At the same time that the 4th Maine was deploying into the gorge, the 99th Pennsylvania was being summoned from Ward's right, in the Rose Woods near the Wheatfield, to take the place of the New England regiment in support of Smith.
And at the base of the hill in front of Smith, where a stone wall enclosed the western side of the triangular field of G. W. Weikert (later Timbers), Confederates prepared to attack Smith. Captain Smith, who had prevailed on General Ward to order Walker to the left and had assured him he could take care of his own front without the assistance of the Maine infantrymen, must have regretted his choice of words. For now he had only the 124th New York in his rear, with the few men of the F Company who remained from Walker's command, and his guns could not be used to fire down so steep a slope.
These Confederates were with Robertson-the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas. The Arkansas regiment, however, was having its own problems and could not devote any attention to the taking of Smith's Battery. The advance had exposed the left flank of the regiment to the concentrated fire from the right of Ward's Brigade (the 20th Indiana, 86th New York, and 99th Pennsylvania) as well as from the 17th Maine in the lower end of the Wheatfield. The 3rd Arkansas was forced to retire to a point almost a hundred yards to the rear in order to "preserve and protect its left flank," and thus uncovered and exposed the left of the 1st Texas. Lieutenant Colonel P. A. Work dispatched Company G of his Texas regiment to assist the Arkansas force in driving back the enemy from "their threatening position on the left. Robertson's left was unsupported, Anderson and Benning being delayed in their movements (according to Robertson, up to one hour). Without the support of troops on his left, Robertson was forced to devote most of his energies and all of those of the 3rd Arkansas to protecting his flank. [Official Records, volume 27, part 2, P. 408.]
This took the momentum out of Robertson's attack on the battery. Yet, these preparations were momentary, and to the Federals on the crest of the hill it seemed as if the Texas regiment had merely halted "a few seconds, as if to catch its breath," before rushing at them "with a fierce, charging yell." [New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, p. 869.]
What followed in the next hour or hour and a half was one of the most desperate encounters on the battlefield of Gettysburg, with close mortal combat between participants for that entire duration. The lengthy but almost bloodless delaying tactics of Brig. Gen. john Buford on the first day of the battle have gained historical significance on the story of the battle; the dramatic and drastic final assault by General Lee on 3 July is known by every school child. But neither of these heralded actions could possibly compare to the upcoming events at the southern end of Houck's Ridge and in the Slaughter Pen. The tide of battle for Smith's Battery changed so often and so rapidly that this action rivals that at the Wheatfield for not only drama and significance, but in confusion of eyewitness accounts and sequential narrative. Whereas at the Wheatfield troops from three Union corps were needed to hold back Anderson's, Semmes', and Kershaw's Brigades, only Third Corps troops were used to hold this vital point against portions of Law and Robertson's Brigades, and later Benning's Georgia Brigade. Five Union infantry regiments alone would be responsible for guarding the left of the line, assisted by the companies of the U.S. Sharpshooters and Smith's gunners. The Union line here never connected with that which developed on Little Round Top to face Law's main force and that of the 4th and 5th Texas. The Plum Run gorge became the soft underbelly of the Union line and the best possible place for the Confederates to exploit a breakthrough which could take Smith's guns from the rear and outflank Ward, and its defense thus became a necessity if the Union line as advanced by Sickles was to remain intact. If Sickles' left fell before supports arrived, it could have meant defeat for Meade's Union army.
Of these six Union regiments (86th New York, 124th New York, 99th Pennsylvania, 4th Maine, 6th New Jersey, and 40th New York) one (86th New York) was primarily involved, in fighting the 3rd Arkansas in Rose Woods and is not within the scope of the area of the study, although its contributions must be mentioned in conjunction with the other five units because of its impact on the defense of Smith's guns in that they drew the power of the 3rd Arkansas from the attack on the guns and caused Robertson to call for assistance from Anderson on his left. It would be Anderson and the 3rd Arkansas that would initiate the spread of the battle all along Sickles' line, beginning at the Wheatfield. The combined Union force defending this original left of the line totalled about 2,300 men, and would face more than 3,000 men from Alabama Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas. [John Busey and David Martin, Regimental Strengths at Gettysburg (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1982), pp. 50, 51, 54, 55, 132, 134.]
