Second Vermont Brigade
The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter VX.July 2.
If the geographer should attempt to describe each square inch of the earth's surface, he would give up in despair before he had finished writing of a single country; so he wisely paints the prominent features, and leaves it for the imagination to do the rest. If I even approximate to this, and present some of the prominent features of the great battle that was fought at Gettysburg, on the 1st, the 2d and 3d of July, 1863, I shall deem myself most fortunate; but then there are the thousand displays of the bravery of nameless common soldiers as great as ever appeared in history; the thousands of noble intellects destroyed; the painful wounds, the dying groans hushed by the deafening clangor of arms, and the sickening, frightful carnage,-these, these must life concealed till the Judgment Day. If the enemy had succeeded in this battle, the whole richly cultivated country to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and probably the entire State of Pennsylvania-cutting in two the east and west-would have lain helpless at the feet of the rebel horde, to be ravaged at their will. But now the long cherished aspirations of our enemies, to invade and feed their armies in the districts of the North, are crushed forever, and the first of war rolled back into the bosoms of those states which kindled them-not burning, like the swift running fires that sweep over the western prairies, causing the grass to grow greener the coming spring, but rather raging with volcanic fury, it ay be, in the Providence of God, to destroy, root and branch, the very institutions for which they were started.
Gen. Meade is put in command of the army of the Potomac the 28th of June. His headquarters at that time were at Frederick; Lee's north-west, across the mountain, at Hagerstown. It will be remembered that our brigade arrived at Frederick the next day at noon; but we were considerably farther south than any of the other troops, except the sixth corps, at the time the intentions of the rebel leaders were clearly known. On the 27th ult., it is estimated that forty thousand rebel soldiers, and a hundred pieces of artillery, passed through Chambersburg, which is a little further north than Gettysburg; and there is a feasible road over the mountain between the two places. Hence the enemy, in case he should go in force to Harrisburgh, was in danger of being cut off, and also in need of Gettysburg, to proceed father east. Not a moment is lost. They are ravaging the country,-seizing horses, cattle and all the provisions they can get. On the last day of June, the first, third and eleventh corps encamped at Emmettsburg, and also near by were the second and twelfth. The next morning, early, Gen. Reynolds, with the first corps, except our brigade, and Gen. Howard, with the eleventh, start for Gettysburg, where they arrive a little after ten in the forenoon. The first marched directly through the town, and the enemy is soon discovered to the westward in a piece of wood, near the Theological Seminary. A portion of our artillery is got into position a half mile south of them. The great battle begins by the rebels firing first, and so sharply as to cause the batteries to commence retiring soon after; but one division of infantry goes at once to their aid,-two regiments charging on the enemy and forcing him back. The artillery is now placed further in the rear on higher ground, and this position is held the rest of the day. At this juncture, General Reynolds, with some of his staff, rides forward to learn the best place for disposing of his troops. The rebels fire upon them. The brave Reynolds falls, crying out, "Forward, for God's sake, forward!" and drops into the arms of his aid, breathing, "Good God, Wilcox, I am killed." The command of the corps now devolves upon Gen. Doubleday, who hurries up and places it to meet the charge which hit is evident the foe are about to make. They advance and open fire along the whole line; but the western brigade charges upon them so rapidly as to capture six hundred prisoners. A heavy body now advances against us from the woods; they are met with volleys of lead, but are not checked till a second charge is made even more successfully than the first; but not without terrible losses to this brave corps that is battling against such odds. The eleventh corps now comes in sight; and Gen. Howard assumes command of the forces. Two charges are now made by the troops under Ewell, but resisted; then the combined corps of Ewell and Hill,-more than sixty thousand, and outnumbering us three to one-are hurled against the tired soldiers, who have been fighting for many hours with desperation, looking, longing for reinforcements to arrive; but none arrive to their ad, and they are driven back inch by inch, and finally retire through the town to Cemetery Hill. It is so late in the afternoon the enemy make no other demonstrations. Here both corps are formed in line of battle; here the artillery is massed; and soon Gens. Sickles and Slocum arrive with their corps, and our own brigade. O, who can tell the feelings of those scarred heroes, weary, sweating, black with burned powder, as they saw us approaching?
