Down East 2013 ©
By Jerry Desmond
During the first three days of July in 1863, the largest battle ever fought in North America occurred in the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. More than 160,000 men from the North and the South engaged in mortal struggle in the third year of the American Civil War. Place names from this battle resonate across time — Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Cemetery Ridge. At many crucial points of time and location on the battlefield, men from Maine were there to stem the Confederate tide.
Once asked why the Confederate Army lost the battle at Gettysburg, General George E. Pickett replied, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.” He should have said those men from Maine had something to do with it. The argument can be made that the eventual outcome at Gettysburg might have been in doubt had these volunteer regiments from Maine not performed heroically in the line of battle.
Approximately 65,000 men from the Pine Tree State joined the Union Army during the Civil War, organized into thirty-three infantry, two cavalry, and one heavy artillery regiments and seven light artillery batteries. At Gettysburg, ten of those infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, three artillery batteries, and a company of sharpshooters participated in the battle. In all they numbered about 3,700 men — lumbermen, fishermen, farmers, textile workers, and even college professors. They stood firm at Gettysburg and helped save the nation.
Remembering their deeds (See attached Map)
(#1) Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery
Of all of the Maine troops at Gettysburg, Captain James A. Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery went into action first. Made up principally of volunteers from Knox County and several other coastal Maine areas, the 2nd Maine Battery arrived mid-morning on July 1 at a crucial moment of the unfolding battle. Earlier, Union cavalry units had engaged Confederate troops along the Chambersburg Pike west of town. As the Maine men unlimbered their cannon, General John Reynolds, commander of the Union Army First Corps, gave Captain Hall, of Damariscotta, a direct order. Noticing a group of nearly twenty Confederate cannon on a ridge to the west, Reynolds told Captain Hall, “Pay your attention to those guns and draw their fire from our infantry while it is forming.”
The battery soon opened fire with its six guns, scattering Confederate troops approaching from the west along the Chambersburg Pike and playing with effect on those Confederate batteries. However, the enemy soon approached the battery’s right flank along an unfinished railroad cut. Once discovered, Lieutenant William Ulmer, of Rockland, turned two guns towards the advancing line and opened up on them with double-shotted canister, forcing them to retire. Soon finding his position untenable, Captain Hall and his men were able to retire to a strong position on Cemetery Hill, where the battery took part in action on July 2 and 3.
(#2) 16th Maine Volunteer Infantry
Never was there a greater forlorn hope than the stand taken by the 16th Maine in the late afternoon of July 1, 1863. Facing overwhelming numbers from two directions, First Corps division commander General John Robinson ordered the regiment forward to “take the position and hold at any cost.” 16th Maine Colonel Charles W. Tilden, of Castine, replied, “You know what that means.” Facing death or capture, his regiment’s sacrifice would buy time as the rest of the division retreated back through the streets of Gettysburg.
Made up mostly of volunteers from Kennebec, Franklin, and Somerset counties, the men of the 16th Maine advanced calmly, as if on parade, to a position facing the Mummasburg Road. Four Confederate divisions attacked the regiment’s line. Within twenty minutes it was decimated and overrun. Rather than surrender their flags, the men tore them into pieces and hid them in their clothing. Many of these fragments eventually made their way back to Maine as sacred relics. Of the 275 who went into battle, only thirty-nine were able to make their way to safety on Cemetery Ridge that night. The rest were killed, wounded, or captured (including Colonel Tilden, who later managed to escape from prison in Richmond).
(#3) Company D, 2nd United States Sharpshooters (Maine Volunteers)
Recruited and handpicked from across Maine, from Island Falls to Portland, the twenty-seven men of Company D, 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters were the best riflemen in the state. As one company in Hiram Berdan’s two regiments of sharpshooters, they had passed rigorous marksmanship tests, were dressed in distinctive green uniforms, and were equipped with the most advanced long-range rifles, some with telescopic sights. They were usually detached for special assignments on the field of battle and were frequently used for skirmish duty.