So intense was the defense that even the Confederates were impressed. Robertson considered himself outnumbered by five or six times his strength on his own front[Official Records, volume 27, part 2, p. 405.], when at any one time he probably faced no more than equal his numbers, and never twice his strength. Even after receiving support from three of Benning's regiments, Robertson admitted his frustration at being unable to take the position. He believed that as fast as he could break one line of the enemy, "another fresh one would present itself, the enemy re-enforcing his lines in our front from his reserves at the base of the mountain to our right and front, and from his lines to our left." [Ibid.]. As we shall see, the only "re-enforcements" thrown in on Robertson's front were these same four regiments of Ward's Brigade (4th Maine, 99th Pennsylvania, 124th New York, and 86th New York).
Due to the conflicting post-battle reports and the post-war memorial addresses and Histories, it is now virtually impossible to ascertain an unimpeachably accurate picture of the events at Slaughter Pen and Houck's Ridge/Weikert Field. Confederate accounts almost invariably claim an immediate loss by the Third Corps of Smith's Battery-almost every one of the Confederate regiments involved claimed its capture. On the other hand, Union accounts depict the loss only after several repulses of the enemy, as well as intricate movements and counterattacks by themselves, none of which are recorded by the foe. Nonetheless, as the following accounts of the battle in this area are related, it is undeniable that the struggle for the Slaughter Pen and the Houck's Ridge position rival all other conflicts on the battlefield of Gettysburg for importance bitterness, sheer individual heroism, and deadliness.
Smith's Battery became the key to the action in this area. This generalization is all encompassing, including all six guns of the battery-the four at the crest of Houck's Ridge and the two on the hillock behind them near the Wheatfield. The four forward guns were loaded with canister and were used without sponging when the 1st Texas finally undertook its advance. [Smith, p. 103.] The Texas regiment merely reported after the battle that after driving back the skirmishers at the stone wall they then succeeded in "driving back the regiment and silencing the enemy's guns, taking and holding position of the latter." [Official Records, volume 27, part 2, p. 408.] But the defenders on the ridge saw the advance of the 1st Texas differently. When they got within 100 yards of the 124th New York (about 50 yards from Smith's Battery), Colonel Ellis ordered the regiment to fix bayonets, but not to fire a shot until he ordered so. When the Texans reached to within fifty feet of the Parrotts, Ellis ordered the regiment to "up and fire." It was noted that this "crash of riflery perceptibly thinned their ranks and brought them to a stand." In the opinion of a member of Company B, on the extreme left of the 124th New York, "there was never a more destructive volley fired. It seemed to paralyze their whole line." But the Texans were recovering and determined to reach Smith's guns. They returned the fire and "resumed their determined advance." But this first opposition by an infantry volley once again created a loss of momentum and there was no longer the headlong dash with a rebel yell. Their advance was such that they could gain "but a few feet at a time." [New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, p. 869; another account contradicts this in stating that Ellis' command to attack was indicated by a mere nod of his head to Major Cromwell. Tucker, "Orange Blossoms."]
Although neither the Texans nor Robertson mention the following events, the memories of Captain Smith and survivors of the 124th were vivid. Company F of Walker's 4th Maine and Colonel Ellis' 124th New York were needed to save the guns, now near capture. Major Cromwell went over to Colonel Ellis and asked permission to counterattack and lead the regiment against the Texans before they overran the battery, but was denied permission by Ellis, who believed that the defensive fire was sufficient to hold the enemy. But as they approached to within thirty feet or so of the guns at the wall, the officers' horses were brought up. Cromwell mounted against the objection of his friends, wanting to be an example to his Orange County volunteers, knowing that eventually his colonel would order the attack. It was not long after that Ellis gave the command to "Charge bayonets! Forward; double-quick-March!" [Tucker, "Orange Blossoms"; another ac- count contradicts this in stating that Ellis' command to attack was indicated by a mere nod of his head to Cromwell. New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, p. 869.]
The counterattack by the 124th New York was initially led by the impetuous Cromwell, mounted with waving sword, leading the left of the regiment after riding around to the front of Company B. [Tucker, "Orange Blossoms."] With their fixed bayonets, the men of the 124th ceased firing and rushed after their major. Ellis sat still in the saddle above his large iron-gray horse for a moment, as if in "admiration of both his loved major and gallant sons of Orange," but joined the regiment shortly as it rushed "into the thickest of the fray." Lieutenant Colonel Francis M. Cummins, the "old man" of the regiment, went in on foot at the right of the 124th as they swept down the western slope of "Weikert's triangular field.
