June 21, 2018
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Elijah Walker fought with the devil in his rocky Gettysburg den

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

Elijah Walker battled the devil in his Gettysburg den on July 2, 1863.

Walker hailed from Rockland, where he raised Co. A, 4th Maine Infantry in spring 1861. Then a captain, within a year Col. Walker commanded the regiment.

As Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania in late June 1863, the Army of the Potomac marched north from its Virginia camps to find and fight the Confederates. The 4th Maine marched with the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. John Henry Hobart Ward. This brigade belonged to the 1st Division of the 3rd Corps.

Such official nomenclature meant little except for the corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles. His impromptu maneuver on Thursday, July 2, forced Walker and his 4th Maine boys to fight like the devil — and on the devil’s home turf.

Numbering “about 300 men and 18 officers,” the 4th Maine boys marched into Gettysburg about 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 1, Walker later reported. He and his men were unceremoniously deployed after dark as skirmishers beyond the Emmitsburg Road to the west. There they quickly discovered that lots of Confederates “were assembling throughout the night” inside the woods beyond the skirmish line.

Walker passed along this intelligence to Sickles, who disobeyed orders and unilaterally deployed his 3rd Corps west to a new defensive line anchored on the Emmitsburg Road.

From a nearby peach orchard Sickles bent his left flank east to a wooded prominence known as Houck’s Ridge. Aligned north-south and separated from the nearby Round Tops by a rocky valley, the ridge petered out to the south at a boulder-strewn geographical feature known locally as the Devil’s Den.

Superstitious Gettysburg farmers and townsfolk believed the devil haunted the jumbled boulders.

Sickles assigned Ward’s brigade to defend Houck’s Ridge and Rose Woods, which covered the ridge’s northern slope. After riding along the ridge to study the terrain, Ward accordingly deployed his regiments. Walker and the 4th Maine occupied Devil’s Den and spread east across Plum Run, a stream flowing through the valley; Walker also sprinkled skirmishers uphill on Big Round Top.

Col. Hiram Stoughton deployed his 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters to the south and west of Devil’s Den as skirmishers. Atop the den Capt. James Smith unlimbered four 10-pounder Parrott cannons from his 4th New York Independent Light Artillery; Smith had the 4th Maine to guard his left flank and the 124th New York Infantry to guard his right flank immediately north on Houck’s Ridge.

Seeing only a few Signal Corps soldiers on Little Round Top west across the ravine, Walker sensed he held the army’s extreme left flank. Since no imminent danger threatened, at 3 p.m. he let his men kindle fires and slaughter a heifer captured nearby.

“My men were hungry, having drank water for supper, breakfast and dinner,” he wrote. “Coffee was steeped and beef impaled on sticks was warmed over the blaze. We drank our coffee and ate the very rare and thoroughly smoked meat, sprinkling it with salt.”

Suddenly Confederates belonging to Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division swept east across the Emmitsburg Road and across the Bushman and Slyder farms; at 3:45 p.m. “the enemy came out of the woods a half mile [west] from us and opened with their artillery,” Walker recalled.

Smith’s four Parrott “guns” fired back. Appearing “in large numbers,” Confederate soldiers “first met the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters,” who extracted a toll among officers and sergeants. Belonging to an Alabama brigade commanded by Gen. Evander Law and a Texas brigade commanded by Gen. Jerome Robertson, the Confederates gradually pushed back the skirmishing sharpshooters.

Ward’s adjutant rode to Walker and “ordered [us] to the left [east], leaving Smith’s guns without support and creating a space of about two hundred yards without infantry,” Walker later reported. “To this move I objected,” and “I unwillingly moved to” the Plum Run-drained valley later dubbed the Valley of Death.

As he shifted position across Plum Creek, Walker had sent Capt. Arthur Libby and “a few skirmishers … into the woods between” the Round Tops. He spread “a strong line of skirmishers” south of Devil’s Den.

