An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
Charles Marshall

IX
THE GETTYSBURG CAMPAIGN

(a) THE OBJECT OF THE CAMPAIGN

AT this point Colonel Marshall resumes his story.

I propose to write the history of the campaign of the Army of Northern Virginia which resulted in the Battle of Gettysburg.

My object in undertaking this work is to preserve for the historian facts not generally known, and which by lapse of time will become more and more obscure; to do justice to the Army, as far as it is in my power to do so; and to correct many erroneous impressions which I find to prevail with respect to the object, conduct, and failure of this memorable campaign.

It will be necessary for me to speak of the acts of some who have passed by a soldier’s death beyond the reach of praise or blame. I feel the delicacy and responsibility of saying aught that may seem to imply a censure of men who deserved and enjoyed the confidence, admiration, and gratitude of their countrymen, and for whom I feel the warmest personal friendship. These feelings become oppressive when I reflect that I may be misunderstood as casting censure upon some whose memory I cherish as sacred, whose friendship I enjoyed, and whose services I hold in most grateful remembrance. But it is due to the noble Army of Northern Virginia, to its illustrious chief, and to the cause of truth, that the facts of this great event should be faithfully recorded. So far as those facts are known to me I shall narrate them with the most cautious observance of accuracy, always distinguishing between what actually occurred and my own speculation, or reports for the accuracy of which I cannot vouch.

It is proper that I should state the means of information that I possess, in order that the value of what I say may be fully appreciated.

I was a member of the staff of General R. E. Lee and wrote most of his letters to the President and War Department. Besides this it was my duty to compile his official reports of operations. Sometimes in the course of my work it seemed to me necessary to speak strongly of events that were calculated to call forth words of praise or blame. He often struck out observations of mine on subjects that aroused my liveliest interest and excited my feelings, saying in a playful way, “Colonel, if you speak so strongly of this you will have nothing left to say of something better.” The world knows in part his moderation, but none can know it fully but those who have seen him as it was my privilege to do. Directing affairs that concentrated the attention of the civilized world, accomplishing results that compelled the admiration of his bitterest enemies, he brought to the narration of his achievements a devotion to truth, and an utter forgetfulness of self, that made me lose my admiration of the great soldier in my reverence for the excellence of the man.

I have now in my possession a copy of the official report of the Pennsylvania Campaign, forwarded by General Lee to the Secretary of War. That report was prepared by myself with every facility to make it accurate which General Lee could give me. I had the official reports of the Corps, Division, and Brigade Commanders, those of the Artillery and Cavalry Commanders, and of the Medical staff. I had opportunities of conversing with the authors of these reports, and of getting explanations of what was doubtful, and declining that which was conflicting or contradictory. I had General Lee’s private correspondence with the officers of his army, with the President and Departments, his orders, general and special, public and confidential, and more than all, I had the advantage of full and frank explanations of his own plans and purposes from General Lee himself.

When from the various sources I have mentioned I had compiled a continuous narrative it was submitted to him for examination. He would peruse it carefully, make such alterations as his personal knowledge suggested, and when there was a material difference in the statements contained in the reports, he required it to be brought particularly to his notice, read the conflicting reports himself, sought every opportunity by conversation or correspondence of reconciling the discrepancies, and in some instances changed his own report to such a statement of the general outlines of the facts as to omit entirely those things which his efforts could not render altogether free from doubt. He weighed every sentence I wrote, frequently making minute verbal alterations, and questioned me closely as to the evidence on which I based all statements which he did not know to be correct. In short, he spared no pains to make his official reports as truthful as possible, and for whatever errors they contain I can safely say that he is wholly free from responsibility.

Since the end of the war I have had frequent opportunities of comparing the official reports thus made up with those of Federal officers, and of correcting errors by discussing with them the events in which they participated. I have availed myself of this valuable source of information on all possible occasions, and have found those officers of the United States Army, who had borne an active part in the events, very fair and just in their views of our operations and candid in their statements of their own. I believe that this feeling pervades almost universally that class of Federal officers who took the most distinguished part in military operations and were least dependent for their reputations upon the praises of newspaper correspondents. I have observed that in proportion as men rendered real service are they brief and truthful in narrating them. To the above sources of information I may add my own personal observations. I have thought it proper to state whence my information is derived, to enable the reader to estimate its value and credibility, my chief desire being to arrive at the truth.

