The Seventeenth Maine at Gettysburg by Captain George W. Verril. from Maine War Papers Volume I, May 2, 1894

At Gettysburg in 1863 And 1888 By Lieutenant and Adjutant Charles W. Roberts, 17th Maine Infantry from Maine War Papers, Volume I Read December 5, 1888


from Maine War Papers Volume I
May 2, 1894

I have selected as the subject of this paper incidents in these particular battles because of the contrast in the battle- fields themselves as well as in the manner of fighting. Both were great battles, stubbornly contested and sanguinary. The small part contributed by the 17th Maine is merely a type of many others, without doubt, yet it has its individuality. Gettys- burg was the only engagement where it fought on the defensive or with shelter; in the Wilderness it moved to the assault as usual.

At Gettysburg the regiment took into action about three hundred and fifty swords and muskets. Its loss in killed and wounded was thirty-eight p,, cent, of the number engaged; one man of every nine who entered the fight receiving his death wound. I, the Wilderness it took in four hundred and fifty, of whom forty-four per cent. were killed or wounded; sixty were killed or mortally wounded which means that one out of every seven and a half men of the regiment gave his life to his country in that battle.


The final arrangement of the troops of Birney's Division of the Third Corps before the action began, July 2, left a space to be defended between G,,ham's Brigade at the Peach Orchard, and Ward's Brigade on the Devil's Den Spur, that would require, if adequately manned, at least two large brigades. The only troops of Birney's Division remaining for that duty were Colonel De Trobriand's Brigade, made up of the 3rd and 5th Michigan regiments, both small but of the best kind; the ; 10th Pennsylvania, still smaller; the 40th New York, the largest in the brigade; and the 17th Maine. The most elevated part of the ground between Graham and Ward was a rocky, uneven, wooded ridge, separated from the Peach Orchard by one hun- dred yards or so of open ground, and falling away rapidly on the east and south to very low ground, where the drainage from the ridge, with that from the Wheat-field slope, formed marshy ground and one of the rivulets making up Plum Run. In this marshy ground, at the southwest corner of the open known as the Wheat-field, was a dense growth of alders of some extent. The ground rose gradually from this corner on all sides except in the course of Plum Run flowing southeast; the Wheat-field on its south side came to a stone wall beyond which an oak growth of sizable character stretched southward to the Plum Run Ravine and eastward to the plateau which Ward defended with his brigade assisted by Smith's Battery.

Colonel De Trobriand placed the 5th Michigan and 10th Pennsylvania, with intervals between, on the southerly aspect of the wooded ridge westerly of the Wheat-field, the former with skirmishers out; the Id Michigan on his westerly front, the right portion of the regiment being extended to the Peach Orchard, deployed as a skirmish line at the Emmitsburg Road and connecting with the skirmish line of the 5th Michigan near the Rose house, a little east of the road. The 40th New York and 17th Maine, also in the same woods, he held as a second line or reserve, the 40th on the left; the 17th had its right at the north edge of the woods about one hundred yards from the Peach Orchard; generally speaking, it was in the rear of the gd Michigan. We were told that the 17th was in support of this skirmish line; this, however, was not to be.

Not to omit any authentic contingent in the original for- mation to protect De Trobriand's position it has been affirmed that the 8th New Jersey of Burling's Brigade of the Second Division, a small regiment, was posted to the left of and some- what in advance of the line of the 5th Michigan, on the south border of the marshy ground west of the alder growth. Our boys having been thus located at once seized the oppor- tunity to catch a "cat nap," as we had been aroused at two o'clock that morning at Emmitsburg for the march to the field of battle. Between 3. 30 and four o'clock P. M., we were rudely awakened from the siesta by a gun from the Peach Orchard battery, and all were at once on the qui vive. The battery being in plain view from the right of the 17th, our attention centered upon it; another shot followed, but there was no reply to its challenge. Directly after this, however, we heard artillery voices from Ward's position (Smith's Battery), and on stepping a short distance to the bluff at the Wheat-field, we saw on the side of Little Round Top a small group of signal men with a flag waving its messages. Shells soon came from the enemy exploding high in the air as if aimed at this group, yet they did not interrupt the signaling which advertised the fact of the advance of the enemy at the Emmitsburg Road. Our men were immediately recalled to their ranks ; they girded on their armor for the coming contest and the roll was called.

