Augustus Hesse chronicled the 9th Massachusetts Battery’s desperate struggle.
“I have taken up Arms to defennt the wright of the U.S. of America….I am ready to give my life away for liberty.” So wrote 30-year-old German-born farmer Augustus Hesse shortly after he volunteered for military service in August 1862. The following excerpts come from letters he penned in July 1863, within 10 days of participating in the Battle of Gettysburg, to his wife Almira and family friend Deborah Weston.
Hesse enlisted in the 9th Massachusetts Battery, leaving his wife and infant daughter Anna behind him in Weymouth, Mass. During the 9th’s first 11 months in service, he was promoted to corporal, then gunner of the 5th piece, responsible for aiming the cannon.
Commanded by Captain John Bigelow, the battery was assigned to the Army of the Potomac on June 25, 1863, as part of Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery’s 1st Volunteer Brigade, Artillery Reserve. One week later, on July 2, the battery experienced its baptism of fire when it was ordered to support Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ overextended III Corps line at Gettysburg around 4:30 p.m.
Positioned just east of the Peach Orchard, the battery was placed on the far left end of a line of Union artillery that straddled the Wheatfield Road. The battery loosed its first thundering blasts around 4:45 p.m. Bigelow recalled, “The wind being light, we soon covered ourselves in a cloud of powder smoke.”
Their targets were Confederate batteries along Warfield Ridge, between 1,200 and 1,600 yards away. The lingering smoke made aiming difficult. Bige low later wrote, “I noticed, when near the right gun, that Gunner Hessie dropped flat on the ground after its discharge.” Assuming the gunner was acting cowardly, the captain recalled he was “about to severely reprimand him, when I discovered he was watching the effect of his shot under the smoke from the discharge. Resuming his place [Hesse] continued his firing.”
After the Union cannoneers had been raked by artillery crossfire for nearly 45 minutes, Confederate infantry under Lt. Gen. James Long street began advancing toward them, led by Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade. The Union batteries along the Wheatfield Road were vulnerable, lacking any infantry support. Despite that, the gunners opened up on the Confederates with case shot and then canister, slowing Kershaw’s attack. Bigelow recalled that the “double-shotted canister tore through their ranks with terrible effect” and “sprinkled the field” in front of the guns “with their dead and wounded.”
The South Carolinians soon renewed their assault, delivering such a “shower of…balls” on the Union batteries, according to one of Bigelow’s men, that the air seemed “alive with bullets and breaking shells.” The situation deteriorated around 6 p.m., when the Union battle line at the Peach Orchard broke and Confederate infantry, led by Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, threatened the Union batteries from the right. McGilvery had no choice but to order his batteries to fall back. Last to receive the order, Captain Bigelow felt the enemy infantry was too close to allow his guns to cease fire, so he ordered his gun crews to begin the difficult and risky maneuver known as “retire by prolong firing.” The crews executed the move flawlessly across more than 400 yards of open ground to the Abraham Trostle Farm.
Partially hidden by swelling ground, the battery then scrambled to limber its guns. Bigelow recalled he was “hoping to get out and back to our lines before [the Confederates] closed in on us.” Just then McGilvery galloped up and ordered Bigelow to “hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery.” McGilvery had spotted a half-mile gap in the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and was looking for a way to slow down the advancing Confederate line until he could cover the opening.
Bigelow later said that “the task seemed superhuman.” Trapped in a corner formed by two stone walls, low on ammunition and with an extremely limited field of fire due to the uneven ground, the battery found itself in an impossible situation.
The 9th’s men continued to work their guns as the Confederates swarmed over and around them. While some men fought hand to hand to save their pieces, others managed to limber up and retreat two of the cannons—driving one directly over a stone wall—saving both guns.
Augustus Hesse fired nearly 130 rounds from his gun in less than two hours, more than one shot per minute throughout the ordeal. The 9th Massachusetts was shattered, losing four of its six guns, three of four officers, six of eight sergeants, 19 enlisted men and over 80 horses in the savage fighting, its desperate 20-minute stand proved successful. The 9th bought precious time that helped McGilvery form his new artillery line.
Hesse, among those who fought to the bitter end, later wrote, “I then did not care for anything as to do my duty to save the Piece.”Although he was wounded in the arm and his cannon had been captured and spiked, the artilleryman and his surviving comrades were rightfully proud of their actions at the Trostle House.
