The Fight for Houck’s Ridge

The Fight for Houck’s Ridge

Late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the members of Brigadier General J. H. Hobart Ward’s Brigade of 6 regiments from Maine, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania, plus elements of the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters, prepared to receive the assault of Confederate General John Bell Hood.  Perched atop the south end of Houck’s Ridge, the southern terminus of which is Devil’s Den, Ward placed his men in a line stretching generally north-west, almost to the Wheatfield.  Behind him lay Plum Run Valley, soon to become known as the Valley of Death, and several hundred yards farther east lay the two Round Tops, “Big” on the south, “Little” to the north.  There was slender Union Presence in between Ward and Little Round Top.

Facing Ward were two Brigades of Hood’s shock troops, under Brigadier General Jerome Bonaparte Robertson [Texas and Arkansas], and Brigadier General Henry L. Benning [Georgia], on Robertson’s left.  The terrain was difficult for the Confederates, but what Benning’s men had to go over was so impassable that his men split Robertson’s Brigade with the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas moving to the left of Benning’s men, while the 4th and 5th Texas got mixed in with Brigadier General Evander Law’s Alabama brigade assaulting Little Round Top.

Anchoring the left end of Ward’s line [at the south end of Houck’s Ridge, with the worst of the Devil’s Den Boulders at his back] was Smith’s 4th New York Light Battery, with Captain James E. Smith commanding the six 10 pounder Parrot guns.  Union artillery batteries were comprised of 6 guns, divided into three sections of two guns each.  Smith had posted one section of his guns to his right rear about two hundred yards, on the floor of Plum Run Valley.

They were pointed south, across the stream at tree line at the base of Big Round Top.  The area was littered with large and small boulders.  When the Alabama troops emerged from the tree line, Smith’s two guns roared into action, firing explosive shells over the rocks, which in many cases added rock splinters to the shrapnel from the exploding shells.  As the Confederates withdrew back into the tree line, Smith’s two guns elevated their muzzles and opened fire on the treetops of the wood line.  This created hundreds of wood splinters raining down on the Alabamans sheltering there.  The area became known as The Slaughter Pen.  Below is a photo of the two gun section of Smith’s Battery which has been missing for some time from its location on the west side of today’s Crawford Avenue at the location where Smith had posted them.

Smith's 4th NY Light Artillery Battery Section on floor of Plum Run Valley

Smith’s 4th NY Light Artillery Battery Section on floor of Plum Run Valley

In the meantime, Smith’s other two sections [four guns] were on top of the south end of Houck’s Ridge covering the left flank of Ward’s brigade line.  To Smith’s right was the 4th Maine and 99th Pennsylvania Infantry [both moved there during the battle], and on their right, the 124th New York.  Farther to the right was the 20th Indiana in the edge of the Rose Woods.  Other regiments from Ward’s brigade were posted down on the floor of Plum Run Valley, facing the elements of Evander Law’s Alabamians coming up through the boulders of Plum Run Gorge.

As Benning’s Brigade approached Ward’s position, they found the 1st Texas Infantry and the 4th Arkansas Infantry in front of them, entering a triangular shaped field on the western slope of Houck’s Ridge.  At the top, along the base of the triangle, was a stone wall, behind which were Colonel VanHorn Ellis’s 124th New York Infantry, his “Orange Blossoms” from Orange County, New York.  As the Texans began their assault up the ridge, the Orange Blossoms poured a deadly fire into them, causing them to fall back.  Ellis’s men, encouraged by this, and led by the Colonel, who jumped his horse over the wall, began to march in line abreast down the Triangular Field toward the Texans.  While withdrawing down the hill, the Texans were reloading and at the bottom, on a small knoll, they turned and fired a volley into the approaching New Yorkers.  The regiment was decimated.  Major Cromwell, the second in command was down, and many others were dead or wounded.  The New Yorkers began to withdraw.  In the ensuing fight, the Orange Blossoms drove off the Texans, but not without a great price.  Cromwell and Ellis were both dead, and many of their compatriots were as well.  It was a sad day for Orange County, New York.

Benning continued to press forward, and the fight became hand to hand, lasting for almost an hour, before the 99th Pennsylvania, fighting from a circle of large boulders, was forced to withdraw.  The rest of Ward’s Brigade had already done so, heading to a spot north of Little Round Top.

Below is a photograph of the Artillerist, which marks the spot of Smith’s 4 New York Light Artillery Battery guns [2 sections] on the south end of Houck’s Ridge.  Anyone who has ever driven or walked up from Devil’s Den will recognize the four cannons of Smith’s Battery represented atop Houck’s Ridge.  Several years ago, the Artillerist’s statue was pulled down and decapitated, with the head stolen, during a pre-dawn attack of vandalism on the Battlefield.  [Two other monuments were damaged along Emmitsburg Road].  The statue has been repaired and restored as you can see.

Smith's 4th New York Light Artillery Monument: The Artillerist

Smith’s 4th New York Light Artillery Monument: The Artillerist

Of the four guns on Houck’s Ridge during the battle, four were captured, one of which was damaged or spiked, and three were carried off by the Confederates.

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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7 Responses to The Fight for Houck’s Ridge

  1. I came across your blog while searching for Gettysburg-related blogs, and I really enjoyed it. The battle for Houck’s Ridge has always been one of the “tendrils” of the battle that interested me most. Devil’s Den is without doubt my favorite place on the field.

  2. John Houck says:

    Any history of the land owner or disposition of Houcks Ridge. Were the owners loyal to North or South.
    My great grand father Lewis Houck was a union sargent

    • wgdavis says:

      The Gettysburg area was pretty solid Union folks. Last slave sale in Pennsylvania was c. 1845, slaves were gone from the state by 1860. That said, there were scant residents who sided with the South, or with slavery.

      Do you know in what Regiment your great-grandfather served and where he was from?

  3. joseph nichols says:

    a park ranger once mentioned on you tube of the 3d Arkansas gaining shelter behind a rock structure while moving against the 20th Indiana. Can you briefly advise how I may find this place in Rose Woods bear Houck’s Ridge please?

    on April 5, 2019 at 2351 hours

  4. wgdavis says:

    Thanks for your question, Joseph.

    [A current Battlefield map would be helpful to better follow my reply.]

    When you drive up from Devil’s Den to where Smith’s 4th NY Battery Monument is located, and continue on the road north to the intersection and then turn left, and follow that road down to the bottom of the Triangular Field [on your left], then drive a few yards more and you will cross a small brook. The 3rd Arkansas was moving northeast, uphill, and away from the brook [to your right]. The left of the regiment was on the road you just drove down.

    The only rock outcropping down there I can think of is up where the road turns to the right at the top of the rise. There is an outcropping not far to your left as the road turns right. Somewhere in that area is the foundation for the Timber Farmhouse. From time to time the Park cleans up and exposes the foundation that rests on the outcropping. I suspect that might be the outcropping to which you are referring. [As a side note, four members of the 90th Pennsylvania were awarded Medals of Honor for their part in a fight around the Timber Farmhouse.]

    While the 124th NY [Col. Van Horn Ellis’ “Orange Blossoms” from Orange County, NY] were driving the 1st Texas back down the triangular field, the 86th NY and the 20th Indiana were facing off with the 3rd Arkansas.

    W. G. Davis

  5. Steve Gilbreath says:

    My greatgrandfather Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath had to take command of the 20th Indiana regiment after two senior officers were knocked out. He tells the story in his memoirs published by The Pritzker Military Museum and Library in the book, The Dignity of Duty. I would appreciate any info about the battle between the Akansans and 20th Indiana on that end of the line. The 99th Penn had been moved to the other end.

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