The signs were familiar to the veteran soldiers, like the darkening of the sky before a summer storm. They had been building for hours as opposing skirmishers fired their rifles and artillery crews rammed in charges and pulled lanyards. In the afternoon heat of July 2, 1863, a reckoning neared in the fields and woodlots south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Before the fury ended, it had engulfed tens of thousands of men, Northerners and Southerners alike.
Among these Americans were members of the 17th Maine Infantry. They numbered roughly 350, and had been in a line of battle before. On this day, however, when uncommon deeds became common, the New Englanders answered combat’s terrible summons with valor, and at a price worthy of any troops on this battlefield. When the reckoning came, they stood, bled and died behind a stone wall and on a rise in a wheatfield, at times almost alone. The signs had been more ominous than they knew.
The officers and men of the 17th Maine had been in the service less than a year. They had enlisted in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 troops after the Seven Days’ campaign in July 1862. The state of Maine fulfilled its quota with the organization of five regiments, designated the 16th-20th. Mustered in on August 18, the 1,022 original members of the 17th Maine departed their state for Washington, D.C., three days later.
They joined the Army of the Potomac on October 11 and were assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division (the so-called Red Diamond Division) of the III Corps. The Mainers saw their initial action at Fredericksburg on December 13. After that engagement, division commander Brig. Gen. David B. Birney admitted the 17th Maine into the ‘Order of the Red Patch,’ an honor begun by the division’s former commander, Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny. Each member of the regiment could now wear a red diamond-shaped patch on his hat or uniform.
At Chancellorsville on May 1-5, 1863, the 17th Maine suffered 116 casualties. Forty members of the regiment were awarded the Kearny Medal for their conduct during the battle. In the weeks that followed, the III Corps was reorganized. The 17th Maine, now commanded by Lt. Col. Charles B. Merrill, joined the 3rd and 5th Michigan, 40th New York and 110th Pennsylvania in a brigade commanded by Colonel Philippe Regis de Trobriand. The son of a French baron who had been educated as a lawyer, de Trobriand had immigrated to the United States in 1841, married an heiress and was editing a French language publication when the war began. He had served as colonel of the 55th New York and then the 38th New York until assigned to brigade command after Chancellorsville.
With the rest of the Army of the Potomac, de Trobriand’s brigade marched north into Maryland in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. By nightfall on June 30, the III Corps had halted around Emmitsburg, Md. The next day, de Trobriand’s and Colonel George C. Burling’s brigades remained at the small village as their comrades in the corps’ other units marched to Gettysburg and the burgeoning engagement. At 2 a.m. on July 2, de Trobriand and Burling received orders to march to Gettysburg. The brigades started north at daylight, but in the words of the 17th Maine’s Lieutenant Charles W. Roberts, ‘Our progress was slow and halts were frequent and tedious.’
The brigades arrived around 10 a.m., filing east off Emmitsburg Road to the III Corps’ position on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. The soldiers of the 17th Maine had a lunch of hardtack and coffee. At about 2 p.m. Birney’s division, including de Trobriand’s brigade, began marching south and west toward ground with names that would resound through American history — the Peach Orchard, Rose’s Woods, the Wheatfield, Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den. To their left, Big and Little Round Tops loomed above the landscape.
Unknown to the rank and file of the III Corps, their commander, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, had decided to occupy the ridge along Emmitsburg Road at the Peach Orchard. A former New York City lawyer and congressman, Sickles had been concerned throughout the morning about his position on the lower end of Cemetery Ridge. The ridge to the west seemed to dominate his line, and if the Confederates rolled artillery onto it, they could blast his ranks at will. He had expressed his concerns to staff members of army commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. In turn, Meade repeated his orders for Sickles to hold the ground on the left flank of the II Corps along Cemetery Ridge.
Sickles, however, thought otherwise. Without informing Meade, let alone securing permission from the commanding general, Sickles advanced Birney’s division, followed by that of Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys. Sickles’ action would reshape the day’s fighting, endanger the Union army’s left flank and create one of Gettysburg’s most strident and enduring controversies. He would spend the remaining 50 years of his life defending his decision.
