But tho the Confederates in all these engagements together achieved a grand success, and their arms were crowned with an exceedingly brilliant victory, yet they were met with a loss that could never be repaired! This was the fall of the great chieftain, "Stonewall" Jackson, as he was familiarly and endearingly styled by the soldiery and the mass of the people of the Confederate States. Just as he was in the successful accomplishment of one of his masterly flank movements, and one which turned the fortunes of this eventful four days' contest, he received a wound that terminated in his death in a few days afterward. The saddest reflection attending so great loss was that the shot which proved so disastrous came by mistake from his own lines.
Pushing ahead, leading his columns on a night attack, with a view to ascertain for himself the exact position of the Federals, whom he knew to be near, he got somewhat in advance of the main body of his troops. One of his staff and several others were with him. On their return, being mounted and riding briskly, they were supposed by those in the Confederate ranks to be an approaching party of Federal cavalry, and under this misapprehension were fired upon by them. The lines of Byron on Kirke White might well be applied to him:
"So the struck eagle, stretch'd upon the plain,
It is said that his own orders were that his troops were not to fire "unless cavalry approached from the direction of the enemy." His death caused grief and mourning from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and from the Ohio and Missouri to the Gulf and the Atlantic. Lieutenant-General Thomas J. Jackson was, indeed, in many respects a most extraordinary man. Famous as he had so recently become for his military exploits, he was not less distinguished even in camp for his piety and devotions. In religion he was of the same faith as Thomas R. R. Cobb. It would be difficult to say which of the two was the more zealous and enthusiastic in worship, and in the discharge of what they considered moral duty. These two men, so similar in character were both cut down in the prime of life, at no great distance apart, in time or place. Cobb, raised to the rank of Brigadier-General, had fallen on the 13th of December previous, in the first great battle in the vicinity of Fredericksburg.
1 From Stephens's "War Between the States."
The great battle opened on the 1st of July. The enemy's advance, consisting of the Eleventh Corps, was met by Heth's division, and shortly thereafter Ewell hurled the main body of his corps on the Federal column. When within one mile of the town, the Confederates made a desperate charge. The Federal line was broken; the enemy was driven in terrible confusion; the streets of the small town soon became thronged with fugitives; and Ewell, sweeping all before him, charged through the town, strewing every step of his progress with the enemy's dead, and taking 5,000 prisoners. The crowded masses of fugitives poured through the town in rout and confusion, ascending the slopes of a hill toward a cemetery that covered its apex.
It was not later than 5 o'clock in the evening, but the success was not followed up. As Ewell and Hill prepared for a fresh attack they were halted by General Lee, who deemed it advisable to abstain from pressing his advantage until the arrival of the remainder of his army. The unfortunate inaction of a single evening and night enabled Meade not only to bring up all his forces, but to post them on an almost impregnable line, which the Confederates had permitted a routed detachment of a few thousand men to occupy and hold.
The failure of General Lee to follow up the victory of the 1st enabled the enemy to take at leisure, and in full force, one of the strongest positions in any action of the war, and to turn the tables of the battle-field completely upon the Confederates. On the night of the 1st of July, General Meade,2 in person, reached the scene of action, and concentrated his entire army on those critical heights of Gettysburg, that had bounded the action of the first day, designated by the proper name of Cemetery Ridge.
This ridge, which was just opposite the town, extended in a westerly and southerly direction, gradually diminishing in elevation till it came to a very prominent ridge called "Round Top," running east and west. The Confederates occupied an exterior ridge, less elevated, distant from the lines occupied by the Federals from a mile to a mile and a half. On this sunken parallel was arranged the Confederate line of battleEwell's Corps on the left, beginning at the town with Early's division, then Rodes' division; on the right of Rodes' division was the left of Hill's corps, commencing with Heth's, then Pender's and Anderson's divisions. On the right of Anderson's division was Longstreet's left, McLaw's division being next to Anderson's, and Hood on the extreme right of our line, which was opposite the eminence upon which the enemy's left rested. There was long a persistent popular opinion in the South that General Lee, having failed to improve the advantage of the first day, did wrong thereafter to fight at Gettysburg. But this charge must be discust with care. General Lee, himself, has explained how a battle was forced upon him. He says:
"It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such distance from our base, unless attacked by the Federal army; it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. At the same time the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies, while in the presence of the enemy's main body, as he was enabled to restrain our foraging parties by occupying the passes of the mountains with regular and local troops. A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable. Encouraged by the successful issue of the first day, and in view of the valuable results which would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack."