It is proper that I should say one thing more by way of introduction. The official report of General Lee is I believe substantially true, as far as it goes. But it is not complete in many particulars which should be known to understand the campaign fully. He struck from the original draft many statements which he thought might affect others injuriously, his sense of justice frequently leading him to what many considered too great a degree of lenience. It is well known that he assumed the entire responsibility of the issue of the battle of Gettysburg, and thus covered the errors and omissions of all his officers. He declined to embody in his report anything that might seem to cast the blame of the result upon others, and in answer to my appeal to allow some statements which I deemed material to remain in the report, he said he disliked in such a communication to say aught to the prejudice of others, unless the truth of such statements had been established by an investigation in which those affected by them had been afforded an opportunity to defend or justify their actions. But there are material facts resting upon official statements which in my opinion are necessary to a correct understanding of the campaign, and the statement of which can do injustice to no man. I feel impelled to give these facts, so far as they are known to me, a place in the following narrative. As I have said, it is my purpose to give as full and truthful an account of this campaign as possible, and no account can be of that character which omits the facts to which I have alluded.

Before proceeding to narrate the particular events of the campaign of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania, some general observations are necessary to render the operations of General Lee more intelligible. Great diversity of opinion exists as to the expediency of his offensive campaigns as well as to the manner in which they were conducted. Without attempting to argue these questions I shall content myself with the statement of the motives and objects of his movements.

The operations of the United States Army, based upon political as well as military reasons, had given great prominence in the struggle to the possession of the Confederate capital. This view of its importance had been accepted by the Confederate authorities, and their operations had been so conducted as to render the possession of Richmond a test of Confederate success, not only in the estimation of our own people and of the world, but also in point of fact. The Confederate Government, assuming that Richmond must be held, if we were to succeed, dealt with the town in such wise that to retain it in fact became essential. Its loss would not only have been disastrous in the moral effect which it would have produced both upon the people of the United States and of the Confederate States, but the material loss would have been very difficult to bear. The fall of Richmond and the suppression of the “rebellion”” were regarded in the North as almost synonymous, and had become so in a great measure among the people of the South. Until the summer of 1864 Richmond was an indispensable base for General Lee’s army if it was to operate in Northern Virginia, but after that time, when the siege had been formed and when it had become apparent that we were too weak to make a diversion by again crossing the Potomac, the continuance of the attempt to hold Richmond was contrary to the advice of the Confederate Commander and was due to political rather than military considerations.

The great object then of the Confederate operations in Virginia was to defend Richmond, and that was the principal end that General Lee proposed to himself. Of course the incidental advantages of preserving that part of Virginia north of the James and of keeping it free from the presence of the enemy were not disregarded, but the defence of Richmond controlled all other considerations.

Now from the time that General Lee was first placed on duty in Richmond in March 1862 by the order of President Davis, and even before that time, as I have heard, he was convinced that the only way of defending the city successfully was by occupying the Federal Army at a distance from the capital and preventing the formation of a siege.

He frequently spoke and often wrote to the effect that if the siege of Richmond were once undertaken by an army too strong to be beaten off, the fall of the place would be inevitable, no matter how successfully it might be defended against a direct attack. His reasons for this opinion are obvious now, though they were not fully appreciated at first by many beside himself. Richmond was chiefly dependent for its supplies upon the James River Canal, and upon three long lines of railway: the road through Petersburg and Wilmington to the south, that through Danville with its connecting road to Lynchburg and southwest Virginia, and the Virginia Central to Gordonsville and thence to the Shenandoah. The canal connected the city with the rich counties of the upper James.

