A Grand Sight to Witness: July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 2

sickles peach orchard

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 925 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the second of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the critical battles on the south side of the battlefield on July 2nd 1863, the battle for Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the final repulse on Cemetery Ridge.

As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the what they encountered on the battlefield, for that understanding of people is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,


Padre Steve+

sickles as brigadier

The Problem of Dan Sickles and Third Corps

In the early morning hours of July 2nd 1863, George Meade had instructed Dan Sickles’ Third Corps “to go into position on the left of the Second corps [so] that his right was to connect with the left of the Second Corps, [and] he was going to prolong the line of that corps occupying the position that general Geary held the night before,” [1] that is the area of South Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. However during the night and early morning hours Sickles had not done so. However, Sickles was not comfortable with the position of his corps, especially in relation to the high ground that lay in front of him.

All morning he had been lobbying Meade, through Meade son and Aide-de-Camp Captain George Meade, the Artillery Reserve Commander Henry Hunt, Warren and even Meade himself to adjust the line held by his corps to no avail. Sickles had posted some of Birney’s division to the west of Plum Run near the Peach Orchard as pickets. His left, which should have rested on Little Round Top was located at Devil’s Den while Berdan’s Sharpshooters pushed further west as a skirmish line along with a few regiments of Birney’s division and a few squadrons of cavalry.

Sickles ordered Berdan to lead about one hundred of his sharpshooters into the woods west of the Warfield farm where they engaged part of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade and noticed “three columns in motion in the rear of the wood, changing direction… by the right flank.” [2] The troops were those of Hood and McLaws divisions moving to their start positions from which they would assault the federal left. Berdan reported the Confederate troop movements to Sickles. Additionally, Sickles was also concerned because John Buford’s Cavalry division which has been deployed on the Federal left, had just “been pulled to the rear to be refitted, but not replaced. The horsemen had been supplying him with vital information about rebel dispositions; with mobile reconnaissance now gone, Sickles felt naked and vulnerable.” [3] He believed that it was absolutely vital that he move troops onto the Peach Orchard, and to a hill known as Stony Hill, Houck’s Ridge, and another known by local children by the sinister name of Devil’s Den.

Sickles decided to voice his concerns to Meade and sent his aide de camp, Major Henry Tremain, to report those concerns at Meade’s headquarters. Tremain explained the positions of the Third Corps, as well as the skirmishers, and reminded Meade “that there were no troops on the left of Third Corps, and told him that Sickles had sent General Graham to bring up the two brigades left at Emmitsburg.” [4] Apparently Meade was not concerned and paid little attention to Sickles concerns. Later in the morning Sickles had Tremain take him to Meade’s headquarters where Sickles complained about the position. He noted that “the Ridge dipped slightly just before meeting Little Round Top,” [5] and that there was higher ground in front. Sickles “spoke of his concerns, the poor position assigned to his corps, the advantages of holding the high ground at the Peach Orchard, and his fear of an assault from his front.” [6] Meade seemed unconcerned and Sickles pressed Meade to see the ground for himself. Meade curtly refused to do so, so Sickles asked if “Meade would at least send his chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren? The answer was even more curt: no” [7]

Meade was most concerned about another Confederate assault on his right, and paid little attention to the concerns of the political general. Sickles also asked the army commander “if he was authorized to post his corps in a manner he “should deem the most suitable.” Meade replied, “Certainly, within the limits of the general instructions I have given you; any ground within those limits you choose to occupy I leave to you.” [8] Finally after some discussion Sickles was able to convince Meade to send his artillery chief, Henry Hunt to come with him to examine potential artillery positions for his corps. Had Meade not been so concerned about his right he might have paid more attention to the reports of the Signal Corps station on Little Round Top which as early as noon were reporting the Confederate troop movements being reported by Sickles and Berdan. Scoffing at Sickles Meade allegedly said, “Generals are all apt to look for the attack to be made where they are.” [9]

Hunt accompanied Sickles back to his corps and made a reconnaissance of the ground that Sickles was determined to hold. While Hunt believed that it had some advantages that those advantages were cancelled out by several factors, including the fact that the position would be a salient exposed to enemy attacks from multiple sides, and that the Third Corps “was not strong enough with only two divisions instead of the three possessed by most corps) to hold the new line and also connect Hancock’s flank in the north.”[10] Though Hunt sympathized with Sickles predicament, and recognized the inadequacies along the southern sector of Cemetery Ridge near Little Round Top, he would not authorize the insistent Knickerbocker to advance. He “suggested that Sickles talk further with headquarters, and he now advised Meade to examine the position for himself.” [11] Hunt then left Sickles in order to check on his other artillery dispositions along Cemetery Ridge.

