MILITARY ORDER OF THE LOYAL LEGION OF THE UNITED STATES

War Papers


THE FIRST DAY AT GETTYSBURG
By
Sidney G. Cooke
Kansas Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States


Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
tome_93611@yahoo.com
(November 2006)

The battle of Gettysburg has so long been the inspiring theme of the historian and poet, that one who bore but an humble part on that eventful field cannot hope to add much pertaining to it, of real interest to its survivors or others. Its strategic history, and the bearing of its results upon the welfare of our nation and race, have been studied and analyzed and recorded. Its myriad incidents, interesting to the common soldier, have gradually been obscured by the cloud of accumulated years, and, reproduced from recollection, are liable to lack accuracy. It is for this reason that, while complying with the request of our recorder to write on Gettysburg, I do so with reluctance, somewhat relieved by confidence in the forbearance of the companions present.

It was my fortune to serve in the first brigade of infantry engaged on that field, Cutler's brigade of Wadsworth's division, First Army Corps. This division fought unsupported for several hours on the first day of battle. Its supports, arriving later, were soon reduced by losses to half their numbers. On account of the small numbers engaged, and the open character of the country, the common soldier had better than usual opportunities to observe the battle and its incidents, and I have ever since believed that men in the ranks saw and comprehended important objects, movements, and incidents to a degree not common in our war.

The strategical movements of Generals Meade and Lee brought 40,000 Confederates, and less than one-fourth of that number of Union troops into bivouac on the evening of June 30, 1863, within eight or nines miles of Gettysburg. The First Corps, commanded by the lamented Reynolds, who also commanded the left wing of the army, went into camp that evening at Marsh Creek, five miles away. It was the extreme left of a general line, of which the Sixth Corps, stationed at Manchester, thirty miles easterly, was the right. It confronted, practically unsupported, the greater part of the Rebel army. In short, it was in a position, relative to the remainder of the army, to be destroyed before reinforcements could reach it. And this was practically accomplished, on the following day, by General Lee.

The morning of July 1st broke clear and brilliant on its camp, which was soon the scene of busy preparation. At an early hour, Wadsworth's division, about 3500 strong, led by Cutler's brigade, moved out on the Emmetsburg Road at a swinging pace for Gettysburg. The two remaining divisions were to follow. The road was excellent and unencumbered by any other troops or trains, and the march was rapid. The men were fresh from a day's rest and the influence of a perfect morning and a beautiful landscape inspirited them. After our weary marches over the desolate fields of Virginia, the contrast of the rich green and gold of the thrifty Pennsylvania farms brought a restful feeling and a reminder of home. The mountains in the distance, gilded by the morning sun, left nothing lacking to the perfection of a summer morning scene. So accustomed to war had we become, that the incongruity of our martial display in such a scene was unnoticed.

Approaching Gettysburg, the distant boom of Buford's artillery recalled us, with somewhat of a shock, to our errand of war. An aide meets us with the information that the cavalry are hard pressed. The march is hastened. We leave the main road and advance at the double quick westerly to the Seminary. Orders come to load as we march. Still many snatch a moment as we pass, to take a hurried drink of water, as it is handed out by two ladies at a house gate, and many ringing cheers go up in their honor. Passing to the west and north of the Seminary, we overtake a citizen carrying a gun. "We are going to celebrate the Fourth for you, old fellow," cries out one of the men. "All right boys," is the reply; "it's a little early in the month, but I'll help you do it." Whether this was the "Citizen of Gettysburg" since famed in song and story for his brave deeds on that field, I do not know. Heth's division of Confederates was pushing back our cavalry in an attempt to seize the town. Dispositions were promptly made by General Reynolds. Probably realizing the importance of Gettysburg as a strategical point, and the great tactical advantage of the heights as a battle-field, he resolved, with his customary decision and self-reliance, to fight whatever was in front. Doubtless he assumed that Meade would send reinforcements and come personally to direct their movements.

Hall's Second Maine Battery passed us on the run, swung into line on the Chambersburg Road, and instantly opened fire. My own brigade (Cutler's of Wadsworth's division) passed rapidly to the north along the depression west of Seminary Ridge, two of its regiments forming a line across that road, while the three remaining regiments, the 56th Pennsylvania, the 76th New York and my own, the 147th New York, passing across that road and an unfinished railroad, came into line of battle by the left flank, within close musket-range of the Rebel line posted just over a ridge.

