This article was originally published in the June 29, 2013 issue of The Bridge, a weekly community newspaper in Montpelier, Vermont. My hope is to eventually expand this to book length, but in the meantime…
It could be said that the Battle of Gettysburg began and ended with Vermonters. Soldiers from the Green Mountain state played a role in key engagements before the battle, a Vermont native fired the first shot and three Vermont regiments not only defended against, but twice repelled, Confederate attacks on the heart of the Union line. Had it not been for Vermonters at Gettysburg, the battle—indeed, the Civil War—would have played out much differently.
Writer Shelby Foote told of a southern soldier who, when asked by one of his Union counterparts, “What are you Rebs fightin’ for, anyway?” replied with “We all are fightin’ because YOU all are down here!” For the first two years of the Civil War, nearly every engagement of the war took place south of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly in Virginia, and in spring 1863, General Robert E. Lee, weary of the ravages that had been inflicted upon his home soil, decided to take the war “up there” to the North. Lee believed that invading the North would, among other things, make the North’s “friends of peace . . . become so strong” that the Union would have no choice but to sue for peace.
In June 1863, Lee sent J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry north along the Monocacy River, which splits into tributaries near the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. Stuart’s objective was to gather provisions while getting a sense of the Union army’s strengths and weaknesses. It was not long after the Confederates crossed into south central Pennsylvania that they ran into trouble. On the morning of June 30, the Union cavalry, including 840 soldiers of the First Vermont, rode north into Hanover, Pennsylvania (about 14 miles east of Gettysburg). According to Sergeant Henry Ide, “Flags waved everywhere. Bells were ringing. Hundreds of schoolchildren stood in the market square singing songs of welcome.”
At about 10 a.m., though, explosions sounded through the town. The soldiers at first thought that it was a salute from the townsfolk, but, according to Ide, when a shell burst nearby, “We came to the conclusion that people didn’t normally fire (live ammunition) for a salute.” The advancing Union cavalry had caught up with Stuart’s column, and the Rebels had chased the Union cavalry back into town. In the ensuing scrap, Major John Bennett’s Vermont cavalrymen were key in “repelling the enemy by a vigorous charge,” according to historian Joseph Collea, “capturing about 20 men.”
The engagement at Hanover was a prelude to what followed in Gettysburg, and one of the results was that, for the next three days, Stuart’s men rode far out of their way to avoid a second confrontation with Union forces. One of Lee’s complaints when Stuart finally reached the field on the evening of the second day was that, in Stuart’s absence, Lee had been “deprived of his eyes and ears.” That absence could in part be attributed to his run-in with the Vermonters and Union forces at Hanover.
While Stuart’s cavalry rode a loop northeast from Hanover to York and then west to Carlisle, Confederate infantry came north along the mountains through Chambersburg, shelling Carlisle (about 25 miles north of Gettysburg) before heading south to seek provisions. Union forces were pursuing them from the south, and their meeting point was Gettysburg, a small town that was the convergence point of 11 different roads. As has been noted so many times, the Confederates came into the town from the north, while the Union entered from the south.
Among those Union troops were five Vermont regiments belonging to the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The Vermonters had marched over 100 miles in the six days leading up to the battle, and two of those regiments (the 12th and 15th) stayed in Maryland to guard wagon trains, but the other three—the 13th, 14th and 16th—continued north, arriving at Gettysburg during the afternoon of the second day, July 2.
However, some Vermonters were already on the field of battle, and one of them is widely credited with firing the first shot. Lieutenant Marcellus Jones, a native of St. Albans who had moved to Illinois, was west of the town in a small group of men called a vidette post. Their job was to “feel out the enemy,” and on the morning of July 1, around 7:30 a.m., one of Jones’s four men noticed what looked like dust clouds about 700 yards away on the Chambersburg Pike.
The soldier raised his carbine to fire a shot, but Lieutenant Jones reportedly said, “Hold on, George . . give me the honor of opening this ball.” Jones steadied the soldier’s gun on a fence rail, aiming at a distant Rebel officer on a gray horse. The carbine had an effective range of about 300 yards, but the point was not to hit the officer; when Jones fired, the Rebels knew that they’d met up with the opposing army, and the battle of Gettysburg was soon underway.
“I saw a fine body of Vermonters”
The key to a tactical understanding of both the Battle of Gettysburg and the battlefield at Gettysburg can be found in the Union line, which formed on high ground called Cemetery Ridge, stretching from north to south between two sets of hills: Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill on the northern edge of the town and Little Round Top and Big Round Top south of the town. Between those high points, the Union occupied and fortified their defenses, from which they looked down on the Confederate positions. The line was roughly fishhook shaped, with the eye at the north, and the curve and barb at the south. The Confederates’ hope, repeatedly, was to break that line either at the ends (one of the goals of the repeated attacks on Culp’s Hill and the famous attack on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at Little Round Top) or in the middle (the goal of Pickett’s Charge).
Beyond that Union line, Confederate commanders told their men, “lies Virginia and home.”
