THE NINETEENTH MAINE AT GETTYSBURG.
By Captain Silas Adams.
There was no poet born to sing the valorous deeds of the Nineteenth Maine Regiment at Gettysburg, although many were eminently equipped as writers to put on record her history in that conflict. So your humble servant, realizing that each year was rapidly passing them over to the Eternal Camping Grounds, assumed the role of historian, to call the attention of those interested in the luster which should justly decorate her crown of honor, to a truthful statement of what the regiment did on that historic field. The materials have been gathered from numerous authorities, through years of diligent labor. So without further apology or explanation we will go on.
On June 29 the regiment marched from Frederick City to Uniontown, Md., a distance of thirty-two miles, between eight A. M. and eight P. M., and camped just east of the town in a large oak grove, a beautiful place for camping. We received an enthusiastic reception in the state of Maryland, passing from Frederick City to Uniontown. The people liberally supplied us with provisions and fruit while on our march. The day was fine and the turnpike road was of the best, enabling the regiment to accomplish the feat of marching the distance to head off Stuart's cavalry. We remained in camp during the next day and made out muster and pay rolls, and, after so long a campaign of steady marching, a day's layoff seemed to do us good.
On the morning of July 1, we took up the line of march, Colonel Heath having orders to guard the division train, and the regiment continued on this duty till eleven A. M., when it was relieved and ordered to take its place in the column. About this time we began to hear rumors of a fight at Gettysburg, but we could hear no firing until the middle of the afternoon when it became very evident that there was trouble ahead. During the last part of the afternoon the crash of arms was distinctly heard. We marched until nine P. M. and camped about one mile southeast of Round Top, on the Taneytown road. The remnant of the Sixteenth Maine, about twenty men, camped with us that night. giving us a very dismal account of the battle of the afternoon.
At an early dawn the regiment moved up the Tannytown road to Cemetery Hill and the division closed en masse a little to the left and rear of the ridge proper, on a flat slightly to the left of the copse of trees. The "rebs" made no attack on that part of the line, but they evidently knew we were about there, for now and then they would pitch a shell over among us, striking in our midst, killing a few and wounding many more. All we had to do was to lay there and anticipate the next one and guess where it would strike and who the next victim would be. The thoughts that passed through our minds during the hours we lay there were not pleasant in their contemplations, for there is relief when one can "up and at 'em," but here it was anticipating the next one, and not being able to strike back. What meaner place could man be put in? We were near enough to the crest of the hill, if it could be called a crest, to get the full benefit of their fireworks. The Third Corps, General Sickles, was in full view, forming on the Emmitsburg road, his left division continuing through the Peach Orchard toward Little Round Top, his right division, under General Humphreys, forming on the Emmitsburg road, his left at the Peach Orchard, his right extending toward the Cadori house, In order to protect his right flank, Weir's Fifth United States Battery and Battery B, First Rhode Island, were sent out to the Emmitsburg road supported north of the Cadori house by the Eighty-Second New York and the Fifteenth Massachusetts regiments of our brigade, their left resting on this house, the right extending north, connecting with our Third Division.
In the meantime General Sickles was getting the Third Corps into position on the Emmitsburg road, making a great display of getting them into line and closing. Hardly had his corps gotten into position when Longstreet struck him heavily and by persistent and severe fighting forced the Third Corps steadily back. As observers we watched the progress of the battle with intense interest as it was moving toward us and we soon saw that it was a losing fight on the part of the Third Corps.
The divisions of the corps were formed in the following order from right to left: Third, Second and First Divisions. The First Division under General Caldwell, being on the left, was detached between four and five P. M., and hurriedly sent by General Hancock to support Birney's division of the Third Corps near the Wheat Field, or rather to fill the gap between the Third and Fifth Corps, and even with this strengthening of that line we could see they were gradually falling back by the pressure of Longstreet. About five P. M., our regiment was detached by General Hancock and conducted to a position forming a continuation of the line from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, and ordered to hold it. The order was given to Colonel Heath, after the regiment was located, with a directness that implied that we might expect serious work before the fight was over, and, "I expect you to hold it at all hazards." As soon as we formed we were ordered to lie down, and as no man had any objections to the order, everyone quickly obeyed.
