Pvt G.F. Newton at Gettysburg
Author's note: Some of the information included here is courtesy of D. G. Newton.
By early summer, 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was not only battle-hardened, it was also battle-weary, and perpetually hungry. In late June, it was coming off three weeks of rest following the victory over McClellan's Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. It was also still reeling from the loss of the Confederacy's most audacious commander, Stonewall Jackson.
This sense of loss was especially deep in those who served under him, including Pvt. George F. Newton of Company C, 61st Georgia Infantry Regiment of General John B. Gordon's Brigade. In one of those unexplainable, tragic accidents of war, General Jackson was shot down by his own men as he surveyed the scene of victory at dusk on the Chancellorsville battlefield.
But no one could have felt the loss more deeply than Robert E. Lee, a master of the understatement, who said, when told of the death, "I have lost my right arm." He and Jackson were both Virginians, though of different social backgrounds. Both were West Point graduates and both were superb military leaders -- strategists as well as tacticians, and both possessed that rarest talent, the unerring ability to inspire men to march into the jaws of death.
There is no replacing a man like Jackson, simply because no one else in either army possessed his particular set of skills. Lee would feel the loss for the rest of the war, but never so deeply as in the next battle, at a little crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
Lee had brought his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania for several reasons, all important. His army needed a provisions. Virginia was just about bled dry by the demands of the two armies since the first battle in 1861. Pennsylvania was rich, lush farm country, and its farmers were among the nation's best. It was truly a land of plenty. Soon after Lee's arrival, trains of wagons burdened heavily with the produce of the region began making their way south, all scrupulously paid for with Confederate currency and promissory notes.
Lee also meant to keep the federals guessing about his intentions. From his maneuvering through middle Pennsylvania, he could threaten Harrisburg, the capitol, and Philadelphia; or he could swing eastward and attack Washington from the back door. At this point in the war, he and the Southern leadership still thought they could gain support of the European powers with a major victory, such as the capture of Washington, and that the Federal government would be forced to sue for peace.
We must remember that all the South wanted was for the invading Union army to go back north, and to be left in peace within its own boundaries. It wanted nothing from the U.S. government but to be left alone. The real importance of the defeat at Gettysburg lies in the fact that a subsequent attack on Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and on the U.S. Capitol became impossible.
Lee did not want a fight at Gettysburg. It helps explain why he appeared so tentative and hesitant about making a robust, aggressive commitment to the battle. We cannot help but consider how different it might have been if Lee had had the bold support of Jackson, and the eyes of his calvary in Jeb Stuart, rather than Longstreet's caution, and Hill's disobedience. Some say that had Lee avoided the defeat in that battle, the ultimate outcome would have been the same--Gettysburg would have occurred in some other small crossroads town whose name would now occupy the same prominence.
In late June, General Jubal Early's Division, of which Gordon's Brigade was a part, was ordered to the east, to try and capture a bridge over the shallow but wide Susquehanna River. The dusty Georgians marched through Gettysburg unmolested on Sunday, June 28, enroute to Wrightsville, Pa, via York. As they approached Wrightsville, a small village perched on the banks of the river, the local militia set the mile-long covered bridge on fire. Gordon's men begged the townspeople for buckets to fight the fire, but not one appeared, and the bridge continued to blaze merrily away, burning in both directions.
Started some distance from the west bank, embers from the fire were soon blown into the town, and the lumberyard caught fire first. Then the flames began to spread to adjacent houses and businesses. According to General Gordon's account, his men were suddenly deluged with buckets, and pans, and tubs, where a short while earlier, not one was to be found. His men jumped to the task and put the fire out, saving the town. No doubt the tired, dusty soldiers enjoyed a romp in the shallows of the river after the excitement died down, their first bath in a long time.
This was the deepest penetration by such a large force into Yankee territory during the entire war, although another Confederate unit went farther north, to the outskirts of Harrisburg, the same day. With just a bit of luck, Private George Newton and his comrades would have spent that Sunday night on the east bank of the river and would have held the bridge for a major confederate crossing in the coming week. But that was not to be.
On Monday morning, the brigade moved out to the north, planning to join the rest of Early's Division on the south side of the river from Harrisburg. They spent that night, the 29th, northeast of Gettysburg, at Heidlersburg, where they were ordered to hold, awaiting further orders. General Lee, deprived as he was of the eyes of Jeb Stuart's cavalry, was becoming nervous about the location of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Civilian spies reported large Federal forces were moving north toward Gettysburg.
