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.