Alfred Carpenter's letter on the Third Day of the Battle of Gettysburg (excerpt)
We roused before day, but late in the morning, July 3rd, everything was quiet as death along the whole line, but not even the private soldier was deceived, he knew it presaged a storm which at last broke upon us with all its fury. We lay behind a ridge of land about three feet in height. All at once the guns opened and from morn till middle of afternoon it raged with terrific violence. Flat upon the ground we lay, while the vertical rays of the July sun rendered the heat almost intolerable. To rise up was almost certain death, while flat upon the ground we were tolerable well protected. If the shots went high enough to go above the ridge they went over us; if they struck the ridge, they ricocheted over our prostrate bodies though uncomfortable near and occasionally falling among us.
The Rebels could not injure us much except by bursting shells in the air in front of us, and as their object was to silence our batteries they did us little damage, though shot and shell flew over us in such rapid succession that it was impossible to count them, and very near to our bodies at times, one shell actually tearing the knap sack from a mans back as he lay face downward. There were over two hundred guns at work in this part of the line, firing as fast as men could load them. The noise it produced, the whistling of solid shot; the screeching of shells; the bursting of spherical case; the explosion of cassions, the roar of the pieces is indescribable. I can think of no adjective or collection of adjectives that will describe it. It must be seen, heard, felt, to be understood. How a wounded man attempts to go back to a hospital and perhaps is cut down before he can go in the rear of the ridge fifteen rods behind us. A case of sun-stroke and his comrades start to carry him off; perhaps one of their number is looped off; perhaps all pass uninjured. By turning on our backs we can see our artillery. It is getting roughly handled. A dozen of our cassions have already exploded. Gun after gun is dismounted by the solid shots of the enemy.
Here is a battery abandoned because there are not enough men left to work it or horses to take it off. There is a battery of Napoleons in the same situation, because the guns have become so heated that cartridges explode before they can be rammed home. There goes a battery to the rear because they have no more ammunition. Our fire begins to slacken. "Have they silenced our Artillery?" is the anxious question that flashes through our minds. An aid rides down the line; "men of the Second Corps, the General relies on you to hold this line; by the right flank march." We sprang to our feet and could then see what was up. On the opposite slope a long line of Rebel infantry was advancing, while a short distance behind them was a second line as support. Almost instantly our whole line bristled with fresh artillery which opened upon the enemy making a terrible havoc in their ranks. Wide gaps were opened but were immediately closed and line came on in splendid order, down the slope, across the plain, over the ravine and are now half way up the hill towards us. We had watched them all this while with the utmost impatience, scarcely able to restrain our fire, though knowing that at such a distance it would be comparatively harmless. They are now within musket range and our infantry open; men stagger from their ranks by scores, hundred, thousands, but on they come like an inrolling wave of the sea. They have gained a part of our line; the rest of their line is within a few rods of us; but torn, bleeding, decimated, they can come no farther. They are determined not to yield, for they halt, plant their colors, and wait for their reserve to come up. Time after time these colors fall, but are quickly caught up until scarcely a man is left around them. Their support advances, but our artillery pour into them such a fire that they reel, turn and fly. Then came a charge in which the character of the man and material of regiments are shown up.
On our immediate right a three years Philadelphia regiment, the 72nd Pennsylvania, was ordered to charge. They advanced a short distance wavered, fell back, and could not be got forward. On our immediate left a regiment of none months men from Vermont Green Mountain boys, numbering between three and four hundred men more than our whole brigade, when ordered to charge, advanced across the field into that fire with as much apparent coolness, as much steadiness and with as perfect a line as I ever saw a regiment of veterans pass in review on a gala day. Vermont stock suddenly rose, while Pennsylvania went down below zero.
But the Rebs were driven and the field won, the old 2nd Corps reduced to 7,000, taking 22 stands of color, and our division some 2,000 prisoners. 1st Minnesotas color staff was shot away, but capturing a Rebel color, we spliced the Rebel staff to the Union colors, and thus we carry what is left of our flag.
For two hours we had fought desperately. The men seemed inspired and fought with a determination unconquerable. I believe they would have died or taken on the spot before yielding. Men fell about us unheeded, unnoticed; we scarcely knew they were falling, so great was the intensity of attention to approaching foe. Our muskets became so heated we could no longer handle them. We dropped them and picked up those of the wounded. Our cartridges gave out. We rifled the boxes of the dead. Artillerymen from the disabled pieces in our rear sprang forward, and seizing guns and cartridges from the wounded, fought by our side as infantrymen. Many of the men became deaf, and did not recover their hearing for a day or two. It was a grand and terrible scene. I wish I could paint it to you as I was and felt it.
The field is ours. Can we not go and care for the wounded? No, another attack is suspected, and every well man must be in his place. Hospital attendant must take care of the wounded till darkness closes down about us. Then we go supperless to sleep, our bed, Mother Earth; our covering, the broad canopy of the starry decked Heavens; the unburied dead sleeping around us.