Led by Captain Jacob McClure, of Rockland, Company D and the rest of the 2nd regiment discovered the turning movement of Southern General James Longstreet’s corps towards the Round Tops on July 2. With extremely accurate and harassing fire, the regiment, in line near the Emmitsburg Road, delayed the advance of the Confederates. Falling back as individual skirmishers, some of the men of Company D fell in with members of the 4th Maine regiment in Devil’s Den. By the end of the day, the company had suffered a 40 percent casualty rate.
(#4) 3rd Maine Volunteer Infantry
By July of 1863, there was not a more veteran regiment in the Union Army than the 3rd Maine. Recruited mostly from the Kennebec Valley, it had left Maine two years earlier with one thousand men. Now with barely more than two hundred men and officers, the regiment arrived in Gettysburg on the evening of July 1 as part of the 3rd Corps commanded by Colonel Moses B. Lakeman, of Augusta.
Early on the morning of July 2, the 3rd Corps advanced to the Emmitsburg Road ahead of the rest of the army under orders from its commander, General Daniel Sickles. Around 11 a.m., the 3rd Maine moved with some U.S. sharpshooters beyond the road towards a dense wood about three-quarters of a mile to the west. There they found and engaged three regiments from Alabama for about twenty-five minutes. Forty-eight 3rd Corps soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured.
Retreating back to the Peach Orchard, the regiment was attacked on its left wing by Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade and then on the right by Barksdale’s Mississippi brigades. Caught in crossfire, the regimental colors were placed to face the new threat. All seven members of the color guard were soon casualties, and the flag was captured by the Confederates. Facing overwhelming odds, the regiment hastily retreated behind a secondary defensive line. Of the 210 men engaged, only 97 men rejoined the brigade that evening (the regiment suffered 122 casualties over the entire three-day battle).
(#5) 4th Maine
Today, visitors at Gettysburg cannot help noticing the open and isolated location of the 4th Maine monument near an area known as Devil’s Den. Its position alone indicates the level of danger faced by the regiment on the late afternoon of July 2.
Formed mostly from Knox County, the 4th Maine was placed to protect a Union battery near a small creek known as Plum Run. Sometime before 5 p.m., the regiment was attacked by soldiers of the 44th Alabama. The men from Maine fired six volleys before the Alabama regiment could form ranks, forcing the Rebels to retreat to the woods. However, they were soon joined by the 48th Alabama. Fixing bayonets, the 4th Maine drove the soldiers from Alabama back. The fighting was fierce and at close quarters. Colonel Elijah Walker, of Rockland, was wounded in the foot but refused to be evacuated. When the order finally came to fall back, he was saved from capture by Sergeant Edgar Mowry, also of Rockland, and Corporal Freeman Roberts, of Jackson.
The 4th Maine flag was pierced thirty-two times by shot and twice by cannon fire. Its staff was broken. However, Sergeant Henry O. Ripley, of Rockland, never let the flag touch the ground. Every other member of the color guard was lost. Following this action, the 4th Maine was held in reserve, having suffered 116 casualties of 332 engaged.
(#6) 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry
The 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered in at Cape Elizabeth in August of 1862 for three year’s service. Made up of men from Cumberland, Oxford, and York counties, the regiment had participated in only two previous battles before going into action at Gettysburg.
Around 4 p.m. on July 2, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Merrill, of Portland, led the 17th Maine into a triangular wheat field in a position about halfway between the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den. Merrill, a thirty-six-year-old farmer and lawyer, halted the regiment along a low stone wall that divided the Wheatfield from Rose’s Woods. There, they were soon attacked by regiments from Arkansas and Georgia, but they were able to hold their excellent position.
When the right flank became exposed by the Confederate advance in the Peach Orchard, however, the 17th retreated to a small rise in the middle of the Wheatfield. With little ammunition left, the 17th was ordered to fix bayonets and force the enemy back over the stone wall. The regiment was finally relieved after more than three hours of intense combat, with more than one-third of the men either killed or wounded. During the Civil War, the 17th Maine would suffer the most total casualties of any Maine regiment.