There were two other roads, that to Fredericksburg, and the York River Railroad, but they were of less importance as sources of supply. General Lee was of opinion that should the enemy succeed in establishing himself near Richmond in too great force to be dislodged, it would be easy for him to cut any or all of these lines of communication with his cavalry, and render them practically useless for the purpose of supplying the city. An active cavalry commander could readily accomplish this, as it was impossible with the limited resources of the Confederacy to do more than provide guards for the principal bridges of the roads, while the rest of the lines would have to be defended by the cavalry of the army, and it was always possible for that of the enemy to get so far advanced before its movements became known, that the railroads could be seriously interrupted before our cavalry could arrive for their protection. By continuing these operations and by extending the lines of the besiegers so as to cover the railroads, the city would be finally entirely isolated.

This truth was very clearly demonstrated in the campaigns of 1864 and 1865, when General Grant established his army on both sides of the James River, threatening Richmond and Petersburg at the same time. Such was the facility with which he could transfer his troops from one side of the James to the other, massing them now before the defences of Richmond and now before those of Petersburg, that the two lines could only be held safely by a force on each side of the river sufficient to repel any attack. By threatening the Richmond lines Grant compelled Lee to withdraw troops from those of Petersburg, and availing himself of their absence he succeeded in extending his lines around Petersburg and established his troops in works from which the small available force that we could collect from the defence of our extended lines was unable to dislodge them. In this manner he first entirely closed Weldon Road, and then by his cavalry interrupted the South Side and Danville Roads, until the further extension of his lines enabled him to cover the South Side Road completely, which compelled the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond.

Foreseeing the possibility of such results. General Lee adopted as the only practicable way of defending Richmond the plan of retaining the main body of the Federal Army near its own capital, and thereby preventing the formation of a close siege of our own. He acted upon this plan as long as his means allowed him to do so.

As in the campaign of 1862, so again in the campaign of 1863 the desire to keep the enemy employed at a distance from Richmond, and the impossibility of maintaining his army near enough to Washington to accomplish this object without moving north of the Potomac, led to the invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. So, also, in 1864, when sorely reduced in strength after the Wilderness campaign, General Lee made a final effort to force General Grant to withdraw from Richmond by detaching all the troops he could spare under General Early to threaten Washington. The campaigns of 1862 and 1863 were unsuccessful as far as the issues of the battles which closed them were concerned. But they effected one of their great objects in preventing the siege of Richmond in those years.

Of course, while seeking to obtain these ends, General Lee was not unmindful of the valuable results that might follow a decided success in the field. In comparing the relative merits of a plan for manoeuvering in Virginia and of one for entering the enemy’s country, the relative value of success in the one or in the other must be considered. I will not attempt to describe in detail the possible consequences of the defeat of McClellan in 1862, or of Meade in 1863, but it is safe to say that the defeat of either north of the Potomac would have been of vastly greater importance than an equal or greater success won in Virginia. A victory won in Maryland or in Pennsylvania, in 1863, might reasonably have been expected to have caused the withdrawal of the Federal troops from the South West to defend the more important Federal interests which would in that event have been exposed. Indeed it was in the hope and expectation that his movement northwards, if attended by any considerable military success, would relieve the pressure of the enemy in the South West, that General Lee began his campaign. He hoped that if any such withdrawal of Federals took place reinforcements from that quarter would enable him to confirm and extend the successes of his own army, but he knew that if his army were weakened in order to assist the defenders of Vicksburg against General Grant, then his army would be unable to undertake any offensive operations and even to defend Richmond. If the safety of Richmond were endangered then it would be necessary to withdraw troops from the Mississippi for the defence of the capital. So if General Lee remained inactive, both Vicksburg and Richmond would be imperilled, whereas if he were successful north of the Potomac, both would be saved.

