By Brian Swartz
Special Sections Editor
Protecting the flags of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment took guts at Gettysburg.
Led by Lt. Col. Charles Benjamin Merrill, the regiment belonged to the 3rd Brigade commanded by a Frenchman, Col. Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand. He deployed his regiments into the woods east of the Peach Orchard about 2 p.m. on Thursday, July 2, 1863. Recalling that the 17th Maine “didn’t settle into position until 3 P.M.,” Pvt. John Haley of Saco relaxed with his comrades.
But Confederate Gen. James Longstreet unleashed his divisions about then. Suddenly “the picket firing … became exceedingly lively,” telling the veteran soldiers they faced an impending assault, Haley realized. “Our skirmish line, although exceptionally heavy, was brushed away as chaff before a wind.”
Screaming the Rebel yell, Confederate troops poured across the Emmitsburg Road and targeted the north end of Houck’s Ridge, covered by Rose Woods. At its northern edge, the woods ended abruptly at a 20-acre wheatfield.
Discerning “the precise point and the violence of the attack … I extended my right [flank] by moving the Seventeenth Maine Volunteers … across a wheat-field, in order to fill a gap open there,” de Trobriand later noted. The 17th Maine “took a strong position behind a stone wall, and did good service at this point.”
Haley remembered that “we double-quicked down [to] the left” [and] south across the wheatfield, which slopes downhill from east to west, from its upper verge opening toward Little Round Top to that stone wall so appallingly near the oncoming Confederates.
Huffing and puffing, Corp. Joseph Lake of Portland carried the heavy national flag as Sgt. James Loring of Westbrook held aloft the 17th Maine’s regimental flag, known as the “state color.” Eight corporals rounded out the color guard this warm, muggy afternoon: Yarmouth‘s Albert Baker, Edwin Duncan from Kittery, Bernard Hogan of Lewiston, Benjamin Huff from Buxton, William Merrill of Norway, Fred Mitchell of Saco, David Saunders from Sweden, and James Strout from Raymond.
The 17th Maine boys cut it close reaching the stone wall. “By the time our line was formed, the Rebel column had arrived at the opposite edge of the woods,” Haley said; Merrill estimated the distance at 100 yards.
Both sides fired. James Strout pitched to the ground; confirming that he was dead, the color guard tightened on the flags. Then a bullet damaged one of Albert Baker’s hands.
Along the wall to the right and left of the colors, “we opened a brisk fire on them (Confederates),” but “it didn’t seem to check them much,” Haley said. Gray-clad hordes seemed to pour through Rose Woods as the 17th Maine boys loaded and fired, loaded and fired, chewing quickly through their 60 rounds of issued ammunition.
Then a Confederate bullet struck Fred Mitchell. He fell mortally wounded; the Confederates kept coming, and the color guard tightened on the flags.
“As they drew nearer [through the trees], our fire began to tell on their ranks, which were more dense than usual,” Haley realized. “We peppered them well with musketry while” Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery, “served a dose of grape and cannister (sic) every few seconds.”
Deployed on a slight rise about 300 yards to the north and commanded by Capt. George Winslow, the New York gunners fired effectively into Rose Woods without hitting the Maine boys.
“There was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs, and we could see them tumbling around right lively,” Haley remembered.
“A great number of our men were sharing the same fate,” he realized.
Thwack! His blood sprayed the 17th Maine’s regimental flag as a bullet struck and killed James Loring. One hand locked onto the national flag’s shaft, Joseph Lake seized the falling state color.
Bullets whizzed past as Lake proudly held both flags for perhaps a minute. Then he passed the state color to William Merrill, who promptly caught a bullet.
Edwin Duncan took the blood-splattered shaft from Merrill, and the color guard tightened on the flags.
As their ammunition dwindled and their losses mounted, “the troops on our right, being flanked, gave way, exposing us to a heavy flank fire,” Haley recalled.
“I was obliged to form a new line, changing the right wing of the Reg’t, into a position at a right angle with the left,” Merrill reported. Sheltering along a rail fence, the right-flank companies fired, momentarily “checking the enemy.”
The stone wall partially sheltered the 17th Maine boys; “the Rebels were straining every nerve to get possession of it for the same purpose,” according to Haley. “We held it till our ammunition was exhausted and we had used all we could find on the dead and wounded.”
“I found myself in danger of being surrounded, and fell back out of the [Rose] woods“ and into the wheatfield, “where the enemy did not risk to follow us,” de Trobriand incorrectly surmised.
As “we fell back a short distance,” Confederates poured over the stone wall lined with dead, dying, and wounded Mainers. De Trobriand had guessed wrong; now, as enemy troops pursued the withdrawing 17th Maine, he “ordered us to make a stand” in the wheat field. Haley said.
Maine boys hollered they were out of ammunition. “Then you must hold them with the bayonet,” de Trobriand ordered.
“We halted [near today’s Wheatfield Road] and formed under his direction,” Haley said. “This checked them (the enemy) momentarily, but only a moment, for they saw our (ammunition-less) condition.”
Jubilant Confederates swarmed north toward Winslow’s six 12-pounder Napoleons. His gunners “poured the grape and cannister (sic) into their (Confederate) ranks but some of them came up to the guns and were literally blown from the muzzles,” the stunned Haley witnessed the carnage. “Blood poured out like water.”
Sometime during the fight, a bullet struck and wounded Benjamin Huff, he apparently stayed with the color guard, now down to a few men.
Suddenly Bernard Hogan fell mortally wounded. The even fewer men tightened on the colors.
But here in The Wheatfield — as this Thursday afternoon’s devastating fight forever seared this non-descript farm patch into American lore — Duncan and Lake proudly and defiantly held aloft the 17th Maine’s colors.
Now other soldiers distributed ammunition to the 17th Maine. Winslow had withdrawn his guns and surviving men; Merrill passed among the 17th Maine boys and told them to load.
As Confederate troops advanced, a Union general “rode upon the field, and directed our Reg’t to advance,” Merrill reported. “With cheers … the Reg’t moved quickly forward, and pouring into the enemy volley after volley their advance was checked.”
The 17th Maine boys chased the bullet-staggered Confederates to the stone wall. “The contest was now of a most deadly character, almost hand to hand, and our loss was very severe,” Merrill recalled.
The battle-thinned 17th Maine later withdrew “but a short distance to the rear, where we bivouacked for the night,” Merrill reported. Duncan and Lake brought off the colors.
James Strout, the color guard corporal left dead at the stone wall on July 2, rejoined the regiment on July 4. Wounded in the thigh, he was actually unconscious when his comrades figured he was a goner.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.