When the 13th, 14th and 16th Vermont infantry reached Gettysburg late in the afternoon on July 2, they camped at the base of Cemetery Hill, behind the Union lines, near General George Meade’s headquarters, and had little time to recover from their long march before they were called to action.
The Confederates had been attacking the ends of the hook-shaped Union line, but late in the day, Georgia Brigadier General Rans Wright spotted what he thought was a weakness in the center along Cemetery Ridge, the north–south high ground that the Union forces were fortifying. He ordered an attack, and the Georgians, he wrote, “charged up to the top of the crest” of Cemetery Ridge “and drove the (Union) infantry . . . some 80 or 100 yards in rear of [their] batteries. We were now complete masters of the field, having gained the key, as it were, of the enemy’s whole line.”
Unfortunately, Wright’s advancing men were alone, without support, and Wright quickly realized that “my advanced position and the unprotected conditions of my flank invited an attack.” On the other side of the line, Union captain John Tidball reported this dilemma to General Meade, as well as a solution. “If you need troops” to close the line, he told Meade, “I saw a fine body of Vermonters a short distance from here.” Those Vermonters were the 13th, 14th and 16th, and Union General Abner Doubleday (who, stresses writer Howard Coffin, “did NOT invent baseball!”) ordered the three regiments forward to plug the gap and drive back Wright’s Georgians.
“A large brigade advanced from (a) point of woods on my left,” reported Wright, and “we were now in a critical condition.” The Vermonters effectively surrounded Wright’s men, the “converging line . . . rapidly closing upon our rear. A few more moments and we would be completely surrounded.” Wright’s men retreated, and “with painful hearts abandoned our captured guns.”
Wright’s unremarkable description of the “abandoned guns” downplays one of the most dramatic incidents of the second evening. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock spotted Wright’s men retreating with four Union cannons in their clutches, and asked Colonel Francis V. Randall if his Vermonters could recapture the guns. Randall’s reply, according to Coffin, was, “Goddamn, we can if you let us!” Hancock “let” him, and Randall rode to the front of the regiment to lead the reconnaissance.
“We had not gone ten yards,” recalled Vermont sergeant George Scott, “ere Randall’s horse fell shot through the neck,” leaving Randall struggling to free his leg, which was caught in the stirrup between the fallen horse and the ground. “Go on, boys!” Scott recalled Randall shouting. “I’ll be at your head as soon as I get out of this damned saddle!” Several soldiers rolled the horse off Randall’s leg, and Randall went to the front of the unit on foot, reported Scott, “limping badly, his hat off, his sword swinging in the air.” The Vermonters charged forward to the stolen cannons and, said Scott, “the enemy did not await us. They abandoned the guns and fled.” As the Vermonters rolled the retrieved battery back to the Union line, a soldier from another unit asked where the regiment was from.
“Green Mountain Boys!” several Vermonters called out in response.
“I thought you must be green,” the soldier replied, “or you would’ve never gone in there.”
The four cannons were back behind Union lines, but Randall and some of his men were still in the field, moving toward Rogers House, a farmhouse on Emmitsburg Road where Confederate snipers were holed up. Randall ordered Captain John Lonergan’s Irish Company to “drive those damned Rebels out of those buildings or kill them– about face, charge!” Lonergan’s men charged toward the house, and “the Confederates came tumbling out . . . Each man laid down his gun, until I had a considerably larger number of . . . prisoners than I had [soldiers] in my entire company.”
Randall initially reported 200 captured Rebels, but, says Coffin, “he had a tendency to overstate.” The actual number was around 80, which still meant that they outnumbered their Vermont captors two to one. The prisoners included about 50 Rebels who tried to run for the woods behind the house, until Randall yelled “Halt!” and then, more emphatically, “God damn you boys, stop that running!” at which point the 50 threw down their guns and surrendered. The gap in the Union line was closed, the Union position was strengthened, the sharpshooters were silenced and the captured cannons were retrieved, all by the Vermonters.
“We propose resting on our arms,” Randall told an aide to Vermont General George Stannard when he returned to the line, “until [Stannard] acknowledges our achievements.”
“Glory to God! See the Vermonters go at it!”
Night fell on the second day, and according to Vermont soldier Wheelock Veazey (as quoted in Coffin’s book Full Duty), “it was the saddest night on picket that I ever passed. The line ran across the field that had been fought over the night before, and the dead and wounded of the two armies, lying side by side, thickly strewed the ground. The mingled prayers and imprecations of the wounded . . . were heart-rending . . . Scores of wounded men died around us in the gloom, before anyone could bring relief or receive their dying messages.”
The Union forces had strengthened their position on the ridge, and Lee was planning an attack. Historians have argued for years about why Lee would send his infantry on a charge one mile across an open field toward the heart of a fortified Union line, but some historians now believe the charge was part of a coordinated two-part attack, the other element of which was Stuart’s cavalry attack on the Union rear. (That assault was repulsed by Union cavalry commanded by, among others, General George Custer.)
