28k. War’s End?

1 July 1863 6 PM:

This very long hot day would soon be coming to an end. Although he had no maps to guide him, BG Alexander Hays in command of the 3rd Division of the Second Union Corps knew that he had to be close to his destination. Looming off to his left was a huge stack of boulders and trees that unbeknownst to him, the locals called Big Round Top. It was nearly 6 PM, 2nd Corps had been marching since dawn having started just south of Westminster Maryland; he was now the vanguard of that Corps as it approached Gettysburg Pennsylvania. He passed into the deep shadow of the rocky hill, the sun having set behind it already. As he emerged on the other side, a dispatch rider was approaching from the north. Finally, contact. Since leaving GEN Meade’s HQ at Taneytown hours ago, he had seen no other signs of life except the 11,000 men strewn out for miles behind him. They had been following the road that could only take them to Gettysburg and it couldn’t be far now.

The dispatch rider brought his horse to a halt, saluted and said, “General, LTG Hancock instructed me to deliver this to the first general officer I encountered.” With that, he handed over a leather wrapped packet. “Good, son, get you and your horse some water. How far had you ridden?” 

“Not far, sir, LTG Hancock is just up the road a piece.”

Hays opened the packet and read:

“General, halt the column wherever you are. Gather whichever senior officers are riding with you and proceed apace to meet me up this road.

I repeat, halt the Corps and send word down the line for all to halt, awaiting further orders.

/signed/ Hancock”

Hays was in the vanguard, a few miles back BG John Caldwell, the acting Corps Commander, was riding with his First Division. Hays called for an aide and wrote the following:

“To BG Caldwell:

I received this order in hand at about 6PM just short of our destination. I have complied and am sending same to you. I trust we will receive further orders directly from LTG Hancock.

/signed/ Hays”

Having dispatched those south, he called over Col Samuel Carroll, commander of his First Brigade, and 1Lt Alonzo Cushing[1], commander of the 4th US Light Artillery who was riding with them. The three of them accompanied by a small group of aides and dispatch riders proceeded up the road. The message from Hancock was vague and he had no reason to be overtly suspicious, yet something did not seem quite right. At Meade’s HQ a few hours ago, Caldwell had been ordered to get the Second Corps to Gettysburg as soon as possible to reinforce the First and Eleventh Corps. What had happened in those ensuing hours that would have Hancock order a halt to the march? Especially with them seemingly so close to the city.

As he rode slowly forward he surveyed the terrain around him. Nothing seemed amiss. To his left was a long low ridge running off to the north. On the right, the ground was more flat and open. There was a farmstead[2] just off to the right, but no other signs of life. He thought that he’d be approaching a battle but all seemed very quiet, almost too quiet. As the small group rode along in silence, he spotted a campfire next to the road ahead. Milling around were a group of a dozen men or so, judging from the number of horses tethered nearby.  

Hayes stopped his small party a hundred yards or so short of this group, dismounted and began to walk his horse towards them. In the gathering darkness, he could easily make out the presence of LTG Hancock whom he knew well and who, by the standards of the day, was a rather large and imposing figure. But he recognized no one else. It was Hancock who spoke: “Welcome Alex, good to see you. I trust that you received my dispatch. Come join us.”

It was only then that Hays realized that most of the men were in gray uniforms. Confused but bolstered by Hancock’s tone. He approached with wariness if not full confidence. The men in grey held back and looked to him almost ghostlike in the smoke and the twilight. “Who is with you? Call them over.” Hays turned and motioned for Carroll and Cushing to approach. The others in his party dismounted and gathered up the three horses and withdrew a short distance to give their commanders some privacy.

