War Papers

E.P. Halstead, Brevet Major, U.S. Volunteers,
District of Columbia Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
(November 2006)


I am under orders to-night, not as a regular or volunteer soldier, but as a conscript. I shall therefore offer no apology for the remarks I have to make. I hope however, to avoid giving offense, though that is a difficult matter sometimes if one fearlessly tells the truth. The orders are that I shall tell you of my personal experience at the Battle of Gettysburg, more particularly of the first day's engagement. Do not think me egotistical, therefore, if I often use the first person, for I assure you it is with great reluctance and much trepidation that I rise before the distinguished naval and military heroes assembled here to-night.

For several days prior to the 1st of July, 1863, that almost peerless soldier, Major General John F. Reynolds, had been in command of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac, composed of three corps: The First under command of General Doubleday, whose assistant adjutant general I was; the Third, General Sickles, and the Eleventh, General O. O. Howard. General Hunt has so recently and accurately defined the position of the army immediately preceding the engagement that I need not allude to it at this time. Soon after daylight on July 1st, General Reynolds gave orders to move with all possible dispatch to Gettysburg, where General Buford with a small division of cavalry, was contending against Heath's (sic) division of infantry, and vastly superior numbers.

The First Corps moved promptly, covered a distance of nearly eight miles, and the first division, command by General Wadsworth, the bravest of the brave, reached the field about ten o'clock in the forenoon, the other two divisions followed closely. Wadsworth's division left the Tawneytown (sic) road about half a mile south of Gettysburg and moved by the right flank across the field to the northwest some distance when the order was given, "On the right by file into line!" "Double quick! March! Load!" forming line of battle facing west and passing on over the crest through the grove at the Seminary, when Cutler's brigade moved by the right flank north across the Cashtown road into the wood beyond, while General Meredith's brigade kept on west across Willoughby Run. After making his dispositions in the morning, General Reynolds, rode in advance of the column, and when he had reached the Seminary I overtook him with a message and received instructions to hurry forward the other two divisions of the corps as fast as possible. When I left him he started towards the wood where he was very soon killed by a sharpshooter. In his death the country lost one of its noblest defenders, the Army of the Potomac one of its ablest generals. In returning for the second and third divisions I met John Burns in the field east of the Seminary with an old musket on his shoulder and a powderhorn in his pocket hurrying to the front looking terribly earnest; when near me he inquired, "Which way are the rebels? Where are our troops?" I informed him they were just in front, that he would soon overtake them. He then said with much enthusiasm, "I know how to fight, I have fit before!" Wadsworth's division was immediately engaged, except the Sixth Wisconsin, held in reserve by General Doubleday's orders. General Robinson and General Rowley were soon up with their divisions and hotly engaged, the former on the right of the line, extending to near the Mummasburg road, and the latter in the center between Meredith's and Cutler's brigades at Wadsworth's division. All present to-night are without doubt familiar with the ground over which we fought that day. The advantages of position were, perhaps, favorable to us, but in numbers the enemy was vastly superior. We had six brigades, numbering, with the artillery assigned to duty with us, 8,200 men, and maintained our position for six hours and a half against General A. P. Hill's corps of seventeen brigades, numbering over 30,000. General Archer and most of his brigade were captured early in the day by the "Iron Brigade." He had evidently expected an easy "walk over" judging from his disappointed manner after he was captured. A guard brought him back to General Doubleday, who, in a very cordial manner, they having been cadets at West Point together, said "Good morning, Archer! How are you? I am glad to see you!" General Archer replied: "Well I am not glad to see you by a damn sight!" Very soon after this little episode the Sixth Wisconsin under Lieutenant Colonel Dawes, made a successful charge, resulting in the capture of a superior force of the enemy in the railroad cut north of the Cashtown road, and a little later General Baxter captured nearly all of Iverson's brigade. About two o'clock in the afternoon the Eleventh Corps reached the field and formed in line of battle at about a right angle to the general line of the First Corps, but did not connect with its right by several hundred yards, and both flanks were in the air. When Ewell's troops approached from Carlisle and York they struck the Eleventh Corps in front and on both flanks almost simultaneously, resulting in an easy victory of the enemy, giving them possession of Gettysburg before the First Corps ceased fighting or left its position west of the Seminary. Thus the First Corps was enveloped on its and right and rear and contending against vastly superior