Gettysburg Pennsylvania. July 3, 1863
The Bliss Farm
On the morning of July 3, 1863, the small farm belonging to William Bliss was the focus of entirely too much attention. Situated some 100 yards west of the Emmitsburg Road, the farmhouse, and barn, and the orchard behind the buildings, were providing cover for men of both sides. The Confederates of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, holding Seminary Ridge about a third of a mile farther west sent skirmishers and sharpshooters to the Bliss Farm buildings to use them as cover while they sent sniper fire up the slope onto Cemetery Ridge, and, to the left, up the western and southern slopes of Cemetery Hill. The large barn, situated on some of the highest ground in the area, was of stone and brick construction, with the lower level German style overhang facing the road. From the five cattle doors on the lower eastern side, and from the slits in the side of the upper story Confederate sharpshooters were wreaking havoc with the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill, and the Union skirmishers along the Emmitsburg Road.
The 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment was sent forward to drive the ‘Johnnies’ off the Bliss Farm. They eventually did so, at some cost. While in possession of the farm buildings, couriers arrived from Cemetery Ridge bearing orders to burn the buildings to deny the Confederates use of the cover. Gathering up his men, Major Theodore G. Ellis ordered them to stack hay in the barn, furniture and bedding in the house and to set the piles ablaze after evacuating all the wounded from both buildings. Once the fires were going in earnest, Ellis and his men withdrew to the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge under cover of the thick smoke issuing from the blaze. As the building began to collapse, the pickets along Emmitsburg Road set up a cheer.
Sometime around 1 PM, two ‘Napoleons’ from the Washington Artillery of Louisiana fired a single round apiece, as a signal to the rest of the artillery: “Commence Firing”. Lined up in an arc from the Peach Orchard in the south, curving through the fields west of the Emmitsburg Road, to Seminary Ridge and all the way up to the Lutheran Seminary itself in the north, over 100 guns opened up, directing most of their fire at the top of Cemetery Ridge, and the west and north side of Cemetery Hill. To a soldier in the 14th Connecticut, “It seemed as if all the Demons in Hell were let loose and were howling through the air.” For the next hour, Confederate artillery pounded away at Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. Here, an artillery caisson full of ammunition was hit, exploding in a ball of flame, and eliciting cheers from the Confederate gunners, and from the Infantry waiting in the woods behind them. There a section of stone wall was breached, and more cheers went up. The Yankee artillery fired back for a while, and then, one by one, the Union guns fell silent, on orders from their Chief of Artillery, General Henry Hunt. Hunt wanted the Confederates to think their cannonade was effectively taking out the artillery batteries arrayed along Cemetery Ridge, so he ordered them to cease fire one at a time and to pull back off the west slope of the ridge and out of danger. The Confederates took the bait.
Colonel E. Porter Alexander was in command of the cannonade for the Confederates. At about 1:40 PM, he sent a message to Major General George E. Pickett, the man designated to Command the advance of some 12,000 infantrymen across the mile of open ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. The note said, “The 18 guns have been driven off. For God’s sake come on quick or we cannot support you ammunition nearly out.”
Brigadier General Henry Hunt was a practical thinking genius. He was innovative: he had developed a method of bringing ammunition to the gunline in a fast manner by using the ambulances of the Army of the Potomac to haul ammunition forward, and to bring wounded back.
[His management of the artillery throughout the three day battle was simply magnificent, and a large factor in the eventual outcome. As good as the Union Artillery was at Gettysburg, for the most part, the Confederate Artillery was that bad. It was not that they lacked the skill, but they lacked the manufacturing capacity in the South to make uniform fuses for the shells.]
Pickett’s men moved out of the woods on Seminary Ridge and formed a line a mile long. About 2 PM, as the artillery fire slackened, they moved forward, the regiments in their brigades, formed in line abreast, two or more ranks deep. One officer from the 12th New Jersey later wrote that it was, “the grandest sight I ever witnessed.” A Sergeant from the 14th Connecticut said, “It was a glorious sight to see, Rebels though they were.” A Union artillery officer offered the more sobering outlook, “Our chances for Kingdom Come, or Libby Prison were good.”
The previously withdrawn artillery units were quickly returned to their locations on the west crest of Cemetery Ridge, and immediately began a deliberate, and steady fire into the ranks of the advancing Confederates.
From time to time, segments of the long Confederate line would disappear from sight, having marched into a swale. Some were forced to climb the sturdy split rail fences that partitioned off the land into separate lots on both sides of the Emmitsburg Road. At such times they were particularly vulnerable to Union fire. Finally, they reached the Emmitsburg Road, and climbed the fence on the west side, and using that sunken road as cover for a brief respite from the angry shelling, buzzing rifle minié balls, and whirring shards of artillery shells, they dressed their lines once more for the final assault, and climbed the fence on the east side of the road, taking up the advance.
