E. P. Alexander at Gettysburg
Letter From General E. P. Alexander, Late Chief Of Artillery, First Corps., A. N. V.
Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. IV. Richmond, Virginia, September, 1877. No. 3.
Montgomery, Alabama. March 17th 1877.
Reverend J. William Jones, Secretary:
My rank and position during that campaign was colonel of artillery, commanding a battalion of six batteries attached as reserve to Longstreet's corps; and on the field of Gettysburg I was placed by General Longstreet in command of all of his artillery on the field as chief of artillery for the action. As I had belonged to the United States Engineer Corps before the war, and as General Longstreet at that time had no engineer officers on his staff, I was frequently called on, also, during the campaign, as an engineer officer. I mention these facts only that you may form an idea of my personal opportunities of observation and information.
And now as to the questions of ------- in their order:
First. Was the invasion a mistake? The proof of the pudding is the eating, and that test has certainly condemned it. I must also say frankly that my recollection is, that while the whole army went across the Potomac in the highest spirits, they were due more to confidence in General Lee than to an entire accordance of all of the prominent officers in the wisdom of the invasion. I remember conversations on the matter while on the march with one of the most gallant major generals of the army -- General Hood -- in which he suggested all of the very grave considerations against it which are so forcibly put by -------. General Longstreet has also stated to me since (although during the campaign I do not remember a word or sign from him indicating any doubt in its success) that he urged similar considerations, very earnestly, upon General Lee, when the campaign was being discussed, and was only persuaded out of them by the understanding that we were not to deliver an offensive battle, but to so maneuver that Meade would be forced to attack us. Remember, in this connection, one of Stonewall Jackson's last speeches: "Our men sometimes fail to drive the enemy out of their positions, but they always fail to drive us." Such a confidence on General Lee's part would probably not have been misplaced, for he carried the best and largest army into Pennsylvania that he ever had in hand. The morale and spirit of the men was simply superb, as shown by the fight they made and the orderly and successful retreat after the battle. General Lee, in his report, has given the reasons which led him to plan the invasion. Whether he then fully appreciated all of the objections to it which can now be pointed out I do not know, but, even if he did, I can imagine his confidence in defeating the enemy in a decisive battle, by forcing them to attack us, as so great, and as based on such reasonable grounds, as to fully justify the movement. For it must be remembered that there were great objections to be found to his standing still and allowing the enemy to take the initiative.
Second question. I fully agree as to the necessity to General Lee of defeating the Federal army, and perhaps that army would fight better on its own soil than in Virginia, and would, therefore, be easier to defeat in Virginia; but bear in mind that the great condition to assure its defeat was to force it to attack General Lee. Moreover, he did maneuver in Virginia inviting an attack, but in vain -- at least he gave Hooker opportunities which were not availed of, and no disposition shown to act on them during the few days they remained open. It is also very certain that General Lee could never have established his army in Pennsylvania with his communications open so as to get supplies, even of ammunition; but yet I think he could easily have so manoeuvred as to force Meade to attack him. A position covering Fairfield would have given him the Valley to support himself on, and would have been so threatening to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Harrisburg that public clamor would have forced Meade to try and dislodge him. We had ammunition enough for one good fight, and in a victory would capture enough for the next. If Lee was to cross the Potomac at all, I don't think the crossing should necessarily have been dependent on a previous victory. A subsequent one would have answered all purposes, and in all human probabilities it was nearly as certain.
They could have been forced to attack us, and they never had driven us from a field since the war began. Excellent positions also were to be found everywhere in that section, which was a limestone country, well cleared and abounding in long parallel ridges like the Seminary ridge or Cemetery ridge at Gettysburg. So much for the general plan of the campaign; and before proceeding to the next questions of ---------, relating more to the incidents of the battle itself, it is in order to inquire why the original plan was changed and an offensive battle delivered. And, on this subject, I know little or nothing that is not contained in General Lee's report. My general recollection is that we considered the enemy very slow in moving upon us, and took our time everywhere to give him opportunities to attack, if he desired, and that the concentration which was ordered at Gettysburg was intended as an offer of battle to him. In making this concentration Hill's corps unexpectedly came in collision with Reynolds' corps, and the thing began. Reynolds' corps was not expected there, and our information of the enemy's movements was incomplete on account of the absence of all of the cavalry, or nearly all, with General Stuart, who, instead of being between us and the enemy, was on a raid around him. In this way the action began, and the first day's success stimulated the second day's effort. This effort should have been successful, and would have been, but for delays and faults of detail in its execution. These have been the subject of much crimination and recrimination among survivors as to the greater or less responsibility for them, but, to history, of course the general commanding is the responsible party. I will write frankly all that I know about them personally further on. It is sufficient to say here that, as I have already implied, the battle was lost by them, and, in fact, under the conditions existing when the actual conflict was joined, success was almost impossible.
