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“We Were There, Waiting—”

July 2024
5min read

The repulse of Pickett’s charge, described in a little-known account written shortly after the battle by a Union officer

One of the genuine but little-known classics of Civil War literature is a book called The Battle of Gettysburg , written by a Northern soldier named Frank Aretas Haskell. Haskell fought in the battle, and less than two weeks after the fighting ceased he wrote a detailed account of what he had seen and experienced and sent the manuscript to his brother, back in Wisconsin.


One of the genuine but little-known classics of Civil War literature is a book called The Battle of Gettysburg , written by a Northern soldier named Frank Aretas Haskell. Haskell fought in the battle, and less than two weeks after the fighting ceased he wrote a detailed account of what he had seen and experienced and sent the manuscript to his brother, back in Wisconsin.

Haskell had seen and experienced a good deal, for he was an aide on the stall of Brigadier General John Gibbon, commander of the and Division ol the Army of the Potomac’s Second Army Corps; and it was this division which held the ground against which the most famous assault in American military history was directed—the charge of 15,000 Confederates led by Major General George Pickett, on the afternoon of the third day of the fight. Haskell was at storm center throughout the action, and when he wrote his manuscript the heat of battle was still on him; the town of Gettysburg was still full of wounded men, and the fearful debris of battle still littered its fields.

The book had a curious history. Haskell’s brother offered the manuscript to the editor of a small-town paper, who found it far too long for his pages. Some fifteen years later the brother had it printed in pamphlet form, for private distribution. In 1898 an abbreviated version was published as part of the history of the class of 1854, Dartmouth College—Haskell’s own class. This version was reprinted in 1908 by the Conimandery of Massachusetts, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States; and the full, unabridged version was printed shortly thereafter under the auspices of the Wisconsin History Commission, in an edition of 2,500 copies. It quickly became a standard reference work for students of the battle, but the general reader rarely saw it.

Now, 94 years after it was written, The Rattle of Gettysburg is being made available to everyone, in an unabridged edition which is to be published shortly by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston. By special arrangement with this publisher, AMERICAN HERITAGE is presenting herewith an excerpt from that part of the book which deals specifically with the repulse of Pickett’s charge. (The book as a whole covers the entire battle, which lasted three days, from July 1 through July 3, 1863.)

Haskell himself never saw his narrative in print, for he did not survive the war. Born in Vermont in 1828, he had gone to Madison, Wisconsin, immediately after his graduation from college and had entered the practice of law. When the Civil War broke out he promptly enlisted, and on June 20, 1861, he was commissioned first lieutenant in Company I of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. This regiment was sent east that summer, and in the spring of 1862, along with the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana regiments (to which, a bit later, was added the 24th Michigan), it became a unit in what was to be one of the most distinguished combat outfits in the Army of the Potomac, the celebrated “Iron Brigade.”

This brigade was commanded by Brigadier General John Gibbon, a tough West Pointer in his mid-thirties, who promptly made Lieutenant Haskell an aide on his staff. The two served with the brigade in the battles of Gainesville, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietani, and in the fall of 1862, when Gibbon was raised to divisional command, he saw to it that Haskell remained on his staff. Haskell stayed with him through Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg and won both Gibbon’s professional admiration and personal affection. In his report on Gettysburg, Gibbon wrote that Haskell had distinguished himself in every battle “by his conspicuous coolness and bravery,” and added: “It has always been a source of regret to me that our military system offers no plan for rewarding his merit and services as they deserve.”

The reward came shortly after this. Gibbon was wounded at Gettysburg, and after serving for some months on the staff of the general who replaced him, Haskell was sent to Wisconsin and made colonel of the newly organized goth Wisconsin Infantry. In the spring of 1864 this regiment was assigned to the Army of the Potomac—Gibbon, by now restored to duty, arranged to get it in his division—and in the battle of Cold Harbor, on June 3, 1864, Haskell was killed leading his regiment in a hopeless assault on the Confederate entrenchments. Informed of his death, Gibbon remarked that he had lost his best friend and that the Army of the Potomac had lost one of its best soldiers.

The reader of Haskell’s narrative needs to remember that it was written without benefit of the backward glance and without those inevitable revisions that grow out of long reflection and fuller knowledge. Haskell expresses all of the prejudices which an ardent officer in a hot combat unit might be expected to have, both toward other units in his own army and toward the enemy against whom he was fighting. He had, for example, nothing but contempt for the luckless Eleventh Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac; it was badly maided at Gettysburg, just as had been the case at Chancellorsville two months earlier, and Haskell wrote it off as a half-hearted group. He also had scant use for such Union officers as Major General Daniel Sickles and Major General Abner Doubleday, and when he wrote about the battle he saw no reason to disguise his feelings.

In addition, Haskell was (naturally enough) red-hot lor the Union, and the Confederates were in his eyes no better than outright traitors. The word “Rebel,” as he used it, was meant as a word of bitter criticism, and although he was ready to admit that the Southerners were very valiant soldiers—no veteran in the Army of the Potoniac was in any doubt on that point—he was not disposed to give them credit for anything else.

In his book, Haskell covers the entire battle of Gettysburg, even though he himself missed the action of the first day.

The great three-day fight began shortly after dawn on July 1, on the ridges west of the town, when advancing Confederate infantry in Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s Third Corps collided with Union cavalry. Major General George Gordon Meade, who had just taken command of the Army of the Potomac, had his army spread out over a considerable area, trying to find Lee’s army and bring it to battle, and his First Corps, led by Major General John F. Reynolds, was nearing Gettysburg when the firing started. Reynolds brought his troops into town fast, got to the western ridges, and the battle began. Reynolds was killed, but his troops held their ground—Gibbon’s old Iron Brigade was in the thick of the action and suffered fearful casualties—and toward midday reinforcements arrived in the shape of Major General Oliver Otis Howard and the Eleventh Corps, which promptly took position north of town.

The fortunes of war were with the Confederates that day. Lee’s Second Corps, under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell—Stonewall Jackson’s old troops, these—came into town from the north and northeast, and since Confederate army corps were a great deal larger than Union corps (although there were fewer of them) Lee had a powerful numerical advantage. The Union First and Eleventh Corps were, driven from their positions with heavy losses, and as the day ended they took position on Cemetery and Gulp’s hills, south of Gettysburg, and awaited developments.

On July 2 Lee had most of his army on hand, while a good part of Meade’s was still on the road. Lee attacked Gulp’s Hill with Ewell’s corps, and struck the extreme left of Meade’s line, at the Round Top hills, with Lieutenant General fames B. Long-street’s corps, winning a good deal of ground and knocking the Federal Third Corps completely out of action, but failing to drive the Unionists from Cemetery Ridge, the rounded stretch of high ground that goes south from dominant Cemetery Hill. Both armies remained in position overnight, and when July 3 came it was clear to everyone that the climactic assault of the battle was in the making. At a conference late on the evening of July 2, Meade had remarked that if Lee attacked on the third he would strike Gibbon’s front.

That part of Haskell’s story which is printed here picks up the situation at dawn on July 3, with Gibbon’s division waiting on the crest of Cemetery Ridge for the action which everybody was sure would come.

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