We watched as far as we could for smoke, for the coming storm, with intense suspense, as the panorama unfolded and the scenes changed. It was moving our way, and it was very plain to be seen it was to surge over us, and we would soon be caught in the vortex. Humphreys's division, which lay along the Emmitsburg road, was breaking up and coming toward us, yet stubbornly fighting and contesting every foot of the ground at first but being overpowered by weight of numbers, they finally crumbled to pieces and came back toward us as a hopeless and disorganized mass.
Fearing the Nineteenth Maine might catch the spirit of the defeated troops in our front, and be swept away in the current, Colonel Heath walked rapidly along in front of the regiment, cautioning the men to lie still and keep their places and allow the broken and disorganized troops to pass over us to the rear.
We will now look at our connections on our right and left. Our right extended well up toward the ridge with Weir's United States Battery, and Battery B of the First Rhode Island on that flank, but no infantry connections. Except the First Minnesota, stationed some sixty rods to the left and somewhat to the rear, east of the ravine, and two batteries joining us on the left in continuation of our line, that completed the support on our left.
It was past six P. M. when the broken column of General Humphreys's division came pouring back toward, and finally over the regiment as they lay on their faces. The timely caution given by Colonel Heath had the desired effect and not a man left the ranks. In the tumult of the retreat of that division, General Humphreys rode up to Colonel Heath and ordered him to stop his routed troops at the point of the bayonet. I will give you Colonel Heath's own version of the affair: "When they had gotten within some two hundred yards of my lines, an officer that I supposed to be General Humphreys, rode up to me and ordered me to get my men up, as they were all lying down, and stop his men. I refused to do so, as I feared the regiment would be carried away with the deserting troops. I told Humphreys to get his men out of the way and we would stop the pursuers. He did not seem to appear satisfied with that arrangement, but rode down the rear of my lines, ordering the men up. I followed him and countermanded his orders, he finally going off, his men with him."
This statement of Colonel Heath has been seriously questioned. especially by the author of the Nineteenth Maine Regiment history. Challenging the statement of the commanding officer of the regiment of his personal experience on this occasion, seems to me unjustifiable to Colonel Heath's veracity, which no man had ever cause to question. Colonel Heath says, "I supposed him to be General Humphreys," and he might have been mistaken in the identity of the man, but evidently someone assuming authority gave him that order.
On they came like a great billow, rushing with an irresistible force that no troops could check in flight. They swept over us, they stepped on or between the men and even tumbled over us, having no regard to dignity or military order, or to pick out reasonable paths to walk in, as their only object seemed to be to get to the rear, out of the reach of their relentless pursuers. There was neither order nor discipline in that broken mass of men, yet there were many brave spirits among the routed troops, and some would call out to us to "hang on and they would form in our rear," while others would tell us "we were whipped and to get out," and in passing to the rear they gave us lots of advice, but the Nineteenth hung on and not a man left the ranks.
Some of the Excelsior brigade tried to reform in our rear and perhaps collected one hundred men together, but they were soon swept away in the torrent of whipped and routed troops. As soon as the last of these men got out of our way, we found the rebels closely following, giving the retreating men good and sufficient reason for being in a hurry. The "rebs" were about thirty-five yards from our lines, when Colonel Heath gave the order to fire. The regiment arose and delivered a deadly fire into the ranks of the enemy that surprised and staggered them and finally stopped their advance.
