FIRST TENNESSEE AT GETTYSBURG
Capt. J. B. Turney, Company K, of that regiment:
Thirty-seven years have passed since those memorable first three days of July, 1863. A generation has come and is going, and yet the Veterans recall the services they rendered and duties they performed in this battle of battles with as much distinctness as if it were but yesterday. During these many long years I have watched and waited in vain to see from some one a report of the exact facts about what occurred at the time of, and just preceding, the final struggle at the most vital point in the entire line of battle at Gettysburg, Pa. I regret the manifest disposition to ignore the gallant work of the First Tennessee in the last charge upon the Federal lines. I would not disparage the services of Pickett's heroes; that is not necessary; and I could not protest against the credit that has been awarded those gallant sons of Virginia after having seen how they faced death during that terrible conflict.
I submit briefly, however, some of the details of the first and second days, in so far as they relate to Archer's Brigade, and particularly to the First Tennessee. The battle was begun about 9 o'clock on the morning of July 1, with Heth's Division, Archer's Tennessee Brigade- consisting of the First, Seventh, and Fourteenth Tennessee Regiment, Thirteenth Alabama Regiment, and Fifth Alabama Battalion-being in the advance. The sharpshooters, under command of Major Buchanan, of the First Tennessee, encountered the Federal advance some three miles southwest of Gettysburg. The enemy fell back slowly, resisting our approach, until General Archer ordered a halt when we were within about one mile of the town. General Heth soon arrived, and ordered Archer forward, as he said, to ascertain the "strength and line of battle of the enemy." Archer suggested that his brigade was light to risk so far in advance of support. Upon being ordered forward a second time, he advanced about two hundred yards, when we met with stubborn resistance, having encountered the enemy's line of battle. For thirty minutes the firing was severe, and the smoke of battle hovered near the ground, shutting out from view the movements of the Federal forces. When the enemy's fire ceased, I dropped on my knees, and, looking beneath the hanging smoke, saw the feet and legs of the enemy moving to our left. This I communicated to General Archer, who doubted its possibility, saying: "I guess not, Captain, since Gen. Joe Davis is to occupy that timber to our left." By the time I reached my line a brigade of the enemy under General Reynolds was upon our left, capturing General Archer, with quite a percentage of his brigade, including a portion of the left of the First Tennessee. During the excitement attending the capture of General Archer, I succeeded in escaping with the major part of my company, falling back some two hundred yards to the skirt of timber. The Federals deployed; and, Heth having arrived, the battle was on in earnest. Archer's Brigade, under command of Colonel (later Brigadier General) Fry, Thirteenth Alabama, was then withdrawn to the right of Lee's army. There we were deployed as a body of observation. My company was ordered as far in the advance as it was safe to go. I ventured near to the Emmettsburg road, where I saw the enemy moving its transportation to the rear. In my effort to report to my commander, I encountered General Lee, who asked what I found in front. When I reported, he remarked to his staff officers: "I am afraid they will get away." From this I concluded that he thought we had only encountered the enemy's advance. Later in the afternoon our brigade was sent to the rear as a reserve, where we remained with the balance of Heth's Division during the entire second day.
Early on the morning of the third day our division was moved to the front and right, and remained in line of battle until our artillery was massed to the front. At about 11 o'clock the fiercest cannonading known to warfare was begun. For two hours the old hills trembled as if affrighted. The limbs and trunks of trees were torn to pieces and sent crashing to the earth to add to the havoc among the gallant boys who waited anxiously an order to charge. Finally, as heaven's thunder ceases that the storm in its fury may ravage and riot, so became silent the quarter of a thousand death-dealing monsters, and before the echoes had died among the distant hills we were in line for a forward movement.
