July 2nd at Gettysburg Pt. 4: The Confederate Storm at Devil’s Den

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 fourth 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,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Men_of_Granite

Fix bayonets my brave Texans

The delays had taken a toll on the Confederate plan. By the time Hood and McLaws divisions were in place along with Anderson’s division from Hill’s Third Corps it was nearly four o’clock. Throughout the day the senior commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia had made a thorough mess of their chances for success, but when the attack began it blew into the Federal forces like a violent storm as the Confederate troops fell upon the soldiers of Sickles Third Corps.

However, the Confederate assault was marred by still more command and control issues, the most important which happened in Hood’s division.. “Contrary to orders Hood had moved his division away from the Emmitsburg road for the purpose of taking Little Round Top and outflanking the Union position on the heights of Devil’s Den.” [1] Riding in front of his old Texas brigade, Hood called out “Fix bayonets my brave Texans…forward and take those heights.” His loyal troops responded to their former commander, and cheered his words in response: “Follow the Lone Star Flag to the Top of the mountain!” Cried the lieutenant colonel of the 1st Texas, and there “arose such a wild indescribable battle yell that no one having heard ever forgot.” [2]

McLaws had waited until Hood’s troops advanced across the rough ground that separated his division from “Smith recalled that his guns “tore gap after gap in the ranks of the Confederate foe.” Robertson agreed, reporting that as his brigade advanced through the intervening fields, “for half a mile we were exposed a heavy and destructive fire of canister, grape, and shell” [3] Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. As Hood’s division moved forward it came under artillery fire from the four 10 pound Parrot Rifles of Captain James Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery on Houck’s Ridge above Devil’s Den and it began to sustain casualties. . Among the earliest to fall was John Bell Hood who was badly wounded when a shell “exploded above his head, and one of the fragments tore into his left arm.” The arm would have to be amputated and as he was taken away by stretcher-bearers recalled that he experienced “deep distress of mind and heart at the inevitable fate of my brave fellow-soldiers, who formed one of the greatest divisions of that world-renown army….” [4]

The absence of Hood would create a leadership void in his division as it made its attack on Devil’s Den and Little Round Top as his successor Evander Law was deeply engaged in leading his brigade in its epic fight at Little Round Top, and not able to influence or coordinate the attacks of the remaining brigades of the division. Coordination “between the brigades soon dissolved. Regiments in Law’s Alabama brigade veered apart, and a gap formed in the center of Jerome Robertson’s Texas Brigade. While these units angled toward the Round Tops, behind them, moving towards Rose’s Woods and Devil’s Den came the pair of Georgia brigades under Henry Benning and George T. Anderson.” [5] Order broke down, and soon control was at the company commander level or lower, “Every fellow was his own general,” a Texan later wrote. “Private soldiers give commands as loud as officers, nobody paying attention to either. [6] In the absence of Hood, Brigadier, and feeling the pressure of the situation, General J.B. Robertson commanding the Texas Brigade on Law’s left, took the initiative and sent couriers to Henry Benning and George Anderson “urging them to hurry their brigades to his support.” [7]

As Law’s brigade and two of Robertson’s regiments assaulted Little Round Top, the remainder of Robertson’s brigade as well as those of Benning and Anderson attacked the Federal position on Devil’s Den. There a fierce fight ensued as the badly outnumbered troops of the 124th New York under the command of Colonel Augustus Van Horn Ellis, and the four guns of Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery refused to yield the hill to Robertson and Benning’s troops.

Men_Must_See_Us_Today_Gettysburg

The 124th New York was raised in Orange County New York, and a veteran unit, but it had taken many casualties and during the afternoon of July 2nd 1863 it went into action with just 18 officers and 220 men, in a position just to the left rear of Smith’s battery. The left flank of the 124th was protected by the tiny 4th Maine Infantry and the two remaining guns of Smith’s battery. Captain Smith whose battery had already expended its supply of case shot called out, “Give them she’ll! Give them solid shot! Damn them, give them anything!” [8]

