By: Major Charles A Hale, Aide to Col. Edward E. Cross
It was my privilege to be intimately associated with Colonel Cross during the last twenty-seven days of his life; from June 7, 1863 to the time of his death at Gettysburg in the second day's battle when in command of the first brigade in Hancock's old division.
That comprised the only time that it was his fortune to have a command distinct from his regiment, and to my surprise and gratification he had detailed me for duty with him on the brigade staff.
The Colonel evidently had a strong premonition of his death. It did not seem to effect him much, in fact it effected me more than it did himself for I was then only a smooth-faced boy of nineteen, while he was a long bearded man of thirty-one, but having been more or less in contact with him from the time the regiment was organized, I had come to know him intimately and understood something of his moods.
On Sunday morning the twenty-eighth of June, as the Second corps was marching along by Sugar-loaf mountain near Boonesboro in Maryland, our Captain Butler of the Fifth who was connected with the Signal corps of the Army, met us by the roadside and kept company with us for several hours.
Captain Butler rode on the Colonel's right and myself on the left, but I was taking little part in the conversation that was mainly on matters pertaining to the regiment. He told Butler about the magnificent sword, spurs and watch that had been presented to him at Falmouth, a testimonial from the officers of his regiment expressing the sentiment of an injunction uttered by Captain Perry as he lay dying amidst the slaughter of Fredericksburg. As he spoke of the matter in a pleased animated way, I saw that the colonel had been touched and gratified by this evidence of esteem from his loyal followers.
Finally, the conversation turned on the impending struggle that we were hastening forward to, and at last the Colonel said, It will be my last battle." He used the words in a grave decided way, and it gave me a shock, and also a feeling of resentment that he should speak in that manner; then I recalled to myself that in the last day or so he had at times seemed in a sort of abstracted mood that was not usual with him.
At last he said to me;"Mr. Hale, I wish you to attend to my books and papers; that private box of mine in the headquarters wagon; you helped me re-pack it the other day. After the campaign is over, get it at once, dry the contents if damp, and then turn it over to my brother Richard."
On the following day the 29th when we made the long march of thirty miles, he spoke of the matter again in the presence of all his staff; again the feeling of resentment came to me, and I said something about the foolishness of entertaining such ideas, for at that time I did not believe such things possible. There were some other matters that he had rasped me also, and, it finally led to his having some sharp words with me, that strained our friendly relations until the evening of the following day at Uniontown.
On the first of July, as we marched through and beyond Taneytown, he did not allude to the subjectonce, and as he was in his usual lively spirits, I thought of the matter several times during the
day, and concluded that he had dismissed the subject from his mind. But on the following day, the second of July, soon after we had take up the line of march and were rapidly approaching the battle field, he said to me in a grave, firm, way, Mr. Hale:-attend to that box of mine at the first opportunity; that was all, but it convinced me that he was in dead earnest and had firm conviction of impending fate.
The division arrived over the Taneytown road at six a.m. and was at once massed in closed column of regiments in line of battle The division arrived over the Taneytown road at six a.m. and was at once massed in closed column of regiments in line of battle by brigades(see diagram above), right in front, our first brigade being on the left. This was on a portion of what is now called Cemetery ridge, half to three quarters of a mile north of Little roundtop. We saw brigades out along the fields in our front where they had evidently bivouaced(sic) during the night, and the Colonel rode out in that direction. In a few minutes he returned and said to me "Give my compliments to Colonel McKeen, and say that I will be away for twenty minutes or so." then he rode out again unattended.
He returned in a short time in an animated mood; "that is the Third corps out there" he said: "the Second New Hampshire is over there beyond those buildings; the First corps fought a tremendous battle away to the right yesterday, and were defeated; General Howard and his Eleventh corps were again driven back."
His grave manner of the previous days had entirely disappeared; he was now full of fire, showing the sharp impulsive manner that had always possessed him on former battlefields: his eyes flashed as he said to us, "Gentlemen: - it looks as though the whole of Lee's rebel army is right here in Pennsylvania; there will be a great battle fought to-day." I noticed that Colonel McKeen looked sharply at him as though wondering how he had obtained that information; it was not strange, for Colonel Cross had a faculty of observation that was remarkable, and he also displayed a keen judgement in preparation.