At about 1:30 p.m., Confederate cannon opened fire on the Union line. According to soldier George Benedict, “The air seemed to be literally filled with flying missiles. Shells whizzed and popped on every side. Spherical case exploded over our heads and rained iron bullets over us . . . and round shot plowed up the ground before and around us.”
Added soldier Ralph Sturtevant, “The passing of each minute seemed a lifetime.” The Vermonters occupied the position closest to the Rebel line, and that, ironically, may have saved them: According to Coffin, the shells were mostly flying over the Union line to the rear of the ridge, so that “the closer the soldiers were to the Confederates, the less likely they were to be struck.”
After about 90 minutes, the artillery barrage stopped, and according to a soldier quoted by Coffin, “someone with a glass to his eye says, ‘There they come,’ and just emerging from the rebel lines you can see the long ranks of grey, the shimmering of steel in the July sun.” The Union forces waited until the gray lines came within range and then opened fire, tearing gaps in the Rebel ranks as soldiers fell. The Confederates closed ranks as they pushed forward, toward a central “clump of trees” about 300 yards north of where the Vermonters were waiting. But as the Rebel infantry approached the 14th Vermont’s position, they suddenly changed direction and started moving across the 14th’s front. As Benedict put it, “it was a terribly costly movement for the enemy. The 14th at once opened fire with very great effect. The 13th joined its fire . . . and a line of dead rebels at the close showed distinctly where they had marched across the front of the Vermonters.”
It was clear to both Hancock and Stannard that a flanking movement was called for—Stannard issued the order himself shortly before Hancock asked him to issue the same order—and Stannard ordered the 13th and 16th regiments to, in Benedict’s words, “swing out at right angles to the main [Union] line, close upon the flank of the charging [Rebel] column, and open fire.” The two regiments marched north about 200 yards, then turned a full 45 degrees so that they were facing the Confederate forces right at the “clump of trees.” The 16th then did an about-face and moved back toward units of Florida and Alabama troops who were still advancing. “Glory to God, glory to God,” Doubleday called out, “see the Vermonters go at it!”
According to Benedict, this maneuver proved “more than the Rebels had counted on. They began to break and scatter from the rear in less than five minutes, and in ten more it was an utter rout.” Added Veazey, “The movement was so sudden and rapid that the enemy could not change front to oppose us . . . A great many prisoners were taken . . . They were sent to the rear without a guard [but] none were needed, as the prisoners were quite willing to get within the shelter of our lines.”
Pickett’s Charge had been broken, with Vermonters at the center of the victory. Confederate prisoners later told Doubleday that “what ruined them was Stannard’s brigade on their flank. They found it impossible to contend with . . . and they drew off in a huddle to get away.”
A final, futile attack
Pickett’s Charge is often called “the high water mark of the Confederacy,” not only because its failure ended the Battle of Gettysburg, but because the Confederacy never came so close to victory again during the remaining 22 months of the war. Pickett’s Charge was not the last Vermont action at Gettysburg, though. Near the base of two hills on the southern end of the field, Little Round Top and Big Round Top, Union Cavalry General Judson Kilpatrick feared that the rebel cavalry might regroup if given too much time. “All we have to do is charge,” he told a subordinate, “and the enemy will throw down their arms and surrender.”
Kilpatrick ordered Vermont cavalrymen commanded by General Elon Farnsworth to attack a group of Rebel horsemen. Farnsworth looked at the rocky, rough terrain and said that no cavalry attack on that ground could succeed, to which Kilpatrick, who once argued that a cavalry attack could succeed anyplace except the open seas, responded by calling Farnsworth a coward.
Farnsworth followed Kilpatrick’s orders and took his men in, and it was a rout. The Vermonters rode through a line of Texas cavalrymen into a hornet’s nest of fire from Alabama cavalry. Farnsworth was surrounded and shot through the chest five times, and by the time the Vermonters retreated, 13 of their men were killed, 25 were wounded, and another 27 were missing. It was a futile, ill-conceived attack, one which had no effect on the outcome of the battle. The retreating Confederates were already preparing to head south, and the Vermonters and the rest of the Union forces would soon follow them.
The Battle of Gettysburg had ended, and the war would rage for almost two more years, and while many of the Vermont soldiers at Gettysburg would soon be mustered out (they were near the end of their nine-month service when the battle started), their contribution to the victory at Gettysburg was seen by some as the most important of all Union troops. As Doubleday later said, “You ask what I think of the valor of the Vermont troops [at Gettysburg]. I can only say they performed perhaps the most brilliant feat during the war. For they broke the desperate charge of Pickett, saved the day and with it, the whole North from invasion and devastation.”
The writer wishes to thank the following for their assistance and support in writing these articles: Howard Coffin; Bill Greenwood (Green Mountain Tours); John Heiser (Gettysburg National Military Park Library); and his parents, Marjorie and Larry Shenk, who live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and provided support of all kinds while he researched and wrote this piece.