Hesse’s letters are transcribed almost exactly as they were written, aside from minor corrections in punctuation to enhance readability. His words place readers in the middle of the maelstrom where, Hesse wrote, “it was all the time a Shower of Bullets over and around me” and he “heard the balls coming” and “saw the pieces of Shell droped a foot of me on the ground.”
Gettes’burg Pa. July 4” 1863
My Dear Wife
We have here a great fight. our Battery was engaged. We had to hold our possition Which we did with honor. Our Infantry gave way so that our Battery had no Support. the Rebels fought Desperate. We mowed them down like grass but they were thick and rushed up….Killed all our horses. I had not one left on my Piece. the Rebels were around our guns. We had no horses to cary the[m] of[f] so We had to leaf four….the Battery was cut up. I have a flesh wound in my left Arm. I am in a house now, but we have no good Care. I hope I shall go in a good Hospital soon….
your true Servent
Hospitall Reserve Artillery
on the Baltimore Turnpike road
Five Ml of Gettysburg Pa. July 7th 1863/
Miss Deborah Weston:
Please allow me to give…to all of you, that what I can in this great Battle here near Gettysburg in which I was engaged last Thursday afternoon and fought and done all what was in my power to keep the Rebels back, and to have Victory on our Side. I am sorry that our Battery is cut up so terable, oh I feel so bad that I could Cry. seeing our Horses all shot down[,] we had so splendit Horses.
We the reserve Artillery arrived at the Battle ground where the 1st & 11th Corps were fighting on Wednesday. Thursday Morning ten o Clock, no…fighting was going on then only Picket Skirrmish, but in the afternoon the Rebels came out it was 4½ o Clock p m. at five, the Reserve Artillery was called for. our Battery the 9 Mass. went in in high Spirits. it was in a field near a house, where three Batterys, were in line and then We joined on the left. all three exposed to every Rebels, who were then 1000 yards in front of us. The Battle line was in a Shape of a Horse Shoe. We on the Extreme left, had a Corps on the left of us, for Support. We then commen’d firing with Sph[erical] Case Shot, and done very good Execution. the Rebel Batterys through Railroad Eron [iron] at us but they fired to[o] high. their firing cept up about half an hour. our Infantry advanced then. We…fired over their Heads, to the Rebel lines. the Rebel Longstreet then moved to the left and pitched into us. the[y] fought like tigers up they came. our Infantry had to fall back in the Woods. they came up ther to 400 yards. oh my [we] mowed them down now, but they did not care they jumped over ther dead bodies, and moved still on more to the left….the Rebels rushed in through the Woods, but now it was…the 9th Mass’ Battery showed them brave and Heroes. We fired Canister. We got out twice with Ammunition, and just the time the Rebels rushed on the Guns, we had none left. they outflanked us through the Woods and Crippled…us all down from two sides. The order was, now giving to leave, but where were our Horses? all piled up in heep Killed. No Men to be able to do anything. I was Working…to get the prolong rope tether[ed] to the caisson, but I hooked it to Pintle finding that two Horses were on the Limber left, but then I saw the Rebels, between the Pieces and it was then they shot me in my left Arm through the Muzcle. here we all got Wounded. it was a bad place to retreat. We could get of[f] only two Pieces, the Center Section….My left two Horses, got Shot down as I had limbered up. they had one Prisoner, but they got to work in trying [to] get the guns of[f] so I ran of[f] to the other side the house. My Shirt and Pants was all over with blood and I got Weak and droped down. they put me in the Ambulance and carried me to the third Corps Hospital where they dressed my Arm. The Bone is not hurt. my Arm will be all right again in a Month or so. when then I shall go in again and seek revenge. I hate them more now, then I every did, the Jonnys, grey Jackets. They did not get of[f] our Pieces. We drove them like a flock of Sheep again. We had them all back again, but my gun was Spiked. Friday Morning the fight began again, the heavy fighting was at two o Clock, p.m. Saturday the Rebbels had left. the Victory is ours.
