Few of the many visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield notice the oddly shaped grassy mound in the gently rolling fields southeast of the town. The mound obscures the foundations of the once prosperous Bliss homestead, at one time a no man’s land in a savage seesaw encounter that escalated from a skirmishers’ scrap to a pitched battle. Although the conflict was eclipsed by more famous Gettysburg actions such as the Angle and Little Round Top, the battle for possession of the Bliss farm may well have helped turn the tide against the massive Confederate assault on July 2, 1863.
After the bloody collision of July 1, the Union I and XI Corps had been driven through Gettysburg by advance elements of the Army of Northern Virginia and had assumed defensive positions on the high ground south of town. General Robert E. Lee placed his army in a wide semicircle around the Union position, anchoring his right flank on the ridge west of town. Located in the broad valley southwest of Gettysburg, the 60-acre farm of William and Adelina Bliss lay between the opposing armies.
For the time being, the fighting had rolled past their two-story house and enormous bank barn without the ruin visited on other parts of town. On July 1, even while troops of the Union I Corps double-quicked through the fields past his home, Bliss, like many residents, may well have chosen to stay on his property as long as possible. However, by the time the fighting reached the Lutheran Seminary a short mile to the north, it is likely Bliss had evacuated his wife and two daughters. When the family finally decided to leave, they apparently left quickly; according to one description, ‘they left the doors open, the table set, the beds were made, apparently nothing had been taken out at all.’ The next occupants would be more tenacious.
That night the uneasy silence of the Pennsylvania farmlands was broken by the low rumble of armies on the move. Arriving close to midnight, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade spent most of the early morning hours studying the field, assigning positions to the rapidly converging Union Army. At daybreak on July 2, more than 11,300 men of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps moved up the slopes of the low ridge below the town cemetery, relieving the tired remnants of the I Corps. Reinforcing his position with five batteries, Hancock placed the infantry divisions of Brig. Gens. Alexander Hays, John Gibbon and John C. Caldwell along the north-south ridge.
Assigned to hold Ziegler’s Grove, a small wood crowning the northern end of Cemetery Ridge, were the three brigades of Hays’ 3rd Division. One of Hays’ officers noted: ‘We are drawn up in a fine position, on elevated ground overlooking a valley and meadow. The enemy occupying, we suppose, a somewhat similar position on the other side of said valley.’ As his troops deployed around the grove, Hays sent out skirmishers from the 111th and 125th New York regiments of Colonel George L. Willard’s brigade to test the intentions of that enemy. One of the New Yorkers recalled, ‘As the morning lengthened, in the distance among some brush behind a fence, men were seen moving into position as skirmishers.’
The gray figures advancing into the mist-shrouded fields across the valley were members of Brig. Gen. Alfred M. Scales’ North Carolina infantry brigade. Seriously weakened in the first day’s fighting, the brigade was led that morning by its only unwounded officer, Colonel William Lowrance. At dawn, the depleted unit had been sent to occupy the Confederate right flank on Seminary Ridge. Ordered to hold the position ‘at all hazards,’ Lowrance took no chances, sending a strong skirmish line into the fields in his front.
The morning’s humid calm was rent by gunfire as the Rebel line put up stiff opposition to the New Yorkers’ arrival. And as the morning wore on, additional II Corps skirmishers pushed out into the still, tall fields of grain, encountering the stubborn enemy line. An officer noted: ‘We send a line of skirmishers down into the meadow among the grass and wheat fields. The enemy push out a rather stronger line from their position, and crowd our boys back. We put in a few more companies, and force them to a retrograde movement; and so the line wavers to and fro.’ Shortly after 10 a.m., Hays ordered the 39th New York to reinforce the skirmishers in his front. Crossing the fence-lined Emmitsburg Road, the 269-man unit fanned out into the fields north of the Bliss buildings. Known as the ‘Garibaldi Guard,’ the 39th had been mobilized in 1861 entirely of European immigrants. But the unit would have a checkered career, and it had been totally reorganized by Hays in the months before Gettysburg.
