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Essays on the Civil War
By Kent Gramm
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2002 Kent Gramm
All rights reserved.
There are secret articles in our treaties with the gods, of more importance than all the rest, which the historian can never know.
The Gettysburg Nobody Knows
On the afternoon of Thursday, July 2, 1863, the second day at Gettysburg, Captain John Bigelow's 9th Massachusetts Battery was on a firing line where nobody should have been, let alone artillery unsupported by infantry. Major General Daniel Sickles had moved his 3d Corps out from the main Union line of battle along lower Cemetery Ridge, going forward to the Emmitsburg Road. One half of his corps, Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys's division, took position along the road; the other division, Maj. Gen. David Birney's, stretched back at an angle toward Little Round Top — though there were not enough men actually to extend the line back that far. Nor were there enough infantrymen for Birney to connect in an unbroken line with Humphreys's left. The division along the road ended several hundred yards short of a peach orchard where the Wheatfield Road intersected the Emmitsburg Road; Birney put one brigade in the orchard, but it was disconnected at both flanks — no infantry to the right or left.
The infantry could not cover the ground because Sickles had taken it upon himself to occupy a line longer by 50 percent than the one his corps had been assigned. He was supposed to occupy lower Cemetery Ridge and connect to Little Round Top, securing that hill. Probably thinking he could cover that line and its commanding hill by taking position forward of them, Sickles had become dissatisfied with his instructions. He remembered that two months earlier at Chancellorsville he had obeyed orders and left some high ground to the enemy, who had proceeded to place artillery upon it and blast the Union center to rags. Standing where Cemetery Hill petered out into low ground before rising toward Little Round Top, he looked to his front and saw that the Wheatfield-Emmitsburg Road intersection and its peach orchard were higher up than he was. Of course it was lower than Little Round Top and about a mile in front of the rest of the army, but Sickles was an amateur and he did not like taking orders, so he advanced his spotty mile-and-a-half line of troops, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock of the 2d Corps, which had been connected to Sickles's right, watched the advance with wide eyes, wondering whether he had somehow failed to receive an order for the whole army to go forward. But no, he was merely witnessing yet another example of what Saint Augustine called massa damnata.
The term refers to the idea that everyone is a victim of everyone else's errors and bad behavior — "sin," the saint would have called it. In this case a brave, childish, incompetent officer (Dan Sickles) implicated not only his own corps, as it turned out, but a good part of both armies in a chaotic and inefficient bloodbath. Such is the story of military history, more or less, and as such it sheds light on human history in general, which is why some people study wars. Specifically and personally implicated in Sickles's unauthorized move was Lt. Christopher Erickson, an immigrant from Norway who had enlisted in the Union army for reasons nobody knows and found himself sitting on a horse, commanding a section (two guns) of Captain Bigelow's 9th Massachusetts Battery, It was a very bad place and time to be sitting on a horse. Because Sickles had too few men for the left half of his line, he stretched six artillery batteries, under the command of Lt, Col, Freeman McGilvery, between the intersection where Humphreys's infantry left off, and the wheatfield where Birney's infantry, except for the isolated brigade in the peach orchard, began. No Union infantry was in line to support Bigelow or the batteries between him and the orchard. Such positioning was virtually unheard-of in the Civil War because it was stupid or desperate. If there were no infantry to support a battery, enemy infantry could come forward and kill or wound the artillerymen and horses, then capture the guns and turn them around.
And here was a line of six exposed batteries, out in the open on the crest of an elevation. The leftmost was Bigelow's six guns, and mounted behind two of them sat Lieutenant Erickson, Sure enough, before this line had been in position more than a few minutes, they were hit. Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was under orders to move out from a line of woods, cross the Emmitsburg Road, and attack what the Confederate high command thought was the exposed Union flank on lower Cemetery Ridge. Their direction of advance would bring thousands of Rebels right across the peach orchard, where instead of nothing stood a line of stalwart sitting ducks.
To repeat, one such duck was Christopher Erickson. Straight up the slope came two regiments and one battalion of Brig. Gen. Joseph Ken shaw's brigade, and except for some confusion they would have rushed up through the shot and shell and captured all six batteries. But the Rebel line of battle had halted and moved by the right flank, everyone mistakenly obeying orders directed only to the far-right element. It took time to realign the units, move them left, and wheel back toward the Wheatfield Road. Meanwhile, Confederate artillery had lit up in an arc starting from across the Emmitsburg Road, perpendicular to and even toward the rear of Bigelow's line, around toward their front. The Union batteries were caught in a cross fire. Then, as if to show that things can always get worse, the men in the Union division along the Emmitsburg Road (the right flank and rear of Bigelow et al.) began pulling back toward Cemetery Ridge. They did this because it was obvious that the unsupported artillery line perpendicular to their left could not stand a combined infantry-artillery assault. Humphreys's division would have been outflanked; they had no choice but to withdraw. So now Bigelow and the other batteries were outflanked. Not only was Kershaw's infantry commencing to attack in front, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade was advancing across the Emmitsburg Road in pursuit of Humphreys, meaning that in a few minutes they would be directly in Bigelow's rear.
