Frank A. Haskell Wrote a Vivid Account of the Union Defense of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg
Frank A. Haskell was born July 13th, 1828 in Tunbridge, Vermont. In the fall of 1848, Haskell left New England for the Midwest, and joined his brother Harrison in Columbus, Wisconsin. Harrison was a prominent citizen of the town, and Frank managed to pick up the positions of Town Clerk and Superintendent of Schools. Frank headed back to New England in 1850 to attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and following his graduation in 1854, he returned to Wisconsin.
Haskell settled at Madison, the State Capitol of Wisconsin. There, he prepared for a career in law, and was admitted to the bar in June of 1856. In 1858, Haskell helped organize a company of militia, rising to the rank of Lieutenant in 1860. It was during this time that Haskell became skilled in military drills.
Following the beginning of the Civil War, Haskell received a commission as a 1st Lieutenant and Adjutant of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry on June 20th, 1861. The 6th Wisconsin was in the process of being organized at Camp Randall in Madison, and Haskell’s experience with drill instruction was well utilized.
On July 6th, Captain Rufus Dawes arrived at Camp Randall with a company of lumberjacks and backwoodsmen from central Wisconsin. Neither Dawes nor his men had any military experience, and Dawes recalled his first encounter with Lt. Haskell:
My confusion may be imagined when I was met at the gate way of Camp Randall by Frank A. Haskell, the Adjutant of the sixth regiment, who was mounted on a spirited charger, and quite stunning in his bright uniform and soldierly bearing. With a military salute he transmitted an order from the Colonel “to form my company in column by platoon, ” and to march to Headquarters under escort of the Milwaukee Zouaves. Hibbard’s Zouaves, (C0. B, 5th Wisconsin) was then considered the best drilled company in the state…I answered Adjutant Haskell, “Good afternoon , Sir. I should be glad to comply with the wishes of the Colonel, but it is simply impossible. ”
That evening, Haskell helped an appreciative Dawes get his men organized and working on drills, though he admitted the Adjutant was amused watching the raw recruits tackle drills for the first time. Through Haskell’s tutelage, the 6th Wisconsin quickly gained a military bearing, and the regiment shipped out for Washington D.C. at the end of July. Once there, Haskell continued drilling the 6th Wisconsin through the rest of the year and on into 1862. In the fall of 1861, the 6th was brigaded with the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin, and 19th Indiana regiments to form what would later be called the Iron Brigade.
In May of 1862, Brigadier General John Gibbon was named brigade commander, and Haskell accepted a position as Gibbon’s aide-de-camp. Gibbon was in command of the Iron Brigade through the Antietam Campaign. Gibbon then assumed command of the 2nd Division of the First Corp, and in 1863, command of the 2nd Division of the 2nd Corps. Haskell remained as Gibbon’s aide though all the General’s assignments.
Haskell frequently corresponded with family members and detailed the fighting he took part in and his impressions of the war. His most famous letter–actually more of a lengthy narrative than a letter–was his account of the Gettysburg Campaign.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863, the three brigades of Gibbon’s division were deployed at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge as the Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge unfolded. Haskell was near Brigadier General Alexander Webb’s brigade, which was in position at The Angle, a sharp 90 degree angle in then stone wall. As the Confederates closed in, some in Webb’s brigade pulled back in confusion and without orders; Haskell rallied them back into position. Despite this, the line was in danger of being overwhelmed at The Angle, and Haskell rode off in search of reinforcements from the other two brigades of Gibbon’s division. He was successful , and was able to get some regiments ordered to the critical location before it could be overrun.
Though he probably wrote it with the idea of eventual publication, Haskell did not live to see his narrative become famous. He had long sought promotion and his own command, and despite being eminently qualified, continued to be passed over for higher rank and command. He finally got his chance early in 1864. Generals Gibbon, George Meade, and Lysander Cutler, a former commander of Haskell’s old regiment the 6th Wisconsin, recommended him for promotion. On February 9th, Wisconsin Governor James Lewis offered Haskell command of the newly formed 36th Wisconsin Infantry and promoted him to Colonel. The new regiment was sent east and marched south in May as part of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. On June 3rd, 1864, Frank Haskell was killed while leading his regiment in the futile Union frontal assault at the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia. He is buried in Silver Lake Cemetery in Portage, Wisconsin.
Frank Haskell’s account of the Gettysburg Campaign can be read here at Bartlebys.com
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage
by Noah Andre Trudeau. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.
Haskell of Gettysburg edited by Frank L. Byrne and Andrew T. Weaver. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1970.
Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes. Reprint. Dayton, Ohio: Pres of Morningside Bookshop, 1991