Gen. Meade arrives before eleven o'clock; examines the position; and makes the following disposition of the corps; -the twelfth, commanded by Slocum, on the right; the eleventh, commanded by Howard, next; the second, commanded by Hancock, the first, by Doubleday, the third, by Sickles, in the centre; and the fifth, commanded by Sykes, on the left. The cavalry are posted on the flanks.; and cannon planted to sweep every road. The line is semi-circular, and Cemetery Hill nearly in the centre of the bristling arc.
Our brigade, as I have intimated before, stacks its arms a few rods in the rear of the line of battle formed by the first corps; and expecting to be roused this morning at break of day by the enemy's guns. But no,-we lie till broad daylight, and then roll our dewy blankets and make coffee and eat our breakfast as quietly as in camp. The sun looks calmly down upon the peaceful scene,-herds grazing in the green pastures, fields of growing wheat and corn, orchards of peach and apple trees, bending under their increasing fruit, rural dwellings, and birds singing as sweetly as ever, unconscious of the awful storm that is breeding in the mysterious silence. But none will ask: "Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest?" for on the summit of Cemetery Hill, fifty cannon with their deep, black mouths, are pointing to the hills beyond the town, silently muttering defiance, and , "Don't you come this way of you want to go back;" and all along, from right to left, are many other batteries crowning the highest points; and there, too, on either side, are the thick, gracefully curved walls of gleaming bayonets.
Nine o'clock. -The hundred pickets, who were sent out two hours before, from our regiment, have just come back. They have shot eight or ten rounds, and are laughing over their little exploits. The boys quickly ask them, "Did you get hit?" "Not a man." A rebel sharp-shooter climbs an oak, which has a large, bushy top, off seventy-five rods, and fires five times at Major Boynton, who is most coolly watching the movements; but soon after, the rebel tumbles out of the tree, hit by a ball from our side. About ten o'clock there is some firing among the pickets on the right and left. Our brigade is still in the wheat field,-the most lying down, and many sleeping. At eleven we are ordered up,-marched a hundred rods, stack arms in a clover field, directly in the rear of the highest point of Cemetery Hill, and as before, the most lie down, many go to sleep, and a few stroll off a little way to get water, and see what they can. We are not in line of battle. Directly a brisk firing breaks out a few rods to our left, amongst the skirmishers, who approach so near each other that a number of rebel prisoners were taken. The forenoon wears away, the enemy here and there feeling our strength; and then nearly four hours of almost unbroken silence; but such silence!-such as is wont to hang over the sea, foretelling furious storms-before the iron globes begin to be hurled on their merciless errands. Now suddenly a heavy fire is opened on Cemetery Hill. The ambulances, which had been collected near, and some teams, rush back in great haste, Before it is continued a quarter of an hour, a few soldiers belonging to the eleventh corps actually run away; and half of our regiment (the other half is supporting a battery further at the right,) is ordered up nearer the brow of the hill to take their places. They move steadily the short distance, and lie down under the flying shells For two hours now a most terrific cannonade is kept up at this point, and along to the left; for two hours the destructive missiles come, whizzing, whizzing, bursting, bursting, sending down their death-bearing pieces amongst us, and crushing through the little strip of woods to our right,-but not a soldier flinches. In the midst of the furious storm, Gen. Doubleday rides along, and says in a pathetic voice: "Boys, you will fight-won't you? The honor of your State is in your hands. This battle is to decide whether Lincoln or Davis is President."