Yet another important consideration was the moral effect of a victory north of the Potomac upon the people of the North. A victory over the Federal Army in Virginia would have tended to strengthen the peace party in the North, only in so far as it would have tended to assure the Northern people that they could not succeed. They would not have been impressed by our consideration for their peace or comfort in keeping the war from their homes and firesides. The “copperheads” were never weaker than when the Federal armies were successful, and the arguments for peace in the North would have been much more convincing if victory had placed Washington, Baltimore or Philadelphia within our reach than if gained in Virginia.1 Those of us who have studied Confederate policy during the war know too well the baleful influence upon the energy and efforts of the South, which was exercised by the delusion that the Confederacy could rely upon anything but her deeds for success.

There were some additional considerations operative in 1863 that deserve mention. The Confederate Army in Virginia was better disciplined and far more efficient than when it marched from Richmond into Maryland in 1862, for then a large part of that army consisted of men who had been brought into service for the first time after the beginning of that year. But in 1863 it was numerically considerably weaker.2

After the battle of Fredericksburg, in which our loss was less than 4500 men, and when the sick and wounded in the campaign of 1862 had pretty well returned to duty, as far as we had reason to suppose that they ever would return, and after the recruiting agencies under the Conscription Law of April 1862 had been actively at work for nearly a year and a fair opportunity had been afforded to test the ability of the South to keep up the strength of its army, it was found that the general aggregate of the army was steadily and sensibly decreasing. In other words, General Lee was conscious that if the war were to continue much longer on a scale of such magnitude, the South must fail from the exhaustion of her manhood capable of bearing arms. Recruiting was becoming more and more slow, owing chiefly to the decrease in the number of men subject to military service, but also in a considerable degree from the danger and weariness of war, and distrust as to the issue of the struggle.

The causes that brought about the decrease in the army in 1863 as compared with the previous year were likely to become more and more potent in their influence, and the decline in the strength of the Confederate army was likely not only to continue but to progress more rapidly as the war was protracted. Unlike the North, the South could easily see the limit in her resources in men nor was that limit very remote.

It therefore became important to consider how to accomplish quickly the greatest possible results with the smallest loss, and how to make a limited number of men most effective in attaining both the chief end of bringing a satisfactory peace, and the immediate object of thwarting and frustrating the designs of the enemy.

The campaign of Chancellorsville had demonstrated to the enemy what it must be confessed he appears to have been slow to learn, that the peculiar situation of Richmond would enable him with a comparatively small force to compel a large detachment from General Lee’s army. The report of a movement of Federal troops to the south side of James River in the early part of 1863 had led to the detachment of the greater part of Longstreet’s corps to Petersburg, and the authorities at Richmond deemed that the danger to that city which this movement caused was sufficient to detain those troops from General Lee’s army when he called for them to aid in the unequal struggle in which he was about to engage at Chancellorsville.3 Jackson’s corps and the divisions of Anderson and McLaws of Longstreet’s corps were barely strong enough to repulse the army of General Hooker, while the fine divisions of Hood and Pickett lay inactive below the James, watching what might have proved a real danger to Richmond. Had the force that was supposed to threaten Richmond from the south side of the James at that time been large enough to require the detachment of more of General Lee’s army than the two divisions of Longstreet’s corps, it is extremely questionable whether the battle of Chancellorsville would have been fought at all. A larger detachment from the army of General Lee would have made that army too weak to oppose General Hooker.

After the battle of Chancellorsville, it was in the power of the enemy, if not prevented, not only to detain Hood and Pickett below Richmond, but to compel General Lee to reinforce them, in which event he must have withdrawn from Fredericksburg and fallen back on Richmond, or he must have assumed the risk of fighting a greatly superior force with smaller numbers than had been found barely sufficient to win at Chancellorsville.

As Hooker’s army lay near the Potomac, he could embark any part of it at Acquia Creek with little difficulty and land on the James in dangerous proximity to Richmond, almost before General Lee could learn that they had left his front. Such was the position of affairs after the battle of Chancellorsville, and the questions presented to General Lee were not only how to avert the manifest danger to which his army was always exposed but also how to use his army so as to bring the enemy’s plans to naught.

Let us then consider the possible plans from which he had to make his choice. First; suppose he had remained where he was, and awaited the movements of the enemy. It is safe to assume that the enemy would not renew the attempt of General Burnside in 1862 or that of General Hooker in April 1863, unless indeed the latter effort had been repeated with a greatly increased force.