From fifteen to twenty minutes, at the outside, after this artillery opening in General Ward's front, the 17th was put in motion by its left flank at the double-quick, down through the woods, passing the 40th New York, out into the Wheat-field near its southwest corner, crossing which diagonally the left of the regiment brought up at the stone wall on the south side of the field at a point about half-way to its east side, and as the files came in formed along the wall. The wall ended at the rivulet before mentioned, beyond which the two right compa- nies prolonged the line in the same direction; the right com- pany reached the east edge of the alder growth; I was then a member of this company.

It was a critical moment; the enemy was advancing through the oaks driving before him the skirmishers of the 20th Indi- ana Regiment of Ward's Brigade, who had impeded his advance at the base of the slope in front, and were doing their best as they fell back firing into him, dodging from tree to tree and be- hind rocks, as they retreated towards the Wheat-field. Their identity as of the 2oth Indiana was established; men of my own company conversed with them. The official report of the 20th Indiana shows that it threw out skirmishers in its front and further to its right to protect that flank since it became the right regiment in Ward's line soon after the battle began. These skirmishers at that point emphasized the fact fully known to our regiment and recognized in the official reports both of Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill of the 17th, and of Colonel De Trobriand, that the 17th was placed in the Wheat-field as I have described as soon as the attack on General Ward was de- veloped, to fill the gap in the line and in time to receive the first advance of the enemy, which was Robertson's Brigade, at that location. The 3rd Arkansas was Robertson's left regiment in line. Anderson's Brigade was on Robertson's left in the rear as part of the second line and took no part in the first attack upon us. When it advanced to the assistance of Robert- son its center came nearly opposite the position of the 17th Maine, especially the 11th Georgia, with other regiments pro- longing this line westward.

As the 17th went in towards the wall the bullets were whizzing,-- one of our sergeants was killed going in,--and the advancing rebels were plainly visible. The stone wall was a breastwork ready made; it was not "breast high " as De Tro- briand characterizes it in his "Four Years" (i.e. unless you stooped some), just a common old-fashioned, thirty-inch stone fence, but it was the best stone wall the 17th Maine ever came across in its travels.

As soon as the skirmishers uncovered our front there were over three hundred loaded rifles to dispute the progress of the enemy, who came on in his usual fierce style,--not in a com- pact line of battle, which was impossible in the woods, rather in an open order manner. He took our first fire at about seventy-five yards distance ;it did not annihilate him or apparently discourage him, but it checked his rush and pres- ently his advance. The left of his line did not extend so far as the right of the 17th, and owing to the oblique direction forward of our line, we secured a good flanking fire into his left as he advanced, which threw it into disorder. He retired. It goes without saying that a delay of five minutes in the order of movement which brought the 17th to that point of the line would have enabled the enemy to accomplish his object, secure the stone wall and attain the right rear of Ward's Brigade. Winslow's Battery on the ridge at the north side of the Wheat held, was the only Union force in that opening when the 17th arrived there. As we were going in to take up our position, those of us by the alders noticed, through the dense growth, figures moving in a scattered manner back across our right towards our rear; we were uncertain whether they were friends or enemies, but did not investigate.

About the time we had arrested the first onset upon us, a small Union force, say one hundred men, with a mounted offi cer leading them, waving his sword, came down behind the right wing of the regiment. The officer was apparently trying to form them into a line; they circled about, and wouldn't "stay put." Presently the leader was dismounted and his white horse went free, galloping about; the small force then went into the wood west of the Wheatfield. At this time we observed the enemy stealing along from the direction of the 3d Arkansas towards our right, concealing themselves as much as possible, and using as a shelter the bank of the main branch of Plum Run, which flows down from the direction of the Emmitsburg Road, some fifty yards in front of our right. The least expos ure of a body or head drew our fire; the fact that the right of our regiment was " in the air," soon became apparent, causing apprehensions of a flanking attack; however, the alder bushes were so thick they afforded considerable protection on that side.

A renewal of the attack upon our whole regimental front quickly followed in a determined manner, the enemy speedily advancing as far as he had previously come, and then working up as a strong body of skirmishers does, using every rock and tree for his protection. The musketry fire reverberating in the woods, with the crashing of the brass twelvepounders of Winslow's Battery in our rear, made a fearful din. Those in the bed of the stream opposed to our right, did not advance at all ; the duel with them was at pistol range ; our unprotected men kept as near the ground as possible and used their rifles, which saved much loss, yet we were suffering considerably. There could be no doubt, however, as to the result of such an attack; they gave it up and withdrew, excepting those under shelter in Plum Run. A desultory fire ensued.

