"the Slaughter Pen"

Action at the Slaughter Pen and at the south end of Houck's Ridge
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2 July 1863

by Kathleen R. Georg Harrison
Gettysburg National Military Park

Devil's Den. The Round Tops. Slaughter Pen. Few words evoke instant recognition of the fighting at Gettysburg in 1863 as these do. Perhaps only the Angle and the Wheatfield rival them for instant association to the battle and the battlefield. The proximity of the four former sites to each other influenced the flow and events of the battle on 2 July 1863, and neither can necessarily be treated by narrative or physical development without considering the relationship and impacts to the integral parts. At various times the renown of each of the four sites has ebbed or magnified. The Round Tops and Slaughter Pen were photographed by those early chroniclers of the battlefield before the month of July 1863 dissipated--O'Sullivan, Gibson, Gardner, and Brady. Devil's Den was not. While Little Round Top retained its prominence because of the very, nature of its visibly tactical importance, the Slaughter Pen slipped into obscurity, aided by annual growth of foliage which occluded it as little more than part of Big Round Top's natural environment. The group of boulders at Devil's Den, on the other hand, was and has been assigned more significance than its battle relationship accorded it, and has become a premiere battlefield stop because of its geological attractions and stories of swarms of sharpshooters. Who could resist walking and clambering about this maze of immense boulders on a summer afternoon; who could not appreciate those legends of venerable American ancestors, plying their frontier trade with the squirrel rifles?

Yet the history of this small segment of the battlefield will show that the Devil's Den proved to be more of a hindrance to movement and position and was not an asset to either Union or Confederate armies of Gettysburg. The tide of battle flowed around this bulwark, and any who stood on its huge boulders too long became an eventual target. The southwest end of Houck's Ridge, above Devil's Den, and not Devil's Den itself, was the anchor of the Federal defense by the Third Corps. The position of Smith's New York Battery, and of those infantrymen of the 124th New York and the 99th Pennsylvania should be heralded as the defensive rock and not relegated to a supporting role for the granitic rock beneath them to their left.

The strewn boulders of Plum Run and the Slaughter Pen were a vast graveyard for Confederates from Alabama and Georgia, cut down by artillery and musketry fire from the Valley of Death. It was not Union dead in this valley which gave Plum Run the appellation of Bloody Run-it was the life- blood of Lee's army that reddened the waters, shed while desperately attempting to turn the left flank of their enemy at Gettysburg.

Before these two armies marched to Gettysburg from their different compass points there was a "Devil's Den". Although an early local resident never recollected hearing the specific name in his youth, he had heard stories about the place. He remembered the folks of the immediate farming community calling it "The Big Rocks" and "Raccoon Den" in the early decades of the nineteenth century. And he remembered the stories of the den itself, a cave where a bear resided before its encounter with a passing Indian. [Emmanuel Bushman in Gettysburg Compiler, 19 August 1884] But others of the area had apparently called it Devil's Den since at least the 1840s, and the name was perpetuated in publications by local professor Michael Jacob shortly after the battle. [Gettysburg Compiler, 12 July 1887] The earliest official battle-related reference to Devil's Den appears in the report of Captain James Smith, filed 20 July 1863, in which he refers to-his battery position on the hill at "Devil's Cave." [Official Records, vol. 27, part 1, p. 588] According to John B. Bachelder, later acknowledged as the Government Historian of the battle because of long study of the conflict (dating from 5 July 1863), the name Devil's Den was a local designation antedating the battle. Indeed, the specific name "Devil's Den" was not a general terminology for that cluster of boulders at the southeast end of Houck's Ridge. Devil's Den was not a mass of huge rocks, but was literally a den or cave within the rocks which exists to this day.

Colonel Bachelder stated during testimony, with as much validity for the 1890s as for the 1980s, that:

". . . there is not one in one hundred who go there that ever go near it. The Devil's Den is seldom visited, and very few people know what it is.... The Devil's Den is a hole under ledges in which there is a spring. The front of it is massed by a big boulder, and you cannot see it until you get within ten feet of it. You see the rocks about there, and people go home and say they have seen the Devil's Den, but they have not been within a hundred yards of it. The Devil's Den is seldom visited by anyone. . . . The Devil's Den is not a new name; it was a name given to the locality before the battle. It is a gorge, or rather it is a hole in the ground, and it is very difficult to get into it. There is a spring at its mouth, but those big rocks that stand up there are not the Devil's Den." [Testimony in the case of the U.S. vs a Certain Tract of Land in Cumberland Township, Adams County, State of Pennsylvania; Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 3rd Circuit. October Session, 1894, pp. 289-290]

The spring mentioned by Bachelder no longer flows, perhaps having been filled in or obstructed by later avenue construction But the site still exists. The black, cold recess of the small den still summons up visions of a threatening demon dwelling within the cavern of this ancient stone formation.