Next, Hancock turned slightly and motioned to the well-turned-out gentleman on the perimeter. “Let me introduce MG Richard Anderson. I, we, are his prisoners!” It took the three men a second or two to absorb those most unexpected words. “Come, sit near the fire and I’ll explain.” Hancock took only a few minutes to explain how Anderson had out-maneuvered his forces that were so heavily engaged to the north that they failed to guard their rear. He included that LTGs Howard and Sickles – and likely by now MG Doubleday – were also in CSA hands; that the First and Eleventh Union Corps were routed and being rounded up by two of GEN Lee’s Corps. He concluded by stating that “The battle and likely the war was lost!” Without waiting for them to process this information he continued: “I have prepared two dispatches. One for BG Caldwell and the other for GEN Meade. As the junior officer, you, Lieutenant[3], shall have the duty and honor of delivering them. These detail the events of the day and instruct BG Caldwell as to his duties. He is to order the immediate redirection to the Emmittsburg Road then to proceed south to await further orders.”

Hays twitched and began to speak but Hancock held up a hand to quiet him. “Yes, Alex, it will be this way! MG Anderson and I have agreed that the Second Corps will be spared a massacre. He has 2000 rifles amassed against us on those hills and has agreed not to use them if we withdraw but without the senior leadership. No more men need to die unnecessarily this day or perhaps any day remaining in this war.”

“Lieutenant, you are to deliver this message to BG Caldwell. It instructs him to give the order to move west then south, but he is to proceed here to surrender himself. Take one rider with you but divulge nothing I have just said beyond that you have urgent orders for Caldwell. Should you meet any other senior officer along the way, instruct them to detach themselves and precede here with all due haste to join me.”

“Having delivered my orders to Caldwell, you will continue on to find and deliver this dispatch to GEN Meade. It is a full account of what has transpired today and that GEN Lee has achieved his greatest victory of the war. In fact, I firmly believe that the war is now over!”

“It will be incumbent upon you to hold your tongue and spare the lives of thousands in the coming days. Do you understand?

With a quivering voice, 1Lt Cushing answered: “Yes sir!” He snapped to attention, saluted, took the two packets from his Corps Commander and ran to his horse.

One half hour prior

MG Anderson was alerted to the approach of Union Troops from the south by his scouts on Big Round Top. Since they were coming up the road from Taneytown, he deduced that they were Hancock’s Second Union Corps and not Sickles’ Third Corps. So he took Hancock aside and made an offer. Hancock agreed and they rode off to the south. He sent for BGs Wilcox and Wright who commanded the two brigades occupying Little Round Top and now the lower end of Cemetery Ridge as well. He told them to prepare their 3000 men for an ambush but to hold their fire and to stay concealed until he gave the signal to fire. Hancock had agreed to halt Second Corps and have them withdraw or he would order their destruction. In return for sparing them, as many as possible of the senior officers would surrender themselves as the men withdrew. He was also to inform GEN Meade of the loss of both his Corps and the capture of many of his senior field commanders. In other words, the battle and likely the war was lost! It would be up to GEN Lee to set the next steps but for now, for tonight, the killing could stop. As long as Hancock, would arrange that.

1 July 1863 6:30 PM

With two brigades of Anderson’s Division straddling the Emmittsburg Road and up into the cemetery and Rodes’ and Heth’s Divisions pressing in from the north and west, the Union forces were being corralled into a small area south of the city. GEN Lee had returned to the battlefront and was able to make his way to the tallest building in the area: the Seminary with the cupola. From there he could see the Union formations making their way south. Finally, one of the messengers sent by Anderson managed to find him. The news of Anderson’s successes was more than he could ever have expected. Three (soon to be four) Union Corps commanders in his control was a crowning glory to the day. Heth and Rodes had had great success but to have seized LTG Hancock and two others was too much to have dreamed of.

“By god, Anderson may just have won the war!”

Lee called for an escort to take him to the cemetery to find Anderson. They had to ride along the east-facing slope of Seminary Ridge before turning east across the mile-wide valley[4]. They crested the ridge running south from the cemetery to the cheers of the men who now occupied that site. They made their way down to the widow Leister’s farm below the cemetery where the Union generals were being held. Anderson, Hancock and Hays were returning at the same time. Both parties met in the courtyard. Lee and Anderson walked off alone.

