The morning of July 2nd 1863 broke with an oppressive stillness over the bloody fields of Gettysburg. Federal troops arrayed on the hills and ridges to the south of the town stared out at clearly visible Confederates, wondering what the quiet meant, why the Rebels did not attack. They soon would learn that the quiet was merely the calm as volcanic forces surged towards a violent eruption of fire and fury.
General Lee had risen early at 0330, after only three hours sleep. After a reconnoiter of the Union lines he noticed that the Federal lines did not seem to extend very far south down Cemetery Ridge, stopping well before the Round Tops. He decided on a plan of attack and after a tense meeting with General Longstreet and several division commanders from I Corps, he issued his verbal orders.
General Longstreet and his I Corps would assault the Union left flank with a series of echelon attacks northeast up the Emmitsburg Road towards the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. One brigade after another would strike the Union lines in a series of trip hammer blows from right to left, rolling up the Union left flank while A.P. Hill attacked Cemetery Ridge from the west. To the north Ewell’s Corps would demonstrate in force against Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, launching a full scale assault if the opportunity presented itself.
Lee had issued his orders at 1000 and then ridden to the north to meet with Ewell. He returned to Seminary Ridge at 1100 and Longstreet had still not attacked, in fact he had not yet even begun his march into attack position, waiting for General Law’s brigade to arrive. Longstreet did not start his march until nearly noon.
Longstreet’s march was met with delays and aggravations. Marches and counter marches to avoid detection form the Union lines meant that his Corp was not in position west of the Emmitsburg Road until 1530, with Hood’s division on the right facing the Round Tops and McLaws’ division to the left facing Cemetery Ridge. McLaws had been told that he would face no opposition to his immediate front, but instead was astonished to see an entire Federal Corps, General Daniel Sickles’ III Corps, only 600 yards away across the Emmitsburg Road.
General Meade was just as astonished at Gen. Sickles’ presence as was McLaws. He had ordered Sickles to occupy the southern edge of Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops, to the left of Hancock’s II Corps which occupied the center of the ridge. Sickles did not like that the section of Cemetery Ridge he was to defend sloped down to virtual ground level, and was dominated by a slight ridge where a peach orchard sat which ran along Emmitsburg Road to the west. This ridge ran for about 1100 yards to the south east until it ended in a jumble of granite boulders called the Devil’s Den. Five hundred yards to the east of the Devil’s Den lay Little Round Top, and between the two ran a marshy, rock strewn stream bed through which flowed Plum Run, later to be renamed the Valley of Death.
General Sickles decided to push his Corps forward to the ridge along the Emmitsburg Pike and the Peach Orchard, rather than to risk being dominated by Confederate artillery which could occupy it first. At 1500 III Corps 10,000 battle hardened veterans marched en masse to the Emmitsburg Road and took up positions directly in front of the massing division of General McLaws. Sickles’ corps was now isolated a half mile forward of the Federal Army, directly in the path of the impending Confederate assault, and had exposed the left flank of II Corps on Cemetery Ridge.
The first trip hammer blow fell on III Corps as Sickles rode up to a council of war called by General Meade. “I will not ask you to dismount General,” Meade said, hearing the sound of cannon fire to the south. “The enemy is engaging your front. The council is over.” General Meade ordered General Sykes’ V Corps to rush up from the Baltimore Pike and support Sickles while the VI Corps took its place in reserve. He then rode out to personally view his threatened left flank.
What he saw shocked him. There aligned alone along the Emmitsburg Pike with its right flank completely exposed, far out in front of the army, lay the III Corps division of General Andrew Humphreys. To his left lay the division of David Birney which occupied the Peach Orchard, and then angled to the southeast through a wheat field to the Devils Den. Sickles’ corps formed a bulge pointed at McLaws’ division and vulnerable to fire on two sides. At this point, as General Meade chastised him for pushing too far forward, Sickles had second thoughts and offered to pull back. A shell burst nearby, emphasizing Meade’s words; “I wish to God you could, but those people will not permit it.”