Even after the second day's battle, in my humble judgment, it was possible to have withdrawn from the offensive and taken the defensive, and forced Meade to assault us, and to have given him a crushing defeat. I may be mistaken, and I do not by any means set up as a military critic in general, but, as we did offer battle on the 4th, and again for several days near Hagerstown, on the retreat (while waiting to construct a bridge over the Potomac), and as Meade did at last feel bound to attack us, but just a day too late to do it, I think a similar course might have been successfully pursued after the action of the second. Whether it was discussed I do not know, but I do know that Longstreet was very averse to the assault by Pickett's division on the third. He only expressed his opinion about it, so far as I know, after the division was launched, but the circumstances which I will detail presently led me to infer that he had discussed the matter fully with General Lee. And now I will give what details of the battle itself fell under my personal observation, which may assist in an understanding of the whole matter, and I will be very careful to give nothing unqualifiedly of which I am not personally certain.
Note. -- I have just found copy of a brief dairy kept by Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, Adjutant General of Longstreet's corps, from which I copy the following entries, showing movements of the infantry divisions more accurately:
"June 30th. -- Moved (from Chambersburg) for Greenwood, where we camped at night, Pickett being left back at Chambersburg.
"July 1st. - -Moved out from Greenwood on the Gettysburg road, passing through Cashtown and New Salem; arrive within two miles of Gettysburg; during the day A.P. Hill's corps is sharply engaged; also Ewell on the left. The enemy is driven steadily back, and the lines occupied by Rodes' division. McLaws, Hood, and the artillery are now moving up and Pickett is ordered from Chambersburg.
"July 2d and 3d. -- See Battle Reports of General Longstreet.
"July 4th. -- After the disasters of yesterday the morning opens very quietly, our troops occupying their original positions. There is not even the usual light skirmishing. Both armies appear thoroughly exhausted. Preparations are apparent for a backward movement by the right. The wagons are sent to Cashtown. The movement begins at dark, A.P. Hill leading and our corps following him in the order -- 1st. Reserve artillery; 2d. Pickett; 3d. McLaws; 4th. Hood. The troops move all night and the next day (5), when they camp in the afternoon near Monterey Springs. The retirement of our forces is not molested by the enemy. They evidently believed in building a golden bridge for a flying enemy."
