Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863. Late Afternoon-Early Evening.
Major General George Meade had ridden south to check on the disposition of Sickles troops. Major General Daniel Sickles had moved his troops almost a mile out in front of the Union lines, and Meade was there to get him moved back. He was patiently explaining to Sickles the folly of his move when Sickles offered to move his two Divisions back to Cemetery Ridge. Suddenly, artillery opened up from Warfield Ridge, and Meade was forced to accept the situation. He said to Sickles, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”
In the late afternoon of July 2nd, 1863, the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, of Brigadier General Charles K. Graham’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division (under Brigadier General David B. Birney) was in a line of battle in front of the Wentz House, at the intersection of Wheatfield Lane and the Emmitsburg Road. Collis’ Zouaves, as the 114th was known, was enduring a savage shelling by Confederate artillery located only a few hundred yards to the west on Warfield Ridge. For two hours they lay there under the barrage.
To their left, across the Wheatfield Lane, the 68th Pennsylvania stood in line of battle among the trees of the Peach Orchard, their right joined to the Zouaves left, in the road. To the right of the Zouaves, stood the 57th and 105th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments, all forming a line north along the east side of the Emmitsburg Road. Behind them, down the slope toward the Trostle Farm, was Clark’s Battery B, First New Jersey Light Artillery, supported by the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry. Bucklyn’s Battery E, First Rhode Island Light Artillery (Randolph’s Battery) was placed at the edge of the Emmitsburg Road in front of the infantry, where the battery immediately engaged Confederate artillery on Warfield Ridge.
Major General Lafayette McLaws sent his four brigades forward in a staggered formation from right to left. Semmes, Kershaw, Wofford, Barksdale. Kershaw went straight across, reaching the Emmitsburg Road south of the Peach Orchard, and at the end of the lane entering the Rose Farm. Two of Kershaw’s regiments went south of the farm, one, with Kershaw, went through the farm yard, and two went north of the farm, coming under fire from the 68th Pennsylvania and the artillery from the Peach Orchard. Those two regiments then turned to the north and assaulted the artillery located along the Wheatfield Road east of the Peach Orchard. In one of the incidents of the “fog of war”, Kershaw sent a messenger to his two regiments south of the farm to hurry into the woods belonging to the Rose farm. Instead, the messenger went to the two regiments north of the farm and repeated the order from Kershaw. They immediately stopped their assault, just at the point where they had driven the gunners off their guns, and wheeled to the right to continue their advance into the woods west of the Wheatfield. The Union gunners re-manned their guns and took a heavy toll on the South Carolina regiments south of the Rose farm – the ones Kershaw intended to hurry forward into the woods for protection.
At about 5 PM, the enemy began his advance. Coming at them was the storied Mississippi brigade of Brigadier General William Barksdale, a white-haired man who, once engaged in combat, became a figure of fury, wading into the enemy with everything he had. Such abandon would cost him his life later in the day.
In response, the Zouaves moved forward across the Emmitsburg Road. They entered the farm yard of John and Mary Sherfy. Firing from between the house and the barn, the Zouaves repeatedly fired into the advancing Mississippians, who were also firing, advancing, firing, and advancing. Eventually, the weight of numbers began to tell. The Union line fell back east of the Emmitsburg Road and reformed. Barksdale maneuvered his large regiments to overlap and flank the men of Graham’s Brigade, concentrating on the location where the Zouaves and the 68th met.
There was nothing to do but fall back. In a magnificently executed fighting withdrawal, the 114th, in small groups, fired, and withdrew, first north along the Emmitsburg Road, and then east toward Cemetery Ridge, where General Hancock had ordered forward Willard’s New York brigade to cover the withdrawal. By this method, the surviving Zouaves finally reformed their line, and were able to come off the field with their colors. They were badly mauled. During their withdrawal, many of their wounded were left lying in the fields and the road. Confederates carried many of them to the Sherfy House and barn. Later, however, during the continued artillery shelling, both buildings were burned to the ground. The remains of those who perished in the fires, were surrounded by those who perished in the intense fighting around those buildings. About 100 of the Zouaves had been killed. Many more were taken prisoner by the rapidly advancing Confederates. However, they gave, perhaps, better even than they took. One Mississippi private from the 17th Mississippi, the unit that assaulted the junction of the 67th and 114th Pennsylvania on Wheatfield Lane, reported 223 men of his regiment killed or wounded, 29 in his own company.
