The Cleansing, July 4-5
After the fighting ended on that 3rd day of July, 1863, and after the smoke had cleared, some 125,000 men stared blankly across the slope separating Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge, and wondered what version of Hell would next present itself. A small group of soldiers ventured out from Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, in front of the artillery pieces that were now cooling and silent. They went forward and worked to put out the blaze in front of those guns, where grass, and clothing and bodies themselves had caught fire from the intense heat of the furious blasts.
If you had not been present for the battle, but had happened on it just at this time, you would have heard the moaning, and screams of thousands of wounded and dying who were laying on that slope, and around those guns. Those that had partaken of the battle, who had fired their guns in as rapid a fashion as they could, and had defended those cannons from the enemy, heard only the ringing in their ears. In some cases it would be days before they could hear normally, in other cases, they never would.
Ambulance attendants, hospital orderlies, and work crews from all the regiments that were able to muster them, on both ridges, began to move forward to collect, first the wounded, then later, the dead. As they had the night before, the bands of all the regiments, brigades, divisions and corps, began to play along Taneytown Road, to mask the sounds coming from the hospitals in the rear. Down the western slope of Seminary Ridge, the Confederate bands played. Because of that gun-deafness, few who were in the front lines could hear the bands. It was a good thing, perhaps, for it meant they were the lucky few who could not hear the screaming and the low, steady moaning sound that came from the hospitals, not quite hidden by the music.
Officers busied themselves scurrying along the regimental and company fronts, straightening their lines, checking their men, making sure they had all gotten fresh ammunition, and water. The sergeants would be along later with some food, hardtack most likely, and perhaps some salt beef from a commissary barrel someone was actually able to locate.
Out on the slope, frequent shots rang out as a wounded horse or mule was found and its misery ended.
As the twilight deepened into full night, one could look across the slope between the ridges and see lanterns moving about on the field, as the removal process continued. For once, neither side had the stomach to take the other under fire. For once exhaustion and a surfeit of bloodletting forced humanity upon them.
Lee had his troops dig in along Seminary and Oak Ridges during the night and early morning, expecting a counter attack from Meade. But none came. A late afternoon probe by Meade turned up little.
After a hazy dawn, a prisoner exchange was requested by General Robert E. Lee, and declined by Major General George G. Meade. It was Union policy that prisoner exchanges cease, because the Confederacy refused to treat captured United States Colored Troops, and their white officers the same as white troops, and their white officers; and because the United States was winning a war of attrition against the Confederacy, and the return of Confederate prisoners who would fight again after parole, would only help prolong the war.
Sometime in the early afternoon hours of July 4th, 1863, it began to rain. All day in the fog and the rain, the recovery continued. Some wounded would lay there for days before being discovered and taken to hospitals. Many who searched for Confederate dead and wounded were their slaves, looking for their masters. As many as 10,000 had accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia on the campaign. Now, as it became obvious that the Rebels had suffered a setback, many of the slaves were running from the army, and into the freedom of the Pennsylvania countryside – behind Union lines.
Lee ordered a few units to build rather large fires along Seminary Ridge after nightfall on the 4th to cover for the departing units. Indeed, he had sent his main supply train, some twenty miles in length, back toward the Potomac River earlier in the day, complete with the wounded, and the prisoners Meade refused to exchange. They went west, initially toward Chambersburg, but only to turn south once over the crest of South Mountain. Now it was time for the Army to go. They headed southwest toward Hagerstown by way of Fairfield, and Waynesboro.
By evening the rain had increased its intensity. Cavalry troopers pursuing the retreating Confederates over South Mountain near the village of Monterey on the evening of the 4th, slogged up the steep mountain road, fighting not only the mud and the Confederates, but the driving rain, and the rushing torrents that drained down from the crest of the mountain. The terrain on either side of the road was so treacherous that the Confederates needed to place only one artillery piece in the road, aiming it down at the men of Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Custer’s men knew they were close and eventually carved out a five mile long section of Major General Richard S. Ewell’s Corps supply train, which was approximately 17 miles long. The Battle of Monterey Pass could be heard, and the gun flashes seen miles to the west in Waynesboro.
Back at the battlefield, the teeming rains continued to wash the blood from the ground, and rocks. The rains kept up for days, and why not? Had there not been so much blood spilled that the rains would need time to do the cleansing? During this time, a few militia troops, and many civilian volunteers once again scoured the battlefield for wounded, and buried the dead upon which they stumbled.
To see the weather, one need only look at the photographer’s images, those in particular of Alexander Gardner, the Scotsman hired by Matthew Brady to come to America in 1857, or Timothy O’Sullivan, both of whom were part of a group of about 20 that Brady sent out across the country to photograph the Civil War. Anything in the distance in any of the views is shrouded in fog and mist.
They arrived sometime on July 5th. They started taking pictures immediately, trying to capture the dead, and get an image of the numbers of the dead. It had been the dead of the September, 1862, Battle of Antietam, that had both repulsed and enthralled the visitors to Brady’s New York gallery. It brought the human price of the war home to all who viewed those images.
By the time Gardner and O’Sullivan arrived, most of the Union dead had been removed from the fields. What we are left with is the view of row upon row of Confederate dead, and soldier after soldier, now a cold photographic subject that was once a warm and breathing human being. Pictures of the dead made money, so pictures of the dead is what Brady got from his photographers.
Two of the most famous photos, The Harvest of Death (above), and its opposite view (below), which purport to be the only photographs showing Union dead on the Battlefield, are, to this day, still a mystery as to the location on the Gettysburg Battlefield where they were taken. We favor the theory that these men are the dead of the 5th New Jersey, killed by Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade on July 2nd while on picket duty stretched between the Spangler Farm and the Sherfy Farm.
It rained, it poured, for days. Some have ventured to guess that a hurricane slowly moved through the area, dumping tropical rains on the Pennsylvania countryside.
The three days of killing on the fields surrounding the town of Gettysburg had made for very hot work. By day, the sun burned through the hazy humidity warming the air into the mid to upper 80s, and by night, it likely never went below the upper 60s. And coming a mere ten days after the summer solstice, those hot days allowed for maximum daylight hours – hours that could be used for the butchery of battle. It was rarely wasted, with most fights going from the afternoon, into the evening, and sometimes continuing all night long. It was hot, all three days…hot and dry.
Now, though, the great cleansing had begun. The armies had moved off, and Nature was doing its best to cleanse itself from this great killing that occurred over these beautiful rocky fields, and through these woods and orchards. It was as if it was eager to remove the scars of an insult, but even for Nature it was too late. The ground had been hallowed by blood, and by blood its hallowing would remain. And nothing, ever, would sully that hallowing.
[Reposted with permission from GettysBLOG]