The conflict at this point defied description. Roaring cannon, crashing rifles, screeching shots, bursting shells, hissing bullets, cheers, shouts, shrieks and groans were the notes of the song of death which greeted the grim reaper, as with mighty sweeps he leveled down the richest field of grain ever garnered on this continent.
The enemy's line, unable to withstand our fierce onset, broke and fled, and Cromwell-his noble face flushed with victory, and his extended right arm waving his flashing saber-uttered a shout of triumph. But it had barely escaped his lips when the second line of the foe poured into us a terrible fire which seemed in an instant to bring down a quarter of our numbers. [New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, pp. 869-870.]
Up to this point the Confederate line had "withered" before the charge; a participant on the left with Cromwell caught the exuberance and assumed the Texans were like "frightened sheep." They watched the Southerners fall back almost 200 yards to a "rail fence" where the supports were just coming up, and where they were rallied by their officers. This rail fence would have been the Virginia worm fence forming the boundary between Sherfy's swampy woodlot and the cleared fields to the west of the Snyder Farm, and the supports would have been the advance elements of Brigadier General Henry L. Benning's Georgia Brigade. According to A. W. Tucker of Company B, at least the left wing reached within 100 feet of this overwhelming combined force at the worm fence.
It was at this line that the Confederates were reorganized and able to effectively contest the advance of the New Yorkers. The fresh line of Georgians combined with Robertson's Texans to pour a "deadly fire" into ranks of the 124th New York. [Tucker, "Orange Blossoms."] It was then that the Union regiment suffered its greatest casualties.
Cromwell's shout of victory was quickly silenced by this "terrible fire which seemed in an instant to bring down a full quarter" of the 124th. Cromwell shouted again; one wonders what emotion the shout reflected-fear, anger, encouragement, surprise? The chronicle does not shed any light on the nature of the shout, but the witness remembered the form of his major "amid the fire and smoke" yet waving his saber. Soon thereafter, however, Cromwell fell with a bullet through the heart, tumbling backwards out of his saddle as the New Yorkers began their flight uphill towards the battery. Ellis called to his volunteers, "My God! men! Your major's down; save him! Save him!" The New Yorkers turned and rallied, causing the initial attack by Benning and Robertson to waver and then retire slightly at its suddenness; but they soon reformed and continued a frightful fire into the line of the Orange Blossoms. This fire also inflicted casualties in Smith's Battery to the rear, driving many from their guns. Lieutenant Colonel Cummins, fearing for the safety of the battery which was entrusted to his regiment to protect, went to the guns and attempted to get Smith to withdraw them rather than suffer the indignation of losing them to the enemy. But Cummins was injured when a gun carriage was "hurled" against him when it was struck by artillery shell, and he left the field disabled.
Ellis was the only field officer left after Cummins limped off, and his form was almost mystical to the men as it could be "seen in bold relief, now lost amid the clouds of powder smoke." Yet his inspiration was enough to cause them to stand their ground, somewhere between Plum Run and the crest of Houck's Ridge, and once again obey his directions to fire upon the threatening lines of Benning and the Texas regiment. As their volley took effect, the advancing Confederates once again wavered under its impact, and Ellis rose in his stirrups to observe the reaction. Just as he upraised his sword to give a command he was pierced by a bill through the forehead, and he toppled from his gray mount amid the rocks as the horse charged wildly in a wounded fury of itsown into the ranks of the Confederates. Ellis fell by one of the last shots before his enemy retired back to reform behind the rail fence. The Orange Blossoms, now weakened by casualties and the duration of the conflict, without field commanders, could not pursue the Confederates. They were content to struggle forward enough to recover the bodies of Ellis and Cromwell, and "gathering up such as they can of the wounded, fall slowly and mournfully back to the main line" and the safety of Smith's guns. [New York at Gettysburg, volume 2, P. 870.]
So tenuous was Smith's hold on the crest that he ordered his gunners to retire with their implements, in order to keep the Confederates from capturing his men or from using the guns against them. The 124th New York returned to the crest to find the 99th Pennsylvania had arrived to replace the 4th Maine in support of Smith, and it was a welcome sight for the depleted force of New Yorkers, who had started the conflict with more than 200 officers and men and had barely 100 left when they returned from the base of the Weikert field. [Ibid., P. 871.]