Watching from Cemetery Ridge, Alexander Hays was well suited to the challenge that was developing. A West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, Hays had been repeatedly promoted for his bravery, becoming a brigadier after being seriously wounded at Second Manassas. From his Cemetery Ridge vantage point, he could see that the skirmish line of the 39th New York was in trouble. Additions to the stubborn Confederate detachment had moved into the orchard west of the Bliss barn, and the New York line began to unravel.
Trailing aides and the banner bearing the 3rd Division’s blue trefoil, the willful Hays rode out to the faltering skirmish line–about 600 yards away–shouting instructions and encouragement. ‘This novel sight of a division commander in such a position, and so cooly and indifferently exposing himself to the fire of the enemy’s marksmen, inspired a wonderful courage,’ said an admiring onlooker. The 39th New York would hold for some four hours in the intense gunfire and midday heat before being withdrawn, losing 24 men in the interim.
As the sharpshooting intensified, shelter became a scarce commodity. ‘The space between us and the Rebel skirmish line was open and clear in the main,’ recalled one participant, ‘and the least showing of head, hand or foot was an invitation for a target of the same.’ As the only substantial shelter in the open fields below town, the Bliss buildings were rapidly becoming the focus of the contest. A veteran of the fighting there noted, ‘Mr. Bliss was like many other farmers who give more attention to the architecture and pretentiousness of their barns than they do to their houses.’
Entering through the large doors facing the Southern lines, Confederate marksmen soon filled the upper story of the barn, ‘whence they picked off our men with impunity from the loop-holed windows.’ To clear out the snipers’ nest, Hays dispatched three companies of the 126th New York shortly after noon. Led by Captain Charles Wheeler, the sortie was successful, capturing the barn and some of the Southern sharpshooters. Wheeler’s luck soon ran out, however, and he was killed the next morning while commanding the 126th on the skirmish line.
Watching these developments from his command post by the Lutheran Seminary, Robert E. Lee developed a strategy he hoped would finish off Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Lee would also extend his line to the south, but in preparation for a planned flank march by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps. Fresh troops from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps under Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson would be sent in to extend the Rebel flank down Seminary Ridge; marching south behind the ridge, Longstreet’s men would turn and attack the Union line end-on, supported by Hill’s men as the attack rolled north.
Arriving on Seminary Ridge about midmorning, Anderson’s five brigades of infantry relieved Lowrance’s weary troops, who had held the Rebel flank since dawn. Formerly a division commander under Longstreet, Anderson was well-liked and had proved himself in previous campaigns to be ‘brave, prudent, and intelligent.’ Perhaps too prudent–for some felt that Anderson was not aggressive enough, and that only Longstreet could elicit his full powers. Without Longstreet’s firm hand, Anderson certainly would not shine under A.P. Hill’s casual direction that afternoon.
Supporting Hill’s artillery, the 12th, 16th, 19th and 48th Mississippi regiments under Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey now faced the Bliss property. Posey advanced his skirmishers to a fence line about 250 yards from the farm buildings as the dispute with Union forces continued.
By midafternoon, the temperature had risen to 81 degrees, and the sun bore down with a sweltering, withering effect. The morning’s tentative probes gave way to large-scale maneuvers. In a grand but unauthorized move, Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles advanced the III Corps to the high ground on the Emmitsburg Road a mile south of the Bliss property. In the midst of their flank march behind Seminary Ridge, Longstreet’s two gray divisions were unknowingly headed for the same high ground. With the combatants closing on each other, the conflict intensified all along the line. The light southerly breeze did little to dissipate the clouds of black powder as the Confederate guns began to duel with the Union line. Under arcing shot and shell, responsibility for the Bliss property had fallen largely to about 290 skirmishers from Hays’ 2nd Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas Smyth. Relieving Willard’s New Yorkers who held the farm, the 1st Delaware and Company I of the 12th New Jersey advanced through the Bliss yard to a worn fence beyond the barn.
Crouching by a fence near the house, Captain Henry Chew and Sergeant Henry Bowen of the 12th New Jersey watched as Confederate batteries under Major W.J. Pegram hammered the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. When his sergeant recommended that they move to a more secure spot, Captain Chew stoically explained, ‘We are as safe here as anywhere, you can’t run away from them things.’ That said, a piece of solid shot tore through the fence by their heads, and the pair promptly moved to the barn.