In this position of about thirty yards from their lines, we delivered about eight rounds into their ranks and they rapidly melted away. The batteries which joined us upon our left commenced firing the moment their front was clear of our own troops and they were doing prodigious work, the men with their coats off and their sleeves rolled up, were hurling grape and cannister into their solid ranks with a vengeance, making terrible havoc and confusion in their lines. But they closed them up and kept on their terrible onset on our line. The writer was in the left company and about two rods from the right gun of the battery. Colonel Heath said during the firing that Captain Starbird of the left company informed him that the enemy was forming on his left to flank us, and that he ordered Captain Starbird to break his company to the rear and open an enfilading fire upon the enemy. This broke them and they disappeared from view.
Upon the statements and personal recollections of the members of Company F and from my own observation of this movement, we are compelled to differ from that view and statement. Captain Starbird did not break his company to the rear as stated, and as generally believed, but simply faced the company about and marched it to the rear about three or four rods and halted. In doing so he exposed the battery on our left to capture, so they drew back their pieces to conform to our movement and kept up their destructive fire into the ranks of the enemy.
The rebel troops in our front covered both our front and that of the batteries on our left. These may be the troops Colonel Heath speaks of as in the act of deploying, for they could not be on our immediate flank, as the batteries were there, and they continued there and connected with our left flank during the whole engagement until the regiment charged.
The true explanation of the Confederate brigade disappearing will be found in the fact of the First Minnesota regiment, stationed sixty-five rods to our left, charging across the ravine, checking and driving back Wilcox's rebel brigade; and this movement uncovered the right of Perry's brigade. The Nineteenth Maine then charged and broke them. A color sergeant in the front of the rebel lines made himself very conspicuous by waving his flag and inspiring his comrades to greater zeal and courage to stem the fire of our regiment, when Colonel Heath called out for someone to "drop that color bearer." A number responded and the sergeant dropped.
After Company F had fallen back about four or five rods it about faced and resumed firing. Colonel Heath received a report that the enemy was upon his right flank. Then he ordered the regiment to fall back, and in perfect order it did so, and resumed firing. Many officers and men place the distance they fell back at two rods. At this position Company F rejoined the regiment in its proper place. Notwithstanding all of the investigation in trying to learn the name of the battery that joined Company F on the left, every effort has proven unavailing.
Every man was sensible of the fact that the regiment was in a precarious situation and they alone could stem the current and throw back the surging hosts closely pursuing our retreating comrades. In executing these movements and preserving such perfect order and unity, it shows not only the remarkable state of discipline attained by the regiment under Colonel Heath's tutelage, but the stuff of the men who could under such conditions accomplish so delicate and difficult a feat without losing their formation. For reports of Confederate commanders see Volume 27, part 2, page 631, by Brigade Commander Lang; also same volume, page 617, by General Wilcox.
When we take into consideration the fact of our routed men passing over us, and then checking the enemy of three times our number, moving back a few rods in perfect military precision, then advancing on the original line, charging and routing the enemy, hurling them back across the Emmitsburg road, thereby saving a vital position in the center, we must admit it to be an act of heroism, not excelled on the field at Gettysburg, and perhaps the regiment may be a little egotistical in saying not equaled in that contest.
We will suppose that the Nineteenth Maine had given away and was swept with the current back into, yes, across Tannytown road and the enemy followed, then what? Our army would have been cut in two. Then what? No man dare to venture the result; the Nineteenth Maine prevented this. While loading and firing we could see a small line of men reforming in our rear. They were waving their flags and cheering us on in the patriotic duty of standing between one's country and the foe. They had let the job out and were perfectly willing for the Nineteenth Maine to do the whole of it.
After firing several rounds and resuming our original front, we had orders to fix bayonets, and then came the ringing order from Colonel Heath to "charge bayonets." Heath leaped to the front, and off the regiment started like a tornado let loose, down across the field at the heels of the enemy, yelling all the time at the top of our voices, until we nearly reached the Emmitsburg road where we halted, capturing many prisoners, two stands of colors, three pieces of artillery and four caissons. The cannon and caissons were among the captures of the enemy from the Third Corps. In charging across the field, the men discovered the "rebs" making off with these captures, when Colonel Heath ordered the regiment to retake the guns, which were being hauled off with drag ropes, bound for their side of the Emmitsburg road. So they were retaken, held and taken to our line by the regiment on our return at a later hour.
