its right at Ziegler's Grove, the 3d brigadecommanded by Col. E. Sherrill, of the 126th New York Volunteers, on the right. With ourbrigade was battery I, 1st U. S. artillery, commanded by Lt. Woodruff. (This battery at present isat the Presidio, commanded by Capt. Shaw). To our left and adjoining us was Smyth's brigadeand Arnold's Rhode Island battery. Our division was in two lines. The front line was about 200yards in front of the rear line, and posted behind a low stone wall, patched up and topped out witha rail fence; Gibbons' division was on the left of Hays, and had with it Cushing's battery (A 4th U.S.) Brown's R.I. and Rorty's N. Y. To the left and south, in a clump of trees and bushes, layStannard's Vermont brigade of Doubleday's division. These were the forces that were to receivethe shock of the greatest charge in history.
Soon after 11 A.M., everything became quiet. Hardly a shot was heard on the picket line. Atnoon it became as still as the Sabbath day. The troops lay stretched upon the ground with the hotJuly sun pouring upon them; a hasty lunch had been eaten from the haversack; the soldiers wererecounting the incidents of the past two days of terrible fighting. Some sat with haversack on theknee, pencil in hand, writing to the dear ones at home. The silence and the heat were oppressive;when, precisely at one o'clock, suddenly from a Whitworth gun posted east of the town, came ahissing, whistling shot, passing over our brigade and down along the line towards Little RoundTop. Instantly, like a bolt out of a cloudless sky, one hundred and twenty Confederate cannonbroke the oppressive silence, with tempest of shot and shell such as never before, since the worldbegan, swept a battle field. The white puffs revealed where all these batteries were. They wereso placed on the left center and right center as to concentrate the fire on the line held in the mainby these two divisions of the 2d corps.
Upon the right flank of the corps, the line held by our 3d brigade, was centered a cross fire. Eighty cannon from our line answered the thundering peal. For an hour and a half these 200 gunssmoked and thundered, and hurled their shot and shell at each other and into the opposing lines. It seemed to me that nothing could have added to the noise. Shot whistled, and shell hissed, andscreamed and burst, scattering everywhere their deadly weapons. The caissons were smitten,ignited and blown up. Men and horses were blown to atoms by these explosions. The braveartillerymen stood gallantly at their posts, and answered shot with shot. Above it all could beheard the monotonous orders of the commanders of battery, with the precision of the tick of theclock-- "number one, fire! number two, fire!" The forms of the men could be seen passing throughthe smoke, and literally through a storm of shot and shell, from caisson to gun, carrying theirammunition. Men went down in scores; nearly every horse of Woodruff's battery was slain. Twohundred and fifty horses in the five batteries were killed, and yet cannon thundered and boomed,shells whistled and screamed and burst, until the ridge, and especially the valley and plain in therear, was swept with the besom of destruction. For once everybody was under fire--the hospitals,headquarters, ambulance corps, stragglers, and a few reporters. Many of the wounded were killedin and about the hospital. The horses of the aids at Gen. Meade's headquarters were smitten. Thegeneral headquarters was broken up, while the commander and staff mounted their horses andsought safety nearer the line of battle. The safest place was just under the cover of the ridge,where the lines of infantry lying flat upon the ground supported the batteries. These men, braveas they were, were at first stunned by the suddenness and severity of this cannonade. Theystretched themselves at full length upon the ground. They wished to be made thin, thinner thanhard-tack, yea as thin as a wafer. I wished, for a few minutes, that I could be about five feetunder ground. This soon became monotonous. Sheltered as they were by the ridge, only thoseshells that burst among them did any damage. Taking into consideration the severity of the storm,and the numbers of shells in the air, the casualties among the infantry lines were comparativelyfew. The severity of the cannonade, with the few casualties, soon calmed the men, and before itclosed it was borne with indifference. For an hour and a quarter this cannonade continued. Ourguns slackened first, and in a few minutes it was perfectly quiet again.
As soon as the cannonade ceased, Gen. Alex. Hays, who stood by our brigade through it all,called out-- " Now boys, look out; you will see some fun!"
The order was given and the brigade was moved up to the crest of the ridge. From our positionwe could overlook the whole valley between the two lines.
In moving up to the front, the 108th New York was on our left. It was commanded by Lt. Col.Pierce, now Captain of the first U. S. infantry, at present in charge of the San Carlos Reservation,A.T. He was a classmate of mine in the University of Rochester. While moving up our regimentswe locked arms and walked behind them. He said: "Well, Scott, we have sat beside each other inthe classroom many a day; but this is a new experience. This isn't much like digging out Greekroots."
