Civil War Series

The Battle of Gettysburg



As the right wing of Kershaw's brigade attacked the stony hill west of the Wheatfield, its left wing wheeled left against that portion of Sickles's line between the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield. Thirty cannons from the Third Corps and the Artillery Reserve held this sector. The attacking South Carolinians braved infantry volleys from the Peach Orchard and canister from all along the line. A South Carolina sergeant saw comrades fall at his side and felt his face "fanned time and time again by the deadly missiles." Yet success seemed within their grasp until someone shouted a false command that turned them right from the guns toward the Wheatfield and allowed the batteries to rake their exposed flank. Kershaw lamented, "Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell, victims of this fatal blunder."

In the meantime McLaws's two left brigades, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's, followed by Wofford's, charged directly at the Union position at the Peach Orchard. Barksdale's hard-driving Mississippians broke the weak Union line just north of the Peach Orchard; their left wing then wheeled left against the troops posted along the Emmitsburg Road at the Sherfy buildings while its right and Wofford's men dealt with the defenders of the orchard. The Third Corps troops in the orchard had little chance to make a good fight. Some had been facing south firing into Kershaw's brigade and had to change front to meet Barksdale's attack. As the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment swung back to meet the 21st Mississippi, the trees in the orchard broke its line. The 2nd gave the Mississippians a ragged volley, then backed over the crest and dressed its line with care. It swapped fire there with the Mississippians until its colonel saw Wofford's line coming by his left. Fearing to be cut off, he ordered the 2nd back. Twenty-one of its twenty-four officers and nearly half of its men had been shot, and its dead marked the lines it had held.


As Col. Henry J. Madill of the 141st Pennsylvania walked back from the orchard with twenty of the regiment's survivors and its colors, he met General Sickles. Sickles asked, "Colonel! For God's sake can't you hold on?" Madill looked at the corps commander with tear-filled eyes and replied simply, "Where are my men?"

The Union batteries in the orchard fell back in the face of the Confederate onslaught, and when the Confederates seized the high ground there, the twenty guns along the Wheatfield Road to the east had to fall back also. Captain John Bigelow's 9th Massachusetts battery on the left of the line, pressed from the front and threatened on the right, fell back from the road, its six Napoleons dragged by their prolonges and firing all the while. When they reached the lane by the Trostle house, they prepared to limber up and leave but were told to stay where they were until a line of guns could be set up behind them on Cemetery Ridge. The battery put up a stout fight until the Mississippians overran it and captured three of its guns.

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At 6 P.M. the Confederate brigades of Barksdale and Wofford advanced upon the Peach Orchard. After overwhelming the Union defenders, Barksdale advanced in a northeast direction as far as the Trostle farm. Wofford advanced due east down the Wheatfield Road and drove Union troops off Stony Hill and out of the Wheatfield.

General Barksdale, his white hair appearing above the battle smoke "like the white plume of Navarre," urged his left regiments against the Union line by the Sherfy house, rolled it up, and shouting, "Crowd them," drove toward the left of Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys's Third Corps division along the Emmitsburg Road. Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox's brigade of Anderson's division advanced on Barksdale's left and with Col. David Lang's Florida Brigade struck Humphreys's front and right. Humphreys's two brigades fought alone and outnumbered and could not hold their position. Humphreys, who loved battle, commanded his troops from horseback on the battle line. Through personality and profanity, he held his men to their work so that a good portion of them fell back slowly and firing. He wrote his wife, "Twenty times did I [bring] my men to a halt and face about...forcing the men to it." And many obeyed.



Thirty-six-year-old Colonel David Wyatt Aiken commanded the 7th South Carolina Infantry. He wrote this letter to his wife from near Hagerstown, Maryland. on July 11, 1863. The 7th South Carolina fought on the Rose Farm near the infamous Wheatfield on July 2.