Now Walker saw Union troops occupying Little Round Top, so he pulled back Libby’s men. “The [skirmish] line in front had a severe time with the advance of the enemy, but was not dislodged,” he recalled.

“Musketry fire commenced with severity” as Union regiments on Little Round Top fired on the advancing Confederates. “In a moment the 44th Alabama regiment appeared at the edge of a wood of small pines on our left flank,” Walker noticed.

At least some 4th Maine infantrymen now fired; Walker later learned that before the Alabamians “fired a shot, one-fourth of them had been killed or disabled.” Southern muskets now leveled; “when he did open fire upon us we soon found, to our sorrow, that we had no mean foe to contend with.”

Sometime around 4:30-5 p.m., a bullet struck Walker in his left leg about 4 inches above his ankle, partially severed his Achilles tendon, and punched into his horse. The animal dropped, and Walker continued fighting on foot.

The 44th Alabamians “soon gave up and retired into the woods,” Walker recalled. Then, as the 48th Alabama emerged higher on Little Round Top’s southeastern slope, Walker bent his own regiment’s left flank at an angle to better engage the enemy troops.

Atop Houck’s Ridge, Smith’s gunners desperately worked their cannons, which fired canister at Confederate troops now swarming into the battery’s position. “Smith, on the high ground, abandoned his guns, and the rebels came over my right flank and in the rear of my skirmish line,” trapping those men amidst the Devil’s Den boulders, Walker wrote.

He “moved back” his regiment “about 100 yards” to the north, “fixed bayonets, and charged forward by the right oblique, driving the enemy from Smith’s guns and connecting” with the 124th New York. “I shall never forget the ‘click’ that was made by the fixing of bayonets, it was as one,” he recalled.

Roughly about where a National Park Service road now passes two Parrott guns representative of Smith’s battery, “we had a sharp encounter on our left, at the brow of the hill, a little to the right of Devil’s Den,” Walker remembered. Georgians and Texans poured over Houck’s Ridge.

Here the fighting “was at close quarters,” Walker described the gunsmoke-obscured hand-to-hand combat. Knots of screaming soldiers — Mainers here, Confederates there — bayoneted, clubbed and throttled their enemies amidst the intermingled lines. Wielding his sword, Walker battled alongside his men.

Seeing the wild melee on his far left flank, Ward yanked the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry from Rose Woods and hurried them south to help Smith and Walker. “At this critical moment the 99th Penn. came to our assistance, forming on our left along the brow of the hill, and the enemy fell back, taking cover behind the rocks and bowlders (sic) and in Devil’s Den,” Walker recalled.

Confederate soldiers suddenly surrounded Walker; “my sword was wrenched from my hand” as his captors realized they had captured a high-ranking officer, he remembered. Two 4th Maine boys — Sgt. Edgar Mowry of Co. B and Corp. Freeman Roberts of Co. F — piled into the Confederates holding Walker.

“My men saved me and I recovered my sword,” Walker recalled. Mowry and Roberts “wrested me from the foe and assisted me to the rear,” he credited his rescuers.

The 4th Maine boys and the 2nd Brigade “held our position until about sunset. When I gave the order to fall back I was unable to walk,” Walker reported. He turned over regimental command “to Capt. Edwin Libby, a tried, brave and faithful officer, and took my first ride in an ambulance.”

With the retreating Mainers came Sgt. Henry Ripley of Rockland, the color bearer. He still held the regimental colors “pierced by thirty-two bullets and two pieces of [artillery] shell, and its staff was shot off,” Walker recalled.

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 1888, Elijah Walker walked again through Devil’s Den and into the Valley of Death. He knew the terrible price the 4th Maine had paid while fighting the devil in his Gettysburg den: 23 men killed, 44 wounded, and 73 captured.

On that day, Walker delivered a dedication speech. The official records do not reveal whether he choked up at any point as he recapped the 1863 fight — but as of that Wednesday, the 4th Maine Infantry’s monument stood triumphantly in the Devil’s Den.

Brian Swartz may be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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