I was called up at midnight precisely by a messenger with telegram from Byington, dated at Hanover Station, stating that the most terrific battle of the War was being fought at or near Gettysburg, that he left the field at half-past 6 P.M. with tidings, and that everything looked hopeful. The President was at the War Department, where this dispatch, which is addressed to me, was received. It was the first word of the great conflict. Nothing had come to the War Department. There seems to have been no system, no arrangement, for prompt, constant, and speedy intelligence. I had remained at the War Department for news until about eleven. Some half an hour later the dispatch from Byington to me came over the wires, but nothing from any one to Stanton or Halleek. The operator in the War Department gave the dispatch to the President, who remained. He asked, “Who is Byington?” None in the Department knew anything of him, and the President telegraphed to Hanover Station, asking, “Who is Byington?” The operator replied, “Ask the Secretary of the Navy.” I informed the President that the telegram was reliable. Byington is the editor and proprietor of a weekly paper in Norwalk, Connecticut, active and stirring; is sometimes employed by the New York Tribune, and is doubtless so employed now.
The information this morning and dispatches from General Meade confirm Byington's telegram. There is much confusion in the intelligence received. The information is not explicit. A great and bloody battle was fought, and our army has the best of it, but the end is not yet. Everything, however, looks encouraging.
Later in the day dispatches from Haupt and others state that Lee with his army commenced a retreat this A.M. at three o'clock. Our army is waiting for supplies to come up before following, — a little of the old lagging infirmity. Couch is said to be dilatory; has not left Harrisburg; his force has not pushed forward with alacrity. Meade sent him word, “The sound of my guns should have prompted your movement.” Lee and the Rebels may escape in consequence. If they are driven back, Halleck will be satisfied. That has been his great anxiety, and too many of our officers think it sufficient if the Rebels quit and go off, — that it is unnecessary to capture, disperse, and annihilate them.
Extreme partisans fear that the success of our arms will be success to the Administration. Governor Curtin is in trepidation, lest, if our troops leave Harrisburg to join Meade, the Rebels will rush in behind them and seize the Pennsylvania capital. On the other hand, Stanton and Halleck ridicule the sensitiveness of the Governor, and are indifferent to his wishes and responsibilities. Of course, matters do not work well.
Received this evening a dispatch from Admiral Lee, stating he had a communication from A. H. Stephens,1 who wishes to go to Washington with a companion as military commissioner from Jefferson Davis, Commanding General of Confederate forces, to Abraham Lincoln, President and Commanding General of the Army and Navy of the United States, and desires permission to pass the blockade in the steamer Torpedo on this mission, with Mr. Olds, his private secretary. Showed the dispatch to Blair, whom I met. He made no comment. Saw Stanton directly after, who swore and growled indignantly. The President was at the Soldiers' Home and not expected for an hour or two. Consulted Seward, who was emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens or Davis. Did not see the President till late. In the mean time Stanton and others had seen him, and made known their feelings and views. The President treats the subject as not very serious nor very important, and proposes to take it up to-morrow. My own impression is that not much good is intended in this proposition, yet it is to be met and considered. It is not necessary that the vessel should pass the blockade, or that Stephens should come here, but I would not repel advances, or refuse to receive Davis's communication.
I learn from Admiral Lee that General Keyes with 12,000 men has moved forward from the “White House” towards Richmond, and other demonstrations are being made.
Two intercepted dispatches were received, captured by Captain Dahlgren. One was from Jeff Davis, the other from Adjutant-General Cooper, both addressed to General Lee. They disclose trouble and differences among the Rebel leaders. Lee, it seems, had an understanding with Cooper that Beauregard should concentrate a force of 40,000 at Culpeper for a demonstration, or something more, on Washington, when the place became uncovered by the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of Lee. Davis appears not to have been informed of this military arrangement, nor satisfied with the programme when informed of it. Lee is told of the difficulty of defending Richmond and other places, and that he must defend his own lines, instead of relying upon its being done from Richmond.
1 Vice-President of the Confederacy.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 357-9