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GETTYSBURG - THE SOLDIERS VIEW

This article is the result of a trawl through some of those books and personal experience, including a visit to the battlefield, with a view to helping re-enactors to have a better understanding of those who fought so long ago. As in the first article in this series (ACWS Newsletter 116), this is the battle from the soldiers' viewpoint, how they felt, what they saw, what they did and why they did it, as well as the terrain and other useful snippets.

To follow on from the first article, we will have a brief look at the soldiers themselves who made up the armies in July 1863, as compared to those of July 1861. Overall there was not such a great deal of difference in the fighting capabilities of the individual soldiers; the vast majority on either side were veterans. The bulk of what there were of green or unblooded soldiers and units were on the Union side. But, by this time most of the soldiers knew and trusted their company and Regimental officers; those not up to the job were gone or dead. Names such as The Iron Brigade or The Stonewall Brigade were known with pride and honour, hard won on many a bloody battlefield. Both armies were at the peak of their effectiveness, never again would the soldiers of either side attack with such elan, or stand their ground with such ferocious determination.

This is mainly the story of 2 men who left us their personal accounts; one a Confederate Colonel of Infantry, the other a Sergeant of Sharpshooters. These 2 men typify the struggle, what this article will try to do is make their words mean something for us as re-enactors, to enable us to portray those gallant men as they deserve. What is fairly unique here is that these men did directly, though unknowingly, oppose each other throughout the late afternoon and evening of the second day. Much of the article is therefore from the Confederate perspective, interspersed with the Union viewpoint.

Col William C Oates1 commanded the 15 Alabama (15AL) and, for part of the engagement of 2 July 1863, he also commanded the 157 officers and men of the 47 Alabama (47AL). His account deals fully with the march to and the battle from the Confederate perspective. Sgt Wyman S White2 of Coy F, 2nd Regiment United States Sharpshooters (2 USSS) gives us a more sparse account of his march and battle. Chronologically then this is the engagement of the southern flank on 2 July 1863.

2 USSS had arrived in the Gettysburg area, as part of Gen'l Dan Sickles Third Corps, late on 1 July and were deployed as 2 Battalions in a skirmish line west of the "Round Tops" along a front of 800 yards, a man every 5 yards. They faced the Emmitsburg Road, with Coy F around Slyder's Farm2. They waited for the Confederate battle line for several hours.

15AL had however, marched at least 25 miles since 4am that day, before they arrived in the Confederate rear around 2pm. They were then marched around to the right flank before getting an hours' rest around 3.30pm.Col Oates had lost some 50 men to heat exhaustion and sent a detail from each coy for water, they had not returned before his Regt was given the order to advance east. His men were tired, hot and very thirsty.

At this point Col Oates was given command of a second Regt, the 47AL, numbering 157 men1, he later estimated his own strength as "2 Field officers, 49 Company and Staff officers and 644 men2, less those lost to heat exhaustion". His primary mission was "flush a troublesome detachment of Sharpshooters out of some woods"3 and then find and take the Union left flank. Initially 15AL was the centre of Laws Brigade of 5 Alabama Regts, but a redeployment put the 47 and 15 AL on the extreme right flank on the Confederate line. Col Oates now detached a Coy of skirmishers for flank protection; these later became lost and took no further part in the battle. Neither did he get his water detail back, as they not only got lost, but were also captured.

In the baking July heat Law's Brigade crossed the Emmitsburg road and advanced east, into the "galling" fire of "Stoughton's Second Regiment US Sharpshooters, posted behind a fence at or near the southern foot of Great Round Top"1. The Sharpshooters saw "a solid mass of Rebels spilled over a ridge to our front and over the Emmitsburg road"2. Here we come across one of the most common errors made by soldiers throughout the world and the ages, Sgt White estimated that the enemy outnumbered the sharpshooters by 90 to 1 or more, the odds were, in fact, closer to 10 to 1; later that day, Col Oates made the same mistake. The next part of the engagement appears to be almost textbook like, the Confederate battle line advanced and the Union skirmish line, unsupported, withdrew firing as it went. The sheer number of attackers meant that while the sharpshooters did indeed inflict casualties, they also suffered; "but with all our advantage our loss was considerable"2. The first part of Col Oates' mission was "done in short order though not without galling casualties,"1 500 breathless men reached the summit of Big Round Top, now unopposed. Col Oates himself remarked "My men in the ranks suffered greatly for water"1. Sgt White on the other hand, never mentioned water at all during his narrative, suggesting that it was not a problem for him and his fellows.

Now for the first time a disparity becomes evident, despite their elan and spirit, the Confederates are very tired, very hot and very thirsty, Col Oates remarked later that this lack of water was crucial in the defeat suffered by his regiment. The Union troops they faced may have been somewhat tired, but they had not marched so far or so fast, and water did not seem to be a problem.

The following battle for Little Round Top is well know to us all, however, in the light of the film, which again most if not all are familiar, a point needs making. 20th Maine (20Me) occupied a spur which jutted out into the saddle between Little and Big Round Top, not as the film showed, a hillside. The steepness and rocky nature of the ground is similar to the hill behind the big house at Margam Park, though not as high or as open. What this meant for 15AL was even as they extended right forcing 20 Me to refuse their left, they still had to attack up a steep slope against troops on a flat ledge. In addition the film showed 15/47 AL attacking up a long fairly shallow slope, this again does not reflect the reality of the ground. From the top of the saddle between the round tops, to where 20 Me's colours stood, was no more than 50 feet although they stood some 20 feet higher. After one assault Sgt White, now fighting with 83rd Penn on 20 Me right flank, stated "I do not think they fell back very far, as the trees, rocks and underbrush covered them from our sight"2; the woods are in fact somewhat thicker than shown in the film.

