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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gettysburg: Furious Field of Fire

Journal Opinion, June 26, 2013

 The Commanders at Gettysburg: Gen.George E. Meade left)  led the 100,000-man Union Army of the Potomac against Confederate Gen.Robert E. Lee’s 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia in a pivotal Civil War battle at Gettysburg, PA, 150 years ago next week.

Furious Field of Fire: This Currier and Ives lithograph depict the hand-to-hand fighting that characterized the battle at Gettysburg. The caption reflects a pro-Union sentiment in its praise of the Northern troops in this “terrific and bloody conflict.” (Library of Congress)

Pivotal Day at Gettysburg: On the last day of the 3-day battle, the Union lines stretched from Cemetery Ridge to the Round Tops in a great fishhook. Across the meadows the Confederates lines stretched along Seminary Ridge. Lee’s attempt to break the Union lines resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides. (Map courtesy Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW)
Vermonters Face Pickett’s Charge: Nine hundred Vermont Volunteers under the command of General George Stannard played a pivotal role in breaking Pickett’s Charge. It was the first battle for these nine-month volunteers and several weeks later they were discharged back to their homes. (Courtesy Howard Coffin, Nine Months to Gettysburg.)

“The battle of Gettysburgh [sic] was a notable battle. In respect to numbers engaged, loss of life involved, and importance of results, it ranks, by universal consent, among the great battles of the world.” Vermont’s George Grenville Benedict 1867

Next week will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The pivotal battle of the Civil War was fought at this Pennsylvania crossroad town on July 1-3, 1863. This article summarizes the battle and the roles played by Vermont and New Hampshire men. Sources include Howard Coffin’s Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War and Nine Months to Gettysburg, Vermont and New Hampshire regimental histories, and notes that I used during my teaching career, the sources long since lost.

Dozens of local men were part of the Union or Federal forces that repelled this Confederate invasion of northern territory and some of them are named. Those who were wounded or killed during the battle are known, whereas others are members of the companies involved but with individual roles unknown.

Emboldened by the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. He hoped a victory on northern soil would encourage foreign recognition of the Confederacy and strengthen the Northern peace movement. His actions threatened Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. The Union Army of the Potomac marched north from northern Virginia to intercept Lee.

In the 100,000-man Federal Army there were men from New Hampshire, including Grafton County. They were in the 2nd, 5th and 12th N.H. Infantry Regiments and companies of the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter and 1st N.H. Artillery for a total of about 900 men.

Vermonters in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th Regiments were part of the First Vermont Brigade, known as the Old Vermont Brigade. The Second Vermont Brigade, under the command of Gen. George Stannard, included the 12th, 13th, 14th 15th and 16th Regiments, largely untested nine-month volunteers.

Lt. Colonel Roswell Farnham of Bradford was second-in-command of the 12th Regiment. They were accompanied by the 1st Vermont Cavalry and three companies of sharpshooters. These Vermonters, including many from Orange County, numbered about 8,000.

For both armies these maneuvers meant up to 20 miles per day of trudging afoot on hot, dusty or muddy roads, often in the rain and with little food, water or rest. On June 28, Gen. George G. Meade was placed in command of the Union forces. By June 30, the Vermont Brigade was 30 miles from Gettysburg. Their reputation as sturdy marchers, led General John Sedgwick to give his famous order: “Put the Vermonters in the lead and keep the column well closed up.”

Lee, who commanded about 75,000 men, was unsure of the location of the Union forces. His cavalry, under the command of Jeb Stuart, was out of touch, leaving Lee without proper reconnaissance.

Portions of these armies met by chance at Gettysburg on June 30, 1863. Fighting broke out on the morning of July 1 with Southerners outnumbering Union forces. As more and more elements of both armies reached the field, fighting intensified with heavy casualties on both sides.

By late afternoon, the Confederates had pushed their opponents through the town to the high ground on Cemetery Hill, where the Union men dug in. Lee’s forces failed to aggressively push their advantage at this point and the opportunity was lost.