Taking McKeen's arm they walked a little ways apart, both heads bent in earnest conversation. Colonel McKeen of the eighty-first Pennsylvania was a younger man but just such another gallant fighter as Cross, and while commanding a brigade he fell in just the same way on the field of Cold Harbor nearly a year later; here he was next in rank to Colonel Cross of the commanders present. After walking a little ways they stopped, grasped hands a moment, then turned and walked back, to where we were standing, Cross saying to the little group who where intently watching them, "Gentlemen: - Colonel McKeen will command the one hundred and forty-eighth Pennsylvania to-day; before night he will probably be commanding the brigade."
We all naturally expected there would soon be a movement, for indications were apparent, and preparations were quickly made, but as the time went on we were standing around impatiently, holding on to bridle-reins, with saddle girths loosened. Occasionally a cannon shot was heard away to the right and the distant pop-pop-pop of rifles on the skirmish line was incessant.
By ten o'clock there was stiring(sic) out in the fields before us, and soon we noted a very deliberate advance, until the Third corps appeared to be forming battle lines along the road three quarters of a mile before us. Again we made ready, anticipating an order to move right out and prolong the line, but none came, and the time was still dragging on. The distressing impression of the previous days were now depening(sic) on my mind; my commander whome(sic) I revered had been talking as though his death warrant was signed, but apparently he was little concerned. As would be natural, there had been considerable comment and discussion among the members of the staff as to what the Colonel had said, much of it having been directed at me as I was nearer to him than the rest.
Now it was noon and the hot July day began to burn; horses were unbridled and given their oats in the nose-bags; soldiers loaded with strings of canteens went down to the swale in our front for water; the men behind the rows of stacked arms prepared coffee and were eating their mid-day meal: the line officers were sitting in little groups together, smoking and discussing the situation, with here and there one pencilling(sic) in a note book or letter writing.
We did not know it then, but can see it now, after we know all that had been transpiring in the twelve hours previous; two of the mightiest armies that ever trod the planet had been swiftly moving into position confronting each other, and while that noon-day silence was ominous to those high in command, we of the rank and file were oblivious to it; the time had developed to a crisis pregnant with mighty issues; the most crucial day of the nation's history confronted us but we knew it not.
One o'clock came and no sign of movement; the men in the regiments were lying on the ground, some just chatting and resting, others sleeping, while here and there little groups were playing "high-low-jack", all as indifferent to the sun as salamanders. When night came a few hours later, many of these brave fellows were dead on the blood soaked ground over in the woods and wheat field in front of the Round tops, others were bleeding and dying alone on ground held by the enemy, while some were painfully working their way back to the rear trying to find the hospitals and succor for their frightful wounds: The tawny-bearded, lion-hearted commander who in the morning and at noon was pacing the ground so restlessly, had been carried back from the blazing front line where he had fallen, and was suffering untold agonies from a bullet wound through the body that was mortal. God's sun never shone on better soldiers than those of Hancock's old division, the wearers of the red trefoil; truer patriots never awaited the command to advance and fight for their country's honor.
By two o'clock the picket firing had grown sharper away out in the woods beyond the Emmittsburg road, and occasional cannon shots indicated something brewing; we could see aides and orderlies galloping along the lines if the Third corps, and closely scanning these developments, our impatience was great and the strain intense.
By three o'clock the artillery was getting warmed up, and occasionally a shell burst in the air overhead indicated that the batteries of the enemy were searching for us. At half past three the cannonade was furious, and in a few minutes came crashes of musketry fire increasing and spreading rapidly. It was a great relief, for the suspense as ended, and we now knew that our lines out there in the front were fighting on the defensive.
The Colonel had for some time been walking back and forth in his quick nervous way, his hands clasped behind his back, a habit that was usual with him. Presently, stopping short where I was standing, he drew out from an inside pocket a large new black silk handkerchief; arrainging(sic) it in folds on his lifted knee, then handing me his hat to hold, he quickly swathed his head with it in turban fashion, tying the two ends behind. We had seen him do this on other fields with a red bandanna and it then amused me somewhat, but under the peculiar circumstances of the few days previous that black handkerchief was appalling. Again he took off his hat, saying "please tie it tighter Mr. Hale"; my hands were trembling as I picked at the knot; "draw it tighter still" he said impatiently, and finally I adjusted it to suit him. By his time the firing was working up towards the right from the Peach orchard while south by the Round tops there was a struggle going on that seemed to be working to our rear.
About this time General Hancock came riding up from the left accompanied by his staff, and for a moment he drew up where Colonel Cross was standing at his horse's head. "Colonel Cross this day will bring you a star," he said in his measured suave manner but the Colonel gravely shook his head as he replied, "No General, this is my last battle;" he spoke calmly, with no apparent emotion, and as the General rode on, turned his attention out in the direction of the Peach orchard, where the battle was now raging at a white heat.