At about 4 p.m., Chew realized that Posey was gradually reinforcing his skirmish line nearby,’so that our attention would not be attracted until they had enough men to drive us away from the barn.’ Reporting his observation to Lt. Col. Edward Harris of the 1st Delaware, Chew suggested they report the buildup and ask for reinforcements. The New Jersey captain was curtly informed that Harris ‘understood [his] business’ and would make his own decisions. Chew returned to his men and awaited the attack that he was sure would follow. While Posey’s subsequent report of the battle is vague in some respects, it explains the predicament the hapless Federal skirmishers faced that afternoon. As Chew witnessed, Posey had gradually committed the balance of the 19th and 48th Mississippi–almost 700 men–to his skirmish line around the farm. Then, as Captain George Price of the 1st Delaware remembered, ‘a line of battle…advanced against us; their skirmish line was absorbed by their line as they came upon them.’
The report for the 1st Delaware states tersely, ‘At 4 p.m. the ammunition of the men being exhausted, Lieut. Col. Harris withdrew the right wing of the regiment.’ With the retreat of part of the regiment, the whole line faced collapse. As Sergeant Bowen recalled, the withdrawal was hardly ceremonious: ‘Looking around I saw the men of the 1st Delaware running to the rear….I out and took after them, soon catching up with Lieut. Col. Harris of the 1st Del. who was getting to the rear as fast as he could, he swung his sword around, called me a hard name, telling me to go back, this I did not do but made a detour around him and got across that 3/4 of a mile in record time.’ Upon his return to Cemetery Ridge, the winded Harris was promptly placed under arrest by Maj. Gen. Hancock for the unauthorized withdrawal.
Driving out the pockets of blue skirmishers remaining at the farm, Posey’s men moved into the buildings and busied themselves with picking off Union battery men, officers and skirmishers. Headquartered at the Brian house by Ziegler’s Grove, Hays and his staff attracted the attention of the Mississippi riflemen. At 5 p.m., Hays ordered Colonel Smyth to seize the Bliss buildings and re-establish the Union skirmish line at the farm. This time, four companies of the 12th New Jersey Infantry under Captain Samuel Jobes were chosen to retake the farm. Raising a cheer, the New Jersey troops shouldered their smoothbore muskets and moved out at double-quick across the 400 yards to the Bliss buildings. Immediately Posey’s sharpshooters and Hill’s batteries on Seminary Ridge opened fire on the charging Federal line, ‘raking us awfully,’ recalled a New Jersey soldier, ‘dropping men to the right and to the left.’ Upon reaching the farmyard, the New Jersey column halted, delivered a volley of ‘buck and ball’ into the barn, and surrounded the building, capturing about 50 of the Mississippi riflemen.
The balance of Posey’s line was intact, however, and continued sharpshooting from the Bliss house, some 90 yards away. Back on Cemetery Ridge, an indignant Hays ordered Smyth to ‘have the men in the barn take that damned white house and hold it at all hazards.’ Within minutes, one of the New Jersey companies charged from the barn, capturing ‘the damned white house’ and bringing the detachment’s catch to 92 of Posey’s men, including seven officers. But with the sounds of the III Corps struggle rumbling up the valley from the south, it was clear that the Union tenure at the Bliss farm was nearly finished.
By this time Longstreet’s en echelon assault was well underway and rolling north. The Confederate advance, initiated by more than 14,000 of Longstreet’s veterans, had broken the Union left flank at Devil’s Den, pushed through Sickles’ salient at the Peach Orchard, and unhinged the Yankee line on the Emmitsburg Road. As planned, Anderson’s gray division was to take up the attack, progressing northward.
