A correspondent of the New York Herald furnishes the following interesting account of the desperate battle at Gettysburg on Thursday last:
The Position of the Rebels.
General Reynolds, it seems more and more clear, fought rashly on Wednesday, and very probably against the wishes of the commander of the army; yet this battle, which lost us many men, gave us full information of the whereabouts of the enemy's main body, and committed the enemy to the position north of Gettysburg, or perhaps led him to believe that we had a greater force in his front than we had, and so made him fear to make any such considerable movement as would be necessary to take up a new position in presence of this army.
At Gettysburg all the good roads in this part of the country converge. All the other roads, except those that meet here, are mere byways for the use of the neighborhood, narrow and soon cut up, and thus rendered unfit for the use of an army. Northward from Gettysburg run roads to Harrisburg, and southward from it run three good roads, the principal and best of which is the Baltimore turnpike. For any movement towards its own border, therefore, the possession of these roads which run to the south was necessary to the Southern army, and these roads, once in our possession, the position of the Southern army became critical; for should Lee attempt to retire by any other roads than these, we should have a shorter line to any point on his route, and could consequently hit him wherever we might choose; while if he should fight us without these roads and win, he would win, but little more than a way to get out, and if decisively beaten his defeat would be very disastrous.
Massing the Federal Troops.
General Meade, therefore, began from the first to mass his forces in such a manner as would enable him to hold these roads to the best advantage. South of the town the country is generally hilly; but there are three hills that deserve special mention, as they form the points on which our line is drawn - Cemetery hill, in the southern edge of the town; a nameless hill half a mile to the east of the Cemetery hill, and Sugar Loaf hill, directly south of Cemetery hill and about two miles distant from it. Between Cemetery hill and Sugar Loaf hill the country is open and level, and our men in that position faced directly west from Cemetery hill to the nameless one; we faced to the north, and between the latter and Sugar Loaf hill you looked to the southeast. Our position was there a somewhat irregular triangle, and its peculiarity was that, practically, it had no flanks; for in case of necessity the line could have swept around so that the extreme right and left would meet on the turnpike. Our line from Cemetery hill to the right was a rocky ridge, very thickly wooded; and here, during the early part of the day, some defenses were constructed under the direction of Generals Williams and Geary, of the Twelfth corps, which was posted at this place. Though many of those who helped to construct those defenses thought that they would, like countless others, amount to very little when the fight came, they proved eventually to be the utmost value.
Gen. Steinwehr occupied Cemetery Hill, which commands the town, while the fight raged on Wednesday, and at the close of that day's battle the remnants of the First and Eleventh corps were posted there and a little down the line to the right and left, and there they remained on Thursday at the commencement of the second battle. On the open country to our left lay the Second and Third corps, and the Fifth was so massed as to fill up the third line. The Sixth was put near to the Fifth when it came up.
On Cemetery Hill we had several batteries, and, indeed, every point that could possibly command a fire was crowned with a batter, for, in addition to the guns regularly attached to the corps, we had up the reserve artillery. Throughout the wide extent of the fields enclosed within our lines ambulances and ammunition trains were parked everywhere, and it proved that they were all under fire, for the field of fire of the rebel guns opposite our right met that of the rebel guns opposite our left, in this enclosed space, and shells exploded everywhere, and round shot hustled through the air in every direction.
The Situation of Thursday Morning.
After what had taken place on Wednesday, and with the knowledge of the force that had come up, there was good reason to believe, and all in camp did believe, that the day would be ushered in with the noise of battle. Day broke in quiet, however, and breakfast was taken in ease. Now and then there were little disputes between the enemy's pickets and ours in the streets of the town, for we held part and they part, and sometimes a gun in one of our batteries would send an experimental shell towards the enemy's lines. The enemy, through all this kept marvelously shy with his artillery, and did not fire a shot, which, it was thought, indicated a want of heavy ammunition.
During the earlier part of the day very little was known in respect to the enemy's movements, but it was thought to be clearly made out that he was massing his forces of our extreme right. In view of this, additional preparations were made to meet whatever might come in that direction - but there were some who thought from the first that the movements of the enemy towards our right were made only for show, and to distract attention from more important points; for such was the nature of the ground that had the enemy really wished to mass his forces there he could have done so without making a man visible.
All day more or less picket firing had taken place on our left, and it became pretty sharp between 2 and 3 P.M. Some movements were in progress behind this fire, and to develop these General Sickles was ordered to advance with the whole third corps. This advance brought on the general engagement. Under cover of the fire of a battery on the open field, the corps went forward in line of battle, corps and division and brigade colors all in the air, and the men in excellent spirits. Then the enemy's artillery, so long silent, began on our left at the pieces in the field. In turn our pieces on Cemetery Hill opened on those of the enemy in the field; other batteries of the enemy nearer our centre opened on Cemetery Hill, and so it went round until our batteries on the face of the hill engaged the enemy's batteries two miles across the country, on our right. The valley in which Gettysburg lies was one immense network, with the trace of shells from battery to battery.
