Feuding Artillerymen

At Gettysburg late in the day on July 2, Maine sea captain-turned-artilleryman Freeman McGilvery, from the army’s artillery reserve, set up batteries along Cemetery Ridge that kept attacking Confederates from piercing the Union line.

As it was with Adelbert Ames, McGilvery’s destiny seemed to lie at sea. Born on October 29, 1823, in the town of Prospect near the mouth of the Penobscot River, McGilvery, like all four of his brothers, grew up to become a sea captain. He had sailed the bark J. Merithew to California for the gold rush in 1849, and had been in command of the ship Wellfleet when the war began. He left the oceans for a landlocked role in the army, helping raise the 6th Battery of the Maine Light Artillery and becoming its captain in January 1862. McGilvery, a somewhat cantankerous man with dark hair and a thick mustache that merged into bristling muttonchop whiskers, made the transition to the artillery without difficulty. He demonstrated his command abilities that August at Cedar Run with “skillful and active management” of his guns, according to his division commander. At Second Bull Run, McGilvery’s battery fought a stubborn defense against the Confederates, losing two guns but helping slow the Rebels enough to allow Pope’s forces to escape.

McGilvery’s superiors recognized his abilities, for he received a promotion to major in the artillery reserve (and in the Maine Mounted Artillery). Lt. Edwin Dow replaced him in temporary command of the battery. By the time the Army of the Potomac reached Gettysburg, McGilvery was in command of the 1st Volunteer Brigade of the army’s artillery reserve. The reserve was a force of 21 batteries (106 guns) in four brigades. McGilvery’s brigade had four batteries: the 5th and 9th Massachusetts, commanded by Charles A. Phillips and John Bigelow, respectively; 15th New York, under Patrick Hart; and Batteries C and F of the Pennsylvania Light Artillery, combined into a single unit under James Thompson.

The story of how this former sea captain threw together an improvised artillery line that helped save the battle has been told before, but few know about the resentments, recriminations, and accusations that had been swirling about through Maine’s artillery units—much of it due to McGilvery’s intense desire for promotion. When McGilvery found Edwin Dow and the 6th Maine Battery in the late afternoon of July 2, it must have been an interesting encounter. McGilvery had been actively trying to prevent Dow from getting permanent command of the battery, and had accused him of public drunkenness. Dow had responded by demanding a court-martial for McGilvery. According to Dow, McGilvery had “harangued” the men of the battery and told them “that I could not be Captain if I went to hell for it.” He said McGilvery had whipped up the battery into a state of near mutiny and that he intended to press charges against him for “Conduct Prejudicial to good order and Military discipline, Conduct unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman, and Exciting Mutinous Conduct in my Command.” The whole issue had turned into a storm of accusations, countercharges, and recriminations that eventually involved officers from other Maine batteries and reached all the way to Governor Abner Coburn.

The two men managed to put aside whatever differences they still had by the time they reached Gettysburg. After the battle, Dow had nothing but praise for McGilvery, saying he “was ever present, riding up and down the line in the thickest of the fire, encouraging the men by his words and dashing example, his horse receiving eight wounds, of which he has since died, the gallant major receiving only a few scratches.”

McGilvery was equally pleased with his performance, and justifiably so. “I have been told my services at Gettysburg were valuable and of course I am willing to believe it,” he wrote to the governor after the battle. He now felt he deserved promotion to full colonel.

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The 19th Maine Prepares for Battle

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the 19th Maine was at Gettysburg, waiting to experience its first battle.

The regiment had left its camp near Fredericksburg on June 15 for the grueling march north. It suffered its first combat fatality 10 days later, when Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery lobbed a few projectiles its way outside the crossroads town of Haymarket, Virginia. One of the Rebel shells killed Company G’s Israel D. Jones. “In less than ten minutes from the time that Mr. Jones was chatting cheerfully with the man marching at his side, he was buried by the roadside and left to sleep his last sleep,” wrote John Day Smith in his regimental history.