In any event, Lee felt the need to begin pulling his scattered, foraging, army back together. If the spies reports proved correct, the Union army, in great numbers, was approaching Gettysburg from the south, and looking for a fight. Most of his troops were north and west of Gettysburg. Before dawn the next morning -- Lee was awakened with news of the whereabouts of the Federal army and that, Gen. George McClellan, had been replaced by Gen. George Gordon Meade, a more aggressive commander who immediately began to make plans for a major confrontation with Lee, wherever he was to be found.
Throughout the morning of Wednesday, July 1, 1863, Gordon's Brigade, only nine or ten miles from Gettysburg, awaited its marching orders. Near noon, they finally came: there was fighting at Gettysburg and the Georgians were ordered to make all haste to support the troops who were already engaged.
Earlier that morning, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, in direct contravention of Lee's orders, sent two brigades, into Gettysburg from the west. They ran into what they thought was a patrol of local militia and soon a brisk fight erupted. It turned out that the Federals were not militia at all, but hardened veterans -- the same "Black Hat" brigade that the 61st had encountered a year earlier at Brawner's Farm on the evening before Second Manassas.
The battle began to escalate as more and more troops from both sides pitched in. At midday, another Southern division joined the battle from the northwest, and the fighting formed a long three to four mile arc around the northwestern quadrant of the town. The Union 11th Corps, the same unit that had performed so poorly at Chancellorsville, was formed in a long battle line on the north side of town to stop the Confederate advance.
The battle see-sawed back and forth with a great many casualties on both sides, but with very little movement until about 3 :30 in the afternoon. That's when Early's Division, including Gordon's Brigade, arrived. Gordon was immediately ordered to attack the extreme right of the Federal 11th Corps, in what must have seemed to some Union troops, a repeat of the nightmare at Chancellorsville. Gordon pressed the attack on what is now known as Barlow's Knoll in honor of the Federal division commander, Gen. Francis Barlow, who fell, mortally wounded, it was thought, in that battle.
Within about thirty minutes, the Confederate onslaught uprooted the Union troops who began a headlong retreat toward the town a half mile to the south. A brief rally was made among the buildings of the Alms House (a northern version of the old Colquitt County Prison Farm). We suspect that it was either here, or in the earlier fight for the knoll, between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon of July 1, that the war ended for Pvt. George F. Newton, and a battle of a different kind, for his very life, began. A Union .58 caliber Minie ball destroyed his left arm at the elbow.
Only someone who has experienced a wound of this magnitude can begin to imagine the agony he at once felt. He told his sons that he passed out, and later, as the battle moved beyond, he was lying among the dead and wounded. He received no aid for several hours, and by then the pain was so bad he cried out for God's help, and for his Moma. Still no help until that evening, and nothing to ease the pain. The bleeding had slowed somewhat by nightfal, but the the flies were all over him. Anywhere there was blood, they were there.
He suffered with the shattered arm for three more days, receiving morphine only once, before it was finally amputated by Federal surgeons. His Captain, a neighbor, from back home in Brooks County, told him that if he tried to retreat with the Confederate Army, he would surely die in the wagons. His only chance was to remain on the battlefield and be captured. It was well-known that the Federal surgeons were more skilled, as a rule, more numerous and better equipped. His best chance of survival would be to surrender.
We know he almost died from the wound and the subsequent infection. More soldiers in both armies died from disease and infection than from all of their wounds combined. Of the almost 7, 000 Southern prisoners taken at Gettysburg, most had been shipped to prisons or other hospitals by the end of July, but George wasn't well enough for transport for about three months. Finally,he was shipped to a makeshift Union hospital in Baltimore, Md., where he recuperated until well enough to be exchanged for a Union private at Richmond, Va., in November.
In Richmond, he recovered further care in a Confederate hospital for a brief time. He made the rash decision to leave the hospital in Richmond, determined to spend that Christmas, in the "bosom of his family." His journey back to south Georgia deserves another chapter, for later. During the next year he Was in and out of the Confederate hospital at Madison, Florida, where he was finally decreed unfit for further service and retired because of disability.