“A Breastwork Ready Made”

38.17th MEOne of my favorite monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield is that of the 17th Maine. It stands at the spot on the edge of the Wheatfield where the regiment made a spirited resistance to advancing Rebels on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. The Maine soldiers positioned themselves behind a low stone wall, just as the soldier on the monument—frozen in time—does now.

Here’s an excerpt about the 17th Maine’s fight, from Maine Roads to Gettysburg.

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,” said Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C. 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.”

The Maine soldiers had barely positioned themselves behind the wall when skirmishers from the 20th Indiana came running back through the woods in front. Following right behind them was a mass of Confederate infantry pushing its way through the trees. They belonged to the 3rd Arkansas, the left-most regiment of Robertson’s brigade, and had been bolstered by troops from the 59th Georgia of George T. Anderson’s brigade. Sheltered behind the wall, the 17th Maine poured a destructive, semi-enfilading fire into the advancing Rebels, loading and firing as fast as they could. “And didn’t we yell!” said Whitman. “Couldn’t I yell with a will! As the boy said when he whistled in school, ‘It whistled itself.’ So I could say while fighting behind this stone wall, ‘It yelled itself.’ We kept on loading and firing as fast as we cold. Could hear orders, ‘Fire low, fire low. Fire right oblique.’”

“There was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs, and we could see them tumbling around right lively,” remembered John Haley. The Confederates were thrown “into disorder,” and retired. They regrouped and renewed the attack.

Enemy soldiers to the right seemed to threaten the regiment’s flank, but the Rebels did not advance, perhaps stymied by the thick undergrowth. The volleys of musketry and the roar of George Winslow’s 1st New York Battery B on the rise at the north side of the wheat field combined to make a “fearful din,” said Verrill. He was also startled by bullets that came from the rear; given permission to investigate, he found Union soldiers—perhaps from the 110th Pennsylvania—who had taken shelter behind some rocks and were trying to fire over the heads of the 17th Maine. Verrill suggested they take up a position on the threatened right but they declined his offer.28

Lt. Col. Charles Merrill realized he had to deal with the threat on his right. He protected his flank by bending his line at an angle. The three companies at the end of the line, C, H, and K, wheeled from the regiment’s south-facing position until they were lined along a wooden rail fence, facing west. Such a maneuver was difficult to make while under fire, but it was done, though not without loss. Two captains, one lieutenant, and several enlisted men fell mortally wounded by the time the men formed their new line.

“We had scarcely finished this new formation when the dogs of war were let loose again,” said Verrill. On the right, the 8th and 9th Georgia pushed forward out from the tangled growth of alder trees that had been hanging them up, while the 11th Georgia approached from in front of the wall. According to Verrill, “never was loading and firing of muzzle-loaders done more rapidly than by the 17th at that time.” Charles Mattocks had three men loading muskets for him while he “blazed away” from behind the wall. Two men were shot and killed beside him. Franklin I. Whitmore, a sergeant in Company D, loaded and fired his gun while lying on his back behind the wall. Somehow a Rebel bullet still managed to tear Whitmore’s cap. George Whitman fired until his musket became clogged, so he found another one lying on the ground. Its barrel was stuffed full of bullets, evidently by an overexcited soldier, so Whitman picked up a third gun and resumed firing. Despite the storm of lead from the Maine troops, the Rebels pushed forward. A plucky handful nearly planted their flags on the wall before the color bearer broke and ran. Lt. Joseph Perry accepted the surrender of another, and pulled him over the wall.30

“It was a horrid place to be in, with bullets flying like hailstones,” said Whitman. “But one thing helps us; we are actively engaged. I always feel better when I have something to do. Yes, I could think even in battle; a fearful reminder of the dangerous situation in which we were exposed was in seeing the dead and wounded around us.”

MRGCoverMaine Roads to Gettysburg will be published on May 1, 2018, by Stackpole Books. You can pre-order it here.


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