The 19th Maine made its longest march of the campaign, 32 miles, on June 29, but was able to spend the next day relaxing and basking in the patriotic sentiment it found in the aptly named Uniontown, Maryland. On the morning of July 1, the regiment was assigned to guard the division’s trains during the day’s march. Rumors of fighting to the north began to move through the ranks, but it wasn’t until midafternoon that the soldiers heard the first sounds of the battle raging at Gettysburg. Then, “it became very evident that there was trouble ahead,” remembered Capt. Silas Adams. The regiment marched until 9:00 p.m., and then made camp on the Taneytown Road, south of the Round Tops. About 20 men from the 16th Maine shared their campsite that night. Adams remembered them giving “a very dismal account of the battle of the afternoon.”

Early the next morning, the regiment rose and made a short march to Cemetery Ridge. There they whiled away the long day. “All was silence in the early morning save the confused tramping of feet, and the rumbling of long trains of ambulances in the distance, as they uncoiled from their posts and moved along with the column,” remembered Hallowell native Charles E. Nash. “The thought that some of our number would occupy them, mangled and bleeding, before night, could not be repressed. The certainty was too apparent.”

And then the certainty became reality. John P. Lancaster of Company A had just sat down to eat a dinner of pork and hard bread out of his greasy tin plate when a cannonball came plunging out of the sky and severed the leg of a Massachusetts soldier near him. “I did not want any more pork that meal,” Lancaster remembered.

In the afternoon the men watched the III Corps advance to its new position far ahead of the Union line. Andrew Humphreys’ division was on the corps’ right, closest to the II Corps. Humphreys had hardly positioned his men alongside the Emmitsburg Road before James Longstreet launched his attack. From their vantage point on Cemetery Ridge, the men of the 19th Maine, waiting in reserve, could see that the III Corps was getting the worst of things. Throughout the afternoon various regiments and brigades were taken out of the line and sent to support other parts of the army. When Hancock sent John Caldwell’s men to the Wheatfield from their position south of the 19th Maine, he opened up the gap that McGilvery would defend so skillfully. As the afternoon went on, the 400 or so Maine soldiers began to feel isolated, as though they had been left alone on their portion of the line.

They finally received orders to move ahead to a position in front of Cemetery Ridge. The 1st Minnesota was off to the left some 300 yards or so. General Winfield Scott Hancock rode up so he could personally place the 19th Maine exactly where he wanted it. He dismounted and strode over to the man on the regiment’s far left, George Durgin of Company F. He moved him slightly forward and to the left. “Will you stay here?” Hancock asked Durgin.

“I’ll stay here until hell freezes over,” Durgin replied. That got a smile from Hancock. He ordered the rest of the regiment to form on Durgin, mounted his horse, and rode off.

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The Other Round Top

Many people remember how the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry defended Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, but the regiment’s actions late in the day don’t receive as much attention. In the evening, Col. Joshua Chamberlain volunteered to take his men and secure Big Round Top, the heavily wooded height to the south.

As I write in Maine Roads to Gettysburg:

In some ways this night climb was more nerve-racking than the blood and thunder on Little Round Top had been. The regiment had little ammunition and Chamberlain wanted to avoid a firefight that would give away his small numbers, so he had his men move forward with their bayonets attached. The little band crawled and climbed through the darkness. It was “rough scrambling,” Chamberlain noted. Ahead they could hear enemy troops crashing through the woods as they fell back. There was a full moon, but its light proved feeble in the dark woods. As the men of the 20th Maine reached the summit, some of the pickets advanced far enough to see the light from enemy campfires flickering through the trees. They fell back, and some of the Rebels pulled themselves away from their fires in pursuit.

“Who goes there?” one of the Mainers shouted.

“4th Texas,” came the reply.

“Alright come on, we’re 4th Texas,” a quick-witted Mainer replied, and the unfortunate Rebels from the Lone Star State emerged from the trees to find themselves facing leveled muskets and a Maine man behind each one. The regiment bagged some 30 prisoners, including Gen. Evander Law’s acting assistant adjutant. Ellis Spear remembered how one of the Southerners commented “on the fact that men from the two ends of the country should so meet, in the woods & dark.”

