Bungled from the Start: Confederate Disaster at Oak Ridge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Since I taking a group of my students from the Staff College to Gettysburg this weekend another excerpt from a chapter of my Gettysburg text. This deals with the badly bungled Confederate attack on Oak Ridge on the afternoon of July 1st 1863. I hope that you enjoy.


Padre Steve+


The 88th Pennsylvania Charging Rodes’ Division

The arrival of Rodes’s division as on the field in the van of the Confederate Second Corps was decisive in turning the tide of the battle toward the Confederates that afternoon. When Rodes arrived with Ewell, the Federal First Corps was facing west against Heth and Pender’s divisions and its line only extended about a quarter mile north of the Railroad Cut.

The Union First Corps and Buford’s cavalry division had fought Heth’s poorly coordinated and led attacks to a standstill, but when Rodes arrived he found “a golden opportunity spread before him.” [1] From his position at Oak Ridge he saw the opportunity to take the Federal troops opposing Hill in the flank though his position did not “provide him as comprehensive view as he thought.” [2] His desire was to advance south along Oak Ridge using it to screen his movements in order to execute an attack on the Federal right flank. But before he could do this “the First Corps Generals had made preparations to oppose him.” [3] Robinson’s two brigades under Baxter and Paul deployed and “hurried in line stone and wood fences approximately at right angles to Rodes proper line of advance.” [4] Rodes could see the deployment but the fences obscured the exact positions of Robinson’s troops from him. Seeing the advance of the First Corps units as well as the emergence of Schurz’s troops from Eleventh Corps advancing out of the town the aggressive Confederate commander decided to launch an immediate attack.


Captain Hubert Dilger

Carter’s artillery, which had deployed in the open and was had “opened an enfilading fire all along the line to the Fairfield road” [5] now drew the fire of Captain Hubert Dilger’s Battery I First Ohio Artillery from Howard’s XI Corps which had just arrived near Oak Ridge. Dilger commanded one of the best artillery units in the army. He was a German immigrant and professional artilleryman who had served in the Grand Duke of Baden’s Horse Artillery. He came to the United States at beginning of the war at the invitation of a distant uncle, to “practice the war-making he had only previously rehearsed.” [6] Dilger was “blunt and a bit arrogant…loved by his men but not by his superiors.” At Chancellorsville he and his battery had helped save the Federal right “when it used a leapfrogging technique to keep the victorious Confederate infantry at bay.” [7] At Gettysburg Dilger again displayed his talent.

Upon its arrival Dilger’s battery opened “a storm of counter-battery fire” [8] on Carter’s battalion as well as the infantry brigade of O’Neal which was near it. The effect of Dilger’s fire on Carter’s artillery disrupted its operation and was successful in blowing up several caissons and guns causing significant numbers of casualties among the men. [9] Seeing the carnage to one battery that he had not placed, Carter “accosted Rodes and asked, “General, what fool put that battery up yonder?” Only to realize after an “awkward pause and a queer expression on the face of all Rodes’ staffers that Rodes himself had placed it there.” [10] In response, the chastised division commander replied “You had better take it away, Carter.” [11] Throughout the rest of the engagement Dilger’s battery would make itself known, shattering Confederate infantry assaults and damaging Southern artillery batteries.



Rodes’ Division attacks Oak Ridge July 1st

The young division commander was overconfident as he ordered the attack. Thinking he had an adequate grasp of the situation he did not order a reconnaissance before launching the attack, nor did the commanders of the brigades spearheading the attack put out skirmishers, the normal precaution when advancing in the face of the enemy. [12] Rodes deployed his troops over the rough ground of the ridge as quickly as he could and dashed off a note to Jubal Early stating “I can burst through the enemy in an hour.” [13] He was to be badly mistaken, and “like Heth in the south, he paid in disproportionate blood for the ready aggressiveness which in the past had been the hallmark of the army’s greatest victories, but now seemed mere rashness and the hallmark of defeat.” [14]

Rodes deployed George Doles’ excellent brigade to guard his left against the advancing Eleventh Corps units until Early’s division could arrive, something he expected momentarily. Doles and his brigade conducted this task admirably until the arrival of Jubal Early’s division, which enabled it to join the attack on Eleventh Corps divisions north of the town. Initially the movement of the brigade opened a potentially dangerous gap between Doles brigade and O’Neal’s brigade to its right, but this could not be exploited by the Federals. To hold this gap between Doles and O’Neal Rodes pulled one regiment, the 5th Alabama from O’Neal.

