Monday, April 29, 2013

Clinging to the Stone Wall

When I have a chance to get down to Gettysburg and spend some time on the battlefield, I prefer using my legs rather than a car, and I try to find quiet places away from tour traffic. Of all the many areas to explore, I've always rated the Wheatfield and Rose's Woods among my favorite spots. It's true, Sickles Avenue travels right across the Wheatfield carrying tourists on the two-hour driving tour, or those moving on from an excursion at Devils Den. But you can get away from the main roads bit. The loop out to the Rose Farm fields on Cross/Brooke/De Trobriand Avenues rarely has many visitors, and the old trolly path that works its way up from Devils Den provides a secluded, if often muddy, hike.

I enjoy the many stories of this area of the field. The attacks here resulted in a confusing, see-saw struggle that sucked in waves of reinforcements on both sides, and featured some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. Some 20,000 soldiers fought here on the evening of July 2nd, and 30% became casualties. Today, these woods and fields are filled with many monuments. Some are typical regimental monuments, others a bit more unique. You can find small markers denoting the locations where Lieutenant Colonel Henry Merwin and Captain Jed Chapman of the 27th Connecticut, and Captain Henry Fuller of the 64th New York fell. If you so choose, you can locate the rock where Colonel John Wheeler supposedly fell leading the 20th Indiana, or the rock marked with an "X" that Colonel John R. Brooke allegedly stood on to better observe Confederate forces arrayed against him. Non-military stories abound as well. You can walk in the footsteps of Alexander Gardner and his crew of cameramen where they recorded their famous death studies. Or you can visit the Rose farm, read J. Howard Wert's description of the landscape he saw here after the battle, and contemplate the ruin and destruction that awaited John Rose when he returned to his home. One marker on the Stony Hill denotes the location of an advanced aid station set up behind a group of rocks and boulders by surgeon Z. Boylston Adams of the 32nd Massachusetts. Just yards from the firing line, the close proximity of this station provided swift medical care for wounded soldiers, and likely saved lives. Today it's a great place to interpret medical care on the battlefield. Of all the many interesting markers and monuments in the Wheatfield area though, my favorite has always been the 17th Maine's. The artistry of this monument conveys to the viewer important details about the experiences of the men in the ranks on the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863.

17th Maine Monument in the Wheatfield. Note the
stone wall in rear of the monument. Photo by Jenn
Creative Commons Licensing.
Dedicated on October 10, 1888 and designed by the Hallowell Granite Company, the twenty-foot high regimental monument sits astride the stone wall at the southern edge of the Wheatfield. On top is a statue chiseled out of white Hallowell granite that features an infantryman resting behind a stone wall  with the rifle at the ready, peering into Rose's Woods. The stone wall represents the very wall that still stands today at the southern base of the monument. The wall was included in the design of the monument to reflect its importance to those that clung to it for cover during the battle.

The regiment entered the battle on July 2nd with 350 men commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Merrill, a 36-year-old lawyer from Portland. Initially deployed on the Stony Hill that afternoon, Merrill received orders shortly after the Confederate attack began to take his men across the Wheatfield to fill a gap that existed between the forces on the Stony Hill and Brigadier General J. Hobart Ward's line above Devil's Den. Lieutenant Charles W. Roberts, the 17th's adjutant, later recalled:
The regiment immediately moved by the left flank double-quick through the woods in our front, diagonally across the wheat-field to a stone wall separating it from thick woods beyond, which we found occupied by the enemy, who opened upon us a heavy musketry fire as we neared the wall; but upon reaching it we were well protected and had no difficulty in holding our position against his repeated assaults.
At first, the 17th only faced the right of the 3rd Arkansas, which fired at the Maine men from the cover of rocks and trees. On the rise of ground in the Wheatfield behind the 17th, six Napoleons of Battery D, 1st New York Light artillery began blasting solid shot into the trees over the heads of the Maine men. Two regiments from Colonel George C. Burling's brigade, the 115th Pennsylvania and 8th New Jersey, soon moved into line on the right of the 17th. New Confederate forces also moved into the area with the arrival of Tige Anderson's Georgia brigade to support the 3rd Arkansas. Private John Haley, a 23 year-old mill worker from Biddeford, Maine, reported that as the Georgians pressed their attack "there was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs.... A great number of our own men were sharing the same fate."

