Close Encounter on the Third Day

While working on a Gettysburg-related project I came across the letters of William Wheeler (right), who was in command of the 13th New York Independent Battery at Gettysburg and had a close encounter with General Meade on the morning of July 3. The young lieutenant was waiting with his guns at Cemetery Hill, he had written, when “an elderly Major General with spectacles, looking a good deal like a Yale Professor” rode up and asked him if he had enough ammunition. Wheeler replied he has as much as he could get without an order from Major Thomas Osborne, the 11th Corps’ artillery chief. With some excitement the general replied, “You must have ammunition; the country can’t wait for Major Osborne or any other man.” He told Wheeler to go to the artillery reserve and have a wagonload of ammunition sent up immediately.

Wheeler had just returned from the Artillery Reserve and knew they didn’t have any ammunition to give him but something in the general’s face warned him about answering back. Instead, Wheeler spurred his horse and rode off until he was hidden behind some trees, where he stayed until the general departed. When he returned he found out the “Yale professor” was General Meade himself.

In another letter Wheeler had positive things to say about the Army of the Potomac’s new commander. “I rather like General Meade; he fought the battle of Gettysburg superbly, and I think that he did all that he could in the pursuit of Lee to Williamsport,” he said. “Just think, in spite of all his losses, Lee was fully equal to us in numbers; his excellent position at Gettysburg enabled him to get a day’s start of us on his retreat, and thus to reach Williamsport first, where again his position was such as to prevent a successful reconnoissance, and it was impossible for Meade to know that the whole Rebel Army was not lying behind those rifle pits. It would have been the height of rashness for him to have attacked an army of equal strength in a strong position, and thereby to have lost all the advantages of the success at Gettysburg. I think that his course was just such a one as Washington would have pursued; subsequent events have showed, and will show still more plainly, his capacity as a General.”

Wheeler, William. In Memoriam: Letters of William Wheeler of the Class of 1855, Y.C. Cambridge, H.O. Houghton, privately printed, 1875. Available via Google Books.

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