Regiments of the Second Vermont Brigade arrived at the Ridge about dusk. The 16th Vermont Regiment was assigned picket duty and “spent a fearful night” between the lines.

On July 2nd Confederate troops under Gen. James Longstreet attempted to outflank Cemetery Ridge by attacking on the Union’s left. The fight for the control of Little and Big Round Tops, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield was some of the most bitter of the entire war.

The U.S. Sharpshooters were in the midst of the fighting throughout this second day of battle. Company F of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, composed of Vermonters, had scouted forward early in the day, but retreated after finding thousands of the enemy moving toward the Union lines.

New Hampshire troops were deeply involved in the defense of the Union line. The “Fighting Fifth” that sent 179 men into action had its ranks so badly depleted that only 50 were left unscathed at the end of the day. Orford’s Edwin Parker and Haverhill’s Curtis Hicks and Daniel Green were among the wounded. That regiment had the unfortunate distinction of having the greatest total losses throughout the war of any regiment in the Union Army.

Of the 224 men of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers, 26 were mortally wounded or killed that day, including Charles Sheldon of Warren. An additional 73 were wounded.

The 2nd New Hampshire, a regiment that had been raised and commanded by Col. Gilman Marston, a native of Orford, sent 353 men into the fighting and within three hours 47 were killed, 136 wounded and 36 missing. Edwin Parker of Orford and Samuel Woodward of Haverhill were among those seriously wounded. Harry Casson of Haverhill was captured and died at Andersonville Prison.

As Lee’s forces continued to press the attack against Cemetery Ridge, threatening to break the Union line, reinforcements were called up. Moving into their first battle were Vermonters of the 14th followed by the 13th and 16th. Coffin describes how they shored up “the crumbling Union line,” helping to save Union guns from being seized and capturing 80 prisoners.

The field was littered with the dead and wounded of both sides. George Grenville Benedict, a member of Stannard’s staff, wrote that throughout that night there was “a low, steady indescribable moan—the groans of the wounded, lying by the thousands.”

The third day of battle dawned hot. Wearing heavy uniforms in near 90 degree weather, the men suffered greatly. Daniel Taisey of Newbury and Moses Hunter of Ryegate, both members of the 15th, suffered sunstrokes from which they never recovered.

The First Vermont Brigade, including many men from Bradford, Newbury, Topsham, Groton and Corinth, was positioned to protect the Union’s left rear, behind the Round Tops. They were being held in reserve and did not see direct action during the battle.

The Confederate forces were positioned along Seminary Ridge opposite the Union lines which were drawn up in the shape of a fishhook from Cemetery Ridge to Big Round Top. (See illustration.) Both armies had suffered significant casualties in the previous two days. But this would be the pivotal day in this pivotal battle of this civil war.

While a wing of the Confederate forces renewed the effort to seize Culp’s Hill near the northern end of the Union line, Lee turned his attention to the Union’s center. In the early afternoon, massed Southern artillery opened a two-hour bombardment to which the Union artillery responded in a great artillery duel. Intended to soften the Union’s defensive position, many of the Southern shells missed their targets.

Describing it as an “iron storm”, Grenville wrote, “The air seems to be literally filled with flying missiles. Shells whizzed and popped on every side….” As the Vermonters hunkered down, many of the men fell asleep in the hot afternoon. Coffin concluded “The closer the soldiers were to the Confederate lines, the less likely they were to be struck by the cannon fire.”

The first New Hampshire Light Battery, under the command of Captain Frederick Edgell of Orford, was on Cemetery Hill, there withstanding, according to their historian, “the most furious rain of iron hail ever showered upon living men.”

Mid-afternoon, more than 12,500 Southerners marched forward from Seminary Ridge. Men from Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and other Southern locations marched in orderly lines across the meadows straight at the Union center. As many were under the command of Gen. George Pickett, this is known as Pickett’s Charge. As these troops came within range, the Federal artillery and infantry opened fire tearing at the advancing ranks. With a Rebel yell, the Confederates alternately charged and fired, bayonets at the ready.