numbers in its front. About four o'clock in the afternoon General Doubleday sent me to General Howard for reinforcements and orders, I found him in the cemetery near the gate. He looked the picture of despair. On receipt of the message he replied: "Tell General Doubleday that I have no reinforcements to send him. I have only one regiment in reserve." I then asked if he had any orders to give, and called his attention to the enemy then advancing in line of battle overlapping our left by nearly half a mile. He looked in that direction and replied rather sharply: "Those are nothing but rail fences, sir!" I said, I beg your pardon General, if you will take my glass you will see something besides rail fences. Turning to a staff officer he bade him take the glass and see what it was. The officer looked, and in an instant lowered the glass saying: "General those are long lines of the enemy!" General Howard then turned to me with a look and in a tone of hopeless despair said: "Go to General Buford, give him my compliments, and tell him to go to General Doubleday's support." When asked where General Buford could be found he replied: "I don't know! I think he is over this way," pointing toward the east. After riding in that direction as far as I deemed it wise or prudent I returned to where General Howard sat just as that brilliant dashing soldier, General Hancock, the hero of Gettysburg, approached in a swinging gallop, and when near General Howard, who was then alone, saluted, and with great animation, as if there was no time for ceremony, said, General Meade had sent him forward to take command of the three corps. General Howard woke up a little and replied that he was senior. General Hancock said, "I am aware of that, General, but I have written orders in my pocket from General Meade which I will show you if you wish to see them." General Howard said, "No. I do not doubt your word, General Hancock, but you can give no orders here while I am here." Hancock replied, "Very well, General Howard I will second any order that you have to give, but General Meade has also directed me to select a field on which to fight this battle in rear of Pipe Creek," then casting one glance from Culp's Hill to Round Top he continued: "But I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw, and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield." General Howard responded, "I think it a very strong position, General Hancock. A very strong position!" "Very well, sir, I select this as the battlefield." General Hancock immediately turned away to rectify our lines, and from that moment till the close of the battle he was the inspiring genius. His bearing was courageous and hopeful, while his eyes flashed defiance. When the enemy attempted to storm Culp's Hill he went there with supports from his own corps without orders; when their forces were concentrated against General Sickles to turn our left and capture Round Top he went to the rescue; and when the great final charge was made on the third day against his own corps he was there to meet it. During the shelling which preceded that charge I sat on a gray horse on the line of battle near the left center and notified Colonel Bankhead, General Meade's inspector general, of the enemy's advance as soon as their column appeared in sight. The Colonel put spurs to his horse and rode as fast as he could run for Meade's headquarters, yelling at the top of his voice "The enemy is coming! The enemy is coming!" About that time I went to General Hancock with information that General Standard, with the Vermont brigade, would be ordered to report to him if the emergency required. I found him a little northeast of General Webb's headquarters, riding south along the line toward the supposed point of attack, and a few moments later he was wounded.

Allow me to return for a few moments to the afternoon of the first day and I will close. There was no person present besides myself when the conversation took place between the two generals, Howard and Hancock. A number of years since I informed General Hancock of that fact and what I heard pass between them. He said that what I have repeated here to-night was true and requested a written statement, which I subsequently furnished him. When I left General Howard to return to the front I discovered General Buford's cavalry only a little west of the cemetery and delivered the order I had received from General Howard. He rose in his stirrups upon his tiptoes and exclaimed: "What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of the enemy out there!" I don't know anything about that, General, those are General Howard's orders. "Very well," said he, "I will see what I can do," and, like the true soldier that he was, moved his command out in plain view of the enemy and formed for the charge; the enemy, seeing the movement, formed squares in echelon, which delayed them and materially aided in the escape of the First Corps if it did not save a large portion of the remnant from capture. The formation of squares by the enemy that day has been doubted by nearly every one with whom I have conversed upon the subject, and not until the meeting of the survivors of the first corps at Gettysburg, in May, 1885, was I able to satisfy Colonel Bachelder, who has made a study of that battle, of the correctness of my statement, and only then after it had been corroborated by two of Buford's officers who were in the engagement.