All of this might look rather orderly on a map, but in the actual event, that Union artillery position along upper Wheatfield Road was pandemonium. Not only were bullets flying, hitting horses and men, but Confederate shot and shells were plowing and exploding everywhere. A fragment from one of these shells, or a ball from a case shot, struck Christopher Erickson in the chest. It was very likely a mortal wound, but hell was not finished with the young lieutenant yet. The tough Norwegian rode toward the rear, toward the hypothetical main Union line back on Cemetery Ridge.
Meanwhile, the Federal artillery along Wheatfield Road began to withdraw. McGilvery told his battery commanders to get their guns away before so many of their horses were shot that the pieces could not be moved. One by one along the line they hitched up their cannons and limbers as shells screamed toward them from three directions. The undulating field behind Bigelow's battery streamed with hurrying teams and crews. Bigelow's men tensely waited for their turn, but when it came Kershaw's South Carolinians were so close that Bigelow couldn't bring his horses forward: the Confederates would have shot them down while the crews were hitching up the guns. So he ordered one of the oddest maneuvers ever necessitated during the Civil War: "Retire by prolonge, firing." A prolonge is the heavy rope wound at the bottom of a cannon's trail. The crews unspooled each gun's rope and either pulled it themselves or tied it to a team. Not being hitched to their limbers, the guns could still be fired. This firing kept the Rebels cautious because the field dips and rolls and you cannot see what is beyond the next ripple. The recoils rolled the pieces back, assisting Bigelow's men and horses.
At a fence corner at the bottom of the field, four hundred yards from his Wheatfield Road position, Bigelow prepared to order the first piece through the gate. His battery had barely made it, and in fact they were not clear yet. While the field they were leaving sloped upward back toward the peach orchard, concealing the retreating battery, it also concealed the Rebels. Each discharge made the Southerners hesitate to come over the crest, but soon enough they would come on with a rush from two, possibly three, sides. Already some of Kershaw's men were filtering through the woods along the sloping field, intending to cut off the 9th's retreat. Bigelow looked past the fence corner toward the other batteries strung out toward Cemetery Ridge.
At that moment, his commander, Lieutenant Colonel McGilvery, rode up and told Bigelow to halt and turn his battery. "The crisis of the engagement had now arrived," McGilvery wrote in his battle report. There was no infantry in position on lower Cemetery Ridge. McGilvery needed time to assemble batteries to hold back the Confederate offensive while General Hancock brought over some units from his 2d Corps. The 9th Massachusetts Battery would have to stay here and buy him that time. It would be expensive.
Captain Bigelow sized up the corner of the field and decided that there was room to work only four of his six guns. He motioned for one of his sections to go on through and save itself, but a piece overturned at the gate, blocking the way. The other crew whipped their team up over the low stone fence — a maneuver theoretically impossible, evincing the motivational power of the Rebel Yell at close quarters.
Kershaw's men were coming through the woods to the left and rear, over the top of the hill, and now the 21st Mississippi of Barksdale's brigade showed up to the right front. In minutes they would work their way around the right to the battery's rear. As the remaining four guns went into action, Christopher Erickson rode up. Nobody knows why. Nobody knows whether he had looked for medical help and could not find any, whether he suddenly felt well, whether he got angry, or whether he knew he was dying and might as well have one more swing of the battle axe at the enemy. But there is no doubt about what happened to the young Norwegian in the next few minutes,
A good while ago someone wrote a book called The Man Nobody Knows. That book, about the founder of Christianity, became a bestseller and stayed around for years. When in 1958 Richard N, Current published a book about little known and little understood facets of Abraham Lincoln, he titled it The Lincoln Nobody Knows. Openly paying Current the handsome compliment of theft, Gabor S, Boritt gathered essays on little known or controversial aspects of the famous battle and christened the result The Gettysburg Nobody Knows. This essay extends the compliment by being titled "The Gettysburg Nobody Knows" — a more direct larceny, but certainly a petty one. However, the present naming is the most accurate. What we got before was actually The Man Somebody Thinks He Knows, The Lincoln Somebody Knows, and The Gettysburg a Few of Us Know — And Soon Quite a Few More Will Know, But we are concerned here quite literally with the Gettysburg nobody knows.
