On March 12, 1864, the New York Herald published a letter from an anonymous correspondent who called himself “Historicus.” It purported to tell the “real” history of the battle of Gettysburg, In truth, it told the version of the battle favored by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, who had commanded the III Corps there. Sickles, in a still controversial move, ordered his corps to move forward to the Emmitsburg Road on July 2 rather than maintain the position along the line of Cemetery Ridge that George Meade wanted him to hold. The result was a disaster for the corps, which was eventually driven back to its original line after suffering severe casualties from Confederate General James Longstreet’s assault on the Union left. Sickles lost his leg during the fighting and never again commanded on a battlefield. He did continue to fight the battle in the press, in Congress and in public whenever possible. According to Sickles, he had helped win the battle of Gettysburg. By moving forward, he said, he precipitated fighting that prevented Meade from retreating.
Meade, of course, was incensed by the Historicus account and requested an investigation into its authorship. He believed Sickles himself had written, or at least dictated, the letter. Nor was Meade the only officer outraged by the Historicus version.
Here are the relevant documents of the Historicus affair, as presented in the Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade.
(New York Herald, March 12, 1864)
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
Important Communication From An Eye-witness
How The Victory Was Won And How Its Advantages Were Lost
GENERALS HALLECK’S AND MEADE’S OFFICIAL REPORTS REFUTED
To The Editor Of The Herald:
The Battle of Gettysburg is the decisive battle of this war. It not only saved the Capital from invasion, but turned the tide of victory in our favor. The opinion of Europe on the failure of the rebellion dates from this great conflict. How essential then, that its real history should be known. Up to this moment no clear narrative has appeared. The sketches of the press, the reports of Generals Halleck and Meade and the oration of Mr. Everett give only phases of this terrible struggle, and that not very correctly. To supply this hiatus I send you a connected, and I hope, lucid review of its main features. I have not ventured to touch on the thrilling incidents and affecting details of such a strife, but have confined myself to a succinct relation of its principal events and the actors therein. My only motive is to vindicate history, do honor to the fallen and justice to the survivors when unfairly impeached.
General Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac, on Sunday, the 28th of June, at Frederick, Maryland. On Monday, as he states, the army was put in motion, and by Tuesday night the right flank had reached Manchester and the left occupied Emmettsburg. General Buford’s cavalry had advanced as far as Gettysburg, and reported that the Confederate army was debouching from the mountains on the Cashtown road. Upon this intelligence General Reynolds was ordered to advance on Gettysburg with the First and Eleventh corps, which he reached early on the 7th of July, and found Buford’s cavalry already engaged with the enemy—the corps of General Hill. Rapidly making his dispositions, General Reynolds joined in the conflict, and soon fell mortally wounded. The command of the field then devolved on General Howard, of the Eleventh corps, who maintained his position till about 2 o’clock p.m., when the enemy was heavily reinforced by the arrival of Ewell’s corps. The battle now raged fearfully, between Hill’s and Ewell’s corps on one side and the First and Eleventh corps on the other, till about 4 p.m., when General Howard was compelled to yield to the superior numbers of the enemy and fall back, losing many prisoners—nearly four thousand—to the South side of Gettysburg. His position was eminently critical, when, to the great relief of both the General and our valiant troops, a division of the Third corps, under the immediate command of General Sickles, arrived, and the fighting for that day was at an end. It should be mentioned that the Third corps was stationed at Emmettsburg, by order of General Meade, with a view to protect that important point; but information continuing to reach General Sickles that the First and Eleventh Corps were in great danger,* he decided to assume the grave responsibility of moving to their relief without orders. Leaving two brigades at Emmettsburg, he made a forced march of ten miles, in spite of the heat and dust, in three hours, and had the satisfaction to be hailed by General Howard on his reaching the field with the flattering phrase, “Here you are,—always reliable, always first” —A generous tribute from one soldier to another. General Slocum, of the First [Twelfth] corps, had arrived a short time before, but his corps was then some four miles distant. In the early part of the evening (Wednesday) a conference of the leading generals took place, when some insisted on falling back towards Taneytown, while others urged the expediency of maintaining their present position, as offering rare advantages for the inevitable and decisive contest that must occur on the following day. It appears that General Meade had issued a circular (of which I saw several copies) on the morning of Wednesday, July 1, to all his commanders, stating that his advance had accomplished all the objects contemplated—namely, the relief of Harrisburg and Philadelphia—and that he would now desist altogether from the offensive. He proposed to post the whole army in line of battle on Pipe Creek, the right flank resting on Manchester and the left on Middleburg, involving a new change of front, and there await the movements of the enemy. The position which General Meade had selected for the final struggle between the two armies was some fifteen miles distant from Gettysburg, where fate willed that it should occur. Whether this important circular ordering him to fall back reached the lamented Reynolds before he became engaged at Gettysburg it is difficult to say. It could not have failed to reach General Sickles, but he happily determined to push on to the rescue of the First and Eleventh corps, already engaged. It is strange that General Meade should make no mention in his report of this singular and most important fact: That he issued a plan of campaign on Wednesday, July 1, directing his whole army to retire and take up the defensive on Pipe Creek almost at the moment that his left flank was fiercely struggling with the right wing of the enemy. This proves how often the plans of a general are frustrated by unlocked for contingencies.