5th New Jersey
The 221 men (206 enlisted, 15 officers) of the 5th New Jersey Infantry were stretched out on an angle in front of the rest of Humphreys’ Division stretched north along the Emmitsburg Road from Graham’s Brigade. The New Jersey troops were on perhaps the most hazardous duty of the civil war, skirmishers. Their left was nearly to the Sherfy farm houses, while their right was farther north at the Spangler farm. The regiment was spread pretty thin. Sometime before 5 PM they came under heavy fire from Confederate Artillery. Stationed as they were in the open fields, they had no choice but to hug the ground. There was nothing to hide behind. And after nearly an hour, the artillery eased. As the men stood up they saw a horrific sight: Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade had begun to move forward. While the right of Barksdale’s Brigade struck Collis’ Zouaves at the Sherfy Farm, Barksdale’s left struck the thin New Jersey line. All of Humphreys’ line began to fall back and as they did so, so did Graham’s Brigade. The withdrawal was not an orderly one. For the most part, the men made for the promise of safety on Cemetery Ridge. At muster that evening, the 5th New Jersey counted 99 of their 221 as killed, wounded or captured.
Major General John Bell Hood had a dilemma. All day he had been nagging at Longstreet to allow him to swing to the right and go around the south side of Big Round Top to surprise the Union reserves and supply wagon trains parked behind the hill. All day long Longstreet had replied that he had already had that discussion with General Lee and there was nothing to do but to get moving as ordered.
But if he did that, he would march right into the right flank of McLaws’ Division, which had abandoned any attempt to align and proceed as Lee had ordered, moving instead straight ahead and across the Emmitsburg Road.
Hood had no choice. He had to move, so he angled to the right, placing his right regiment on a track that would take it up and over Big Round Top. The rest of Law’s Brigade of Alabamans would swing across the western slope of the hill. Robertson’s Texans and the Arkansas troops would proceed up the low ground where Plum Run flowed. His left would move through the Slyder and Bushman Farms, and angle in toward the lower part of Houck’s Ridge. He really had nowhere else to go, and he had to support McLaws.
From mid-afternoon on Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, 15th of 25 in his West Point class of 1844, was working hard, riding up and down his lines, shifting men from his 2nd Corps to the Wheatfield to help plug the gaping hole Sickles left in his line, and now Hancock had to deal with the hasty retreat of Humphreys and Graham’s men. He was forced to shift men from 5th Corps there as well. Now came news that General Sickles was down, losing his leg. Major General David Birney would succeed him as 3rd Corps Commander. Hancock was concerned that there simply would not be enough manpower to stop the two large divisions Longstreet had sent his way. He ordered a brigade of New Yorkers under Colonel George Willard forward to set up a line that would allow the fleeing men of Third Corps to pass through and then slow the advance of the Mississippi and Georgia brigades of Barksdale and Wofford. It worked.
Realizing that Longstreet’s men would not be coming past their position, Brigadier General Cadmus M. Wilcox, 54th out of 59 in the West Point class of 1846, ordered his Alabama Brigade forward from their position on the south end of Seminary Ridge. Along side of him was Perry’s Florida Brigade, under the command of Colonel David Lang. The two brigades marched forward up the rise to Emmitsburg Road in time to watch the collapse of Humphrey’s line as Barksdale sliced through one end and the other saw Wilcox coming. As the two brigades crested the higher ground, they began a slow, gradual descent into the defile where Plum Run begins. It was deep enough to hide both brigades from view.
Colonel William Colvill, Jr. commanded what was left of the 1st Minnesota Regiment. There were approximately 330 men left of the regiment, although about 15% were absent on different assignments. But at this hour, they were literally all that was standing between Cadmus Wilcox and the Taneytown Road just east of Cemetery Ridge. Seeing their advance, Major General Hancock rode quickly to the Minnesotans, and seeing their small number, exclaimed, “My God! Are these all the troops we have here?!”
