Waterville’s Francis Heath and his 19th Maine Infantry Regiment kept their July 3, 1863 date with a guy named Pickett.
The experience left a sour taste in the mouths of everyone involved.
Then a colonel, Heath and some 400 weary 19th Maine boys marched along Taneytown Road toward Gettysburg on Wednesday, July 1. The Maine boys bivouacked at 11 p.m. and slept a few hours.
About 3 a.m. on Thursday “we started” for Gettysburg “and after marching two or three miles … went into line on Cemetery Ridge with our faces toward the west,” Heath later wrote to his friend, Selden Connor, another combat officer from Maine.
From their vantage point, his men “watched … with much interest” as the 3rd Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles abandoned its assigned defensive position and shifted southwest and west to Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, Rose’s Wheatfield, and the Devil’s Den.
Then Confederate divisions struck. As close-order fighting spread from left to right (south to north) along the 3rd Corps’ thin line, the 19th Maine shifted to protect the 5th United States Battery, “which was posted on my right flank,” Heath reported.
The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment deployed about 1,000 feet away to the south, on his left flank.
He saw Confederate troops launch “a vigorous attack on the right of” the 3rd Corps, “which was deployed on the Emmitsburg Road in plain view & to our left flank.” The shattered Union regiments driven from the Peach Orchard and the road retreated east “directly towards my line.”
To reduce casualties caused by Confederate artillery, Heath had already ordered his men to lay down. Fleeing Union troops now raced toward the prone Maine boys.
“When the remains of his Division got within some hundred yards of my a line a General Officer that I supposed to be [Andrew] Humphreys rode up to me and ordered me to get my men on their feet and stop his men,” Heath reported. He refused to do so.
The 19th Maine boys listened as the angry Humphreys rode along the regiment’s lines and shouted at the men to stand. The equally irate Heath “followed closely and countermanded his orders”; the Maine boys remained prone as fleeing soldiers “passed over the 19th … & I saw them no more,” Heath recalled.
Pursuing Confederates closed on the 19th Maine. Heath estimated the distance at 50 yards when “I got the men up and for a moment watched the rebel advance.”
Now he picked a target. Ahead of the enemy battle line ran a color bearer “near enough for me to distinguish his features very plainly,” Heath wrote. “I can now see the determined way in which he moved forward.”
Positioned “near the [regimental] colors[,] I spoke over my shoulder to the soldiers nearest me to shoot the color bearer,” he recalled. “The men fired and the color [bearer] fell. I gave the order to fire by battalion which was evidently effective as it stopped the Rebel advance. The enemy now opened fire and I lost a good many men.”
The initial 19th Maine volley “staggered and halted” the Confederates, said Pvt. Silas Adams of Co. F and Bowdoinham. “In this position of some thirty yards from their lines we fired about eight rounds each into their ranks.”
A Confederate regiment approached the 19th Maine’s exposed left flank. Alerted by Capt. Isaac Starbird of Co. F, Heath reached the position as the enemy troops deployed into line perhaps 75 feet away. If they fired first, the 19th Maine was doomed.
With Starbird’s southernmost files, Heath swiftly formed a line perpendicular to his main line, then yelled, “Give it to them!” The Maine boys fired; surviving Confederate troops disappeared as their wounded comrades writhed on the ground.
Battle confusion led Heath to briefly pull back the 19th Maine, now joined by the Minnesota boys and the 7th Michigan Infantry and 59th New York Infantry in firing steadily at enemy troops.
Then “we heard the ringing order of Colonel Heath to fix bayonets,” said Sgt. George Studley of Co. I and Camden. “Then the order to charge was given and the Regiment started forward and down across the plain, like a tornado let loose.”
Along with the 19th Maine went the 1st Minnesota, fated to lose oh so many men in this charge that hurled Confederate troops “nearly to the Emmitsburg Road,” Studley recalled.
The Maine boys brought back four abandoned Union cannons and some caissons, prisoners, and enemy regimental colors. Heath counted his men. Some 130 no longer stood in the ranks; blue-clad Mainers lay strewn from Cemetery Ridge west along that long field to the Emmitsburg Road.
As the sun set, Heath and his still unfed men collected their wounded and buried their dead, at least those they could find.
Friday’s hot and humid dawn found the yet unfed 19th Maine Infantry Regiment “in line on the left of the 20th Mass.[achusetts],” about 200 yards north of where Heath had deployed his men a day earlier. At dawn Capt. William Fogler took four other under-strength companies west to deploy as skirmishers along the Emmitsburg Road; Fogler’s right flank abutted the Codori Farm house.
Two Confederate cannons fired somewhere along Seminary Ridge about 1 p.m. Moments later more than 130 enemy cannons started firing on Cemetery Ridge; for Heath and his men, survival suddenly meant hugging the ground and huddling close to the stone wall along which they lay.
“All we had to do while undergoing the shelling was to chew tobacco, watch the caissons explode [from direct hits] and wonder if the next shot would hit you,” Heath remembered.
The bombardment lasted 60-120 minutes, depending on whose estimate. As Confederate guns fell silent about 2-2:30 p.m., “from the distant [Seminary Ridge] woods … appeared the magnificent spectacle of the enemy’s skirmishers deploying from a column of 15,000 men, like the opening of a vast fan,” reported the 19th Maine’s “Historical Sketch” in “Maine at Gettysburg.”
Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett aimed his division toward the Codori Farm. After taking one look at 5,000 or so oncoming Confederates, Fogler likely let his men loosen a few rounds before withdrawing to Cemetery Ridge.
Federal artillery started pounding the advancing Confederates. Then “when Pickett got within range” at 300 to 400 yards, “we opened fire on him,” Heath remembered.
Physically shying from the heavy damage to their right flank, Confederate troops obliqued to their left. Pickett “made a slight change in his line of march so that he struck” the Union lines slightly north of the 19th Maine, Heath explained.
“As Pickett’s men were moving diagonally … on our front … amongst them was a mounted officer,” he noticed. “A cry was raised among our men to ‘shoot that man on a horse’ which was soon accomplished.”
Surviving Confederate troops reached and crossed the stone wall opposite the Copse of Trees. There Federal troops “gave way under the shock,” Heath recalled. “I immediately moved the 19th toward the gap, but it was impossible to get them in order.”
Union regiments rushed to stem the Confederate charge. “It was a wild charge, with little regard for ranks or files,” recalled the “Historical Sketch.”
“Everyone wanted to be first and the various commands were all mixed up,” according to Heath. “We went up more like a mob than a disciplined force.”
As Heath reached the Copse of Trees, a shell fragment struck his shoulder and knocked him down. Fighting raged around him as the 19th Maine boys fought near the copse’s southernmost tree trunks. There came a brief lull, sufficient time for the color bearers to shift to the left flank.
Then the intermingled Union troops received orders to clear out the remaining Confederates. Led by Lt. Col. Henry Cunningham, the 19th Maine “moved along the left (west) of the copse down to the wall where the Union line had been,” the “Historical Sketch” noted. “There the fighting was hand to hand until the enemy were, by sheer strength, pushed beyond the wall; then the line was saved.”
To keep their date with Pickett, Heath and his Maine boys paid a high price: at least another 76 casualties.
This had been one heckuva date.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.