Artillery should always be placed in the
most advantageous positions … Napoleon1
The organizational changes made in artillery, combining the batteries into battalions and brigades, the high level of experience the cannoneers had by the time the battle was fought, and the relatively open countryside made Gettysburg the fiercest artillery struggle of the war. These factors also made the battle around the Peach Orchard an action that was "dominated" by the artillery, and one that many referred to as the most intense counterbattery clash of the war.2
The first hour of action near the Peach Orchard was almost exclusively an artillery battle, in which the Confederate field pieces attempted to soften the Federal defenses – especially their artillery – before the infantry assault. A substantial portion of the Federal line, fronting south and stretching from the Peach Orchard to the stony hill, was held by an impressive row of cannon – Ames’, Thompson’s, Hart’s, Clark’s, Phillips’ and Bigelow’s batteries, thirty-two guns. These field pieces greatly strengthened the Federal line, and although they could not hold back the infantry alone, they served to inflict significant damage on the enemy forces, delayed and altered troop movements and dispositions, and disrupted communications
110 Artillery Action in the Peach Orchard
(including inflicting casualties in the officer corps).
For the Federals, we see the presence of three key artillery officers, each having a hand in the tactical deployment of guns that day. First, was Captain George Randolph, the chief of artillery for the Third Corps. He probably made the most significant gun placement on the field when he sent Smith’s Fourth New York Independent to the ridge at Devil’s Den. Here they provided a converging fire to damage Henry’s and Cabell’s guns, and also caused problems for the Confederate infantry when on the attack. Before completing his deployment, Randolph conferred with General Henry Hunt, who used his expertise in directing the captain in the remaining gun placements. But Hunt’s main contribution was his Artillery Reserve. By making the guns available to the Third Corps, he dramatically increased the firepower and defensibility of the salient.
The final Federal artillery officer, Colonel Freeman McGilvery, was probably the most significant in exercising tactical command that afternoon. Colonel McGilvery placed his artillery brigade and then, most importantly, directed their firing. A major advantage of the brigade system was in its potential for concentrating fire. This not only meant deploying guns in a specific location, but also focusing them on specific targets. McGilvery’s efforts in directing his command to fire on individual batteries appears to have been a significant factor in the Confederates’ disproportionate losses.
When artillerists were engaged in battle, they naturally wanted to exchange fire with the batteries on their immediate front, those shooting at them. But, as we have seen, there were advantages to concentrating the fire of several batteries on one target. First, by firing at an angle the relative size of the target increased, enhancing the potential for damaging the enemy’s guns (see Diagram 9-2) Second, there was the psychological impact of focusing on a single target. General Gibbon wrote of this tactic, "the moral effect produced by such a result being still more terrible than the physical."3 Freeman McGilvery maximized the effectiveness of the Union batteries by coordinating their fire against specific targets.
McGilvery also ordered his guns to disengage their counterbattery action and shell the infantry as they advanced. In some cases the artillerists did not immediately notice the targets. Thus, McGilvery’s
For the Confederates, the most significant figure in directing the artillery was Colonel E. P. Alexander. This engagement, however, was not Alexander’s finest hour. In fact, his batteries failed in the mission assigned to them, to neutralize the Federal artillery before the infantry assault, despite having several key advantages over the Federals.5
The first advantage for Alexander was occupying a superior position.6 His guns were deployed on a wider arc and the Federals on a salient, giving the Confederates the advantage of converging fire. Second, because the Federals occupied a salient they were more vulnerable to enfilade fire, thus increasing the effectiveness of the Confederate shots. Third, because Alexander’s guns were in position before the Federals, they had the potential advantage of superior firepower, especially at the beginning of the cannonade. The Federals had to bring the majority of their guns in line under fire.7 Fourth, there was a tree line behind the Confederates’ row of guns that helped provide cover for their limbers and caissons.8 Finally, the Confederates also had the advantage of having their ammunition reserve "close at hand behind the ridge."9
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, these factors were
not fully exploited. In fact, most of Alexander’s potential supremacy was
nullified by his failure to immediately and fully deploy his artillery.
Had he placed all of his guns at the beginning of the engagement, his prospect
for damaging the Federal batteries would have increased substantially.
