William Wheeler Letter
Soldiers of the Civil War / Battle of Gettysburg Letters
This William Wheeler letter revisits his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg with remarkable detail and unique perspective. He was a Lieutenant in the 13th New York Independent Battery, Light Artillery at the battle and his account brings one right into the fight.
Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg
WARRENTON JUNCTION, VA., July 26, 1863.
DEAR GRANDFATHER AND AUNT, — You at home will I think begin to wonder where I am, and why I have not written home before, but if you had known how hard we have been at work and how constantly we have been marching, your wonder would change into surprise and thankfulness that I have not been used up entirely and that I am still able to do duty. As I am indebted to you both for letters, I take this opportunity to write you a double-barreled one, not knowing when I may have access to pen and ink with enough of quiet leisure to compose my ideas. From Boonesborough I dropped a line to mother, informing her of my safety up to that point, but was not able to give her any account of our doings and sufferings during the days of the battle of Gettysburg. I will now give you some description of those scenes from my point of view. After we had been quite refreshed by our halt in the pleasant camp on Goose Creek, and had, most luckily for us, got our horses into condition again, we marched, on June 25, to Edwards' Ferry, and the next morning crossed the river on our pontoons, and marched up through Poolesville and past our old Camp Observation, where I had had my first real experience of a soldier's life. The streets of Poolesville were full of people, almost all of them wearing the real old secesh scowl and I did not see a single United States flag displayed.
The artillery took a road for itself that day, in order not to be encumbered by the infantry, and we made a march of about thirty miles to reach Jefferson City, where we camped in long, wet grass, exposed to a heavy rain storm. The next morning my Battery marched with one brigade to Burkettsville, which lies at the foot of South Mountain, and was the scene of the battle of that name in last September, at which the heroic General Reno lost his life. Here we lived on the fat of the land, which is always one of the perquisites and advantages of going off with an independent force. The army had neither eaten out the country, nor raised the prices extravagantly, consequently spring chicken, fresh bread, milk, and butter were the order of the day. This pleasant state of affairs lasted only a day and we had to rejoin the Eleventh at Middletown, from which we marched, the same afternoon, for Frederick City.
Both at Middletown, and along the road, were numerous instances of enthusiastic and outspoken patriotism, which went right to our hearts, and made us feel full of fight; here a party of young girls and children stood and waved handkerchiefs and tiny flags; there a hotel or public building displayed a good expanse of red, white, and blue bunting; there a good old lady stood at her door with her servants, and dispensed cups of cold water to every thirsty soldier, while the gray-haired husband stood by her side, his eyes half filled with patriotic and sympathizing tears, and "Good luck to you boys, God bless you." Our whole march in the fertile and beautiful county of Frederick was delightful; indeed its prosperity and richness, the "peace on earth and good will toward men" that reigned there, seemed to us all to be a type of our bountiful and happy Union, while the devastated crops, the deserted homesteads, the bitter and hostile faces of Virginia which we had just left behind us, represented, not less truthfully, the hideous and destructive nature of Secession, as well as its results. The spirits of the whole army were superb. When we passed through the towns flags were displayed, music struck up, cheers rang along the column of march and when camp was made, after a toilsome march, singing was heard from the quarters of the weary, footsore soldiers.We passed through Frederick after nightfall, and did not see the place; the next day we marched to Emmettsburg and rested there, preparatory to the approaching conflict.
Early on the 1st of July we started for Gettysburg, about eleven miles distant. I was ordered to report with my Battery to General Steinwehr's Division, and thus got ahead of the other batteries, which were in reserve with the First Division. We were marching along, thinking of anything but an approaching fight, when suddenly one of General Howard's aids came galloping up and ordered me forward at double-quick. The roads were very stony, and my wheels were in very bad condition, but ahead I went; the gun-carriages rattling and bouncing in the air; feed, rations, kettles and everything else breaking loose from the caissons, the cannoneers running with all their might to keep up, for the road was so very rough, that I was afraid to have them mount, for fear of the repetition of the accident which befell us while trotting to Chancellorsville. For at least four miles the race continued, and I brought my whole Battery safely into position on the right of Gettysburg, but luckily did not have to fire immediately; my breathless cannoneers made their appearance one by one, and soon each detachment was full.