Once he reached the summit, Chamberlain sent for reinforcements. Fisher ordered two of his Pennsylvania regiments to climb Big Round Top and provide support on the 20th Maine’s right. The Pennsylvanians stumbled and thrashed their way up the dark hill. Alerted by the noise, enemy soldiers fired a volley into the night. Chamberlain said the Pennsylvanians “started like antelopes & went down the way they had come up on, & never stopped till they were behind the line on Little Round Top again.” Chamberlain sent a messenger to Rice requesting he send either the 83rd Pennsylvania or the 44th New York for support. He felt he could depend on regiments from his own brigade. Leaving pickets at the summit, he withdrew the rest of the regiment back to level ground until reinforcements arrived from the 83rd Pennsylvania. Then he moved his men back up the steep slope.

There the men of the 20th Maine settled in for a long and uncomfortable night. Overcome by fatigue and illness, Spear fell asleep sitting against a tree. He woke in the middle of the night shaking and shivering with a feverish chill. He found a soldier sleeping on the ground, crawled next to him to share his blanket and body warmth, and fell back asleep.

The 20th Maine had secured Big Round Top without suffering any casualties, but as morning began to brighten the eastern sky, Lt. Arad Linscott decided to grab a musket and see if he could annoy Rebels he heard moving on his front. One of them shot Linscott instead, and the young lieutenant fell with a mortal wound to the thigh. Later that morning the regiment was relieved by the First Brigade and moved back down the mountain. It took up a position somewhere to the left of the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The men sat down to wait and see what would happen next.

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The 4th Maine in Devil’s Den

During the fight on July 2 in Devil’s Den, the 4th Maine helped push Rebels back from the guns of James Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery, but the 124th New York to the right had been decimated, its colonel and major both dead, and had been forced to retreat. The 4th Maine had to follow suit. “Our flag was pierced by thirty-two bullets and two pieces of shell, and its staff was shot off, but Sgt. Henry O. Ripley, its bearer, did not allow the color to touch the ground, nor did he receive a scratch, though all the others of the color guard were killed or wounded,” reported Col. Elijah Walker. Capt. Edwin Libby remembered how Ripley defiantly waved the flag at the advancing enemy—but defiance wasn’t enough. The soldiers of Ward’s brigade on this part of the line were forced to retreat, ceding Devil’s Den to the Rebels.

John W. Lokey of the 20th Georgia later recalled an encounter with a wounded sergeant of the 4th Maine somewhere among the boulders of Devil’s Den. The Georgia regiment belonged to Henry Benning’s brigade, which had followed Robertson’s into the maelstrom. Lokey had just clambered up on the rocks to take aim at the Yankees when a bullet went through his right thigh. “I felt as if lightning had struck me,” he said. Lokey was attempting to hobble to the rear when he came across a wounded Yankee. The man identified himself as a sergeant in the 4th Maine (historian John Michael Priest identified him as Zuinglas C. Gowan of Company E). Lokey asked for assistance. The Mainer had the Rebel throw his arm around his neck so he could hold him up. The two enemies then stumbled out of harm’s way through a storm of bullets that “were striking the trees like hail all around us.” They were behind Rebel lines, so the Union soldier knew he would be taken prisoner. “If you and I had this matter to settle, we would soon settle it, wouldn’t we,” he said. Lokey replied that they would probably come to terms pretty quickly. After the unlikely duo reached a place of relative safety, Confederate soldiers took the Maine man to the rear. “If he is living, I would be glad to hear from him,” Lokey wrote years later. 