The value of the stone wall was as obvious to the men of the 17th Maine as the lack of protection was obvious to Burling's regiments to its right. Lieutenant Roberts understood this:
Lacking the friendly shelter of the stone wall which barely extended to the right of our line, [the force to our right] was unable to withstand the terrific fire poured in upon it and soon retired with the loss of many of its members. Taking advantage of the repulse... the enemy advanced into the ravine evidently with the intention of flanking the 17th Maine. As soon as his object was discovered, Colonel Merrill ordered a portion of our right wing to swing back at right angles with the stone wall in front, and it came within my line of duty to communicate that order to the captains of the several companies, as the rattle of musketry and roar of artillery from a battery near us prevented the voice of our commander from being heard along the line. The movement was promptly executed in the face of a severe fire from the enemy in front and upon our flank, but with heavy loss to the regiment, two of the captains and one of the lieutenants receiving mortal wounds and many of the enlisted men falling under the shower of bullets.
With the right three companies of the regiment now facing west and positioned along a rail fence that ran perpendicular to the stone wall, the fight continued. Anderson's Georgians tenaciously rushed up to the wall, where hand-to-hand combat ensued. A color bearer attempted to plant his flag at the wall, but was driven back. After a fierce struggle, the Georgians fell back to reform, and to seek aid. They found help when the South Carolina brigade of Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw crossed the Emmitsburg Road and approached the Wheatfield from the west. At the same time, Anderson renewed his assault, and the Union line began to fall apart. Kershaw's men flanked the 5th Michigan and 110th Pennsylvania and began to approach the right rear of the 17th. A crisis had arrived. Private Haley recalled the moment:
At this point, while shot, shell, spherical case, and canister filled the air, General de Trobriand, our brigade commander, rode down into the wheat field and inquired, "What troops are those holding the stone wall so stubbornly?" On learning it was the 17th Maine, one of his regiments, he ordered us to "Fall back, right away!" But we didn't bear the order. It isn't often that an order to fall back in a battlefield is disregarded. The old fellow didn't quite comprehend this state of ours. We had good reason for our action. This stone wall was a great protection and the Rebels were straining every nerve to get possession of it for the same purpose. So we held it till our ammunition was exhausted and we had used all we could find on the dead and wounded. If we could hold on until reinforcements or a supply of ammunition came, all would be well. Otherwise, no one could tell what direful woes might befall us.
In their rear, as other units gave way Battery D began to fire case and canister at the Rebel forces. Soon another order arrived at the stone wall, this born by an aide to division commander David Birney, and warning the 17th that they were in danger of capture. "We knew that the moment we abandoned our position the Rebels would seize it," Haley continued, "But we couldn't hold it without ammunition, and as the troops on our right gave way, we saw it was now time for us to go."

Reluctantly giving up their stone wall, the 17th fell back to the Wheatfield Road. They did not stay here long. The rapid withdraw of troops had endangered Battery D, now attempting to withdraw while Confederates in the woods picked off its men and horses. General Birney appeared in front of the 17th and directed it to move back into the Wheatfield to to buy time for the gunners. Lieutenant Colonel Merrill, filing his report on July 5th, recorded that:
With cheers for our gallant commander the regiment moved quickly forward, and pouring into the enemy volley after volley their advance was checked. The contest now was of a most deadly character, almost hand to hand, and our loss was very severe.  In the Color Guard of ten but three escaped uninjured.
While the regiment stood alone along the crest of the ridge in the Wheatfield, Lieutenant Roberts was wounded:
I was struck in the right leg above the knee by a bullet with such force as to throw me upon my face. Colonel Merrill, who was standing near me, immediately cut one of the straps from his sword belt and bound it tightly around my limb to stop the flow of blood, and ordered four of the men near at hand to take me to the rear in a rubber blanket, as the stretchers and ambulance corps were all in use at that moment.... In being carried to the rear I passed through two lines of battle that were apparently forming for the relief of the Third Corps, which had been under fire without support since early in the afternoon. 
 The regiment out of ammunition, and reinforcements at hand, the 17th withdrew and ended its fight in the Wheatfield. The men had stubbornly held to the protection of that low stone wall, and were one of the last organized Union forces remaining in the Wheatfield at the end of the first phase of fighting. In the process, they bought enough time for reinforcements to arrive. Just as the Confederates appeared to have won the field, a new phase of fighting was about to begin.

Today, the infantryman sitting behind the stone wall atop the 17th's monument gives us an accurate image of the 17th's experience, and shows modern battlefield tourists just how important that stone wall was to the course of events that afternoon.

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