General Meade broke up his headquarters at Taneytown, as he states, at eleven P. M. on Wednesday, and reached Gettysburg at one a.m. Thursday, July 2. Early in the morning he set to work examining the position of the various army corps. It is hardly true to say that he imitated the example of all prudent commanders on the eve of the battle and made a complete survey of the ground he occupied.
*Besides numerous reports, the following brief communication reached me, which accidentally fell into my hands:—”July 1, Gettysburg, General Sickles:— General Doubleday, (First corps) says for God’s sake come up with all speed, they are pressing us hard.
“H. T. Lee, Lt., A. D. C.”
It was on these occasions that the genius of the First Napoleon revealed itself; for at a glance he saw the advantages of his own position and the assailable point of the enemy. It seems that General Lee was somewhat more astute than Meade in this; for in his report he states what he deemed “the most favorable point” for his attack. “In front of General Longstreet” (opposite our left wing), Lee remarks, “the enemy held a position from which, if he could be driven, it was thought our army could be used to advantage in assailing the more elevated ground beyond and thus enable us to reach the crest of the ridge. That officer, then, was directed to carry this position.” It is plain enough that Lee regarded the point where our left was posted as the key to our position, and if that could be taken from us our defeat was inevitable. It is not to be supposed that General Meade refused to see this, but as he makes no mention of it in his report I propose, for the sake of the future historian of the battle to tell what I know about it.
Near this important ground was posted the valiant Third corps, and its commander, General Sickles, saw at once how necessary it was to occupy the elevated ground in his front towards the Emmettsburg road, and to extend his lines to the commanding eminence, known as the Roundtop, or Sugarloaf Hill. Unless this were done the left and rear of our army would be in the greatest danger. Sickles concluded that no time was to be lost, as he observed the enemy massing large bodies of troops on their right (our left). Receiving no orders, and filled with anxiety, he reported in person to General Meade and urged the advance he deemed so essential. “Oh,” said Meade, “generals are apt to look for the attack to be made where they are.” Whether this was a jest or a sneer Sickles did not stop to consider, but begged Meade to go over the ground with him instantly, but the commander-in-chief declined this on account of other duties. Yielding, however to the prolonged solicitations of Sickles, General Meade desired General Hunt, chief of artillery, to accompany Sickles and report the result of their reconnaissance. Hunt concurred with Sickles as to the line to be occupied—the advance line from the left of the Second corps to Roundtop Hill—but he declined to give any orders until he had reported to General Meade, remarking, however, that he (General Sickles) would doubtless receive orders immediately.
Two P. M. came, and yet no orders. Why was this? Other orders than those expected by General Sickles were, it appears, in preparation at headquarters. It has since been stated, upon unquestionable authority, that General Meade had decided upon a retreat, and that an order to withdraw from the position held by our enemy was penned by his chief of staff, General Butterfield, though happily its promulgation never took place. This order is probably on record in the Adjutant General’s Office.
Meanwhile the enemy’s columns were moving rapidly around to our left and rear. These facts were again reported to headquarters, but brought no response. Buford’s cavalry had been massed on the left, covering that flank with outposts, and videttes were thrown forward on the Emmettsburg road. While waiting the expected orders Sickles made good use of his time in levelling all the fences and stone walls, so as to facilitate the movements of his troops and to favor the operations of the cavalry. What, then, was the surprise of Sickles to see of a sudden all the cavalry withdrawn, leaving his flank entirely exposed. He sent an earnest remonstrance to General Meade, whose reply was that he did not intend to withdraw the cavalry, and that a part of this division (Buford) should be sent back. It never returned. Under these circumstances Sickles threw forward three regiments of light troops as skirmishers and for outpost duty. The critical moment had now arrived. The enemy’s movements indicated their purpose to seize Roundtop Hill, and its entire position. General Longstreet would have had easy work in coming up our left wing. To prevent this disaster Sickles waited no longer for orders from General Meade, but directed General Hobart Ward’s brigade and Smith’s battery (Fourth New York) to secure that available position, and at the same time advance on his line of battle about three hundred yards, so as to hold the crest in his front. He extended his left to support Ward and cover the threatened rear of the army.
