July 3, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg – a monumental battle that would determine the future of the Republic.
After two days of intensive battle, General Robert E. Lee felt that victory was within reach and ordered General Longstreet to advance against the center of the Union position.* Confederate operations on that day began in high hopes and, after an artillery bombardment of the Union positions, Confederate troops marched across the battlefield to take the Union position and deliver a devastating blow to the Northern war effort. The day ended with the Confederacy routed and the Army of Northern Virginia in retreat. Lee’s gamble on a northern invasion had failed. The laurels for the Union victory on Day 3 belongs to an unassuming and often unsung hero – Brigadier General Henry Jackson Hunt, Chief of Artillery in the Army of the Potomac.
Hunt began his military career in 1839 when he graduated from the United States Military Academy and joined the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He served with distinction in the Mexican War under General Winfield Scott. He was a successful career officer who worked at a variety of posts. He took great pride in his work and in studying the artillery man’s craft. In 1856, Hunt and two others worked to revise the field artillery manual covering drill and tactics. The new Instructions for Field Artillery (published 1861) governed the use of artillery in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. During the war, Hunt proved a competent field officer and on more than one occasion his efforts kept a blundering major general from turning a defeat into a rout.
On July 3, 1863, his diligence and dedication to service broke the back of the Confederate forces. Hunt began his day by observing the Confederate forces from a vantage point on the heights around Gettysburg. Based on the amount of activity in the Confederate camp, he believed that the Confederates were either preparing to retreat or to launch a general advance. Knowing the tenacity of Robert E. Lee, he figured that an advance was imminent and informed General George Meade. Meade immediately began to place his forces in order. He left the placement and employment of the Union artillery completely up to Hunt.
Expecting an artillery barrage followed by a general advance, Hunt ordered his field batteries to conserve their ammunition. When the customary artillery duel began, Hunt allowed his batteries to respond in kind for a time but then ordered them to gradually stop returning fire. After the initial salvos, he strictly forbade the use of artillery unless an enemies battery had zeroed in on a Union battery and thus had to be taken out. The order did not sit well with General Winfield Scott Hancock and other officers who felt the lack of return fire lowered the morale of their men. Despite their concerns, threats, and protestations, Hunt held firm and the guns remained silent.
The Confederate forces were completely fooled by Hunt’s ploy. As the Union batteries gradually stopped returning fire, the Confederates assumed that either their artillery had taken out the Union battery or that the enemy was running low on ammunition. Once the Union artillery had been “silenced” completely, the Confederates began their advance. Hunt watched the advance form and then surge forward toward the Union heights. He held his fire until the point of no return and then unleashed his guns to devastating effect upon the Confederate forces. The unassuming Chief of Artillery had won the day.
Historians and the American public often like to focus on the larger than life characters found throughout American history. We like the flamboyance of George Armstrong Custer, the rugged independence of Theodore Roosevelt, or the iron will of a Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln – and rightly so. But, America owes a lot to those quiet men and women who lead daily lives of excellence. Men and women who do not simply mark the time but chose to put in the hard work to excel at what they do. Men and women who may never receive the recognition they deserve but who do it anyway because it is the right thing to do and the right way to live. Those people built America. And, if there is hope for the United States, it lies with a new generation of those men and women. Henry Jackson Hunt was one of those men and he is worth remembering.
*Although commonly referred to as Pickett’s Charge, Pickett and his men played only a small role in the larger drama.