Gettysburg Day One: “A Portrait of Hell” The Collapse of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s Divisions at Blocher’s Knoll

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Note to readers: This is another of my articles on the battle of Gettysburg.  

Oliver Howard’s XI Corps had a bad reputation in the Army of the Potomac through no fault of its commander. Composed mainly of German immigrants the corps was on the extreme right of the Union line at Chancellorsville with its flank exposed. It was hit unexpectedly by Jackson’s Corps and routed, its soldiers fleeing as Howard and other commanders tried to rally them. The action earned the corps the derisive nickname “the flying Dutchmen.”

As the battle along McPherson’s and Seminary Ridge continued between Hill’s Third Corps and the Union I Corps and Buford’s Cavalry Howard’s Corps deployed to cover I Corps flank. Howard sent two divisions forward under the command of Major General Carl Schurz. The divisions Schurz’s Second division temporarily under the command of Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelpfennig, one of the brigade commanders and the First Division under the command of Brigadier General Francis Barlow were small divisions of just two brigades apiece. Schurz estimated that the two divisions numbered “hardly over 6,000 effective men when going into battle….[1]

schurz

Carl Schurz

Schurz intended to bring these two divisions into line each with one brigade forward and one in reserve. Schimmelpfennig’s brigade was placed at a right angle to the flank of Robinson’s division and it was his intention that Barlow’s division “extend Schimmelpfennig’s front facing north” keeping Ames’ brigade as a reserve in the right rear “in order to use it against a possible flanking movement by the enemy.” [2]

However Barlow did not comply. Barlow was a 29 year old Harvard law graduate and Boston Brahmin was well connected politically with the more radical abolitionists of the Republican Party and had an intense dislike of Democrats. He came from a family well entrenched in Boston society and though he became a competent soldier and was promoted to Brigadier General after Antietam and was convinced to command a division in XI Corps by Howard after Chancellorsville. He soon regretted his decision. Barlow was to use modern terminology somewhat of an elitist and snob. He “disliked the beery and impenetrable Germans in his division as much as he disliked Democrats.” He admitted that he had “always been down on the ‘Dutch’ & I do not abate my contempt now.” [3]

barlow

Francis Barlow

Barlow was the only non-German division commander in XI Corps and he had little regard for Schurz. Instead of following Schurz’s direction he advanced Colonel Leopold Von Gilsa’s small brigade with two sections of artillery to a small knob of high ground known as Blocher’s Knoll. Instead of maintaining Ames’ brigade in reserve and to the right to guard against a flanking attack he deployed it facing slightly northeast on the right of Von Gilsa’s brigade. It was to be a costly error. Schurz noted:

“But I now noticed that Barlow, be it that he had misunderstood my order, or that he was carried away by the ardor of the conflict, had advanced his whole line and lost connection with my third division on the left, and…he had instead of refusing, had pushed forward his right brigade, so that it formed a projecting angle with the rest of the line.” [4]

There are still debates as to why Barlow advanced but one of the most likely explanations is that he saw the unprotected left of Brigadier General George Doles’s brigade of Georgians from Rodes divsion and wanted to strike them in the flank. [5] However this left his own flank exposed to the attack of Brigadier General John Gordon’s brigade of Early’s division.

gordon

John Gordon

Gordon’s troops hit the exposed right flank of Von Gilsa’s brigade and that force rapidly cracked under the fierceness of the Confederate assault. Jones’ artillery battalion “enfiladed its whole line and took it in reverse” [6] supporting Gordon as well as Hays and Avery’s brigades as they advanced. One Confederate recalled “it was a fearful slaughter, the golden wheat fields, a few minutes before in beauty, now gone, and the ground covered with the dead and wounded in blue.” [7]