These dispositions were made in the very face of the enemy, who were advancing in columns of attack, and Sickles dreaded lest the conflict should open before his dispositions were completed. At this juncture he was summoned to report in person at headquarters to attend a council of corps commanders. His preparations were of such moment to the attack so near that General Sickles delayed attending the council, while giving all of his attention to the carrying out of his orders. A second peremptory summons came from General Meade, and, leaving his unfinished task to the active supervision of General Birney and General Humphreys, Sickles rode off to the rear to headquarters. Before he had reached there the sound of cannon announced that the battle had begun. Hastening rapidly on, he was met by General Meade at the door of his headquarters, who said, “General, I will not ask you to dismount, the enemy are engaging your fronts, the council is over.” It was an unfortunate moment, as it proved, for a council of war. Sickles, putting spurs to his horse, flew back to his command, and, finding that Graham’s brigade was in advance as far as he desired, he was pushing that brigade and a battery forward about one hundred yards, when General Meade at length arrived on the field. The following colloquy ensued, which I gathered from several officers present: “Are you not too much extended, General,” said Meade. “Can you hold this front?” “Yes,” replied Sickles, “until more troops are brought up, the enemy are attacking in force, and I shall need support.” General Meade then let drop some remark, showing that his mind was still wavering as to the extent of the ground covered by the Third corps. Sickles replied, “General, I have received no orders. I have made these dispositions to the best of my judgment. Of course I shall be happy to modify them according to your views.” “No,” said Meade, “ I will send you the Fifth corps, and you may send for support from the Second corps.” “I shall need more artillery,” added Sickles. “Send for all you want,” replied Meade, “to the artillery reserve. I will direct General Hunt to send you all you ask for.” The conference was then abruptly terminated by a heavy shower of shells. Sickles received no further orders that day. There is no doubt I may venture to add, that Sickles’ line was too much extended for the number of troops under his command, but his great aim was to prevent the enemy getting down his flank to the Roundtop alluded to. This was worth the risk, in his opinion, of momentarily weakening his lines. The contest now going on was of the most fierce and sanguinary description. The entire right wing of the enemy was concentrated on the defeated Third corps, for the object of Lee, as he states, was “to carry” the ground which Sickles occupied, and which both generals evidently regarded as of the highest importance. While this terrific combat was raging on our left, Lee ordered Ewell “ to attack” our right wing and Hill to threaten our centre, both with the object, as he says in his report, “to divert reinforcements from reaching our left,” which, as we have seen, Longstreet was “directed to carry.” Well may General Meade in his report say: “The Third corps sustained the shock most heroically, and he reached the disputed point just in time to prevent its falling into the enemy’s hands. Considering our force unequal to the exigency, Sickles called on the heroic troops of the Second corps, for support, and they gave it with a will. The struggle now became deadly. The columns of Longstreet charged with reckless fury upon our troops, but they were met with a valor and stern fortitude that defied their utmost efforts. An alarming incident, however, occurred. Barnes’ division, of the Fifth corps, suddenly gave way, and Sickles, seeing this, put a battery in position to check the enemy if he broke through this gap on our front, and General Birney was sent to order Barnes back into line. “No,” he said, “impossible. It is too hot. My men cannot stand it.” Remonstrance was unavailing, and Sickles despatched his aides to bring up any troops they met to fill this blank. Major Tremaine, of his staff, fell in with General Zook at the head of his brigade (Second corps), and this gallant officer instantly volunteered to take Barnes’ place. When they reached the ground Barnes’ disordered troops impeded the advance of the brigade. “If you can’t get out of the way,” cried Zook, “lie down and I will march over you.” Barnes ordered his men to lie down, and the chivalric Zook and his splendid brigade, under the personal direction of General Birney, did march over them and right into the breach. Alas! poor Zook soon fell, mortally wounded, and half of his brigade perished with him: it was about this time—near seven P. M.—that Sickles was struck by a cannon ball that tore off his right leg, and he was borne from the field.
It was now pretty clear that General Meade had awakened to the fact which he treated with such indifference when pressed on him by Sickles in the morning—that our left was the assailable point, if not the key to our position, for he began to pour in reinforcements, whose presence in the beginning of the action, would have saved thousands of lives. “Perceiving great exertions on the part of the enemy,” says Meade’s report, “the Sixth corps (Sedgwick’s) and part of the First corps (Newton’s) Lockwood’s Maryland Brigade, together with detachments from the Second corps, were all brought up at different periods, and succeeded, together with the gallant resistance of the Fifth corps, in checking and finally repulsing the assault of the enemy, who retired in confusion and disorder about sunset, and ceased any further efforts.” If this remarkable concentration of troops was necessary, at last, to save the left of our army, it is almost incredible that the single corps of General Sickles was able to withstand the impetuous onset of Longstreet’s legions for nearly an hour before any succor reached it.
On Friday, July 3, the enemy renewed their efforts to carry out the original design of Lee, by overthrowing our left wing, and Longstreet was reinforced by Pickett’s three brigades, and further supported by one division and two brigades from Hill’s corps.
In addition to this heavy mass of infantry the entire artillery of the rebel army was concentrated against our left. After his oversight of the day, it may be supposed that General Meade was better prepared to defend his left, and had made adequate preparations. About one p.m. the enemy opened a furious cannonade upon our left and left centre, which continued some two hours, with occasional responses from us. At about three p.m. the enemy moved forward in columns, and once more essayed to carry our position on the left. It was during this conflict that General Hancock, commander of the Second corps, a gallant soldier and accomplished officer, was wounded by a musket ball and obliged to retire. He contributed greatly by his energy and valor to the success of the day. Meanwhile our artillery opened with vigor and inflicted great damage. After a severe and prolonged struggle the enemy at length fell back and abandoned the contest. “Owing to the strength of the enemy’s position,” says Lee’s report, “and the reduction of our ammunition, a renewal of the engagement could not be hazarded.” Hence it is plain that our good fortune in preserving our position on the left gave us the victory at Gettysburg, and yet General Meade, not having sufficiently examined the ground before the battle, disregarded the repeated warnings of the sagacious officer, General Sickles, as well as the report of his own general of artillery, General Hunt, who concurred in all the suggestions of the commander of the Third corps. Without meaning to do injustice to General Meade, it must be admitted that his report of this great battle is at such variance with all the statements which have appeared in the press, that it is due not only to history, but to the indomitable prowess of our heroic army, that every fact sustained by concurrent testimony should be given in order to fully establish the truth. I reserve for any suitable occasion, abundant documentary evidence to support the facts furnished.
