Monday, December 18, 2017

Gettysburg -- Mahone's Night Attack, July 2, 1863


"The suspense was unbearable, especially as, after awhile, some talk of instructing the men to fasten white bandages of some sort to the left arms began to be whispered about--the suggestion coming, as such things do, from nowhere and everywhere . . . . I have never heard, nor do any of the reports contain, any illusion to this abandoned project."  - William E. Cameron
Map of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Schuyler, LOC 

Below are two accounts from veterans of William Mahone's brigade describing a night attack planned for July 2 against the Union center at Gettysburg. For much of the 2nd, Mahone’s men remained in reserve at McMillan’s Woods on Seminary Ridge as other brigades in Richard Anderson's division conducted attacks across the Emmitsburg Road. However, sometime after dark, Mahone's regiments gathered for a night assault. Before the Virginians lunged ahead into the darkness though, the operation was called off. George S. Bernard and William E. Cameron, both members of the 12th Virginia, recalled the movement after the war. Their complete reminiscences of the Gettysburg Campaign are in Civil War Talks:  Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans.   

 George S. Bernard, 12th Virginia Infantry
  "it was . .  proposed to make a night attack" -
 
George S. Bernard
The foregoing entry in the diary, made on the battlefield during the afternoon of Friday, July the 3rd, the day of the great battle, omits a move, made about dark on the preceding evening, which no man in Mahone’s brigade who took part in it can ever forget. After the heavy fighting on the right, in which a portion of our division as mentioned was engaged, it was, as we understood, proposed to make a night attack, and for that purpose our brigade was taken from its position in a body of woods, or grove, on the slope of the hill where it had been since the forenoon, and marched some two hundred or more yards to our right and there taken to the crest of the hill, preparatory, as we all thought, to beginning a charge. 


It was, indeed, a serious and trying time, as we stood on the crest in readiness to move, the open fields to our right and front being then traversed by occasional shells whose blazing fuses made their pathway plainly visible, every man feeling that the order to go forward would soon come. Fortunately, however, for our particular command the order that came--and it came after a suspense of only a few minutes--took us, not forward to make an attack, but back to our former position, Gen. Lee having determined not to make the proposed assault. That we retraced our steps with a feeling of relief, it is hardly necessary to state. This incident of the evening of the 2nd of July, when writing in my diary on the afternoon of the 3rd, I overlooked, or deemed not worthy of mention in connection with the other over-shadowing events of those two days that were briefly recorded.

 William Cameron, 12th Virginia
Adjutant, Mahone’s Brigade
"I expect the heart of every man in the column was in his mouth"
WE Cameron.jpg
William E. Cameron
" . . . we were ordered out of the woods and conducted to the front by a route inclining to our right, through the wheat field occupied by our skirmishers, to a position between our main line and that of the enemy, confronting, but somewhat obliquely, Cemetery Hill. The movement was made in perfect silence, without a word in explanation of its object, and I expect the heart of every man in the column was in his mouth--I know mine was--as we stole silently and swiftly through the starlit, but dark night, to what was conjectured to be some perilous enterprise. Having penetrated the field towards the Federal stronghold to the distance of some six hundred yards, maybe more, possibly not so far--I am giving my impressions--we halted in line behind a tall worm-fence. 

Then, through the utter stillness, I could hear the muffled tread of other marchers, and through the mist in the valley see indistinctly other bodies of men to the right and left. The suspense was unbearable, especially as, after awhile, some talk of instructing the men to fasten white bandages of some sort to the left arms began to be whispered about--the suggestion coming, as such things do, from nowhere and everywhere. This smacked of a night assault, and recalled what I had read about forlorn hopes. I determined to find out something, and crept along the fence until I saw a group of horsemen, among whom were Generals Longstreet and Anderson. Their talk soon enlightened me that an attack in the dark was contemplated, though I could not hear all that was said. 

The discussion lasted some minutes, during which there seemed to be some difference of opinion between the two officers. At last, General Longstreet said in distinct tones--the reasons for caution having presumably ceased with the decision--“It would be best not to make the attempt. Let the troops return.” In less than five minutes we are on our way back and soon regained our former station. Just on arriving there, before the ranks had been broken, one solitary shell from the enemy whistled through the blackness and burst, it seemed to me, immediately among the men. Then all was still again. No one was hurt, and the remaining hours to daylight were unbroken by any sound save on occasional shot on the distant picket posts. I have never heard, nor do any of the reports contain, any illusion to this abandoned project.