Think not that our own artillery is inactive,-but rather sending back like destruction. Gen. Meade's headquarters are on the hill; he is calmly watching every move of the enemy. Soon comes a pause-a few moments of silence, all save the groans of the dying and the cries of the wounded-more painful than the unearthly clangor that preceded-and in a moment, long, dark lines of infantry-three columns-forty-five thousand under Hill and Longstreet, are seen moving down on our left-steadily, and seemingly irresistible as a planet in its course. The blow is most directed against the fifth corps on the extreme left; but Gen. Sickles and his brave command are not daunted at the mighty host now forming in their front. On they come, and instantly all the air is filled with the ten thousand rifle cracks, and the louder roar of artillery. "My God," says a soldier to me, "my God, if we've not got a cool brain and a big one too, to manage this affair, the nation is ruined forever." Nearer, nearer draw the infuriated lines, and louder and louder still the infernal din of arms. "See! see! they are driving us." So it is. The third corps is being forced back, inch by inch, by more than twice their number, falling, dying, fighting with desperation-their General badly wounded in the leg,-the enemy pushing on more furiously than ever, and hurling their slaughtering volleys into our decimated ranks. The second corps goes to their aid. The contest is a little more even, but by no means equal. The rebels for awhile waver, and then spring on with increased numbers. The carnage here is terrible; but our troops stand the shock as though every man cared nothing for his life, but only to beat back the mad, raging host in his front. Gens. Hancock and Gibbon are both wounded. As our thinned lines begin to tremble considerably and show signs of giving away, the fifth corps is thrown in and more than fills up the breach. A heavy battery is wheeled on to an eminence away to the left, and sends down its destructive contents into the ranks of the enemy, shaking the hills at every discharge. For a moment, at last, the foe seemed stunned and about to stagger off before the awful tempest. But no,-through the dusky air and under the serried peaks of smoke just lifted up from the lines, behind can be seen the officers dashing along, urging on the men; and that they too are being reinforced. In a few minutes their whole columns rush on with greater force and more fury than before. The sixth corps has just arrived on the field of battle, and almost at the same instant a division from the right wing has been sent to the support of the left. All now deal such blows upon the enemy that his shattered ranks reel back, falling by hundreds at every discharge, amid loud cheers and exultant shouts of victory from our side. But it was a most critical time. Our line of battle had been broken, and the rebels dragged off a battery near the centre. Instantly the five companies of our regiment are deployed in the midst of the unabated storm of bursting shells, and thrown into the breach. We no sooner reached the spot than the Colonel's horse was shot under him and the Colonel fell. He springs up, no hat on, pistol in hand, in front, and cries: "On, boys, on." They now charge down the sloping hill, over the dead and dying, shouting, firing into the foe. After the sixth corps, the division from the right wing, and some from the first corps, were massed against them, it seemed but a moment, till the rebel lines were breaking all along and flying back in dismay. The victory is complete. Half our regiment alone recaptures four cannon, and takes two from the enemy and eighty prisoners. It became quite dark before the fighting was over at this point.
After this we go back to the brow of the hill, and much joy is expressed on account of the victory. All our wounded are taken to the field hospitals in the rear, and cared for the best they could be. A little hard tack is eaten and muddy water drank, and about ten o'clock our brigade lies down to sleep in the open field, in the front line of battle, a few rods to the left of Cemetery Hill, little dreaming that the sun would go down on a far bloodier field the next day than the last. But the enemy are not satisfied with their operations on the left, and soon after a division had been sent away from Gen. Slocum's corps, Ewell makes an attack on the right wing. And for a quarter of an hour the fight rages here, the old soldiers say, as they never saw it before. Parts of the sixth and first corps hasten to their support. The shades of night do not cool their passions, so inflamed by defeat on the left, and until half past nine, with changing fortune, the battle goes on; and to us from Cemetery Hill, in painful suspense, watching the sheets of fire streaming out from the lines through the dark but a few rods apart, each seems to send back death for death. Now our columns sway back a little, and there they stand firm as the hills in their rear, resisting every assault till ten o'clock, when the foe is completely repulsed. The din of arms soon ceases all over the field, and the weary soldiers quickly yield themselves up to sleep.