It was now nearly five o'clock; everything was ready, for the long hours of waiting had sufficed for every little detail; In a short time we saw Colonel Wilson of Hancock's staff riding furiously towards General Caldwell our division commander. "Mount. Gentlemen," said Colonel Cross, as he vaulted into the saddle for the last time, and the column was soon swinging down through the fields, the ten hours of weary waiting now forgotten. As the division was moving left in front, it brought our first brigade at the head of the line.
How well Cross rode; I can see him yet; tall in the saddle, straight as an arrow, lithe like an Indian, with a head on his shoulders and everything in the range of vision.
It took but a few minutes to cover the distance of three quarters of a mile, and we neared the scene of conflict there were indications that we were sadly needed, and every second was momentous. Soon we were moving through the woods parallel to, and near the road that runs along the east end of the famous wheatfield. Suddenly two Aides dashed up, one from the division staff, and the other a stranger to us all, but they were evidently on the same mission. The stranger was mounted on a young horse, evidently a new one for every shot that came crashing through the branches set him to plunging furiously, so we had to give him all the room there was for he kicked like a stallion. I was trying to ride in near the Colonel in order to be ready for the first message and heard the Aide say something about General Sykes; then I heard him shout as his horse gave a plunge:--"THE ENEMY IS BREAKING IN DIRECTLY ON YOUR RIGHT:--STRIKE HIM QUICK:-- The Colonel suddenly wheeled his horse and spurring him back along the right of the line as it was coming was shouting an unusual and unexpected order :---BY THE RIGHT FLANK: MARCH:--- Of course there was instant confusion, for it brought the line of battle facing by the rear rank, with the file-closers pushing and crowding through, but in less than ten seconds the line was clear of the timber, and crossing the road, was advancing us steadily into the wheatfield as though on parade.
As we emerged from the woods into the open ground, the bullets from the enemy's skirmishers came buzzing around like bees and we could see the puffs of smoke from their rifles in every direction, showing that we were about to encounter a heavy force. The line was moving up a slight rise of ground in front, and here we all dismounted giving the horse's(sic) in charge of the orderlies. Just as the heads of the men in the ranks cleared the crest of the rise, the enemy posted in the edge of the woods, down back of the stone wall on the south side of the field at once opened on us, and halting just on the crest our line opened fire in return.
This was all done without a halt, and without the loss of a minute in maneuvering; the entire brigade moved with the mobility of a single battalion; four regiments; closed intervals; four sets of field officers; an aggregate strength of about one thousand. Just in the nick of time it was hurled against the enemy, and it struck a tremendous blow. That was the very way the brigades of the first division had been trained to fight.
The wheat had been trampled into the dirt by line after line before we came. Lying flat on the ground, firing at us over the crest as we advanced, was a line of the enemy's skirmishers, but we moved up so quickly they could not get back, and jumping up from the ground they rushed back through our line. "Get a file of men for a guard and hold them Mr. Hale," shouted the Colonel; "look sharp, there's more in the edge of the woods by the wall; there's an officer;--get his sword." As I ran towards him, he laid the blade on the ground under his foot, broke it short at the guard, and scornfully flung the hilt on the ground before me. Colonel McKeen saw the situation and sent me a Sergeant and two men from his line, and we soon had twenty Johnny's corralled back of a little sassafrass thicket growing around an outcropping ledge that is still on the field to this day.
I saw Colonel Cross standing among the men in line, and eagerly scanning the ground in front. Our line was well warmed up, and the enemy along the edge of the woods by the wall below were getting all the hot lead they wanted. But we were catching it hot also, for wounded men were staggering back to the rear, and the dead were getting thick along the ground.
Stepping hastily back the Colonel said, and it was the only time that I ever heard him use a familiar term to subordinate officers while on duty, "Boys:- instruct the commanders to be ready to charge when the order is given; wait here for the command, or, if you hear the bugles of the Fifth New Hampshire on the left, move forward on the run." Then he strode alone into the woods where the right-wing of the one hundred and forty-eighth Pennsylvania and the Fifth New Hampshire, to judge by the sound were tearing things all to pieces. Standing by my prisoners, I looked after him sort of regretfully as he vanished among the trees, and---it was the last glimpse; he never came back, for in less than five minutes he had a mortal wound right there in the woods near by his own regiment, and we who were anxiously waiting for him on the right never knew of it.
