Hood’s Letter to Longstreet
June 28, 1875
New Orleans, LA., June 28, 1875
General James Longstreet:
–General, I have not responded earlier to your letter of April 5th, by reason of pressure of business, which rendered it difficult for me to give due attention to the subject in regard to which you have desired information.
You are correct in your assumption that I failed to make a report of the operations of my division around Suffolk, Va., and of its action in the battle of Gettysburg, in consequence of a wound which I received in this engagement. In justice to the brave troops under my command at this period, I should here mention another cause for this apparent neglect of duty on my part. Before I recovered from the severe wound received at Gettysburg, your corps (excepting Pickett’s Division) was ordered to join General Bragg, in the West, for battle against Rosecranz; my old troops—with whom I had served so long—were thus to be sent forth to another Army—quasi, I May say, among strangers—to take part in a great struggle; and upon an appeal from a number of the brigade and regimental officers of my division, I consented to accompany them, although I had but the use of one arm. This movement to the West soon resulted in the battle of Chickamauga, where I was again so seriously wounded as to cause the loss of a limb. These severe wounds in close succession, in addition to the all-absorbing duties and anxieties attending the last year of the war, prevented me from submitting subsequently a report, as likewise one after the battle of Chickamauga, in which engagement—whilst you led the left wing—I had the honor of commanding your corps together with three divisions of the Army of Tennessee, respectively under A.P. Stewart, Bushrod Johnson and Hindman. Thus, the gallantry of these troops, as well as the admirable conduct of my division at Gettysburg, I have left unrecorded.
With this apology for seeming neglect, I will proceed to give a brief sketch, from memory, of the events forming the subject of your letter:
My recollection of the circumstances connected with the attempt, whilst we were lying in front of Suffolk, to reach General Lee in time to participate in the battle of Chancellorsville, is very clear. The order directing your corps to move to the support of General Lee was received about the time Hooker crossed the Rappahannock. Unfortunately we had been compelled by scarcity of forage to send off our wagons into North Carolina to gather a supply from that State. A short delay necessarily ensued, as couriers had to be dispatched for requisite transportation before the troop s could move. Every effort, however, was made to get to Lee at the earliest moment. If my memory betrays me not, you repaired in advance of your corps to Petersburg or Richmond, having issued orders for us to march with all possible speed to Lee, on the Rappahannock. I was most anxious to get to the support of my old chief, and made strenuous efforts to so; but, whilst on a forced march to accomplish this object, I received intelligence of our victory at Chancellorsville, and of Jackson’s mortal wound. We, nevertheless, continued our march, and eventually went into bivouac upon the Rapidan, near Gordonsville.
After the battle of Chancellorsville, preparations were made for an offensive campaign.
Accordingly, my troops moved out of camp, crossed the Rapidan about the 5th June, 1863, and joined in the general move in the direction of the Potomac. We crossed the river about the middle of the same month, and marched into Pennsylvania. Hill’s and Ewell’s Corps were in advance, and were reported to be in the vicinity of Carlisle. Whilst lying in camp, not far distant from Chambersburg, information was received that Ewell and Hill were about to come in contact with the enemy near Gettysburg. My troops, together with McLaws’s Division, were put in motion upon the most direct road to that point, which, after a hard march, we reached before or at sunrise on the 2d of July. So imperative had been the orders to hasten forward with all possible speed, that on the march my troops were allowed to halt and rest only about two hours, during the night from the 1st to the 2d of July.
I arrived with my staff in front of the heights of Gettysburg shortly after daybreak, as I have already stated, on the morning of the 2d of July. My division soon commenced filing into an open field near me, where the troops were allowed to stack arms and rest until further orders. A short distance in advance of this point, and during the early part of that same morning, we were both engaged in company with General s Lee and A. P. Hill, in observing the position of the Federals. General Lee—with coat buttoned to the throat, sabre-belt buckled round the waist, and field glasses pending at his side—walked up and down in the shade of the large trees near us, halting now and then to observe the enemy. He seemed full of hope, yet, at times, buried in deep thought. Colonel Freemantle, of England, was ensconced in the forks of a tree not far off, with glass in constant use, examining the lofty position of the Federal Army.
General Lee was, seemingly, anxious you should attack that morning. He remarked to me, “The enemy is here, and if we do not whip him, he will whip us.” You thought it better to await the arrival of Pickett’s Division—at that time still in the rear—in order to make the attack; and you said to me, subsequently, whilst we were seated together near the trunk of a tree: “The General is a little nervous this morning; he wishes me to attack; I do not wish to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off.”