Thus officers and men, with perfect composure, and in confidence, formed the line. The enemy,to disconcert us, began to drop their shells in upon us. We scanned the Confederate position, wellknowing that soon we should see their line of battle coming.
All at once, over their works and through the bushes that skirted them, came a heavy skirmishline. The skirmishers were about two paces apart, covering about three-quarters of a mile of ourfront. Behind them about 20 rods came another heavy skirmish line. Behind them, about thesame distance, came out the first line of battle. As they first emerged, had they continued straightto the front, their charge would have been centered upon the troops to our left. It was amagnificent line of battle, over three-quarters of a mile long. The men carried their guns, withbayonets fixed, at right shoulder. The regimental flags and guidons were plainly visible along thewhole line. The guns and bayonets in the sunlight shone like silver. The whole line of battlelooked like a stream or river of silver moving towards us. Behind this came the regimentalofficers; while behind them, mounted and followed by their aids, came the brigade and divisioncommanders, with their orderlies carrying their guidons and headquarter flags.
Then came the second line of infantry, in the same form and order as the first, followed by theircommanders on horses. Behind this still, in heavy massed columns on the center and wings, werethe supports and reserves. Two streaming lines of silver led off, decorated and enlivened by theirbattle flags. The order was magnificent. The movement of such a force over such a field, in suchperfect order, to such a destiny, was grand beyond expression. After moving forward about aquarter of a mile, a change was made in the direction of the line. A left half wheel was executedand they came straight for us, so that their left would just strike the right of our brigade. Garnettand Kemper were in the first line, and Armistead in the second. On came the silver lines. Thewhole line, to us who were in front, seemed straight as an arrow--the whole force like a perfectand magnificent parade. My own heart was thrilled at the sight. I was so absorbed with thebeauty and grandeur of the scene that I became oblivious to the shells that were bursting about us. This passage of scripture came to my mind, and I repeated it aloud : "Fair as the moon, bright asthe sun, and terrible as an army with banners."
Shortly their skirmishers cause within range. Ours reserved their fire until the enemy came closeto them. Our fire was then so accurate and severe, that their first line was held in check and couldnot force ours back. Their second line of skirmishers re-enforced the first, and ours then began toyield, failing back slowly. Our batteries from Cemetery Hill fired over our heads and threw shells,which went through the lines, bursting among them. Gaps were opened and quickly closed again. The shells kept flying, gaps opened and closed, and the silver lines in perfect order came on. Skirmishers fired sharply; the horsemen galloped to and fro behind the lines as the goal wasapproached. The half wheel of the enemy exposed their flank to the fire of McGilvray's andHazlett's guns from near Round Top. But there was no flinching. Gaps opened and closed, butthe lines came forward. As the lines neared us, the enemy's batteries slackened. The batteries inthe front line opened with grape and canister. Greater gaps were opened, and quickly closed, andstill on in sublime order came the silver lines. It was then cannon, and gaps, and closing of ranks,and on, on, on, in magnificent and unflinching valor, came the lines of silvery steel. Ourskirmishers retreated to our first line of battle. The skirmishers on the right filed out on thedouble quick so as to be on the flank of the on-coming foe. The command and the tramp of theon-coming hosts could now be heard. There was a moment's quiet of skirmishers and musketry. Orders of the enemy, a little clearer and sharper, rang out upon the air. Another crash ofcanister--other and terrible gaps, and still heroic closing of ranks. Our first line by the low stonewall was held by troops of Webb's Brigade. They clutched their muskets and fixed their bayonets. The order was given to hold their fire until the enemy was close upon them. Men peered throughthe crevices of the fence with anxious but determined looks The conflict of thought, and purpose,and will was now upon both armies. Moments seemed ages. The shock to heart and nerve wasawful. The enemy, as if anticipating the deadly reception, brought down their gleaming musketsfrom the shoulder to a charge bayonets. Our line was neared. One more crash of grape andcanister, another fearful rending of ranks, another determined closing, and on they came. Nowguns were raised to the shoulder, and this first line of silver became a line of smoke and fire. Eight thousand muskets poured their murderous fire into our line.
