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 horrific fighting took place north and west of the town. Robinson deployed his brigades near the Chambersburg Pike (now Route 30).
According to 16th Maine Adjutant (and Major) Abner Small, “the First Brigade hastily threw up a redoubt of earth and fence rails, in a circular form, just in front of the [Lutheran Theological] seminary” just west of Gettysburg. “I recall that as I looked up at the building behind us and saw some officers in the cupola taking a view, I noticed them pointing northerly.”
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, so Robinson accompanied one brigade that marched north.
About 1 p.m. Capt. Stephen Whitehouse of Newcastle commented to Small that “I wish I felt as brave as the colonel [Tilden] appears.”
“Why, Captain, he’s as scared as any of us,” Small replied. “Cheer up! ’Twill soon be over.”
“Fall in! Forward Sixteenth!” Tilden suddenly called after Paul received orders to advance his brigade.
As the 16th Maine formed, Whitehouse told Small, “Good-by, Adjutant, this is my last fight.”
Paul led his brigade at the double quick to the northeast, across the Chambersburg Pike and the unfinished railroad. Then the 16th Maine and the 1st Brigade angled northwest up the ridge that runs south from Oak Hill.
Small recalled that “we went across a ridge toward a grove” bordered by “low heaps of stones” among which grew “thick bushes. 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,” Small remembered. The “rebel line was firing.”
The 16th Maine formed a line about 450 feet in length. To the regiment’s left spread the 94th New York, to its right the 107th Pennsylvania. 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.
Of all the 1st Brigade’s regimental officers, only Charles Tilden rode a horse that afternoon, and Confederate sharpshooters quickly targeted him. “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.
“Our boys would have followed them, but were recalled, and moved with the [2nd ] division still further to the right” near the Mummasburg Road and Oak Hill, he remembered.
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.”
Tilden could see the Confederate regiments reforming to the west and northwest; he could hear the loud din behind him where Howard’s regiments collapsed. 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 stands today along Doubleday Avenue in Gettysburg National Military Park; this wall may actually be a replica of the wall that existed during the battle. 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.
“We got there just as a flag and a line of battle showed up across the way … a volley crashed, and we saw some of our men fall,” he remembered. “Our line blazed away in reply, and the rebel flag went down.”
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, where the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment placed its tree-trunk monument on ground soaked in Maine blood, and where the NPS erected its shortest Gettysburg observation tower, 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.”
While loading his almost-too-hot-to-touch rifled musket, Chapman watched as 1st Lt. George A. Deering, a Co. F officer from Saco, “sheathed his sword, and seizing a musket from a fallen man, went into the ranks.
“He was evidently excited, and every once in a while would forget to return his rammer (ramrod) after loading” and “hence would send it over to the enemy” upon pulling the trigger,” the astonished Chapman noticed.
“The peculiar swishing noise made by the rammer, as it hurried through the wood was laughable to the boys, and must have been a holy terror to the rebels,” he recalled.
“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. Intact Union regiments already stood on Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, located respectively southeast and south of the town. Around those regiments, livid Union officers cajoled, threatened, and sometimes kicked stampeding soldiers into line, any line as long as it faced the approaching Confederate army.
“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 along 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.
A few stragglers rejoined the shattered 16th Maine in the weeks to come. Pvt. Benjamin Worth of Vassalboro, a fast-thinking member of Co. E, escaped imprisonment by binding his ankle with blood-soaked bandages. Overworked Confederate surgeons did not even check his “wound,” but left him in a makeshift hospital when Robert E. Lee withdrew his army after the battle.
Worth rejoined the 16th Maine on July 4.
Presumed captured on July 1, the missing Maj. Arch Leavitt of Turner “joined the regiment, and assumed command” at 10 p.m. on July 4. “The heavy rain could not put out our enthusiasm, or dampen our joy at his coming,” Abner Small recalled.
The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier published some good news on Monday, July 20. Referring to a Washington, D.C. dispatch dated two days earlier, the newspaper reported that “Captain [Samuel Clifford] Belcher of Company G … reached here on Saturday, after spending three days in the rebel lines as prisoner.”
Seizing an opportunity, Belcher and Lt. Isaac Thompson of Co. G “escaped in South Mountain Pass” in Maryland, “in the night, while on the march towards Hagerstown,” the dispatch indicated. “After remaining in the mountains three days without food,” Belcher “was enabled to reach our lines, or I should have said, our lines reached him.
“For the advance guard came up and he then came down from the mountains and as he had no regiment to report to, came into this city,” the press report stated.
As for Thompson, he “has not been heard from, and may have been recaptured,” the dispatch writer surmised. Fortunately Thompson did turn up in time.
Hailing from Farmington, where celebrations broke out that weekend, Belcher was quoted in the dispatching as saying “the loss in the regiment as quite severe in killed and wounded, and nearly all who were not injured were taken prisoners.”
The 275 had given their all to save the thousands.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com.