An incident illustrative of the daring and courage of General Wadsworth deserves mention. General Doubleday sent Lt. Lee with orders to retire to Cemetery hill. He found the brave old general with Captain Hall's Maine battery pouring canister into the advancing enemy at short range. His infantry had already commenced the retreat, which left the battery without supports. When Mr. Lee delivered the order to retire General Wadsworth said: "Tell General Doubleday that I don't know a damned thing about strategy, but we are giving the rebels hell with these guns, and I want to give them a few more shots before we leave." A few years since I heard General Scales say, upon the ground where the battery had been posted, that his brigade was annihilated and himself wounded by the terrible fire from that battery.

An amusing incident occurred soon after our forces had concentrated on Cemetery hill. The enemy opened quite a brisk artillery fire upon our position, causing some confusion among our troops. About the first shell fired exploded directly under the kettle which the servant had on boiling our dinner and supper, for we had had neither that day. He had brought up "old shave-tail," our pack horse, and left him feeding a few feet east of the fire while he was bury about six feet north of it. The shell came from the west, and while it tore "old shave-tail" all to pieces, the man did not receive a scratch, but was so badly frightened that he stood like a statue for some moments as if paralyzed and as white as a corpse. It was the most laughable sight I ever saw in battle. We dined and supped on hardtack that night as our provisions went up with the kettle.

At the time my attention was attracted by what resembled a column of infantry, platoon front, moving south along the stone fence east of the Cemetery and mounting my horse rode in front of it, when I discovered it was a rabble from the Eleventh Corps. Five cavalry men with swords at a carry appeared in to guiding them off the field. I drew my revolver and ordered them back. A man in the vanguard who looked like a good runner said, "We are musicians!" I told him it made no difference what he was, that he must go down behind that wall or I would shoot him. I then asked the cavalryman nearest me why they permitted these men to leave in that manner, and he replied, "Captain there are only five of us and more than a thousand of these men. What can we do with them? "I ordered them to halt, about face, and cut down every man that attempted to pass them. The order was promptly obeyed, and in less than five minutes over a thousand men were crouching behind that stone fence, a stampede ended, and subsequently the men were returned to their commands.

The First Corps captured over three thousand prisoners on the 1st day of July. Its losses were almost without parallel in the annals of war, being 5,300 out of 8,200 men. But that frightful slaughter was not without some compensating results.

It was the strategic skill of Reynolds and the determined heroic fighting of Buford and Doubleday and the men of their commands that made the battle of the 2d and 3d of July possible. It was the gallant Hancock who selected the field and formed the line of battle from Culp's Hill to Little Round Top on the evening of the first day. And I regret to say that O. O. Howard sent a cypher dispatch to General Meade during the battle on the first day to the effect that the First Corps had broken and fled the field in great disorder. Notwithstanding he saw our line of battle west of the Seminary, where we held our ground as late as four o'clock in the afternoon, and though his attention has been called by me since the war to the gross injustice of that report, he has never had the manhood to correct the vile slander and thus do justice to the brave men living and the heroic dead.

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Halstead, E.P. 1887. THE FIRST DAY OF THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, A Paper read before the District of Columbia Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, March 2, 1887. Volume 1, Papers 1-26, March 1887-April 1897, Originally Printed by the Commandery as Individual Papers, Washington, DC, pp 3 - 10.

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