At approximately 6:30 p.m., observing Anderson’s advance on their right, the 1,400 Georgians under Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright were set to begin their drive across the valley. A few hundred yards away, the four New Jersey companies holding the Bliss farm buildings were in a tight spot. Re-establishing the skirmish line at the farm had already cost the Union detachment 42 of its number. Despite their initial success in seizing the buildings, a brief look out of any window would confirm a gradually worsening situation. Just west of the farm, several hundred of Posey’s men still held the area around the Bliss orchard. At 6 p.m., a strong line of skirmishers from Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender’s division had moved into Long Lane, a country road only 250 yards north of the buildings, flanking the New Jersey companies. Now to the south, on the other side of the buildings, skirmishers from the 2nd Georgia were pushing back the Union line, clearing the way for Wright’s advance. Together, these threats were apparently sufficient reason to clear out, and the blue-coated companies withdrew to Cemetery Ridge with their captives.
By 7 p.m. the Federal positions on Cemetery Ridge had changed dramatically. Well over half of Hancock’s corps had been committed to reinforce Sickles’ collapsing line; Caldwell’s entire division had been sent into the carnage at the Wheat Field, while one of Hays’ brigades and almost half of Gibbon’s division were parceled out to shore up other sections of the III Corps position. Only three regiments and two batteries held the 600-yard gap between Sickles’ dangling right flank on the Emmitsburg Road and the balance of the II Corps atop Cemetery Ridge. Starting their advance according to plan, Wright’s Confederates were headed straight for that gap.
Stepping off Seminary Ridge to the left of Wilcox’s and Lang’s advancing infantry, Wright’s 3rd, 22nd and 48th Georgia regiments were greeted with a ‘terrific fire of shells into our ranks.’ Absorbing the skirmishers of the 2nd Georgia, the Southern battle line moved rapidly across the fields, taking advantage of the cover in slight hollows in the field to pause and re-form. Coming within musket range of the advanced Union line, Wright later recalled, ‘We were in a hot place, and looking to my left through the smoke, I perceived that neither Posey nor Mahone had advanced, and that my left was totally unprotected.’ Wright immediately dispatched an aide to Anderson, who replied that ‘both Posey and [William] Mahone had been ordered in and that he would reiterate the order.’
Unfortunately, something had gone amiss in Anderson’s orders to the left wing of his division. Anderson’s account indicates that each of his brigades was ordered to advance in turn. Although directed to advance with Wright, Posey claimed that his orders were to advance ‘but two of my regiments, and deploy them closely as skirmishers.’ The gradual deployment of Posey’s troops that afternoon had removed the Yankee threat from the Bliss farm, but the sustained action and resulting casualties had also destroyed the Mississippians’ ability to move as a cohesive fighting unit. As Wright’s line passed the Bliss yard, only Posey’s 48th Mississippi and part of the 19th Mississippi would support the Georgia brigade’s flank.
Firing rapidly from a makeshift breastwork of fence rails just east of the Emmitsburg Road, the 600 men of Gibbon’s 82nd New York and 15th Massachusetts only partially filled the gap in the Union line north of the Codori buildings. On a small rise behind the advanced line, the six Napoleons of Brown’s battery, Company B, 1st Rhode Island, showered the converging gray line with spherical case shot and, as they drew closer, double canister. Undaunted, Wright’s battle line wavered for a moment, then closed up and continued forward.
In their later accounts of the battle, both Gibbon and Wright described the Confederate charge with the same term–‘impetuousity’–suggesting a brief or furious action. The fight at the Emmitsburg Road was undoubtedly both. Charging out of the thick smoke billowing over the field, the long Confederate line flanked one, then both of the Union regiments. With both colonels and almost half their number down, Gibbon’s men fell back up the slope in disarray.
Marksmen from Posey’s 19th Mississippi advanced to within 60 yards of the Rhode Island guns, driving the artillerymen from their pieces three different times. Ordered to limber up in the growing hail of lead, drivers struggled to pull the guns away even as the battery’s horses collapsed in their traces. Unable to retrieve two of their cannons, the rest of the battery raced up the slope and re-formed on the ridge. As the left regiments of Wright’s brigade claimed the prized Napoleons, the balance of the II Corps line atop the ridge raked their column with canister and small-arms fire. Sweeping past the struggle on their left, the right wing of the Georgia brigade cleared the Codori buildings with less resistance, and advanced with their line relatively intact. Charging up the slope, the Georgia troops swarmed toward Gibbon’s thin line behind the wall atop the ridge–and the wide gap on Gibbon’s left.