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The 17th Maine Finds a Wall

When the 17th Maine reached Gettysburg, there was some turmoil swirling in the regiment’s upper levels. Its original colonel, Thomas Roberts, resigned in June, leaving Lt. Col. Charles Merrill in temporary command. Merrill, a Bowdoin graduate and Portland lawyer before the war, had served with Roberts in a militia unit back home, and it seems there was bad blood between them. Perhaps the ill will trickled down through the regiment, or maybe its soldiers knew that Merrill had a brother who was fighting for the Confederacy, because a movement began to secure the colonelcy for Maj. George West—a move that was doubtlessly spearheaded by George West. He had been born in Massachusetts and gained military experience with militia there, but West later moved to Maine’s Aroostook County to take up work as a lumberman. He had begun the war as a captain with the 10th Maine. He had since advanced to major in the 17th, but he had his sights set on higher rank.44

As has had happened with the 19th Maine, letters and petitions began traveling from the army to the governor, recommending West and tearing down Merrill. A petition drawn up on May 23 and signed by 21 officers claimed that Merrill had taken the colors and gone to the rear during the fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, and he had returned to the regiment only after his brigade commander ordered him to. That behavior, the petition said, “was such as to destroy all our confidence in his bravery.” On the other hand, Generals David Birney and Hobart Ward both wrote to Coburn to recommend Merrill, and other soldiers testified to his bravery at Chancellorsville as well.

“Col. Merrill was a kind, fatherly man, abounding in good qualities and he didn’t fancy the domineering and reckless ways of West,” noted Pvt. John Haley, who appreciated the major’s military skills, but thought West was cold and ambitious. “We admired his smartness and military genius, but as a man, we despised him as thoroughly he did us.” For the time being, Merrill remained in charge, even though his courage on the battlefield had been questioned.

The regiment arrived late to the battlefield on July 2, having remained behind in Emmitsburg to block mountain passes to the west. Merrill was still in command, despite the groundswell of support for Maj. George W. West. The regiment began its march to Gettysburg around five o’clock on the morning of July 2, and the men were disgruntled because they had not been given time to make coffee. Even without caffeine, the Union men summoned enough energy to cheer loudly when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania. After a march of about three hours brigade commander Regis De Trobriand allowed his weary soldiers a break. Many immediately kindled fires for the all-important task of brewing coffee—only to receive orders to resume the march before they had time to finish. Time was of the essence. As De Trobriand’s brigade marched up the Emmitsburg Road south of Gettysburg, enemy bullets started whistling over their heads. Had they arrived 15 minutes later, regimental historian Edwin Houghton wrote, they would have found Confederates blocking their path.

As the soldiers headed north, they passed Gettysburg citizens going in the opposite direction, laden with whatever they could carry. South of town, the regiment made a right turn off the road, passed through Sherfy’s peach orchard, and finally found a position near some woods along a rocky ridge. To their south was a 20-acre wheat field. There were woods at the far side, with a low stone wall running along the edge. Soldiers flung themselves onto the ground and fell asleep. The time was about three o’clock.

Many men were still sleeping sometime around 4:00 when a gun discharged from the peach orchard and jolted them awake. More guns began firing off to the south, where Smith’s New York battery was defending Devil’s Den. Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C walked to a high point above the wheat field to investigate. Off to the south he could see Union signalmen on the rocky heights of Little Round Top. They were frantically waving their signal flags. Before Verrill could determine much more, orders came for the regiment to move to their left at double-quick.

The 17th Maine rose up and made a dash across the wheat field toward the stone wall at the south end. Already “the bullets were whizzing,” Verrill said. A sergeant fell dead. Like the wheat field and the peach orchard, the stone wall, under ordinary circumstances, would have been nothing special. It was “just a common old fashioned, thirty-inch stone fence,” Verrill said. On the battlefield, nothing was ordinary. “The stone wall was a breastwork ready made,” Verrill said, and the crucible of battle transformed it into “the best stone wall the 17th Maine ever came across in its travels.”

