Colonel Edward Porter Alexander and Battle of Gettysburg History

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Colonel Alexander's Story : Battle of Gettysburg

Edward P. Alexander.jpg
National Archives

As Pickett's Division swept forward in their fateful charge of Cemetery Ridge, Colonel Edward Porter Alexander remained among his foremost artillery batteries and waited for the precious spare ammunition to arrive to replenish empty ammunition chests. Without support from Alexander's guns, the Confederate infantry was on its own. Through his binoculars, the colonel watched the Virginians disappear into a storm cloud of smoke and fire on Cemetery Ridge. He also viewed the southern charge 'break as it struck the Union line.' The fields in front of him were now filled with wounded and uninjured; they soon returned and walked past his empty guns. It was during these last few terrifying moments that Alexander was joined by Commanding General Robert E. Lee.

"About that time, General Lee, entirely alone, rode up and remained with me for a long time. He then probably first appreciated the full extent of the disaster as the disorganized stragglers made their way back past us. It was certainly a momentous thing to him to see that superb attack end in such a bloody repulse. But, whatever his emotions, there was no trace of them in his calm and self-possessed bearing. I thought at the time his coming there very imprudent, and the absence of his staff officers and couriers strange. I have since thought it possible that he came, thinking the enemy might follow in pursuit of Pickett, personally to rally stragglers about our guns and make a desperate defense. He had the instincts of a soldier within him as strongly as any man. No soldier could have looked on at Pickett's Charge and not burned to be in it. We were joined by Colonel Fremantle of Her Majesty's Coldstream Guards, who... afterward... described many little incidents that took place here, such as General Lee encouraging the retreating stragglers to rally as soon as they got back to cover, and saying that the failure was his fault, not theirs. That was the end of the battle." Colonel Edward P. Alexander

Report of Col. E. Porter Alexander, C. S. Army, commanding battalion Reserve Artillery
JUNE 3-AUGUST 1, 1863.--The Gettysburg Campaign

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXVII/2 [S# 44]

AUGUST 3, 1863

Lieut. Col. G. MOXLEY SORREL,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