Crossing the stone wall south of a copse of trees, Gibbon later remembered that the head of the Confederate column ‘came quite through a vacancy in our line to the left of my division.’ There the Georgians again found Brown’s hapless battery, and as Major Sylvanus Curtis of the 7th Michigan reported: ‘They succeeded in passing through the guns of the battery on our left, driving the gunners from their posts. The line on our left gave way, and our flank was almost turned.’ A Confederate color-bearer planted his banner on one of the abandoned guns, and the jubilant Rebel line crested Cemetery Ridge.
‘We were now complete masters of the field,’ Wright glowingly recalled, ‘having gained the key…of the enemy’s whole line.’ But Wright’s isolated spearhead was still without support on either flank. Requesting support, Wilcox’s and Lang’s brigades had been stalled at the foot of the slope to the south and were forced to withdraw. Back at the Bliss farm, a perplexed Carnot Posey held back his last regiment, waiting in the fading light for support from William Mahone’s brigade. Inexplicably, despite entreaties from Posey and orders from Anderson himself, Mahone insisted he was ordered only to support Pegram’s artillery, and his brigade never budged from Seminary Ridge.
The Northern forces were quick to take advantage of Wright’s exposed position on the ridge. As Gibbon’s men around the copse poured volley after volley into the surging enemy line, columns of the 13th Vermont and 106th Pennsylvania charged around Wright’s unprotected flanks. Unsupported, their onslaught blunted, the Southerners halted, wavered and then fell back into the gathering dusk. Re-forming in the fields to the west, Wright was pained to find only about half of his brigade had returned from the foray onto Cemetery Ridge. Across the valley, Hancock had no sooner re-formed the II Corps line along the ridge when the uproar of a new assault came from the Union right. Hancock quickly dispatched Hays’ reserve brigade under Colonel Samuel S. Carroll, followed by the exhausted 71st and 106th Pennsylvania from Gibbon’s line. The timely arrival of Carroll’s men on East Cemetery Hill would help break the Rebel foothold there and secure the Union line.
The time for a concerted Southern effort was now long past. As their scattered force streamed back to the Bliss farm after Wright’s repulse, Posey and Colonel W.H. Taylor of the 12th Mississippi did their best to re-form the brigade in the dark. Ordered back to Seminary Ridge, Posey left Taylor with his Mississippians to picket the Bliss property, and again formed his brigade behind Seminary Ridge.
The next morning broke clear and cloudless. As the day brightened, the ‘zip’ of Rebel lead among the Union batteries on the ridge made it clear that the Bliss farm was again held by Confederate marksmen. At 7:30 a.m., Smyth ordered the snipers’ nest cleaned out again. Led by Captain Richard Thompson, the remaining five companies of the 12th New Jersey filed down the Brian farm lane to the Emmitsburg Road. Deploying this time in column by company, the detachment shouldered their muskets and headed out at the double-quick. As the company crested the small rise midway to the buildings, the concentrated Rebel fire killed three and wounded several others in the front of the detachment.
Reaching the buildings, the New Jersey troops charged into the barn and found all but three of the Southern tenants gone. Learning from their losses the previous day, the Mississippians had escaped down the bank in the rear of the barn and resumed firing from the orchard beyond. As the New Jersey men rushed up to the second floor, the Southern riflemen shot Company F’s Abel Shute through both knees, mortally wounding him in front of the large doorway. In their brief raid on the Bliss farm, five of the New Jersey detachment were already dead or dying, and at least 25 had been wounded.
In the face of the mounting pressure from front and flank, supplemented by the crack of Pegram’s artillery fire overhead, the New Jersey companies withdrew from the buildings, gathering their casualties as they fell back. Undaunted, Hays ordered yet another sortie. This detail would include four companies–about 60 men–of the now depleted 14th Connecticut, who were directed to occupy the buildings ‘to stay.’ The regiment’s chaplain, Henry S. Stevens, later wondered ‘why a force only one half as large as either of the parties previously sent for the same purpose was sent this time.’