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Into Pitzer’s Woods

Sometime around 11:00 on July 2, 1863, Col. Moses Lakeman of the 3rd Maine received orders to support about 100 of Hiram Berdan’s sharpshooters who were going to move across the Emmitsburg Road and check enemy activity in a patch of forest called Pitzer’s Woods. The sharpshooters took the advance, with the Maine soldiers trailing. As Berdan’s men approached farm buildings near the Emmitsburg Road, they encountered a local boy who warned them that Confederate soldiers lay waiting “in rows” in the woods. Some of the sharpshooters told the lad he was talking nonsense and continued forward.

The sharpshooters realized soon enough that the boy knew what he was talking about when they spotted men wearing butternut and gray moving through the trees. They were Alabamians of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade. The sharpshooters opened fire, and the 3rd Maine came running up at double-quick in support. The Union soldiers drove back the Rebel skirmishers, but could see three lines of Rebel infantry advancing beyond the trees. “We felt that the life of the Nation was at stake, and every man in the ranks was conscious of personal responsibility,” said one man. When the two sides were about 300 yards apart they commenced firing. The Maine soldiers were not pleased to realize that the sharpshooters had pretty much monopolized the trees to shelter behind.

Cpl. Jonathan Newcomb Jr. of the 3rd Maine’s Company A had moved about a hundred yards into the woods when the regiment received orders to deploy as skirmishers. The firing soon became general. Newcomb said he saw General Berdan on a big white horse gallop along the line between the 3rd Maine and the sharpshooters as the bullets flew all around. “After the work began and as I stood in my place, loading and firing, I looked to my right and the only man I could see was John Little,” Newcomb recalled. “His face was as white as a sheet of paper. I supposed he had his mortal wound then.” Newcomb managed to squeeze behind a tree next to a sharpshooter, and watched as a Rebel regiment advanced his way. When Newcomb jumped out from behind the tree, he found a dozen enemy rifles aimed his way. Newcomb dove to the ground and the bullets flew over him. The sharpshooter was not so lucky, and he fell with a badly wounded knee.

After a short but intense fight of 20 or 25 minutes, the Union troops withdrew. The 3rd Maine had suffered 48 casualties, most of them prisoners. One of them was Newcomb. Taken to a Rebel hospital, he helped nurse the wounded sharpshooter and a mortally wounded private from Company I. The dying private asked Newcomb to write to his wife and say he died happy, “and to keep the promise she made before he enlisted,” whatever that might have been. Newcomb ended up a prisoner on Belle Isle in Richmond.

The survivors of the 3rd Maine moved back across the Emmitsburg Road to rejoin their brigade, but then they received orders to retrace their steps until they reached a peach orchard on a bit of high ground east of the road. The little orchard, the fruit still green on the trees, was about 300 yards by 150 yards in expanse. Its owner was farmer Joseph Sherfy, whose house and barn stood on the other side of the Emmitsburg Road. The orchard’s western edge lay along the road, with the Millerstown (Wheatfield) Road bordering it on the north.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, commander of the III Corps,  had been eyeing Sherfy’s peach orchard with considerable interest. He did not like the position army commander Meade had assigned his corps. Sickles was supposed to form to the left of the II Corps on the line where Cemetery Ridge largely loses its ridge-like qualities and descends to a low point before rising again to the northern slope of Little Round Top. Sherfy’s peach orchard offered a bit of high ground to his front. It was also an open space that would provide a good place for artillery and prevent the Rebels from springing any surprises as they had done at Chancellorsville. Sickles seemed haunted by the ghosts of the battle from two months earlier. When he looked out from Cemetery Ridge and saw the peach orchard, he probably thought about what happened when the Confederates occupied Hazel Grove and used its high ground as an artillery platform from which to shell the Army of the Potomac. Berdan’s report about the encounter in Pitzer’s Woods only reinforced Sickles’s concerns that the Rebels were about to fall on his left and capture the high ground on his front.

