Monday, October 29, 2012

Combat Leadership: Major Ellis, Captain Moore, and the 14th CT (Part 1)

Monument to the 14th Connecticut that stands in front of the remains of the
earthwork driveway that led to the second floor of the William Bliss Barn.
Photo by Author.
In my first entry in the combat leadership series, I will take a look at the 14th Connecticut and their storming of the Bliss house and barn on the morning of July 3rd. For a full account of actions on the Bliss Farm throughout the battle - you should pick up Elwood Christ's "Over a Wide, Hot,...Crimson Plain" - The Struggle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg, July 2nd and 3rd, 1863. This book is an excellent micro-tactical study, and one of my favorite books on the battle.

For Major Theodore G. Ellis - commander of the 14th Connecticut - the rising sun arrived too soon on July 3rd, 1863. Major Ellis probably received little or no rest the preceding evening. His regiment - organized in New Hartford in 1862 - passed the night in line of battle along Cemetery Ridge. Sergeant E.B. Tyler of Company B recalled his experience:
That night as we lay, our knapsacks plumb up to the base of the stone wall and pillowed our heads thereon, not being allowed to divest ourselves of any other arms or equipment, we sought for the rest and sleep we so much needed. Arnold's Rhode Island Battery just to the left of us finally quieted down, although I think we could have slept notwithstanding that, but when suddenly there rang out volleys of musketry, the roar of artillery, and the rebel yells of the Louisiana Tigers over on East Cemetery Hill, every vestige of sleep was dispelled and every man on the qui vive for there is something weird, mysterious and almost unearthly in a sudden night attack. Then came the clattering of mounted messengers, the clear ringing of orders of Carroll, as with the First Brigade of our division, they rushed across the cemetery to the relief of the Eleventh Corps.
If possible, Captain Samuel A. Moore - commanding the 14th's Company F - got even less rest. His company, along with Company A, had spent the night on skirmish duty west of the Emmitsburg Road. As dawn came Captain Moore and his men fell back to the main line along Cemetery Ridge, relieved by B and D companies. So far the 14th - part of Colonel Thomas A. Smyth's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps - had avoided major combat duty at Gettysburg. That would change on this third day of the battle.

Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, commanding the 3rd Division, continued to face a strategic problem within his sector of the Cemetery Ridge defensive line. About six hundred yards west of his position and situated on a slight rise sat a frame house and a large two-story barn built of stone and brick. These buildings belonged to William Bliss, and since mid-morning on July 2nd they had been the center of a protracted struggle between Union and Confederate forces. The buildings rested almost exactly in the center of the opposing sides at this point of the line, and in the middle of a wide plain with little cover. Whichever side controlled the Bliss Farm had an excellent spot to annoy and harass the infantry and artillerists on the opposing ridge.Though federal forces had controlled the buildings at several points on July 2nd, at the close of the fighting the buildings rested within Confederate lines. They remained under Confederate control as the day began to heat up on July 3rd. By 7 a.m. the temperatures had already reached the mid-70s. The soldiers faced another hot, muggy day. While the roughly 40 men in companies B and D vied with Confederate marksmen in the wheatfields south of the Bliss buildings, the other eight companies of the regiment lay quietly in line of battle on the ridge, supporting the guns of Capt. William Arnold's Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, positioned just to the south.

General Hays could not allow the Confederate occupation of the Bliss buildings to stand. The return of daylight also brought the return of sharpshooter bullets along Cemetery Ridge, fired by rebels posted in those buildings, the barn in particular.  This fire earned the increasing wrath of Capt. Arnold and his gunners, who had endured the annoyance on July 2nd as well. He complained to his infantry supports,  and at an early hour  - perhaps 8 a.m. - Hays ordered 5 companies of the 12th New Jersey to storm the house and barn. The 12th had carried the buildings the day before, and now they attempted to do so again. Unfortunately, though the New Jersey soldiers did chase the rebels out of the buildings, they could not establish firm control, and abandoned the Bliss property and fell back soon after recapturing it. By mid-morning, Confederate marksmen had returned to the farm.

The sharpshooters soon resumed playing upon targets along Cemetery Ridge, and General Hays determined to make one last attempt to take the Bliss buildings. This time - he turned to Major Ellis and the 14th Connecticut. At about 10:30, Ellis received his orders and returned to his regiment to prepare for action.

