Gettysburg Live 150 – 9:15pm – Council of War

Sometime this evening, Maj. General Meade called a council of war with his senior staff and the corps commanders. It took place sometime after the fighting on East Cemetery Hill died down.

So probably about 150 years ago right now, the generals met at Meade’s headquarters in the Leister house. Meade had three questions for the commanders to consider, which were essentially these:

  1. Should we stay here, or move back closer to our supply base in Westminster?
  2. If we stay, should we attack, or wait for the Confederates to?
  3. If we wait for an attack, how long should we?

The consensus was for the army to remain more-or-less in their current location, and wait for the Rebels to come to them. Meade was happy with that decision.

The very fact that Meade left the issue open to a committee of the other generals led to criticism after the battle. There were some who felt that this was Meade attempting to avoid responsibility for the battle if things had gone wrong. Some of the generals accused Meade of secretly wanting to retreat to his Pipe Creek Line (with the implication that this would have been less-than-honorable).

This was just Meade’s style, and it was understandable – especially given how intense his first week on the job had been.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 8:15pm – East Cemetery Hill

As part of his demonstration against the Union right, Lt. General Ewell ordered an assault against East Cemetery Hill. 150 years ago right now, that attack began.

Brig. General Harry Hays’ Louisiana Tigers and Col. Isaac Avery’s (temporarily replacing the wounded Brig. General Robert Hoke) North Carolinians would make the charge across the fields and up the hill. The Union line was not well-positioned in this sector – there was no clear military crest on the east slope of Cemetery Hill, and the men who were holding this position were the shattered remains of the less-than-reliable XI Corps.

Though the infantry was in a tough spot, the Union artillery was well-placed. Four batteries were in place, with another to the right on a small hill between Cemetery and Culp’s that would come to be called Steven’s Knoll.

With daylight fading, the Confederates came on strong. Within 30 minutes, they had dislodged the Yankee defenders and sent them fleeing up the hill. It proved impossible to follow-up on this success, though.

Only a few of the Rebels made it up the hill, and they were able to temporarily seize a few of the cannons, but Cemetery Hill, being near the center of the Union position had too many troops readily available as reinforcements for the Confederate foothold to last. Hays’ and Avery’s men were beaten back in short order. Cemetery Hill was quiet – and securely in Union hands – by 9:00pm.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 8:00pm – Charge of the 1st Minnesota

As the Confederates who broke through the III Corps‘ line pushed across the open fields toward Cemetery Ridge, a huge hole had opened up on the right flank of the II Corps. Troops from the III Corps were fleeing to the rear through this hole, and a Confederate brigade under the command of Brig. General Cadmus Wilcox was right behind them.

Maj. General Hancock was desperate to plug the gap. He looked around for a unit – any unit – that could delay the Confederate advance long enough to form a defensive line. The only men he could find were 8 companies of the 1st Minnesota Infantry.

The regiment had been split up to perform different duties across the Union line, and while the bulk of the men were at this point, it wasn’t the whole regiment – only 262 men. Maj. General Hancock rode up to Col. William Colville, pointed at the approaching Confederate brigade of 1,721 men, and said “Colonel, go take those colors!”.

Against worse than 6-to-1 odds, the men of the 1st Minnesota charged down the gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, 150 years ago right now. After less than 10 minutes of fighting – enough to allow the Union commanders to rally a defensive line behind them – the Minnesotans fell back.

There were only 47 of them left. The 262 men of the 1st Minnesota had taken 215 casualties – an 82% casualty rate. This is the highest percentage of casualties suffered by a surviving unit in American history.

The Confederate attack on the Union left was over.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 7:45pm – Culp’s Hill

With the attack against the Union left, most of the troops on Culp’s Hill had been pulled off to reinforce other sectors. Only the brigade of Brig. General George Greene, the oldest general on the field, remained.

Greene’s 1,421 men were as well-prepared as they could be under the circumstances. Brig. General Greene was a West Point-trained engineer who believed in the power of defensive structures. His men had spent the day building small trenches and breastworks – digging in for a potential Confederate attack. It is fortuitous for the Union cause that these were the men who were left on Culp’s Hill.

