Jamie's Gettysburg Letter
This letter from Jamie to Mary is his longest. The story he tells was experienced by thousands of young men at Gettysburg on those terrible days in July of 1863.
July 30, 1863
We arrived at this place this morning and are told it will be our home for a while, and we are to set up a permanent encampment. We are now waiting for our tents and supplies to be delivered, and we are taking the time to rest and bathe and clean ourselves as best we can. We have been marching and fighting for more than six weeks and it is impossible to describe the exhausted and worn out state we are in. There are some in my regiment with no decent clothes to wear, many with no shoes. For the last three weeks we have been up at 3 a.m. and marching by 5. When we stop for the night, we are issued our rations - usually raw meat, salt pork, and hardtack, but we do not have time or energy to cook. We are hot, tired, hungry, and all used up. There is much for a Sergeant to do, but I have set aside the afternoon to write to you and I will do so. This letter will be the one to say all the things I have not had the opportunity to say before.
I have not received any letters from you on this march. If you have written, the letters have not reached me. I wonder if you still think of me. If you still think of me as I was that day I met you on the road, you would be surprised to see me now. I am not the same man as I was. Too much has happened to me. I scarcely recognize myself. I have become thin and tough and harder than I ever would have thought. I am a soldier now and a killer, and men come to me for advice and decisions. It is only a matter of time before they find I am only a poor farmer who does not know anything.
I wonder if you are still interested or care about our story. I will set it down, and you may do whatever you wish with this letter.
You know how we marched for nearly three weeks to reach Pennsylvania. I think I last wrote to you from Emmitsburg in Maryland. I shall begin our story there. On July 1, most of our Corps was sent on quick orders to join the fighting begun that day beyond the town of Gettysburg, which was about eight miles away. They left our Emmitsburg camp in the early afternoon. Our Brigade and Colonel Burling's New Jersey Brigade were left behind to keep the roads clear. We camped that night on the grounds of St. Joseph's Convent, which is a girls' boarding school. The Sisters were very curious and awed to see such martial activity in their peaceful gardens. Before dawn however, we were ordered to march to Gettysburg as well, and with strong determination we set out for the battle to come.
By late morning, we had passed on the road close to the front where snipers fired on us, and turned east into an orchard and a wheat field south of the town of Gettysburg. General Sickles had spread the 3rd Corps over this line. Our regiment was moved back from it to a place in a small wood to act as reserve. We would be thrown into any breach along the line as needed. Soon enough we were needed when a full scale attack came at us up a small ravine between two hills at the far left of our line. This area was very thinly defended and yet very badly needed, and under command of Colonel Egan, Major Warner, and Captain Piatt of the 4th NY, we charged the enemy in our turn. Our objective was to save Captain Smith's Battery at the foot of a pile of rocks called The Devil's Den. Captain Smith had only three guns left and was trying to keep the enemy from gaining the high ground to his east - a hill called Little Round Top. His position was being overrun and the situation was desperate.
We formed up and marched across a large open field, then accelerated to a general charge towards the Rebs at Devil's Den. Within a short time the fighting had reduced itself to bayonets and hand to hand fighting. I did my share without more than one or two thoughts (I confess) for my own safety. I tried to keep my command together, but it was difficult among the rocks and trees. With friends falling all around me, my resolve became clear - first to protect them, and then to avenge them. In the next half-hour I hardly remember how many I killed. I remember climbing over rocks to stab a man in gray with my bayonet before he could reload. I remember wedging myself between two trunks of a tree and shooting at men below me. I remember wrestling with a Reb and tearing his gun from his hands and bashing him in the head with it. At one time, a man on the ground cut at my leg with his knife and I fired into his face. I was crazed and I will not try to explain it. Major Warner was severely wounded, and Captain Piatt's horse was killed under him. I saw him fall.
After a while I suddenly realized I was alone among the rocks and the dead. I had used up my ammunition and took a moment to raid the cartridge boxes of some of the fallen nearby. I also picked up a pistol I found and loaded it as well with bullets from the pocket of its dead owner. Then I went out in search of my regiment. I guess I never heard the order by which they had pulled back.
Before I found the Mozarters, I came upon the 3rd Michigan, from our brigade, who were beginning a move toward the wheatfield to relieve de Trobriand and the 5th Michigan who were being pounded there. They told me they thought the rest of my regiment was up ahead - and eventually I did find my company, although the regiment was broken up. I was swept along and found myself in the thick of it again. I remember so clearly the scenes of that next hour, the grain field so beaten down and churned up, equipment and fallen men littering the ground, blood staining everything. As I fired, I tripped over the bodies of Rebs, so I knew they had advanced this far and had been driven back. They came at us again with such fierce recklessness that I was awed. It seemed as if, to them, the entire war rested on whether they took that wheat field. I was certain my time on this earth was at an end and I resolved to it, but somehow I was spared. In the end, we let them have that field, but we extracted a great price for it.
As at Chancellorsville, we found
ourselves too far advanced and in danger of being cut off by the Rebs,
who were now nearly behind us on both sides. Gen. de Trobriand ordered
us to reverse our front to the rear, and we retreated as best we could
to the safety of the wood where we had started the afternoon. We were
moving by ones and two's by now, as most of our comrades had fallen. I
stopped to give water to some wounded but was unable to help them.
Marksmen were still shooting over the field and our orders were to move
on. This was very, very hard for me.
We were allowed fires and coffee and food for the first time all day. We talked of events and those we had seen fall. They said that General Sickles himself had fallen that day and been taken from the field. I have since learned that his leg was amputated. Colonel Egan was wounded in the leg and his horse killed under him. We waited and hoped that more friends would find us as the night wore on. I myself slept that night as if I were dead and dident dream.