Eyes on both sides of the valley watched as another blue column filed down the slope. Led by Captain Samuel Moore of Company F, the detachment began to move out in formation, when from the ridge behind them Hays bellowed for them to’scatter and run.’ Crossing the Emmitsburg Road, the Connecticut companies fanned out as they sprinted across the fields. Despite the dispersed target, the Confederate marksmen soon found the range, and several of the New Englanders fell dead.
Reaching the barn, the winded Yanks found that the Southerners had again disappeared into the farmhouse and orchard, where they resumed firing at close quarters. The problem the New Jersey detachments had faced in defending the barn now became painfully clear to the Connecticut contingent. While the side of the barn facing Cemetery Ridge contained numerous doors and windows, much of the structure facing the Southern lines was taken up by the wide doorway in the second story, with the large earthen bank leading up to it.
Outnumbered, pinned in the barn by gunfire from three sides and unable to return any effective fire, the Connecticut detail was in a dire situation. Ordered to break the deadlock and again seize the ‘damned white house,’ Major Theodore Ellis led the remaining four companies of the 14th Connecticut across the Emmitsburg Road. As Ellis’ men headed farther north to reach the farmhouse, they were met by harrowing flank fire from Pender’s men in Long Lane.
Closing on the farmhouse, the New Englanders traded parting shots with the Rebels, who headed to the orchard beyond. Entering by the two front doors, the Connecticut men found the building a poor shelter. With ‘bullets piercing the thin siding and windows,’ some of Ellis’ men took their chances outside, or ran the gantlet to the barn. From Seminary Ridge, only 500 yards away, Pegram’s artillery pounded the Bliss buildings with a relentless fire. One of the rounds of case shot hit squarely on the roof of the barn, killing one and wounding another of the Connecticut men on the floor below.
It was barely midmorning, and the Bliss buildings had been captured three times with little result except the ensnarement of the attackers. Unbeknown to the beleaguered New Englanders, Smyth had modified the regiment’s strict orders. As the last companies left Cemetery Ridge, Company I’s Lieutenant Frederick Seymour asked Smyth, ‘If…the Rebs make it so hot we can’t hold [the house and barn], shall we fire them?’ Smyth replied, ‘We don’t know the word can’t!’ Thinking better of his bravado, the colonel added, ‘If they make it too hot for you, burn the buildings and return to the line.’ Unfortunately, the lieutenant was shot in the leg as the company crossed the fields, and lay helpless as the detachment sped on.
Recognizing the desperate situation, Hays sent Sergeant Charles Hitchcock of the 111th New York with new orders to torch the buildings. Armed with cartridge papers and matches, the volunteer made his way across the fields to the barn and relayed his message to Ellis. The New Englanders needed no more urging. Upon hearing the order, ‘wisps of hay and straw were soon on fire and…applied at different places in the barn, and in the house a straw bed was emptied on the floor and the match applied.’ Despite the heavy shelling and rifle fire, the Connecticut men took time to bring their dead and wounded comrades back through the gantlet they had entered but a short time before.
Stopping in the relative safety of the Emmitsburg Road, the members of the 14th Connecticut looked back with relief on the Bliss farm, where flames were now bursting fiercely out of both house and barn. Their relief must have been short-lived as they realized that the attack had cost the regiment 20 of its already diminished number, including three dead or mortally wounded.
In just over 24 hours, the seesaw struggle for the no man’s land around the Bliss buildings had involved more than 10 regiments, Union and Confederate, and produced hundreds of casualties for both sides. Looking back on the episode, Chaplain Stevens might have spoken for all those involved when he wrote: ‘We believe [the fight for the Bliss buildings] to have been the most notable episode connected with the doings of any individual regiment occurring during the great battle of Gettysburg. Had the buildings been destroyed the first time captured by our troops, many lives uselessly sacrificed would have been spared and much needless suffering avoided. It was one of the ‘fool things’ of war. Yet it was a grand lesson to our boys, and it furnished one of the brightest points in their most glowing record. In that sortie some precious lives went out, some cripples were made, and every man that escaped hurt came back panting and wearied and feeling that ‘out of the jaws of death’ he had come.’ *
This article was written by John M. Archer and originally appeared in the July 1995 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!