“Those people” were the battle hardened veterans of General John Bell Hood of Longstreet’s Corps. Hood was dismayed when he brought his regiments into attack position at the far right of the Confederate line. Being the right of the line his attack would be the first hammer blow that would start the succession of assaults up the Rebel line. His orders were to assault northwest up the Emmitsburg Pike and take the Yankee left wing on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Sickles’ III Corps however barred his way and ensured that he would have to fight for every foot of ground. Directly to his east however lay the undefended Round Tops. If he could attack straight across the pike he could skirt the Round Tops to the south and strike at the Yankee rear. Twice he requested permission from Gen. Longstreet to abandon the original plan and move to the right around the Tops and twice permission was denied. On his third request he protested the order, the first time in his career. This time Gen. Longstreet personally rode to Hood and told him that he must follow General Lee’s orders. In the end Gen. Hood disobeyed his orders and assaulted straight across the pike and towards the Devil’s Den and Round Tops anyway.
On the right were the Alabamans of Evander Law, supported by General Benning’s Georgians. To the left was the Texas Brigade, which Hood had commanded at Sharpsburg, supported by more Georgians under General G.T Anderson. Law’s Alabamans came under intense fire from the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters ensconced on the lower slope of Big Round Top. The 15th and 47th Alabama charged forward to drive the Yankee marksmen from the heavily wooded and rocky hill. As they advanced the 2nd U.S. pulled back in good order until they simply melted away and left the 305 foot hill to the Alabamans. From the summit Col. Oates, commanding the 15th, could see the entire Union line, from Cemetery Ridge all the way north to Culp’s Hill. 100 feet below him was Little Round Top, occupied by only a few Yankee signalmen. At that moment, as he allowed his exhausted men to rest for 10 minutes, Oates held the key to the entire Federal line. While he surveyed the Union army to his north he received word that General Hood was down, a shell had shattered his right arm, from the shoulder to the wrist, and General Law had assumed command of the division. His orders for Oates was to seize Little Round Top, 500 yards away.
Oates led his men through the saddle running between the two hills and began to ascend Little Round Top, joined by the 4th Alabama and the 4th and 5th Texas on his left who moved to assault the western slope. Above him lay the undefended crest of Little Round Top.
Suddenly from a low rocky barricade 100 feet to his front erupted the most destructive fire Oates had ever seen.
Only 10 minutes before the men of Col. Strong Vincent, a 26 year old Harvard lawyer, had occupied the spur that would forever after bear his name. General Gouverneur Warren had earlier seen how vital the Round Tops were and had searched for troops to occupy it. When Col. Vincent learned of this he took it on his own responsibility to break from his corps’ march and respond to Warren’s pleas.
The farthest left of Vincent’s regiments was the 20th Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a 34 year old professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College. Under his command were 386 hard fighting lumberjacks and fishermen who understood what it meant when Col. Vincent told them “This is the left on the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs.” The left of the Union line meant they were the left of the entire army, and “all costs” meant their lives to save the army.
No sooner had they formed their lines than Oates’ men appeared through the woods. The Maine men’s first volley sent the Rebel line staggering, but they reformed and rushed again into the furious fire, Oates’ men “wavered like a man walking into a strong wind.” Again and again the Alabamans reformed and charged, at times the lines so close that “…hostile gun barrels touched each other.” A swirling melee of hand to hand combat engulfed the men. “At times I saw more of the enemy around me than my own men.” wrote Chamberlain years later. The parched and exhausted Confederates continued to smash against the thinning Yankee line until all around lay intermingled dead in blue and grey. As Oates’ men started to lap around to Chamberlain’s left he refused his line, bending back at a right angle until his regiment formed a V pointed towards the slope of Big Round Top. His regiment was battered; his men down to their last round, some had taken to throwing rocks at the surging Rebs. Chamberlain knew he could not hold against another push. As the Confederates formed for another assault Chamberlain ordered his exhausted men to fix bayonets and charge.