It is true that the position of the enemy was one of extraordinary strength. But the army of northern Virginia was in an extraordinary state of proficiency; it was flushed with victory; it had accomplished so many wonders in the past that it was supposed to be equal to anything short of a miracle; and when, on the morning of the 2d, General Lee reconnoitered the field, and scanned the heights which looked upon him through brows of brass and iron, he was noticed to rise in his stirrups and mutter an expression of confidence. He decided to attack.
The action of the 2d of July did not commence until about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Under cover of a heavy fire from the Confederate batteries, Longstreet advanced against the Federal left, and Ewell, from Gettysburg and Rocky Creek, moved forward Johnston's, Rodes', and Early's divisions against the right, his guns keeping up a continuous fire on the slopes of Cemetery Hill. While the two corps on the flanks advanced to the attack, Anderson's division received orders to be prepared to support Longstreet, and Pender and Heth to act as a reserve, to be employed as circumstances might require.
Longstreet, having placed himself at the head of Hood's and McLaw's divisions, attacked with great fury. The first part of the enemy's line he struck was Sickles's Corps,3 which he hurled back with terrible loss on the heights in its rear. The Confederates delivered their fire at short musket range, then charged up the steep ascent with the peculiar yell of the Southern soldier. Meade, seeing that the real attack was against his left, hurried reenforcements rapidly from his center.
For two hours the battle raged with sublime fury, and on the semicircle of Round Top trembled the fiery diadem of victory, and all the issues of the day. The fire was fearful and incessant; three hundred pieces of artillery belched forth death and destruction on every side; the tumultuous chorus made the earth tremble; and a dense pall of smoke fitly constituted a sulfurous canopy for scenes of infernal horror. Longstreet, with hat in hand, seemed to court the death which avoided him. At one moment it was thought the day was won. Three brigades of Anderson's division moved up, had made a critical attack, and Wilcox and Wright almost gained the ridge; but reenforcements reached the Federals; and unsupported by the remainder of Anderson's division, Longstreet's men failed to gain the summit of the hill, or to drive back the enemy from the heights of the Round Top.
On the Confederate left, Ewell's success had been better. He had moved forward to the assault of Cemetery Hill; Johnston's division forced its way across the broken ground near Rocky Creek, sustaining considerable loss from the fire poured down upon it from the higher ground; Early's division advanced to storm the ridge above Gettysburg, and Rodes on the right moved forward in support. But the attack was not simultaneous. Hayes' and Hoke's brigades of Early's division, succeeded in capturing the first line of breastworks, but were driven back by the weight of numbers. Johnston, however, gained important ground, and when night fell, still retained hold of the position he had seized on the right bank of Rocky Creek.
The summary of the second day's action was that the Confederates had obtained some advantage; that the Round Top, had, at least, been temporarily in their possession, showing that it was not impregnable; that on the left, important positions had been taken; and so the result was such as to lead General Lee to believe that he would ultimately be able to dislodge the enemy, and to decide the Confederate commander upon a last, supreme effort for decisive victory.
The morning of the 3d of July wore away with but little incident of conflict. On the extreme left, where Johnston occupied the right bank of Rocky Creek, there was some desultory action; but General Lee did not attempt to assist this part of the line, hoping to retrieve whatever might occur there by a vigorous movement against the center of the enemy's position. Early in the morning he ascended the college cupola in Gettysburg to reconnoiter. Pickett's division of three brigades, numbering less than 5,000 men, which had been left to guard the rear, reached the field of Gettysburg on the morning of the 3d. This body of Virginia troops was now to play a part the most important in the contest, and on this summer day to make a mark in history to survive as long as the language of glorious deeds is read in this world.
About noon there was a deep calm in the warm air. General Lee determined to mass his artillery in front of Hill's Corps, and under cover of this tremendous fire to direct the assault on the enemy's center. To this end more than 100 pieces of artillery were placed in position. On the opposite side of the valley might be perceived the gradual concentration of the enemy in the woods, the preparations for the mighty contest that was at last to break the ominous silence with a sound of conflict such as was scarcely ever before heard on earth. It was a death-like silence. At 12:30 P.M. the shrill sound of a Whitworth gun pierced the air. Instantly more than 200 cannon belched forth their thunder at one time. It was absolutely appalling. An officer writes:
"The air was hideous with most discordant noise. The very earth shook beneath our feet, and the hills and rocks seemed to reel like a drunken man. For one hour and a half this most terrific fire was continued, during which time the shrieking of shell, the crash of falling timber, the fragments of rocks flying through the air, shattered from the cliffs by solid shot, the heavy mutterings from the valley between the opposing armies, the splash of bursting shrapnell, and the fierce neighing of wounded artillery horses made a picture terribly grand and sublime."