As already discussed, the failure to put all of his guns in line reduced
the quantity and quality of his fire, allowing the enemy to suffer less
112 Artillery Action in the Peach Orchard
The decision for partial deployment apparently hinged on two factors: one, Alexander underestimated the Federal resistance, and second, he wanted to have cannon available for a grand artillery charge. The first factor seems ironic in the face of his later comment, "The Federal artillery was ready for us in their usual full force and good practice." Concerning the second factor, Alexander stated, "But we only had a moderately good time with Sickles’s retreating corps after all." The effect of his grand artillery charge was disappointing.10
Overall, Alexander’s artillery was less than effectively handled and he failed to accomplish his primary tactical objective, neutralizing the Federal guns in the pre-assault cannonade. For the Federals, their new artillery brigade system and Hunt’s increased control over the artillery arm enabled the Union batteries to accomplish their objective, occupying and disabling the Confederate cannon and adding to the defensibility of the Third Corps line. They outperformed the Confederate artillerists in the cannonade, inflicting significant damage to the enemy while sustaining no net loss in their own guns.
During the actual infantry assault, Alexander’s guns performed excellent service. They accomplished the difficult task of supporting infantry on the offensive, with the highlight being how they increased their fire on the Peach Orchard just after the initial Confederate assault was repulsed.11 Their fire also took General Sickles out of action, causing confusion and decreased morale in the rear. Alexander’s batteries also managed to advance quickly with the infantry and dropped trail in time to fire on the retiring Federals.
Overall, it was the presence and effectiveness of the
Federal artillery that had the more dramatic outcome on the battle. Hunt’s
cannon knocked opposing guns out of action, battered infantry formations,
slowed assaults, changed dispositions, separated commands and injured possibly
the best tactical commander on the field, General John Bell Hood. They
also plugged important gaps in the line. If not for McGilverys’ guns, Kershaw’s
Brigade could have swept to the rear of Humpreys’ line, making the entire
Third Corps position untenable. Additionally, Colonel McGilvery later assembled
a row of guns that were the only significant defensive force for several
hundred yards. Without the presence of the Federal batteries, especially
Artillery Action in the Peach Orchard 113
plied by the Artillery Reserve, it seems unlikely that the Federals would have held their line on July 2, on the southern end of the field.
But still, one has to look at this artillery battle and
wonder, what if Alexander had fully deployed his guns? If all of his guns
had been in position sooner, could they have substantially damaged the
line of artillery that played such a key role in defending the Third Corps
salient? One thing is for certain: Alexander failed to give his forces
their best opportunity for success. His decision to hold back so many guns
and to delay the deployment of others meant that his cannon did a mere
fraction of the damage they could have. In a day’s action that is still
surrounded by questions, this has to be near the top of the list: What
would have happened if Alexander had fully deployed all of his guns, especially
at the beginning of the engagement; could this substantial increase of
firepower have made a difference in a struggle that was so close to being
a Confederate victory?
Alexander’s Gun Deployment
during the Pre-Infantry Assault Cannonade
|Manley’s Battery||4||Initial deployment|
|Fraser’s Battery||4||Initial deployment|
|section||2||Did not deploy (2 Napoleons)|
|Carlton's Battery||4||Initial Deployment|
|Latham’s Battery||5||Initial deployment|
|Bachman’s Battery||4||Did not deploy (4 Napoleons)|
|Garden's Battery||4||Did not deploy (2 Napoleons)|
|Reilly’s Battery||6||Initial deployment|
|Woolfolk’s Battery||4||Did not deploy # (2 Napoleons)|
|Jordan’s Battery||4||Did not deploy #|
|Gilbert’s Battery||4||Second deployment|
|Moody’s Battery||4||Second deployment|
|Parker’s Battery||4||Second deployment|
|Taylor’s Battery||4||Second deployment|
|Total number of guns||59|
|Total in Initial deployment||25||42% of available guns|
|Total after Second deployment||41||69% of available guns|
Alexander’s forces probably fought for the first half of the cannonade with just over 40% of their available pieces in action, until he finally committed part of his battalion. Overall, Alexander allowed over 30% (18 of 59) of his guns to sit idly by, not participating in the cannonade.
*McCarthy states that the was originally ordered to remain in reserve but had those orders changed. He probably put his guns in line just after the first deployment. See O.R. Vol. 27, Part II, 379.
# Possibly had deployed in time to fire a few rounds