So rapidly had it been necessary to make these movements that no flankers had been thrown out. Consequently the strength of the enemy and the direction of his line were not known. The right of our line immediately opened fire; and a moment later the left, and the greatest battle of modern times was begun.

It was soon found that the Rebel force far exceeded ours, and that its line was formed diagonally to and overlapping ours on our right. It became necessary to readjust our line. The three regiments north of the railroad were therefore ordered to withdraw to a position protected by a small timber lot a short distance to the rear; but, before the commandant of our regiment could give the order, he was wounded and borne off the field. Closely engaged in front and on both flanks, and not knowing that the two other regiments had been withdrawn, the regiment continued to hold its position against fearful odds and with terrible loss, until a retreat was ordered by the second in command. It was only by the prompt and gallant action of other troops that the regiment, when it finally received the order to fall back, was saved from annihilation. Colonel Fowler, of the 14th Brooklyn, assuming command of his own regiment and the 95th New York stationed on the south side of the railroad, changed front to the north, and, aided by the 6th Wisconsin, struck the enemy in flank, compelling them to cease the pursuit, change front to face the new attack, and rush into the railway cutting for shelter. The shelter, however, proved to be a trap. Colonel Dawes closed up the end of the cutting with a line of Union riflemen and compelled the surrender of a large portion of the Confederates.

Relieved from pursuit, my regiment, now but a company in size, was able to re-form. But its colors were gone. Perceiving this, General Cutler, riding up, said severely to the officer in command, "You have lost your colors, sir;" but the officer, pointing back toward the field we had left, replied: "General, the 147th never loses its colors;" for there, painfully making his way toward us from the front, came a soldier severely wounded, bearing the old flag, which he had taken from the hands of our dead color-bearer, and brought off in the teeth of the enemy. "Boys," said the general, "I'll take it all back;" and added: "It's just like cock-fighting today. We fight a little and run a little. There are no supports.

Soon after Cutler's brigade went into action, the Iron Brigade, as Meredith's brigade of our division was called, came upon the field and took position in a piece of woods between the two roads converging on Gettysburg from Fairfield and Chambersburg, prolonging Cutler's line to the left and menacing any force approaching on either road. It was not a moment too soon. Archer's Rebel brigade was advancing to seize it from the opposite side. It was here that Reynolds fell. He was personally superintending the dispositions at that point, when he was killed by a sharpshooter.

I have been told that the officers of the army held him in high esteem for his social and soldierly qualities. But I know that the ranks of the old First Corps believed in him and would have followed him anywhere he might have led. It is necessary to serve in the ranks to appreciate how the soldier is inspired by a manly, courteous, brave, and knightly commander. I know there has been much dispute as to who was entitled to the credit for selecting the Cemetery Hill line to fight the battle on. A common soldier could hardly be able to decide the dispute. I only know that Reynolds was first there, that his quick military eye would hardly have failed to observe its strength, and that his dispositions were those best adapted to save that position for other troops arriving to form on. I shall probably continue, in absence of positive evidence, to believe as I did on that day, that its selection was due to his military foresight.

It was about eleven o'clock and the battle had temporarily ceased. Wadsworth's division had been fighting for nearly two hours alone and successfully to save the immensely strong position back of Gettysburg for a battle-field, when our army should arrive. Though heavily outnumbered, it had driven the enemy from the field and held its original position. The Rebel brigades which we had met were shattered, and one of them captured almost entire with its commander, General Archer. The survivors had withdrawn from sight across Willoughby Run in our front.

There has been some discussion as to whether Cutler's (2d Brigade, First Division, First Corps) is entitled to the honor of having opened the battle. Colonel Wheeler, in a paper read before the Wisconsin Commandery, claims the honor for the "Iron Brigade" of the same division and corps. I think that he is wrong. Certain it is that Cutler's brigade marched in front that morning. No troops passed it, and naturally it would be first in line. That the "Iron Brigade" took up its position promptly, and lost no time in getting to work, was characteristic. Some years ago, in correspondence with General Doubleday, who, after the death of Reynolds, commanded the corps, I received this letter:

    "Dear Comrade, ---That first volley against the enemy at Gettysburg was from Cutler's brigade. No one disputes that. I believe there was some question whether the 76th New York or the 56th Pennsylvania fired first, but the weight of evidence seems to be in favor of the 56th Pennsylvania, Colonel Hoffman.