The Confederates’ original plan for the day involved Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Corps creating a diversion by attacking Culp’s and Cemetery Hills while the main attack was being executed by Lt. General Longstreet on the Union left. This would keep the troops on the Union right occupied so that they couldn’t be used (like they were) to reinforce the left. Ewell was supposed to begin his action as soon as he heard Longstreet’s attack. The combination of Longstreet’s delay in movement, and a phenomenon known as “acoustic shadows“, led to Ewell never getting the signal to go.

Finally, about 150 years ago right now, Ewell started his attack on Culp’s Hill. He was running out of daylight, so the move was risky, but he went ahead with it anyway. Greene’s small brigade would face off against almost a full division – 3 brigades of Confederate infantry. They were outnumbered more than 3-to-1.

The breastworks proved to be a big advantage for the Yankees. Because of those, Greene was able to hold the crest of the hill. Despite a few assorted reinforcements, from other brigades coming to their aide, the Federals lost control of the southern, lower portion of Culp’s Hill.

In two hours of combat, the Confederates had beaten back their adversaries, but couldn’t totally push them off. If the Confederates had properly scouted the area, they’d have known that the Baltimore Pike – the main supply line for the Union army – was within easy striking distance of their new position. With that intelligence, they could have caused serious problems for General Meade. As it was, they were content to hold their newly-gained position.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 6:00pm – The Peach Orchard

It was only a matter of time before the battle would reach Sickles’ salient at the Peach Orchard. The main weakness of a salient is that it can be attacked from two sides. That’s just what’s about the happen.

150 years ago right now, the division of Maj. General Lafayette McLaws – especially the brigades of Brig. General Joseph Kershaw and Brig. General William Barksdale – will come across the Emmitsburg Road, and strike the men of Brig. General Charles Graham. Within an hour of the first contact, the Union troops occupying the exposed position will be forced to withdraw in a somewhat less-than-organized fashion. The rest of Brig. General Andrew Humphreys’ division, holding the line going north along the Emmitsburg Road, will have to abandon their position a little after 7:00pm, too.

For the moment anyway, the Confederates will have a clear route to the Union rear. They’ll soon be within range to flank the II Corps. Someone on the Union side needs to take control here.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 5:30pm – Sickles’ Wound

Around this time 150 years ago, as Maj. General Daniel Sickles surveyed his line at the Peach Orchard from his headquarters at the Trostle Farm, his leg felt strange. When he bent over to feel into his boot, he sensed something wet.

Sickles’ leg had been hit by a 12-lb cannon ball, and the lower part of his shin was hanging limp. Despite the story you may have been told, he immediately started to panic. While aides pulled him off his horse and took him around behind the Trostle barn, he begged them not to let him get captured. He was placed in an ambulance and taken to the rear.

Sometime later that night, either at a III Corps field hospital along the Taneytown Road, or at the Daniel Sheaffer Farm, Sickles’ leg was amputated. Knowing that the army medical service was looking for examples of gruesome wounds to use for training material, Sickles used his political influence to have this leg placed in the Army Medical Museum, where he periodically visited it for the rest of his life.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 5:00pm – Attacks on Little Round Top

It had been a long day for the men of Brig. General Evander Law’s Alabama brigade.

They awoke very early that morning from their camps just east of Chambersburg, PA and by 3:30am, were marching toward Gettysburg. Because time was of the essence, the men were not allowed to stop for water, and many of them arrived on the battlefield over 12 hours later after Longstreet’s countermarch, with empty canteens. Of course, their work was just beginning.

These men would be tasked with assaulting Little Round Top, but in order to get in to position, they would have to fight their way up Big Round Top, pushing back skirmishers from the 2nd US Sharpshooters the whole way.

Finally, right about now, 150 years ago, the Alabamians were ready to begin their attack up the “back side” of Little Round Top. There to meet them was the brigade of Col. Strong Vincent – the extreme left flank of the Union army.

Of course we all know about the famous 20th Maine Infantry, holding the end of Vincent’s line. Col. Joshua Chamberlain told a very good story, and the actions of his men were brave and worthy of note, but Little Round Top hardly held the key to the Union position. Even if the Confederates making the attack hadn’t been exhausted, they were not at all supported by reinforcements, and there was an entire, fresh Union Corps sitting right behind the hill ready to take it back if needed. For readers interested in the subject, I highly recommend Garry Adelman’s brilliant work, The Myth of Little Round Top.

So after several valiant attempts spanning over 30 minutes of combat, including a few flanking maneuvers, Law’s brigade was ultimately pushed back when the 20th Maine – running low on ammunition themselves – executed a bayonet charge down the hillside, taking many of the Alabamians as prisoners.