        SIR: In obedience to orders, I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of my battalion in the recent campaign:
        Leaving Milford Depot on June 3, we marched to Culpeper Court House, and encamped in its vicinity on the 5th. Leaving-this place on the 15th, we proceeded to Millwood, where we encamped on the 18th, and remained until the 24th, when we again marched with the First Corps, and accompanied it, via Winchester, Greencastle, and Chambersburg, to Gettysburg, Pa., where we arrived at 9 a.m. on July 2, having halted for three days at Chambersburg and one day between that and Gettysburg.
        Shortly after our arrival, I was directed by General Longstreet to accompany with my battalion the divisions of Major-Generals Me-Laws and Hood in the attack upon the left. The march into position was performed with these divisions, and about 4 p.m. I placed four batteries (those of Captains [George V.] Moody, [W. W.] Parker, [O. B.] Taylor, and [A. B.] Rhett, the latter commanded by Lieutenant [S.C.] Gilbert, and the whole commanded by Maj. Frank Huger, I having been ordered to control also the other battalions of artillery on the field) in action against a heavy artillery and infantry force of the enemy, about 500 yards distant, in a peach orchard on the Emmitsburg pike.
        After a spirited engagement of a half hour, assisted by Cabell's battalion from a short distance on our right, the enemy's guns were silenced, and the position was immediately carried by the infantry, and the enemy fell back to his position on the mountain, where our infantry gallantly pursued him.
        Just before the enemy ceased his fire, annoyed by his obstinacy, I had ordered up my two remaining batteries, [T. C.] Jordan's and [P.] Woolfolk, jr.'s. These, arriving on the ground just as the infantry charge was made, joined in it, under the immediate command of Maj. James Dearing, who had volunteered his services to me. Major Huger also followed with the four batteries under his control as soon as the teams could be disencumbered of killed and wounded animals (for his loss had been serious), and occupied the enemy's original position, in time to seriously annoy their retreat to the mountain, and to assist the infantry in causing them to abandon several guns at its foot. From this new position a spirited duel now ensued with their new line, which our infantry attacked in vain, and was kept up till dark, shortly before which our infantry fell back, and the enemy, who attempted to pursue, were checked and driven back by our fire.
        Sleeping on the field that night, and replacing ammunition, at dawn I again placed the whole battalion in position for the attack upon the enemy's new line. In this attack, my battalion bore its full share, and suffered heavy loss, fighting again under Major Huger, excepting Woolfolk's battery, which was detached under Lieut. James Woolfolk, Captain Woolfolk having been wounded severely in his gallant charge the evening before. During the afternoon, the batteries all maintained their respective positions, part of the time without infantry support, and driving off the enemy's sharpshooters with canister. They were withdrawn from the field only when it was entirely abandoned by our infantry--Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Woolfolk only withdrawing at midnight.
        During the next day, the battalion remained near and in rear of its original position on the 2d until 4 p.m., when it marched to Black Horse Tavern, ready to take its place in the column.
        It marched from the latter place on the 5th, and proceeding via Fairfield and Monterey Springs, encamped at Hagerstown on the evening of the 6th.
        On the 10th, we were ordered into position at Downsville, to resist a threatened attack of the enemy, advancing in force.
        On the 11th, we constructed pits for all the guns on the line of battle at this place, and remained in them until the night of the 13th, when, with the rest of the army, we crossed the river, and encamped the next day on the Martinsburg pike, near Hainesville, and, on the 15th, marched to Bunker Hill.
        Marching from the latter place on the 20th, via Front Royal, Gaines' Cross-Roads, and Sperryville, we encamped again near Culpeper Court-House on the 24th.
        The sum total of the losses in my battalion during the period covered by this report are as follows: In the battle of Gettysburg, July 2 and 3, killed, 19; wounded, 114; missing, 6; total, 139 men. There were also 2 killed and 3 wounded of a detachment of 8 gallant Mississippians at Captain Moody's guns, who volunteered to help maneuver them on very difficult ground. Horses killed and disabled in action, 116. Many of my wounded sent to Cashtown fell into the hands of the enemy there. On the night march across the Potomac, 8 men missing. Deserted near Martinsburg, 3 men. Upset near the pontoon bridge and thrown into the river, by order to clear the passage to the bridge, one limber of 24-pounder howitzer caisson. Destroyed in action, one 12-pounder howitzer, two 12-pounder howitzer carriages, and six wheels. The howitzer, however, was brought off In a wagon.
        I cannot speak too highly of the ability and soldierly qualities, both on the field of battle and no less creditably on forced marches by day and night, over terrible roads and with scarcely half teams, by the officers of my battalion; nor of the splendid courage and tenacity of both officers and men under as deadly a fire as has often been faced; nor of the cheerfulness with which the men endured the fatigue, exposure, and short rations which often fell to their lot, the latter, I fear, being necessarily incidental to the make-shift arrangements by which rations are supplied to them.
        I very respectfully recommend for special merit and gallantry, Majors Huger and Dearing; Capts. T. C. Jordan, G. V. Moody, P. Wool-folk, jr., W. W. Parker, O. B. Taylor, and W. W. Fickling; Lieutenant Gilbert, commanding Brooks' artillery until severely wounded; Lieut. J. Donnell Smith and Lieutenant [James] Sillers, temporarily commanding their respective batteries or detached sections, and Lieutenant [F. M.] Colston, ordnance officer. Under Assistant Surgeons [H. V.] Gray and [Aristides] Monteiro, Captain [P. A.] Franklin, quartermaster, and Lieutenant [George D.] Vaughan, commissary, the arduous duties of their respective departments were creditably performed.
        Captains Jordan, Moody, and Fickling, and Lieutenant Woolfolk, commanding Woolfolk's battery, decline specifying any of their brave commands for praise, on the grounds that where all so well deserve it, it would be invidious to particularize. Captain Parker speaks highly of the behavior of Lieutenant [George E.] Saville, in particular, and First Sergeant [E. S.] Wooldridge. Captain Taylor also praises the behavior of Corpls. W. P. Ray and Joseph T. V. Lantz, both of whom were killed on the field while behaving most gallantly.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. P. ALEXANDER,

Colonel, Artillery.

(See also related reading below.)
 
Sources: Gettysburg Military National Park; National Archives and Records Administration; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Recommended Reading: Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Description: Originally published by UNC Press in 1989, Fighting for the Confederacy is one of the richest personal accounts in all of the vast literature on the Civil War. Alexander was involved in nearly all of the great battles of the East, from First Manassas through Appomattox, and his duties brought him into frequent contact with most of the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia, including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and James Longstreet. Continued below...
No other Civil War veteran of his stature matched Alexander's ability to discuss operations in penetrating detail—this is especially true of his description of Gettysburg. His narrative is also remarkable for its utterly candid appraisals of leaders on both sides.
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Related Reading:
 

Recommended Reading: Military Memoirs Of A Confederate, by Edward Porter Alexander. Description: General Edward Porter Alexander was the master gunner of the Confederacy, and undeniably one of the great American artillerists. He was involved in nearly all of the great battles of the East, from First Manassas through Appomattox; on the second day at Gettysburg, Alexander’s battalion executed one of the greatest artillery charges of the war; Longstreet relied upon him for reconnaissance, and Stonewall Jackson wanted him made an infantry general. Continued below...
Lee at times would confide in this young general who was commonly referred to as E. Porter Alexander.
 