    "Yours truly,
    Abner Doubleday,
    "Brevet Major-General U. S. A.

    "To Mr. Sidney Cooke."

Colonel Wheeler's suggestion that, as the "Iron Brigade" had sometimes been called Cutler's brigade, General Doubleday might have been misled as to which of Cutler's brigades opened the battle, is disposed of by General Doubleday's reference in the above letter to the question of which of the two regiments mentioned fired first, neither one of which was in the "Iron Brigade," and both of which were Cutler's.

On both sides preparations for a renewal of the struggle were actively carried forward. About this time the Second and Third Divisions reached the field. The former, under General John C. Robinson, was placed in reserve near the Seminary, and the latter, commanded by General Thomas A. Rowley, was posted to extend and strengthen our line to the left. The entire line, as now re-constructed, was about one mile in length, extending from the Fairfield Road on the left to the vicinity of the Mummasburg Road on the right. It probably numbered at this time not more than 6,000 men, including the reserves. This force was all that stood between the Rebel army and Gettysburg, and hours must elapse before reinforcements could arrive.

Between twelve and one o'clock the battle again began. While we were vastly outnumbered, the lack of co-ordination in the Confederate attacks enabled us repeatedly to change front and repulse the enemy until, about two o'clock p.m., the Eleventh Corps came upon the field, and was welcomed by ringing cheers from our line. One division went into position some distance from our right. Another (Barlow's) formed to the right of that, both facing north to meet Ewell's attack, the remaining division being left in reserve at the Cemetery. My brigade was drawn back to the east side of the woods before mentioned. Baxter's brigade was sent from the reserve to fill the gap of our right. He was immediately assailed, almost before getting into position, alternately on each flank, but changed front and repelled both. Iverson's Rebel brigade now advanced against him, exposing its right flank. Orders come from Cutler for our brigade to wheel to the right and charge. The movement is at once executed, while at the same time Baxter pours a deadly volley at short range. The enemy unable to withstand the attack, throw down their arms and rush into our lines. A Rebel sergeant, passing to the rear called out: "We-uns are North Carolina boys. We never wanted to fight."

For a time the lack of concert in the attacks of the enemy and the stubborn resistance of our troops neutralized the numerical superiority of the Confederates. Though exhausted by many hours of marching and fighting, with ranks terribly thinned by death, wounds, and capture, and with the confidence shaken in generalship which permitted us to be crushed in detail, the old First Corps still held its position. Word was passed along the line, "Hold a little longer, the Twelfth Corps is coming." But it did not come. Farther to the right the Eleventh Corps is hotly engaged, outflanked on its right as the First is on its left. There was imminent danger that both would be cut off from the main army. Howard has thrown in nearly all his reserves, but the contest is still terribly unequal. More than half of the troops of the First Corps engaged were killed and wounded. General Doubleday sends his last reserves (Paul's brigade) to the assistance of Baxter, but General Paul is hardly in position when a bullet destroys both his eyes.

The right of the Eleventh Corps is now enveloped by Gordon's fresh Rebel troops and forced back with heavy loss. The long-delayed catastrophe has begun. It is well described and briefly by General Howard: "The division nearest Doubleday was flying to the shelter of the town, widening the gap there, and the enemy in line pressed rapidly through the interval. Of course Robinson and Wadsworth had to give way." My brigade did not immediately retire to the town, but formed a line on the south side of the railroad grading, covering the retreat; adding to the honor of being first on the field that of being the last to leave that part of the line. My regiment supported a battery which was holding in check the columns advancing from the west. We were soon obliged to fall back to the town. The enemy were entering it from the north and east. The streets became a battle-ground. Regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps became mixed. The crowd overflowed into yards and alleys. There was not a panic, only unavoidable confusion. The terrible exhaustion and discouragement left too little life for a panic. Individual judgment rather than orders, led men to attempt to reach the heights at the Cemetery, and toward that position all struggled.

