One hundred and fifty-two years ago today, “the music commenced” at Gettysburg. The quoted phrase comes from Private Oney F. Sweet, who made reference to the artillery barrages that signaled the beginning of battle.
Confederate General Lee had marched his army from Virginia into Pennsylvania, and the Union forces made a counter move to cut him off. They collided at the small town of Gettysburg.
Sweet and his comrades in Ricketts’ Battery — Battery F of the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery — were held in reserve that first day of battle. Sweet’s diary entry for July 1 leaves the impression that it was just another day.
Wednesday, July 1, 1863
A cloudy morning, but cleared off near noon. 12 o’clock and we are now in camp. Got two papers. We expected to march but did not.
The following day, his section was ordered into battle and positioned on East Cemetery Hill. His terse diary entries don’t tell the whole story:
Thursday, July 2, 1863
A warm and pleasant day. Marched to Gettysburg. Went into the fight about six o’clock and had a hard fight. Lost about twenty killed and wounded. Myron French, Riggin, Anderson, Miller killed. The Rebels charged on our Battery about dark, but were repulsed. Nead, Given and O. G. Larabee were taken prisoner.
Although Sweet doesn’t mention it, he was wounded in one leg and lost his hearing in one ear.
Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, he wrote retrospective pieces about what has become known as the bloodiest and deadliest battle of the U.S. Civil War. He was also quoted in a historical publication and a newspaper.
The History of Franklin and Cero Gordo Counties (Iowa, 1883) cites him as saying he saw twenty-three of his comrades fall around him in as many minutes.
In a letter published in The National Tribune, April 29, 1909, Sweet wrote: “I pulled the lanyard for every shot from that gun.” In 1931, he told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, that his gun “fired 101 times” during the fighting on July 2.
He also wrote:
The music commenced. . . . If I remember thinking at all it was of mother at home.
The unwritten part of our war is greater than all that has been written. Two soldiers side by side in a hot place in our battles did not see the same things. The generals did not see what the privates saw.
A brigade of rebels known as the Louisiana Tigers had formed in a street of Gettysburg, marched to the edge of town and given that never to be forgotten yell “Yep, Yep, Yep.” The chief of artillery had ordered all the captains of batteries at this point to fight and man the guns as long as they could and make no effort to save the guns as our support, the infantry, in the Baltimore Pike would do the rest. When this racket commenced and our infantry was forced back through us we ceased shelling and prepared to give them grape and cannister.
The men at the Union batteries were outnumbered, but they clung to their guns, and with handspikes, rammers, fence rails, and stones, defended themselves, cheering each other on, and shouting, “Death on our own State soil, rather than give the enemy our guns.” (Bates, 1868)
The Louisiana Tigers, for the first time in the war, were turned back and forced to retreat. The following day the fighting continued until the Confederate army withdrew and returned to Virginia.
Sweet wrote in his diary:
Friday, July 3, 1863
A warm, pleasant day. Heavy fighting all day. Pryne and Christie wounded in the leg. The Rebs were repulsed at every point. General Longstreet wounded and taken prisoner. Very hard fighting all day.
In 1931, speaking to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Oney F. Sweet summed up what, in hindsight, became the turning point of the war:
My first big fight was the second Battle of Bull Run, and there I showed the Johnnies I could beat them in a foot race. In fact, we seemed to make it a practice of running pretty nearly every time we came to grips with the rebels until Gettysburg. After, we didn’t run any more.
The deadly battle had ended, but the war dragged on for more than a year and a half.
In another retrospective piece written for the The National Tribune, Sweet commented on the historical renditions of the battle and the war:
I realize that to average youth, patriotic tho it may be, the historian has brought but dull statistics and hackneyed description. Of the hot-blooded young fellows who fell at my side in private uniforms, the [historians] know as a number killed, while I see again their tanned faces grow blanch and hear their dying cry of farewell to friends about. Of the more famous few, whom school books have pictured and orators have lauded, they may know as heroes, but not as men.
The complete articles, along with Oney F. Sweet’s previously unpublished letters and diaries, have been recently published in What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet.
Through his words, we come to know him and his comrades not as heroes, but as men.
For information about the book, visit the official website: http://whattheprivatesaw.com.
Read Book reviews.