The Long March to Gettysburg

 

The Maine regiments of the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps, the 5th, 6th, and 7th Maine, contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg with their feet more than with their guns. Along with the rest of John Sedgwick’s corps, they completed their epic 36-mile march to reach the battlefield just in time to provide much-needed support to the left of the Union line on July 2.

Before leaving Virginia in pursuit of Lee’s army, Lt. Col. Selden Connor, who was in command of the 7th Maine while its colonel was back in Maine recruiting, had some misgivings about the Army of the Potomac and its commander, Joseph Hooker. “The army is not very enthusiastic,” he wrote to his sister on June 5. “I’m sorry to say. I don’t believe they have confidence in their leader.” Once the VI Corps started north, though, Connor’s mood improved despite brutal marches that had left some men unconscious and even dead from sunstroke. On June 17 he told his sister that his soldiers were “gay as larks,” and had been singing a song about the regiment as they made their way through Virginia. It went:

Then clear the track you rebs,
Here comes the Seventh Maine;
Our Colonel is a fighting man
His boys are all the same.

“The Army of the Potomac isn’t dead yet,” Connor wrote.

The VI Corps, which included the 5th, 6th, and 7th Maine regiments, did not see a lot of fighting at Gettysburg, although its mere presence on the field had been a plus for the Union cause. “By making long and rapid marches our corps arrived just in time to turn the battle of Gettysburg in our favor,” Connor reported to his father. “We were not heavily engaged,” he admitted, but skirmishing cost the regiment six wounded, three of them mortally—“more than the rest of the brigade together.” On July 5, Connor’s regiment moved out with some cavalry and an artillery battery to follow the retreating Rebels west to the town of Fairfield and get a sense of the situation there. General Sedgwick recommended to Meade against pursuing the Rebels through the mountains and passes beyond, so the army commander decided to move his army south through Frederick and then west across South Mountain to reach Lee’s army that way. While the rest of the army moved south, the 7th Maine formed part of the force under brigade commander Thomas Neill that shadowed the retreating enemy through the mountains to the town of Waynesboro.

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“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”

 

Hyde, Thomas

Thomas w. Hyde (Maine State Archives)

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, in the fields and woods near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union and Confederate forces fought the Battle of Antietam. It remains the country’s bloodiest single day of combat. One of the regiments involved was the 7th Maine. At Antietam it was commanded by Major Thomas Hyde, a young graduate of Bowdoin College. In his memoirs, Following the Greek Cross or Memories of the Sixth Army Corps, Hyde recalled his experiences on September 17, 1862. Late in the day, near five o’clock, Rebel sharpshooters were harassing a Maryland battery from behind haystacks at the Piper farm. Hyde’s brigade commander, William Irwin, ordered Hyde to take the 7th Maine and clear the snipers out. Hyde had just seen a large body of Rebels move into that area, and informed Irwin of the fact.

 

“Are you afraid to go, sir!” Irwin barked. Hyde later came to believe he was drunk. (“He was a gallant man, but drank too much, of which I was unaware,” Hyde later wrote.) He asked Irwin to repeat his order so that the whole regiment could hear it. Irwin did. Hyde had no choice but to obey. He assembled his men and sent them into motion.

Of the 166 enlisted men who made the charge, Hyde reported 12 killed, 60 wounded, and 16 missing. He counted three of the 15 officers as killed, seven wounded, and two missing. “I suppose I was fired at in that battle a thousand times, and what saved me was that Providence knew that I was an only son and my mother was a widow,” he wrote home.

That night, Hyde and his surviving officers wept over the regiment’s losses. “We had the consolation of knowing that we had gone farther into the Rebel lines than any Union regiment that day, that we had fought three or four times our numbers, and inflicted more damage than we received, but as the French officer at Balaklava said, ‘It is magnificent, but it is not war.’ When we knew our efforts were resultant from no plan or design at headquarters, but were from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone, I wished I had been old enough, or distinguished enough, to have dared to disobey orders.”