Battle Studies: Perspectives on the Battle of Gettysburg by An Observer With the Army of Northern Virginia

Of the great body of writing on the American Civil War, perhaps little is more compelling to our modern audience than the first-hand accounts of its participants. There are many kinds of such accounts, including memoirs, diaries, letters, maps, an…

This post was first published on the Civil War Institute’s previous blog901 Stories from Gettysburg.

By Mary Roll

Of the great body of writing on the American Civil War, perhaps little is more compelling to our modern audience than the first-hand accounts of its participants. There are many kinds of such accounts, including memoirs, diaries, letters, maps, and photographs. Additionally, the war years saw various observers accompanying Union and Confederate armies alike. Some of these witnesses were reporters, detailing battles and campaigns for newspapers and magazines, while others were foreign military officers who attached themselves to American armies and kept diligent records of their experiences. One of these men, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a British army officer who was present with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg, wrote vividly and extensively of his experiences and observations made while accompanying Lee’s men on the road to Gettysburg. He carried his descriptive narrative through until the din of battle had faded and the Army of Northern Virginia found itself once again in retreat across the Potomac River. Fremantle’s writings offer modern readers a unique perspective on the events of July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, 1863, and place us directly on the ground with Lee and his officers. Over the course of the three days of battle, Fremantle directly witnessed Lee’s meetings with his officers and staff. Fremantle also watched the unfolding events of July 3rd from Seminary Ridge, in the company of Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Fremantle spent a significant amount of time in the company of Lee, Longstreet, and their staffs, and the records he left behind demonstrate that his time spent with these men allowed him to see beyond the myths and legends of the decisions they made and positions they held. Additionally, Fremantle captures quite well how Lee’s common soldiers engaged with notions of duty and pride, as reflected in their actions on the field and in the immediate aftermath of defeat at Gettysburg.

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Lieutenant Colonel Fremantle of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards was greatly interested in the unfolding civil war in America, and in early 1863 requested a leave of absence from his own military duties in order to visit the South. In April, the Lieutenant Colonel entered the Confederacy from Mexico after arriving on Royal Navy ship to North America.  He initially spent time in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and other locations in the Deep South. After acquainting himself with the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Fremantle reached General Lee’s headquarters at Berryville in late June. On June 27, he introduced himself to General James Longstreet, whose staff he would accompany for the next two weeks. Fremantle was able to follow the army’s movements through Maryland into Pennsylvania in the relatively close company of Longstreet due to the convenient timing of his initial meeting with him.

His writings are particularly compelling in their demonstration of the certainty with which officers and common soldiers alike believed in Confederate victory in the impending battle. On June 30, Fremantle recorded the following: “I had a long talk with many officers about the approaching battle, which evidently cannot now be delayed long, and will take place on this road instead of in the direction of Harrisburg as we had supposed. . . . Every one, of course, speaks with confidence.” Fremantle explicitly alludes to the belief many Confederates held that their fight would occur someplace other than Gettysburg, but quickly indicates that their apparent change of plans did not hinder the men’s assurances that they would still reign victorious.
Most of Lee’s army spent the night of June 30th camped approximately six miles west of Gettysburg, with the most notable exception being Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps, which had been busy in nearby York and Carlisle but was ordered to return to the rest of army that night. As Fremantle reported, the portion of the Army of Northern Virginia already in close proximity to Gettysburg did not move toward the town until the middle of the day on July 1. Around 2 P.M., he remembered, the approaching Confederates could hear the commencing battle:
At 3 P.M., we began to meet wounded men coming to the rear, and the number of these soon increased most rapidly, some hobbling alone, others on stretchers carried by the ambulance corps, and others in the ambulance wagons. Many of the latter were stripped nearly naked, and displayed very bad wounds. This spectacle, so revolting to a person unaccustomed to such sights, produced no impression whatever upon the advancing troops, who certainly go under fire with the most perfect nonchalance. They show no enthusiasm or excitement, but the most complete indifference. This is the effect of two years’ almost uninterrupted fighting.

Fremantle’s depiction of the marching men’s reaction to oncoming streams of the South’s own wounded is fascinating not only for the details it reveals, but also for the nature of those details. Fremantle plays on the sense of shock many of us would feel at such a sight and juxtaposes this with what he calls the “complete indifference” which these hardened soldiers exhibit, and the “most perfect nonchalance” with which they meet impending battle. Fremantle’s words send a very definite message about Americans at war, but specifically about Southerners at war. Lee’s troops are determined and resolute; their intention to succeed seems to be inherent in their demeanor. No matter the outcome, they will fulfill their duty to their homes, states, nation, and their commander. While the men cannot know that defeat will result from the events of the next three days, the esprit de corps on which Col. Fremantle’s June 30th and July 1st observations focus carries through the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Following the catastrophic defeat of July 3rd, Fremantle continued to record his observations of Lee’s army. After watching Pickett’s Charge from his spot next to Longstreet on Seminary Ridge, Fremantle wrote that as Lee found his men broken and shattered in retreat after the failure of the charge, he insisted that “‘All this will come right in the end.’” Lee spoke positively to every wounded man streaming by him, remembered Fremantle, and “very few failed to answer his appeal.” Gravely wounded men still found the energy to “take off their hats and cheer him.” After the battle, Lee took total blame for the defeat and Fremantle’s recollections make note of Lee’s attempts to “encourage and reanimate his somewhat dispirited troops.” Of Lee in these moments, Fremantle wrote: “It was impossible to look at him or to listen to him without feeling the strongest admiration.”

Like his observations of July 1st, Fremantle’s memories of July 3rd demonstrate the surplus of confidence the men of the Army of Northern Virginia had at Gettysburg. Many of the officers and gunners were surprised to find that the Army of the Potomac was not gearing up for a counterattack against Lee’s battered army or making any noticeable movements to prepare for pursuit of the Confederates in their retreat south. Fremantle noted a general feeling amongst the men of “excellent spirits and full confidence.” Even after the events of a few hours before, the Confederates stood ready for renewal of the fight. One sergeant, according to Fremantle, “expressed his ardent hope that the Yankees might have spirit enough to advance and receive the dose he [and his guns] had in readiness for them.” The men had not lost their faith in Lee’s leadership, and Fremantle remembered them expressing their belief that “this day’s work won’t do him no harm [sic].” Even as Lee blamed himself for the events at Gettysburg, his men refused to do so.

Fremantle’s observations made during his time with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia overwhelmingly indicate a great spirit of honor and eager willingness to make trying sacrifices for the good of a cause far greater than the self. Dedication to cause, comrade, and commander characterizes the very essence of Lee’s army, and even the horrors of defeat could not change this. Through official military surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865 and into the oracle of future reconciliation, commemoration, and memory, this spirit stays with Lee’s army. Even in suffering great political and military loss, former Confederate soldiers refused to concede their romanticized reputation for valor, courage, and bravery in defense of their principles and independence, and would not allow their revered General Lee to carry the burden of failure. Fremantle’s wartime observations provide us with a great testament to the resolve and earnestness of the men of the Army of Northern Virginia.


Sources:

Fremantle, Arthur J. L. The Fremantle Diary: A Journal of the Confederacy, Walter Lord, ed. Burford Books, 2001.

Gallagher, Gary W., ed. Two Witnesses At Gettysburg: The Personal Accounts of Whitelaw Reid and A.J.L. Fremantle. St. James, New York: Brandywine Press, 2009.

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