His order to charge was lost in the din of battle and he rushed forward alone. At first no one moved, but then a Lieutenant ran forward and yelled “Come on boys!” At first only a few men left their cover, but soon the entire line surged forward with an animalistic roar and charged headlong down the slope straight into the shocked Alabamans.
It was more than the worn out Rebels could stand and they were swept back by the irresistible momentum of the Maine men. They braced themselves for the onslaught, determined to hold, but were suddenly taken under fire from the rear. The 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters had filtered back up onto Big Round Top behind them. Oates ordered the 15th Alabama to withdraw and they broke and ran “like a herd of wild cattle.” Chamberlain had held, at a cost of 130 men. For his lonely fight on Vincent’s Spur he would win the Medal of Honor.
On the western slope of Little Round Top however the other regiments of Vincent’s brigade were crumbling under the ferocious assault of the 4th and 5th Texas. Vincent went down with a mortal wound, his last breath telling his brigade “Don’t give an inch”. Just as his men were about to be overrun the 140th New York under Colonel Paddy O’Rorke surged over the reverse crest and down the slope, smashing into the Texans. O’Rorke’s men had been grabbed up by Gen. Warren in his quest for troops to hold the Round Tops and had marched straight into the fight, not even stopping to align themselves. Their charge stopped the Texans, but Paddy O’Rorke was killed at the front of his regiment.
O’Rorke’s brigade commander, General Stephen Weed had turned his brigade towards Little Round Top as soon as he learned of O’Rorke’s departure at the urging of Gen. Warren. Joining the fight his spine was severed by a musket ball. As he lay dying he asked for his old friend Lieutenant Charles Hazlett who had earlier manhandled the guns of his battery of the 5th U.S. Artillery to the summit of Little Round Top. As Hazlett leaned in close to speak to Weed a bullet smashed into his brain, killing him instantly. Weed would die later that night.
The previous summer the woods on the western slope of Little Round Top had been felled to provide lumber for the war effort. Now that effort helped in another way, allowing the Federal defenders to have an unobstructed view of the battle unfolding before them in the jumbled maze of boulders called Devil’s Den.
As the Alabamans had fruitlessly charged up the southern slopes of Little Round Top, and the Texans had been swept from the western slope, Hoods’ Arkansas and Georgia regiments had swarmed into Plum Run and against the southern edge of Devil’s Den. The hapless men in Death Valley were enfiladed by fire from the slopes of Little Round Top to their right, and to their front by the artillery of the 4th New York Battery and the rifles of Augustus Van Horne Ellis’ 124th New York. The 1st Texas and 15th Georgia pushed on against the 4th New York Artillery whose supply of canister shot was exhausted. “Give them shell! Give them solid shot! For God’s sake give them anything!” yelled the guns captain. Huge swaths were cut in the advancing Rebs, but with a terrifying Rebel Yell they continued to surge forward. Major James Cromwell rode forward desperately trying to rally his infantry to save the New Yorkers guns, leading a charge that pushed the Confederates back. “The day is ours!” he yelled and fell dead from his saddle with a musket ball in his chest. As the Confederates reformed and again pressed towards the Yankee guns Ellis stood in his stirrups and led a countercharge, yelling “My God Men! Your Major is down! Save him”. As the Confederates were again being pushed back a mine ball smashed into Ellis’ head and he fell dead among the boulders of Devil’s Den.
The fighting in the Devil’s Den devolved into a confusing slaughter of men firing around rocks and stabbing blindly into crevices with their bayonets. Soldiers reached around boulders and fired muzzle to muzzle at their enemy only feet away. It was a confusing blood bath, and when it was over the Confederates held the Den and three of the New Yorkers guns.