The regiment did not stop at the guns, but kept right on, and when nearly to the road we were overtaken by an aide whom we supposed to be from General Hancock's staff, who demanded of Colonel Heath where he was going. Colonel Heath replied, "We are chasing the 'rebs'." The aide cautioned him to go no further as he would be captured. We stopped, but we hated to do so, as we were enjoying seeing them run and scale a five-rail fence along the side of the road with the agility of a deer. When we stopped, the right wing could not have been more than four rods from the road, the left wing further, as the regiment struck the road at an angle. In charging across the road no other troops helped, assisted or fired a gun. It was the Nineteenth Maine Regiment's fight exclusively.
The regiment passed over two battle flags. Company F passed over one, but our joy in chasing the "rebs" was of more importance than gathering up flags that they had abandoned, so it was not picked up. We attempted to return, but the enemy made a sort of concentrated fire upon us that made it very unpleasant in making the attempt, so we lay down and contemplated.
In looking to the rear, we saw our honors all go in a twinkling of the eye. Those men of Humphrey's division that passed back to our rear and waved flags and cheered us on in that contest, now followed us and came out, a few hundred, nearly a third of the distance from the Union lines to where we lay and picked up the colors of the Eighth Florida Regiment and returned to their lines, waving the flag and cheering so that they were heard all over the field. And they got the credit of capturing that flag! The credit went to Sergeant Hogan, Third Excelsior Regiment; also credit is claimed of recapturing the guns, see Volume 27, part 2, page 533.
Colonel Heath informed the writer that he saw one flag that the right wing passed over, not stopping to pick it up. Our honors went as quickly as we got them, slipped away imperceptibly. How kind they were to relieve us of the trouble of bringing in our own trophies, so dearly and honorably earned.
As it began to grow dark, so our movements could not be plainly seen, the regiment retired, taking the three twelve pounders-- brass --that we recaptured and four caissons and hauling them back to our lines to about the place from which we charged. When we returned we found a good line of infantry on the position we had left an hour before. The guns had become so heated from the effect of rapid fire that one of the brass cannon sagged three inches and was unserviceable, but it spoke volumes.
When the regiment appeared upon the scene with the three guns and four caissons, the whole line went wild with cheers and enthusiasm for the Nineteenth Maine, for their brilliant charge and capture, and congratulations poured in thick and fast, complimenting the regiment on its brilliant work. It was then for the first time that I felt that the regiment had done anything more than what might naturally be expected of any regiment, but afterward when thinking over the matter, I concluded that the Nineteenth Maine did an act that might well be placed upon the escutcheon of the old Pine Tree state.
In making my statement about the Third Corps, Humphreys's division, and their condition when they fell back, passing over our heads, and what they did to stay the torrent, I antagonize squarely General Sickles's speech of July 2, 1885, and Humphreys by this routed division, the officials claim all, not even admitting being driven over any organized troops that formed any barrier between them and their merciless foe. Perhaps this might be expected of defeated troops, to extract all the credit possible for their own honor, but in this case they claim all, and allow the Nineteenth Maine nothing.
The Confederate forces that confronted us were the Florida troops, known as Perry's brigade, commanded by Colonel Lang. Still further to our left and to the west of the ravine was Wilcox's rebel brigade. This latter brigade was confronted by the First Minnesota, which charged over the plain west of the Taneytown road into that ravine, checked and routed this brigade as stated on former pages, thereby relieving the pressure on our left wing and the batteries, and the Nineteenth Maine charged and did the rest. The First Minnesota lost seventy-nine per cent. in that charge. The broken troops in our rear made no movement, or fired a gun to help us in the struggle. This, every officer and man of the Nineteenth Maine regiment knows to a certainty, for had they done so, some one in this regiment would have discovered it, and awarded them the credit.
