Well, okay, maybe the subject of this post isn’t THAT serious – but I always wanted to title one after one of my favorite Homer Simpson lines. This seemed to be a good time.
Eric and I continue to pound the research pavement as we finish up the manuscript for the Gettysburg retreat book, and good stuff is continually flowing in. One resource I snagged online today was the published papers of the Delaware Historical Society. In 1884, Capt. William Seville of the 1st DE Infantry submitted a paper on his regiment’s role during the campaign, and one of his statements really jumped out at me.
By way of background, many folks characterize Army of the Potomac commander George Meade’s pursuit of Lee after the battle as slow. Evidence shows, though, that by July 13 and 14 he wanted to make an attack on Lee’s semi-circular defensive position along the river between Williamsport and Falling Waters. A war council called by Meade put the kibosh on attack plans, with only a couple of his commanders in favor of an attack at the time. Meade decided to wait, and of course by the morning of July 14 most of Lee’s army had already crossed over the river at those two points.
No one has ever found any evidence of an actual attack order issued by Meade (certainly not that any tangible military plans were put into effect) – just that he and many of the soldiers desired an attack, and he based his decision on the results of the council vote. Today, as I read through Seville’s recollections, I read this assertion that he makes for July 13:
“About ten o’clock at night an order was received directing a general charge on the rebel works at daylight in the morning [July 14], in which no other weapon was to be used than the bayonet; the men being required to take out of their cartridge-boxes all the ammunition and turn it in. This order was countermanded just before daylight, in all respects excepting that in regard to marching.”
Seville then recounts that the troops moved forward on the 14th and discovered the Confederates gone from their earthworks and over the river.
It’s a wonderful tidbit, and perhaps leads to many more questions than it answers. Besides the question of whether the order was actually issued – where did it come from? Certainly no regimental, brigade, or even division commander would issue such an order unless there was something official coming down the food chain regarding a planned attack. Slocum was the corps commander – would it have been him? But he wasn’t in favor of an attack. Did Meade issue some type of order prior to the war council, then countermand it based on the vote results? And the idea of a general advance of the army, using only bayonets – ordered to turn in all their ammunition in fact – implies something much more serious than just a “get ready to charge” situation. It’s also the first time I’ve heard of this type of order.
It would be desirable to corroborate this statement – if only some other soldier in some other regiment had made the same assertion, but we’ve found none. And we’ve perused nearly 100 regimental histories, and hundreds of primary and secondary sources. If we could corroborate the statement, it would show that Meade had more in motion than just a “desire” to attack Lee during those final hours, and that perhaps he planned to do so either without calling a war council, or in spite of it. At this point, we just don’t know.
And the question remains – what to do with such a statement and its ramifications for the story? We can work it into the main text of the narrative (and perhaps our Conclusion chapter as well), but it would have to be in context with the fact that it’s uncorroborated. A caveat of sorts. Or, it can be mentioned somewhere in a related footnote. We’re just not sure at this point whether it’s important enough to be in the text. Is it bad memory, or an earth-shaking indication that more wheels were in motion to attack Lee’s formidable defenses than we’ve been led to believe?
We’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on the matter…