The other sites and areas in the vicinity showed the effects of human use and development at that time in 1863, with the exception of Big Round Top. The woods of the Round Top were natural in growth, the owner at one time publicly forbidding any cutting of wood on his portion of the summit under penalty of fine. Little Round Top, on the other hand, had been subjected to the continuing pioneer spirit of taming a wilderness.

Only a year or two before the battle the western face of Houck's Ridge was cleared of marketable or usable timber by its owner. The steep eastern face was owned by Jacob Weikert in 1863; but the western face was owned by Ephraim Hanaway. Hanaway owned the acreage extending westward down the slope of Little Round Top to Plum Run. John Houck had purchased the 47 acres west of Plum Run with a business partner fifteen years before the battle, and apparently had cleared the area from Wheatfield Road southward to Devil's Den and the Slaughter Pen and from Plum Run to his western boundary at Rose Woods and the Wheatfield. Almost the entirety of his 47 acres was clear-cut at the time of the battle. Houck, like Hanaway, lived in the borough of Gettysburg and had no improvements on this township property. He apparently leased it during the growing months to other Gettysburg residents for pasture use of their animals. Another visible indication of man's purposeful hand in this area owned by Houck was the "Fountain Rock" or "Trough Rock." A trough to accumulate rainwater was cut or blasted into the ledge of a large boulder by someone previous to the battle. This large boulder, just north of the comfort station at the present trolley bed appeared in an 1863 O'Sullivan photograph, with the line of the trough clearly visible therein. Perhaps Houck had the trough cut for the animals in the pasture to trap rainwater when Plum Run was low or dry.

The morning of 2 July 1863 most likely dawned over the Round Tops with little indication of the furious activity that would occur there before the same sun set. The previous day, a battle between advance elements of the Southern Army of Northern Virginia and the Northern Army of the Potomac took place some distance north and northwest of the Plum Run area. When the impetus of the flanking attacks of Lee's Southern army dislodged the Union line, the survivors fell back to the heights just south of the town of Gettysburg. During the night, after the conflict ended, more men from both armies approached and took position on the battlefield. On the Union side, cavalry was thrown out as pickets guarding the left flank along the Emmitsburg Road extending from about the Klingel Farm southward to the Rose Farm. The reinforcements from Winfield S. Hancock's Second Corps filled in a line from the Cemetery Hill southward along Cemetery Ridge to the area of Patterson Woods. Donald E. Sickles' Third Corps further extended the line to the left and parts of the Twelfth Corps held the northern slope of Little Round Top that night. When the Twelfth Corps vacated the position in the morning to protect the threatened Union right flank at Culp's Hill, it was assumed that the Third Corps would continue to occupy the left, including the aforementioned north slope of Little Round Top. Indeed, Brig. General John W. Geary stated later that he never would have abandoned so strategic a position as Little Round Top, as ordered, had he not expected to be replaced in line.

The Third Corps line, however, did not replace the Twelfth Corps line, but remained in the extension of the lowlands of the Valley of Death, between Patterson Woods and near the George Weikert Farm. As morning wore on, Sickles became more concerned about the defensibility of his position, because of the elevated grounds to his front and west along the Emmitsburg Road ridge, where enemy artillery could take advantage of his position. Since a heavy force of his skirmishers were already out in that area, he authorized a reconnaissance in force into the woods opposite the Emmitsburg Road ridge to ascertain whether or not the enemy was indeed intending to extend the line in that direction and threaten Sickles' position. When the skirmishers discovered the approach of a Confederate division moving southward, it was enough to convince Sickles to abandon his weaker position and move to the elevated grounds in his front. After noon, Sickles ordered a new line for his corps: the right along the Emmitsburg Road and then turning eastward at Sherfy's Peach Orchard, through the Wheatfield and Rose Woods with the left resting at the southern terminus of Houck's Ridge. Almost 11,000 Union troops manned this mile-and-a-half front; in some laces there was no infantry at all,as at the Wheatfield Road, where artillery filled the line.

