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.
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.
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.