Before daylight on the morning of the 3d I received orders to post the artillery for an assault upon the enemy's position, and later I learned that it was to be led by Pickett's division and directed on Cemetery Hill. Some of the batteries had gone back for ammunition and forage, but they were all brought up immediately, and by daylight all then on the field were posted. Dearing's battalion (with Pickett's division) reported sometime during the morning. The enemy fired on our movements and positions occasionally, doing no great damage, and we scarcely returned a shot. The morning was consumed in waiting for Pickett's division, and possibly other movements of infantry. While forming for the attack, I borrowed from General Pendleton, General Lee's chief of artillery, seven 12-pounder howitzers, belonging to the Third corps, under Major Richardson, which I put in reserve in a selected spot, intending them to accompany Pickett's infantry in the charge to have the advantage of fresh horses and men and full chests of ammunition for the critical moment, in case the batteries engaged in the preliminary cannonade should be so cut up and exhausted as to be slow in getting up. About 11 A.M. the skirmishers in A.P. Hill's front got to fighting for a barn in between the lines, and the artillery on both sides gradually took part until the whole of Hill's artillery in position, which I think was 63 guns, were heavily engaged with about an equal number of the enemy's guns for over a half hour, but not one of the 75 guns which I then had in line was allowed to fire a shot, as we had at best but a short supply of ammunition for the work laid out. In this connection note that the number of rounds which is carried with each piece in its limber and caisson is, including canister, about 130 to 150 -- about enough for one hour and a half of rapid firing. I am very sure that our ordnance trains did not carry into Pennsylvania a reserve supply of more than 100 rounds per gun additional, and I don't believe they had over 60 rounds to a gun. I have never seen the figures, but I was myself chief of ordnance of the army from August, 1861, to November, 1862, and was very familiar with the extent and capacity of the ordnance trains. When nearer Richmond we seldom had a reserve of over 50 rounds per gun, the difficulty of transportation always limiting us to the utmost economy in its use, and in the trains devoted to its carriage. Gradually the cannonade just referred to died out as it began, and the field became nearly silent, but writers have frequently referred to "the cannonade preceding the assault" as having begun at 11 o'clock and lasted for some hours, being misled by this affair. About 12 M. General Longstreet told me that when Pickett was ready, he would himself give the signal for all our guns to open (which was to be two guns from the Washington Artillery, near the center of our line), and meanwhile he desired me to select a suitable position for observation, and to take with me one of General Pickett's staff, and exercise my judgment in selecting the moment for Pickett's advance to begin. Complying, I selected the advanced salient angle of the wood in which Pickett's line was now formed, just on the left flank of my line of 75 guns. While occupying this position and in conversation with General A.R. Wright, commanding a Georgia brigade in A.P. Hill's corps, who had come out there for an observation of the position, I received a note from General Longstreet, which I copy from the original still in my possession, as follows:
"Hd. Qrs., July 3rd, 1863.
"If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise General Pickett to make the charge. I shall rely a great deal on your good judgment to determine the matter, and shall expect you to let General Pickett know when the moment offers.
"J. Longstreet, Lieutenant General.
To Colonel E.P. Alexander, Artillery."
This note at once suggested that there was some alternative to the attack, and placed me on the responsibility of deciding the question. I endeavored to avoid it by giving my views in a note, of which I kept no copy, but of which I have always retained a vivid recollection, having discussed its points with General A.R. Wright as I wrote it. It was expressed very nearly as follows:
"I will only be able to judge of the effect of our fire on the enemy by his return fire, for his infantry is but little exposed to view and the smoke will obscure the whole field. If, as I infer from your note, there is any alternative to this attack, it should be carefully considered before opening our fire, for it will take all the artillery ammunition we have left to test this one thoroughly, and, if the result is unfavorable, we will have none left for another effort. And even if this is entirely successful it can only be so at a very bloody cost.
"Very respectfully, &c.,
"E.P. Alexander, Colonel Artillery."
To this note I soon received the following reply -- the original still in my possession.
"Hd. Qrs., July 3rd, 1863.
"The intention is to advance the infantry if the artillery has the desired effect of driving the enemy's off, or having other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack. When that moment arrives advise General P., and of course advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack.
"J. Longstreet, Lieutenant General, Commanding.
"To Colonel Alexander."
This letter again placed the responsibility upon me, and I felt it very deeply, for the day was rapidly advancing (it was about 12 M., or a little later), and whatever was to be done was to be done soon. Meanwhile I had been anxiously discussing the attack with General A.R. Wright, who said that the difficulty was not do much in reaching Cemetery Hill, or taking it -- that his brigade had carried it the afternoon before -- but that the trouble was to hold it, for the whole Federal army was massed in a sort of horseshoe shape and could rapidly reinforce the point to any extent, while our long, enveloping line could not give prompt enough support. This somewhat reassured me, as I had heard it said that morning that General Lee had ordered "every brigade in the army to charge Cemetery Hill," and it was at least certain that the question of supports had had his careful attention. Before answering, however, I rode back to converse with General Pickett, whose line was now formed or forming in the wood, and without telling him of the question I had to decide, I found out that he was entirely sanguine of success in the charge, and was only congratulating himself on the opportunity. I was convinced that to make any halfway effort would insure a failure of the campaign, and that if our artillery fire was once opened, after all the time consumed in preparation for the attack, the only hope of success was to follow it up promptly with one supreme effort, concentrating every energy we possessed into it, and my mind was fully made up that if the artillery opened Pickett must charge. After the second note from General Longstreet, therefore, and the interview with Pickett, I did not feel justified in making any delay, but to acquaint General Longstreet with my determination. I wrote him a note, which I think I quote verbatim, as follows: " General: When our artillery fire is doing its best I shall advise General Pickett to advance." It was my intention, as he had a long distance to traverse, that he should start not later than fifteen minutes after our fire opened. About this time, too, to be sure that Richardson with his seven 12-pounder howitzers should be promptly on hand, I sent for him to come up through the woods and be ready to move ahead of Pickett's division in the advance. To my great disappointment I learned just as we opened fire, and too late to replace him, that General Pendleton had sent four of his guns, without my knowledge, to some other part of the field, and the other three had also moved off and could not be found. Probably, however, the presence of guns in the head of this column would only have resulted in their loss, but it would have been a brilliant opportunity for them, and I always feel like apologizing for their absence.