Into this scene of death moved out the Confederate column of assault. Pickett's division proceeded to descend the slope of hills and to move across the open ground. The front was thickly covered with skirmishers; then followed Kemper's and Garnett's brigades, forming the first line, with Armistead in support. On the flanks were Heth's division, commanded by Pettigrew, of Hill's corps, and Wilcox's brigade of McLaw's Corps, the former on the left, the latter on the right of the Virginians.
Pickett led the attack. The 5,000 Virginians descended the hill with the precision and regularity of a parade. As they reached the Emmittsburg road, the Confederate guns, which had fired over their heads to cover the movement, ceased, and there stood exposed these devoted troops to the uninterrupted fire of the enemy's batteries, while the fringe of musketry fire along a stone wall marked the further boundary of death to which they marched. No halt, no waver. Through half a mile of shot and shell prest on the devoted column. It was no sudden impetus of excitement that carried them through this terrible ordeal; it was no thin storm of fire which a dash might penetrate and divide. In every inch of air was the wing of death. Against the breadth of each man's body reared the red crest of destruction.
Steadily the Virginians press on. The name of Virginia was that day baptized in fire, and illuminated forever in the temple of history. There had been no such example of devotion in the war. Presently wild cries ring out; the smoke-masked troops are in the enemy's works; there is a hand-to-hand contest, and again and again the Confederate flag is lifted through the smoke over the shrinking columns of the enemy. Garnett is dead. Armistead is mortally wounded. Kemper is shot down. Every brigadier of the division is killed or wounded. But Pickett is unscathed in the storm; his flashing sword has taken the key of the enemy's position, and points the path of the conflict through his broken columns; the glad shout of victory is already heard; and on the distant hill of observation, where a little group of breathless spectators had watched the scene, Longstreet turns to General Lee to congratulate him that the day is won.
Vain! vain! Overlooking the field, General Lee saw that the troops of Pettigrew's division had wavered. Another moment and they had fallen back in confusion, exposing Pickett's division to attack both from front and flank. The courage of Virginians could do no more. Overwhelmed, almost destitute of officers, and nearly surrounded, the magnificent troops of Pickett give way. Slowly and steadily they yielded ground, and under the heavy fire which the artillery poured into their broken ranks, they retraced their steps across the fatal valley.
General Lee was never known to betray on any battle-field a sign, either of exultation or disappointment. As he witnessed the last grand effort of his men, and saw it fail, he was seen for a moment to place his fingers thoughtfully between his lips. Presently he rode quietly in front of the woods, rallying and encouraging the broken troops, uttering words of cheer and encouragement. To a foreign military officer of rank, who had come to witness the battle, he said very simply : " This has been a sad day for us, Colonela sad day; but we can't expect always to gain victories."
There was no dramatic circumstance about him; no harangue; but nothing could be more affecting, nothing more sublime, than to witness that when this plain gentleman rode through the throng of broken troops, saying such simple words as "Never mind, " "We'll talk of this afterward," "Now we want all good men to rally," every fugitive paused, and badly wounded men took off their hats to cheer him! The Army of Northern Virginia never knew such a thing as panic. . . .
The enemy did not move from his works, and the new crisis for which General Lee had so quietly prepared did not come. Night fell over the third scene of bloodshed. The Confederate loss in this frightful series of engagements exceeded 10,000 men. Some of the details of this loss exhibit instances of desperate conflict which shock the heart. In Pickett's division, out of twenty-four regimental officers, only two escaped unhurt. The Ninth Virginia went in two hundred and fifty strong, and came out with only thirty-eight men. In another part of the field the Eighth Georgia rivaled this ghastly record of glory. It went into battle with thirty-two officers, out of which twenty-four were killed or wounded. The Federal loss in the engagement proper of Gettysburg is not known. General Meade acknowledged to the total loss during the campaign of 23,186 killed, wounded, and missing. Nearly half of these are to be found in the total of prisoners, including the captures at Winchester.
The morning of the 4th of July dawned upon the two armies still confronting each other. They occupied precisely the same ground that each occupied on the first day's fight. No disposition was shown by either to attack the other. About 12 o'clock Lee made preparations to withdraw such of the wounded as could be transported in ambulances and wagons. These were placed in line, and, under a strong escort, sent back toward the Potomac. This consumed the afternoon and night of the 4th. On the morning of the 5th of July the Confederate line of battle was drawn in, leaving a heavy skirmish line to confront the Federals. By midnight of the 5th, Lee's rear guard was well out from Gettysburg, and retiring in perfect order. There was no excitement, no panic. The entire wagon and supply trains, every piece of artillery, large herds of cattle and horses, and about 7,000 prisoners were all brought off safely.
1 From Pollard's "Lost Cause."
2 Meade was in command of the Union army.
3 Named after its commander, General Daniel E. Sickles, who is still living (December, 1911).