US – OH 8th

Gettysburg References from:

A Brief History of the 8th Regt. OVI

by T.M.F. Downes

The 8th remained in camp around Falmouth from about the 10th of May until the 14th of June when it was learned that Lee’s army was on the move northward. Marching generally north, the II Corps followed with the rest of the army, always trying to keep between Lee and Washington City. On the 21st of June the 8th Ohio was moved towards Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains to act as forward observers. On the 24th Gen. Alexander Hays was made Division commander. After several more days of marching and counter-marching the regiment reached Uniontown and went into camp.

About mid-morning on July 1st the II Corps began marching towards Gettysburg where heavy fighting had been reported. The regiment slept by the roadside on the night of the 1st, about 3 miles from Gettysburg. Before daylight of the 2nd the corps was on the move again, reaching the rest of the army south of Gettsyburg by 9 in the morning. The 8th was placed in a position facing generally westward, south of Cemetery Hill, along a ridge running nearly parallel with the Emmitsburg Road. The brigade was posted in the grove of trees known as Zieglers’s Grove, the right of the brigade touching the Tanytown Road and the 8th on the left of the line.

(It would be just as well at this point to say something about the terrain around Gettysburg in 1863. The area was farm country for the most part. Any land that seemed useable had been cleared either for pasture or crops and the area was much more open than it is now. Landmarks like Cemetery Hill or Little Round Top, which today are overgrown with trees and bushes, commanded a much wider field of view than they do now. Conversely, objects such as men or cannon, which may have been on these hills, made much more prominent targets, visible at greater distances, than they would today.)

About 2:30 p.m. the “Gibralter Brigade” (still the 4th and 8th Ohio, 7th West Virginia and 14th Indiana) was holding its position in and around Ziegler’s Grove, the 8th Ohio supporting Woodruff’s battery (I, 1st U.S.) in front of the Grove.

Rebel skirmishers had established themselves on a slight ridge on the other (west) side of the Emmitsburg Road and began picking away at the artillerymen as they worked their guns. The 8th was ordered to drive the Confederate riflemen out of this position and put out a skirmish line of their own, out of small-arms range of the main Union line so the cannoneers could go about their business unmolested. Forming up in the grove the 8th came down the ridge on the run, flags flying and the cheers of the artillery men spurring them on. Reaching the fences along the Emmitsburg Road, companies B and D deployed as skirmishers and moved out into fields on the other side of the road. The rest of the regiment followed, driving the enemy skirmish line before it.

The Confederates fell back until they were rallied around the Bliss barn where they turned and stopped the 8th’s advance. The 8th fell back then, having pushed the enemy skirmishers beyond sniper range of the guns in Ziegler’s Grove, and established a skirmish line of their own about 50 yards west of the Emmitsburg Road into which the main body of the regiment was placed. Several attempts were made to dislodge the 8th from their position, but although some severe fighting took place, the Ohioans were able to hang on.

Late in the evening of July 2nd Gen. Jubal Early’s division attacked Howard’s XI Corps on Cemetery Hill, breaking through his lines and briefly capturing several cannon. The other three regiments of Carroll’s “Gibralter” brigade were sent from their position in Ziegler’s Grove to help retake the guns. Col. Sawyer, noticing Rebel troops forming up on the edge of town and fearing an attack on his position, sent back to his division commander, Gen. Hays, for re-enforcements. Hays replied that as Carroll had been sent to Cemetery Hill to help the XI Corps, there were no troops to be sent to help the 8th and Sawyer must hold his position at all costs, to the last man if need be; a message that many Confederates would regret on the morrow.

At first light of dawn on July 3rd, after a night of constant sniping, the skirmishers of the 8th were rushed by a force of 3 or 4 hundred Rebels trying to regain the advanced position and higher ground the regiment occupied. Fortunately Col. Sawyer anticipated this type of attack and had Co. B standing by as reserve. Supported by the other companies in the road, Co. B dashed forward with bayonets fixed and drove off the attacking force. After stabilizing the situation Co. B stayed out on the skirmish line sending the wounded to the rear.