“When I sent you south, I hardly expected that you’d win the war for us. I just wanted you to protect our southern flank.”

“Well, sir, things just developed on their own. I did what seemed logical. When Posey’s 12th Mississippians under Col Taylor stumbled on to this farm house, they could not believe their fortune. We’d already routed the forces in the cemetery. They were too preoccupied with what was going on to the north to notice our approach from the south.”

A dispatch rider galloped up the road, brought his horse to an abrupt halt and flung himself to the ground. “BG Wilcox reports riders approaching along the road, sir.” A few minutes later, BG Caldwell and Col Cross, his First Brigade commander were escorted into the courtyard. BG Caldwell dismounted, saluted and speaking to LTG Hancock said “BG Caldwell reporting as ordered, sir! Is the war truly over?”

‘Yes John, I believe, I hope, it is.”

2 July 1863 0800:

But Meade had other ideas. BG Buford[5] had started something that Lee’s men rather decisively finished. He would fall back to Pipe Creek and assemble there; wait for Lee to move to attack again. Having just been handed command of the Potomac, Meade could not embarrass Lincoln by losing the war only hours later.

The loss of 2+ Union Corps (over 20,000 men) plus five[6] Corps Commanders and many senior staff officers was a heavy blow to the Army, but not a fatal one. Meade had never even considered a battle near Gettysburg. His chosen position was at Pipe Creek which had the added advantage of being close to the transportation hub and military supply cache at Westminster. It also stood astride the most direct route to Baltimore. The 18-mile long curving line would be harder to defend with 20,000 fewer men, but he had already petitioned Lincoln for permission to move 2 more Corps from the WASHDC area to replace those lost. Pipe Creek would now be the northernmost defensive line of Balto-Wash.

He’d bring them up by train via Baltimore and he’d build strong fortifications along the Pipe Creek Line and await Lee’s next move.

2 July 1863 noon:

GEN Lee was busy re-aligning his forces. He had sent word to Meade offering a meeting to discuss terms of a cease-fire to end the war. Meade had yet to respond. Lee needed to prepare for the worst.

He was moving his Army south of the city. LTG Ewell’s Corps was encamped along the Baltimore Pike. LTG Hill’s Corps was in the valley along the Emmittsburg Road. The battered division belonging to MG Heth was detached and assigned the task of guarding the thousands of prisoners who were being held immediately south of the city.

As LTG Longstreet’s first two divisions arrived, they were marched from Cashtown around to the south and east and were encamped along the Taneytown Road. MG Pickett’s Division was expected before nightfall.

Lee would hold these positions, rest and resupply his men for a few days before deciding on his next move. He had also finally heard from MG Stuart’s cavalry. They were to the north near Carlisle. He sent every available wagon there and ordered Stuart to relieve that garrison of all available supplies – military and otherwise. Then to burn it to the ground. He knew that Meade would be alerted via telegraph. It would give him something to ponder as he decided how he would react to the losses he had suffered. On those empty wagons were all the Union officers below the rank of colonel. They needed to be separated from the masses so as not to be able to foment a rebellion of the prisoners. The people of Gettysburg had been informed that they were now responsible for the welfare of the remaining prisoners. Feed them, care for their wounded or let them die. The Army of Northern Virginia was not going to waste valuable supplies on them.

[1] 1Lt Alonzo Cushing was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor 151 years later in 2014 for his leadership and actions during Pickett’s Charge on 3 July 1863. Cushing was KIA during that action.

[2] Trossel farm

[3]Cushing although a young officer was also a West Point graduate and had distinguished himself in early action, so he would have been known to Hancock if not intimately.

[4] Essentially, the route of Pickett’s Charge on the actual 3rd of July.

[5] On 4 July. Meade had Buford arrested pending court martial for his disastrous ambush attempt.

[6] Six if LTG Reynolds is counted since he was KIA on 1 July.

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