Sickles, who lived with the vision of being ordered off of Hazel Grove by Hooker at Chancellorsville and who had seen what had happened to Howard’s Eleventh Corps when it had its flank rolled up by Jackson, now felt that history was about to repeat itself. Though his requests to Meade and Hunt had been met with a “no,” and while Hunt’s answer might have been more ambiguous, but the answer was still no, unless Meade changed his mind. That did not happen. Hunt made his report to Meade and told Meade that “the proposed line [by Sickles] was a good one in itself; that it offered favorable positions for artillery, but that its relations to other lines were such that I could not advise it, and suggested that he examine it himself before ordering occupation.” [12]

With Hunt gone, and Sickles having heard what he wanted to hear from Meade and the artillery chief, Sickles acted on his own. Sickles was determined not to be victimized a second time by Robert E. Lee and “he was not going to let his men suffer the fate of the Eleventh Corps.” [13] As he continued to get reports from Berdan’s skirmishers of the Confederate build up just to the west of the Peach Orchard, he “took it to mean that the Peach Orchard line that he coveted was about to be occupied by the enemy. At 2:00 P.M., without authorization from Meade, without even informing Meade, he ordered Third Corps forward.” [14]

It was an act of brazen insubordination, but typical of him, and while historians still debate what Sickles did, his action was not entirely without justification. Some of this is directly attributed to George Meade, whose apparent lack of empathy for Sickles’ plight as the commander on the scene, and for “the situation on his front, and so Sickles had taken the bit in his teeth and abandoned the position ordered by General Meade for one that he believed better. He defended his decision and action afterward – aggressively, if not always credibly and honorably – until his dying day, half a century later.” [15] Sickles later wrote: “Impossible to wait any longer without giving the enemy serious advantages in his attack, I advanced my line toward the highest ground to my front, occupying the Emmitsburg Road at the very point where Longstreet hoped to cross it unopposed.” [16] But Sickles, while he certainly believed that he was making the correct move, did not see the second, third, and fourth order effects of his decision on the Union defensive plan. Admittedly, had Meade paid more attention to Sickles’ pleas earlier in the day and not been consumed with concern for the Federal right, the situation might not have come to this. But like in any real world situation the clash between Sickles and Meade was not simply a matter of a disagreement in tactics, but of a profound distrust for one another. Meade, the professional, had little regard for and loathed Sickles the political general, while Sickles, ever the politician, believed that Meade was doing what he could to set him up for failure, and “that Meade had deliberately left him alone in the path of a Confederate landslide, with no cavalry screen and no supports within easy distance.” [17] Some of Sickles’ officers in Third Corps saw the situation in a similar manner. Lieutenant Colonel Rafferty “argued that no attention was paid to Sickles’ concerns and “General Sickles has one sterling quality of a good soldier, – he was equal to an emergency; and left as he was now to the exercise of his own judgement, he was prompt to act.” [18]

About mid-afternoon Sickles advanced Third Corps forward in a “mile long line of battle with waving flags and rumbling batteries rolling west into the afternoon sunlight.” [19] It was a magnificent sight that was inspiring to watch, and perplexing to other commanders Frank Haskell, wrote, “It was magnificent to see those ten or twelve thousand men – the were good men- with their batteries and some squadrons of cavalry upon the left flank, all in battle order in several lines with flags streaming, sweep steadily down the slope, across the valley, and up the next ascent towards their destined position! From our position we could see it all.” [20] Others were equally impressed with the sight that they beheld.

“The eye beheld” wrote an officer of Carr’s brigade, “battery and brigade extended from point to point,” full of “moving columns and gay banners.” It was “a grand sight to witness this little corps of two divisions gallantly move on the advance,” and despite what was taking place on what was after all a battlefield, it all “appeared to be a peaceful review….” [21]

Another wrote, “The sun shone brilliantly on their waving colors, and flashed in scintillating rays from their burnished arms, as with well aligned ranks and even steps they moved proudly across the field. Away to the right, along cemetery Ridge, the soldiers of the Second Corps, leaving their coffee and their cards, where they gazed with soldierly pride and quickened pulse on the stirring scene.” [22] As the troops advanced “the fifteen-piece brass band of the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’ Zouaves) thumped away to mark the time.” [23] Chaplain Joseph Twitchell who had been with the Excelsior Brigade from the beginning wrote, “with a firm step with colors flying the bravest men in the army marched in the open field. It was a splendid sight.” [24] The sight inspired the men, and it was remember by witnesses long after other memories had faded into time.