To the north of the Devil’s Den and Death Valley the next hammer blow fell at the Peach Orchard. As Hood’s men had stormed Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den, their brothers in McLaws’ division had cooled their heels to the north, across the Emmitsburg Pike, restlessly awaiting Longstreet’s order to attack. It finally came at 1730.
Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade crossed the pike and surged into a wheat field between the Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard. There they were met by a Federal brigade commanded by a French lawyer and poet, Colonel Regis de Trobriand. A Georgia brigade under General Paul Semmes joined Kershaw’s assault. The brigade to de Trobriand’s right inexplicably withdrew from a covered position, exposing his flank and pushing him back. The butternut and grey line raced forward whooping the Rebel Yell in a glorious fury at the sight of the retreating Yankees, only to smash headlong into a fresh wave of Federal troops who fired as they charged into the Rebel line. Regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade charged into the maelstrom of the Wheat Field, only to be beaten back and replaced by fresh troops. General Zook’s brigade found their way blocked by a retreating Yankee brigade. In a rage he screamed “If you can’t get out of the way, lie down and we will march over you!” Amazingly they did, and Zook’s men marched over the prone soldiers and into the fight.
The famed Irish Brigade was soon ordered into the fight as well. When the orders had come Father William Corby mounted a rock with dead and wounded sprawled at his feet and stood above the kneeling men and officers. In an “awe inspiring” display he granted them a general absolution, carefully adding that “the Catholic Church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back on the foe.” With the Fathers words “Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat” offering a soldiers grace, the Irishmen marched into the Wheat Field below their faded and battle worn emerald flag.
The Wheat Field changed hands six times in fierce fighting. Regimental colors were taken and retaken, private soldiers and Colonels alike dying over the banners in fierce hand to hand fighting. Finally, reinforced by yet another division, the Federals were able to reestablish their line through the Wheat Field from the Peach Orchard to Devil’s Den.
The next brigade scheduled to assault in echelon after Kershaw and Semmes was the Mississippi brigade of General William Barksdale. Even as the fighting raged in the Wheat Field he launched an attack against Sickles’ exposed salient in the Peach Orchard. Barksdale had been impatiently waiting for the order to attack, pestering McLaws for permission to cross the pike and smash into Sickles’ corps only 600 yards away. Finally at 1830 Longstreet sent word for Barksdale to go in.
“Forward men, forward!” Barksdale yelled from the front of his old regiment, the 13th Mississippi. The Rebel Yell erupted from 1600 throats and the rebels surged out of the woods at a dead run, smashing into the 1500 men of Grahams’ division. In minutes 740 of Graham’s men lay dead on the field and he himself was captured.
General Sickles was hit by a solid shot that tore though his left leg, leaving it dangling by a few threads of tendons. As he was carried from the field he ostentatiously puffed on a cigar to quell rumors that he was dead. He would lose his leg, but would donate its shattered remains to the U.S. Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. where he would visit it often.
With Sickles wounding and the shattering of Graham’s division the III Corps line finally cracked. In addition to losing the Peach Orchard, the Federals in the Wheat Field were forced to relinquish their hard held ground as well.
The responsibility for the echelon attack now passed form Longstreet to A.P. Hill’s corps. The first division to assault was that of General Richard H. Anderson. His brigades under General Cadmus Wilcox and David Lang smashed into the exposed III Corps division of General Andrew Humphreys, who had been forward of Sickles’ main line and had been making a good fighting retreat as the corps collapsed. Humphreys’ horse was shot six times but still managed to keep him in the saddle as he rode up and down his line, keeping his men’s orderly retreat in hand. A seventh bullet finally brought the stalwart steed down and Humphreys had to mount an aide’s horse to continue his work. Finally 2,000 survivors of his 5,000 man division stumbled past II Corps on Cemetery Ridge.