Birney formed his brigades into a line that extended from the Peach Orchard to Devil’s Den. Brigadier General Charles K. Graham’s brigade deployed in and around the Peach Orchard. On its left, de Trobriand’s five regiments were aligned initially along the western base of a wooded hill, the so-called Stony Hill, which lay along the western edge of the Wheatfield. Brigadier General J.H. Hobart Ward’s brigade completed Birney’s line, covering Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den. Artillery batteries bolstered the infantry ranks.
When units of Humphreys’ division advanced, they extended Birney’s line north from the Peach Orchard along Emmitsburg Road. Humphreys’ deployment created a salient at the Peach Orchard, a tactical arrangement vulnerable to assault on front or flank. When completed, the III Corps line extended approximately two miles, manned by slightly more than 10,000 officers and men. Skirmishers rimmed the front and dueled with their Confederate counterparts. As the afternoon lengthened, Lieutenant George W. Verrill of the 17th Maine wrote in his diary, ‘Expect every moment to ?go in,’ skirmishing is going on in front.’
The waiting to ‘go in’ ended for Sickles’ veterans at about 4 o’clock. Across the farmers’ fields to their front on Seminary and Warfield ridges were the divisions of Maj. Gens. John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps. The Rebels had formed battle ranks after a three-hour roundabout march. They numbered about 14,500 officers and men in the ranks and were arguably the finest shock troops in the Confederate Army. They were men of the lower South, from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas.
When the Southerners stepped out, led by Hood’s troops, they bellowed the fearful Rebel yell. The brewing storm burst in an explosion of cannon fire and musketry. As the Union guns punished the attackers, a Rebel later recalled, ‘I could hear bones crash like glass in a hail storm.’ Past the Rose farm, into that family’s woods and toward Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den came Hood’s men. ‘I never saw troops move more steadily & in better order than these did on that occasion,’ a Confederate officer recalled. ‘There was no wavering, disorder, or want of confidence on the part of the troops.’
Birney had kept de Trobriand’s brigade in column of regiments, with orders to be prepared to support either Graham’s or Ward’s units. When the Confederate attack began, de Trobriand sent the 3rd Michigan to the Peach Orchard and the 40th New York and 17th Maine to the aid of Ward on the left. Lieutenant Colonel Merrill faced the 17th Maine to the southeast and led them across the Wheatfield. The Mainers trampled the stalks of wheat beneath their feet as they moved at the double-quick, carving the first of many paths through the unharvested grain.
Merrill, a 36-year-old farmer and lawyer from Portland, halted the 17th Maine along a low stone wall about 30 inches high that divided the Wheatfield from Rose’s Woods. The Yankees formed a line behind the wall, bracing themselves for the onslaught. Merrill later claimed that the first things they saw were two or three cows in the woods to their front. Before long, however, the darkened figures of Confederates appeared through the trees, coming on ‘in usual fierce style.’ The New Englanders triggered a volley. ‘We peppered them well with bullets,’ declared a private.
The Rebels, members of the 3rd Arkansas of the famed Texas Brigade, sought cover behind trees and on the low ground along Plum Run. Confederate Colonel Van H. Manning described the Yankees’ fire as’some annoyance,’ but it halted his regiment’s advance. The Southerners returned fire, and rifle flashes and smoke filled the woods and enveloped the stone wall. On the rise in the Wheatfield behind the 17th Maine, crews of Captain George B. Winslow’s Battery D, 1st New York, worked their six Napoleons, sending solid shot into the woods after estimating the distance from the sounds of the Confederates’ fire.
Union reinforcements joined the action. On the 17th Maine’s right, two 2nd Division regiments — the 115th Pennsylvania and 8th New Jersey — deployed, as did the 5th Michigan and 110th Pennsylvania of de Trobriand’s brigade beyond them. These units covered the southern and western base of Stony Hill. Their entry into the fighting was timely, as more Confederates were, in Verrill’s description,’stealing along from the direction of the 3rd Arkansas, towards our front, concealing themselves as much as possible and using as shelter the main bank of Plum Run.’
