Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 28

Camp-Fires of General Lee


IN the warm sunshine of the morning of July 1, A. P. Hill and Ewell continued their advance toward Gettysburg, destined to be the scene of one of the most terrific battles of modern times. A mile from the town Hill’s advanced division came in collision with Buford’s cavalry, posted on the Chambersburg road, along which the Confederate divisions were approaching. Buford served his artillery with such skill that he held the Confederate force in check until the arrival of Reynolds, who, hearing the sound of his guns, hurried forward with his own First Corps and the Eleventh Corps, under General Howard. An hour later Reynolds came upon the field with the division of the First Corps under General Wadsworth. Reynolds’s instructions were to avoid bringing on an engagement at Gettysburg, but, in case the Confederates appeared in force, to fall back to Pipe Creek. He found Buford so hard pressed, however, that he was compelled to throw forward his main body to save him. While advancing, he was assailed with such suddenness that the line of battle was formed under fire. This attack was made by the division of General Heth, of hill’s corps, which was in the advance. They forced the Unionists backward, but while following up their success they were in turn repulsed by an attack on their right flank led by General Reynolds in person. In the charge the Confederates had several hundred men captured, including Brigadier-General Archer, while General Reynolds was shot dead by a rifle-ball. His loss was a severe one to the Federal army. “He was a brave and skilful soldier, an honest-hearted gentleman, and had conducted himself so humanely and generously to the people of Fredericksburg that they mourned his death almost as though he had been one of their own leaders.”* The Federal rallied, and speedily recovered the ground from which they had been driven on the right, manœuvring so well that they surrounded two regiments of Davis’s brigade of Mississippians in the railroad-cut and compelled them to surrender, with their battle-flags. The battle of Gettysburg having opened, events hurried on with tremendous speed. The two remaining divisions of the First Corps of the Federal army arriving on the ground, one of them was immediately thrown forward to support the left, which was hard pressed by Hill. The fight became fierce and sanguinary.

It will be remembered that Ewell encamped the night before at Heidlersburg, nine miles from Gettysburg. While on the march to the latter point the thunder of cannon announced the opening of the great battle, and he made all haste. Rodes, with the advance, reached the field just as Hill was crowding the left so hard. Without delay he secured a commanding position on the Federal right and opened briskly upon it. The Federals responded by throwing forward a division of infantry, who speedily captured several hundred members of Iverson’s North Carolina brigade. Thus, contrary to the intentions of both Meade and Lee, a severe conflict was brought on when both commanders were manœuvring for position in which to receive instead of to make an attack. When the boom of the cannon fell upon Lee’s ears, he was at the headquarters in the rear of his troops which Hill had left a short time before. He supposed it was an accidental collision with a body of Federal cavalry; when he learned that Hill was engaged in a desperate fight with the Union infantry, he was astonished, and by no means pleased, for his army was not in shape to deliver battle. But it was upon him, and could not be avoided. He ordered Hill’s corps to be closed up, and sent forward reinforcements as rapidly as he could; then, mounting his horse, he rode in the direction of the firing.

Meanwhile, the line of battle rapidly widened, the two armies having gradually extended, in the form of a crescent, for a distance of several miles, Gettysburg being in the rear of the curve. The Eleventh Corps of the Federals came upon the field, General Howard taking command after the fall of Reynolds. Almost at the same time Pender’s division of Hill’s corps arrived opposite, and directly afterward Early’s division of Ewell’s corps came up and took position to the north of the town, across the Harrisburg road. This caused the Federals to extend their lines still farther to the right, thereby weakening them to a fatal degree.

At three o’clock in the afternoon Early made a fierce assault upon the Union right, under General Barlow, who was severely wounded, and his men were driven back. Rodes charged the Federal centre, which was the key-point to the field, and, breaking through, swept away the right of the First Corps and the left of the Eleventh. The break was a disastrous one, and the Federals fled tumultuously into Gettysburg, the right of the First Corps swarming among the streets in such a disorganized state that Early captured more than five thousand prisoners and several pieces of artillery. The Confederates were still in close pursuit when they were recalled by their commander.

General Meade, having learned of the fall of Reynolds, sent General Hancock, who arrived at the hour the terrified Federals were pouring through Gettysburg. Hancock had been instructed to examine the ground with a view of determining whether it was best to make a stand there or retire to Pipe Creek, as was the first intention; but on his arrival the Federal general found a more serious duty on hand. He saw at once that unless the panic of the First and Eleventh Corps was stayed a great disaster was likely to overtake the Union army. That able soldier by the magnetism and power of his presence did that which Howard could not do. The panic was checked, and the contending hosts paused to take breath and concentrate their strength for the next leap at each other’s throats.

