Charles Tilden led 275 men of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment into Gettysburg around noon on Wednesday, July 1, 1863.
Only 40 men answered the regimental rolls after sunset on that bloody day.
The other 235 men had vanished after savagely battling thousands of Confederates that afternoon. Among the missing was Tilden, who hailed from Castine.
Their fates yet unknown, Tilden and his unsung heroes had saved thousands of other Union soldiers.
Belonging to the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Gabriel Paul and the 2nd Division led by Brig. Gen. John Cleveland Robinson, the 16th Maine arrived at Gettysburg as intense fighting took place north and west of the town. Robinson deployed his brigades near the Chambersburg Pike (now Route 30).
Federal troops — first John Buford’s immortal cavalry, then John Reynolds’ 1st Corps infantry — had battled enemy troops earlier that day. Outnumbered by early afternoon, the faltering Union boys needed help. About 1 p.m. Paul received orders to advance his brigade.
Tilden suddenly called, “Fall in! Forward Sixteenth!”
As the 16th Maine formed, Capt. Stephen Whitehouse of Newcastle told regimental adjutant Abner Small, “Good-by, Adjutant, this is my last fight.”
Paul led the 1st Brigade at the double across the Chambersburg Pike, the unfinished railroad, and up the ridge that runs south from Oak Hill.
Small recalled that “we clambered over the stone heaps and bushes, wheeled to the right, and went up through the trees to a rail fence,” along which “we went into line.” The 16th Maine boys gazed across “another field” and “were at once engaged with the enemy, who were also in rear of a fence and some two hundred yards distant.”
The 16th Maine formed a line about 450 feet in length. About this time, Gabriel Paul was shot through both eyes — and for the 16th Maine, the killing immediately began.
“Corporal [William] Yeaton, of the color guard [and Co. C], was the first man killed,” Small recalled. “While cautioning his men to keep cool and aim low, Captain [William] Waldron, of Company I, was struck, a ball entering just back of the jugular vein and penetrating to the lung.
He clung to a tree, and stood there stubbornly, keeping his place and refusing to be taken to the surgeons,” Small recalled.
Whitehouse was shot and killed.
As for Tilden, “his mount was shot … but the colonel was on his feet in a moment, unshaken,” Small noticed.
For three hours the 1st Brigade successfully held off Confederate units superior in men and firepower. Finally “came the order to charge bayonets,” Small recalled. “Color-sergeant [Wilbur] Mower was the first to jump the fence, and the regiment followed with a ringing cheer.”
Over the wooden fence and into the fields charged the 16th Maine boys; with their bayonet-tipped rifled muskets lowered, Tilden’s men “ went double-quick” into “the face of a galling fire.” Startled by the sudden assault, Confederates fled “pell-mell to the rear into the woods,” Small described that wild charge.
The 16th Maine boys fought magnificently. “I remember the still trees in the heat, and the bullets whistling over us, and the stone wall bristling with muskets, and the line of our men, sweating and grimy, firing and loading and firing again, and here a man suddenly lying still, and there another rising all bloody and cursing and starting for the surgeon,” Small later wrote.
Although his 2nd Division fended off Confederate attacks from the northwest, disaster unfolded to the east, behind Robinson and his beleaguered men. Outmanned, outgunned, and out fought, the 11th Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard of Maine collapsed beneath Confederate pressure. With enemy infantrymen in hot pursuit, thousands of Federal soldiers fled south through Gettysburg’s labyrinthine streets.
Howard’s rout exposed the right flank and rear of the 2nd Division to attack. “When our whole force was falling back it was necessary to save as much of the Second Division as possible,” Small realized.
Soldiers already edged backward. Sensing that his regiments hovered on the edge of breaking, a quick-thinking Robinson sought a forlorn hope to buy time. Looking over the casualty-strewn lines of his beloved division, he saw the man whom he could trust.
Robinson “rode up to Colonel Tilden” around 4 p.m., Small watched the drama unfold.
Leaning from his saddle, Robinson gestured to the north and said, “Advance and hold that [Oak] hill at any cost.”
Hurriedly saluting Robinson, Tilden turned toward his men and shouted, “Boys, you know what that means!”
