What was Dan Sickles thinking when he ‘practically destroyed his own corps’ at Gettysburg?
“God bless the III Corps!” Major General Daniel Sickles reportedly uttered that benison as he was being carried from the field at Gettysburg on July 2, in the aftermath of a furious fight that earned him lasting fame and no small measure of controversy. Yet it was the officers and men of his III Corps who paid the ultimate price for Sickles’ questionable tactics that day.
The Army of the Potomac’s III Corps already had a proud history before Gettysburg. Created in the spring of 1862, the unit had seen action during the Peninsula, Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg campaigns under the command of Generals Samuel Heintzelman and George Stoneman. With Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s promotion to command of the army in early 1863, Stoneman was made chief of cavalry and Sickles became the corps’ new commander. His flamboyant style and obvious courage made him extremely popular with his men.
At Gettysburg the III Corps was organized into two divisions and numbered approximately 10,600 officers and men. On the morning of July 2, 1863, when the Army of the Potomac arranged its famous “fishhook” line on a series of hills and ridges south of Gettysburg, the shank of the hook ran along Cemetery Ridge and the III Corps was assigned to its lower portion by the army’s new commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Little Round Top, the fishhook’s eye, was to be occupied “if possible.”
Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to follow up his partial success of July 1, calling on two veteran divisions of his First Corps, led by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and numbering over 14,000, to crush the Union left with an en echelon assault. Lee hoped a simultaneous demonstration by Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps against the Union right, at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, could be converted into a real attack against that flank.
Throughout the morning, as Lee formulated his offensive, Sickles fretted about his assigned position, which he felt was a poor one. He later wrote: “…the direct line [along Cemetery Ridge] to Round Top was a line through swale, morass swamp, bowlders, and forest and tangled undergrowth, unfit for infantry, impracticable for artillery, and hopelessly dominated by the ridge in front….” He also believed his position was too long for his command to occupy and that the woods in his front would mask Confederate movements and limit his field of fire, especially for his artillery.
Sickles’ overriding concern was that “ridge in front” that he felt made his position so vulnerable: the Emmitsburg Road Ridge and Peach Orchard Knoll, which he feared the Confederates would occupy with their own batteries. To prevent that, Sickles felt he had to take up an advanced line along the Emmitsburg Road. After repeated attempts to get Meade’s permission, a frustrated Sickles began moving forward around 1 p.m.
The two III Corps’ divisions pushed forward up to three-fourths of a mile, so that Sickles’ left flank, held by Maj. Gen. David Birney’s 1st Division, rested not on Little Round Top as Meade had directed, but at Devil’s Den, about 600 yards to the left front. The line then ran northwest through the Wheatfield to the Peach Orchard. There it turned, making a right angle where it connected with Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’ 2nd Division, which extended the line north along the Emmitsburg Road.
While this advanced line gained advantages due to the terrain, it had several flaws. One of the most important was that Little Round Top was left undefended. It also isolated the entire III Corps, as it was completely dis connected from the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge, and thus beyond immediate support. Sickles had also overextended himself, to the point of leaving gaps in his new line.
Yet another problem was that the III Corps’ line created a salient, and thus faced two directions—south and west—allowing Confederates batteries to deliver enfilading or flanking fire along both its wings. The salient itself, at the Peach Orchard, was a weak point because it could be attacked from two directions. By the time General Meade discovered this major shift in his line, it would be too late to pull the III Corps back.
Around 3 p.m. Longstreet began to deploy his two divisions opposite the Union left. Shortly after that, Confederates batteries rolled into position along Warfield Ridge and opened fire upon the III Corps’ newly placed line, signaling the start of the second day of fighting at Gettysburg.
Meade rode toward his left to investigate and discovered that “General Sickles had taken up a position very much in advance of what it had been my intention that he should take….” He found the III Corps commander near the Peach Orchard, where the two generals talked briefly. Sickles later wrote, “General Meade…arrived on the field and made a rapid examination of the dispositions which I had made, and…remarked…that my line was too extended, and expressed his doubts as to my being able to hold so extended a line….” Although Sickles responded that “it was not yet too late” to withdraw his corps, Meade told him “the enemy would not permit him to withdraw, and that there was no time for any further change or movement.” Meade knew he had to throw reinforcements into the battle quickly to shore up the III Corps’ overextended front. Meade’s only reserve, the V Corps, was told to move to the left, while artillery was ordered up to bolster Sickles’ new line.