Thus passed the forenoon of that eventful day, when in the afternoon—about 3 o’clock—it was decided to no longer await Pickett’s Division, but to proceed to our extreme right and attack up the Emmetsburg road. McLaws moved off, and I followed with my division. In a short time I was ordered to quicken the march of my troops, and to pass to the front of McLaws.
This movement was accomplished by throwing out an advanced force to tear down fences and clear the way. The instructions I received were to place my division across the Emmetsburg road, form line of battle, and attack. Before reaching this road, however, I had sent forward some of my picked Texas scouts to ascertain the position of the enemy’s extreme left flank. They soon reported to me that it rested upon Round Top Mountain; that the country was open, and that I could march through an open woodland pasture around Round Top, and assault the enemy in flank and rear; that their wagon trains were packed in rear of their line, and were badly exposed to our attack in that direction. As soon as I arrived upon the Emmetsburg road, I placed one or two batteries in position and opened fire. A reply from the enemy’s guns soon developed his lines. His left rested on or near Round Top, with line bending back and again forward, forming, as it were, a concave line, as approached by the Emmetsburg road. A considerable body of troops was posted in front of their main line, between the Emmetsburg road and Round Top Mountain. This force was in line of battle upon an eminence near a peach orchard.
I found that in making the attack according to orders, viz.: up the Emmetsburg road, I should have first to encounter and drive off this advanced line of battle; secondly, at the base and along the slope of the mountain, to confront immense boulders of stone, so massed together as to form narrow openings, which would break our ranks and cause the men to scatter whilst climbing up the rocky precipice. I found, moreover, that my division would be exposed to a heavy fire from the main line of the enemy in position on the crest of the high range, of which Round Top was the extreme left, and, by reason of the concavity of the enemy’s main line, that we would be subject to a destructive fire in clank and rear, as well as in front; and deemed it almost an impossibility to clamber along the boulders up this steep and rugged mountain, and, under this number of cross fires, put the enemy to flight. I knew that if the feat was accomplished, it must be at a most fearful sacrifice of as brave and gallant soldiers as ever engaged in battle.
The reconnaissance of my Texas scouts and the development of the Federal lines were effected in a very short space of time; in truth, shorter than I have taken to recall and jot down these facts, although the scenes and events of that day are as clear to my mind as if the great battle had been fought yesterday. I was in possession of these important facts so shortly after reaching the Emmetsburg road, that I considered it my duty to report to you, at once, my opinion that it was unwise to attack up the Emmetsburg road, as ordered, and to urge that you allow me to turn Round Top, and attack the enemy in flank and rear. Accordingly, I dispatched a staff officer, bearing to you my request to be allowed to make the proposed movement on account of the above stated reasons. Your reply was quickly received, “General Lee’s orders are to attack up the Emmetsburg road.” I sent another officer to say that I feared nothing could be accomplished by such an attack, and renewed my request to turn Round Top. Again your answer was, “General Lee’s orders are to attack up the Emmetsburg road.” During this interim I had continued the use of the batteries upon the enemy, and had become more and more convinced that the Federal line extended to Round Top, and that I could not reasonably hope to accomplish much by the attack as ordered. In fact, it seemed to me the enemy occupied a position by nature so strong—I may say impregnable—that, independently of their flank fire, they could easily repel our attack by merely throwing and rolling stones down the mountain side, as we approached.
A third time I dispatched one of my staff to explain fully in regard to the situation, and suggest that you had better come and look for yourself. I selected, in this instance, my adjutant-general, Colonel Harry Sellers, whom you know to be not only an officer of great courage, but also of marked ability. Colonel sellers returned with the same message, “General Lee’s orders are to attack up the Emmetsburg road.” Almost simultaneously, Colonel Fairfax, of your staff, rode up and repeated the above orders.
After this urgent protest against entering the battle at Gettysburg, according to instructions—which protest is the first and only one I every made during my entire military career—I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.
As my troops were moving forward, you rode up in person; a brief conversation passed between us, during which I again expressed the fears above mentions, and regret at not being allowed to attack in flank around Round Top. You answered to this effect, “We must obey the orders of General Lee.” I then rode forward with my line under a heavy fire. IN about twenty minutes, after reaching the peach orchard, I was severely wounded in the arm, and borne from the field.
With this wound terminated my participation in this great battle. As I was borne off on a litter to the rear, I could but experience deep distress of mind and heart at the thought of the inevitable fate of my brave fellow-soldiers, who formed one of the grandest divisions of the world renowned army; and I shall ever believe that had I been permitted to turn Round Top Mountain, we would not only have gained that position, but have been able finally to rout the enemy.
I am, respectfully, yours,
J. B. Hood
Hood, John B., Advance & Retreat, The Autobiography of General J. B. Hood, Konecky & Konecky, NY. ISBN 1-56852-184-7. pp 59-65.