One of the enduring mysteries of the Gettysburg Campaign is the morning reconnaissance conducted by Captain Samuel R. Johnston. Johnston, at the behest of Robert E. Lee, was ordered to scout the position of left flank of the Army of the Potomac. Johnston’s subsequent report, and the extent of his early morning exploration, has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny for over a century and a half. In the first of a two part series, Ranger Karlton Smith weighs in on the Johnston story, and its importance in directing the course of events on July 2nd, 1863.
Gen. Robert E. Lee knew very little about the position of the Army of the Potomac on the evening of July 1, 1863. In order to plan his next moves properly Lee needed more detailed information on the location of his opponent and the nature of the ground. He sent several reconnaissance parties out on the early evening of July 1 and the early morning of July 2. The report that seems to have had the most impact was that of Capt. Samuel Richard Johnston.
Capt. Samuel Richard Johnston, from Fairfax County, Virginia, was 30 years old in 1863. He had been trained as a civil engineer and was appointed a lieutenant in Company F, 6th Virginia Cavalry, on April 20, 1861. By July 21, Company F was employed in picket duty and in scouting “near the enemy’s line in advance of the regular pickets.” The company was able to obtain “valuable information” because of its knowledge of the area and the previous surveys done by Johnston “who was much employed in command of scouting parties.”
Johnston was appointed a volunteer aide-de-camp to Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart while stationed at Dranesville, Virginia and was acting inspector of outposts on Stuart’s staff. Stuart described Johnston as “sober, indefatigable, and capable.” Johnston served as a contract engineer near Richmond until assigned as a lieutenant of engineers to Maj. Gen. James Longstreet on June 4, 1862. He was promoted to captain of engineers and assigned to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s staff on August 12, 1862.
Johnston had conducted reconnaissance work for Lee and Longstreet in campaigns previous to Gettysburg. Longstreet had noted that Johnston had been “very energetic and untiring” in his efforts “to discover the various positions of the enemy.” Longstreet thanked Johnston, among others, during the Second Manassas and Antietam campaigns, “for great courtesy and kindness in assisting me on the different battle-fields.” Johnston helped to lay out the Confederate earthwork at Fredericksburg and helped to assign positions for the Confederate batteries. On May 3, 1863, during the battle of Chancellorsville, Johnston “discovered large parks of the enemy’s wagons and the camps of some of his troops on the opposite side of the river” and posted artillery the next day “to open a hot fire upon the parks and camps.” Johnston, had thus, proven himself to be an experienced and capable engineer officer and had become an experienced reconnaissance officer.
All of the major military books of the time stated that there was no more important duty for an officer than that of “collecting and arranging the information upon which either the general, or daily operations of a campaign must be based.” A reconnaissance was necessary because even a detailed map could “never convey all the information that will enable an officer to plan, even an ordinary march, with safety.” Since military operations would be based on this information, “any serious error in the reconnaissance may involve the results of the campaign, and even the fate of the war.
A reconnoitering officer “should be known to be cool-headed and truth-ful; one who sees things as they are, and tells clearly and precisely what he has seen.” Such an officer was “to ascertain precisely the duty required of him; and what further should be done in case of certain contingencies that may, from the nature of the duty, be naturally looked for.” A reconnoitering officer should also obtain maps, a good telescope, aids for judging distances, writing materials, some good guides and “gain all the knowledge he can, from the local inhabitants of the land…”
Johnston was called to Lee’s headquarters, probably near the Lutheran Seminary, before the sun was up on July 2. He was ordered by Lee “to make a reconnaissance of the enemy’s left and report as soon as possible.” Johnston claimed that Lee had said nothing about finding a,
…route over which troops would be moved unobserved by the enemy, but it was not necessary as that was part of my duty as a reconnoitering Officer, and would be attended to without special instructions, indeed he said nothing about the movements of troops at all, and left me with only that knowledge of what he wanted which I had obtained after long service with him, and that was that he wanted me to consider every contingency which might arise.
These orders, at least as reported by Johnston, are somewhat vague. Johnston does not indicate that he was informed of Lee’s intention to launch a major assault from his right flanks, the troops that might be involved, or the route those troops might have to take. It appears from Johnston’s statement that he did not attempt a clarification as to his precise responsibility or what to do “in case of certain contingencies.”
Johnston admitted that he did not have a watch at the time, but he estimated that he left on his mission at “daybreak,” probably about 4:12 a.m. We cannot be certain what, if any, equipment or maps Johnston had with him. He never wrote of talking with any of the inhabitants he may have met along the way. Johnston claimed that he was accompanied by Longstreet’s engineer officer and three or four others as an escort. Longstreet’s engineer, Maj. John J. Graham Clarke, apparently left no account of his activities at Gettysburg.
Johnston later wrote to Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws:
…my general route was about the same that General Longstreet took when he make his march. I crossed the creek on the same bridge that he did and turned to the left at once and got on the ridge where you subsequently formed your line, following along that ridge in the direction of the round tops across the Emmitsburg road and got up on the slopes of round top, where I had a commanding view, then rode along the base of round top to beyond the ground occupied by General Hood, and where there was later a cavalry fight.
On his return trip, Johnston wrote that “…when I again got in sight of Emmitsburg road I saw three or four troopers moving slowly and very cautiously in the direction of Gettysburg.” Johnston said he reported to Lee, after “the usual delay in finding headquarters,” at about 7:00 a.m., although it could have been a little later, having been gone approximately three hours. Why would Johnston, an experienced reconnaissance officer, have trouble finding headquarters? Even though there was a headquarters site, where most of the army’s staff would be located, Lee, himself, was also “headquarters.” In that case, Lee was not at the headquarters site but on Herr’s Ridge, further west of Gettysburg.
Johnston remembered seeing Longstreet and Lt. Gen. A. P. with Lee. In making his report, Johnston sketched his route on a map Lee was holding on his lap. He assured Lee that he had reached Little Round Top. Johnston wrote that later in the day, as McLaws’ division “was formed ready to advance,” Federal troops were seen forming in the Peach Orchard. “That,” said Johnston, “was the first evidence of any force being ready to oppose us on the enemy’s left that I had seen during the day.”
To be continued….
Karlton Smith, Park Ranger
Krick, Robert E. L. Staff Officers in Gray: A Biographical Register of the Staff Officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2003), 174.
Service Record for Samuel R. Johnston (Copy in GNMP Files V5-Johnston, Samuel R.
Mahan, Dennis Hart. An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post… (New York: John Wiley, 1861), 105
Halleck, Henry W. The Elements of Military Art and Science. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1862), 342
R. Johnston to Fitz Lee, February 11, 1878. S. R. Johnston MSS, Douglas S. Freeman Collection, Library of Congress
- R. Johnston to Lafayette McLaws, June 27, 1892
- R. Johnston to Rt. Rev. George Peterkin, December…18__
Donaldson, Francis Adams. Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, Gregory Aiken, ed. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 307.
Ladd, David L. & Audrey J. Ladd, eds. The Bachelder Papers: Gettysburg in Their Own Words. 3 vols. (Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1994), Vol. 1, 453.
Buell, Clarence C. & Robert Underwood Johnson, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. 4 vols. (1888), 3: 331.