Elisha Rice Reed: General Lee at Gettysburg

Elisha Rice Reed: General Lee at Gettysburg

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      This essay by Elisha Rice Reed, who fought at Gettysburg with Company H. of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, was written after the fact (probably at the end of 1863). By the time of Gettysburg Reed had already served as a prisoner of war in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Salisbury, N.C. Not surprisingly, his battlefield diary is considerably more succinct than both the journal he kept as a prisoner of war and this essay. "Marched about 6 or 7 miles and our brigade charged double quick on the enemy and drove them from the woods. . . . I was hit three times. Afternoon they drove us. I was shot through both thighs and fell to the rear. But the enemy took the position and I found myself a prsioner of war," wrote Reed of his participation in the first day's battle at Gettysburg. "Heavy firing nearly all day," was his only observation of the final day of the battle, though he witnessed it from the extraordinary vantage point of the tower of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Finally, two days after the battle, paroled (released) in the field, he wrote, "Rebels are gone. I put on my clothes and went . . . up town." The essay printed here offers a fascinating firsthand account of the battle and is epecially notable for Reed's description of the Confederate officer's enraged reaction to Pickett's Charge.

      This document is reproduced in its original form; spelling, grammatical, and usage errors are maintained.

      General Lee had his forces well in hand and was approaching Gettysburg from the west and northwest. General Meade's army was scattered over a large extent of territory;—but he had his "feelers" out in the shape of cavalry under General Bufort. These feelers found General Lee's army in strong force approaching from the west; and immediately dispatched an Aid to Gen. Reynolds to hurry up the 1st Corps, which was the only one in the immediate vicinity. Reynolds was approaching from the south, and at once filed left oblique through fields of standing grain to the point designated, which was McPherson's woods. Arriving at the woods he swung the first brigade—known as the "Iron Brigade" forward into line and charged the woods. In that charge we lost heavily, but we captured Gen. Archer and 600 of his men and drove the rest from the woods. The 2nd Brigade at our right or north of us, did a like brilliant thing and captured the —th Mississippi regiment.

      In the afternoon the balance of the 1st Corps and the 11th Corps under General Howard came up and took positions. About 3 p.m. Lee had massed an overwhelming force and came upon us and drove us from the field. He drove us back past the Lutheran Theological Seminary on Seminary Ridge, through the town of Gettysburg to the foot of Cemetery Ridge. There he halted. He had captured the town, which was his objective point. He then moved the balance of his army up into position and prepared to attack Meade the next day. In the mean time Meade's scattered Corps were coming in and taking positions on Cemetery Ridge. This ridge runs nearly north and south,—connecting Culp's Hill on the north with little and big Round Tops on the south. Culp's Hill circles to the rear or to the east, forming a bend like a fish hook and is what is called in military parlance "refused", or turned back. Meade occupied the whole of this fish-hook from Culp's Hill to the Round Tops, with the 1st Corps on Culp's Hill and the 3rd Corps under General Sickles at the Round Tops. The other Corps as then came up filled the spaces between.

      Now, the distance from Culp's Hill to the round tops is not to exceed four miles. Meade could throw half his army over to the support of either his right or left wing in a march of less than four miles; and this could be done by moving back under the hill, wholly unseen by Gen. Lee. Lee occupied all the territory to the westward, but had no means of concealing his movements except the cover of darkness at night. Lee tried to make a flank movement at night and turn Meade's right as Jackson did Howard's at Chancelorsville. But he found Meade's right already turned back, and he came up square face to face with the 1st Corps and had to fall back. He then tried to turn Meade's left and found the 3rd Corps under Sickles on guard there and was again compelled to fall back. He then resolved to make a bold dash and "rush the center". Pickett was chosen as "Center Rush", and he rushed with disastrous results.

      Now let us return to McPherson's woods.

      When Lee came upon us in the afternoon of the first day in McPherson's woods we had not fallen back very far before I was shot through both legs. No bones were broken and I "limbered to the rear" rapidly. I got back into the Seminary and both armies swept past me and left me a prisoner of war. On the afternoon of the third day I happened to be up in the cupola of the Seminary and had a good view of Picket's charge. There was also a rebel Lieu't in the cupola. A dozen Yanks in the cupola rejoiced exceedingly when they saw the result, but the rebel Lieu't saw nothing to make him rejoice. He went below and "told the boys". The boys rejoiced with a loud noise. Then the rebel Lieu't came in, slowly, sadly, and silently. We were in the Chapel—the largest room in the building. The Lieu't walked around for some time,—looking at no one—speaking to no one. Finally, like the "pent up thunders in the earth beneath" he broke forth in a raging torrent of long suppressed wrath. Imagine if you can an enraged southern fire-eater pouring out volcanic clouds of vigorous and vehement volumes of profanity—calling Lee a fool—with all the profane adverbs and adjectives qualifying fool—for undertaking to dislodge Meade from that position over there. He can't do it,—and he knows he can't do it: then why in hell does he try to do it. Then he went on to state the situation: Lee's position there and Meade's position over there. "Lee had tried to turn Meade's right and he could not do it: he tried to turn his left, and he couldn't do it. He knew that Meade had the whole entire army of the Potomac there on a line less than four miles long: and when he sent Pickett on that charge he knew he was sending those men into a rat-trap from which they could never get out. Every man that broke through Meade's line is there yet,—and will stay there. Lee knew that Meade had men enough to kill or capture every man that broke through his line and he did it: Meade had seven Corps, and Picket only one, besides a great advantage of position." He swore there was not a private soldier in the whole Confederate Army but would know better than to undertake to dislodge Meade from such a position. In short,—it was evident to him that somebody had blundered.


Source: Writings of Elisha Rice Reed from the archives of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

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Universalium. 2010.

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