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Ames at Gettysburg

Adelbert Ames was the original commander of the 20th Maine, and he made a mark on the regiment with his strict discipline. The regiment made a name for itself on Little Round Top under Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain during the fighting at Gettysburg on July 2. Ames, however, did not have a particularly glorious experience at Gettysburg. He entered the fight on July 1 as the commander of the second brigade in Francis C. Barlow’s first division of the XI Corps, and ended it as division commander following Barlow’s wounding. The division was driven back from its advanced position on the rise known today as Barlow Knoll and suffered a casualty rate of nearly 60 percent. When he reported to Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard on Cemetery Hill, Ames said, “I have no division; it is all cut to pieces.”

Like Barlow, Ames did not have much respect for the many Germans in his command. Ames’s official report of the day’s fight is relatively terse. He devoted fewer than 200 words to the events of July 1. Among them: “My brigade was ordered to a number of different positions, and finally it formed in rear of some woods, near a small stream some half a mile from town. From this position we were driven, the men of the First Brigade of this division running through lines of the regiments of my brigade (the Second), and thereby creating considerable confusion.”

At the end of that trying day, Ames found space in the cemetery gatehouse and went to sleep. He shared the room with Charles Wainwright, who handled the artillery for the I Corps. Wainwright took time to observe the young Maine general over the next few days. “I found him the best kind of man to be associated with, cool and clear in his own judgment, gentlemanly, and without the smallest desire to interfere,” said Wainwright. “We consulted together, but during the whole time we were here he never once attempted to presume on his superior rank. Ames is a gentleman; and a strange thing in the army, I did not hear him utter an oath of any kind during the three days!”

Ames suffered more disappointment in the waning daylight hours of July 2, when his division was in the thick of a fight for East Cemetery Hill and did not perform well. Fortunately, Winfield Scott Hancock sent a II Corps brigade under Samuel Carroll to East Cemetery Hill and the reinforcements arrived in time to repulse the attacking Rebels. Ames was terse about the evening’s fight when he wrote his report. It is not difficult to detect some tight-lipped fury between the three short sentences he contributed. “On the evening of the 2d, an attempt was made to carry the position we held, but the enemy was repulsed with loss,” Ames wrote. “Colonel Carroll, with a brigade from the Second Corps, rendered timely assistance. The batteries behaved admirably.” He pointedly did not mention how his own infantry had behaved. Ames did single out three officers for praise—his assistant adjutant general, Capt. John Marshall Brown; Harris of the 75th Ohio; and Young of the 107th Ohio. It’s probably no coincidence that none of them had a German surname.

On July 3, 1863, Ames dashed off a note to Chamberlain after hearing about the 20th Maine’s fight on Little Round Top. “I am very proud of the 20th Regt. and its present Colonel,” he wrote. “I did want to be with you and see your splendid conduct in the field.” Perhaps Ames was thinking about his own disappointments at Gettysburg when he added, “The pleasure I felt at the intelligence of your conduct yesterday is some recompense for all that I have suffered.”

In a letter written home that August, Ames recounted how he was reunited with his old regiment. He was riding with Gouverneur Warren when the men they were passing began shouting and waving their hats. Ames thought they were cheering Warren, but the engineer corrected him. They were cheering Ames. “I soon found it was the 20th,” he wrote. “They gave me three times three. They will do anything for me.” He also mentioned that the regiment’s officers had chipped in to buy him a sword, sash, and belt. “The sword is very elegant. It has some fine carbuncles on the hilt—It was made to order, and all cost some two hundred dollars.” All that strict discipline had paid off.

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Adapted from Maine Roads to Gettysburg. The book is available for purchase now! You can find it on Amazon.com, or any fine bookseller near you.

Oliver Otis Howard

Major General Oliver Otis Howard was seeking a measure of redemption at Gettysburg. His XI Corps had been routed at Chancellorsville when Stonewall Jackson fell on its unsuspecting right flank. Howard knew he and his corps had failed, and he understood that the rest of the army believed it, too. On May 10 he felt compelled to issue a general order acknowledging “a feeling of depression” in the corps. “Some obloquy has been cast upon us on account of the affair of Saturday, May 2,” he said. “I believe that such a disaster might have happened to any other corps of this arm, and do not distrust my command.” He said the events of May 2 would be a learning experience, and felt that his officers and men were eager for another chance to prove their worth.