Upon our return the regiment took up a position in rear of the new lines of troops, talked over the events of the day, and lay down to get some sleep, with our ranks badly torn, as the roll call plainly showed our loss to be about 125. We bivouacked somewhat to the rear of the spot where we went into action. There was no further disturbance that night.
The next morning the regiment was moved to the right fifty-eight rods, a little to the left of the copse of trees. About sunrise Companies B, F, D and E were detailed and sent upon the skirmish line in front of our division, in command of Captain Fogler of Company D. We moved to the right, and then out towards the Emmitsburg road, at battalion front and when we had nearly reached that road, halted and took distance by the left flank. This brought Captain Starbird's company a little to the left of the Cadori house. After deploying we lay down flat and commenced business as skirmishers.
To say that these companies had a severe and terrible day out there would be putting it very mildly, for no man could raise his head without receiving a compliment from the enemy's skirmish line, and I dare say we made it fully as uncomfortable for them. The heat in the glaring sun was intolerable, and we had been without food and water since the morning before, and our stomachs were getting to be a little shaky.
We will now return to the regiment. The brigade was formed from right to left in the following order: Nineteenth Maine, Fifteenth Massachusetts, First Minnesota and Eighty-Second New York. The regiment remained quiet during the day, waiting and watching to see what the day would bring forth. So the time wore away anxiously until one P. M. when the Confederates broke up the quietude by opening about one hundred forty cannon on our center, mainly upon our division, forming one continuous battery thundering its shot and shell in showers of vengeance into our lines. The crashings and explosions seemed more like a volcanic upheaval of nature, trying to reform the face of the earth, than anything that could be produced by man's ingenuity. Every man in our lines protected himself the best he could, behind such protection as nature afforded and his own genius and labor could devise.
The position of the four companies on the skirmish line was most severe and trying. The lines were much nearer the rebel cannon than our lines, so we got the benefit of the fire of both over our heads. The air seemed to be all in a whirl by the countless missiles flying through space from the engines of war on both sides, but it was evident to us who had such a perfect view of both lines, that the enemy had the more guns at work, and sustaining the most effective fire, did the greater execution. All we had to do was to flatten out a little thinner, and our empty stomachs did not prevent that.
About three P. M. the fire on the Confederate line ceased, ours having already been suspended by order of General Hunt, to let the guns cool and get ready for the coming storm. It now had become a perfect stillness, almost like a quiet Sabbath morning. Not a sound was heard, but both armies were being nerved for the contest in the coming struggle on which depended the fate of the nation.
It was nearly ten minutes before the Confederate infantry came into view, we being so near them when they crossed the road that we watched their movements with far more interest than we appreciated. Pioneers preceded them and leveled the fences on the Emmitsburg road, so their lines were not broken in crossing, except a small section thrown out at the Cadori house.
When they crossed the road some parts of our skirmish line could not have been more than eight or ten rods from their lines when we gradually retreated before them. But in that retreat we gained no distance on them. Then they came on in magnificent order and in most perfect military precision, which seemed to control their whole movement. The thought came to me, if we were able to get back, having lain there from sunrise to three P. M. on our faces, in the burning sun, we were pretty well cooked through. When the enemy came near us we arose and started for the rear, and I can speak only from my own experience in describing my attempt to walk. I found I had no use of my legs, having lain so long that they had become numb or paralyzed, but in a few moments they got into working order so I could trudge slowly to the rear. The men held their relative positions at fifteen paces while going there.