To make his main attack Rodes initially deployed his division on a one brigade front as they arrived on the battlefield in line-of-march. As the leading elements of the division neared the Federal positions Rodes, made what appeared to be a simple change of plan to “attack on a two brigade front, sending in O’Neal’s and Iverson’s men simultaneously, then following up with Daniel’s brigade in echelon on the right.” [15] Ramseur’s brigade was held in close reserve. In theory it was a sound plan, but everything is more complicated when bullets start flying. The execution of this change in plan was “bungled right at the start.” [16] None of “the three brigade commanders was sure what the signal for the advance would be” [17] and since Rodes had made no reconnaissance, and none of the brigades put out skirmishers the direction of the attack was faulty, units were mingled and a gap developed between O’Neal and Iverson. [18] The attack “though vigorous, was a disaster” [19] and the plan floundered due to the stout resistance of Robinson’s troops and the “nicely matched incompetence of O’Neal and Iverson” [20] neither of who advanced with their assaulting troops.

O’Neal’s brigade became disoriented and “went in with only three regiments and at an angle different from that indicated by Rodes. Instead of leading his troops in the attack O’Neal remained in the rear with the Fifth Alabama, a reserve regiment,” [21] the regiment Rodes had left behind to guard the gap between O’Neal and Doles’s brigades. The last regiment, the Third Alabama had been aligned on the flank of Doles’s brigade and since Rodes had moved it “evidently concluded…that it was no longer his to direct.” [22] When Rodes discovered this he had to send a staff officer to ensure that the regiment was properly attached to Daniel’s brigade. That regiment was thus left out of the initial advance. The attack stalled almost immediately when O’Neal’s three attacking regiments were fired upon by Union troops of Robinson’s division who had been hidden by a wall which had obscured them from Rodes’s view.

Striking O’Neal’s advancing troops at the oblique, Robinson’s battle hardened Union troops slaughtered the unsuspecting Confederates. Though they were outnumbered the Union men were solid veterans from Henry Baxter’s brigade who were aided by Dilger’s artillery which delivered “effective canister fire at O’Neal’s brigade.” [23] The combined fire of Baxter’s troops as well as Dilger’s artillery “killed or wounded about half of the advancing men with a series of point blank volleys pumped directly into their flank.” [24] O’Neal’s decision to remain back with his reserve regiment rather than “going forward to direct the advancing regiments” [25] caused further problems because there was no officer on the spot to direct the action of the three regiments.

Rodes noted in his after action report that O’Neal’s three attacking regiments “moved with alacrity (but not in accordance with my orders as to direction)” and that when he ordered the 5th Alabama up to support “I found Colonel O’Neal, instead of personally superintending the movements of his brigade, had chosen to remain with his reserve regiment. The result was that the whole brigade was repulsed quickly and with loss….” [26] As O’Neal’s troops fell back in confusion they exposed Iverson’s brigades flank to the Federal fire.

As Rodes’s continued bad luck would have it, Iverson, like O’Neal on his right did not advance simultaneously with O’Neal or on the same axis, but instead waited to see O’Neal’s advance. [27] When it advanced, the brigade “about 1,450 strong, kept on under artillery fire through the open field “as evenly as if on parade.” Then its alignment became faulty, and without Iverson on hand to correct it, the brigade with strange fatality began to bear left toward the stone wall…” [28] As a result the brigade drifted right it’s exposed left was subject to attack from Baxter’s and Gabriel Paul’s brigades of Robinson’s division still hidden behind the stone wall.

When the Confederates got to about fifty yards of Baxter’s troops the commander of the 83rd New York, the Swiss born lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Moesch shouted: “Up men, and fire.” Moesch rode behind his line cheering his men on, but they needed no urging. In the words of one of one, “The men are no longer human, they are demons; a curse from the living here, a moan from the dying there. ‘Give them —- shouts one.’ See them run’ roars another.” [29] The well concealed veterans of Baxter regiments slaughtered them as they had O’Neal’s men just minutes before. “One regiment went down in such a neat row that when its survivors waves shirt tails, or any piece of cloth remotely white, Iverson thought that the whole regiment of live men were surrendering.” [30] As the Confederate attack collapsed some “of the regiments in Robinson’s division changed front again, charged, and captured nearly all the men who were left unhurt in three of Iverson’s regiments.” [31] Official Confederate reports list only 308 missing but that number differs from the Union reports, Robinson reporting 1000 prisoners and three flags and Baxter’s brigade nearly 400. [32] As Robinson’s troops smashed the brigades of O’Neal and Iverson, they were joined by the remnants of Cutler’s brigade which changed its face from west to north to deliver more devastating fire into the Confederates.