General Hancock formed his line along Cemetery Hill, to the south and west of the town. This position was one of immense strength, and after carefully examining it from a distance General Lee decided to make no attack upon it until the arrival of Longstreet and the remainder of Ewell’s corps. These troops were ordered to hurry forward, while the Confederate leader did everything possible to learn the exact strength and disposition of the Federal army. In his failure to storm and carry the heights before Hancock seized them General Lee let slip an opportunity which rarely presents itself during a campaign. He has been sharply criticised by his own friends for his inaction on that important occasion, but such criticism cannot be justified. No man, no matter how great his intelligence and ability, ought deliberately to pronounce judgment against the military genius of General Lee; the very fact that he refrained from carrying the heights is proof that he had the best of reasons for this course. At this remote day no one can have sufficient grounds upon which to base a judgment contrary to that of the Southern leader. It was as Stonewall Jackson once remarked: Lee never for one moment forgot the enormous responsibility which rested upon his shoulders. There were doubtless many instances in which he might have accomplished almost miraculous results by launching his hosts where opportunity presented, but in doing so he inevitably ran the risk of failure—failure disastrous, overwhelming and irremediable. He showed his wisdom by declining such “extra-hazardous” risks. In the instance under discussion he was without definite knowledge of the movements, strength and disposition of Meade’s army; his own had not yet arrived on the ground (though he had more than enough to capture the heights), and doubtless he had reasons which have never been clearly set forth for refraining from the assault. Nevertheless, the truth remains that the failure to occupy the heights was disastrous beyond calculation in its consequences to the Confederate army.

Now that Destiny had ordered that the supreme life-and-death struggle between the Southern hosts and the Northern legions should take place around this insignificant hamlet, and that consequences momentous to mankind for ages to come should flow therefrom, let us try to understand the battle-ground and the complex movements which took place thereon during those fateful days in July, 1863.

Gettysburg lies in the centre of a small valley formed by several ranges of hills; north of the town the country is not so rugged, but south, east and west the hills are high and steep. To the westward, distant about a mile, is a ridge bordering the east bank of Willoughby’s Run; a quarter of a mile from the town, in the same direction, is another elevation, called Seminary Ridge. It was in the valley between these ridges that the battle of July 1 was fought. South of the town, and a quarter of a mile away, is Cemetery Ridge, running due south. Just beyond the limits of Gettysburg this ridge makes a curve to the eastward, and then, turning to the right again, falls off toward the south, forming a hook whose convexity is turned toward Gettysburg, and is called Cemetery Hill. Farther to the eastward, where it slopes to the south, it is named Culp’s Hill. Returning now to the main ridge, which recedes with almost arrowy directness straight away from Gettysburg toward the south, the ridge is found to terminate three miles distant in a sort of flourish known as Round Top, which is a high wooded peak. Just north of this peak is a smaller one, called Little Round Top, or Weed’s Hill. Crossing over to Gulp’s Hill, on the right, a small stream, known as Rock Creek, flows along the base and empties into the Monocacy, while Plum Run, another creek, runs in front of Cemetery Ridge from near Cemetery Hill to Round Top and beyond. To the west of this ridge the country is commanded by it, and is of a broken character. The Taneytown road, running due south along Cemetery Ridge, crosses the elevation at the cemetery; the Baltimore turnpike crosses the ridge a short distance to the east and trends to the right, passing over Rock Creek about a mile eastward from the Taneytown road. The Emmettsburg road turns off from the Baltimore turnpike just out of Gettysburg, and, bearing to the westward, intersects the Taneytown road in front of the cemetery and continues to the south-west, the highways named spreading out from the southern outskirts of the town like the three spokes of a wheel. Beginning at Round Top, the terminus of the ridge, and passing directly northward around the curve called the Cemetery and on to the other terminus, Gulp’s Hill, the distance is about four miles. From the eastern side of Gettysburg put out the Bonnaughtown road and the York turnpike; to the north-east, the Harrisburg road; to the north, the Carlisle road; to the north-west, the Mummasburg road; and south of this, the Chambersburg turnpike and Millerstown road.

A careful study of the map is necessary to understand the battle of Gettysburg.


* J. D. McCabe, Jr.

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