It was fortunate enough that they could get away with so few casualties, since they were in danger of being outflanked and surrounded by the enemy in their advanced position and could have been captured or annihilated had they not returned to Houck's Ridge when they did, a position from which at least one believed they "never should have advanced." While in the Plum Run valley of Sherfy's sparse woodlot they almost suffered that fate as "vast numbers" of the enemy poured onto their left flank from the gorge at Plum Run and delivered an enfilading fire down their ranks. [Tucker, "Orange Blossoms."] This fire was probably delivered by the right wing of Benning's Georgia Brigade, which was overlapping the small New York line.
Meanwhile, the 44th and 48th Alabama Regiments of Law's Brigade had been detached during the march to take the annoying battery. Sometime after crossing the stone fence (of the lane at Slyders?) the Alabama regiments were wheeled towards the left so as to "confront" the battery position at the south end of Houck's Ridge. The movement thus far was such that the regiments would have passed to the right of the battery, and in a northerly direction up the Plum Run valley. After disengaging himself from Law's main line, Colonel Perry of the 44th Alabama allowed them to pass by, then altered his direction by an oblique march (probably allowing the 4th and 5th Texas to pass as well). After entering the woods northeast of the Slyder buildings, comprising the lower slope of Big Round Top, called "Devil's Kitchen," Perry wheeled his force towards the sounds of the battery in Devil's Den.
The movement of Perry's 44th Alabama was such that it attracted the attention of the retiring skirmishers and sharp shooters, and Walker's 4th Maine soon spotted them moving rapidly to their feet, not fifty yards away in the woods. Walker quickly realigned his men to engage the 44th Alabama [Official Records, volume 27, part 1, pp. 509-510.], but Perry, still within the woods, was aware of his presence. As the Alabamians emerged from the woods into the open space between Round Top and Devil's Den (Slaughter Pen) "a sheet of flame burst from the rocks less than a hundred yards away," delivered by Walker's Maine force. Perry, however, received a lucky break in that "a few scattering shots in the beginning" of the volley warned him in time to allow most of his men to fall flat against the granitic soil and cause the main effects of the volley to sail harmlessly overhead and snip off the swigs and leaves of Round Top's trees. Perry attested that most of his men thus escaped the effect of this volley and assumed that Walker probably thought he had killed great numbers because of the silence and the number who fell to the ground. [Perry, "The Devil's Den," P. 161.] Indeed, Walker later reported that his 4th Maine fired another four to seven rounds toward the 44th Alabama without receiving a return fire. But here the plucky Alabamians surprised Walker with their initial return volley on his front and left flank. The fighting, between the 44th Alabama and the 4th Maine continued for perhaps twenty minutes, or more, since Walker claimed that his men fired an average of 25 rounds apiece at this site. [Official Records, volume 27, part 1, P. 510.]
Walker, who had dearly not wanted to be placed in this predicament, found himself exposed to this fire from the fringes of Big Round Top's woods, while he suspected he would be outranked by forces advancing on the right of the 44th Alabama. In reality, the 48th Alabama, on Perry's right flank, was attempting to do just that, continuing its advance on the wooded slopes above the 44th Regiment and toward the open ground just east of Plum Run at the foot of Little Round Top. Walker's precaution to guard his own flank had come to naught because he had misinterpreted the movements of Vincent's Brigade earlier and drew in his flankers, assuming that Barnes' Division was to connect at his left. Even before Walker espied the movement of the 44th on his left and front he suspected it to come momentarily. Scattered shots up the slope to his left had already signalled the preface to the battle for Little Round Top, as the 4th Alabama and the 4th and 5th Texas struck Col. Strong Vincent's right flank. The fire from the "edge of the wood of small pines" was "uncomfortably" nearer than Walker would have anticipated, however, and he was hard pressed to open his destructive fire on Perry before the 44th realized the advantage of its position. The 4th Maine used the intermittent boulders at the base of Devil's Den for protection, firing across Plum Run at the Alabamians. Walker admitted that Perry's Alabama infantry "came on in a truly heroic manner" but was quick to point out the "equal firmness of the Maine men," who checked the Southern advance from that quarter and drove them back into the edge of the woods, leaving their dead behind.
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