Such a concentration of fire on our position naturally necessitated some movement of ambulances and ammunition wagons, and in ten minutes after this extensive duel began, the Baltimore turnpike was lined with vehicles in motion towards safer places. All sorts of shaky fellows also improved this opportunity to effect a slight skedaddle, and soon the column of men in motion towards the rear became more considerable than the column of vehicles. When men once begin to go each additional shell that explodes in the air above them makes them want to go faster, and owing to this peculiar constitution of the human animal, a stampede down the Baltimore road was imminent, when a line of men was established, and every fellow disposed to retire was forced to the front.
By this shelling the Cemetery hill was cleaned. All day it had been occupied by groups of men, and there groups of officers gathered together, inspected the positions, and canvassed the possibilities. Many men sat upon the graves, leaned against the tombstones, and recounted their various mischances. Orderlies came and went incessantly, for there Generals Howard and Steinwehr had their headquarters. Altogether, the City of the Dead was a very lively place, but very soon after the artillery fire became warm, it was deserted by all but the generals, whose headquarters were there, and the men necessary to hold the place.
Fighting on the Left.
Meantime, the musketry fire on our left seemed to become every moment more and more fierce. Already the Third corps had once been driven in disorder from ground it had won, but, rallied by Gen. Sickles in person, it had again gone forward and held its place with desperate tenacity against a very heavy force, for this advance on our left had developed that the enemy's force were in reality massed here; and when the Third corps took the initiative, it only precipitated an attempt on the part of the enemy which might otherwise come when we were not so well prepared to receive it.
Hard pressed on its whole line, the Third corps called for support, and at 5 P.M. the Fifth corps was marched from its position on the Baltimore turnpike, by a little cross road right across to the little hill just north of Sugar Loaf Hill, and went into action on the left of the Third corps. This advance developed still further the intention of the enemy, which was to get around our left flank, and so to get at the Emmittsburg road, and perhaps at our ammunition wagons near it.
As the division of regulars and Griffin's division of the Fifth Corps went forward, and before the fire had opened on their front, some fire swept from their left down the line, and the right brigade of the division of regulars was wheeled so as to face that way. No sooner had it done so than the fire in front opened, which then came in the rear of the right brigade, and threw it into some confusion, but it was rallied and went on again, and the line of the two divisions drove the enemy before it until it had taken the position previously occupied by one of the enemy's batteries.
Here a fire was concentrated on these two divisions from the batteries further to the rear, and at the same time the enemy was reported on their left. At once the line was ordered to retire, and went back steadily to the crest of the hill. This hill was not particularly precipitous, but on the front it was very rough and rocky, and the crest was covered with a growth of scrub oaks.
A Desperate Onset -- Rebels Repulsed.
It was half an hour before sunset, and now came the final great attempt with which the rebels usually endeavor to close up great engagements -- the attempt which certainly has in the larger number of instances been crowned with success. Here, however, it met a different fate. Two divisions, which proved to be Anderson's and McLaws', of Longstreet's corps, were formed for this great attempt, and came forward in their usual magnificent style. They had difficult ground to come over; but on they came, over rocks and through the low wood, until within a fair distance, when they made a rush with all possible yells roared out in one. They did not keep their line very even, but they were scarcely less impetuous as a mass than they would have been in line. They killed men on the crest of the hill over the crest, and men were even driven well down on the other side; but these rallied on those that held their places, and bullets were poured into the rebel mass by volleys. Checked, broken, beaten back by this one Titanic effort of the Fifth Corps, the attacking column was scattered down the hill, and the battle was over on the left, with the enemy completely beaten.
Further Accounts of Thursday's Battle
Battle Field South of Gettysburg, July 2 -- Midnight. -- For seven hours, without cessation, the Army of the Potomac has been tried by the fire. It has suffered terribly, but has beaten the enemy in the hardest fight it has yet seen.
General Meade, once fully aware of the enemy's whereabouts, determined to take his own time and mass his forces properly before fighting the great battle, and in that view did not assume an offensive attitude, but merely occupied a position and watched the enemy. Meanwhile corps by corps of our forces came up, until by noon to-day we had on the field the whole force with which we fought this battle.
But the enemy had other ideas as to the time when the battle should take place, and this afternoon some extensive movements towards our left were discovered, and Gen. Sickles was ordered to advance his whole corps, and was engaged from three til five P.M., and behaved admirably. Though driven back once, it was rallied by the general in person, and went on again, giving and receiving a very heavy fire.
Soon after five o'clock the Fifth corps went into action on the left of the Third corps. At that time, as for three hours previously, the cannonading was very heavy. Besides the guns in batteries regularly attached to different corps, we had on the field many batteries of the reserve artillery, posted on eminences at different points in the field, and these without guns on Cemetery hill, thundered tremendously. Rebel batteries were also at work in every direction, and as our lines form nearly a circle, shells from the rebel batteries on both our flanks exploded near the centre of our position continually, and made it a hot place.
But, as usual, the fighting at close quarters and the musketry fire were infinitely the most destructive, and this continued along the left for four hours. About seven P.M. one of those magnificent charges of infantry, so much favored in the rebel tactics, was made by the divisions of McLaws and Anderson. This advance was made by about fifteen thousand men formed in column of divisions, and was directed against our extreme left. Both columns, after they had almost grasped the victory, were repulsed by the Fifth corps.
The Sun's reports
These reports about the Battle of Gettysburg are reprinted from The Sun's editions of July 6, 1863. The type has been reset to enhance readability.
Pub Date: 09/19/99