This note (which, though given from memory, I can vouch for as very nearly verbatim) I sent off at 1:30 P.M., consulting my watch. I afterwards heard what followed its receipt from members of the staff of both Generals Pickett and Longstreet, as follows: Pickett on receiving it galloped over to General Longstreet, who was not far off, and showed it to General L. The latter read it and made no reply. (General Longstreet himself, speaking of it afterwards, said that he knew the charge had to be made, but could not bring himself to give the order.) General Pickett then said: "General, shall I advance? "Longstreet turned around in his saddle and would not answer. Pickett immediately saluted, and said, "I am going to lead my division forward, sir," and galloped off to put it in motion; on which General L. left his staff and rode out alone to my position. Meanwhile, five minutes after I sent the above note to Pickett, the enemy's fire suddenly slackened materially, and the batteries in the Cemetery were limbered up and were withdrawn. As the enemy had such abundance of ammunition and so much better guns than ours that they were not compelled to reserve their artillery for critical moments (as we almost always had to do), I knew that they must have felt the punishment a good deal, and I was a good deal elated by the sight. But to make sure that it was a withdrawal for good, and not a mere change of position or relieving of the batteries by fresh ones, I waited for five minutes more, closely examining the ground with a large glass. At that time I sent my courier to Pickett with a note: "For God's sake come quick; the 18 guns are gone "; and, going to the nearest gun, I sent a lieutenant and a sergeant, one after the other, with other messages to same effect. A few minutes after this, Pickett still not appearing, General Longstreet rode up alone, having seen Pickett and left his staff as above. I showed him the situation, and said I only feared I could not give Pickett the help I wanted to, my ammunition being very low, and the seven guns under Richardson having been taken off. General Longstreet spoke up promptly: "Go and stop Pickett right where he is, and replenish your ammunition." I answered that the ordnance wagons had been nearly emptied, replacing expenditures of the day before, and that not over 20 rounds to the gun were left -- too little to accomplish much -- and that while this was being done the enemy would recover from the effect of the fire we were now giving him. His reply was: "I don't want to make this charge; I don't believe it can succeed. I would stop Pickett now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it," and other remarks, showing that he would have been easily induced, even then, to order Pickett to halt. It was just at this moment that Pickett's line appeared sweeping out of the wood, Garnett's brigade passing over us. I then left General Longstreet and rode a short distance with General Garnett, an old friend, who had been sick, but, buttoned up in an old blue overcoat, in spite of the heat of the day, was riding in front of his line. I then galloped along my line of guns, ordering those that had over 20 rounds left to limber up and follow Pickett, and those that had less to maintain their fire from where they were. I had advanced several batteries or parts of batteries in this way, when Pickett's division appeared on the slope of Cemetery Hill, and a considerable force of the enemy were thrown out, attacking his unprotected right flank. Meanwhile, too, several batteries which had been withdrawn were run out again and were firing on him very heavily. We opened on these troops and batteries with the best we had in the shop, and appeared to do them considerable damage, but meanwhile Pickett's division just seemed to melt away in the blue musketry smoke which now covered the hill. Nothing but stragglers came back. As soon as it was clear that Pickett was "gone up," I ceased firing, saving what little ammunition was left for fear of an advance by the enemy. About this time General Lee came up to our guns alone and remained there a half hour or more, speaking to Pickett's men as they came straggling back, and encouraging them to form again in the first cover they could find. While he was here Colonel Fremantle, of the Coldstream Guards, rode up, who afterwards wrote a very graphic account of the battle and of incidents occurring here, which was published in Blackwoods Magazine. A little before this, Heth's division, under Wilcox, had been advanced also, but I cannot recall the moment or the place where I saw them, but only the impression on my mind, as the men passed us, that the charge must surely be some misapprehension of orders, as the circumstances at the