Colonel Colvill replied, “Yes sir!”
Hancock then asked if the Colonel, “Do you see those colors?”, pointing to the advancing brigades of Wilcox and Lang.
Again the Colonel responded, “Yes sir!”
“Well, take them!” Hancock yelled over his shoulder as he spurred his horse away.
Colvill formed his men up and advanced them, 262 in number. They marched forward to the defile in which Wilcox and Perry paused their troops. As they advanced up the eastern slope, they came almost face to face with the 1st Minnesota. Colvill gave the order to fire. Artillery fired from behind the Minnesotans and to their left as Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s artillery Battalion fired into the Alabama and Florida Troops. Soon the fighting was hand-to-hand, and the Minnesotans were surrounded. McGilvery could no longer fire into the Confederates for fear of hitting the Minnesotans. Wilcox soon had enough of this fight and ordered his men, and those of Colonel Lang to withdraw. The surviving Minnesotans slowly walked back to Cemetery Ridge, carrying as many of their wounded as they could. They would fetch the rest, and the dead later. So many officers killed and wounded, including the gallant Colonel Colvill, shot through the shoulder and the foot [he would spend almost six months recuperating at the home of the Pierce family on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg. Command devolved all the way down to Captain Henry. C. Coates, who wrote in his after action report, “Our loss of so many brave men is heartrending, and will carry mourning into all parts of the state. But they have fallen in a holy cause, and their memory will not soon perish. Our loss is 4 commissioned officers and 47 men killed; 13 officers and 162 men wounded, and 6 men missing, – total 232…”. Thirty men answered the roll call that evening.
The next brigade north of Lang and Wilcox was the Georgians of Ambrose Wright. They made their way unsupported across the fields from Seminary Ridge to the Emmitsburg Road and across, just above the Codori farm. They kept right on going, routing the skirmish line posted along the road, and rolling right over and capturing an artillery battery. As they approached the crest of Cemetery Ridge, merely three hundred yards from Taneytown Road, they were met by the Pennsylvania Brigade of Brigadier General Alexander Webb, 13th of 34 in his West Point class of 1855. The Pennsylvanians pushed the spent Georgians back over the crest of Cemetery Ridge and down the hill to Emmitsburg Road, retaking the artillery pieces the Georgians had captured on their advance. Webb halted his brigade on the west side of the road so they could take pot shots at the retreating Georgians.
Brigadier General Ambrose Wright was fit to be tied. His men had just fought their way across a mile of open ground and across Cemetery Ridge only to be driven all the way back by a brigade of Pennsylvanians. If he had had any support on either side, on his right from Wilcox and Lang, and on his left from Posey and Mahone, they’d be rolling up the flank of the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge right now, and maybe even digging in on Cemetery Hill! But Wilcox and Lang had been repulsed by a single regiment, and Posey got turned around in the peach orchard of the Bliss Farm! Even worse, “Fighting Billy” Mahone apparently didn’t have any “Fighting” in him this day – he never moved at all!
Early in the fight Major General John Bell Hood would be wounded severely, losing most of the use of his left arm. [It was the first of the catastrophic wounds the courageous fighter would receive in his career: he would lose his right leg while fighting at the Battle of Chickamauga just two months after Gettysburg. Late in the war he had to be strapped into his saddle, and the pain-killing drug of laudanum affected his judgement. He ordered a suicidal assault on the scale of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Franklin, and wound up without an army to command. It was not the John Bell Hood who fought so courageously at Gettysburg.].
Brigadier General Evander M. Law was an 1856 graduate of the South Carolina Military Academy, and was a teacher in Alabama before the war, helping to establish a Military High School in Tuskegee. He was commanding a brigade of Alabama troops when General Hood went down. Law was unaware that he was now in Command of Hood’s Division. It was just as well, as he had his hands full with his own brigade.
