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.