Sickles advance confused John Gibbon, who watched in amazement from his vantage point on Cemetery Ridge “commanding Hancock’s Second Division on Cemetery Ridge, looked out in amazement and wondered if a general order to advance upon the enemy had somehow missed him.” [25] Gibbon’s Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock saw it too and wrote: “I recollect looking on and admiring the spectacle, but I did not know the object of it.” He “quietly” remarked to his staff, “Gentlemen, that is a splendid advance” and “beautiful to look at.” But he could not imagine that Meade had sanction this parade, and he predicted that “those troops will be coming back again very soon.” [26]

The movement to the Peach Orchard placed the Third Corps nearly a mile in front of his previous position, and opened up a significant gap between his corps and Hancock’s Second Corps. Sickles was now attempting to hold a new line that was nearly twice as long as the position that Meade had designated. By advancing Sickles had “put his corps out of alignment with the rest of the army and exposed his flanks.” [27] The line Meade had prosed was essentially a straight line, only about 1,600 yards long with its left flank anchored on Little Round Top and its right tied in to the line of Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge. It was a manageable front for a small corps of less than 11,000 soldiers. The new front which Sickles occupied was some 2,700 yards long and he did not have enough men to fill it out, or extend it to Little Round Top. Instead he had to anchor his left flank on Devil’s Den, some 500 yards to the front of Little Round Top. Sickles “wanted to hold the road and the peach-orchard hill and to bend the rest of the line back to the Round Tops, and he did not have enough men for it.” [28] The line Sickles created formed a salient, which protruded toward the Confederate line, and it “would be dangerously exposed to attack from two directions – the west and the south simultaneously.” [29] Humphrey’s Second Division aligned itself on the Emmitsburg road facing west and northwest, while “Birney’s division crammed the little orchard with men and guns and extended its line back to the southeast.” [30]

He placed Humphrey’s division along the Emmitsburg Road and extended Birney’s division through the Peach Orchard, a wheat field down to Devil’s Den where Birney ran out of troops. Birney had barley 5,000 soldiers to hold the ground assigned, which stretching in an irregular pattern from the east side of the Peach Orchard, down the Stoney Hill, to Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den, “Charles Graham’s brigade on the right, at the Orchard, Regis de Trobriand’s in the center, and Hobart Ward’s on the right…. At the literal end of the line – the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac – was Captain James E. Smith’s New York 5th Independent Battery, posted on Houck’s Ridge overlooking devil’s Den.” [31] The position on the ridge was so tight that Smith could only deploy four of his six guns on it and was forced to place the other two in the Plum Run Valley, later known as the “Valley of Death,” between Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Despite his good intentions, Sickles had formed an exposed and vulnerable salient which was too thinly manned for its length. It was open to attack on three sides, had little depth, no reserves and no place to fall back to as an alternate position.[32]

While Sickles was deploying his Corps, George Meade called for a conference of his corps commanders at the Leister House. Unable to see Sickles movement as his headquarters was behind and below the crest of Cemetery Ridge, Meade was consulting with various staff members and sending messages to Washington regarding his plans. As such Meade was one of the last to find out about Sickles’ advance.

When John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps arrived Meade sent a message to Halleck informing him “The Sixth Corps is just coming in, very much worn out. I have…awaited the attack of the enemy, I having a strong position for the defensive…. He has been moving on both my flanks apparently. Expecting battle, I have ordered my trains to the rear.” [33] With Sedgwick now on the field, Meade called for a meeting of his corps commanders, sending a circular to each. Sickles received his copy and asked “to be excused, stating that the enemy was in great force on his front and preparing to attack.” [34] Meade refused to let Sickles off the hook and ordered his recalcitrant general to report to the Leister house.

Before Sickles arrived, Gouverneur Warren told Meade that Sickles’ corps was not in position, and the army commander’s volcanic tempter erupted just as Sickles rode up. An engineering officer at the headquarters wrote, “I never saw General Meade so angry if I may call it.” When Meade saw Sickles he ordered him to “retire his line to the position he had been instructed to take.” [35] Meade told Sickles to get back to Third Corps immediately, Sickles recalled that “General Meade met me just outside the headquarters and excused me from dismounting”…. He said that I should return at once and that he would follow soon.” [36] Meade soon followed after he instructed General Sykes of Fifth Corps to shift it “from its reserve position toward the left with all speed, “and hold it at all hazards.” [37] Riding with Warren, the two men saw the empty positions on Cemetery Ridge where Third Corps should have been and saw where Sickles had placed them in front of the line. Warren, most familiar with the section of the line, noted that Third Corps “was very badly disposed on that part of the field,” [38] commented to Meade, “Here is where our line should be,” and “Meade replied grimly, “it is too late now.” [39] Meade later explained, that he was, “wholly unprepared to find it [Sickles’ corps] advanced beyond the line of Second Corps. It’s lines were over a mile and a half out to the front, to the Emmitsburg Road, entirely disconnected with the rest of the army, and beyond supporting distance.” [40]

Meade had been surprised by his subordinate’s unauthorized move, and his “staff served him poorly with respect to the Third corps activities,” [41] the at times crotchety Pennsylvanian did not lose his composure. While Meade went forward to meet Sickles, he sent Warren to check what was happening at Little Round Top and authorized Warren to attend to it and would help save the exposed left flank of the army when he discovered that Little Round Top was undefended.