Howard was up before dawn on July 1, 1863, to begin preparations to send his three divisions—under Francis Barlow, Adolph von Steinwehr, and Carl Schurz—forward toward Gettysburg. The long columns of men finally set out around 8:30 a.m. for the 11-mile march. After some morning showers, the day was promising to be hot and dusty. Howard rode along the Emmitsburg Road ahead of his corps, and he often had to detour through woods and fields to avoid the wagons and men of the I Corps. He had two Howard brothers with him on the march—his brother the major, and his minister brother Rowland, who had reached the XI Corps on June 24 with John Chamberlain as a member of the United States Christian Commission. Rowland had never experienced combat. He was excited by the “pomp and circumstance” of an army on the march, and the way the men waved their banners as they approached the Pennsylvania border.

The general remembered coming within sight of Gettysburg with his entourage at around 10:30 that morning. He could hear the roar of artillery and the ripping sheets of musketry ahead. For Rowland, the sound of the guns “excited a thrill of patriotic emotion.”

The rest of his corps was still coming up, so Howard spent some time examining the terrain. He rode through a peach orchard to the right of the Emmitsburg Road, and then along a ridge that ended on a hill south of town that was crowned by Evergreen Cemetery. He was there when a messenger arrived from Reynolds with confirmation that the battle had started. “Here was a broad view which embraced the town, the seminary, the college, and all the undulating valley of open country spread out between the ridges,” Howard said. “There was a beautiful break in the ridge to the north of me, where Culp’s Hill abuts against the cemetery, and touches the creek below. It struck me that here one could make a strong right flank.” He turned to Theodore Meysenberg, his adjutant. “This seems to be a good position, Colonel,” he said.

“It is the only position, general,” Meysenberg replied.

The pious, one-armed general from Maine had made a decision that would have enormous ramifications for the Union army at Gettysburg.

For the rest of his life, Howard believed that his decision to post his men on Cemetery Hill was the key to the Union victory at Gettysburg. It was his redemption for the disaster at Chancellorsville. He objected when one of Reynolds’s aides, Joseph George Rosengarten, claimed that Reynolds had made the decision and told one of Howard’s aides to have the general occupy Cemetery Hill. Howard refuted that account. The only aide of Howard’s who had spoken with Reynolds that morning was Capt. Daniel Hall, and Hall, he said, had received no such instructions. “General Reynolds gave no order whatever in regard to occupying Cemetery Hill, nor did he make any allusion to it,” Hall affirmed.

The weight of evidence tilts in Howard’s favor, although not everyone was convinced. Abner Small of the 16th Maine, who developed a poor opinion of Howard’s generalship, believed that Reynolds should receive the credit. “General Howard’s memory is conveniently defective,” Small averred, “as it would otherwise conflict with his claim to the championship of Gettysburgh.”

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The 16th Maine

At Gettysburg, the 16th Maine Infantry served in Gabriel Paul’s brigade of the I Corps. During the fighting on July 1, the advancing Confederates began to overwhelm the I and XI Corps, forcing them to retreat towards Gettysburg. Division commander Brig. Gen. John Robinson rode up to the 16th Maine’s colonel, Charles W. Tilden. “Take that position and hold it at any cost,” Robinson ordered. He wanted the 16th Maine to delay the Confederate advance long enough to give the rest of his division time to retreat.

“All right, General, we’ll do the best we can,” Tilden said. Robinson wheeled and spurred his horse, which jumped over a stone wall and carried the general toward Gettysburg.

Tilden turned back to his men. “You know what that means,” he said.

“Yes, the regiment knew what it meant,” remembered Frank Wiggin, then a sergeant in Co. H. “It meant death or capture, and every man realized it perfectly.” Robinson was going to withdraw his division, and he wanted the 16th Maine to serve as a last-ditch defense and buy time for the rest of his men. Wiggin compared the situation to a pair of shears, with the two blades closing in on the I Corps, and the 16th Maine sent into the pivot point to keep the blades from snapping closed until the rest of the division could escape.