During the last fusillade a " swish" of bullets came from directly in our rear, and we began to think of what we bad seen through the alders. We on the right could not see who fired these shots and in the partial lull of firing I obtained permission from Lieutenant Moore, commanding the company, to investigate the matter; he also directed me to report to our field officers the situation as to the right of the regiment, the force still in front of us, the lack of any connections on our right, etc. I found the back fire proceeded from two or three small squads shel tered behind boulders about seventy-five yards to our rear in the edge of the woods; they were not foes. I have forgotten the regiment they named as theirs, probably they were the fight ing portion of the small force before spoken of, which went back on the other side of the alders and were rallied as I have described. I invited them cordially to join upon our right, but they declined. Then I requested them not to fire over our heads and they withdrew into the woods.

This left the Wheatfield again all our own so far as infantry was concerned. Reporting to Major West, whom I found near the colors, the facts as to our right, he replied that the right would be thrown back to protect the flank, and directed me to carry back that word, with the caution that it must be done with out haste or confusion. The Adjutant, Lieutenant Roberts, soon came to the right with the order from Lieutenant-Colonel Mer rill and with instructions to keep up some firing as we moved rearward to change the front of the three right companies. He superintended the movement which was executed in perfect order but not without casualties:-- of these Captain Young of Com pany K was badly wounded and afterwards died from the effects. The fire of the enemy was increasing, which presaged another advance. The three right companies and part of the fourth thus formed the flanking line along a rail fence which joined the stone wall at about a right angle and was the boundary of the real Wheatfield at the west. The alder growth was now about fifty yards in front of this flank line, leaving a fine roadway between; the rest of the regiment remained of course where they were at the wall.

We had scarcely finished this new formation when the dogs of war were let loose again. This time we soon perceived that Anderson's Brigade was taking a part conjoined with our for mer adversaries; they had evidently observed our movement as if in retreat and a road, as it were, open to them to rush through for Winslow's Battery.

The two right regiments of Anderson with the 3d Arkansas made the Wheatheld their special object while the 9th Georgia moved against De Trobriand to our right and was well taken care of by the 5th Michigan. The odds in numbers were now against us, but our regiment had gained confidence in itself and in its position; that of the right was admirable as the grade fell away from the wall while a good raking fire was kept up upon those pressing forward where we had vacated. They pushed in to take the wall ; nearer and nearer they came; never was loading and firing of muzzle-loaders done more rapidly than by the 17th at that time, but it did not check them as before ; they brought their colors close up to the wall, just a handful of men with them, but before it could be secured by a dash the bearer ran back; one of this plucky squad surrendered and was taken in over the wall by Lieutenant lo. Ferry. When the enemy bore down for the passage in front of the alders he received such a scorching fire at short range that he thought better of the enterprise of taking the battery, _ "the game wasn't worth the candle." His loss must have been severe at that point, and he retired behind the alders. Nowhere did he gain foothold upon our line. In this effort Colonel Manning of the gd Arkansas was badly wounded and his command demoralized.

We had achieved our success at much cost. Captain Fogg was mortally wounded and many brave men were killed and wounded. So much ammunition had now been expended that economy became necessary; replenishing was done from the boxes of the disabled.

All this time we were ignorant of the progress of the battle elsewhere, but in the lulls of our fight there was ample audible evidence that others were at it. Our gallant prisoner was shown around as a model soldier and sent back under guard, who had instructions to obtain more ammunition; the badly wounded were also carried off under a severe shelling from the enemy, which swept the ridge in our rear, although it had not troubled us at the front to any extent.

But our fighting was not finished yet. It was not long be fore another advance of the enemy was made. This time the troops of McLaws had come in and joined the left of Anderson, and their combined forces swept down the Plum Run Ravine. Anderson's Brigade conforming to this made the angle in our regimental line their point of attack. It was defended without flinching, with a converging fire from all parts of our line. The contest was most furious. Our losses at the angle were appall ing; here fell gallant Lieutenant Dyar, who commanded the Color Company. The attacking column also attempted to break through the alder growth; as they emerged on our side they were disorganized, became fine targets to our flanking right wing and went the way of their predecessors; as they withdrew, the others followed the movement, leaving us more at peace than at any previous time. We were simply hilarious. Fancy therefore our dismay when a few minutes after this suc cess an order came to our commander that as soon as we saw Winslow's Battery move off the field we should also retire across the Wheatfield to the cross road on the north side. This meant of course that a break had occurred somewhere, which turned out to be the advance of Kershaw into the woods at our right and between us and the Peach Orchard, attributable to the retiring of Barnes' line, and the advance of the enemy up to the Devil's Den upon the left. The battery was seen moving off; our regiment reformed in line on first company, faced about and moved in line of battle to the cross road which comes down from the Peach Orchard and skirts the Wheatfield. Some casualties occurred while crossing the higher ground, the enemy being quick to discover our retirement.