Recommended Reading: The Artillery of Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: The battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the apex of the Confederacy's final major invasion of the North, was a devastating defeat that also marked the end of the South's offensive strategy against the North. From this battle until the end of the war, the Confederate armies largely remained defensive. The Artillery of Gettysburg is a thought-provoking look at the role of the artillery during the July 1-3, 1863 conflict. Continued below...

During the Gettysburg campaign, artillery had already gained the respect in both armies. Used defensively, it could break up attacking formations and change the outcomes of battle. On the offense, it could soften up enemy positions prior to attack. And even if the results were not immediately obvious, the psychological effects to strong artillery support could bolster the infantry and discourage the enemy. Ultimately, infantry and artillery branches became codependent, for the artillery needed infantry support lest it be decimated by enemy infantry or captured. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had modified its codependent command system in February 1863. Prior to that, batteries were allocated to brigades, but now they were assigned to each infantry division, thus decentralizing its command structure and making it more difficult for Gen. Robert E. Lee and his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William Pendleton, to control their deployment on the battlefield. The Union Army of the Potomac had superior artillery capabilities in numerous ways. At Gettysburg, the Federal artillery had 372 cannons and the Confederates 283. To make matters worse, the Confederate artillery frequently was hindered by the quality of the fuses, which caused the shells to explode too early, too late, or not at all. When combined with a command structure that gave Union Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt more direct control--than his Southern counterpart had over his forces--the Federal army enjoyed a decided advantage in the countryside around Gettysburg. Bradley M. Gottfried provides insight into how the two armies employed their artillery, how the different kinds of weapons functioned in battle, and the strategies for using each of them. He shows how artillery affected the “ebb and flow” of battle for both armies and thus provides a unique way of understanding the strategies of the Federal and Union commanders.

 

Recommended Reading: Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (912 pages). Description: Hailed as one of the greatest Civil War books, this exhaustive study is an abridgement of the original three-volume version. It is a history of the Army of Northern Virginia from the first shot fired to the surrender at Appomattox - but what makes this book unique is that it incorporates a series of biographies of more than 150 Confederate officers. The book discusses in depth all the tradeoffs that were being made politically and militarily by the South.

The book does an excellent job describing the battles, then at a critical decision point in the battle, the book focuses on an officer - the book stops and tells the biography of that person, and then goes back to the battle and tells what information the officer had at that point and the decision he made. At the end of the battle, the officers decisions are critiqued based on what he "could have known and what he should have known" given his experience, and that is compared with 20/20 hindsight. "It is an incredibly well written book!"

 

Recommended Reading: ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (Hardcover) (June 2008). Description: The titanic three-day battle of Gettysburg left 50,000 casualties in its wake, a battered Southern army far from its base of supplies, and a rich historiographic legacy. Thousands of books and articles cover nearly every aspect of the battle, but not a single volume focuses on the military aspects of the monumentally important movements of the armies to and across the Potomac River. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 is the first detailed military history of Lee's retreat and the Union effort to catch and destroy the wounded Army of Northern Virginia. Against steep odds and encumbered with thousands of casualties, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's post-battle task was to successfully withdraw his army across the Potomac River. Union commander George G. Meade's equally difficult assignment was to intercept the effort and destroy his enemy. The responsibility for defending the exposed Southern columns belonged to cavalry chieftain James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart. If Stuart fumbled his famous ride north to Gettysburg, his generalship during the retreat more than redeemed his flagging reputation. The ten days of retreat triggered nearly two dozen skirmishes and major engagements, including fighting at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, Williamsport, Funkstown, Boonsboro, and Falling Waters. Continued below...

President Abraham Lincoln was thankful for the early July battlefield victory, but disappointed that General Meade was unable to surround and crush the Confederates before they found safety on the far side of the Potomac. Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study. One Continuous Fight draws upon a massive array of documents, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. These long-ignored foundational sources allow the authors, each widely known for their expertise in Civil War cavalry operations, to describe carefully each engagement. The result is a rich and comprehensive study loaded with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern and Northern cavalry, and fresh insights on every engagement, large and small, fought during the retreat. The retreat from Gettysburg was so punctuated with fighting that a soldier felt compelled to describe it as "One Continuous Fight." Until now, few students fully realized the accuracy of that description. Complimented with 18 original maps, dozens of photos, and a complete driving tour with GPS coordinates of the entire retreat, One Continuous Fight is an essential book for every student of the American Civil War in general, and for the student of Gettysburg in particular. About the Authors: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio. J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys." A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.

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