As Pickett’s three brigades maneuvered across the fields, angling north from the Codori Farm, three regiments from George Stannard’s Vermont Brigade stepped out and down the western slope of Cemetery Ridge where two of them took Pickett’s men under fire on the flank. The Vermonters stayed out in front of the Union lines and when Pickett’s men swung in toward the Copse of Trees, the Vermonters struck their right flank a second time.
On the Union right, the doughty and seasoned veterans of the 8th Ohio Regiment advanced along a sunken lane parallel to the Confederate assault’s northern-most Brigade, that of Colonel John Brockenborough’s Virginians. The Ohio men advanced from the lane and struck the left flank of the Virginians, forcing them to withdraw in some disarray.
Wilcox and Lang
Back on the Confederate right, a late starting force of two Brigades under Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox, and Colonel David Lang surged forward over the same ground they had the day before, only to have been ambushed by Union artillery and the valiant 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment. Today’s results would be worse. The 13th Vermont faced south and struck the left of David Lang’s Brigade emerging from the ravine below the Codori Farm in the same place Wilcox’s Alabamans had been ambushed the day before. Wilcox bore the brunt of Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s artillery brigade firing from hidden ground on Cemetery Ridge. Wilcox and Lang turned their men and withdrew.
The High Water Mark of the Confederacy
At last, approximately twenty minutes after they stepped off, the Confederate line reached the main Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge: a low stone wall behind which several brigades of infantry waited. From a range of about 30 yards, both sides stood in line and blazed away at each other with rifle fire. In places, artillery blasted gaping holes in the Confederate lines. To keep the line of fire clear for the cannons, Union troops stayed out of the way, and thus, gaps in the line of infantry appeared. A breakthrough was made in front of the guns of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing’s Battery A, 4th United States Artillery. Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, one of Pickett’s brigade commanders, climbed over the wall, holding his hat impaled on his upright sword, and yelled, “Who will follow me?!” A few dozen actually did, before being swept away by Cushing’s guns, as he fired the last round before succumbing to his many wounds. Infantry reserves stepped forward to plug gaps, and to keep other units in front of them from breaking and running. Conspicuous for his courage and leadership was Brigadier General Alexander Webb, commanding a brigade of Pennsylvanians assigned to the area known as ‘The Angle’. Before long, the fight was over, and the long walk back to Seminary Ridge began for the survivors.
Near sundown, Captain Benjamin Thompson of the 111th New York Infantry gazed to the west from the crest of Cemetery Ridge. He later recorded, “No words can depict the ghastly picture. The track of the great charge was marked by the bodies of men in all possible positions, wounded bleeding, dying, and dead. Near the line where the final struggle occurred, the men lay in heaps, the wounded wiggling and groaning under the weight of the dead among whom they were entangled.”
Custer sensed them coming, again. So did his temporary boss, Major General David M. Gregg, to whom Custer had been loaned from Kilpatrick’s Division of Cavalry on the south end of the Battlefield. Custer and Gregg both figured that Stuart would be trying to get behind the Union center, so they waited for him to show up at some farms about three miles east of town. Sometime in the mid afternoon, Stuart appeared, just as expected. Custer rode out in front of his 7th Michigan Cavalry Regiment and called to them, “Come on, you wolverines!” There followed a large noise, some describe it as sounding like two trains crashing head on, as the two bodies of horsemen closed on each other south of the Rummel farm, colliding with their cavalry sabers drawn.
The fight at what is now called East Cavalry Field lasted several hours, and Custer was far from being the only Union hero…there were many. And in the end, Stuart retreated back to Gettysburg, defeated three times in four days by the 23 year old Custer. [Custer would be Stuart’s nemesis for nearly another year, until Michigan troops killed Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern].
The toll was excruciatingly high. In Pickett’s Division, there were 2,653 casualties – killed, wounded, captured, or missing. It is estimated that the Confederates, who began the day with a fight on Culp’s Hill, and ended it with Pickett’s Charge (and a few later small engagements), lost approximately 10,000 men on July 3.
During all three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union casualties are estimated at 23,049 (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). The Confederate losses were worse: 28,063 (3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, 5,425 missing).
That is a total of 51,112.
Historian Jeffry D. Wert writes in his stunning and riveting book Gettysburg: Day Three, “By nightfall on July 3, forty thousand officers and men from both armies, the dead and wounded, lay either on the battlefield or in makeshift field hospitals. The enormity of the numbers awed the survivors and moved them to write of it.” One artilleryman wrote, “I have seen many a big battle, most of the big ones of the war, and I never saw the like.” One of Colonel David Lang’s Floridians wrote, “I never saw the like of dead.”
As President Abraham Lincoln put it when dedicating the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg four months later, “…we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Gettysburg: Day Three, by Jeffry D. Wert, Simon & Schuster, New York 2001. ISBN 0-684-85914-9.
[Statistics, facts, and quotations used in this essay have come from Wert’s book. In the estimation of this blogger, it is the best comprehensive one day battle book written about the Battle of Gettysburg, if not the entire Civil War. It is highly recommended to all as an essential part of any serious student of history’s library, as the author deeply examines the “why” behind the events.]
[Reposted with permission from GettysBLOG]