The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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However that may be – and historically it does not matter – it was decided to stay there, and the night was spent by both armies in diligent preparation for a renewal of the desperate and not unequal conflict on the morrow. Every man and every gun that was within reach was brought into position. Every inch of advantageous ground that either side commanded was occupied to the full. Every preparation that either of those titanic forces could make for the morrow was made. It was at last the fixed purpose of each of these great armies to give battle to the other in a final contest for supremacy, in full conviction that the whole question at issue between the warring sections was deliberately staked upon the outcome of this one desperate struggle.
And indeed the stake was no whit less than that. It was obvious that should Meade beat and crush Lee on this decisive battlefield, the very existence of the Southern Confederacy would be at an end; the road to Richmond would be open to any single army corps that might be sent to undertake the conquest of the Confederate capital, while a dozen or a score of strong divisions could easily be sent on that task if necessary. On the other hand if Lee could have crushed Meade in this battle Washington would have been his for the taking, while Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York would have been helpless to offer any resistance which need in the least check or embarrass him. In either case the war must have come to a hurried end.
Thus, when it was decided to renew the battle on the field of Gettysburg on the third of July, 1863, the stakes of the war game included all that there was of a cause on either side.
Lee was in a position in which he must take supreme risks. Therein only lay his hope. Meade was in a very different case. He might fall back and still reserve to himself the opportunity to fight again with hope of success. It is in no way astonishing that Meade hesitated, called a council of war, and asked for the advice of his major generals as to whether he should risk the whole Federal cause upon the issue of a single and very uncertain battle with such an adversary as Lee, or should withdraw and adopt a defensive attitude.
On the other side Longstreet strongly advised Lee against giving battle in this position. Longstreet thought Lee had accomplished enough. He thought also that by shifting the position it was easily possible for Lee to put himself in better and his adversary in much worse case, for fighting, before bringing on the battle.
Whether Longstreet's counsels were wise or otherwise, only skilled military critics are competent to determine; and even their determination must always be open to doubt, especially as Longstreet's support of Lee's plan of battle seems to have lacked something of efficiency – the lack of which may have been determinative of results.
At any rate Lee decided to give battle, and he made his dispositions accordingly. He had already assailed both flanks of the Federal army and found both too strongly posted to be successfully turned or crushed.He decided, therefore, to hurl his entire strength directly against the Federal line in the hope of breaking it and thus driving his enemy into disorderly retreat.
It was a desperate thing to do, but Lee knew the fact, which has since been recorded by a historian on the other side, that the soldiers under his command were "the best infantry on earth" and he hesitated not to exact of them the most desperate and terrific work. He knew at least that these men would do and dare anything and everything in an attempt to carry out his will and achieve the ends he purposed.
He assembled a hundred guns on Seminary Ridge, each so well manned as to be capable of firing from four to six times a minute. In answer the Federals on Cemetery Ridge assembled about a like number of guns, equally well served.
The greatest artillery duel that had ever occurred was waged on that morning. Nearly a thousand shells a minute were launched upon their life-destroying career. Guns were knocked from their carriages, only to be replaced by other guns for which there had been no firing room before. Cannoneers were swept away like flies, and their places were promptly taken by other cannoneers who eagerly and clamorously claimed the privileges of the conflict. Caissons were exploded by bursting shells and other caissons moved into their places with the precision of mathematics itself.
The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac had learned their business. The men who composed them now were soldiers, drilled, trained, battle-seasoned and thoroughly hardened to their work by long and varied experience. Whatever it was possible for courage and endurance to accomplish, that they were ready to undertake. They no more thought of reckoning the personal danger than of calculating the wanderings of the stars in their courses. They stood their ground, nothing daunting them and nothing suggesting to their minds a thought of running away. Is it any wonder that when such men composed the opposing armies, the fighting was such as to make men admire and angels weep?
The one thing that made the greater battles of the Confederate war terrible was this fact that the two armies were equally American in their composition, equally determined, equally heroic in daring and in enduring.
While all this fury of artillery fire continued, the infantry on either side lay flat on their bellies, taking advantage of every smallest inequality of the ground, and waiting for the serious work of war to begin. For by this time every soldier in either of these armies knew all there was to know about war's work, and every one of them knew that this terrific artillery bombardment – the greatest that had ever occurred since cannon were invented – was merely preliminary to that onset of the infantry which was presently to determine which of these two great armies should have the mastery and which should be destroyed.
After two hours or more of this work with the guns, there came Pickett's charge – one of the very gallantest endeavors in all the history of war – having for its only rival in heroic determination the six successive charges of Federal troops up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg.
Fourteen thousand of Lee's "best infantry on earth" were set to make this onslaught. Their task was about the most difficult and terrible one that had been anywhere undertaken during the war. There was a full mile of open country lying between the line from which they moved and the line which they were called upon to assault. Every inch of that mile of open space was swept by the fire of a hundred guns served as guns were rarely served before or since. It was in face of this veritable "fire of hell" that these fourteen thousand men were required to traverse a mile of space and then assail an entrenched and strongly posted enemy like unto themselves in courage, determination and all soldierly qualities.
They went to this work with unfaltering courage, and at the end of it all a new chapter had been added to the history of heroism.