Still the Confederates continued to hit the Federal lines as successive brigades launched their own assaults, relentlessly pushing towards Cemetery Ridge. But the stubborn Yankee resistance in the Wheat Field and of Humphreys’ valiant division had delayed the Rebels long enough to allow Meade to shuffle reinforcements from quiet sectors of the battlefield to the most threatened areas. It was a pattern that would repeat itself many times on the fields of Gettysburg: just as the battle weary Confederate troops stood on the verge of victory they would run headlong into fresh Federal men, who sometimes arrived on the line literally minutes before the Confederates came into range.
After seizing the Peach Orchard Barksdale had veered left and led his men towards the Trostle farm. There they were stopped by the battered artillery battery of Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvey. His four batteries had lost so many horses in their retreat from the Peach Orchard that the guns had to be drug off the field by hand. At the Trostle house six guns of Captain John Bigelow’s Massachusetts battery poured volley after volley of deadly canister shot into the advancing 21st Mississippi, retreating by recoil. It was those invaluable minutes of fierce resistance that allowed a stronger line to be formed. At 1915 Federal reinforcements arrived and charged into the center of Barksdale’s brigade. In this counterattack Barksdale was shot from his saddle. Legend has it that a Federal officer had ordered his entire company to fire on him; true or not Barksdale was riddled with bullets and he would die that night. A second counterattack by fresh Yankees sent from Culp’s Hill was enough to break Barksdale’s advance and send his men to the rear.
But the threat to the Union center was far from over. General Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade was heading straight for an undefended gap on Cemetery Ridge. Seeing the threat General Hancock knew that “In some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost.” Hancock ordered help from Gibbons and Hays divisions, but he knew that they would not arrive in time. But then he saw his five minutes in the form of a single, small regiment standing in support of an artillery battery. Racing up to them Hancock called out “What regiment is this?” Colonel William Colvill answered back “The 1st Minnesota.” Pointing to the battle flag at the center of Wilcox’s advancing brigade Hancock asked “Colonel, do you see those colors?” Colvill nodded his head; “Then take them.” General Hancock ordered.
Colvill and every man under his command knew what that order meant; they were to be sacrificed to save the Army of the Potomac. Colvill’s men charged, one depleted regiment of 262 Minnesotans hurling itself headfirst into a full brigade, racing down the slope at right shoulder shift, bayonets glistening in the evening sun. Just short of the Rebel line Covill yelled “Charge bayonets!” and a wall of solid cold steel smashed into the Confederate ranks. The Rebels crumbled under the onslaught, then regained themselves and poured a devastating volley into Covill’s men.
Only 47 men returned to the Federal line, a casualty rate of 82 percent, the highest any Union regiment would suffer in the entire war.
But Hancock had gained his five minutes and regiments from Gibbons’ division had plugged the gap and were pouring thunderous fire into Wilcox’s brigade. Without support Wilcox was forced to withdraw. Gibbons men counterattacked and drove Wilcox and Lang’s Floridians back across the Emmitsburg Pike.
This left the Georgian brigade of Ambrose Wright alone at the base of Cemetery Ridge, a full mile from the Confederate line on Seminary Ridge. Wright continued his assault and his men jumped over a stone wall at the crest of the ridge, driving off Federal batteries with the bayonet. Standing astride Cemetery Ridge uncontested Wright though he had pierced the Federal center. What he didn’t realize was that on the reverse slope hidden from Rebel artillery laid the Philadelphia Brigade of Gibbons’ division. The Yankees rose and charged into Wight’s men. Once again Federal reinforcements arrived and Wright’s brigade was forced back. About to be flanked, Wright turned his men to the flanking column and cut their way out of the encirclement.
Further Confederate attacks along the Federal right, at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s hill on the far right, were all repulsed, the fighting continuing well into the night, but at that moment Lee’s hopes of piercing the Union line were lost.
After nearly 7 hours of bloody fighting the lines settled back into almost exactly the same position they had been that morning. Lee had attacked Meade’s left and right and failed. Tomorrow the blow would fall on the center.