It was a most unmilitary crowd that Hancock and Howard met and rallied on Cemetery Hill. Organizations had melted away. Here and there men would form on their flag, but many were unable to find either flag or officers. Company officers called loudly for their men to fall in, not yet realizing that all but a few had fallen out forever. Colonels could find but enough men for a company, and did not yet realize that most of the absent were lying dead or wounded on the field we had left. Especially was this true of the First Corps, which, as Doubleday says, had been "all but annihilated."

But if organization was lost, it needed but an organizer to restore it among these veterans. Hancock was there to meet the crisis. I happened to come near enough to note his bearing in that trying moment, and to hear some of his remarks and orders. The enemy was emerging from the streets of the town below, and forming line as if to charge and drive us from our coveted position. Every man knew how hopeless resistance would be, but Hancock sat on his horse, superb and calm as on review; imperturbable, self-reliant, as if the fate of the battle and of the nation were not his to decide. It almost led us to doubt whether there had been cause for retreat at all. His dispositions were prompt. A skirmish-line was at once organized and advanced down the hill in the face of the enemy. Others were quickly deployed to extend its line to the left and right. To General Doubleday, who sat on his horse by his side, he said: "General move a brigade to the hill across the road on the right." "But, general," he replied, "I have no brigade." "Then take the first thousand men here. Never mind where they belong." No excitement in voice or manner, only cool, concise, and positive directions, given in a steady voice and a conversational tone.

The tired and discouraged men responded to the will of their master. The semblance of an organization was produced at once, and a show of strength made which might well impress the enemy, as it did, with the idea that we had at last received reinforcements. No charge was made. The position was saved. The terrible day's work was done.

And now to the ears of the exhausted troops, which during the entire day had been saluted only with the crash of battle and the cries of the wounded, came a welcome and inspiring sound. The notes of the bugle and the inspiring strains of bands drifted from the far rear to the heights of the Cemetery. The tired eyes of the soldiers of the First and Eleventh Corps for the first time that turned away from the enemy, and gazed far out to the rear. The old Twelfth Corps was coming. The evening sun, dipping behind the western hills, kissed the banners and the bayonets of as gallant a corps as ever swung into line of battle. On they came at a rapid pace, for they were making a forced march to our relief. Their flags floated over the hills, dipped out of sight into the hollows, only to reappear again nearer and nearer; while their bugle-calls and the stirring notes of their bands, floating over the hills, signaling their coming, were sweeter than ever the notes of ?olian harp. Cheer after cheer went up as they came upon the field, and gallant Slocum, their commander, rode swiftly to the Cemetery to report to the general in command. Now, indeed, the sacrifice of the First Corps was soon to be justified. The strongest defensive battle-line in the North had been saved to the Union cause.

The fatal military genius which had invariably managed to have our troops outnumbered had again controlled our movements. The first day of Gettysburg was fought, with the commanding general of the army nearly twenty miles away. Therefore no orders for reinforcements could be obtained, and the general marching orders for the day were in force long enough for two corps to be nearly annihilated.

General Slocum has often been censured for not advancing the Twelfth Corps to our aid, and General Howard has said that he sent him a request to do so. The following letter, received some years ago from General Slocum, places this in its true light, and exonerates a commander and a corps, always ready to march toward the sound of the firing. It also explains how our right, on the night of the second day's battle, came to be denuded of troops, at the time of Ewell's attack, and how utter disaster was averted by General Slocum's foresight.

    "465 Clinton Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.

    May 16, 1866,

    My Dear Sir, --- My orders were to march to Two Taverns, and await orders from General Meade. The Twelfth Corps was in that position when we heard of the engagement at Gettysburg. We received no word from General Howard, but started as soon as we heard of the battle, and marched at once to the field of Gettysburg, arriving there about 5 p.m. on the first day. On the afternoon of the second day, Meade ordered all of the Twelfth Corps to the left of the line, under the impression that his right was in no danger. At my earnest request, he allowed me to retain one brigade (Green's, of Gerry's division), which saved our right. The two points to which you allude have not been correctly stated in many accounts. The facts are as stated, and are well known to Colonel Bacheller and to many others,

    Yours truly
    H. W. Slocum,

    "To Sidney G. Cooke, Esq."

The battle, as a whole, added another to the list of accidents which so often mark historical epochs. A series of circumstances, unexpected, but uniformly favorable, reinforced our arms, and made a Union victory possible.