Well my dearest wife, I wrote you a hurried note in pencil about three days ago, but doubt if it has ever yet crossed the Potamac, & even if it has, I know your joy in seeing my handwriting once more will be such, that you will willingly read a reiteration of the contents of my former letter. Well, to begin anew at our first crossing of the Potomac. This was done in the rain on the 26" June. And by the way, this is the only dry day we have had since, or the only day we have not had either heavy dews or rains. We marched reasonably along through Hagerstown, Middleburg, Greencastle, Chambersburg, here taking the right to Cashtown thence to Gettysburg, where we first met the enemy, 1 1/2 miles before reaching the city. Our army, as I wrote you, moved left in front, Ewell's Corps leading the way, and going north from Chambersburg, towards Harrisburg, as far as Carlisle, while Hill & Longstreet went towards Gettysburg. On the 1st July Hill met the enemy, fought & whipt him, driving him two miles beyond Gettysburg to some very high hills or barren mountains, as formidable as Gibraltar. The next night & day Ewell swung around South East marching towards Gettysburg & we (Longstreet) moved to the right of Hill, all the army being in line of battle by noon of the 2d, confronting the enemy with a line running almost due North & South, and perhaps 15 or more miles long. About noon the cannonading began, & by 2 PM we were ordered to advance with the infantry, which we did in fine stile directly in front of the cannon not 1000 yds distant, which immediately began playing on Kershaws Brig, the most exposed, having to advance from behind the stone wall just in the edge of the woods through a large level clover field. Just before we moved a shell struck my color guard, killing two men & wounding three. We moved up though quietly not able to shoot a gun for some time. Presently we came upon the Infantry, the artillery retiring, and then we went at it in earnest. We fought for half hour or more, and drove the enemy for half a mile perhaps, and during my experience I have never seen so much damage done both parties in so short a space of time. I had 18 men killed, several mortally wounded, and about 100 more or less wounded, some twenty only stunned by shells who have already reported for duty. My Regt suffered about as all the other Regts in the Brigd. Sixteen of my men have lost arms or legs. That night we lay on the Battle field, and next morning by daylight were ordered to advance amid the groans of the wounded enemy (our's had been moved back) and over the dead of both parties. We found the enemy had retired to the sides of the rocky mountain, in our front, & had themselves so fortified we could do nothing with infantry. During the fight of the two days we captured about 11,000 prisoners. On the morning of the 3d Genl Lee ordered Genl Picket (a Virg Division that had not been engaged) to attack the most vulnerable portion of the enemy's line, while he shelled their entire line with artillery. Our general line of infantry were then withdrawn to the woods from which we had driven the enemy, about midway between the enemy's and our line. Here we lay down when the cannonading began. We opened 175 cannon at one time, & the enemy replied with perhaps half as many. Some shells badly aimed wounded a few of our infantry (2 of my men,) and I know killed & wounded hundred, if not thousands of the enemy. That night we were withdrawn to our original line of battle, after Lee found he could not dislodge the enemy. Pickett made several brilliant charges, but failed in driving the enemy from their walls. During the 4th everything was comparatively quiet except a cavalry fight on our right & in our sight, which kept McLaws Division under arms in line of battle all day. About 3 PM it closed, and then the gentle rain which had been falling just poured down, all the evening. About 10 PM we got orders to march & in the rain by daylight had only gone 5 miles. All day Sunday, the 5", we were standing about in the rain & mud, getting our waggons in line of march, & sending the wounded back to Williamsport & the prisoners on to the same point. The enemy at the same time fell back but where to I have no idea. We came by way of Fairfield & on directly to Hagerstown. The enemy made several attempts to capture our waggon train, & did destroy a few, but paid dearly for it. We invariably whipt them off, or captured some of their men. We all arrived hereabouts on Tuesday & have been here since. What we are to do next, no one but Genl Lee can tell. I learn he says he intends to fight them again north of the Potomac. I don't know, & hope not, fir I think a fair calculation, will stretch his loss since he crossed the Potomac on the 26" to about 18 or 20,000 men. The enemy's loss must be vastly larger, for we captured 11000 prisoners. The Potomac is swimming & I imagine we will remain here till it falls, & then cross again into Virg., but can not tell. I am sick of Maryland, and never want to come this side of the river again. As a Yankee prisoner told one of my men, we have found a great difference between invading the North & defending the South.


But what of Sickles? When the battle was at its height, he sat his horse at his headquarters' site near the Trostle barn. A Confederate shot, probably fired at a battery along the Emmitsburg Road, whistled in and flicked his right knee. Staff members helped him from his horse, put a tourniquet on his leg, and stretcher bearers bore him to an ambulance that carried him from the field. As he passed back among his retreating men, he puffed on a cigar, raised himself on the stretcher so that they could see him, and urged them to stand firm. That night surgeons amputated his leg.

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