On the left, and in front of the town, there was brisk fighting going on. Reynolds (who was in command of our Corps and his own, the First) had pushed his men forward through the town, and was most rashly trying to drive a much superior enemy from the opposite heights. After passing through the town, we came into a hollow, consisting of farms, orchards, and ploughed land, completely commanded both by the Gettysburg heights and by those in the hands of the enemy, and it seemed to be fated that whoever ventured into that hollow was sure to be defeated. We tried it the first day, and Johnny Rebs the second and third days. Captain Dilger's Battery of our Corps was in front of the town, hammering away at a secesh battery on the heights; but, as he had only smooth bores, he was no match for his opponent and was getting cut up badly, so I was ordered forward to help him. I limbered up and went through the town at a trot, the ladies waving their handkerchiefs, and giving us all possible cheer and encouragement. I came into battery on Dilger's right, and soon showed the enemy that they had a three-inch rifled battery to contend with, and they had to shut up entirely. At about the same time the First Corps, which was on our left, succeeded in driving the enemy along the slope of the hill, and we scared them well as they ran.
At this moment everything looked auspicious, and Captain Dilger told me that he would move his Battery, under cover of mine, about five hundred yards further forward, in order to give his guns better play, and then that I should follow him and support him. This he did, and as soon as he got into position a dreadful fire was opened upon him, and I had the chief benefit of this as I moved up after him; all the shots fired too high for him fell into my Battery; one struck a driver of a gun and swept him and his two horses right away; strange to say, while both horses were killed, the driver only lost a leg! As we came near the place where we were to take position, we came suddenly on a very substantial fence which the men could not tear down, and we had to wait, under a very heavy fire, until axes could be brought from the caissons and a hole hewed through the fence. While waiting here, I saw an infantry man's leg taken off by a shot, and whirled like a stone through the air, until it came against a caisson with a loud whack. When we got into position we were again too much for the opposing battery, and were getting along finely, when suddenly, on our right, there issued from the base of the hill two great gray clouds, which moved steadily forward towards the infantry of our Corps.
At the same time the advance of the First Corps along the face of the hill was checked, and they were driven back. A fierce infantry fight began on our right; our men held a small wood, near the poor-house, with determination, and I turned one section of my Battery to the right and fired canister into the columns of the rebels, taking aim at their red battle-flags, which we knew only too well after the fight at Chancellorsville. This lasted for awhile, but the enemy had massed their infantry too heavily for us, and after losing tremendously our men had to withdraw. We held our position until the rebs had got almost in our rear, when we withdrew with our batteries to another position on the road, where we fired a few more canisters and then retired into the town. While crossing the fields, one of my guns was dismounted by a shot, and, after making the greatest efforts to get it off, I was obliged to leave it on the ground; but on the 5th of July, when we took possession of the entire field of battle, I went down with my blacksmith, mended the carriage, and brought the gun off in triumph.
We did not get into the town a minute too soon, as the enemy were there almost as soon as we were, and shot some of our men in the street. We passed through the town and took position on Cemetery Hill, which is a high bluff above the town, at the termination of its principal street. There was a lively musketry fight in the lower part of the town, which ended in the enemy's getting possession of several cross streets below, while our men held on to the upper part; and during the whole of the next two days there was a constant skirmishing from doors and windows. From the tops of some of the houses the rebs managed to get an aim at Cemetery Hill and picked off many a man from the batteries there.
The sun went down on the 1st July, leaving us where we were in the morning; that is, having gained the Gettysburg heights and having been repulsed in an attempt to gain the other heights; while General Reynolds had fallen a victim to his own rash attempt, and both Corps had been very seriously cut up. During the night our much needed reinforcements came up; the Second and Third Corps on our left and the Twelfth on our right, and we took a good night's rest, preparatory to the next day's work. The next morning there was brisk skirmishing all along the front, but only desultory shots from the artillery. At about two o'clock in the afternoon the artillery of the Second Corps became hotly engaged on the left, and our boys all stood on tiptoe to watch the contest. Just then General Howard rode along and said, "Never mind the left, boys; look out for your own front"; and sure enough, a few minutes afterward, we saw puffs of smoke, — which we knew well enough arose from the hills opposite to us, — then the boom of the guns and the bursting of the shells among us. They soon got an answer from us; we had nine three-inch rifled guns in a row there, from Hall's Second Maine Battery, Wiedrick's Battery, and mine. Beside these, there were the brass guns of Dilger's Ohio Battery, and "G" of the Fourth Regulars, although they were of more service at close quarters. We did not fire very rapidly, but every shot was aimed with deliberation and judgment, as my corporals were cool and skillful. The result was that in half an hour the enemy's fire slackened, as they had to move their batteries to get out of our fire. Soon they opened again, more fiercely than ever; but we quickly got their new range and punished them severely.