After this attack the regiment was left alone except for some desultory pot-shooting from a couple of snipers in a tree by the Bliss barn. The men lay in the hot July sun, trying to keep as comfortable as possible, until 1 or 1:30 in the afternoon when the Confederate artillery opened the bombardment which preceded the attack of Gen. Pickett’s division. The cannon fire ranged a little high, however, so the majority of the shells passed over the 8th. The entire regiment had only 2 men killed during the barrage which lasted nearly 2 hours. The sound reached such a thunderous roar that many of the men were lulled to sleep by the crashing monotony of the cannon fire. As the artillery fire slowly diminished, the regiment prepared itself for the infantry assault it knew was coming.

Being out in the open as they were, the men of the 8th were able to assess their situation from almost the first moment the Confederate battle lines emerged from the woodline on Seminary Ridge.

Away to the south (left) and west was the division of Pickett, already taking fire from the Union guns on the Round Tops, but still far enough away as to be of little concern yet. Closer in was the division of Gen. Pettigrew which, as it came into view, seemed to be headed straight for the 8th, but due to adjustments in their alignment on Pickett’s division, would pass several yards to the left of the regiment. Directly in front were the brigades of Gen. Pender now under the command of Gen. Trimble. These would be the 8th’s first order of business.

As the Ohioans waited for these ranks of gray to close within easy rifle range, they kept a wary eye on Pickett’s men who were still advancing across the open fields. As they watched through the dust and battle-smoke, the entire division executed as left oblique, a forty-five degree turn to the left, which closed the gap between the divisions of Pickett and Pettigrew. Out ahead of Pickett’s division was a mounted officer (Garnett?) leading the troops up the slope into a flaming inferno of shot at steel. The colorbearers of the 8th suddenly waved their flags in a spontaneous salute to his courage. (One has a secret hope that some Confederate regiment returned the salute in tribute to the small group of blue-coats standing all alone in an open field 200 yards in advance of their own main line, facing nearly a hundred times their number.)

As Trimble’s troops came into range the 8th opened up a withering fire backed by the cannon in Ziegler’s Grove. These Confederate brigades had been badly shot up in the fighting on the first day of the battle and their stamina was not as great as it would have been under normal circumstances. There were a large number of wounded and rear-echelon troops in the ranks this day. The combined artillery and close range rifle fire was more than they could stand. They advanced as far as their own skirmish line and then broke and faded back toward Seminary Ridge.

Pressured from the front, attacked from the rear, and shelled from nearly every side, the Rebel troops passed the limits of human endurance and broke for the rear. As Leut. Thomas Galwey of Co. B saw it, “They threw away everything –cartridge boxes, waist-belts and haversacks –in their stampede.. As far as the eye could reach, the ground was covered with flying Confederates. They all seemed to extend their arms in their flight, as if to assist their speed.”(2)

The survivors of the 8th moved in among the dazed and confused Confederate soldiers, capturing 3 stands of colors and nearly 300 prisoners, almost 3 times their own remaining numbers.

When ordered into battle on July 2nd the 8th counted 209 rifles. After two days of fighting almost a quarter of a mile in advance of the main Union lines, only 107 men were left to gather about their tattered colors. As the shattered remnant of the regiment re-entered their own lines with the 3 captured flags flying and escorting their prisoners, the artillery and infantry posted in Ziegler’s Grove gave them a cheer of welcome and the Col. of the 14th Ind. complimented them by having his regiment present arms as the Ohioans passed by.

The next several days were spent in burying the dead, caring for the wounded and making ready for the next move. On July 7th, with the rest of the 11 Corps, the 8th Ohio marched away from Gettysburg taking with it the memory of its brightest contribution of the war.

After Gettysburg the 8th spent several weeks slowly pursuing the retreating Rebels through Maryland and back into Virginia. The regiment suffered greatly during this period due to the hot weather and the fact they were out of touch with any source of supplies. The unit had been on campaign since the 14th of June when it left Falmouth, and was becoming increasingly ragged. By July 23 more than half of the regiment were without shoes, and other supplies were equally lacking.

(1) A Military History of the Eighth Regiment Ohio Vol. Inf’y. by Franklin Sawyer Leut. Gen. Col.Bvt.Brig.

(2) The Valiant Hours by Thomas Francis Galway 1st Leut. Bvt. Capt. Co. B 8th OVI

(3) Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Copyright © 1990 TMF Downes

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