The Pictures and the Story

Gburg CoverA co-worker of my wife’s gave us this vintage Gettysburg souvenir booklet. Originally published in 1913, this is the fourteenth edition. It has tons of great photos of the battlefield taken by local photographer William Tipton in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

ME MonsMy favorite page is this one, which features the Maine monuments on the battlefield.

Cburg PikeThis image shows monuments along the Chambersburg Pike (Rt. 30). That’s John Buford to the left and John Reynolds to the right. It’s a little startling to view this scene without seeing the large tree that stands behind Reynolds today. The monument at the far right is to James Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery, which saw hard fighting here on July 1.

1893 ReunionThis is the image that closes the booklet. It shows a gathering of generals, Union and Confederate, on East Cemetery Hill on April 29, 1893. The bearded man with his foot on the cannon is Oliver Otis Howard, who vigorously claimed credit for choosing Cemetery Hill as the place to post a reserve on July 1, thus establishing the core of the Union’s “fishhook” line. Notice his empty sleeve. Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862. The man with the mutton chop whiskers at the center is former Confederate general James Longstreet. Seated to Longstreet’s left is Daniel Sickles, who commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg. He, of course, lost his leg during the battle. “The dismounted gun, upon the breech of which Gen. O.O. Howard has placed his foot, is typical, let us hope, of a soil that will never again be deluged with the blood of fratricidal strife, and that not only the North and South will ever keep closed the gulf that divided them in the past, but also that the present gulf of race prejudice that separates the white man from the still morally enslaved man of color will also be bridged so that the calamities of a race war will be unknown,” read the photo caption. Howard, who headed the Freedmen’s Bureau after the war, would certainly have agreed with that sentiment.

MRGCover

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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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.