These Southerners belonged to the brigade of Brig. Gen. George T. ‘Tige’ Anderson, four regiments of Georgians numbering about 1,200. Anderson’s troops had trailed the Texas Brigade, angling northeast into Rose’s Woods. ‘The men were in good spirits,’ according to one of them, ‘and bravely determined to carry all the obstacles before them.’ When the Georgians entered the woods, the trees broke their ranks and their advance stalled briefly along Plum Run, which one of them called ‘a bog.’
But the Georgians pressed ahead and into a blizzard of musketry from the Federals. Captain George Hillyer of the 9th Georgia affirmed later, ‘If it had not been for the shelter of the rocks and trees behind which we fought, not one of us would have escaped.’ The 17th Maine’s Private John Haley contended: ‘There was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs, and we could see them tumbling around right lively. A great number of our own men were sharing the same fate.’
The Mainers loaded and fired their Enfield rifles while crouching behind the stone wall. The Georgians shouted to them: ‘Stand up and fight fair! Stand up and fight for your apple butter!’ A Georgia major described the Federals’ position along the wall as ‘formidable.’ Watching the combat from the Wheatfield, de Trobriand subsequently wrote: ‘It was a hard fight. The Confederates appeared to have the devil in them.’
At this time, the 115th Pennsylvania and 8th New Jersey withdrew through the Wheatfield and uncovered the 17th Maine’s right flank. The 8th and 9th Georgia advanced into a stand of alder trees and poured a murderous fire into the New Englanders’ exposed ranks. Major George W. West withdrew the three right companies of the 17th Maine. ‘This movement was executed in good order,’ reported Merrill, ‘under a heavy fire from the advancing foe.’ To the Yankees’ front, the 11th and 59th Georgia pressed toward the wall.
The combat escalated seemingly into a frenzy. ‘Never was loading and firing of muzzle-loaders done more rapidly than by the 17th at the time,’ claimed Captain Charles Mattocks. The captain had three soldiers load rifles while he fired them at the Georgians. Three times the Rebels charged, reaching the wall at one point, where the fighting became hand-to-hand. The color bearer of the 8th Georgia placed his flag on the wall only to be driven back. ‘It was not a protracted fight,’ said Mattocks, ‘but being at close range the work was deadly.’ He added, ‘It is a wonder that more were not killed’ in the 17th Maine.
Anderson halted the assaults, and the Georgians withdrew farther into the woods. Along the wall the Yankees gathered ammunition from fallen comrades and rested. Two company captains had fallen with mortal wounds, while three of the 10-man color guard were down. The regiment’s adjutant, Lieutenant Charles W. Roberts, had suffered a wound above his knee. Merrill cut a strap from his sword belt and used it as a tourniquet on Roberts’ leg. The repulse of the Georgians had left them, stated an officer, ‘more at peace than at any previous time.’T
he respite, however, was momentary. Advancing across the fields of the Rose farm and toward Stony Hill and the Wheatfield were nearly 2,200 South Carolinians under Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw. The South Carolinians forced the 5th Michigan and 110th Pennsylvania off Stony Hill and drove on toward the 17th Maine. When Kershaw’s veterans reached the alders, the New Englanders’ volleys sent them rearward. The Yankees, according to Lieutenant Verrill, were’simply hilarious’ at the repulse of the enemy. Anderson’s Georgians now renewed their assault, but still the beleaguered Mainers clung to the stone wall. Verrill asserted that the combat ‘was most furious,’ and casualties at the angle where the line had been refused ‘were appalling.’
Behind the New Englanders, Captain Winslow’s gunners still manned their cannons, but on the left of the 17th Maine, Ward’s ranks had been driven from Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den. Colonel de Trobriand rode to the wall and ordered the men to retreat. ‘But we didn’t hear the order….The old fellow didn’t quite comprehend this state of ours,’ contended Private Haley. The wall offered protection, and they were reluctant to retreat across the open Wheatfield.
When one of Birney’s aides rode up with instructions to retreat, the regiment complied. ‘Some of us cried, not on account of fear,’ declared a Yankee, ‘but because we felt as if the thing might have been otherwise if we had been properly reinforced or supplied with ammunition.’ Merrill halted his men along the Wheatfield Road. The Confederates raked Winslow’s battery from Stony Hill and the stone wall, scorching the Federals with shells and canister.
