Though at Gettysburg he was the highest ranking division commander in the Army of the Potomac, Abner Doubleday had been strictly an average general, never making any great mistakes but never doing anything extraordinary either. He had acquired the nickname "Old Forty-Eight Hours" for his deliberate, even slothful, style--he acted as if there were that many hours in a day. He was not at all dashing on a horse, being rather portly, and inspired no one with his quarrelsome nature and his easily wounded pride. Stiff, formal, and a shade pompous, he had continued to see himself in his "hero of Sumter" role since he had sighted the cannon that fired the first Union shot of the war there. It must have irked him that he got little respect from the other officers. Army commander George Meade, who had spent much of 1862 with him as a fellow division commander in the First Corps, had low esteem for him as a leader of men. Upon learning, early in 1863, that Doubleday was to lead his old division, Meade wrote to his wife that he was glad, because the division "will think a great deal more of me than before." The great cavalry general Buford did not care much for Doubleday either, and made his own dispositions on Gettysburg's first day without consulting his superior. Charles Wainwright, First Corps artillery chief, wrote in his diary he "had no confidence" in Doubleday and thought he would be a "weak reed to lean upon" in an emergency.
Despite his peers' poor opinion of him, however, Doubleday at the age of forty-four was an experienced officer. He came from a long-prominent family in upstate New York. His grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War and his father had served four years in Congress. Abner had already worked as a civil engineer for two years before entering West Point, from which he graduated 24th out of 56 in the class of 1942. He was a career artilleryman, serving in that branch in the Mexican War and against the Seminoles, otherwise plodding along for nearly twenty years in the tedium of the peacetime army. That tedium was ended in April 1861, when he found himself under bombardment at Fort Sumter.
After uneventful duty during the remainder of 1861, Doubleday was made a brigadier general of volunteers early in February 1862 and given a brigade. Assigned to McDowell's corps, he missed the Peninsula fighting, and did not go into action until the battle of Brawner's farm at the end of August. In this debut he showed initiative and grit, throwing two of his regiments into line next to Gibbon's brigade against a larger force of Jackson's best men. Doubleday did this on his own hook, since the division commander, General Rufus King, was incapacitated by an epileptic seizure at the time. Together the two brigades fought the whole Stonewall Division and half of Ewell's to a bloody standstill. The next evening, at the end of the first day of the battle of Second Bull Run, unfortunately, Doubleday's fortunes were reversed--his men were routed when they stumbled into Longstreet's corps, which was just arriving on the battlefield in the gathering darkness. On the second day of the battle Doubleday's men regained their poise and helped cover the retreat of the army.
Doubleday was given command of his division just prior to Antietam, replacing John Hatch (who had just replaced King), wounded at South Mountain. At Antietam, Doubleday ordered his men into some of the deadliest fighting of the war, in the Cornfield and West Woods; one colonel described him as a "gallant officer . . . remarkably cool and at the very front of battle."
At Fredericksburg in December, Doubleday's division, because of a confusion in orders among higher-ups, did little more than spar with the enemy artillery. In January 1863 there was a reorganization of the First Corps, and Doubleday was moved from leadership of the First Division to leadership of the newly constituted Third. He led his new division at Chancellorsville, where it was not put into the battle.
Doubleday may not have looked splendid mounted in uniform, but by the summer of 1863 he had experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and had commanded a division in three battles. Though not dashing or inspiring, he was steady and competent. He knew his division, having been at its head for six months, but had not yet been in a real fight with it.
| Upon the death of Reynolds at the beginning of the action about 11:00
in the morning on July 1, Doubleday was thrust into command of the First Corps,
charged with guiding its deployment onto McPherson's Ridge, straddling the
Chambersburg Pike. As he saw it, his duty was to hold, for as long as
possible, the far forward position Reynolds had staked out on the high ground.
Completing the unfinished business of guiding Wadsworth's division into
position, he had the satisfaction of seeing them rout the first of the day's
Rebel assaults from the west--by two brigades of Heth's division--at about
He posted the arriving two brigades of his own Third Division with Wadsworth's before noon, and wisely ordered the building of breastworks as a fall-back line on Seminary Ridge by the leading elements of Robinson's division immediately afterward. When a new threat appeared on his right, in the form of Robert Rodes's 8,000-strong division on Oak Hill, he directed Robinson's last-arriving brigade to defend that flank. Until about 4:00 that afternoon, he would shift his position constantly, moving divisions, brigades, even regiments to derive the best advantages of the ground against an enemy that not only outnumbered him but was coming at him from two directions--Rodes from the north, Heth and Pender from the west. This five hours leading his 9,500 men through the bitter combat on McPherson's and Seminary Ridges was Doubleday's best performance of the war. Constantly increasing in strength as the hours of fighting wore on, more than 16,000 Confederate veterans attacked the First Corps, and seven of the ten Southern brigades incurred crippling casualties of from 35 to 50 percent. About 5:00 P.M., Doubleday watched as the entire Union defense gave way, and supervised a more or less orderly retreat through Gettysburg to the hills beyond.
As the First Corps limped onto Culp's and Cemetery Hill to reform after the day's savage fighting, only 35 percent of the corps remained. It would never recover. However, under Doubleday's direction it had bought time for the rest of the army to concentrate in the superb defensive terrain to the south of the town. It crushed him that at the end of such a day, General Meade, who did not admire him and who had heard disparaging remarks about his performance that day from General Howard, replaced him at the head of the First Corps with John Newton.
Doubleday justifiably bore a grudge against both Howard and Meade for being demoted when Newton reached the field soon after midnight, at what Doubleday judged to be the pinnacle of his military career. As it turned out, he would never fight another battle. A few days after Gettysburg he passed out of the Army of the Potomac, unwanted by Meade and unprotected by Halleck or Stanton. In the end, however, Doubleday ended up one of the most famous generals of all--not for his military record, but for being mistakenly but popularly identified as "The Inventor of Baseball."
For further reading:
Doubleday, Abner. Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. New York, 1994
Ramsey, David M. "The 'Old Sumter Hero': A Biography of Major-General Abner Doubleday." Thesis, Florida State University, 1980