About the time that Meade arrived at the Peach Orchard, Sickles corps was about to be hit by the full fury and power of Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s First Corps. The Confederate infantry was supported by Porter Alexander who had situated 46 well placed artillery pieces in a perfect position to open fire on Birney and Humphrey’s Third Corps divisions in the Peach Orchard Salient. [42]

When he confronted Sickles in the Peach Orchard, George Meade was visibly perturbed. Looking at Sickles’ dispositions, Meade informed the New Yorker, “General I am afraid that you are too far out” [43] as he attempted to control his temper. Sickles disagreed and said that “if supported, the line could be held; and in my judgement it was the best one.” [44] with support he could hold the position because it was higher ground than what he had previously occupied. Meade then pointed out the obvious stating “General Sickles this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you…” [45] As the conversation progressed Meade told Sickles that “this is neutral ground, our guns command it as well as the enemy’s. The reason you cannot hold it applies to them.” [46]

Sickles now offered to withdraw, and reportedly told Meade, “General, I have received no orders. I have made these dispositions to the best of my judgement. Of course I shall be happy to modify them according to your views.” [47] But as he did so the Confederate cannonade began signaling the beginning of Longstreet’s attack. Meade told Sickles “I wish to God you could,” said Meade, “but the enemy won’t let you.” [48] Another account states that Meade told Sickles “You cannot hold this position but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight, & it may begin at any time now.” [49] Meade later wrote about the encounter, “Having found Major-General Sickles, I was explaining to him that he was too far in advance, and discussing with him the propriety of withdrawing, when the enemy opened fire on him with several batteries in his front and on his flank, and immediately brought forward columns of infantry and made a most vigorous assault.” [50] For Sickles and Meade their exchange in the Peach Orchard on the afternoon of July 2nd 1863 would develop into an acrimonious lifelong feud, with both men and their supporters bending the truth, and sometimes repeating outright lies to defend their actions before Congress, and in the press.

Since John Sedgwick’s powerful Sixth Corps had just arrived Meade ordered it into reserve to replace Sykes’ Fifth Corps which he had ordered, along with division of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps to support Sickles’ Third Corps around the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. Meade told Sickles, “I will send you the Firth Corps, and you may send for support from the Second Corps.” [51] Meade, acting decisively then told Sickles “if you need more artillery call on the reserve!” [52] Henry Hunt heard the conversation and immediately went to work to get as many guns as possible up to support Sickles. It was an action that very likely saved the day, example of Meade taking control of a bad situation, albeit one that he might have prevented by paying more attention to Sickles, but, even so, preventing it from becoming even worse. General Tyler, commander of the Artillery Reserve, “had already sent up the first two batteries Hunt had ordered; now, on his own initiative, the Reserve commander dispatched McGilvery’s First Volunteer Brigade to the scene; Hunt met it on the road and was extremely relieved by its presence.” [53] The guns that Hunt and Tyler had rushed to the front were about to be put to good use in the impending fight.

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.294

[2] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.246

[3] Longacre, Edward G. The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA 2003 p.163

[4] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.90

[5] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.145

[6] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.93

[7] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.247

[8] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.250

[9] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.247

[10] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns p.162

[11] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.146

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.120

[13] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.45

[14] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.252

[15] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.103

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.279

[17] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.246

[18] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.132

[19] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[20] Oates, William C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.168

[21] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion pp.250-251

[22] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.145

[23] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.250

[24] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.145

[25] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[26] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.251

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.355

[28] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[29] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.117

[30] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.288

[31] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.265

[32] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.496

[33] Ibid. Cleaves Meade of Gettysburg p.147

[34] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.139

[35] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[36] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.319

[37] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[38] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is not My Companion p.90

[39] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.320

[40] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.146

[41] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.141

[42] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.289

[43] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.496

[44] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.325

[45] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.251

[46] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[47] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.143

[48] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.263

[49] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.326

[50] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.146-148

[51] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg The Last Invasion p.252

[52] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.497

[53] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns pp.163-164


1 Comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military

One response to “A Grand Sight to Witness: July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 2

  1. Pingback: A Grand Sight to Witness: July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 2 | Smile Circulation

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