A rough sketch for the reader's reference using a modern satellite image from Google Maps.
At this point, it is useful to pause and consider in detail the task assigned to Major Ellis and the obstacles he faced. The mission appeared relatively simple: take, and hold, the Bliss buildings 600 yards in front of the main Union defensive position. For this effort, Ellis had 8 companies, roughly 120 men. We might also wonder what intelligence Ellis had concerning the Confederate strength at the Bliss farm. In terms of direct observation - he likely learned little. A broad flat knoll that rose up directly in his front on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road screened Confederate forces north of the Bliss buildings from view at his particular observation point. Other sources of information remained available - though we do not know if Major Ellis took advantage of it. Certainly, federal soldiers on the skirmish line might have had a better vantage point to gauge the enemy strength. The recently returned 12th New Jersey could also have provided valuable information.

We can use a modern military terrain analysis method, OCOKA, to consider the challenges Ellis faced:

A view of the broad flat knoll taken from the area of the Bliss
Farm and looking toward Cemetery Hill. The fence line in the
middle distance follows along the path of Stevens Run.
Photo by Author.
Observation and Fields of Fire
The knoll west of the Emmitsburg Road limited observation of Confederate forces. However, this would improve as his men crossed over the knoll. West of the rise the ground sloped gradually down to a small stream - Stevens Run - and then sloped gradually up to the Bliss buildings. This ground was a wheatfield - relatively flat - and provided open fields of fire.

Cover and Concealment
The area over which the 14th advanced would provide little cover of any note. As soon as they crossed over the knoll the men would face the fire of the rebel marksmen holed up in the Bliss buildings. As a result this advance would have to move quickly. There was no place to stop. On the other hand, the same knoll that limited  federal observation could work in the 14th's favor. The hill would conceal their advance from the Emmitsburg Road for a time. A swift and sudden attack could catch the Confederate forces unaware.

The 14th would have to scale the fences at the Emmitsburg Road, but this would occur before they had come into view of the Confederate forces at the Bliss Farm. The rest of their route was open wheat fields with no obstacles. Stevens Run - the stream that ran in front of the Bliss Farm, was too small to be considered a great obstacle. The barn itself perhaps proved the greatest obstacle. Regimental Historian Charles Davis Page described it as follows:
The barn was a rambling structure, seventy-five feet long and thirty-five feet wide. It was a solid oak frame incased by a stone wall one story in height, and then of brick. It was plentifully supplied with doors and windows and hastily made apertures. It was indeed a vertible fort. It became known to the boys as the "bank barn," so called by having an earthwork driveway extending from the sill of the second floor and sloping gradually back to the level ground. The Confederate sharp-shooters were not long in seeing the advantage of this improvised fort and soon every window, door and crevice showed the protruding muzzles of long range rifles ready to do their deadly work.
Though perhaps an obstacle to the advance, the barn (and house to a lesser extent) could soon become a trap for Confederate forces if the 14th moved quickly enough.

Key Terrain
View of Cemetery Ridge from the barn site. Note the "Copse of Trees" at right,
and the orchard in the left background. On the morning of the 3rd, the 14th
was positioned in this orchard. Photo by Author.
Perhaps the difficulty of holding the Bliss Farm (for both sides) can be explained by the lack of key terrain in the immediate vicinity. The buildings themselves served as the only cover on an expansive plain, but no other strongholds enabled either side to anchor the Bliss buildings into a strong forward line. If anything, the broad flat knoll to the east of the buildings perhaps gave a slight advantage to Federal forces. While it did not dominate the Bliss buildings, it somewhat concealed federal operations from Confederates on the farm. The buildings themselves rested equidistant from the two most important terrain features in this sector - Seminary and Cemetery Ridge. This fact alone accounted for the struggle of both sides to control the property. 

Avenues of Approach
The open nature of the ground meant that the buildings were easily approached from all sides. The 14th's easiest avenue approach, because of the knoll that concealed their advance, was directly from the area of the Brian farm.

Major Ellis moved the 14th north along Cemetery Ridge, turned down Abraham Brian's farm lane to the Emmitsburg road, and divided his force into two wings. The left wing, consisting of four companies commanded by Capt. Moore, would charge directly over the knoll and attack the bank barn. The remaining four companies  under Major Ellis would hold at the road in reserve, and await developments.

In my next post, I'll discuss the assault and its consequences.

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