They placed one battery of very long range on our right flank, and completely enfiladed us; luckily for us they did not get the range for some time. A twenty-pounder Parrott battery was brought up from the Reserve, and this kept them very quiet. By 4½ P.M. my ammunition was exhausted, and Major Osborne, our new Chief of Artillery, relieved my Battery with another, and sent mine back to replenish; at the same time he asked me to remain with him and assist him in his very arduous duties, as he had charge of all the batteries on Cemetery Hill, and his regular adjutant was completely used up. This exactly suited me, as my blood was up, and I did not like the idea of going back with my Battery. Until nightfall I was hardly out of fire once, and I was raised to the highest pitch of excitement; the danger was so great and so constant that, at last, it took away the sense of danger. I placed several batteries on the hill, under the Major's orders, and at length I went back to the Artillery Reserve to bring up a supply of ammunition. While proceeding down the Taneytown road I was a witness of the tremendous attack upon the Third Corps, and of their breaking and fleeing, after a fierce conflict.
As this Corps held our extreme left wing at that time, my first thought was that all was lost, and that the enemy would push through to the Baltimore Pike and cut off the three Corps at the front; but I had underrated General Meade's capacity of husbanding his reserves and massing his forces. Hardly had the broken fragments of the Third Corps crossed the pike when the firing was renewed in the woods, and on the crest of the hill, where the whole Fifth Corps had been thrown in to reinforce the left wing, and a few minutes later, as if to make assurance doubly sure, I met the First Division of the Twelfth Corps going at double-quick for one of the cross-roads from the right to the left wing; and in case this should not prove enough, I saw another further back, among the woods, the dark masses of the Sixth Corps, the strongest corps in the army, waiting to be moved to any point. However, the dose administered by the Fifth Corps proved sufficient. Our line of battle was almost in the shape of a horseshoe, with the reserves on the inside, and these had to march only a short distance in order to reinforce any point threatened. I went back to the Major, and hardly had I got there when the enemy made a most desperate attack upon our extreme right, where a portion of the Twelfth Corps was intrenched.
This fight continued a good part of the night, and was renewed at day-light; but the point having been well reinforced, the enemy was repulsed with terrible loss. Late at night, I went down the Baltimore road, to the camp of the Artillery Reserve, to see that my Battery was put in shape for work early the next morning. Our Chief of Artillery, and all of us who commanded batteries, felt a little pride in keeping Cemetery Hill manned by Eleventh Corps Batteries as constantly as possible, although there were thirty batteries which had not fired a shot. I had a great hunt for ammunition, and even then did not find what I wanted, or what suited my guns; but I managed to get about fifty rounds apiece, (I should have had two hundred), and went back to the hill again. As on the previous day, it was brisk skirmishing along the front, some hard fighting in the town, and desultory artillery firing; but at about 1 P.M. Lee's one hundred pieces (I believe that he had more in position), opened all at once, and as far as noise went, it was the most terrible cannonade that I ever witnessed, and the air was literally alive with flying projectiles, from the six-pound solid shot, which looks like a cricket ball, to the long Whitworth rifled shot, which has probably given rise to the story of the rebs firing railroad iron.
My pieces stood in a peculiarly bad place, as they were at the foot of the hill, and got the fire from all three sides; but the enemy's artillery practice was not as good as it used to be, and the situation was not as deadly and dangerous as on Friday afternoon at Bull Run, or on Sunday morning at Chancellorsville. In this place I lost some horses but no men. The fire was still at its height, when a request came from General Hunt, Chief of Artillery, to Major Osborne to send him a battery for General Webb of the Second Corps, who feared an infantry attack. The Major handed me the order and off I went to the hill where the Second Corps was, just above General Meade's head-quarters, and reported to General Hancock, who showed me the position I was to take. As I came up and unlimbered on this crest, the rebels were within four hundred yards and were making a charge across our front upon a battery which stood at my right. Luckily for us, they did not see us until we had got into position, and had poured a couple of rounds of canister over the heads of our own infantry, who were lying behind a stone fence in front of us. Then they turned their attention somewhat to us and a battery of theirs opened very fiercely upon us, and made things very hot; but we paid no attention to their battery, and just kept the canister going into them.