With some accuracy we can plot the movements of the 9th Massachusetts Battery across the field, (We will never know exactly at what time,) We know that Bigelow's crews fired three tons of ammunition, including ninety-two rounds of canister. Perhaps sixty or so of those rounds were fired by four of Bigelow's crews from the Trostle Farm fence corner as they were attacked by Kershaw's men and by the 21st Mississippi, But we do not know how Bigelow's gunners felt as they sponged the brass Napoleons while bullets hissed around them, clanged off the tubes, or chunked into limbers, horses, and men; we do not know how black powder smoke feels in lungs quickened by the sight of enemy infantry emerging in line of battle over a rise a hundred yards away; nor can we feel the "peculiar corkscrew sensation" the Rebel Yell sent up the spine as one saw red flags hazily coming through the smoke. We know what some of the soldiers at Gettysburg did, but we do not know what they experienced.
We do not know the fight the soldiers knew, nor do we know exactly what happened almost anywhere on the field. We do not know why some significant things came about. Why was Col. Strong Vincent passing by with his brigade exactly when a staff officer went riding to find troops to defend Little Round Top, and why was the Iron Brigade's 6th Wisconsin regiment held in reserve on the morning of July 1 and therefore able to charge the Railroad Cut, or why did Bigelow's battery draw last place in line on the Wheatfield Road, or why couldn't Stonewall Jackson have been alive on the evening of the first day's fighting?
There are "black holes" in the historian's Gettysburg — a phrase used by William Frassanito to describe the absence of information concerning a part of the battle at the Rose Farm, down the slope in front of the 9th Massachusetts Battery's original position. There are no written accounts of the 10th, 15th, and 53d Georgia of Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes's Brigade, or of Kershaw's 15th South Carolina, in the battle on that part of the field. Yet we know they fought there: we have photographs of their dead. Evidence was palpable, yet exactly how the evidence arrived remains unknown. It need not always remain unknown, however. The ravenous activities of today's Civil War scholarship may yet turn up letters in an attic, or a journal deep in an old chest, or a report that somehow got filed in the wrong place.
It used to be little known that decisive actions took place near the Lutheran seminary on day one. It remains a surprise to many people that a few Southern women fought at Gettysburg, their bodies, clad in Confederate uniforms, discovered by burial parties after the battle. It may never be known for sure how many men Lee really lost in Pennsylvania-more than were reported, certainly, possibly by the thousands. This is only the beginning of a list of what we don't know. There are things people did not know before; there are things lacking documentation today; there are controversial issues. But all these mysteries may be solved someday. What we are concerned with here is what we cannot know — not because facts are missing, but because of the nature of knowledge, and because of our own nature. These things are actually more important than facts, and simply to know what kinds of things they are moves us from mere knowledge toward understanding.
Knowledge can be valuable in itself, but that value is limited. With the facts, we can be entertained, informed in a small way, even have a certain kind of power, though a poor power. Someone can always surprise or impress us with a new bit of knowledge. What we want, however, is wisdom — human knowledge; and we want understanding — knowledge of things beyond our human boundaries. Why do things happen as they do? Why are we here? What are we to do? Where do good and evil come from? After we die, shall we live again? It is the knowledge we cannot have that most requires answers, and most rewards seeking.
When Lieutenant Erickson returned to the embattled 9th Massachusetts Battery, he said he was thirsty, A man handed up a canteen which — it not being vinegar on a sponge — Erickson drained in one long draft. He then proceeded to direct his two guns as the Rebels came on, yipping, firing, flattening to the ground, and rushing up a few yards while the gun facing them was being reloaded.
Before long, men in gray and butternut were swarming all around the battery, though keeping some distance. They did not have to brave the guns' blasts in one frontal rush. They could afford to be a little patient — or so they thought. Some South Carolinians slipped from tree to tree, firing as they went, eventually getting to the fence behind the left section, Mississippians moved around the farm buildings across the little road at the fence corner. While the guns were being served — as the crews rushed through their discipline of loading, ramming, and sighting the pieces, then shoving in double and triple loads of canister, thumbing the touch holes, pulling the lanyards, and heaving the guns back into place, concentrating on the hot work at hand, beclouded by smoke in that low corner of the field and deaf to single rifle shots — Mississippians coolly took aim at the Yankees working to mow down their comrades. Some of the Southerners loped around directly behind the battery and climbed up on the parked caissons. They stood and aimed, carefully killing the cannoneers while a ragged but heavy line in front closed in, firing steadily, "It was a wonder anyone survived," one of the Massachusetts men wrote afterward.
Excerpted from Somebody's Darling by Kent Gramm. Copyright © 2002 Kent Gramm. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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