By 4 p.m. Longstreet had ordered his first infantry to advance, launching his brigades forward en echelon. Brigadier General J.H. Hobart Ward’s III Corps brigade clung to Devil’s Den, whose massive rock formations marked the far left flank of the Union line. Although desperate counterattacks blunted the initial Confederate assaults, Ward’s line eventually crumbled, and Devil’s Den fell, along with three cannons of Captain James Smith’s 4th New York Artillery. But the time purchased by the corps enabled reinforcements to reach Little Round Top just before the first Rebel attacks.
Longstreet’s assaults slowly spread north. By 5 p.m. the first Confederate troops had struck Colonel P. Regis de Trobriand’s III Corps brigade defending the Wheatfield, beginning the struggle later known as “the Whirlpool.”
Meanwhile the Union troops defending the Peach Orchard were under heavy shelling. The battle was described by a member of Battery B, 1st New Jersey: “To the left I could see the enemy driving…up the sides of Little Round Top….During this time the front of the Battery was almost a sheet of flame; the men at the guns fairly flew to their work….Every one’s shirt was soaked with sweat, some with blood. All were grimed with powder smoke, and not a man but kept to his work. Heroes, every one.”
Around 5:30 p.m. the artillery fire around the Peach Orchard seemed to increase. It was soon followed by a multibrigade attack upon the salient angle of the III Corps line, held by Brig. Gen. Charles Graham’s brigade. The first attack was delivered from the south by Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, followed by Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, which struck from the west.
Graham’s brigade was swept away, with Graham himself wounded and captured. Longstreet’s textbook attack had worked to perfection. By the time the Confederates struck the Peach Orchard, nearly all the Union reserves sent to support the III Corps had been committed to battle along its left wing, at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den and the Wheatfield. The Rebel breakthrough at the salient angle of the III Corps’ position signaled its doom, for it not only left a gaping hole in Sickles’ front, but also each of the corps’ wings could be easily flanked and routed.
With the Peach Orchard overrun, the Union line in the Wheatfield was outflanked and quickly collapsed. At the same time, the III Corps’ right wing, held by General Humphreys’ division along the Emmitsburg Road, also came under attack, as described by one of Humphreys’ staff officers: “A copious shower of shell and canister from the enemy was followed up by a diabolical cheer and yells….Our batteries opened, our troops rose to their feet, the crash of artillery and the tearing rattle of our musketry was staggering, and added to the noise on our side, [to] the advancing roar & cheer of the enemy’s masses, coming on like devils incarnate.”
Humphreys conducted a withdrawal, “retiring very slowly, continuing the contest with the enemy, whose fire…was destructive in the extreme” down the east slope of the Emmitsburg Road ridge and toward Cemetery Ridge. The maneuver cost his division dearly, resulting in the loss of nearly 2,100 of its 4,900 officers and men.
As a whole the III Corps had lost more than 4,200 killed, wounded and missing, nearly 40 percent of its strength. Included in these casualties were 10 regiments that lost more than half of their men, with 17 of the corps’ 37 regimental commanders becoming casualties along with their beloved chief, Daniel Sickles. The remains of Sickles’ lower right leg, crushed by a random cannonball, were amputated that evening. The flamboyant general would never again command troops on a field of battle.
Despite all that went wrong, in the end the III Corps contributed to a Union victory. One veteran proudly recalled, “The soldiers of the Third Corps, had done their duty manfully, holding their ground against superior numbers…falling back to Cemetery [Ridge], only when successful resistance to the outflanking hosts of the enemy was no longer possible.” But Meade wrote, “Sickles’s movement practically destroyed his own corps…and with what result?—driving us back to the position he was ordered to hold originally.” The III Corps remained a corps in name only through the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns that fall. In March 1864, the corps passed out of existence.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.