A private of 20 Me described the fighting as "a terrible medley of cries, shouts, cheers, groans, prayers, curses, bursting shells, whizzing rifle bullets and clanging steel. The air seemed alive with lead. The lines at times were so near to each other that hostile gun barrels almost touched"3. Both sides reported several examples of hand-to-hand fighting as the battle line swayed back and forth. Running low on ammunition and men Col Chamberlain of 20Me ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge3.

At the same time as 20 Me resolved to charge, the fog of war, coincidence and stress, (caused no doubt by seeing his brother fall mortally wounded moments before) caused Col Oates to misread the situation. He had just received word that both his flanks were in the air and worse still, 2 new regiments of Union infantry were coming up on his right when Company B of 20 Me with some 15-20 Sharpshooters, not engaged during the battle so far, began to fire into his threatened right flank. He first told his men to stand their ground and almost immediately changed his mind to order a retreat. Whether it was his order as he states,1 or the famous charge, the Alabamans "ran like a herd of cattle."4 This was the pivotal point of the battle showing that even veteran troops have their limits. The long march, the heat and thirst had as much to do with the defeat of the Confederate attacks, as did the charge of 20 Me at the same time as the arrival of the apparent reinforcements; who turned out to be the 2 now reorganised battalions of Sharpshooters, each with a Battle Flag, and therefore appeared as 2 fresh regiments in the smoke and confusion. Col Oates succumbed to heat exhaustion shortly after ordering the retreat and was carried from the field by 2 soldiers, thus preventing his almost certain capture.

Following the withdrawal of the Alabamans down to the area around the Devils Den, both sides caught their breath and surveyed the carnage in the gathering dusk. Col Oates stated that "The long and rapid march, the climb of Great Round Top's rugged front without water impaired it's (15AL) power of endurance, but it fought hard and persistently until ordered to retreat."1 It would be fair to say that both sides fought equally hard, but as so often happens, most of the advantage lay with the defender, and never was it exploited so decisively. "Both sides were whipped and all were mad about" a Texas private explained afterwards.5

In Summary, Col Oates found that his initial orders did not match the actual situation, but he lacked the authority to act on what he did find. At least 5 Coys of 47 and 48 AL missed the battle; 2 Coys of 15 were also detached and almost all of one of those was subsequently captured. The loss of the water detail was very significant in the light of the long march, the heat and the terrain. The fog of war, the heat and his own physical condition contributed to his confusion at a critical point of the battle. At 3am on 2 July Col Oates commanded over 400 officers and men, they were joined by 157 men of 47 AL and reached the summit of Big Round Top with still over 500; as the sun went down he mustered 19 officers and 223 men.1 Oates was singled out by author Shelby Foote5 as the only senior Confederate officer to act with any initiative, as opposed to that shown by several Federal generals when faced with difficult situations.

2 USSS were faced by 7 Inf Regts on approximately an 800-yard front and were a mile in front of the main Federal battle line at the start of the engagement. Deployed as 2 battalions of 2-4 Coys, they were outnumbered by between 10 and 20 to 1. They were described as "A perfect hornet's nest" by an unnamed Confederate soldier.2 The losses of the regiment are not known but it is suggested2 that they suffered similar casualties to the first Regiment's 89 killed and wounded during the whole battle.

In all, the Confederates marched and fought as hard as ever they did; commanded by aggressive and very competent officers, they did all that men could do. But for the first time in it's history, the Army of the Potomac felt that it's Commanding General and his subordinate commanders knew what they were doing, a belief that their actions confirmed. Fighting for only the second time on their own ground, the Federal veterans responded with skill and matched the ferocity of their opponents. No-one ever doubted the men in blue could fight, but for the first time in the Eastern theatre they were led by generals who knew how to fight, and most importantly knew that they and their men could win given the chance. Thus, unfortunately for the Confederate Cause, the Army of the Potomac came of age on the field of Gettysburg.

As re-enactors we cannot know "the storm of shot and shell", but the noise, smoke and confusion are a shared experience. I would suggest that as happened in reality, we take our casualties slowly but steadily throughout a skirmish; perhaps more wounded could trail to the rear (possibly to be regenerated later). To be authentic requires sacrifice; to wear wool or heavy jean cloth in high summer shows the extent we all are willing to go to, so it should not be too hard to miss the odd part of a battle. Heat and stress can be just as real for us as it was for them, but not an excuse not to take a hit. Officers take note, we can't all be Col Oates, but he's as good as any model to start with.

References:

  1. Eye Witness to the Civil War - Gettysburg by Lt Frank A Haskell USA, and Col William C Oates CSA. Published by Bantam Books, New York. September 1992. ISBN 0-553-29832-1
  2. The Civil War Diary of Wyman S White, edited by Russell C White, Copyright 1991 John R White, published by Butternut and Blue, Baltimore 1993. ISBN 0-935532-26-X.
  3. Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, (The Civil War), Time Life books, Series Published by Time Incorporated USA, 1985. ISBN 0-8094-4758-4.
  4. Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, his famous Sharpshooters and Their Sharps Rifles, Wiley Sword, Man at Arms Monograph Series No 3, Published by Andrew Mowbray Inc., Lincoln RI 1988. ISBN 0-917218-37-X.
  5. The Civil War, a Narrative, Vol 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian, by Shelby Foote 1958, Published by Pimlico, London 1991. ISBN 0-7126-9807-8.

Above Article by Nic Cole, 2 USSS


The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, October & December 2001