The 16th Maine’s last, desperate stand did not last long—probably no more than 20 minutes. As the Rebels pushed closer on two sides and the surviving men of the 16th Maine realized they were most likely going to die or be captured, thoughts turned to keeping the regimental flags from falling into enemy hands. “We looked at our colors, and our faces burned,” wrote adjutant Abner Small. “We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.” Captain S. Clifford Belcher, a Bowdoin College graduate who had just started practicing law in Belfast when he joined the 16th Maine, received the approval of the other officers and ordered the staffs broken, the flags torn to shreds, and the pieces distributed to the men in the regiment. The soldiers hid them away beneath their shirts or in their pockets. “These fragments were carried through Southern prisons and finally home to Maine, where they are still treasured as precious relics more than a quarter century after Gettysburg,” Small noted in 1889.

Total losses that day were around 80%, (11 dead, 59 wounded, and 164 captured). What remained of the regiment stumbled back through the town of Gettysburg and the relative safety of Cemetery Hill.

Col. Tilden was one of the men taken prisoner. Before capitulating, Tilden thrust his sword into the ground and snapped it in two. Taken back to Virginia, Tilden was one of the 109 men who managed to use a tunnel to escape from Richmond’s Libby Prison in early 1864. He returned to his regiment-only to be captured a second time. And he managed to escape once more.

2nd Maine Battery

To celebrate the publication of Maine Roads to Gettysburg, I am going to kick off a series of blog posts highlighting the monuments to Maine units and soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. As Selden Connor, formerly of the 7th Maine, said at the 1889 gathering of veterans to dedicate the monuments, “In proportion to the number of her troops in the action, no one of the eighteen states whose regiments flew the stars and stripes on this hard-fought field contributed more than Maine to the victory. At whatever point the battle raged, the sons of the Pine Tree State were in the melee.” You can provide a good overview of the three days of fighting by telling the stories about Maine at Gettysburg and connecting the dots.

So let’s do that. I will start with a Maine unit that was in the thick of things on the morning of July 1, 1863: The 2nd Maine Battery, under the command of James A. Hall of Damariscotta.

As I write in the book, “Capt. James Hall and the 2nd Maine Battery had no idea what the day had in store for them when they left Marsh Creek with the rest of the I Corps early on the morning of July 1. Hall, a stolid-looking 27-year-old redhead with a bushy walrus mustache and hazel eyes, had entered service with the battery as a lieutenant back in November 1861. He advanced to command when the unit’s original captain, former Maine adjutant general Davis Tillson, was promoted. On July 1 Hall had six three-inch ordnance rifles in his battery, with 127 men and officers reporting for duty.

Hall reported personally to Maj. Gen. John Fulton Reynolds, who posted the battery in an advanced position along the Chambersburg Pike to shell Confederate artillery to the west. Hall wasn’t happy to have his guns so exposed, and his fears were soon justified when Rebel troops appeared on his right, rising up from the unfinished railroad cut. With their infantry support falling back, Hall and his battery were forced to make a fighting retreat.

The boys fought like the d____ never better,” Hall later told John Hodsdon, Maine’s adjutant general. “You may judge when I tell you that many of our horses were not shot but bayoneted that it was a close and desperate struggle for our guns two of which they actually had hold of at one time. I have seen hard fighting before and been badly smashed up, but I never saw a battery taken from the field and its guns saved in so bad a state as the Old Second came off that day.”

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The 2nd Maine Battery marker on Cemetery Hill.

The battery’s main monument in on the Chambersburg Pike, where it fought on July 1. There’s a smaller position marker on Cemetery Hill, where it fought on the afternoon of July 2, until the recoil from a shot shattered an axle and the battery had to move back to make repairs.

MRGCover

Maine Roads to Gettysburg is available for purchase now! You can find it on Amazon.com, or any fine bookseller near you.