“I don’t think there was ever in our war a hotter, harder, sharper artillery afternoon than this.” So Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, commander of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps artillery, described the shellfire that raged on July 2, 1863, the second day of the monstrous Battle of Gettysburg. That’s quite a statement, considering the iron hail that also flew on July 1 and 3. The armies brought 653 cannons to the Pennsylvania crossroads, 372 in the Army of the Potomac, and 281 in the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s impossible to mention here all the interesting artillery stories of Gettysburg. Take for example the hand-to-hand fighting that occurred among the Union guns on Cemetery Hill, or the Confederate Whitworth cannons, breechloaders imported from England, on Oak Ridge that fired the signal to begin the massive artillery bombardment that presaged Pickett’s Charge. But the sites described on these pages have always piqued my interest and present a nice mix of both obscure and frequently visited artillery battlefield locations. And you might be surprised at the tender age of those who led their batteries into the Pennsylvania tempest.
Dead at his Guns
As Confederate soldiers surged toward the famous “Angle” in the stone wall on Cemetary Ridge at the height of Pickett’s Charge, the cannons of Battery A, 4th U.S. Light Artillery stood in their path. The injured battery commander 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing was holding his entrails with his hands when a bullet hit him in the head and killed him as he gave his final commands. The 22-year-old West Pointer received a posthumous promotion to lieutenant colonel, and after decades of delay, the Medal of Honor in 2014 for his redoubtable courage at Gettysburg.
Head north on the Old Harrisburg Road, and east of the road, across from the Gettysburg High School, you’ll see a bronze tablet marking the location of the narrow NPS road that threads through a housing development to the guns of Lt. Col. H.P. Jones’ four-battery artillery battalion, one of the battlefield’s least visited sites. Shellfire from Jones’ Battalion swept across Barlow’s Knoll on July 1.
A shell from Jones’ Battalion nearly tore off Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson’s right leg as he commanded Battery G, 4th U.S. Artillery, on Barlow’s Knoll. The 19-year-old amputated the limb with his own pocketknife, but soon died. His father, Samuel, reported for The New York Times and accompanied the Army of the Potomac. He found his son and wrote an article detailing the awful circumstances. “Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh [sic] have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied!,” read one line. President Lincoln posthumously promoted Wilkeson to captain.
In the 1890s, a cannon shortage hampered the battlefield’s interpretation, and the War Department ordered the Gilbert Foundry of Gettysburg to cast non-firing replicas of 12-pounder Parrot and 3-inch Ordnance Rifles between 1895 and 1913. Many of those tubes, indicated by the casting seam that runs down both sides of their barrels, remain on display. There are about 370 cannons on the battlefield today.
“The sound of my guns will be encouraging to our troops….” First Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett, as he observed the Gettysburg battlefield from the summit of Little Round Top, July 2, 1863
Youthful courage was also on display on this narrow ridge east of Gettysburg. On July 2, Union shells fired from Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and Stevens Knoll devastated Major Joseph Latimer’s Confederate artillery battalion. A fragment tore off the right arm of Latimer, a 19-year-old Virginia Military Institute graduate, as he was attempting to withdraw his cannons from the cauldron. The esteemed “Boy Major” died of the wound on August 1, 1863, and is buried in Harrisonburg, Va.
The 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery monument on the north side of the Hanover Road, about 1.5 miles east of Rte. 15, exemplifies the role fate plays in battles. The heavies had been assigned fieldpieces and easy duty near Frederick, Md., when they had to flee J.E.B. Stuart’s notorious pre-battle raid. The gunners ran into Union cavalrymen and went with them to Gettysburg despite the fact they were not formally part of the Army of the Potomac. From the position of their monument, the 3rd fired on Brinkerhoff’s Ridge to the west, which helped prevent the famous Stonewall Brigade from participating in the July 2 evening attacks on Culp’s Hill.
Powers Hill is just east of the Baltimore Pike off of Granite Schoolhouse Lane. It’s worth the short hike to see the three Union battery monuments on the summit. Their guns fired to the northeast and shredded the left flank of Confederate attacks on Culp’s Hill on the morning of July 3. And Maj. Gen. George Meade used Powers Hill as his temporary HQ when the Confederate artillery made his Leister House HQ untenable before Pickett’s Charge.
At 4 p.m. on July 2, 22-year-old Captain John Bigelow took his 9th Massachusetts Battery, 110 men, 88 horses, and six cannons, into its first battle at a position between the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield. Before long, a Confederate attack slammed into the battery. Bigelow’s men conducted a desperate fighting retreat for 400 yards back to the Trostle House, and continued to fire blasts until they were surrounded. The battery lost four cannons, 80 horses, and 27 casualties, including Bigelow, who was shot twice. The stand of the gritty Bay Staters, however, stopped the Rebel onslaught long enough for a critical reserve Union line to form.
Anywhere from 150-170 cannons took part in the pre-Pickett’s Charge bombardment on July 3, and the shellfire lasted from one to two hours. The final numbers for both may always remain elusive, but without question, Colonel Edward P. Alexander, the 28-year-old artillery commander of General Robert E. Lee’s First Corps, did a masterful job deploying his guns and coordinating their fire. His published memoir, Fighting for the Confederacy, remains the best primary account of the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery actions at Gettysburg.
Check out the pocked south face of the gray-painted brick Gettysburg home at 407 S. Washington St., known as the Jacob Stock House during the battle. Some historians believe that Minié balls made the more than 70 very evident holes in the bricks, but others think Union canister rounds fired from cannons on Cemetery Hill caused some of the damage as the gunners tried to silence Confederate sharpshooters. Please observe from a respectful distance, and be mindful of the property owner’s privacy.