Who can represent a fight just as it was, waged by a hundred and seventy thousand soldiers, each determined to conquer, for sixteen hours scarcely interrupted, and often reminding one of Milton's words:
"From those deep-throated engines belch'd, whose roarBut it is part of our history,-and let it stand a record of terror to all whom hereafter a wicked ambition may prompt to raise their hands against our government or violate our laws. The battle commenced on the right at daybreak by Gen. Slocum's troops advancing a littler and delivering a heavy fire into the enemy. The soldiers under Ewell answer it with a like firing and yells, and a charge even more desperate than that of the night before. The fights bids fair to be raging along the whole line from flank to flank. We in the centre almost at the same time are awoke by the cracking of the skirmishers' rifles a little way to the left, and before we have time to pick up our blankets, and lied down between the batteries, in the front line, the hostile bombs are bursting fast and furious over our heads. For three hours now the cannonade continues at this point-we lying on our faces,-and still the savage engagement goes on to the right, not at all abated; but rather the wondrous fury that broke at once, seems much increased as more artillery is brought into play, and the musketry fire is partially drowned by their hundering peals. The combatants were soon enveloped in a pall of smoke, which hides the scene of carnage. Again and again, and again, vast columns of rebel infantry are rolled in, seeming, as it were, to the black crater of a volcano, only to be swept down in death, or swept back in disorder. The morning hours have worn away, and the sun is slowly gaining the meridian; but still on they come as if spurred by some supernatural being behind that they dreaded more than the sure death in front, till at last, as when two equal globes meet, moving with equal velocities in different directions, their shock destroys each other's momentum; so for awhile it seems here, or at least one is in cruel doubt which way the scales of victory will turn, knowing that such slaughter cannot continue long. But as the battle is growing thus fearful, reinforcements arrive, and are posted to send an enfilading fire, which quickly causes disorder in the ranks of the enemy, and soon rout, too, follows.
Embowel'd with outrageous noise the air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foul
Their devilish glut, chain'd thunderbolts and hail.
Of iron globes; which on the victor host
Level'd with such impetuous fury smote
That, whom they hit, none on their feet might stand,
Though standing else as rocks, but down they fell
It is nearly noon; firing soon ceases all over the field, and the sun, which has been obscured much of the day by clouds, now shows his splendor, as if to smile on this signal triumph of the friends of liberty over slavery. It would seem that three such repulses and defeats would be sufficient to convince the foe of the futility of attempting to break through our lines. But no, before two o'clock, a hundred cannon, in a circular line, are concentrated and sending their horrid bombs on Cemetery Hill, thick as hail, and swift and crashing as thunderbolts. We have three heavy lines of battle in the centre, a few rods apart, gracefully curved as a rainbow, one behind the other. Our brigade has not moved during the day, and is in the front line, in the open field, on the left side of the hill. Here they remain for about two hours, lying on their faces, and
"Cannon to the right of themBut the Light Brigade was not in quite so stormy a place as the men in the centre of Gettysburg; for our own cannon, a few feet in the rear, were vomiting smoke and burnt powder upon their backs, who lie ready to spring on the foe if he advances near. For two hours, I say, they lie there,-the shells tearing up the earth, filling the air with the splinters of trees and fences, killing and wounding many; but no stragglers go to the rear. Now they rush down the slope forty or fifty rods to the lowest spot between the contending batteries, and about midway. Here in a strip of low brush they construct a small breastwork out of an old rail fence the best they can. But the enemy saw us moved and turned some of their guns upon us here and wounded a few; but most fortunate for us, the most part of their shells and grape-shot came crashing down a few feet in the rear. Soon the enemy are seen moving over the hill and forming directly in our front. They have marched but a short distance before the order comes, "Fire, Fire!" A sharp firing is continued till the rebel line wavers and diverges to our right, staggering and falling rapidly from flank to flank. No cooler, braver man, can be seen on the whole field than Gen. Stannard, who is down among his boys, to fight with them and share their fate. The front line of battle to our right did not advance when we did; so the thirteenth and sixteenth regiments are marched into the open meadow by the flank and as quickly as possible; for they are moving in a terrific storm of shell, grape and musketry. Here they change front forward, forming the new line of battle at right angle to the old, bringing them on the flank of the advancing foe, and but a few feet from them. A destructive fire is now poured into them, and before they have faced many volleys, the rebel column is broken to pieces, and the 'gray-backs" are throwing down their arms, running into our lines, some crying "Don't fire, don't fire!" But this is hardly accomplished before another force came charging on our left. Col. Veazey with the sixteenth, is ordered back to take it upon the flan, which has been bravely met and thinned by the rapid firing of the fourteenth, under Col. Nichols. This charge is as successful as the first. Both times nearly every one of the enemy are swept into our lines; indeed I saw not one get back over the hill, so compete is the victory at this point. A short distance to the right the rebels came in three columns directly four our cannon in the front. Here the carnage was most frightful. Imagine three lines of men charging on seventy cannon as near each other as they can be managed, and then, if they are reached, thousands of soldiers ready to spring up and defend them:
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley'd and thunder'd."