The left was defended by troops of Hobart Ward's Brigade -the 20th Indiana, 4th Maine, 86th and 124th New York, and 99th Pennsylvania Regiments, as well as the sharpshooters under Col. Hiram Berdan. The deployment of regimental skirmishers and the sharpshooters would prove to be essential in the defense of Sickles' line. The sharpshooters themselves consisted of fewer than 200 men, but they were effectively strengthened by skirmishers from almost every brigade in Sickles' line, and they were thrown out as much as 300 to 500 yards in advance of the main line, using the stone walls of the Rose, Snyder, and Slyder Farms as breastwork defenses. In the interval between these skirmishers and the line of the extreme left at Devil's Den, were the fields of the Snyder and G. W. Weikert (Timbers) Farms as well as the swampy woodlot of the Sherfy Farm. Most of this low area was swampy and drained into Plum Run, which ran in a north- south direction from the Devil's Den area, and made a gorge or valley at its northern junction at Devil's Den because of the slopes of Big Round Top rising above it to the east. The anchor of Sickles' left was James E. Smith's 4th New York Battery, composed of six 10-pounder Parrott rifles. The chief of the Corps artillery, Captain G. E. Randolph, personally led the New Yorkers to this-end of Houck's Ridge, and ordered Smith to "find location thereon." From the distance created by the huge boulders at the Den to Rose Woods, Smith felt he had insufficient room to locate the entire battery. Therefore he placed two sections only "on the crest" and the remaining two guns in the rear. Since the four front guns could not be depressed enough to cover any Confederate advance through the Plum Run gorge between Round Top and the ridge, the two rear guns were trained on the run's passage through the gorge, to the south and below the southern crest of Houck's Ridge. [James E. Smith, A Famous Battery and its Campaigns, 1861-'@4. Washington: W. H. Lowdermilk and Co., 1892. p.p. 101-102.] The Union chief of artillery himself, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, visited the important position after the guns were deployed to order the front sections to open fire immediately on the guns of Cabell's Battalion, which had been pommelling the Peach Orchard position of Sickles' line, and to draw off some of that fire. Hunt's post-battle assessment was that these shots from Smith's Parrotts "very much interfered with the enemy's batteries, and relieved our right a great deal from their fire." [Committee on the Conduct of the War, Army of the Potomac, P. 40.] The post-battle report from Cabell's Battalion reflected the effectiveness of Smith's fire, in that it was supposed by the Confederates that there was more than one battery opposing their fire from the direction of the "mountain." Since Smith's Battery was the only Union battery on this end of the line during the artillery duel, there could have been only one battery occupying the "mountain," or heights, at the left of Sickles' line, and only one battery opposing Cabell's guns. Col. H. G. Cabell, however, reported that the "enemy occupied a rocky mountain with several batteries" and because of their respective positions he was exposed to "a flanking fire from the enemies mountain batteries." The deadliness and extent of this duel between Cabell's Battalion and the batteries along the Third Corps front was reported ported by this Confederate battalion chief:

The battalion, being first to open fire, received for a short time a concentrated fire from the enemy's batteries. The fire from our lines and from the enemy became incessant, rendering it necessary for us sometimes to pause and allow the smoke to clear away, in order to enable the gunners to take aim. During the same time, two guns were ordered to play upon the batteries on the stony mountains have reason to believe with great effect.

The loss of my battalion was very heavy during this cannonading, Captain [J. C.] Fraser, who had always in previous engagements, as in this, set an example of the highest courage, coolness, and gallantry, fell, dangerously wounded by the bursting of a shell. The same shell killed 2 sergeants and 1 man. . . . [Official Records, vol. 27, part 2, p. 375.]

However, Smith's gunners and his infantry supports were subjected to the return fire, which Smith assessed as "astonishing" in accuracy. [Smith, pp. 101-102.]

In support of Smith was the left of Ward's Brigade of infantry. Immediately to his rear were the "Orange Blossoms" of the 124th New York Infantry and the 4th Maine Infantry Regiments. The 4th Maine originally occupied a place which put the battery to their "front and center," but they would later be removed to a position to the left as the battle progressed. [Maine at Gettysburg, pp. 180-181.] While Smith was later pleased with the performance of his own gunners throughout this "trial of skill between artillerists" [Smith, p. 102.] , observers of the handiwork from the New York Battery were equally positive with their praise. In fact, it is from infantry accounts of Smith's supports that most of the battle history of the battery can be found.