General Meade did not intend to fight at Gettysburg, and was busy while the first day's battle was in progress, perfecting a defensive line on Pipe Creek, many miles away. Lee would have preferred a battle nearer his base. The Rebel General Heth, who made the assault on the First Corps, says Gettysburg was an accident for which he was responsible. Hooker no longer directed our movements, but the invading army was marching to block his plans. Meade was looking for Lee at Harrisburg; Lee, ignorant of the change of Union commanders and plans, was looking for Hooker somewhere on his line of communications. Campaign plans gave way to campaign accidents. The elaborate plans of its commanding generals had heretofore led the Army of the Potomac to almost uniform defeat. At Gettysburg fate forestalled strategy, and a decisive victory resulted from a purely defensive battle. Had the First Corps yielded its position earlier in the day, the battle of Gettysburg would have been known only as a conflict of detachment, and the fate of the nation would have been decided on another and perhaps less strong position.

I have written of the first day of Gettysburg only, briefly as is here necessary, perhaps inaccurately, certainly unworthily. For grand and terrible and heroic as was the battle that raged around that spot long dedicated to the dead kindred of lovely Gettysburg, it was to the combatants a struggle for immediate advantage only.

Liberty union, progress rode upon the smoke unseen, and the music of peace floated in the din of the strife, unheard. Of these it is not for the combatant, but for the philosopher and statesman, worthily to speak.

As to the succeeding days' struggles, then, let me quote from one whose song of the battle is full of the melody of peace:

"A cloud possessed the hollow field,
The gathering battle's smoky shield;
Athwart the gloom the lightning flashed
And through the cloud some horsemen dashed
And from the heights the thunder pealed.

Then, at the brief command of Lee,
Moved out that matchless infantry
With Pickett leading grandly down,
To rush against the roaring crown,
Of those dread heights of destiny.

Far heard above the angry guns,
A cry across the tumult runs;
The voice that rang through Shiloh's woods
And Chickamauga's solitudes;
The fierce South cheering on her sons.

Ah, how the withering tempest blew
Against the front of Petigru!
A khamsin wind that scorched and singed,
Like that infernal flame that fringed
The British squares at Waterloo.

A thousand fell where Kemper led;
A thousand bled where Garnett bled;
In blinding flame and strangling smoke,
The remnant through the batteries broke
And crossed the works with Armistead.

'Once more in Glory's van with me!'
Virginia cries to Tennessee;
'We two together, come what may,
Shall stand upon those works to-day!'
The reddest day in history.

Brave Tennessee! Reckless the way.
Virginia heard her comrade say;
'Close round this rent and riddled rag!'
What time she set her battle-flag
Amid the guns of Gettysburg.

But who shall break the guards that wait
Before the awful face of fate?
The tattered standards of the South
Were shriveled at the cannon's mouth
And all her hopes were desolate.

In vain the Tennessean set
His breast against the bayonet;
In vain Virginia charged and raged,
A tigress in her wrath uncaged,
Till all the hill was red and wet!

Above the bayonets mixed and crossed,
Men saw a gray, gigantic ghost
Recording through the battle cloud,
And heard across the tempest loud
The death-cry of a nation lost!

The brave went down! Without disgrace
They leaped to ruin's red embrace;
They only heard fame's thunder wake,
And saw the dazzling sunburst break
In smiles on Glory's bloody face!

They fell who lifted up a hand
And bade the sun in heaven to stand'
They smote and fell who set the Bars
Against the progress of the Stars
And stayed the march of Motherland.

They stood who saw the future come
On through the fights delirium.
They smote and stood who held the hope
Of nations on that slippery slope,
Amid the cheers of Christendom!

God lives! He forged the iron will
That clutched and held that trembling hill!
God lives and reigns! He built and lent
Those heights of Freedom's battlement,
Where floats her flag in triumph still!

Fold up the banners! Smelt the guns!
Love rules. Her gentler purpose runs.
A mighty mother turns in tears
The pages of her battle years,
Lamenting all her fallen sons!"


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Kansas Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

________________________________

Source:
Cooke, S.G. 1906. THE FIRST DAY AT GETTYSBURG, A Paper Prepared and Read before the Kansas Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States November 4, 1897. A Series of Papers Read before the Kansas Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Published by the Commandery. Press of the Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, Kansas City, Kansas. Vo1. 1, pp 277 - 289.

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