On Saturday, July 4, both armies continued to face each other during the entire day, without either manifesting a disposition to attack. “The enemy,” says Meade, “drew back his left flank, but maintained his position in front of our left,” as if always conscious that our vulnerable point was there, and they were loth to retire from it. On the night of the 4th, Lee, finding his ammunition exhausted and his subsistence imperilled, decided to withdraw, and he began his retreat towards Williamsport, with four thousand of our prisoners and all his immense trains. On the morning of the 5th this event became known, and General Meade despatched the Sixth corps in pursuit, together with some squadrons of cavalry. “The 5th and 6th of July were employed,” says Meade’s report, “in succoring the wounded and burying the dead.” The enemy made good use of all this precious time in pushing on towards Williamsport, as rapidly as possible, and it was fortunate for them that detachments were not detailed for these solemn and affecting duties, and that our whole army was not launched in prompt and eager pursuit. They were burdened by heavy trains filled with plunder, without ammunition, and wofully demoralized. Had the half of our army, flushed with success, fallen on them in flank or rear, or anywhere or anyhow, General Lee might have got across the Potomac, but his army never. “The trains, with the wounded and prisoners,” says Lee’s report, “were compelled to await at Williamsport (about the 8th of July) the subsiding of the river and the construction of boats. * * * the enemy had not yet made his appearance.” The rebel army must have trembled with anxiety lest the dreaded Yankees should heave in sight before they could escape from the swollen Potomac, which Providence seemed to have destined as the place of their surrender. It was not until the 12th of July that our army, too long delayed, came up, but, unfortunately, the enemy had nearly finished their preparations for flight. “An attack,” says Lee, “was awaited during that and the succeeding day. This did not take place, though the two armies were in close proximity.” Why it did not take place the country has never yet understood. General Meade in his report gives no explanation. The press of the day stated that General Meade again held councils of war at this supreme moment, and that several of his generals opposed following on the crippled enemy. All we know is that Lee, having completed his preparations, slipped quietly over the river on the morning of the 14th. “The crossing was not completed until one p.m.,” says Lee, “when the bridge was removed. The enemy offered no serious interruption, and the movement was continued with no loss of material except a few disabled wagons and two pieces of artillery, which the horses were unable to drag through the deep mud.” It seems that General Meade and the recalcitrant members of the council of war finally made up their minds to attack. “Before advancing on the morning of the 14th,” reports General Meade, “it was ascertained he (the enemy) had retired the night previous by the bridge at Falling Waters and the ford at Williamsport.”
In striking confirmation of the sketch now given of this important battle it may be interesting to quote a few brief extracts from the diary of a British officer who was a guest of General Lee during the campaign in Pennsylvania, and which was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in September last. The writer was an eye-witness of the battle of Gettysburg, and the hearty praise he lavishes upon the confederate troops and their generals, shows that all his sympathies were with the South, and he takes no pains to conceal his prejudices against the North. Speaking of the moment when the columns of Longstreet had been finally repulsed by our left on Friday afternoon, July 3, he says * * * “It is difficult to exaggerate the critical state of affairs as they appeared about this time. If the enemy or his general had shown any enterprise, there is no saying what might have happened. General Longstreet talked to me,” he narrates, “for a long time about the battle. The General said the mistake Lee had made was in not concentrating the army more and making the attack with 30,000 men—12- instead of 10,000. It is impossible to avoid seeing,” adds the English officer, “that the cause of this check to the confederates lies in their utter contempt for the enemy.” He continues: “Wagons, horses, mules and cattle captured in Pennsylvania—the solid advantages of this campaign—have been passing slowly along the road (Fairfield) all day (July 4). So interminable was this train that it soon became evident that we should not be able to start. As soon as it became dark we all lay around a big fire. And I heard reports coming in from the different generals that the enemy was retiring, and had been doing so all day long. But this, of course, could make no difference to General Lee’s plans. Ammunition he must have, as he had failed to capture it from the enemy according to precedent. Our progress,” he continues, “was naturally very slow indeed. And we took eight hours to go so many miles.”
I will close these extracts with the following graphic sketch of a “stampede” which occurred on Monday, July 6, about seven p.m., but which demonstrates most unequivocally the utter demoralization of the Confederate army:
“About seven p. M.,” the writer states, “we rode through Hagerstown, in the streets of which were several dead horses and a few dead men. After proceeding about a mile beyond the town we halted, and General Longstreet sent four cavalrymen up a lane, with directions to report everything they saw. We then dismounted and lay down. About ten minutes later (being nearly dark) we heard a sudden rush— a panic—and then a regular stampede ensued, in the midst of which I descried our four cavalry heroes crossing a field as fast as they could gallop. All was now complete confusion—officers mounting their horses and pursuing those which had got loose, and soldiers climbing over fences for protection against the supposed advancing Yankees. In the midst of the din I heard an artillery officer saying to his cannoniers to stand by him and plant the guns in a proper position for enfillading the lane. I also distinguished Longstreet walking about, bustled by the excited crowd, and remarking, in angry tones, which could scarcely be heard, and to which no attention was paid, ‘Now, you don’t know what it is— you don’t know what it is.’ While the row and confusion were at its height the object of all this alarm at length emerged from the dark lane, in the shape of a domestic four-wheeled carriage, with a harmless lot of females. The stampede had, however, spread, increased in the rear, and caused much harm and delay.”