The moment Pickett's men began their mile long charge, the Federal cannon – about a hundred guns – resumed their fire while the Confederate artillery must of course cease firing lest their shells plow through the ranks of their own infantry. In spite of all, and in face of a hailstorm of shot and shell the Confederates steadily advanced. Great rents were made in their lines by the explosion of shells, but the gaps thus made were instantly closed up, and not for one moment did the assaulting force recoil, or halt or slacken the eager rapidity of its advance. As it drew near to the enemy's lines the Federal fire was changed from shell and shrapnel to canister in double and triple charges – each gun hurling from a quart to a gallon of balls every few seconds into the faces of the still advancing and still cheering Confederates. Presently, when the Southerners drew still nearer to the lines, a great body of Federal infantry that had been lying down and sheltering itself, rose and poured murderous volleys into the ranks of the assailants.
Those ranks were withering now, under the destructive fire, but still they faltered not nor failed. Still they went forward to execute Lee's will, which meant to them quite all that the will of God means to the devotee.
They trampled over the advance lines of the enemy. They pushed forward to the breastworks. They even crossed the fortifications and for a brief space held the lines they had been sent to conquer.
But so depleted were their ranks by this time, and so strangely unsupported were they by those other divisions which they had expected Longstreet to send in after them, and which he did not send in, that they were at last forced back by sheer weight of numbers.
A small remnant of that splendid charging column returned to Lee's lines under a withering fire. The rest of it lay dead or dying on the hillside.
It has always been a fact highly creditable to American armies that the killed and wounded among their officers of high rank in every severe conflict relatively outnumber the casualties among the enlisted men. At Gettysburg, on both sides, this was conspicuously the case. On the Federal side General Reynolds was killed early on the first day of the fight. Later General Weed was mortally wounded; General Vincent and Colonel O'Rorke were killed. So were General Zook and Colonel Cross, while General Sickles lost a leg. In the third day's fighting Generals Hancock, Doubleday, Gibbon, Warren, Butterfield, Stannard, Brooke and Barnes were wounded; General Farnsworth was killed. On the Confederate side the number of killed and wounded among officers of high rank was equally great. General Barksdale fell, leading his men in terrific assault. General Armistead was shot to death as he laid his hand upon a Federal gun, and in Pickett's matchless charge, very nearly every officer, high and low, was either killed or wounded. Their men were not sent into the conflict; they were led into it, and between those two things there is a world of difference.
Longstreet has criticised Lee for ordering Pickett's charge. On the other hand Longstreet has been severely criticised for not having supported that charge with all his might, pushing forward every man he could command to take the places of Pickett's killed and wounded and to crown their superb endeavor with compulsory success. Again Lee has been criticised for having given Ewell, in command of his left wing, uncertain and discretionary orders, instead of directing him, at the time of Pickett's charge, to hurl his whole force upon the enemy in his front, regardless of all other considerations. These matters are open questions that belong to military criticism rather than to history. They need not be discussed in these pages. But it belongs to history to relate that when the struggle was at an end, and the people of the South manifested a disposition to hold Longstreet responsible for its failure to accomplish the results intended, Lee promptly and definitely took upon himself all there might be of blame for the miscarriage of his plans. In a letter to President Davis he wrote protesting that the responsibility was all his own, and asking that some younger and fitter man than himself should be appointed to succeed him in command of that splendidly devoted and unfaltering army which he had so often led to victory but on this occasion had led to something akin to defeat and disaster.
There could scarcely be a stronger contrast than that between Lee's generous refusal to have any of his lieutenants held responsible for the results of a battle which he had authority to direct and Hooker's endeavor to shift to the shoulders of his subordinates the responsibility for his phenomenal failure at Chancellorsville. Lee was a great man, Hooker fell far short of that measure.
Gettysburg was, like Sharpsburg or Antietam, technically a drawn battle. Neither side had won a recognizable victory. Neither army had driven its adversary from the field. Neither had destroyed or even seriously impaired the fighting capacity of the other. Neither had triumphed over the other. But the result at Gettysburg as at Antietam was that Lee's invasion of the North was brought to naught. In the one case as in the other the Confederate hope of compelling terms of peace was defeated by successful resistance. To that extent at least the battle had resulted in victory for the Federal arms.
When the fourth of July dawned, neither army cared to assail the other. All day they confronted each other sullenly, as they had done at Sharpsburg. Then Lee slowly and deliberately withdrew, as he had done on the former occasion, his enemy not having confidence or strength enough to interfere in any active way with his retirement. Lee's ammunition was so far exhausted that many of his divisions had only one round of cartridges, while many of his batteries had none at all. But so terrible had been his onset, and so greatly did his foe dread a further conflict with him, that after taking his own time in the enemy's country in which to determine what he would do, he moved to the Potomac practically unmolested, rested there because of high water, still unmolested, and finally returned to Virginia. Meade slowly and quite inoffensively followed. The two armies resumed their old positions on the Rappahannock and the Rapidan and neither ventured to assail the other during the remainder of that summer or autumn.
Here was another of those strange pauses in the war which history finds it difficult to explain. The first battle of Manassas was fought on the twenty-first of July, 1861. There was no further battling of consequence during that summer or autumn. The battle at Sharpsburg was fought at the middle of September, 1862; there was no further fighting until the middle of December following. The Gettysburg battle was fought during the first three days of July, 1863, and throughout the long summer and autumn that followed there was no activity on either side. Not until May of the following year did the armies that confronted each other in Virginia meet again in conflict.
The wherefore of this inactivity has never been explained.
But meanwhile events of the utmost importance were occurring at the South and West, which claim attention in another chapter.