Led by their gallant commander, who against the advice of a number of officers, mounted his horse and further exposed himself to enemy fire, the New Yorkers of the 124th were aware of their critical place on the battlefield. Looking at his Major Cromwell, Ellis remarked “the men must see us today.” [9] Cromwell cried out the order to charge the advancing Texans, and “the New Yorkers rushed down the west face of Houck’s Ridge at the double-quick. The 1st Texas reeled back some 200 yards under the surprise onslaught. “The conflict at this point defied description,” wrote an officer of e 124th. “Roaring cannon, crashing rifles, screeching shots, bursting shells, hissing bullets, cheers, shouts, shrieks and groans….” [10] A Confederate soldier wrote that the battle “was more like Indian fighting…than anything I experienced in the war.” [11] A reporter from the Savannah Republican accompanying Benning’s brigade wrote, “Down the plunging shot came…bursting before and around and everywhere tearing up the ground in a terrific rain of death….[As Benning’s brigade] approached the [Yankee] guns, the rain of grape and canister began! Mingling their sharp cries with the shrill whistle of the mad minnie balls which seemed to come in showers.” [12] The gallant regiment held off several attacks by Robertson’s Texans, and Ellis was killed by a bullet, as was Major Cromwell, and many of their gallant soldiers. “In the savage hand-to-hand fighting among the rocks, men shot at one another from the opposite side of the same Boulder, sometimes so close that clothing caught fire from the blaze of an enemy’s rifle. The high-pitched Rebel yell and the full-throated Federal huzzahs echoed through the rocks as first one side and then the other gave way…” [13]

In his after action report, Henry Benning wrote:

“When my first line reached the foot of the peak, I found there a part of the First Texas, struggling to make the ascent… The part of the First Texas…falling in with my brigade, the whole line commenced ascending the rugged…steep [incline] and, on the right, crossing the gorge. The ground was difficult – rocks in many places presenting, by their precipitous sides, insurmountable obstacles, while the fire of the was very heavy and very deadly. The progress was, therefore, not very rapid, but it was regular and uninterrupted….” [14]

With their supporting infantry considerably weakened, Smith’s guns were in danger. Some of Robertson’s troops had reached the base of the hill and taken cover behind a stone wall where they could take Smith’s artillery men under fire. Smith “could no longer depress his guns sufficiently to hit the Rebels. Occupying the low ground and using boulders for cover, the Confederates began to pick off Smith’s gunners. Smith “saw it would be impossible…to hold my position without assistance” and fell back…but the loss of artillery support was the beginning of the collapse of Sickles left flank.” [15] To the left in the Plum Run Valley, which later became known as the Valley of Death, the 4th Maine and Smith’s remaining guns fought off attacks by Robertson and Benning’s brigades before being forced to retreat. With his left now threatened Brigadier General Hobart Ward dispatched the 99th Pennsylvania to protect it, thinning his lines to do so. The Pennsylvanians of the 99th as well as men from the 124th New York, and the 4th Maine launched a counter-attack which succeeded in regaining the lower section of Houck’s Ridge. A soldier of the 99th recalled the moment his unit entered the fight, “Above the crack of the rifle, the scream of shells and the cries of the wounded, could be heard the shout of for “Pennsylvania and our homes…” [16] The cost had been great, but the ridge had been retaken from it the Union men rained fire down on the Alabamians below them in the Valley of Death. Hood’s men occupied Devil’s Den and secured a small lodgment on Houck’s Ridge which enabled the assault on Little Round Top to continue.

In a sense the fight at Devil’s Den was a victory for the Confederates as they had forced Ward’s troops from the position, but the human cost had been high among the men of the assaulting regiments. Robertson was wounded and had to be carried from the field, and most of the field officers of the Texas brigade were either killed or wounded leading their troops in the fight. Historian Harry Pfanz wrote, “The hard fighting at Devil’s Den, together with the sinister character of the spot, gave it a hallowed place in American history that might actually exceed its actual significance.” [17]

Robertson’s Texans and some of Law’s Alabamians surged up the slope of Little Round Top. But the sacrifice of the New Yorkers and Maine men was not in vain, they had helped buy the needed minutes for the soldiers of Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade to arrive at the summit of Little Round Top, and Confederate casualties had been very heavy even before they attempted to scale the heights of Little Round Top.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.402

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg, the Last Invasion p.256

[3] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.166

[4] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg pp.172-173

[5] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.259

[6] Ibid. Foote The Stars in Their Courses p.128

[7] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command p.402

[8] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.273

[9] Ibid. Pfanz The Second Day at Gettysburg p.293

[10] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg pp.273-274

[11] Ibid. Foote The Stars in Their Courses p.128

[12] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage p.342

[13] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.211

[14] Luvaas, Jay and Nelson, Harold W. Editors The U.S. army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg, South Mountain Press Incorporated, Carlisle PA 1986 p.99

[15] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.166

[16] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage p.345

[17] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg, the Second Day

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