It is to be hoped that the above narrative will be regarded as dispassionate, as it is meant to be impartial. Some slight errors may have crept in, but this may possibly stimulate others to come forward with a rectification. Had General Meade been more copious in his report and less reserved as to his own important acts, the necessity for this communication would not have existed.
(New York Herald, March 18, 1864)
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG—THE TRUTH OF HISTORY,&c.
To The Editor Of The Herald:
In your paper of the 12th instant “ Historicus” favors the world with an immense letter on the battle of Gettysburg. It is so manifestly intended to create public opinion that few will attach to it the importance the writer hopes. I wish to correct some of his misstatements, and, having been an eye-witness, claim to be both heard and believed.
First—The Fifth corps was never placed under the orders of General Sickles at any time during the battle of Gettysburg and never was posted by General Sickles on the left of the Third corps.
Second—General Sykes was never requested to relieve Ward’s brigade and Smith’s battery on Roundtop for the very good reason that neither that brigade nor that battery was on Roundtop; and what is undeniable, was held by Vincent’s brigade, First division, Fifth Corps; Weed’s brigade, Second division, Fifth corps, and Hazlett’s battery of regular artillery. Each of these commanders lost his life in its defence.
Third—Two brigades of Barnes’s division (First), Fifth corps, were posted on the edge of a wood, and in front of a portion of the Third corps (Ward’s brigade) before any musketry firing began; so that the hour’s conflict sustained by the Third corps before the Fifth Corps came up has no existence.
Fourth—General Crawford’s troops, Fifth corps, were thrown into action by order of the corps commander, not by any order of General Sickles, or by any solicitation of Captain Moore, of General Sickles’s staff.
Fifth—The left of the Third corps was far in advance of Roundtop, and did not connect with it in any way.
Sixth—The imminent danger of losing Roundtop resulted, not from the failure to relieve Ward’s brigade, which was not there, but from an order of General Sickles, taking Weed’s brigade from that hill to assist the Third corps, and Weed, in obeying this order, was met by his corps commander, and promptly returned to his position on the hill, just in time to assist in repelling Longstreet’s attack.
Seventh—When a dispassionate writer seats himself to bolster up one officer at the expense of others, neither “hearsay evidence” nor “slight errors” should have a place in his narrative. Unadulterated truth should stamp its every assertion.
A Staff Officer Of The Fifth Corps.
(New York Herald, March 21, 1864)
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
To The Editor Of The Herald:
Washington, March 16, 1864.
In the New York Herald of the 12th inst., a communication over the signature of “ Historicus” purports to give the account of an “Eye-Witness” of the battle of Gettysburg, and the reason for it assigned that up to this time no clear narrative of it has appeared.
I desire to call attention to that portion of it which pretends to relate certain events in connection with the part taken by the Fifth Corps in that engagement, and particularly to what the writer refers to as an “alarming incident” occurring in the First division of that corps, which I had the honor to command. He says:—
“An alarming incident, however, occurred. Barnes’ division of the Fifth Corps suddenly gave way, and Sickles, seeing this, put a battery in position to check the enemy if he broke through this gap on our front, and General Birney was sent to order Barnes back into line. ‘No,’ he said, ‘impossible. It is too hot, my men cannot stand it.’ Remonstrance was unavailing, and Sickles despatched his aides to bring up any troops they met to fill this blank. Major Tremaine, of his staff, fell in with General Zook at the head of his brigade (Second corps), and this gallant officer instantly volunteered to take Barnes’ place. When they reached the ground Barnes’ disordered troops impeded the advance of the brigade. ‘If you can’t get out of the way,’ cried Zook, ‘lie down and I will march over you.’ Barnes ordered his men to lie down, and the chivalrous Zook and his splendid brigade, under the personal direction of General Birney, did march over them and right into the breach. Alas! poor Zook soon fell mortally wounded, and half his brigade perished with him.”
All this is pure invention. No such occurrence as is here related took place. There is not a particle of truth in it. No order was given to me by General Birney. None was received by me through any one from General Sickles. I did not see or hear from General Zook. I did not meet him in any way. I did not know he was there, and the article above referred to is the first intimation that I have had that any one pretended that any such event took place. There was no order to advance—no refusal; no orders to lie down given to the command by me or by any one else to my knowledge; no passing over my command (I should be sorry to see any body of men attempt to do such a thing in my division); nothing of the kind occurred that ever came to my knowledge, and I think I should have heard of such a thing before this late day if it, or anything like it, had taken place; the whole story is untrue in every particular, and my astonishment at now hearing of such a thing for the first time may possibly be imagined.
So much for that portion of the article above quoted.
In reference to other criticisms of the movements of the Fifth corps, it may perhaps properly devolve on others to refer to them. I shall only add a few words as to what the First division of that corps did do.
Upon receiving the orders to move to the front, the First division, composed of three brigades, was promptly in motion. In about fifteen minutes it reached the ground which it was ordered to occupy, to the left of the Third corps. General Sykes, commanding the Fifth corps, and myself, reached the ground in advance of the head of the column, and the position to be occupied by my division was determined upon.
