Sometime around 11:00 on July 2, 1863, Col. Moses Lakeman of the 3rd Maine received orders to support about 100 of Hiram Berdan’s sharpshooters who were going to move across the Emmitsburg Road and check enemy activity in a patch of forest called Pitzer’s Woods. The sharpshooters took the advance, with the Maine soldiers trailing. As Berdan’s men approached farm buildings near the Emmitsburg Road, they encountered a local boy who warned them that Confederate soldiers lay waiting “in rows” in the woods. Some of the sharpshooters told the lad he was talking nonsense and continued forward.
The sharpshooters realized soon enough that the boy knew what he was talking about when they spotted men wearing butternut and gray moving through the trees. They were Alabamians of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade. The sharpshooters opened fire, and the 3rd Maine came running up at double-quick in support. The Union soldiers drove back the Rebel skirmishers, but could see three lines of Rebel infantry advancing beyond the trees. “We felt that the life of the Nation was at stake, and every man in the ranks was conscious of personal responsibility,” said one man. When the two sides were about 300 yards apart they commenced firing. The Maine soldiers were not pleased to realize that the sharpshooters had pretty much monopolized the trees to shelter behind.
Cpl. Jonathan Newcomb Jr. of the 3rd Maine’s Company A had moved about a hundred yards into the woods when the regiment received orders to deploy as skirmishers. The firing soon became general. Newcomb said he saw General Berdan on a big white horse gallop along the line between the 3rd Maine and the sharpshooters as the bullets flew all around. “After the work began and as I stood in my place, loading and firing, I looked to my right and the only man I could see was John Little,” Newcomb recalled. “His face was as white as a sheet of paper. I supposed he had his mortal wound then.” Newcomb managed to squeeze behind a tree next to a sharpshooter, and watched as a Rebel regiment advanced his way. When Newcomb jumped out from behind the tree, he found a dozen enemy rifles aimed his way. Newcomb dove to the ground and the bullets flew over him. The sharpshooter was not so lucky, and he fell with a badly wounded knee.
After a short but intense fight of 20 or 25 minutes, the Union troops withdrew. The 3rd Maine had suffered 48 casualties, most of them prisoners. One of them was Newcomb. Taken to a Rebel hospital, he helped nurse the wounded sharpshooter and a mortally wounded private from Company I. The dying private asked Newcomb to write to his wife and say he died happy, “and to keep the promise she made before he enlisted,” whatever that might have been. Newcomb ended up a prisoner on Belle Isle in Richmond.
The survivors of the 3rd Maine moved back across the Emmitsburg Road to rejoin their brigade, but then they received orders to retrace their steps until they reached a peach orchard on a bit of high ground east of the road. The little orchard, the fruit still green on the trees, was about 300 yards by 150 yards in expanse. Its owner was farmer Joseph Sherfy, whose house and barn stood on the other side of the Emmitsburg Road. The orchard’s western edge lay along the road, with the Millerstown (Wheatfield) Road bordering it on the north.
Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, commander of the III Corps, had been eyeing Sherfy’s peach orchard with considerable interest. He did not like the position army commander Meade had assigned his corps. Sickles was supposed to form to the left of the II Corps on the line where Cemetery Ridge largely loses its ridge-like qualities and descends to a low point before rising again to the northern slope of Little Round Top. Sherfy’s peach orchard offered a bit of high ground to his front. It was also an open space that would provide a good place for artillery and prevent the Rebels from springing any surprises as they had done at Chancellorsville. Sickles seemed haunted by the ghosts of the battle from two months earlier. When he looked out from Cemetery Ridge and saw the peach orchard, he probably thought about what happened when the Confederates occupied Hazel Grove and used its high ground as an artillery platform from which to shell the Army of the Potomac. Berdan’s report about the encounter in Pitzer’s Woods only reinforced Sickles’s concerns that the Rebels were about to fall on his left and capture the high ground on his front.