Our line kept covered and but little harm was done. Our cannon then stood silent and the musketwas chosen to decide the contest. With a cheer and yell the enemy charged on our line. Whenalmost upon it, our first line rose as one man and with a cool and deadly aim poured a witheringfire into the foe. That line went down like grass before the scythe. It was broken and dazed andthrown into confusion. Some sprang forward with bayonet to take the line, but were met withbayonet and slain. Their second line re-enforced the first and with a yell charged. Another roll ofmusketry, another crash of arms and the two lines closed in deadly conflict. The supportsre-enforced the lines on the right and center. Our first line was borne down and fled to our mainline. These men grasped their guns and now stood ready to receive the shock. Hancock's keeneye perceived the danger, so he rode to the left, to Stannard's Brigade of Vermonters, to orderthem on to the flank. Col. Sawyer of the 8th Ohio, with his skirmishers that had moved out toright, hung now upon their left flank. But with the desperation of fiends, on the enemy came. They poured in a terrible fire upon us. We answered it with another more terrible. They wavereda moment and then came on. We sprang to our feet and poured in another volley, and with afront of steel, held by iron arms inspired by heroic hearts, determined to conquer or die. Anothermoment of awful suspense and conflict. Eye met eye, will met will, bayonet stood off bayonet. Then, like an aspen leaf in the breeze, their line trembled and wavered. A shout rang out loud andclear, "they waver; give them a cheer;" and louder and sharper and more terrible than a crash ofmusketry, a cheer that shook the very earth went up from 10,000 throats. That cheer struckterror into the heart of the wavering foe, and nerved to desperation and deeds of valor the boys inblue. The enemy sank back, then broke and fled. Their brave and valiant officers soon ralliedthem, and in unbroken front and with flashing bayonet on they came again. Their action washeroic. Our line at once nerved itself for another shock. Flushed with victory, the shout rang outalong the line: "Come on; come on; come to death!" Another yell, another crash of musketry fromthe foe, and on they came. We waited their coming with perfect confidence, and then pouredsuch a withering fire into their ranks, and met them with such a thundering cheer, that just beforethey reached where they stood before they faltered, they broke and fled. Another galloping ofhorsemen, and waving of swords, and shouting of excited officers. The most desperate effortswere made to re-form them. The valley was full of men. Like a mob they surged, and wereridden upon by officers. They swept round and round in a hopeless mass, as though they were ingreat conflict of thought and doubt. Brave men; they dreaded to fall back without victory. Theycould not organize for another charge.
Our batteries were trained upon them. The grape and canister, massed as they were, piled them inheaps. Our sharp-shooters picked off the mounted officers, and in a few moments more theywere broken, demoralized and fleeing to their lines. The battle of Gettysburg was ended.
Thousands of dead lay upon the field; thousands of prisoners came into our lines. It was a time ofindescribable enthusiasm and excitement. Hats and caps and shouts filled the air. Sallies to thefront were made, and battle flags and trophies of our victory were gathered and brought in.Fighting Alex. Hays rode along our cheering lines, upon his foaming horse, bearing aloft in hisright hand the stars and stripes and dragging under the trampling heels of his horse a rebel flagjust taken from the repulsed foe. The act was significant and symbolic. From that hour the gloryand victory of the one, and the overthrow and disgrace of the other, was settled.
As a result of this charge 4000 prisoners were taken, thirty-three battle flags were brought in, myown regiment capturing four of them.
The victory cost both sides dearly. Gens. Hancock, Gibbon and Webb were wounded. Fivebattalion commanders were killed, including Col. Eliakim Sherrill, of the 126th New York. Nobraver or nobler man fell in that battle. Three battery commanders, Lts. Cushing, Woodruff andRorty, were killed, and hosts of brave officers and men fell in this crisis of the war of the rebellion. Never was there more heroic devotion to our cause, or determined courage displayed than on thisglorious field. "Victory or death" was the watchword, and victory, positive and triumphant, wasour reward.
The enemy, heroic, brave and reckless in their daring and persistency, seemed to cast their all intothis unparalleled and desperate charge. Every General and field officer in Pickett's division,except Pickett and one Lt. Col., fell, either killed or wounded. There were literally acres of deadlying in front of our line. I counted 16 dead bodies on one rod square, and the dead in everydirection lav upon the field piled in heaps and scattered as far as the eye could reach.
This defeat was God's prophesy of the rebellion's overthrow; and from that hour the Army of thePotomac always marched and fought with an assured confidence that it was only a question oftime when the final victory would come to our arms.