Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson


As the Army of the Potomac moved northward in late June 1863 to counter the Army of Northern Virginia’s invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, it passed by the battlefields of Manassas. Samuel W. Fiske, a brigade staff officer in the Second Corps, noted that he was "much shocked to find such great numbers of the bodies of Union soldiers lying still unburied" nearly ten months after the battle of the previous August. "Their skeletons, with the tattered and decaying uniforms still hanging upon them, lie in many parts of last year’s battle field, in long ranks, just as they fell; and in one place, under a tree, was a whole circle of the remains of wounded soldiers, who had been evidently left to die under the shade of which they had crawled, some of them with bandages round their skeleton limbs, one with a battered canteen clasped in his skeleton hand, and some with evidence, as our boys fancied, of having starved to death."[1] Yet, one year after the Seven Days, and with Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and scores of lesser engagements behind them, men were marching toward battle once again.

The clash of armies at Gettysburg commenced the day after Fiske penned his observations. That afternoon a British observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, arrived at the scene of the opening engagements west of the town. Past him streamed wounded from the fighting, "some hobbling alone, others on stretchers carried by the ambulance corps, and others in the ambulance wagons," in many cases "stripped nearly naked" and displaying "very bad wounds." Yet these sights "produced no impression whatever upon the advancing troops, who certainly go under fire with the most perfect nonchalance."[2] That evening Samuel Pickens, an Alabama infantryman who had been in the fighting north of the town, arrived at a field hospital and was horrified at what he saw. "There were the poor wounded men lying all over the yard, moaning & groaning, while in the barn the terrible work of amputating limbs was going on, and the pallid limbs lying around presented a most disagreeable sight."[3]

The battle was renewed in earnest on the afternoon of July 2 along the Union left. In hours to come places such as the Rose family’s farm and wheatfield, Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard, an outcropping of rocks known as Devil’s Den, and a rocky hill called Little Round Top would become part of American memory. One Union officer who fought on the Rose farm, Francis Adams Donaldson, saw "vast numbers of dead and wounded" lying on the slopes and base of Little Round Top the next morning: "to make the sight more horrifying, wild hogs were seen feeding on some of the badly torn bodies."[4] Dead and wounded soldiers were also on the slopes of Cemetery and Culp’s Hill at the other end of the Union line, and even as Donaldson surveyed the terrain in front of him, men were fighting once more at Culp’s Hill.

Early on the afternoon of July 3, the Confederates launched yet another attack, this time on the Union center deployed along Cemetery Ridge. After a fierce cannonade designed to weaken the defenders at the point of attack, about 13,000 men advanced eastward. Awaiting them were Union soldiers, many of them with thoughts of revenge for the slaughter at Fredericksburg in their mind. "We let the regiment in front of us get within 100 feet of us," recalled Captain Henry Livermore Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts, and "then bowled them over like nine pins, picking out the colors first. In two minutes there were only groups of two or three men running around wildly, like chickens with their heads off."[5]

So went the story up and down the ridge. Fremantle, riding up minutes after the Confederates had commenced their assault, "soon began to meet many wounded men returning from the front; many of them asked in piteous tones the way to a doctor or an ambulance." The stream of wounded soon became a river: "Some were walking alone on crutches composed of two rifles, others were supported by men less badly wounded than themselves, and others were carried on stretchers by the ambulance corps." Fremantle made his way to Confederate general James Longstreet, who supervised the attack, only to learn from the general himself that it had failed.[6]

It rained on July 4. That afternoon the Army of Northern Virginia began retreating from Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac would soon follow it. Left behind, however, were thousands of wounded and dying men. Arriving at Gettysburg on July 6, nurse Cornelia Hancock toured the field. "There are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed today," she wrote to her cousin. "The men lie on the ground; their clothes have been cut off to dress their wounds; they are half naked" and had little to eat. Not all of the wounded were Union soldiers; Hancock encountered "lots" of Confederate wounded "suffering fearfully." Amputations of arms and legs were the order of the day, and Hancock told her sister that she had become used to watching the surgeons at work: "I feel assured I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter."[7]

Even as Hancock wrote, photographers were arriving to capture images of the dead on the battlefield. Within weeks David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg lawyer, would set in motion a proposal to rebury the Union dead on the slopes of Cemetery Hill. Many of the wounded remained at Gettysburg for some time, surviving or dying at an army hospital located to the east of the town. Bodies were buried and reburied, or sent home.

It would be left to a lone figure standing against a November sky to try to make sense of what had happened across the fields of Gettysburg that July. As he helped dedicate the new cemetery that autumn afternoon, he believed that his own words meant little when it came to setting aside the soil before him: "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." Rather, it would be left to the living "to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced … the great task remaining before us" to make sure "that these dead shall not have died in vain."[8]          

[1] Samuel W. Fiske to the Springfield Republican, June 30, 1863, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 290.

[2] Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Diary, July 1–4, 1863, ibid., 293.

[3] Samuel Pickens, Diary, July 1–3, 1863, ibid., 309.

[4] Francis Adams Donaldson, Narrative of Gettysburg, July 2–3, 1863, ibid., 321.

[5] Henry Livermore Abbott to Josiah Gardner Abbott, July 6, 1863, ibid., 335.

[6]Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Diary, July 1–4, 1863, ibid., 300–01.

[7] Cornelia Hancock to Her Cousin, July 7, 1863, and to Ellen Hancock Child, July 8, 1863, ibid., 341–42.

[8] Abraham Lincoln, Address at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863, ibid., 566–67.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University