On reaching the cross road messengers were sent to pro cure ammunition of which we were sorely in need, having already expended over forty rounds per man, the original sup ply having been sixty rounds, and some had taken as much as eighty, but we got none at the road.

It was now past six o'clock; there were no other troops in sight or connected with us. We had rested there not ten min utes when General Birney with one member of his staff rode up and inquired who we were; on being informed he advanced in front of the regiment and ordered it forward in line; the boys gave cheers in the good old-fashioned Union style and ad vanced full of the fire of courageous manhood. The general halted the regiment about half-way down to our stone wall, our right being a few rods from the woods on the west side of the Wheatfield. The enemy had come to the wall and his skir mishers were advancing towards us, but our movements stopped their advance. We were ordered to kneel and hold the posi tion. A few shots carried the rebels to the other side of the wall when they began firing at us now placed at a decided dis advantage. Our regiment was entirely alone here for some ten to fifteen minutes when the 5th Michigan came out of the woods and joined upon our right; possibly some of the110th Pennsylvania and other scattered groups may have come up and joined upon the right of the 5th Michigan, certainly none joined upon the left of the 17th ; altogether our little line amounted to a fair-sized regiment as regiments counted then.

The enemy did not attempt an advance from the wall; he satisfied himself thence with target practice. In the woods to our right, however, he did advance and we were soon engaged in hot work; he came in near proximity, screened by the trees, rocks, etc, whilst on our part, it was blind work. Once or twice, being emboldened, small detachments would show themselves at the edge of the wood, to be promptly sent back by our fire. As time went by they became more aggressive, until near the end of it, the struggle was almost hand-to-hand. There was no wavering or shadow of turning; it seemed as if the last man would there find his allotted ounce of lead. Our Adjutant Roberts here received a severe wound and the ser vices of this most perfect officer were lost to the regiment from that moment. A few minutes later on a missile penetrated my thigh; what happened on the field after that I have carefully gathered from Companions West, Green, Mattocks, and others-- officers and men. As I went back to the rear I passed through two lines of infantry fronting towards the Wheatfield, in the belt of woods at the rear of the cross road. It has always been my impression that their patches were red of the Fifth Corps; they were standing in line as if ready to advance, but the 17th did not come out for some fifteen minutes after I left it. Into the open field to the rear of this belt of woods, the enemy was sending his compliments both from artillery and small arms from the direction of the Emmitsburg Road. All this time Birney was doing his utmost to bring in fresh troops, hoping to reestablish his line, somewhat drawn in from north of the Peach Orchard towards Round Top. Our small fragment of a brigade was about all there was of that new line on that part of the field, when he succeeded in getting up Caldwell's Division of the Second Corps. The cartridges of our regiment were at length substantially exhausted, none remaining except the last few that the soldier keeps for the last extremity; some of the men had fired as many as seventy rounds during the afternoon. While desperately fixing bayonets to repel what might at any moment come, a line or column was noticed on the east side of the Wheatfield, apparently moving down to Ward's first posi tion ; finally after this long and exhaustive struggle of the little band, melting away all the time, and yet successful in keeping the enemy at bay, at about 6:40 o'clock a line came in which gave relief. Its approach was announced by a volley from it fired directly over the heads of the 17th from the higher ground behind, into the woods. Whether it was of the Fifth Corps or of the Second Corps I cannot affirm; the official reports state that the 17th was relieved by Second Corps troops; if so, they were probably the Irish Brigade. That ended the fighting of the 17th on July 2. As it retired across the open field in rear of the Wheatfield, it passed through a converging fire from the two directions and some casualties occurred. The next day the regiment was sent to the front line in haste alongside the 9th Michigan Battery. Its loss under the terrific shelling was two killed and ten wounded; of the latter, Com panion (then Lieutenant) Green was " knocked out " for a short time by the concussion of a bursting shell, and Lieutenant Whitten was permanently disabled.

My story is simply the amplification of what one will find on the bronze tablet affixed to the monument of the 17th which stands in the Wheatfield at the wall where its colors so stead- fastly remained, in these words, first duly submitted to, and approved by, the Committee on Monument Inscriptions of the Battlefield Memorial Association:

" The l7th Maine fought here in the Wheatfield 2 hours, and at this position from 4.10. to 545 o'clock P. M, July 2, 1863 On July 3, at time of the enemy's assault it reenforced the center and supported artillery. Loss 132 Killed or mortally wounded, 3 officers, 37 men. Wounded, 5 officers, 87 men."