The infantry supports, however, did not have such a glorious record previous to or during this cannonading. Both regiments supporting Smith's Battery admitted negligence on their part of not strengthening their position before a potential attack. The 4th Maine came into position behind Smith and spent its time satisfying a ravenous appetite:

It was now 3 o'clock and my men were hungry, having drank water for supper, breakfast and dinner. Fires were kindled, a heifer was found nearby and slaughtered, coffee was steeped and beef impaled on sticks and warmed over the blaze. We drank our coffee and ate the very rare and thoroughly smoked meat, sprinkling it with salt, of which condiment every soldier carried a little in his pocket. [Maine at Gettysburg, p. 181.]

The heifer may have come from one of three places in the vicinity-the pasture at the lower end of the Wheatfield to their right, the G. W. Weikert (Timbers) Farm to their front, or perhaps from the Houck's Ridge area itself, which was used as pasture. Indeed, the 99th Pennsylvania (who would eventually be moved into the position of the 4th Maine after that regiment was relocated) sent out a detail while on duty in this general vicinity during the early hours of their occupation, to satisfy "the great demand for rations." This detail found a beef and had it killed, but the men never got a chance to eat this one, since the fight began before it could be distributed. [Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, volume 1, p. 537.]

The 124th New York, with its right extending into Rose Woods behind Smith,spent its time before the battle opened conserving its energies for the fight:

We had not yet learned the inestimable value of breastworks, and instead of spending our time rolling loose stones into a bullet-proof line, we lounged about on the grass and rocks, quietly awaiting the coming shock, which many declared themselves ready and anxious to receive. But there were undoubtedly those among us who ardently wished and perhaps secretly prayed that when the battle opened, it might rage the most furiously along some other portion of the line. [New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, p. 868.]

It seems rather astonishing to realize that troops that were assigned to guard the left of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's army were not preparing for a possible attack or flanking movement. But it is most likely that, since there was no evidence of Confederate infantry concentration on their front until Cabell's Battalion opened, the men on this part of the Third Corps line had reason to believe the fury of the attack would indeed rage "along some other portion of the line."

When the 124th New York was subjected to the pre-attack artillery duet, however, the lounging on the ground ceased. The proximity of the New York infantry regiment to the battery drew fire on these foot soldiers as well. According to a member of the regiment, the left company (B) was within about "two rods" of the battery, which was slightly to the left and front of the regiment. When Smith took position in front of them, the 124th was in position to witness their actions:

. . . It was where we could see every movement and hear every order. It had hardly taken position before a rebel battery on the Emmitsburg Road opened on it. Smith's battery responded in gallant style. The rebels then brought two more batteries of six guns each in position, nearly in front of our regiment and not half a mile distant. Their efforts to silence Smith's battery made our position almost untenable. Our Colonel [Ellis] moved us by the right-flank into the woods on which our right rested.

I judge he thought after he had got us in there that instead of the woods being a protection they made our new position more hazardous than the one we had just abandoned. We were soon moved by the left flank back to our old position, Co. B resting within a few feet of Smith's battery. During all this time the cannonading was going on incessantly from 100 pieces along the lines on each side. It lasted for about an hour. There were several casualties in our regiment from the enemy's shells. [A. W. Tucker, "Orange Blossoms," National Tribune (21 January 1886).]

According to both Captain Smith and members of the 124th New York, the firing ended about 3 p.m. "as by mutual consent." [Ibid. Tucker, "Orange Blossoms."] A "breathing spell" of almost half an hour elapsed before additional activity on the part of the Confederates evidenced the attack. On the Confederate side, Hood's Division had barely established position before it commenced the attack. Law's Brigade, among the last to arrive at its line of battle, had marched over 25 miles without rest to reach the field. Immediately upon getting into position the pioneer corps of Law's Brigade passed to the front of the 4th Alabama and proceeded to fell the timber there with their axes. The activity drew Smith's fire, which killed several men in the 5th Texas, just to the left of Law's Brigade. However, one of the batteries of Henry's Battalion, probably Reilly's Rowan Artillery, immediately occupied the newly cleared space and returned fire. [Captain W. C. Ward, "Incidents and Personal Experiences on the Battlefield of Gettysburg," Confederate Veteran Magazine (August 1900), p. 347.]

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