But General Lee was bound to assume, unless he was prepared to act on the assumption of absolute incapacity on the part of his adversary, that if he remained inactive the enemy would abandon his effort to dislodge him from his position at Fredericksburg, and would move his army to Richmond by water, as he could easily and safely do. Such a movement must have led to the abandonment of all Northern Virginia by the Confederates and the concentration of their available force to defend Richmond, with all the disadvantages already mentioned as incident to the defence of the city against a siege, or against a direct assault.

During the retreat on Richmond accident might bring on an engagement on ground unfavourable to the Confederates, without the fault of their leader, but even if that eventually were avoided nothing could justify the deliberate adoption of a policy the immediate and unavoidable result of which would be to impose upon the Confederate army the burden of such a defence. Better far to risk the battlefield which chance might bring us during a movement northwards than deliberately to accept what we knew to be altogether favourable to the enemy, and altogether unfavourable to us.

Next, suppose General Lee had attacked Hooker in his position opposite Fredericksburg. This position was one of great strength and security, so far as any attempt on our part to dislodge the enemy by direct attack was concerned. A short line of railway connected the Federal encampment with the Potomac River, which offered a secure and easy line of communication with Washington and the North. The railway was only twelve miles long and lay immediately in [the] rear of the Federal lines, which completely protected it. The river was in their undisputed possession, so that nothing could be effected by operating on their line of communication.

The Rappahannock River which separated the two armies is deep and impassable except by bridges, from Fredericksburg to its mouth. At that place, where tide water begins, the course of the river changes. The part that lies below the town turns sharply to the south east, while above its course is more nearly easterly. On the north side the hills approach very near the river, so that the guns placed on the heights behind Falmouth commanded the course of the stream below Fredericksburg, and made the construction of a bridge from the south to the north side on that portion of the river almost impracticable. In like manner the guns on the heights a little below and opposite Fredericksburg command the course of the stream above the town, making the crossing at that part, if otherwise feasible, a matter of great risk and danger.

Besides this, the hills on the south side of the Rappahannock are at a considerable distance from the river, and are separated from it by a wide open plain, entirely commanded by the guns on the opposite heights. Troops moving from the heights occupied by the Confederate army to the river would be exposed to the artillery on the opposite side from these directions. To attempt to force a passage immediately in front of the Federal Army would therefore have been madness.

The only way that we could have attacked that army in its position would have been by crossing the river above, and moving down upon its right flank. But this would have been attended by great loss and difficulty, besides being of very doubtful utility. Had the attempt been made, we must have ascended the river some distance, and as all the fords and practicable crossings were closely guarded, our movement would undoubtedly have been discovered as soon as it began. Before we could force the passage, the enemy could have changed front and met our attack on ground altogether favourable to him, or he could have withdrawn to the Potomac and placed his army under the guns of his shipping, in a country nearly or quite impracticable for military operations. At the same time it was desirable for many reasons to force General Hooker to leave the vicinity of Fredericksburg. We were so far from Washington as to make the authorities there feel so secure that they would not hesitate to detach troops to operate against either Richmond or Vicksburg while our army remained confronting that of General Hooker, and the resources of the North in men were such that they could have sent off a sufficient force for either purpose without materially weakening the army at Fredericksburg.

But it is an error to compare the possible results of any other plan of operations with the result which actually followed the movement into Pennsylvania.

The true standard is to compare the Pennsylvania campaign as it might have been, and as General Lee had reason to believe it would be, with any other plan that he could have adopted in 1863.

If it shall be found that such a campaign was wisely adapted to attain the end proposed, and that it was reasonable to expect that it could be so conducted as to accomplish the end proposed in the way intended, there only remains the enquiry, why was it not conducted in the way in which it was intended to be conducted? Why did it result in a great battle with the advantage of position on the side of the enemy, when it had not been intended to fight a great battle, or if at all, only on such grounds as General Lee might select?

How these things occurred I will now proceed to explain.