The defense of Little Round Top had been successful.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 4:45pm – The Wheatfield

While Benning’s men were attacking Devil’s Den, Brig. General George Anderson’s men engaged Col. Regis de Trobriand’s brigade to the north just about now, 150 years ago. The fighting would spill into the Wheatfield on John Rose’s farm.

Over the next two and a half hours, men from Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas (elements of 6 different brigades) would square off against Union troops from three different Corps for control of these normally serene 20 acres. The ground would change hands 6 times. Over 6,000 casualties would be suffered by both sides in the process.

Ultimately, the Wheatfield proved to be a no-man’s land. As the fighting there cooled-down just after 7:30pm, the Confederates controlled the field, but could not advance any farther.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 4:15pm – Attacks on Devil’s Den

The part of SicklesIII Corps line that is farthest to the south is held by the brigade of Brig. General J.H.H. Ward. His left flank is resting on the end of Houck’s Ridge, at a unique rock formation known to locals as “The Devil’s Den“.

There are several stories about how this name came to be. One such story is about a large snake (so large that it was named “The Devil”) that had at one time made the area its home. Snakes aside, the place is full of dark crevices and caves between the rocks, and its size makes it somewhat forboding. You can see it being the kind of place that the Devil himself might feel at-home in.

The name of this place would take on a new meaning with the brutal fighting that would begin there right about now, 150 years ago.

Hood’s division would attack this area, by brigades, “en echelon”. There is some debate as to whether this move was brilliant, or an accident of mis-communication. Essentially, each of Hood’s four brigades would attack one at a time, from right to left along his front. His right-most brigades, commanded by Brig. General Evander Law and Brig. General Jerome Robertson, respectively, would take part in the attack on Little Round Top in a few minutes. His other two brigades, under Brig. General Henry Benning and Brig. General George Anderson, would assault Devil’s Den, and the Wheatfield, respectively.

Because of the way Devil’s Den extends a little farther south than other locations on the field, Ward’s and Benning’s men would start this fight, and it was extremely bloody combat. Within the first few minutes, Hood himself was wounded in the arm, and command of the division fell to Brig. General Law – a fact that led to communication problems and tactical uncertainty on the Confederate side.

The Union men held the good, high ground, but there weren’t enough of them to do it effectively. Capt. Smith, commanding the 4th New York Independent Battery had 4 of his 6 guns on the ridge to provide artillery support, and the other 2 (along with the men of the 4th Maine Infantry) were tucked behind, facing south to blast away at any Confederates attempting a flanking movement around the end of the ridge. Surprisingly, the position held for nearly an hour before being overwhelmed and flanked.

When the Confederates took Devil’s Den, it turned into a platform for sniping at officers on Little Round Top, and they were able to do quite a bit of damage that way, but they couldn’t convert it into further gains. The western slope of Little Round Top proved to be too difficult to assault directly.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 3:45pm – Longstreet’s Ready to Attack

It would take Lt. General Longstreet’s Corps over 3 hours to travel the 4 miles between General Lee’s headquarters and the point where their attack would begin. They ended up marching much farther than 4 miles.

Longstreet was not especially excited about his chances for success, so that certainly may have been a factor. The main issue was the lack of a route to the southern end of the field that had been properly scouted.

Taking the most direct route down Seminary Ridge, Longstreet’s men were under the cover of trees and thus concealed from Union eyes. About half-way down though, they came to a clearing that would expose their movement. That obviously couldn’t happen, as the element of surprise was important. Longstreet made the decision to turn his men around and head back up the ridge to the north, cut farther to the west, and hope to find a route behind the ridges that would keep him hidden.

All of this marching and countermarching added a significant amount of time and distance to the move. All of the men, but especially Evander Law’s brigade – who had been marching all day, since about 3:30am – were becoming more fatigued.

By this time, 150 years ago, the two divisions of Longstreet’s Corps that will make the attack today are in position. Within a few minutes, they will step out to confront the over-extended line of Maj. General Dan Sickles’ III Corps.

From Little Round Top, a scared group of Union signalmen, and Maj. General Gouverneur Warren – sent to find a vantage point from which he could see the whole of Sickles’ position – observes the Confederates moving into line of battle to the southwest. Riders are immediately sent out to find someone – anyone – who can occupy that hill.