As soon as the head of the column came up General Warren rode up in haste and earnestly requested General Sykes to permit a brigade to be sent to Round Top—a high elevation upon the left, not far from us— and urged the importance of holding that position.
Although separating one of my brigades from the remaining two, one of which was already weakened by the detachment of a Regiment—the Ninth Massachusetts—as skirmishers in another part of the field, yet, yielding to the emergency which was apparent, General Sykes consented, and I immediately directed the Third brigade, then under the command of the late much lamented General Strong Vincent (who fell mortally wounded within an hour of receiving the order) to proceed in that direction. The Second brigade arrived next under the command of Colonel Sweitzer, who immediately placed his brigade in position. The 1st brigade, under the command of Colonel Tilton, was posted on the right of Colonel Sweitzer, being the right of the division and on the right of the position of the Fifth corps, the other two divisions of the corps extending to and embracing the celebrated Round Top.
The five corps therefore occupied what may well be called the post of honor of that day, and, as the result proved, well deserved that proud distinction.
In passing to their positions it was necessary for the two brigades of my division to cross an open piece of ground in a thick wood, at the entrance of which a portion of the three corps, commanded by General Birney, was lying upon the ground. My brigades, advancing over and beyond these men a considerable distance, took the position assigned them upon the opposite edge of the wood, nearest to the enemy. They were all in place before the engagement commenced in their front. An open and gently ascending ground upon the right seemed to be unguarded. To the right of this open space the remaining portion of the Third corps was posted. General Sykes observing this, remarked that that portion of the three corps now lying down in our rear would be soon relieved. The engagement commenced immediately and with great severity. The gap upon my right was still unoccupied. The First brigade was violently assailed in front and stood its ground without flinching, and soon after the fight became general along the whole of my front. Soon, however, the enemy, working his way through the gap upon my right, came down in large force upon my flank and rear.
Under these circumstances I was obliged to change my front to the right; the order was given, promptly executed in good order, and the further progress of the enemy in that direction was prevented.
Colonel Tilton in his official report says:—”In this last movement I was greatly embarrassed by squads of men and parts of regiments, who, hurrying from the front, broke into and through my lines. I retired, firing a short distance in the timber and took up a new position upon the right of the two divisions. All my officers and men did their duty, their whole duty, and showed the greatest coolness and courage.”
Colonel Sweitzer in his official report says:—” The enemy were getting into our rear in the woods behind us on the right. I directed these regiments to change front, to face in that direction and meet them, which they did. I do not intend to go into the further details of these movements, or ascribe any blame to others or to fix any responsibility upon any one for any error which led to so threatening a danger to the flank and rear of my division. I only design to show that the orderly movement of my command, rendered imperative by the circumstances in which it was placed, prevented any further advance of the enemy upon my flank, notwithstanding the imminent danger to which it was exposed by the unfortunate gap upon my right between portions of the Third corps.”
It may have been simply anxiety, it may have been some other affection of the mind in the midst of the danger so apparent which prevented this “eye-witness,” if he were one, upon whose narrative I am commenting from distinguishing between an orderly and a disorderly movement.
It is not absolutely necessary to attribute it to a desire to misrepresent. The motives and the object of the narrative must be judged by its general tenor. He has presented to the public what he claims to be a true and only correct account of the celebrated battle of Gettysburg.
So far as I am able to judge, and I saw something of the movements of that day, I think it filled with errors, detracting from the merits of some and exalting the moderate claims of others to a ridiculous excess.
James Barnes, Brigadier General United States Vols. Commanding Second Division, Fifth Corps, at the Battle of Gettysburg.
LETTER FROM GENERAL MEADE TO THE DEPARTMENT ENCLOSING NEWSPAPER ARTICLE SIGNED “HISTORICUS”
Headquarters, Army Of The Potomac, March 15, 1864. Col. E. D. Townsend,
A. A. G. Washington, D. C. Colonel.
I enclose herewith a slip from the New York Herald of the 12th inst., containing a communication signed “Historicus,” purporting to give an account of the battle of Gettysburg to which I desire to call the attention of the War Department—and ask such action thereon as may be deemed proper and suitable.
For the past fortnight the public press of the whole country has been teeming with articles, all having for their object assaults upon my reputation as an officer, and tending to throw discredit upon my operations at Gettysburg and my official report of the same. I have not noticed any of these attacks and should not now take action, but that the character of the communication enclosed bears such manifest proofs that it was written either by some one present at the battle, or dictated by some one present and having access not only to official documents, but to confidential papers that were never issued to the Army, much less made public.
I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Major General D. E. Sickles. An issue has been raised between that officer and myself, in regard to the judgment displayed by him in the position he took with his corps at Gettysburg. In my official report I deemed it proper to state that this position was a false and untenable one, but I did General Sickles the justice to express the opinion that altho’ he had committed an error of judgment, it was done through a misapprehension of his orders and not from any intention to act contrary to my wishes. The prominence given to General Sickles’ operations in the enclosed communication, the labored argument to prove his good judgment and my failings, all lead me to the conclusion he is either indirectly or directly the author.
