The 17th Maine Finds a Wall

When the 17th Maine reached Gettysburg, there was some turmoil swirling in the regiment’s upper levels. Its original colonel, Thomas Roberts, resigned in June, leaving Lt. Col. Charles Merrill in temporary command. Merrill, a Bowdoin graduate and Portland lawyer before the war, had served with Roberts in a militia unit back home, and it seems there was bad blood between them. Perhaps the ill will trickled down through the regiment, or maybe its soldiers knew that Merrill had a brother who was fighting for the Confederacy, because a movement began to secure the colonelcy for Maj. George West—a move that was doubtlessly spearheaded by George West. He had been born in Massachusetts and gained military experience with militia there, but West later moved to Maine’s Aroostook County to take up work as a lumberman. He had begun the war as a captain with the 10th Maine. He had since advanced to major in the 17th, but he had his sights set on higher rank.44

As has had happened with the 19th Maine, letters and petitions began traveling from the army to the governor, recommending West and tearing down Merrill. A petition drawn up on May 23 and signed by 21 officers claimed that Merrill had taken the colors and gone to the rear during the fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, and he had returned to the regiment only after his brigade commander ordered him to. That behavior, the petition said, “was such as to destroy all our confidence in his bravery.” On the other hand, Generals David Birney and Hobart Ward both wrote to Coburn to recommend Merrill, and other soldiers testified to his bravery at Chancellorsville as well.

“Col. Merrill was a kind, fatherly man, abounding in good qualities and he didn’t fancy the domineering and reckless ways of West,” noted Pvt. John Haley, who appreciated the major’s military skills, but thought West was cold and ambitious. “We admired his smartness and military genius, but as a man, we despised him as thoroughly he did us.” For the time being, Merrill remained in charge, even though his courage on the battlefield had been questioned.

The regiment arrived late to the battlefield on July 2, having remained behind in Emmitsburg to block mountain passes to the west. Merrill was still in command, despite the groundswell of support for Maj. George W. West. The regiment began its march to Gettysburg around five o’clock on the morning of July 2, and the men were disgruntled because they had not been given time to make coffee. Even without caffeine, the Union men summoned enough energy to cheer loudly when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania. After a march of about three hours brigade commander Regis De Trobriand allowed his weary soldiers a break. Many immediately kindled fires for the all-important task of brewing coffee—only to receive orders to resume the march before they had time to finish. Time was of the essence. As De Trobriand’s brigade marched up the Emmitsburg Road south of Gettysburg, enemy bullets started whistling over their heads. Had they arrived 15 minutes later, regimental historian Edwin Houghton wrote, they would have found Confederates blocking their path.

As the soldiers headed north, they passed Gettysburg citizens going in the opposite direction, laden with whatever they could carry. South of town, the regiment made a right turn off the road, passed through Sherfy’s peach orchard, and finally found a position near some woods along a rocky ridge. To their south was a 20-acre wheat field. There were woods at the far side, with a low stone wall running along the edge. Soldiers flung themselves onto the ground and fell asleep. The time was about three o’clock.

Many men were still sleeping sometime around 4:00 when a gun discharged from the peach orchard and jolted them awake. More guns began firing off to the south, where Smith’s New York battery was defending Devil’s Den. Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C walked to a high point above the wheat field to investigate. Off to the south he could see Union signalmen on the rocky heights of Little Round Top. They were frantically waving their signal flags. Before Verrill could determine much more, orders came for the regiment to move to their left at double-quick.

The 17th Maine rose up and made a dash across the wheat field toward the stone wall at the south end. Already “the bullets were whizzing,” Verrill said. A sergeant fell dead. Like the wheat field and the peach orchard, the stone wall, under ordinary circumstances, would have been nothing special. It was “just a common old fashioned, thirty-inch stone fence,” Verrill said. On the battlefield, nothing was ordinary. “The stone wall was a breastwork ready made,” Verrill said, and the crucible of battle transformed it into “the best stone wall the 17th Maine ever came across in its travels.”

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

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Into Pitzer’s Woods

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.

MRGCover

Maine Roads to Gettysburg is available for purchase now! You can find it on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or any fine bookseller near you.