For an hour the two sides raged against each other. During the last minutes there was savage hand-to-hand fighting. For a brief moment the wave of Confederates seemed to dash successfully against the defenders. And then the attack was over. The survivors of the charge retreated, leaving 5,500 of their number littering the fields.

Stannard’s official report describes the role of the Vermonters in breaking this vigorous frontal attack: “The charge was aimed directly upon my command…the enemy diverged midway, and came upon the line on my right. But they did not thus escape the warm reception prepared for them by the Vermonters.” Stannard ordered his troops to charge into a position on the flank of the enemy. (See illustration.)

The 900 Vermonters of the 13th and 16th then “opened a destructive fire at short range, which the enemy sustained but very few minutes before the larger portion of them surrendered…scooped almost en masse into our lines.”

Stannard concluded that his “Officers and men behaved like veterans, although it was for most of them their first battle….” Within days of being central to one of the great battles of history, these Vermonters were discharged and returned to their normal Vermont lives.

Of course this victory was not just their own. Regiments from most of the other Northern states were in that defensive line. Sharpshooters, including George Lamprey and George Lane of Orford, deserve credit for helping to turning that tide.

Lee had also sent Stuart’s cavalry to attack the rear of the Union line. Gen. George Custer responded with Union cavalry and after a fight that lasted nearly three hours, Stuart retreated. Just as that fighting concluded, the 1st Vermont Cavalry was ordered to charge the Confederate lines near their southern flank. Despite the misgivings of their commander Judson Kilpatrick, they charged over the rocky landscape against entrenched troops and artillery. Major John Bennett of Newbury commanded Company D of which Milo Corliss of Bradford was a trooper. Sixty-five of the 300 men were shot or captured.

Disastrous as this was to the cavalrymen, it is a small number in the overall carnage of the three-day battle, the bloodiest in American history. It is estimated that as many as one-third of all those who participated in the battle were killed, wounded or missing. The casualties for the South were made more significant by their inability to replace lost troops.

Lee’s gamble had failed. Civil War historian Shelby Foote called this ill-fated charge, “the mistake of all mistakes.” Lee began an immediate withdrawal of his army toward the South. Meade did not seize the chance to pursue and inflict additional damage on the shattered enemy, a decision President Lincoln described as a “golden opportunity” to end the war right there.

On July 4, word was received that the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg had surrendered, giving the Union greater control of the Mississippi. Although the war continued with bitter fighting until April, 1865, the tide of the war had permanently turned against the Confederacy.

Eight weeks ago, Carolyn and I took two of our grandchildren on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield with its 1400 monuments, some of which were fabricated by the Ryegate Granite Company during years after the battle. We visited the Gettysburg Foundation Center Museum with its historic cyclorama of the battle. Our hotel was near Cemetery Hill and we walked to view the cannons and monuments located there as a reminder of the struggle.

The following morning we drove along the Confederate lines on Seminary Ridge, stopping to see the impressive monuments to Southern units and leaders. In the woods to the south is the monument to the 1st Vermont Cavalry, where a small turtle detracted from my narration. We toured the Union lines, stopping at places where local men met the battle. Looking across the broad fields, we tried to imagine the battle that had taken place there a century and a half ago.

In the National Cemetery, I was reminded of Mrs. Donnelly’s 5th grade classroom where we were required to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I am writing this article during Memorial Day week, a holiday observed initially to memorialize the dead of the Civil War and now expanded to honor all who have died in our nation’s service. Lincoln’s 1863 charge still rings true: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

(Additional note: Carolyn and I visited the University of Georgia in Athens, GA this past week. We noted on the sign describing the history of the university that the Civil War was described as the “War for Southern Independence.” When I mentioned this to a Georgia resident, he said “some call it the War of Northern Aggression.”)

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