(#7) 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry
Having only briefly been engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg and missing the Battle of Chancellorsville due to a smallpox quarantine, the 20th Maine, whose soldiers were recruited from every corner of the state, was untested in combat as it took position on the southern downward slope of Little Round Top in the late afternoon of July 2. The position represented the extreme left of the Union line, and the 20th Maine’s commander, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College professor and future Maine governor, had been ordered to hold it “at all costs.” Retreat was not an option. Failure to hold would result in a collapse of the strong position on Little Round Top and, perhaps, lead to a Union defeat.
Soon attacked by regiments from Alabama and a scattering of men from Texas, the 20th Maine withstood a least six different charges in a period of an hour and a half. Running out of ammunition and fearing an inability to hold back another charge, Colonel Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the slope of the hill. Somehow, it worked. The men of the 20th Maine captured several hundred prisoners and advanced to the crest of Big Round Top, where they were relieved on July 3, having suffered 131 casualties in the engagement.
(#8) Stevens’ 5th Maine Battery
The monument to the 5th Maine Artillery Battery stands on a spur of Culp’s Hill, now known as Stevens’ Knoll. It was here at 7:45 p.m. on July 2 that the battery stopped the charge of the famous Louisiana Tigers of Hay’s Brigade of the Confederate 2nd Corps.
The battery had previously been engaged on Seminary Ridge on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Led by Captain Greenleaf T. Stevens, of Belgrade, the six cannons of the battery had helped slow the Confederate advance, allowing the formation of a strong position on Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. Prior to the engagement with the Louisiana regiment, Captain Stevens was severely wounded on the afternoon of July 2 by a sharpshooter’s bullet that went through both legs below the knees. Command fell upon 1st Lieutenant Edward Whittier, of Gorham, who directed the battery’s fire for the rest of the battle. Whittier would eventually receive the Medal of Honor for gallantry during the Battle of Fisher’s Hill in Virginia (1864).
(#9) 19th Maine Volunteer Infantry
The 19th Maine, made up of men from southern and western Maine, was organized at Bath and mustered into federal service for a three-year enlistment on August 25, 1862. As part of the Second Division of the Union Army Second Corps, the 19th Maine participated in repelling the final charge of the Confederate Army on July 2 near the Emmitsburg Road. The next day, the 19th Maine was placed very near a small copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge in line with other regiments. There, with only a small stone wall for protection, it withstood a ninety-minute bombardment of 150 cannon. Then, in what has become known as Pickett’s Charge and is generally regarded as a mistake from which the Confederate Army never recovered, 15,000 Confederate soldiers marched across nearly a mile of open field to attack the Union position.
Colonel Francis E. Heath, of Waterville, was soon hit by a piece of cannon shot. Command fell to Lt. Colonel Henry W. Cunningham, of Belfast, as the regiment engaged in desperate, but brief, hand-to-hand combat. The eventual repulse of Pickett’s Charge ended the Battle of Gettysburg. Of 404 men engaged, the 19th Maine suffered more than 50 percent casualties in two days of fighting.
(#10) 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment
On July 3, General J. E. B. Stuart, leader of the Confederate cavalry, had been ordered to sweep around the Union Army and attack it from the rear. Placed to stop this advance was the Union Cavalry, under General Judson Kilpatrick. As part of the Second Division, Third Brigade, the 1st Maine Cavalry regiment took its position along the Hanover Road.
Made up of men from across the state of Maine, the 1st Maine Cavalry was led by Lt. Colonel Charles H. Smith, of Eastport, who later was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in 1864. Held in reserve, the regiment was not called to service until near the end of the engagement. Following the battle, the 1st Maine Cavalry captured many stragglers and more than two thousand wounded Confederate soldiers. The regiment fought in twenty-nine battles during the Civil War, suffering the heaviest losses of any Union cavalry regiment, losing 653 men to battle wounds, disease, and capture.
Jerry Desmond is a Maine native and a graduate of the University of Maine. He has toured the battlefield at Gettysburg more than one hundred times in the past twenty years. He is the executive director of the Birmingham History Center in Alabama.
Photos: courtesy Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau