He inquires on the condition of a colonel mortally wounded and captured at Pickett's Charge.
The scene is the late afternoon of July 3, 1863, Gettysburg, Pa. It is a moment of high drama. The Confederate assault on Union lines known as Pickett’s Charge is over, and the high water mark of the Confederacy has just been reached and passed. The ground is littered with the...
The scene is the late afternoon of July 3, 1863, Gettysburg, Pa. It is a moment of high drama. The Confederate assault on Union lines known as Pickett’s Charge is over, and the high water mark of the Confederacy has just been reached and passed. The ground is littered with the dead and wounded. Then night falls, and Lee’s army finds itself deep in enemy territory, in no shape to fight.
The commander determines to leave Pennsylvania the next day and head for safety in Virginia. This means leaving his dead and wounded at Gettysburg, but there is no other option. One of the fallen is Col. Hugh Miller, an eminent lawyer and judge from Mississippi, whose regiment was part of Pettigrew’s command during that historic charge. Miller’s son was concerned about him, and apparently so moved Lee with that concern, that Lee decided to take the unusual step of asking his Union counterpart, Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, for a personal favor.
In the early morning hours on July 4, from his Gettysburg headquarters, Lee penned this letter to Meade. “Hd. Qrs. Army of Northern Va., 4th July 1863, To The Commanding Officer, U. S. Army of the Potomac. General: The son of Col. Hugh W. Miller, 42nd Regiment Mississippi Volunteers, who was wounded and taked prisoner in the engagement of yesterday is very anxious to learn his father’s condition. Any information you may be able to furnish concerning the fate of Col. Miller will be thankfully received. I am respectfully, Your obt. svt., R. E. Lee, General.”
This is the letter cited by noted author, Gregory Coco, in his book Wasted Valor: The Confederate Dead at Gettysburg. Coco adds that it “crossed the battle lines at Gettysburg under a flag of truce.”After careful research of Lee’s correspondence, we have determined that this letter is the only one written by Lee at Gettysburg known to be in private hands. As for Col. Miller, Coco publishes two accounts of meetings with him while he was in the hospital.
Andrew Cross of the U. S. Christian Commission recalled seeing him at the 2nd Corps hospital on July 8, 1863, shot through the left breast and right knee. “We gave him a little wine and a cracker, which he took with great modesty, saying he was not dangerously wounded…The surgeons told us his case was dangerous. Calling again after a short time to see if he would have anything, he modestly said ÔI am very much obliged to you, but give it to those around, who are worse, and need it more.’ On the 20th we met his son in the office of Colonel Alleman, stating that his father was dead.” Confederate Chaplain Thomas Witherspoon of Miller’s regiment also left an account of him.
On July 19, he heard that Miller wanted to see him. “I reached his bedside just on time to receive his dying expression of his faith in Christ and his readiness to depart…The services of an enbalmer were secured, and the body skillfully enbalmed…The commandant of the post at Gettysburg…was a true gentleman as well as a true soldier, and on application being made to him to send the remains through the lines by flag of truce, did all he could to further this end….He allowed Edwin Miller, the young son of the Colonel, and myself, his chaplain, to accompany the remains as escort with a letter to Gen. Schenck, the commandant at Baltimore requesting that we be permitted to accompany the remains by flag of truce to Richmond.”
Miller’s body reached Richmond, where the funeral was held on July 29. He was buried in the cemetery at the First Presbyterian Church, where Coco informs us he remains to this day. The unusual degree of cooperation from Union authorities that the Millers received suggests that Meade had responded to Lee’s letter by ordering or approving the arrangements. The body of the letter is in the hand of Lee’s staff officer, and though completely legible, is somewhat faded. The signature of Lee is good and strong.
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