Special Edition: 150 Years Ago Today
The Rebel sharpshooters at the Bliss farm, about eight hundred yards in front of the Second Corps line on Cemetery Ridge, started firing as soon as it was light enough to see their targets silhouetted against the brightening eastern sky. The barn was large and strongly built or stone and brick, about seventy-five feet long and thirty-three feet wide. The eaves and roof were wooden and the interior timbers were of oak. As Chaplain Henry S. Stevens of the Fourteenth Connecticut wrote, “It was a paradise for sharp-shooters with long range rifles.”
At 7.30 a.m. July 3rd, five companies of the I2th NJ captured the barn for a second time, and again as soon as they retired, the sharpshooters again took up residence. “At last the thing became intolerable. Then an order was issued (by Col. Smyth) that the building be captured to stay (take and hold), and the Fourteenth, now reduced to about one hundred and twenty men exclusive of those on picket, was ordered to do it.” (Stevens)
Four companies, commanded by Capt. Samuel Moore of Co. F, were detailed to take the barn. It was clearly a perilous task. They marched north to the Bryan farm, then west on a small lane to the Emmitsburg Road. (The photo above shows the old lane and the Bryan farm.). Once across the road it was a mad dash over open ground. “Every man was put to his mettle and ran with all his might for the barn. Nearly six hundred yards were to be covered and it was soon accomplished at such speed, but several dropped on the way.” (Stevens)
This is where the “fog of war” comes into play. Col. Smyth rode with this detail alongside Lt. Seymour (Co. I, 14th CT) as far as the Emmitsburg Road. “If in the event of our capturing the house and barn the rebs make it so hot we can’t hold them, shall we fire (burn) them?” Seymour asked. “We don’t know the word can’t!” Col. Smyth replied, but moments later he amended his order. “If they make it too hot for you,” the colonel said, “burn the buildings and return to the line.” No one else heard this conversation, and almost as soon as the dash to barn commenced, Seymour was struck seriously in the leg and was unable to communicate this last order to anyone.
Capt. Moore reached the barn first, just in time to see the backs of the fleeing Rebels. But the swift seizure of the barn also meant that the Connecticut boys were trapped. Confederate artillery opened up on the barn from only 500 yards. One man was killed outright, others were injured. The remaining four companies on the ridge were ordered to reinforce them and capture the house. Major Ellis commanded this detail. A second mad dash and several more men fell along the way, but most made it through the gauntlet. Some ran for the barn, others for the farmhouse. Now, better than a hundred men were trapped at the farm under constant fire from musket and artillery. But they were men who followed orders. They had taken the farm and they were determined to hold it.” The photo below shows the Bryan farm from the site of the Bliss farm.
Gen. Hays had seen enough. He asked for a volunteer to relay an order to burn the farm buildings to Maj. Ellis. Capt. Postles of Col. Smyth’s staff stepped forward. He was an expert horseman, and his horse was powerful and swift. He thought it a suicidal mission, but spurred his mount across the half-mile of open fields through the crossfire of the enemy fire to the barn. Once there, he kept his horse always in motion, dancing and prancing and rearing to foil the Rebels’ aim, while he shouted the order to Maj. Ellis. Then Postles sped off toward the Union line. Upon his safe arrival this act of individual courage was cheered by both sides.
The barn and farmhouse were soon in flames and the men of the Fourteenth were scurrying back across the Emmitsburg road bringing all their wounded with them, as well as their one dead comrade. Estimates of the total loss to the regiment at the Bliss farm was about thirty.
One final and rather amusing incident was related by Chaplain Stevens. A certain Sgt. DeForest spied a chicken racing about the Bliss farmyard. After a vigorous, though brief, pursuit amid constant musketry and shell fire, the chicken was captured. The victor carried his mouth-watering prize back through heavy fire to Cemetery Ridge, where the chicken was dispatched, gutted, plucked, and put in a large pot to stew for awhile. A short time later two single shots from Confederate guns were fired, signaling the start of the heaviest artillery barrage of the war. DeForest’s friends would have to wait to enjoy their chicken stew..
The Bliss farm site can be found about two hundred yards southwest of the intersection of Long Lane and Sunset Avenue. It’s an easy walk, but check for ticks upon leaving. The photo at left shows the 14th CT marker at the center of the Bliss barn. The inscription reads, “The 14, Regt. Connecticut Vols., A.M. July 3, 1863, Captured here from Confederate sharpshooters the large barn of Wm. Bliss and his dwelling house near and upon retiring burned both buildings by order of the Div. Commander. Centre of barn site.”
A thorough analysis of the fighting around the Bliss farm is Elwood Christ’s The Struggle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg. Chaplain Stevens account may be found in his Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields by the Society of the Fourteenth Connecticut Regiment, 1891, which is available electronically online..