As the communication contains so many statements prejudicial to my reputation, I feel called upon to ask the interposition of the Department, as I desire to consider the questions raised purely official. I therefore have to ask, that the Department will take steps to ascertain whether Major General Sickles has authorized or endorses this communication, and in the event of his replying in the affirmative I have to request of the President of the U. S. a court of inquiry that the whole subject may be thoroughly investigated and the truth made known. Should this court not be deemed advisable, any other action the Department may deem proper I desire should be taken, and should the Department decline any action, then I desire authority to make use of and publish such official documents, as, in my judgment, are necessary for my defense.
I am, Very respectfully
Your obt. servant
Geo. G. Meade
Major General Comm’dg.
LETTER FROM PRESIDENT LINCOLN TO GENERAL MEADE IN REPLY TO GENERAL MEADE’S LETTER TO THE DEPARTMENT
Executive Mansion, Washington, March 29,1864. Major General Meade.
My dear Sir:
Your letter to Col. Townsend, inclosing a slip from the Herald, and asking a Court of Inquiry, has been laid before me by the Secretary of War, with the request that I would consider it. It is quite natural that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an Inquiry. The country knows that, at all events, you have done good services; and I believe it agrees with me that it is much better for you to be engaged in trying to do more, than to be diverted, as you necessarily would be, by a Court of Inquiry.
(New York Herald, April 4, 1864)
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
IN REPLY TO GENERAL BARNES AND THE STAFF OFFICERS OF THE SECOND AND FIFTH CORPS. THE EVIDENCE BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON THE CONDUCT OF THE WAR, &C.
To The Editor Of The Herald.
In your journal of the 12th ult. I gave an impartial and conscientious sketch of the battle of Gettysburg. Regarding it as the decisive battle of the war, I thought it wise to put its main features on record while the facts were familiar and the principal actors at hand.
I challenged criticism; and three replies have appeared, accusing me, not only of inaccuracy, but downright misstatement. This induced me to redouble my researches, as my only motive was to aid the future historian of this great event.
To my satisfaction more than to my surprise, I find that not only was the outline of my picture correct but nearly every detail and incident exact. I stated, it may be remembered, that the left wing of our army, under the command of General Sickles was selected by General Lee as his report shows for the main point of his attack. I stated, also, that whilst this formidable attack was preparing all the morning of Thursday, July 2, General Sickles was left without orders, in spite of his urgent entreaties to the Commander-in-Chief, General Meade. I stated, likewise, that during this fearful interval, instead of being occupied with the steady advance of the enemy, General Meade was entirely engrossed with the plans for a retreat that General Butterfield, his Chief of Staff, was employed in drawing up, and that just at the moment the general order for retreat was prepared, the cannon of Longstreet opened on our left wing, under Sickles. I stated, further, that, as retreat was now hopeless, General Meade galloped up to our left flank and inspected the dispositions General Sickles had made on his own responsibility to repel the enemy, when the following colloquy ensued, which I repeat in epitome:—” Are your lines not too extended, General Sickles?” said the Commander-in-Chief. “Can you hold this front?” “Yes,” replied Sickles,”till more troops are sent up.” “I will send you the Fifth corps and a division of the Second corps and you can have all the artillery you need.” I stated finally, that the Third corps, constituting our left wing at the beginning of the battle, withstood “heroically,” to use General Meade’s expression, the furious onset of Longstreet for nearly an hour before the reinforcements promised to Sickles, by the Commander-in-Chief arrived and took their part in the dreadful fray. Now, I appeal to your readers when I ask what one of these statements, describing the beginning of the action, or any other portraying the contest of Friday, July 3, as well as the inglorious failure of General Meade to profit by his victory in pursuing and destroying the enemy, has been disproved or controverted by the anonymous communications published in reply? Not one. Allow me briefly to notice them.
The first evidently emanates from a champion of the Second corps, whose task was gratuitous; for it was far from my intention to disparage by a single word, the valiant troops of the Second corps or their gallant commander. The writer in question is deeply offended that General Sickles figured so conspicuously in the fight of July 2; but that is no fault of mine. The blame, if any, is to be attributed to the eagerness and activity of General Sickles. The said writer, however, makes one charge so grave that it demands refutation. He declares that Sickles advanced his corps so far away from his supports, on his right and left, as to cost the lives of these three thousand men to extricate him. He calls this a “sad error and an unaccountable one.” Yes, it would have been an error for which General Sickles would have been immediately cashiered if he had committed it, the aspersion is preposterous. What General Sickles did do was to make a simple manoeuvre which the movements of the enemy required. He changed his front to the left by wheeling forward the centre and right wing of his corps so as to confront the flank attack of Longstreet. No military critic would call this an advance. If he had not done this he would have been cut to pieces by an enfilading fire, and the safety of the army might have been compromised. Furthermore, it would have been difficult for General Sickles, at the moment in question, to abandon the support on his left for the obvious reason that he had none; for the Fifth corps, which afterwards took up position on his left, was not there when he changed front. So much for “Another Eye-Witness.”