I lost everything I had. my blanket and Rubber blanket, Writing material….All what I got left is that what I have on bloody Shirt and Pants and blouse all Stiff. The first two days I sufered greatly in the Woods out doors nothing to eat and no care, especially in the Night…without anything under or over me. the…Doctors were all busy in taking of[f] legs and Arms. it looked like a butcher Shop around me the legs all piled up on one heep. but now I am a little mor Comfortable. I am in a house with 76 other Artillery Men, and it is now the reserve Artillery Hospital. We got a Surgen and men to dress our Wounds. two dyed last night….it was the hardest and desperate fighting…during this War! The Rebels say themselves they lost 40,000—also one told me that they had orders to take that Brass Battery on the left by all circumstance, which was ours, the 9’ Mass Battery. [letter unsigned]
[Undated letter titled “Tuesday noon, near 2”]
I am lucky that I have got out the fight so save and it was all the time a Shower of Bullets over and around me three bullets went throug my blouse. a bullet hit my…hand while pointing the gun. Oh it was terrible. Capt. Bigelow is Woundet and going home. Lieut [Christopher] Ericson Killed and left on the field. Lieut [Alexander] Whitaker Wounded and gone home. We have 6 Sergeant Wound – et/Killed. Segt [Levi] Baker is Wound very severely…. there is forty Men Missing in Killed & Wounded. 60-70 Horses—Killed. We stood the Ground and fought like Tigers to the last Extremeity….
Hesse was apparently moved by train to a large, more permanent hospital near Philadelphia, via Balti- more, around July 10.
McClellan U.S. Hospital. Nice-town near Philadelphia
Sunday July 12th 1863
Miss Deborah Weston!
…I have sent you a letter from the Battfield on 7[th.] I hope you have received it. I could nt put a Postage stamp for I had none but I was in hope it would go. I was oblige to leave everything I had in Rebel-hands/who made such a desperate attack on our Battery on the Second day’s fight in the Evening. We were on the extreme left. I done all what was in my power and was one of the last. I fired 128 rounds of Ammunition in the time from five to seven p.m. after Seven the fight became so desperate that the[y] rushed up to 100 yards in front of us. I looked back and hollored for Ammunition seeing [Private James] Gilson lying by his Horses dead…. I recieved by degrees a Canister from the rear, and as soon I got it I sent it right to Jonnys Rebels seeing them droped down before us. but by this time the Infantry the third Corps was runing in retreat in double Quick so that We the glorious, young 9th Mass. Battery in Splendid Organisation and for the first time in an engagement, stood the ground and were Willing to die for the Country. Slowly did We get a Cartrige the Men got very thin. My No 1 Man dropped the Sponge Several times. the Sergt and I was left at last alone. I then took the Rammer and Worked for four Men. We Kept the Rebels back for a Spell, but the Artillery and Infantry playing into us in all directions, Railroad Eron & Shell fell thick. I heard the balls coming, Stuping myselves’ down-or to the left right just as the[y] came. throught the[y] would hit me but went bye an inch or so. I saw the pieces of Shell droped a foot of me on the ground other balls on the Wheels, but God was with me. I had Confidenice to be saved. So We Artillery were alone without Infantry…. all at once the SharpShooters-rushing out the Woods and flanked us on the left…here the Shower of bullets came onto us. We were obliged to leave the Ground….those pieces who had their Horses left were lucky. I had one left only then on the Caison. I then did not care for anything as to do my duty to save the Piece. We were in a bad place for retreat. We had to got right through the rebels-while they had outflanked us. I Worked with the Prolong-rope to hitched the Piece to the Caison, but one the Center Horses, got shot too and dropped. I then hooked it on Pintle and…then they Shot me through my left Arm, the blood run all over me I was Sweting and the Powder of handling the Cartrige and smoke darkened my face…so if you had seen me you would not have know me. The Rebels had the Pieces in their possession but we got of[f] two [guns] and all the Caissons….The 6 corps had come up and took our Pieces-back-so We got them in our possession again. I had to suffer for two days and Nights. No one to see to me I could get nothing to eat. I layed in the Woods without a Blanket…at last I was fetched to a house, and got all I want for the Citizen were coming with Provisions. I can not Write anymore My Arm pains me some to day. I am glad the bone is not hurt….
While I am Sick I would be happy to see Almira and some of you. I think often how wonderful little Anna would be for me…
Truly yours Respectfully
Hesse’s wife and child visited him for nearly three weeks in September. Almira would give birth to twin boys on May 19, 1864. Augustus returned to the battery in October 1863 and was promoted to sergeant in March 1864. He saw action in 13 more skirmishes and battles before he was mustered out on June 6, 1865.
The war shattered Hesse’s health. He picked up a bad cough in the fall of 1864 outside Petersburg, Va. In an attempt to restore his health the family moved to Almira’s hometown in Nova Scotia that August. He would die of “pulmonary consumption” on April 18, 1867.
Hesse’s service to his adopted country ultimately cost him his life. Almira Hesse never remarried. Years later, facing destitution, she filed for a widow’s pension.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.