By morning we knew we were in for another day of hard fighting, but the ball did not commence until around 1 p.m.. When it started, it became the loudest, most furious cannonade I have ever witnessed. They tell me there were 140 cannon aimed at us, and we answered with 80 of our own - all shooting at once and all seemed to be aiming directly at me. We spent two hours lying still and trying to be very thin. The ground shook and the heavens exploded continuously. Shells, shot, and balls were falling all around us, and we had no protection other than a few rocks and some trees fallen in the bombardment. Three men near me were blown to pieces in one burst. At first, I thought I had been hit as well, such was the shock. But I discovered the blood was not my own. It was at about this time that Dusty was hit. I did not see it happen but I was told about it afterwards. They took him away on a stretcher and I have not seen him since. They said his foot and arm were hit.
At around 3 p.m., our cannons quieted and soon theirs quieted as well. Then a most awesome sight presented itself to us. The Rebs formed one long front across the fields between our lines, as many as 18 thousands of men, and commenced to come at us in formation. This was under the command of a General Pickett. I am hopeful I will never have to fight under the tactics of such a man. We watched them approach with their skirmishers in the front. I couldent but be awed at seeing so many men in attack formation all at once. I had only seen battles from a small view before this.
As they approached, our batteries began to fire on them and tore holes in their lines with terrible accuracy, but they continued to charge. When they were within 150 yards of our entrenchments near the foot of the ridge, the 2nd Corps opened musket fire upon them with sheets of flame. They fell and rolled forward like a wave breaking against the rocks. Our vantage point was up above and somewhat to the left, and we could see it all. They came at our lines, and such was their ferocity that they broke through and fought hand to hand for our first line of artillery. We watched in horror and amazement the carnage taking place below us. Then, under General Hancock himself, the 19th Massachusetts charged down the lines to the scene and succeeded in capturing back the guns. They took many prisoners at that moment, and many Rebs, turning to flee, were shot down as they ran. We could see their bodies mounding up in piles of writhing, screaming men. I was sickened at the sight and couldent watch more.
That night, just before dark, we were ordered to move down onto the field to secure it. The moon was very bright and we moved among the terrible piles of dead and wounded to picket and sleep among them. We could hear the pitiful cries of the wounded lying just beyond our reach, but with the enemy so near, we were unable to come to their aid. I tried to crawl out to some of them, but my movement immediately drew fire and we were all sternly ordered to remain still. I am not ashamed to tell you I cried myself to sleep that night between pools of blood and the cries of men I came to know.
In the morning began the work of the ambulance corps. The enemy pickets seemed to be gone, and we ventured onto the field unmolested to rescue whomever we could find still alive. I could not find the two men I had spoken with in the dark. I suppose they were both among the silent dead. Those who could speak told us stories of what had passed in the night, of blue and gray sharing canteens and taking turns comforting those who fell into their final sleep. The dead seemed horribly lacerated, and where they lay, singly, in pairs, or in piles, they mutely told the story of the previous day. I was detailed to head a squad picking up and stacking weapons scattered over the field. There were thousands of guns. I picked up guns from the stiffened hands of dead men, from under their torn bodies, from bloodied ground where they had been dropped or flung. I never will forget the things I saw. How many ways there are for men to suffer.
We returned to our line at the top of the ridge and found it had become the staging place for the wounded. Since our wounded were being taken away to the rear first, we found ourselves visiting among the Rebel wounded, giving them water, food, and help as best we could, and talking with them. Most were quiet and resigned in their defeat and expressed the one wish that the war should be over soon. Many said they had been conscripted against their will, and many admitted it would be only a matter of time before the North would triumph.
That night we slept unsheltered in the rain, and next morning we discovered that Lee had pulled out. So began our own move to chase him.
Our own 3rd Corps had born a great deal of the fighting and we had been reduced to only about 6 thousands of men, down from 10 thousands at the start of the battle. We now have General French's division assigned to our Corps to replace our losses. But they have a poor record for fighting, and they are not welcomed into our ranks with any enthusiasm. To be fair, no one could ever replace our good friends who have fought with us and fallen. French himself has proven to be a fool and an imbecile, as you shall hear.
We were a little late getting started after Lee's army. Meade dident order the pursuit for a day or more. We went at the double quick for several days and came up with Lee at the Potomac River, which was too high for him to cross. That night, we prepared for a battle on the morrow. But when dawn came, we found the river had receded just enough for Lee to cross and he was away. We followed him, crossing at Harper's Ferry. He went down the Shenandoah Valley while we skirted the Blue Ridge mountains. Finally, about a week ago, we came to a gap and had the perfect opportunity to cross the mountain range and intercept him. Every fighting man in our division knew what should be done, almost without having to think about it. But General French messed it up with poorly thought out movements, poor communications, and inexperienced subordinates. He put on a very fine demonstration of stupidity. In a few hours, the enemy had slipped past and the opportunity was gone. None of us have any respect for that man now. And he heads our Corps.
Well, that is my sad tale. I will attach a list I have been compiling of men from the old 101st who have fallen in this most recent battle. We came to the 40th with a roster of 238 men, although only about a hundred were in condition to fight. We are very much reduced, as you shall guess. Our boys have proven to be bold, courageous, and noble fighters. You should be proud of them.
Casualties from the old 101st NY who fell at Gettysburg Pennsylvania, July 2 and 3, 1863.
Co. A: Pvt. Sebastian Heckel, Syracuse,
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