Once a double round of canister struck close to their flag, and I saw a dozen of them drop, and the whole column wavered and halted; but the standard-bearer waved his flag and they moved on again, but in a weary and spiritless manner. Just at this moment what should the infantry in front of us do but get up and leave! The Battery seemed lost, but I got hold of some of them, told them not to let the Eleventh Corps' boys laugh at them, and in this way, first a squad, and then the whole regiment, was rallied and got back to the fence again, and about every reb who came up on to that hill was either killed, wounded, or captured. We then went back to our Corps and soon the fighting for the night was over. I went over a part of the battle-field that night, and did what I could to make the wounded comfortable; but very soon this seemed a hopeless undertaking; our wounded were removed in ambulances as fast as possible, but the rebel wounded, who were almost all of them in our hands, received extremely little attention, and lay scattered over the field in groups of twenty, fifty, or even a hundred, trying to help each other a little.
Our men could not help it; most of them were too much worn out to raise a hand, and the regular Ambulance Corps could not I begin to attend to our own wounded boys. I was glad to do a little something for them, even if it were only to turn them on their side, and give them a glass of water. Utterly as I detest a living active rebel, as soon as he becomes wounded and a prisoner I don't perceive any difference in my feelings towards him and towards one of our own wounded heroes. I suppose this is very heterodox, but I can't help it. I found a Colonel of a Mississippi Regiment shot through the breast, a man of stately bearing, and a soldier of his regiment told me that he was judge of the Supreme Court of that State. Now here was a man, evidently one of the real old original Secesh; but I forgot that, took him into a barn, made him a straw bed, fixed a pillow for him, got him a cup of coffee, and ignored the fact that he gave me no word of thanks or farewell when I left him. The scenes of the battle-field were very rough, and I will not trouble you with any description of them; I will only mention a rencontre, which I had with General Meade on Friday afternoon.
I was with my Battery at the foot of the hill, waiting for orders and expecting to be called upon to relieve one of our Corps batteries, when an elderly Major General with spectacles, looking a good deal like a Yale Professor, rode up and asked me if I had a full supply of ammunition. I told him that I had as full a supply as I could get on the field having been to the ammunition train with an order from Major Osborne, but without success: whereupon he got excited and said, "You must have ammunition; the country can't wait for Major Osborne or any other man; go immediately to the Artillery Reserve and order General Tyler to send up a wagon load." Now I might have told him that there was not a round of three-inch ammunition left with the Artillery Reserve, as I had been there myself shortly before; but something in his face warned me against answering back; so I put spurs to my horse, and got round the corner of a wood, where I stayed until he had left the premises and then came back, to learn that it was General Meade himself. And so the battle closed. We had repulsed the enemy at every point, with very great loss, had taken an immense number of prisoners (I saw several thousand with my own eyes, besides the wounded ones), and had remained in possession of the field, to say nothing of pursuing the enemy from the 5th until this day. I am sure that the importance and decisiveness of the victory cannot well be overrated. I have no time to tell you of our forced march back to Emmettsburg, Middletown, Boonesborough, and Hagerstown. The enemy's crossing under our noses, at Williamsport and Falling Waters, was a masterly maneuver, but I do not think that Meade is at all to blame for it.
Our marches since then have been severe, and the men are getting sick with bilious fever on all sides. Thus far I have borne up splendidly and have not been off duty for an hour. I hope and pray that I may continue as well. Major Osborne has forwarded a new demand for my commission to Governor Seymour, and accompanied the request with expressions of approbation, both toward me and the Battery, which have made me feel very proud. I have enjoyed the Major's society greatly. He is a gentleman and a soldier, a most energetic and gallant man, and he contributed greatly, by the management of his artillery, in restoring their lost prestige so brilliantly to the Eleventh Corps. I am now entirely without officers. I have applied for a commission for Henry Miller, my Orderly Sergeant. I hope in a month or two to get everything fixed up in good shape and to get two more guns . . . . . The time may vary a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, but the job will be settled and that all right too. I am, in this matter, like St. Paul's Charity, ready to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things for the cause, knowing that if we do so, we also, like Charity, shall never fail. This has been a most egotistical letter, but I know you want to hear about me, and not about the army in general or anybody else.
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