Pennsylvania 62nd Infantry Regiment
Letter from James Barnes, March 16, 1864
To the Editor of the Herald:
In the New York Herald of the 12th inst., a communication over the signature of "Historicus" purports to give the account of an "Eye-Witness" of the battle of Gettysburg, and the reason for it assigned that up to this time no clear narrative of it has appeared.
I desire to call attention to that portion of it which pretends to relate certain events in connection with the part taken by the Fifth Corps in that engagement, and particularly to what the writer refers to as an "alarming incident" occurring in the First division of that corps, which I had the honor to command. He says: --
"An alarming incident, however, occurred. Barnes' division of the Fifth Corps suddenly gave way, and Sickles, seeing this, put a battery in position to check the enemy if he broke through this gap on our front, and General Birney was sent to order Barnes back into line. `No,' he said, `impossible, It is too hot, my men cannot stand it.' Remonstrance was unavailing, and Sickles despatched his aides to bring up any troops they met to fill this blank. Major Tremaine, of his staff, fell in with General Zook at the head of his brigade (Second corps), and this gallant officer instantly volunteered to take Barnes' place. When they reached the ground Barnes' disordered troops impeded the advance of the brigade. `If you can't get out of the way,' cried Zook, `lie down and I will march over you.' Barnes ordered his men to lie down, and the chivalrous Zook and his splendid brigade, under the personal direction of General Birney, did march over them and right into the breach. Alas! poor Zook soon, fell mortally wounded, and half his brigade perished with him."
All this is pure invention. No such occurrence as is here related took place. There is not a particle of truth in it. No order was given to me by General Birney. None was received by me through any one from General Sickles. I did not see or hear from General Zook. I did not meet him in any way. I did not know he was there, and the article above referred to is the first intimation that I have had that any one pretended that any such event took place. There was no order to advance -- no refusal; no orders to he down given to the command by me or by any one else to my knowledge no passing over my command (I should be sorry to see any body of men attempt to do such a thing in my division); nothing of the kind occurred that ever came to my knowledge, and I think I should have heard of such a thing before this late day if it, or anything like it, had taken place; the whole story is untrue in every particular, and my astonishment at now hearing of such a thing for the first time may possibly be imagined.
So much for that portion of the article above quoted.
In reference to other criticisms of the movements of the Fifth corps, it may perhaps properly devolve on others to refer to them. I shall only add a few words as to what the First division of that corps did do.
Upon receiving the orders to move to the front, the First division, composed of three brigades, was promptly in motion. In about fifteen minutes it reached the ground which it was ordered to occupy, to the left of the Third corps. General Sykes, commanding the Fifth corps, and myself, reached the ground in advance of the head of the column, and the position to be occupied by my division was determined upon.
As soon as the head of the column came up General Warren rode up in haste and earnestly requested General Sykes to permit a brigade to be sent to Round Top -- a high elevation upon the left, not far from us -- and urged the importance of holding that position.
Although separating one of my brigades from the remaining two, one of which was already weakened by the detachment of a regiment -- the Ninth Massachusetts -- as skirmishers in another part of the field, yet, yielding to the emergency which was apparent, General Sykes consented, and I immediately directed the Third brigade, then under the command of the late much lamented General Strong Vincent (who fell mortally wounded within an hour of receiving the order) to proceed in that direction. The Second brigade arrived next under the command of Colonel Sweitzer, who immediately placed his brigade in position. The 1st brigade, under the command of Colonel Tilton, was posted on the right of Colonel Sweitzer, being the right of the division and on the right of the position of the Fifth corps, the other two divisions of the corps extending to and embracing the celebrated Round Top.
The V corps therefore occupied what may well be called the post of honor of that day, and, as the result proved, well deserved that proud distinction.
In passing to their positions it was necessary for the two brigades of my division to cross an open piece of ground in a thick wood, at the entrance of which a portion of the III corps, commanded by General Birney, was lying upon the ground. My brigades, advancing over and beyond these men a considerable distance, took the position assigned them upon the opposite edge of the wood, nearest to the enemy. They were all in place before the engagement commenced in their front. An open and gently ascending ground upon the right seemed to be unguarded. To the right of this open space the remaining portion of the Third corps was posted. General Sykes observing this, remarked that that portion of the III corps now lying down in our rear would be soon relieved. The engagement commenced immediately and with great severity. The gap upon my right was still unoccupied. The First brigade was violently assailed in front and stood its ground without flinching, and soon after the fight became general along the whole of my front. Soon, however, the enemy, working his way through the gap upon my right, came down in large force upon my flank and rear.
Under these circumstances I was obliged to change my front to the right; the order was given, promptly executed in good order, and the further progress of the enemy in that direction was prevented.
Colonel Tilton in his official report says: -- "In this last movement I was greatly embarrassed by squads of men and parts of regiments, who, hurrying from the front, broke into and through my lines. I retired, firing a short distance in the timber and took up a new position upon the right of the two divisions. All my officers and men did their duty, their whole duty, and showed the greatest coolness and courage."
Colonel Sweitzer in his official report says: -- "The enemy were getting into our rear in the woods behind us on the right. I directed these regiments to change front, to face in that direction and meet them, which they did. I do not intend to go into the further details of these movements; or ascribe any blame to others or to fix any responsibility upon any one for any error which led to so threatening a danger to the flank and rear of my division. I only design to show that the orderly movement of my command, rendered imperative by the circumstances in which it was placed, prevented any further advance of the enemy upon my flank, notwithstanding the imminent danger to which it was exposed by the unfortunate gap upon my right between portions of the Third corps.
It may have been simply anxiety, it may have been some other affection of the mind in the midst of the danger so apparent which prevented this "eye-witness," if he were one, upon whose narrative I am commenting from distinguishing between an orderly and a disorderly movement.
It is not absolutely necessary to attribute it to a desire misrepresent. The motives and the object of the narrative must be judged by its general tenor. He has presented to the public what he claims to be a true and only correct account of the celebrated battle of Gettysburg.
So far as I am able to judge, and I saw something of the movements of that day, I think it filled with errors, detracting from the merits of some and exalting the moderate claims of others to a ridiculous excess.
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Last modified: 13 July 2012