moment made it utterly impossible that it could accomplish anything, and I thought what a pity it was that so many of them were about being sacrificed in vain. It was intended, I believe, that Pettigrew should support Pickett's right flank, but the distance that had to be traversed in the charge got such an interval between the two that Pickett's force was spent and his division disintegrated before Pettigrew's got under close fire. I have always believed that the enemy here lost the greatest opportunity they ever had of routing General Lee's army by prompt offensive. They occupied a line shaped somewhat like a horseshoe. I suppose that the greatest diameter of the horseshoe was not more than one mile, and the ground within was entirely sheltered from our observation and fire, with communications by signals all over it, and they could concentrate their whole force at any point in a very short while and without our knowledge. Our line was an enveloping semicircle, over four miles in development, and communication from flank to flank even by courier was difficult, the country being well cleared and exposed to the enemy's view and fire, the roads all running at right angles to our lines, and some of them at least broad turnpikes which the enemy's guns could rake for two miles. Is it necessary now to add any statement as to the superiority of the Federal force or the exhausted and shattered condition of the Confederates for a space of at least a mile in their very center, to show that a great opportunity was thrown away? I think that General Lee himself was quite apprehensive that the enemy would "riposte," and that it was that apprehension which brought him alone out to my guns where he could observe all the indications.
Note. -- In Fremantle's account he tells of General Lee's reproving an artillery officer for spurring his horse severely when it shied at the bursting of a shell. The officer was my ordnance officer and acting adjutant, Lieutenant F.M. Colston, now of Baltimore, and the shying was not at the bursting of a shell, but, just at that time there was a loud cheering in the enemy's line, a little on the right, and General Lee requested Colston to ride towards it and discover if it indicated an advance. Colston's horse cut up because it did not want to leave my horse, the two being together a great deal on the march and in the camp. General Lee then spoke to him, as Fremantle narrates; and the cheering turned out to be given to some general officer riding along the Federal line.
In the above narrative I have given all the light I can throw on the subjects of enquiry in the 4th and 5th questions of 's letter, the 1st and 2d having been previously discussed. The 3d question relates to the lack of coordination between the attacks of the 2d July; and a similar lack of coordination is equally patent in the attacks on the 3d. I attribute it partially to the fact that our staff organizations were never sufficiently extensive and perfect to enable the Commanding General to be practically present every where and to thoroughly handle a large force on an extended field, but principally it was due to the exceedingly difficult shape in which our line was formed, the enemy occupying a center and we a semi circumference, with poor and exposed communications along it. I believe it was simply impossible to have made different attacks from the flanks and center of the line we occupied and over the different distances which would have to be traversed and which should be so simultaneous that the squeeze would fall on the enemy at all points at the same time. And in this connection, I think that the very position which we took and every feature of the three days' conflict shows the absurdity of a story told by Swinton, who is generally very fair and above giving anecdotes suitable only for the marines. He says that some of our brigades were encouraged to the charge by being told that they were to meet only Pennsylvania militia, but on getting very near the enemy's line they "recognized the bronzed features of the veterans of the Army of the Potomac," (I quote from memory) and were at once panic struck. Such stories are not only absurd, but, in a history, are in bad taste, having a tendency to provoke retorts. The above has been written in piecemeal in leisure moments during the past month, and with scarcely the opportunity to read it over, which must be my apology for its deficiencies; but as a narrative of what fell under my personal knowledge, it may assist -------- in understanding some of the points of his inquiries, and is at your service for that or any other purpose.
Very respectfully, yours,
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. IV. Richmond, Virginia, September, 1877. No. 3.