"As if the yawning hill to heavenFor a moment Cemetery Hill seems but one bursting volcano, sending deadly missiles upon such frail creatures as men. The repulse is sudden and overwhelming. The next morning I visited this spot early, and their mangled dead in long lines, showed how they came in triple columns. When the fighting is over at this point, our brigades takes the same position it had before the enemy appeared in their front, every now and then to receive the contents of some rebel battery in the shape of grape shot and shell. But the battle is not ended yet. Like some wild beast, mad and weakened by many wounds, and too frenzied to care for he result, they spring upon our left. First there is a heavy cannonade on both sides, and then the infantry columns sweep down the hills, and for twenty minutes the smoke and sound of musketry rise from the forest in the same places. Now the shouts from our own soldiers tell us that they are driving them. All who saw the last scene, I dare say, will never forget it. Cheers, smoke, the roar of arms making the earth itself tremble, are rolling up from the wood-covered valley; back of this, in the western sky, a dark cloud is rising, streaked with chains of lightning,-but the peals of thunder can scarce be heard, so great still is the din of battle; darkness is slowly settling down and covering the filed of carnage; and away on the right, all the ridges and Cemetery Hill are covered with brave men-the weary, worn remnants of the three days' engagement-who have caught the notes of final victory from our triumphant soldiers on the left, still pursuing the foe up the hill, and answer back the cheers with cheers and shouts with shouts,-and many fairly leaping from the ground in joy and ecstasy. The great battle continued from the break of day till after dark, passing from the right to the centre, and from the centre to the left, not renewed at either point, as if the foe were too much exhausted. After the firing had wholly ceased, the soldiers of our brigade lie down with their rubber blankets over them, the most not expecting to be relieved during the night; but we are, a little after nine o'clock, and go to the rear, where we sleep sweetly till morning, though the greater part had eaten nothing during the day, and but little the night before; and could get nothing but very muddy water to drink, and not near what they wanted of this. But still I have not heard a single man complain during the two days, nor seen a murmuring lip. I, with twenty others, was left behind to see that none of the wounded who belonged to our regiment, should remain on the field. The most of them had been taken back, after the infantry fight ended at this point, by their friends, though in great danger of being hit by shells.
A subterranean host had given."
It was a beautiful night; the clouds had all passed off; and the moon had risen, large and silvery bright, to shine on the bloody field, before we left. But O the cries we heard, and the sights we saw-I cannot bear to tell of these. After our own wounded had been started for the hospitals,-some on blankets, some in ambulances,-it was not yet safe to approach the enemy's lines, so their wounded lie on the field all night. I wandered back among the dead, as they fell prostrate in the fight,-the moonlight making their features more ghastly, with the words of Moore often recurring:
"And, though his life hath pass'd away
Like lightning on a stormy day,
Yet shall his death-hour leave a track
Of glory, permanent and bright,
To which the brave of after times,
The suff'ring brave, shall long look back
With proud regret,-and by its light
Watch through the hours of slavery's night
For vengeance on the oppressor's crimes."