A First-Hand Description of the Battle of Gettysburg
Digital History ID 415
Josiah C. Fuller
When his forces drove northward into Pennsylvania, Lee assumed, mistakenly, that Union forces were still in Virgina. When he suddenly realized that Union forces were in close pursuit, he ordered his forces, which were strung out from Maryland to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to converge at Gettysburg, Pennsyvania, a central location where a number of roads met. Lee, who did not want to risk a battle until he had gathered all his troops together, ordered his men not to engage the enemy. But on July 1, 1863, a Confederate brigade ran into Union cavalry near Gettysburg and the largest battle ever fought in the West Hemisphere broke out before anyone realized what was happening.
On the evening of July 1, most of Lee's army of 75,000 reached Gettysburg. Meanwhile, most of the 90,000-man Union army of General George Meade (1815-1872) arrived at Gettysburg that same evening.
On July 2, Lee tried to attack Union positions from the left and right flanks, but northern troops repelled the attack. The next day, the Union army, which expected Lee to attack again on the flanks, reinforced its flanks. But Lee launched a frontal attack on the center of the Union lines, which came as a shock and a surprise. However, a frontal assault against a well-fortified defensive position on a hill was very unlikely to succeed. Some 15,000 Confederate troops, led by General George E. Pickett (1825-1875), marched three-quarters of a mile into withering Union rifle and artillery fire. Although about a hundred Confederate soldiers succeeded in temporarily breaking through the Union defenses, the northern lines held firm. When Lee finally ordered a retreat back into Virginia, it became clear that the Confederacy had suffered a disastrous defeat.
Nearly 25,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in action at the Battle of Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, Lee was never able to mount another major offensive.
Writing a day after the battle ended, a Union soldier describes the momentous events of the preceding three days.
My own dear wife. I am "sitting on a rail" but can hardly realize this 4th of July. Am all wet with sweat and don't feel good on that account. Tis so sticky and disagreeable, otherwise I am first rate, and we can hurrah with good grace, for yesterday, we gave the rebs a severe drubbing and have Genl. Hill and from 5 to 10,000 prisoners. Genl. Barksdale (Reb) is dead. This morning everything is quiet and report says the Johnnies have left. The prisoners seemed to be scattered all about and many no doubt have got back. We took the whole of Pickets Division prisoners. Day before yesterday it was terrible fighting.
The rebs tried to turn our left and get possession of a road we came on and thus have a full play on our trains. It was a terrible attack and only hard fighting and stubborn resistance that prevented. We were obliged to move Hd Qtrs 2 times that afternoon on account of shell and shot coming among us. The 32nd came along that Thursday afternoon. We saw them as they past and in a half an hour some were going back wounded. Yesterday we moved up to the same ground Hd. Qtrs. were on the day before. We were told that at two o'clock or later the shot and shell would fly in there thick and fast as the rebel line of battle with their batteries was in plain sight opposite and but a half mile distant. But no orders came to move, or be ready to move. I was asleep on the ground and a large part of the company were in the same situation when wizz, bang, burr, chug came the solid shot and shell thicker than I ever knew before. I roused up and took my sword and belt off the stack of arms and told the men to hurry up and while buckling on my belt and sword I turned away to see where the Genl. and his staff were or what they were going to do, and when I had put these on, turned to the company and the most of them had gone and the wagons with them. Our own team had not got out, and I told John to turn them round and put to the rear and right the sooner to get out of range and moved Hamilton's chair out of the way. By this time all had gone and I started to find and get them together again carrying H-, chair.
Soon came upon the red wagon (the Genls.) and got 8 or 10 men together. After we had got out of range and in a safe place I ordered them with H to remain there while I went back to where we were to see what in the men's haste had been left behind and if any of the men had been hurt. I went clear back and picked up some things left behind by the men and got safely back. The red wagon had moved and I had some trouble in finding it, and was actually compelled to lay down and rest. I never was before tired as I have been. I did not run a step of the way, but it was terribly hot, and I was lugging a gun and 2 canteens and a haversack and bottle of tamarinds or pickles. I had picked up the last I shall look at by and by, the others belonged to the men. I do not think I was frightened and was not obliged to go back but being a little ashamed of the way the compy. left and not knowing but some of them might be killed or wounded, I thought it best to go see. I certainly did think of home and you all & on your account prayed to be spared. Very near did cannon balls come to me and pieces of shell flew within two feet certain of my head. Some shells burst with a report like a cannon right over head, and as I was coming back the second time, a percussion shell struck the ground a little way ahead and exploded throwing the pieces singing through the air.
The Genl was off to the rear soon as any one and had his horse shot in the rump & had to leave him. H- had a horse and George started with it, but an artillery man took it away from him. H. may get it again. The town of Gettysburg was occupied by our forces this morning and the rebs left so suddenly they could not parole our wounded men they had possession of, and we took many of the Johnnies prisoners. It has been terrible fighting and great loss on both sides. I fear we are too crippled or short of ammunition to follow up the rebs in their retreat. Our Reg't had yesterday forenoon, Col. and Lt. Col. and Major wounded. Capt. Tay, and Dana and Shepherd ditto and other Officers and men ditto. Lt. Barrows...killed and only one or two others that I could find out certainly about.
All the Plymouth men in company E were well. I saw Mr. Eleazer Shaw carrying along the body of Lt. Barrows to bury. I did not understand that the Col. or Lt. Col. were very seriously wounded. Genl. Sickles lost a leg. Genl. Reynolds very recklessly exposed himself (tis said) and is killed. The wounded are every where. I looked into the hospital of two or three different Corps and saw amputation going on and cutting out pieces of shell and musket balls, and though all were suffering and lying around in stable yards, on barn floors, under trees, beside fences and in every place where there was a chance to lay or sit a man. I did not hear so much noise as May used to make in having a tooth out. Just think if you should go up to Uncle John's and see his barn and sheds and outhouse, orchards and yards full of men wounded in every sort of way, and that is as it looks in more than a hundred barns near here. The only difference they would not suffer for water in Plympton and they do not in some places here. There are many lying around yet with their wounds not yet dressed....
Don't worry about me. I am safe and well so far and we will trust to God for the future. Worrying will do no good. Look out for all at home and wait.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Captain Josiah C. Fuller to his wife
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