Brigadier General Alfred Iverson CSA

Iverson was badly shaken by the slaughter and “went to pieces and became unfit for further command,” [33] after being just close enough to the action to observe it. He panicked and notified Rodes that one of his regiments had surrendered in masse though Iverson later retracted that in claim in his official report where he noted “when I found afterward that 500 of my men were left lying dead and wounded on a line as straight as a dress parade, I exonerated …the survivors.” [34] His brigade had lost over two-thirds of its strength in those few minutes, one regiment the 23rd North Carolina lost 89 percent of those it took into battle, and at the end of the day would “count but 34 men in its ranks.” [35] Iverson’s conduct during the battle was highly criticized by fellow officers after it. Accused of cowardice, drunkenness and hiding during the action he was relieved of his command upon the army’s return to Virginia “for misconduct at Gettysburg” [36] and sent back to Georgia. Some complained after the war that Iverson was helped by politicians once he returned to Richmond and instead of facing trial “got off scot free & and had brigade of reserves given to him in Georgia.” [37]

With the center of his attacking forces crushed the brigades of Junius Daniels and Stephen Ramseur entered the fray to the right of Iverson’s smashed brigade. These capable officers achieved a link up with the battered brigades of Harry Heth at the Railroad cut after Daniel’s brigade had fought a fierce battle with Culter’s and Stone’s brigades in the area [38] and allowed the Confederates of A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell’s Corps to form a unified front from which they were able to resume their attack in even greater numbers against the battered remnants of First Corps.

To the east Doles’s brigade advanced with Jubal Early’s division smashed the outnumbered and badly spread out divisions of Oliver Howard’s Eleventh Corps. The timely arrival of that division coupled with the skillful work of Daniel and Ramseur saved Rodes from even more misfortune on that first day of battle, but Rodes’ plan “to burst through the enemy” with his division had evaporated. [39] By the end of the day his division had lost nearly 3000 of the 8000 that it had begun the afternoon.

The battle at Oak Ridge was a series of tactical debacles within a day of what appeared to be a “Confederate strategic bonanza.” [40] Despite the mistakes Rodes never lost his own self-control. He recovered from each mistake and continued to lead his division. He “kept his men on the ridge driving forward until with Hill, and on the flats left joined Early’s right to form a continuous line into Gettysburg.” [41] It was a hard lesson for the young Major General, but one that he learned from. Rodes continued to serve with distinction as a division commander would be killed in action while leading a counterattack by his division against Philip Sheridan’s army at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19th 1864.


[1] Ibid. Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.472

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.170

[3] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.286

[4] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.119

[5] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.286

[6] Ibid Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.208

[7] Gottfried, Bradley The Artillery of Gettysburg Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville TN 2008 pp.59-60 Dilger was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chancellorsville in 1893, part of the citation stating that Dilger: “fought his guns until the enemy were upon him, then with one gun hauled in the road by hand he formed the rear guard and kept the enemy at bay by the rapidity of his fire and was the last man in the retreat.”

[8] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.118

[9] Ibid Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.210

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.170

[11] Ibid. Gottfried The Artillery of Gettysburg p.61

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.170

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.170

[14] Ibid. Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.473

[15] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.197

[16] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.197

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.170

[18] Ibid Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.565

[19] Ibid. Pfanz, Donald Richard S. Ewell p.305

[20] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.120

[21] Ibid. Pfanz, Donald Richard S. Ewell p.305

[22] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.124

[23] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.198

[24] Ibid. Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.473

[25] Ibid Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.565

[26] Ibid Luvaas The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.36

[27] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.132

[28] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.289

[29] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.172

[30] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.134

[31] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.290

[32] Ibid Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.175

[33] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.290

[34] Ibid Luvaas The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg p.37

[35] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.201

[36] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.173

[37] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.136

[38] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.292

[39] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.173

[40] Ibid. Krick Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.138

[41] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.138


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