But Colonel Brooke, commander of the fourth brigade, had already formed along the road back of us; he saw our now thin line on the crest melting away, and he gave the order:- FORWARD. His line moved quickly up, but he did not halt on the crest, for sweeping down the slope in front he was cleaning up the remnants of the enemy-lines along the stone wall that our fire had not searched. It was a gallant feat of arms, that charge of Colonel Brooke's men, for they pushed the enemy back away beyond the wheatfield.
My prisoners were getting troublesome, and I started them back for the rear keeping as clear of the woods as possible for fear they would make a break. I had noticed that the officer kept his eye on me and was looking sharply at the surroundings. In crossing a fence near the Trostle house, we came to a spring where some wounded men were getting water. Among them was our Lieutenant Gove of the Fifth; he was wounded through the shoulder, his clothing was drenched with blood and he looked white but he was pluckily making his way back to find the hospital.
It was ten o'clock before I found a cavalry patrol of the Provost Marshall's command somewhere along the Baltimore road, and turned over my batch of prisoners. By eleven o'clock I reached the ground where we had been massed during the day. Here I found Colonel McKeen with his staff, and the remnants of the Sixty-first New York, Eighty-first Pennsylvania, and right wing of the One hundred and forty-eighth Pennsylvania. They were in line of battle facing the enemy, but there was only about three hundred officers and men all told.
Colonel McKeen with the staff were standing in a little knot together discussing the situation. They were feeling very sore and dejected over the result of our fight. It certainly looked disheartening; we had held our own, but the loss had been frightful, and we had gained no ground. But what of the morrow? that was the pressing question after such a grinding as we had gone through,---What of the morrow?
As I reported, Colonel McKeen grasped me warmly by the hand and his first question was, "Lieutenant, where is the Fifth New Hampshire?" but I could not tell him anything about it. Lieutenant Hallenbeck said to me with evident emotion, "Colonel Cross was carried back from the line badly wounded within five minutes after he left us;" then I sat right down on the ground, feeling that hope was dead. After a time I proposed to go to the hospitals and find the colonel, but the rest dissuaded me as the orderlies had not returned with the animals.
About midnight Lieutenant Hapgood reported with what was left of the Fifth New Hampshire, less than a hundred officers and men. They had added many laurels to the glorious record of valor of the old first brigade while fighting down there in the woods on the left of the line. It is now well known that the fifth New Hampshire and the right wing of the One hundred and forty-eighth Pennsylvania, held their portion of the line that was in the woods, and fought for fully as hour after the rest of the line in the wheatfield had been fought out. Had they not displayed such wonderful tenacity and endurance, it is more than likely that Colonel Brooke and his men would have all been captured. It has always been considered a wonder to those of us who study these things critically that they did not all go to Richmond as it was.
Along after two o'clock word came from the hospital, that Colonel Cross had died at midnight and that his body had been carried back to Baltimore; within an hour afterwards the great struggle of the third day began to develope(sic); The mighty thunder of the guns along the rock-bound ridges at Gettysburg, was a fitting requiem for the gallant soldier whose body was being borne to his far-away home among the Northern hills.
In the afternoon of that great day, when the fragments of the mighty host that the Southern Chieftain had launched against the crest of Cemetery ridge went drifting back in confusion; and when the tumult and shouting of victory was swelling along the Union lines, some of the Fifth New Hampshire boys thought of the last words of their dead commander, "I think the boys will miss me."
After the campaign was over I at once attended to the injunction of my dead Chief, securing his box of books and papers. With the consent of his brother I retained his well worn copy of the Army Regulations as a memento. On the inside of the cover, in his own hand writing, are a few lines from a New England poet, Percival.
They were evidently jotted down in the book from memory, as the lines are fragmentary.-----
" 'Tis sweet for our country to die
In the front rank to perish;
Breast to the foe
Victory's shout in our ear;
Long they our statues shall crown
And in songs our memories cherish;
We shall look forth from our haven
Pleased the sweet music to hear."
Some years ago while in Cincinnati, I copied from files of one of the city papers of July 4th1863, an editorial by an old time friend of Colonel Cross who was associated with him before the war, that contains a fitting eulogy, and give the following extracts.
"Foremost on the firy battle-lines in front of the hills that evening fell our Ed. E. Cross, Colonel of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers, formerly City Editor of the "Times."---He died unpromoted, a lasting disgrace to the Washington people who slighted him after his valor on the battlefields in Virginia and Maryland.----But the faded eagles on his shoulders will shine with greater luster in the history of that mighty conflict, than though he had borne the insignia of his merited rank, the stars of a Major General."