“There was no thought of wavering, but with compressed lips and tense nerves these manly boys silently obeyed their loved commander,” Small recalled. “They looked to him for inspiration; they prayed to God for support.”
“About face! Forward Sixteenth!” Tilden shouted.
The 16th Maine advanced almost due north and “took position behind the stone wall” that then stood at a sharp angle to the Mummasburg Road. Forming his depleted regiment in an inverted vee, Tilden “broke the right wing to the right, parallel to the Mummasburg Road,” with “the color company holding the apex,” Small wrote.
Writing in the third person as if he had not been present, Small summarized what happened next: “They held the position against fearful odds.”
Here, where low gray stone markers identify the 16th Maine’s flanks on Doubleday Avenue (a later National Park Service Road) and Mummasburg Road, here Tilden and his 16th Maine boys stood and fought and died.
Deployed between companies B and E, Whitehouse’s Co. K had brought 23 men “into the fight,” said Sgt. (later lieutenant) Wilmot Chapman of Nobleboro. Castine’s “Frank Devereaux was killed early in the fight.”
“The deep, hoarse growl of the battle storm grew into a lion-like roar,” Abner Small described the desperate fight occurring around the 16th Maine’s rapidly shrinking vee. “The rebels fired upon us from all sides, — from behind the wall, from the fences, from the Mummasburg Road.”
With each passing minute more distance opened between the hard-fighting 16th Maine boys and their comrades fleeing into Gettysburg. “Every moment was precious to the retiring [2nd] division, more than precious to the troops going into position on Cemetery Hill,” Small realized.
The 16th Maine bought some 20 precious minutes for other Union regiments to escape, but now Confederate troops “swarmed down upon us“ and “they engulfed us,” he saw. “The intrepid color bearers, Mower and [Sampson] Thomas, waved defiance [with their flags] to the foe, as they closed around the regiment.
“To fight longer was useless, was wicked,” Small admitted. “For this little battalion of heroes, hemmed in by thousands of rebels, there was no succor, no hope.”
Tilden maneuvered the regiment south along the ridge to the railroad cut northeast of the Lutheran Seminary. Not to be confused with the famous Railroad Cut less than a half mile to the west, this site is now screened by buildings and trees from traffic on Route 30.
Here the 16th Maine boys ran out of space and time. Spotting Tilden waving his sword about 100 feet away, a loaded-for-bear Alabamian aimed his musket and yelled, “Throw down that sword or I will blow your brains out!”
Ordering his men to lay down their arms, Tilden “plunged his sword into the ground and broke it short off at the hilt, and directed the destruction of the colors,” Small remembered.
Confederate soldiers wanted to capture the 16th Maine’s flags, both the national and regimental “colors.” One 16th Maine soldier later described the latter flag as “the flag of Maine, the old pine tree on the golden shield in the field of blue.”
When “a rebel officer sprang to seize the flag,” the battered, blackened, and blood-stained 16th Maine boys “once more and for the last time, closed around the priceless emblems, and in a moment of fury rent the staves in twain and threw the [flagstaffs’] pieces at the officer’s feet,” Small recalled.
“Eager hands from every direction seized the banners and tore them piece by piece beyond reclaim or recognition,” he described the frenzied destruction of the 16th Maine’s flags. Scraps went into deep pockets and later into captivity.
As enemy troops swirled around the surrendering 16th Maine, Small and a few comrades bolted through a gap in the Confederate ranks. “We … made our way … to a [Cemetery] hill south of town,” he recalled.
Small was fortunate. Erected alongside Doubleday Avenue in 1888, the regiment’s tall monolith of gray Maine granite lists the butcher’s bill for the 16th Maine as 11 men killed, 62 wounded, and 159 captured, for a total of 232 casualties.
“And so the Sixteenth Maine was the last regiment that left the extreme front on the 1st of July, — if four officers and thirty-six men can be called a regiment,” Small counted noses that night inside Federal lines. Most of the 36 enlisted men had been on detached duty that day with the 2nd Maine Battery, commanded by James Hall of Damariscotta.
The 275 had given their all to save the thousands.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.