Pickett was to the right; Heth, in the center; and Pender, to the left. Cemetery Hill was the chief objective point, and along its crest and behind a stone wall rested the Federal center. Archer's Brigade, under command of Colonel Fry, constituted Heth's right, with the First Tennessee forming Archer's right and being next to Kemper's Brigade, which constituted Pickett's left. The First Tennessee was to the left of opposite the point where the Emmettsburg road crossed the ridge. The columns thus formed, with Armistead's Virginians as a reserve for Kemper, marched to the charge-thousands to death, but all to glory. For three miles from right to left we charged in unbroken line, across the fields, through ravines, over fences-on we went, bent on victory or death. The lead rained; the gallant Colonel George, of the First Tennessee, fell wounded; thirty steps farther, and Colonel Fry was checked by an enemy's bullet-wounded in the leg. He called to me and asked for Colonel George, and, when informed of his wound, said to me: "Captain, take command of the regiment. Proceed with the charge, but don't stop to fire a gun." By the time I reached my line it was to the first plank fence that inclosed the Emmettsburg road. How like hail upon a roof sounded the patter of the enemy's bullets upon that fence! On ward swept the columns, thinned now and weakened, the dead behind, the foe in front, and no thought of quarter. T he second fence was reached and scaled; now no impediment, save the deadly fire of ten thousand rifles that barred our headlong charge. It was one hundred and fifty yards now of open field. Who would live to reach the goal? In wonderful order, at double-quick time, we continued the charge; and not until we were within about fifteen steps of the stone wall did I give the command to fire. The volley confused the enemy. I then ordered a charge with bayonets, and on moved our gallant boys. Another instant, and we were engaged in a desperate hand-to-hand conflict for the possession of the fragile wall of masonry that held out as the sole barrier between the combatants. Each man seemed to pick his foe, and it fell my lot to struggle with a stalwart Federal officer, who made a vicious thrust at my breast. I parried it just in time. Thus for a few moments the contest settled as for a death struggle, and one triumphant shout was given as the Federals in our immediate front and to our right yielded and fled in confusion to a point just back of the crest of the hill, abandoning their artillery. Having given no heed to our lines to the right or to the left after crossing the Emmettsburg road, I now mounted the rock wall and found everything successful to my right, while the center and left of Archer's Brigade had failed. From my position to the right the works were ours, but to the left the enemy was still in possession. Thus the First Tennessee, constituting the right of Archer's Brigade, occupied a most important position. I decided to throw a column beyond the works and enfilade the lines to my left, and succeeded in taking with me my own company and parts of others. The volleys we fired were effective, and created confusion, enabling Capt. J. H. Moore, and possibly others, of the Seventh Tennessee, and Captain Taylor, of the Thirteenth Alabama, to lead their companies over the works. A few of the Fifth Alabama Battalion also crossed. By this time, at a distance of only about thirty yards, and behind the crest of the hill, I noted the re-forming of the Federal lines. This necessitated a withdrawal to a position be hind the stone wall, and there we joined the balance of the First Tennessee. After a desperate, but unsuccessful, effort to dislodge us, the enemy again retired over the crest of the hill. I then made a second effort to cross the works and enfilade, but by this time our lines, from my position to the left, were being beaten back, by a most destructive fire; and as our opposition melted in their front, the enemy turned a deadly fire upon the unprotected squad of First Tennesseeans, who, together with a few of Garnett's Virginians, had the second time crossed the works. The artillery as well as the musketry belched forth destruction to our little band, and we were forced to drop back behind the wall. By this time General Armistead had noted the importance of the position held by the First Tennessee, and was obliquing to his left to reach us. A few moments of waiting brought his recruits to our aid. The General was on foot at the head of his column. I shall ever have a distinct remembrance of the dash and fire that was in him. He threw his hat on his saber, called for the command to follow, and sealed the stone wall. I kept by his side, and with us went the colors of the First Tennessee. Armistead's purpose was to enfilade, as I had at-tempted. Again we became the targets for the concentrated fire of the enemy's guns of all sizes and all positions. At the first volley I noticed General Armistead drop his saber, on which still hung his hat, and grasp with his right hand his left arm and stagger as if he were about to fall. I caught and supported him. He was wounded in the left arm, and his men bore him behind the stone wall for protection. Seeing the impossibility of effective work from behind the wall and the shattered condition of our lines, I hastily called the captains of my regiment for conference. Captains Thompson, Hawkins, Arnold, and Alexander responded. While we were conferring, a courier arrived, and, calling for the officer in charge, told me General Lee's orders were to hold my position, as Ewell had broken the lines on the extreme left. These orders settled the question, and brought us face to face with the critical moments of that decisive battle. To the left of the First Tennessee our lines had entirely given way, thus enabling the enemy to concentrate its fire-not only from our center, but from our left-directly upon my command. The heavy artillery on the ridge and that massed on Little Round Top poured destruction into our ranks. Some of the Virginians to our right had already yielded. For ten minutes still we remained the target, and each minute perceptibly weakened our gallant band and made less possible our chance of re treat. All realized that ours was a hopeless chance, yet General Lee desired that we remain, and that was sufficient.
Retreat across the open was now impossible, and a white flag was reluctantly hoisted by a Virginia regiment to my right; and thus it was that those of the First Tennessee who survived the struggle and had not escaped yielded themselves as prisoners. Within an hour all firing had ceased, and the great battle was at an end. Forty thousand of the bravest soldiers the world ever saw had shed their blood for principle. Except a flesh wound in my neck and a number of bullet holes in my clothes, I was unharmed.
We were then conducted to the rear, and among the many who came to interview our boys was one of General Jones's aid-de-camps, who, when he came, said he had been inquiring for the officer who stood upon the works so long when the Federals first vacated, and that the soldiers had directed him to me. He then delivered a message of congratulations from his general, which made me feel that I had succeeded in convincing an enemy that I had done my duty. I learned from this officer that the Federals in our front consisted of Hancock's Corps, Burney's Corps, and Doubleday's Division, the latter being in the immediate front of our command.
The next morning we were marched twenty-eight miles to Westminster, Md., which distance we were required to cover between the hours of 9 A.M. and 2 P.M. In the afternoon after our arrival we were called upon for details to draw rations. We had had no food since the morning before. That same afternoon I was engaged in conversation with some Federal officers, when one asked why we fellows always got the best of an open fight with an equal force. I replied, courteously, that it was the inspiration of a just cause, to which he replied: "No; it is because you have the greatest military genius of history to lead you. Robert E. Lee combines the organizing capacity of a Marlborough the intuition of a Turenne, the celerity of a Napoleon, and the tenacity of a Wellington."
From "The Confederate Veteran"
Transcribed by James W. Martin