Birney joined the 17th Maine. A private who had served earlier under the general described him graphically: ‘He reminds me of a graven image and could act as a bust for his own tomb, being utterly destitute of color. As for his countenance, it is as expressionless as a Dutch cheese.’ But Birney was a fine combat officer and could see the desperate condition of Winslow’s gunners. He needed infantry to support the battery and to buy time until reinforcements arrived. He ordered the 17th Maine into the Wheatfield once again.
Birney’s aide, Captain Joseph C. Briscoe, led the Maine men, who cheered ‘in the good old old-fashioned Union style.’ The regiment halted on the ridgeline in the Wheatfield, a ‘highly exposed position,’ according to one soldier. Colonel de Trobriand told them, ‘You must hold your ground!’ When the men responded that they had nearly exhausted their ammunition, he replied, ‘Then you must hold them with the bayonet!’ They fixed bayonets.
The Georgians and South Carolinians seared the ground with musketry. Four more members of the Maine color guard fell. Captain Mattocks described the Rebel volleys as ‘a murderous fire.’ The 5th Michigan, ordered in by Birney, extended its left flank. Groups of Georgians crossed the stone wall and advanced through the Wheatfield. The Yankees drove them back to the wall. ‘There was no wavering or shadow of turning,’ wrote Lieutenant Verrill of his comrades;’it seemed as if the last man would there find his allotted ounce of lead.’ A bullet ripped into Verrill’s leg.
The two Union regiments clung to the rise for 30 minutes, with members of the 17th Maine scrounging cartridges from fallen comrades. Private Haley helped a wounded friend from the field and later recalled his emotions at the time, saying, ‘Thinking the day was lost to us, I was so discouraged that I wept, for I had the best of courage when the fight began.’
Haley may have passed the van of Brig. Gen. John Caldwell’s II Corps division. Colonel Edward Cross’ brigade led the command and charged across the Wheatfield. The 5th Michigan and 17th Maine retired. The Wheatfield, Stony Hill, Houck’s Ridge and Rose’s Woods boiled anew in furious combat. The Federals retook the stone wall and lost it again. More troops on both sides entered the fighting, with the Confederates prevailing at the end. By the time the firing died down in the early evening, the Southerners had crushed Sickles’ salient, wounded the III Corps commander and held nearly all the ground on this part of the battlefield, except for Little Round Top.
The 17th Maine was spared from combat on July 3. Its stubborn defense of the stone wall and the Wheatfield had cost the regiment 18 killed or mortally wounded, 112 wounded and 3 missing, a casualty rate of 38 percent. Only the 5th Michigan sustained higher losses in the brigade. Most likely the Mainers had inflicted more casualties than they had incurred.
In a July 3 letter Captain Mattocks boasted, ‘The Regt. behaved most splendidly.’ Indeed it had. Ward praised the regiment for its support of his brigade, and Lt. Col. Merrill stated in his report, ‘Both the officers and men of my command behaved with gallantry, and their conduct was worthy of the cause in which they were engaged and of the noble division to which they belong.’ Colonel de Trobriand wrote simply that the regiment ‘did good service’ at the stone wall.
In his report, Birney stated that the 17th Maine ‘was driven back from its position by overwhelming force, but, responding to my personal appeal, again charged the enemy across the small wheat-field, and retook their position. This regiment behaved most gallantly, and evinced a high state of discipline. Their enthusiasm was cheering, and the assistance rendered by its charge most important.’
Private Haley offered his explanation for his fellow Mainers’ conduct: ‘We knew that the fate of the army hung on the result.’ Their stand at the stone wall might not have been as crucial as Haley argued, but it typified the fighting spirit of the Federals at Gettysburg. One Northerner boasted that he and his comrades ‘gave the rebels one of the damdest lickens that they ever had.’ The Union victory was redemption for the star-crossed Army of the Potomac. Men such as those in the 17th Maine had attained it.
This article was written by Jeffry D. Wert and originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!