Special Edition: 150 Years Ago Today
The stone marker in the above photo marks the right flank of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry on July 3rd, 1863 at Gettysburg. About one hundred and twenty men defended this section of the rock wall, one hundred fifteen paces in length, to the right flank of the 71st PA near the angle in the wall. The famous “copse of trees” is at the left edge of the photo. One man for every three feet of wall. How did they do that?
At left is detail of a very good map of Pickett’s Charge from civilwar.org. (Click for full map.) It clearly shows the deployment of Smyth’s Brigade. The map also shows Arnold’s Battery of Rhode Island artillery separating the 14th CT from the 71st PA when in fact the left flank of the 14th connected with the right flank of the 71st, “elbow to elbow,” as Sgt. Benjamin Hirst wrote. (According to some accounts, this battery arrived late in the fight and helped repulse only the third and final Confederate line.) The map correctly shows the position of the Sherrill’s Third Brigade in reserve behind Smyth’s.
Sgt. Hirst was deployed as a skirmisher across the Emmitsburg Road when the battle opened. I leave the description of the fight entirely to him (spellings are his own):
About noon commenced the Fiercest Cannonading I ever heard, the shot and shell came from Front and Right and Left. It makes my Blood Tingle in my veins now; to think of. Never before did I hear such a roar of Artilery, it seemed as if all the Demons in Hell were let loose, and were Howling through the Air. Turn your eyes which way you will the whole Heavens were filled with Shot and Shell, Fire and Smoke. The Rebels had concentrated about 120 Pieces of Artilery upon us and for 2 long hours they delivered a Rapid and Destructive fire upon our Lines, Principally upon the old Second Corps whom they desired to attack.
To add to all this was our own Batteries in full Blaze, every shot from which seemed to pass over our heads; it was a terrible situation to be in between those two fires; how we did Hug the ground expecting every moment was to be our last. And as first one of us got Hit and then another to hear their cries was Awful. And still you dare not move either hand or foot, to do so was Death.
Our fire began to lose its vigour…and as the Smoke lifted from the Crest we saw our Guns leaving one after the other and soon a terrible stillness prevailed so that you could almost hear your heart thud in your bosom. But what means that shout of derision in our Front. Up men the Rebels are upon us, there they come a Cloud of Skirmishers in front, with one, two, three lines of Battle, stretched all along our Front with their Banners flying, and the men carrying their Pieces at trail Arms. It was a Glorious Sight to see, Rebels though they were. They seemed to march as though upon Parade, and were confident of carrying all before them.
We take to our feet; we are driven in, but not in confusion. Sometimes we about Face and return their Skirmishers ﬁre. But still we fall back up the Hill and over the Wall bringing our wounded with us. As we fell into line Brigham fell in with Company A on account of getting cartridges for his Sharps rifle. About one-half the regiment had this rifle. And now We have a short breathing spell and can Note the Intense anxiety depicted on every countenance. The Fate of the whole Army now rests with you.
“Don’t Fire until you get the order, and then fire Low and sure.” It is the Clear Voice of Gen. Gibbon as he rides along the Line, and gives a word of cheer to each Regiment as he goes along. A few more words from Gen. Hayes, and our own Gallant Major Ellis runs along the Line, “Ready, up with our Flags, Aim, Fire.”
And time it was too, for the Rebels seemed to me to be within 150 yards of us, just crossing the fences on the Emmitsburg Road, and we could hear their Ofﬁcers pressing them on to the charge. Fire, Fire, Fire, all along our Line. There opened upon them such a Storm of Bullets, Oaths and Imprecations as fully satisﬁed them we had met before, under circumstances a little more favourable to them. Give them Hell.Now We’ve got you. Sock it to the Blasted Rebels. Fredricksburg on the other Leg. Hurah, Hurah, the ﬁrst Line is broken. Never mind who is Hit. Give them Hell again. And soon the second Line is sent Howling back after the ﬁrst one.
“Right Oblique! Fire!” “Left Oblique! Fire!” And the supporting Colums are thrown in disorder and soon seek safety in Flight. At this time a great number of the rebels threw up their hands in token of surrender and we allowed them to come in, disarming them as they reached the wall. Others defiantly essayed to advance, but opposite the old Fourteenth, none could get over a low rail fence a short distance in front of the stone wall without our permission.
The color bearer of the 14th Tennessee, with not a man of his regiment within a rod of him advanced steadily until he reached this fence, when he rested his colors before him, then drew himself up to his full hight, looking us calmly in the face. There he stood for several awful moments, when the sharp crack of two or three rifles fired simultaneously sent his brave soul to its Maker.
Just as the color bearer of the 14th Tenn. was shot, several of our men jumped to their feet with the intention of getting the colors but were restrained by the ofﬁcers until Major Ellis buckled his side arms upon Sergt. Major Hincks and gave him the preference of bringing them in.
Then you ought to have heard the Exhultant Shouts of our Brave Boys as the whole Rebel Force gave way in utter confusion leaving thousands and thousands of Killed, Wounded and Missing in our hands. What a sight it was, where but a short time before had stood the Flower of the Rebel Army in all the Pomp of Pride and Power was now covered with Dead in every conceivable Posture, and such a Wailing Cry, mingled with Groans of the Dying is past conception. Oh for a thousand or two fresh men to charge upon the discomfited Foe, and push them Home. Could this have been done the Southron Army might have been Anihilated.
One man for every three feet of wall. How could so few ever have expected to defeat wave after wave of Confederate infantry? Hirst’s description provides several clues. His deep distrust and loathing for most officers has been replaced with respect and admiration. There is belief in the cause and belief in victory. There is anger in his words about the enemy, but there is determination to see the foe defeated. He also mentions the Sharps rifles. With half the regiment armed with these rifles, they would have produced the effective firepower of two or three times their number. So rapid was their firing that their rifles became almost too hot to handle.
The following image is of Mort Kunstler’s “High Water Mark.” A detailed examination reveals that the Union men in the foreground belong to the Fourteenth Connecticut and that they are armed both with Sharps and Springfield rifles. Click on the image to visit the artist’s website and read his description of the painting.