Five regiments of Alabama troops were spread from Plum Run east to the summit of Big Round Top. The regiment on the crest of the high hill was the 15th Alabama commanded by Colonel William C. Oates. Stretching downward to the west, the Alabama line was broken by the presence of the 4th and 5th Texas Infantry Regiments from Brigadier General Jerome Robertson’s Brigade. They were separated from the remainder of that brigade by two of Law’s Alabama Regiments coming up the Plum Run gorge. The rest of Robertson’s men were assaulting Graham’s Brigade on the west side of Houck’s Ridge.
While the two Texas Brigades were successful in getting up into the position recently vacated by the 16th Michigan on Little Round Top, now other units were as successful.
The Alabama men from the 15th Infantry under Oates ran into the stubborn Down Easters in the 20th Maine, led by Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Shocked by a bayonet charge as they were preparing to withdraw back over Big Round Top, many of the 15th fell into the hands of the 20th Maine.
“The Orange Blossoms”
Colonel A. Van Horne Ellis commanded the 124th New York Infantry Regiment, raised in Orange County, New York, and fondly referred to by Colonel Ellis as “my Orange Blossoms”. They were facing west on the south end of Houck’s Ridge, with the lower west slope of Big Round Top in ther rear across the jumble of rocks called Devil’s Den, and the small brook called Plum Run. Over their right shoulders loomed the rocky west face of Little Round Top, where the 5th United States Light Artillery, Battery D, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Hazlett was booming away at the approaching enemy, and at the Confederate troops in the Wheatfield two hundred yards through the woods on the right. It was a comforting sound. On the left of the 124th were four guns of the Captain James E. Smith’s 4th New York Light Artillery, with the other section of two guns on the floor of the Plum Run Valley firing downstream. Ellis had his men manning the rock wall which was the base of a triangular shaped field, with the base at the top of the field and the point at the bottom where a small rise was located. Suddenly, the 1st Texas Infantry appeared on the rise at the bottom of the field and proceeded to march up the hill toward the “Orange Blossoms”. About half way up the fire of the New Yorkers stopped the Texans who did an about face, and proceeded to march back down toward the bottom.
Major Cromwell, one of the regiment’s officers, rode to Colonel Ellis, exclaiming, “We have them on the run, Colonel, let’s go get ‘em!”. Cromwell then jumped his horse over the wall, and called for his men to join him. Ellis jumped his horse over the wall as well. The regiment quickly formed a line inside the wall and started to advance down the hill after the Texans.
The Texans were just finishing reloading on the march. They did another about face, and because they were cramped on both sides, bunched up in the middle. They presented arms and fired into the New Yorkers. The concentrated fire hit the regiment like a wide steel bar, cutting men in half on a broad front, decimating the regiment. Ellis and Cromwell were among the dead. The regiment was shattered, the life driven from it. They gathered their dead and wounded, and withdrew from the battle.
The first unit across the Wheatfield was the Reserve Brigade of Colonel P. Regis de Trobriand, of Birney’s Division. They went forward to stop Kershaw’s men from entering the field from the western side by way of the Rose Woods. What they were not aware of was the presence of Brigadier General G. T. Anderson’s Brigade, behind a low stone wall hidden in the edge of the woods at the southwest corner of the Wheatfield. De Trobriand’s regiments were marching through the waist-high wheat when Anderson’s men opened on them with a fearful fire.
Over the next two hours, all the brigades sent by Hancock from his 2nd Corps, the entire 1st Division of Brigadier General John C. Caldwell went through that Wheatfield. The brigades of Colonels Edward Cross, Patrick Kelly, John Brooke, and Brigadier General Samuel Zook were spent on those fields.
Some estimates of the fighting in the Wheatfield describe it as being “in the whirlwind”, and the casualties were as high, if not higher than those of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault of the next day – somewhere over seven thousand men went down there.
Finally, Brigadier General Samuel Wiley Crawford, commanding the two brigades of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division swept down the northwest face of Little Round Top, and pushed across Plum Run, forcing the exhausted Confederates of Kershaw’s and Wofford’s brigades back over the north end of Houck’s Ridge, through the tree line on the east side of the Wheatfield, and across into the trees on the west side of the field. From then on, an uneasy truce existed.
[Posted with permission from GettysBLOG]