Meanwhile the enemy was gaining upon us, but our skirmishers did not forget to hurl a few shots into that mass of men following. Most of the men fired two rounds in the retreat. The enemy did not respond. They could not have been over eight rods behind us, so near that our own officers in our lines called us to come in quickly so they could fire. Some portions of our line fired upon us, thinking us to be the rebel skirmishers. Then we ran and came into our lines. Many of Starbird's men got into Stannard's Vermont brigade, the others got into the nearest line, not knowing on what part of the line the regiment was posted.
It has been stated that Pickett's division "was preceded by a cloud of skirmishers." (Greeley.) This I think was a mistake, as the men of these four companies saw no skirmishers, only what were already on the skirmish line, and they were absorbed into the main body of troops as they came up, or remained on their own lines. It was Pickett's division, an organized body of thousands of men, that followed us. When Pickett's division came within a short distance of our lines, they faced to the left and marched some distance toward our right, thus uncovering that part of the line where the Nineteenth Maine was stationed. By miscalculation that division had struck our lines too far to their right and this movement was necessary in order to throw their greatest weight upon the position around the hill and stone wall held by the Second Division.
Again they struck our lines at an angle, their left coming into contact with our lines long before their right became engaged and the movement to the left with a left wheel was necessary. While these movements were being made the Union lines were decimating their ranks fearfully. The Nineteenth Maine moved into a position to do, and did do fearful execution in stopping their further progress in that direction. It became apparent that the Second Brigade on our right composed of the Sixty-Ninth New York, Seventy-First, Seventy-Second and One Hundred Sixth Pennsylvania were being overwhelmed by the momentum of the Confederate charge and help was needed. I will give Colonel Heath's own version from his manuscript:
"When Pickett got within range we opened upon him, but his line of march struck the Second Brigade of our division, which gave way under the shock. I immediately put the Nineteenth Maine in motion for the gap, but it was impossible to get them in any order. Everyone wanted to be first there and we went up more like a mob than a disciplined force. However, we got there and in time to help stop the invasion."
The position the regiment went into was a little to the left of the copse of trees, where they found troops falling back still fighting heavily. The regiment pressed forward without orders or order, firing and stepping back, allowing the rear men to step forward and fire. Soon they found themselves in front of the other troops. Not having time to load, the regiment used bayonets, clubbed with their muskets, and hurled stones to break up their charge and to turn back the determined assault. Finally the enemy broke in confusion, the Nineteenth Maine following, charging down over the western and most broken slope of the hill, just south of the angle and in front of the copse of trees and saw with the greatest pleasure the enemy's ranks, totally routed and flying in disorder back to their lines west of the Emmitsburg road, and every man in our front hurled parting shots after them.
The four companies of skirmishers who took refuge in the ranks of different regiments now began to wander about to find the regiment; but we soon found out that the regiment was so scattered that hardly two men could be found together. We formed a squad of three or four and waited for others to join us, so that at the end of two hours, from this nucleus, we could not have had more than one hundred men out of the number that went into that battle.
On the following day, July 4, the writer assisted Corporal Wood, then acting adjutant's clerk, in making a report of the losses and made a record of the report in his diary: Number present at beginning of battle, 439; number present for duty, morning of July 4, 223; killed, 67; wounded and missing, 149; total loss, 216.
The Nineteenth Maine was in line of battle, during the 4th of July, near the copse of trees, and it
added to our discomfiture to have a severe rain storm on that national holiday. On the 5th, the
regiment was detailed to bury the Confederate dead. Not even in the most disagreeable scenes
consequent to that terrible battle we just passed through was there anything so repugnant and
disgusting to one's sensibility as that of burying the dead. This duty we did as best we could
under the conditions found on that field. I believe I am correct in saying that the Nineteenth
Maine Regiment was the only regiment from Maine that was in two days of this contest, the 2d
and 3d days of July, as an organization. On the afternoon of this day we took up our line of
march in pursuit of Lee, thinking sadly about the past great event, and of the many noble spirits
we left behind as a sacrifice to our country.
(Source: War Papers, Maine MOLLUS, volume 4, pages 250 to 263)