On This Date (July 3, 1863)

 

As the sun ascended from behind Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, Capt. William Fogler advanced with four companies of the 19th Maine to serve as skirmishers. They moved across the field in front of the Union position toward the Emmitsburg Road and established a line with its right near the Codori farmhouse. Some of the skirmishers occupied the farm buildings. The men had not eaten anything for 24 hours and they had no opportunity to get breakfast or even water. The day was promising to be hot and uncomfortable even for well-nourished soldiers who were not occupying a position dangerously close to the enemy. Fogler and his skirmishers were so exposed they had to lie down in the tall grass to keep from providing targets for enemy sharpshooters. Tired, hot, hungry, and thirsty, they watched and waited as the sun rose higher and the day began to grow warm. Temperatures climbed into the 80s. “The heat in the glaring sun was intolerable, and we had been without food and water since the morning before, and our stomachs were getting to be a little shaky,” remembered Silas Adams.

Cpl. Wilbur Clifford of the 19th Maine was in the Codori barn when the cannonade that set the stage for Pickett’s charge began. “You can have no idea of the scene,” he wrote his father later. “It seemed as through the air was full of Devils such an unearthly noise and shell bursting all around us ploughing up the ground and some times come crashing tho the old barn that was rocking as tho there was an earth quake under it.”

Recollections of the length of the cannonade vary. Some say it lasted for two hours. Others say 90 minutes. The sheer intensity of the man-made thunder seemed to have warped time for some observers. But at some point the firing of the guns began to slow and the unimaginable noise began to diminish, until at last silence once again descended over the smoke-covered battlefield. “It now had become a perfect stillness, almost like a quiet Sabbath morning,” remembered Adams.

From his position in the grass near the Emmitsburg Road, where he had been baking in the sun and concentrating on his hunger and thirst, Adams watched enemy skirmishers move ahead of the main force and begin dismantling rail fences that would have slowed the advance. The impressively arrayed lines of the enemy were ready to move, and the Maine skirmishers watched with intense interest. “Then they came on in magnificent order and in most perfect military precision which seemed to control their whole movement,” remembered Adams. As the enemy came closer, Adams and his fellow skirmishers decided it was time to stir from the sheltering grass and get out of the way. Adams tried to stand, but his legs had fallen asleep during the long wait and were completely numb. It took him a few anxious minutes to kick some life back into his limbs before he could lurch to his feet and begin to stumble back toward his own lines. The Maine men occasionally turned around to fire a parting shot or two. The advancing Rebels did not return the fire. More worrisome was the fire from Union soldiers who thought the returning skirmishers were Rebels.

Dow, Edwin

Edwin Dow of the 6th Maine Battery (Maine State Archives).

Edwin Dow of the 6th Maine Battery and other Union artillery units began taking a terrible toll on the advancing Rebels. “I tell you the gaps we made were simply terrible,” Dow said. “But they closed up their lines, and closed them up and closed them up till they got to within a hundred years of our position and then, with one hundred guns pouring lead into them, they closed for the last time and rushed us at the double quick.” When the Confederates came close enough to the Union lines, Dow’s and the other batteries ceased fire so as to not hit their own troops. Despite the havoc sowed by the Union cannon and muskets, the Rebel lines still looked so imposing that Dow felt anxious for the Union defenders.

As what was left of the Rebels approached the “Bloody Angle” on Cemetery Ridge, John Gibbon’s aide Frank Haskell did what he could to get the regiments of Norman Hall’s brigade—between the 19th Maine and a copse of trees—moving to help Webb. Dashing about on horseback, Haskell next gathered regiments from Harrow’s brigade—the 19th Maine, 15th Massachusetts, 82nd New York, and what remained of the 1st Minnesota—and hurried them at double-quick to the crisis point. “It was a wild charge, with little regard for ranks or files,” noted the account in Maine at Gettysburg. “Volleys were given and received at close quarters. In their anxiety to reach the foe, men thrust their rifles over the shoulders, under the arms and between the legs, of those in the front ranks of the melee.”

Colonel Francis Heath urged his men over to pitch in at the Angle, but found it impossible to keep them in any kind or order. “Everyone wanted to be first there and we went up more like a mob than a disciplined force,” he said. A shell fragment struck Heath during this last impetuous charge and he went down and out of the fight. Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham assumed command for the final act in the battle. It was less a military maneuver than an excited mass of men with weapons, all of whom wanted to get their licks in while they had the chance. “We were all loading and firing and yelling and pushing towards the gap now filled with the exultant Rebels,” remembered John Lancaster. “Company, regimental and brigade organizations were lost, and we were a great crowd. We would load, run to the front and fire, then others would jump in front of us and fire, and the color bearers, always at the front, would toss their colors up and down to show the enemy that we were not going to give it up, and to encourage us on.” Lancaster found many abandoned weapons on the ground that he could use. Other soldiers were fighting hand to hand and a few, at least, were simply hurling stones at the Confederates. “And so we kept on and on—then suddenly I found myself rushing with all our crowed upon the enemy with an impetuosity that was irresistible, and the day was ours,” he recalled.

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

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