The second reply which appeared in your columns is signed by a “Staff Officer of the Fifth Corps” and he indulges in a series of such reckless assertions as to show that neither his temper any more than his memory, if he was at the battle, qualified him for the task of rectification. He first denies that General Sykes reported to General Sickles on the field. Then General Sykes failed in his duty; for he was ordered by General Meade to do so. Let me vindicate Sykes, however; for he did report, and Sickles requested him to take position on his left, and also to relieve General Ward’s brigade and Smith’s Battery on the Little Round top Mountain. Again, the “Staff Officer” asserts that the Third corps never had a soldier on the Roundtop. This is true enough for Ward’s Brigade and Smith’s Battery (Third corps was posted on the Little Roundtop, adjoining the Big Roundtop Mountain). This is a mere quibble and unworthy of the gravity of the subject. I reassert that it was nearly an hour after the battle began before the Fifth corps reached the Big Round top; and it required all this time to march the distance. The desperate valor of the troops of this corps in defence of their position not only covers them with honor but sheds glory on the army and country. Three accomplished officers—Vincent, Weed and Hazlett, of the Fifth corps—consecrated the spot by their heroic deaths. With a view to mislead the public the “Staff Officer” coolly asserts that Barnes’ division of the Fifth corps, was posted in front of a portion of Sickles’ corps, but, forgetting this, he soon afterward states that “the left of Third corps (Sickles’) was far in advance of the Roundtop,” occupied by the Fifth corps. This is a ludicrous contradiction I will not dwell on; nor is it necessary to waste time on the blunders of the “ Staff Officer.”
A third letter and a long one, has appeared in your columns signed “James Barnes, Brigadier General, United States Volunteers commanding 1st division, Fifth corps, at the battle of Gettysburg,” which denies in obstreperous language the unpleasant charge I felt myself obliged to make in my first letter. I narrated that Barnes’ Division suddenly fell back and left a gap in the line of battle, and that General Birney by desire of General Sickles remonstrated at his conduct, but that Barnes refused to return to his position. I further declared that Zook’s Brigade, which came up gallantly to supply the defection of Barnes, marched over his troops, who were ordered to lie down for this purpose. As General Barnes denies all this roundly, under his own signature, it is proper I should give the names of those who cheerfully came forward to corroborate in every point the facts I stated. I refer General Barnes, first to the letter of General de Trobriand, in the Herald of March 29, where he states that a portion of Barnes’ division fell back and took position in his rear, and that in spite of his remonstrance they finally withdrew altogether without being engaged. This confirms what I alleged; but I have positive testimony in a private letter from General Birney, which he will not object I am sure, to my using. When he saw Barnes withdrawing his troops before they had received a shot, he remonstrated at Barnes” leaving a dangerous gap in his line, as well as abandoning the good position. It was of no avail, for Barnes retired. I copied the following from General Birney’s letter:—
“He (Barnes) moved to the rear from three to four hundred yards, and formed in the rear of the road which passed from the Emmettsburg Road to the Round Top. When Zook’s Brigade, the first one brought to me, came up, Barnes’ troops (being in the way) were, at my request, ordered to lie down, and the Brigade from the Second corps passed over their prostrate bodies into the fight, under my command, relieving de Trobriand’s left. A portion of the troops of Barnes were afterwards detached and fought splendidly under another commander. I mentioned the conduct of General Barnes to his corps commander General Sykes, and also to General Sedgwick, that night, after the Council; and Sykes told me that Colonel Sweitzer who commanded one of Barnes’ Brigades, had reported the same thing.”
This extract must be regarded as conclusive. In final confirmation, I may add that General Barnes was relieved of his command after the battle and now has been reduced from the commander of a division to a brigade. I regret to place General Barnes in so mortifying a position, but it is well that both officers and soldiers should know that the eye of the country follows them to the battlefield, and that while it sparkles with joy at their heroism it is dimmed with sorrow at the want of it. In fine, I defy my three assailants to deny that the invincible resistance of the Third corps under Sickles, to the determined flank attack of Longstreet, until the reinforcements arrived, saved the army from imminent danger; and no better proof of this is wanted than that it finally took the united efforts of the Third, Fifth and four brigades of the Second corps to defeat this grand manoeuvre of the enemy, and the result was still doubtful until the reserve (the Sixth corps) under General Sedgwick, came up.
It is only due to myself to say that my narrative of the battle of Gettysburg, published on the 12th ult. will be fully sustained by the concurrent testimony of all the generals who have recently appeared before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. The evidence of General Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Meade, is known to be so ruinous to the reputation of the Commander of the Army of the Potomac that it will be a singular indifference to public opinion on the part of the government if he is allowed to remain longer in that important post. It has been most conclusively proved that nothing was easier than to force Lee’s whole army to an unconditional surrender at Williamsport, where he was without ammunition or subsistence, and the swollen Potomac preventing his escape. It was stated that our army was so humiliated at the vacillation and timidity of General Meade on this occasion that many of them shed tears and talked of throwing down their arms. Yet General Meade still commands this noble army, and not only that, but he has lately ventured to break up, under shallow pretexts two of its finest corps, and dismiss some of its most heroic officers, Pleasanton, Sykes and others. It will be an important inquiry for the Committee on the Conduct of the War to ascertain by whose influence General Meade exercises such arbitrary power. This vital and dangerous act was carried out without any consultation with General Grant and may we not hope, that for his own sake and the country’s sake he will wield the authority which belongs to him, else the worst is to be feared.
Articles taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 323-40. Available via Google Books.