As Von Gilsa’s brigade collapsed Gordon “focused on the exposed right flank of Ames’s brigade” and Doles fell upon its left and “Ames’s outnumbered troops also collapsed” [8] even as he advanced his brigade to support Von Gilsa’s now fleeing troops. Ames took command of the shattered remnants of the two brigades when Barlow, attempting to rally his troops fell badly wounded. Barlow would be assisted by Gordon who had one of Early’s staff “carried to the shade” of a nearby farmhouse. [9] Barlow recovered and “he and Gordon established a friendship that lasted for the remainder of their lives.” [10]

barlow and gordon

Schurz attempted to recover the situation by extending Schimmelpfennig’s division to the right, and advanced his reserve brigade under Polish born Colonel Wladimir Krzyzanowski to support Barlow counterattacking against Doles’s brigade. However they too were rolled up in the Confederate assault, both of Krzyzanowski’s flanks received enfilading fire and the brigade fell back across the Carlisle Road toward an orchard on the north side of Gettysburg.” [11] During the retreat the 157th New York sacrificed itself leaving over 75 percent of its men on the battlefield. Krzyzanowski described the scene as “a portrait of hell.” [12]

Harry Hays brigade of Louisianans joined the assault on the collapsing Federal right while on the left Schimmelpfennig’s line collapsed and the Prussian joined his troops in retreat. Inside the town he was unhorsed and in order to avoid capture “took refuge in a woodshed, where he remained in hiding the next three days.” [13]

Howard, looking for relief from Major General Slocum’s XII Corps sent the First Brigade of Brigadier General Adolph Von Steinwehr’s division from Cemetery Hill to support the fleeing men of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divsions. The small brigade of about 800 soldiers under the command of Colonel Charles Coster advanced through the town to a brickyard on the outskirts of the town. They were hit hard by Hays and Avery’s brigades of Early’s division; Avery’s which took them in the right flank. Both flanks turned by the advancing Confederates [14] Coster’s brigade too broke under the pressure leaving many prisoners to the Confederates. The commander of the 134th New York exclaimed “I never imagined such a rain of bullets.” [15] Coster survived but resigned from the army a few months later never having filed and official report. [16]

Barlow was acrimonious toward his troops who he had so carelessly exposed to the Confederate onslaught. He wrote “We ought to have held the place easily, for I had my entire force at the very point where the attack was made….But the enemies [sic] skirmishers had hardly attacked us before my men began to run. No fight at all was made.” [17] However this statement is not backed by others on the Union of Confederate side. Henry Hunt wrote that it was “an obstinate and bloody contest” [18] while Gordon wrote:

“The enemy made a most obstinate resistance until the colors of the two lines were separated by a space of less than 50 paces, when his line was broken and driven back, leaving the flank which this line had protected exposed to the fire from my brigade. An effort was made by the enemy to change his front and check our advance, but the effort failed and this line too, was driven back in the greatest confusion with immense loss in killed, wounded and prisoners.” [19]

A private of the 61st Georgia Infantry of Gordon’s brigade wrote the XI Corps troops “stood firm until we got near them. Then they began to retreat in good order. They were harder to drive than we had known them before….Their officers were cheering their men and behaving like heroes and commanders of ‘the first water’” [20]

xi corps

Their right now uncovered by the retreat of the XI Corps the battered I Corps survivors fell back through the town onto Cemetery Ridge.  There they and the remnants Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divisions were rallied by Howard and the recently arrived Major General Winfield Scott Hancock around Colonel Orland Smith’s fresh and dug in brigade and a substantial amount of artillery.

[1] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.288

[2] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.181

[3] Ibid. Guelzo. P.181

[4] Green, A. Wilson. From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.77

[5] Ibid. Greene p.78

[6] Hunt, Henry The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Bradford, Neil Meridian Press, New York 1989 p.363

[7] Ibid. Greene p.79

[8] Ibid. Greene p.79

[9] Ibid. Guelzo p.188

[10] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.141

[11] Ibid. Greene p.80

[12] Ibid. Guelzo p.186

[13] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.477

[14] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.241

[15] Ibid. Trudeau p.241

[16] Ibid. Guelzo p.190

[17] Ibid Greene p.79

[18] Ibid. Hunt The First Day at Gettysburg p.365

[19] Report of Brigadier General J. B. Gordon, CSA, commanding brigade, Early’s Divsision, in Luvaas, Jay and Nelson Harold W editors. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg South Mountain Press, Carlisle PA 1986 p.45

 

[20] Ibid. Greene p.79

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