A fight with the devil in his Gettysburg den

Colonel Elijah Walker commended the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Gettysburg. Part of Dan Sickles’ 3rd Corps, the 4th Maine defended the Devil’s Den and the southern entrance to the Valley of Death in mid-to late afternoon on Thursday, July 2, 1863. In the swirling combat that engulfed the 4th Maine near the Devil’s Den, Walker was briefly captured; two enlisted Maine boys quickly rescued him. He survived the war. (Maine State Archives Photo)

Elijah Walker battled the devil in his den on July 2, 1863 — and did not escape the horrible fight unscathed.

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.

The 4th Maine boys marched into Emmitsburg, Md. at 11 a.m., July 1; two hours later, Sickles “led the larger part of his command to Gettysburg, arriving at 7 o’clock that [Wednesday] evening,” Walker remembered.

From other soldiers “we heard there had been a severe engagement” at Gettysburg,” with Union troops “driven back past Seminary Ridge,” he wrote.

“This was unwelcome news to us who had been so often defeated, but every soldier knew we were on the free soil of a free people, and all were determined to defend it or die in the attempt,” Walker stated.

“The sun disappeared, and presently the stars became dimly visible through a vaporous and smoky atmosphere,” he wrote. The 4th Maine boys camped for the night near Cemetery Ridge as officers made sure “their men were supplied with ammunition.”

The regiment carried “about 300 men and 18 officers” on its rolls that Wednesday night. Walker hoped they could rest after the day’s march; then a Sickles’ aide came quietly calling “for Colonel Walker.”

Sickles had ordered the 4th Maine to the picket line; after officers rousted their men and formed them by companies, the Maine boys stumbled west in the darkness to spread along the 3rd Corps’ lines facing Seminary Ridge. Orders were for “the right [flank] to connect with the First corps pickets and the left [flank] with those of the Second corps,” Walker recalled.

His soldiers advanced “about a half mile” west “and established a line by a rail fence, some 30 or 40 rods (500 to 650 feet) west of the Emmitsburg road, making connection with the First corps” to the north, he reported.

But “I failed to find any troops on my left, except a few cavalry scouts,” Walker noticed. Enemy soldiers picketed the treeline meandering from 500 to 800 feet away; the 4th Maine boys listened as “the enemy were assembling throughout the night” inside the woods.

After sunrise, Confederate pickets opened fire on Walker’s men and probed their positions along the rail fence. Maine boys fired accurately; the Confederates “were as often glad to regain the shelter of the woods,” Walker noticed.

He passed along to “my superiors” the information that Confederates occupied the distant woods in considerable strength. Ignoring Walker’s claim, Sickles ordered him twice to cross the open fields and dislodge the Confederate pickets; Walker ignored those orders.

At 9 a.m. Col. Hiram Berdan “reported to me with 250 of his Sharpshooters with orders to join me in dislodging the rebels,” Walker recalled. Reviewing the tactical situation, he and Berdan concurred “that an attack on the rebels’ flank was the only practicable move that could be made.”

Berdan then conferred with Sickles, who authorized a probe against the enemy’s flank. Taking with him the 3rd Maine Infantry, Berdan launched his probe about 9:30 a.m. and pushed his men into the Seminary Ridge woods.

Except for “some sharp fighting on our left,” the morning passed quietly for the 4th Maine boys, Walker recalled. The 1st Massachusetts Infantry relieved the 4th Maine on picket duty at 2:30 p.m.

By now Sickles, whose 3rd Corps held a north-south line along Cemetery Ridge, realized that a large Confederate force advanced against the Union army’s left flank. Without seeking permission from the army’s new commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, Sickles unilaterally deployed his 3rd Corps west to a new line anchored on the Emmitsburg Road and a grove to be immortalized as the Peach Orchard.

From this orchard, where the 3rd Maine would fight, Sickle 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.

Viewed from Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den seems insignificant when compared to massive boulder fields around Mount Katahdin and other Baxter State Park peaks. The den underwent some physical destruction by the late 19th to early 20th centuries as tourism increased at Gettysburg National Military Park. The 4th Maine Infantry Regiment heroically defended the Devil’s Den on July 2, 1863; the regiment’s monument is the monolith rising from the boulder in the lower right of the photo. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Superstitious 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. The woods abutted a 20-acre wheat field that would be defended by the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment.

After riding along Houck’s 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.

Before Confederate troops attacked Dan Sickles’ 3rd Corps at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Capt. James Smith of the 4th New York Independent Light Artillery deplyoed four 10-pounder Parrott cannons at the southern terminus of Houck’s Ridge. The 4th Maine Infantry Regiment deployed on his left flank (left in the photo) to protect the Devil’s Den. Today a 10-pounder Parrott stands where Smith’s cannons did and points west, in the direction from which the Confederate troops attacked. (Brian Swartz Photo)

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.”

Hell suddenly erupted west and southwest of the Devil’s Den. Confederates belonging to Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division swept east across the Emittsburg 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 called the Valley of Death.

What Walker did not know was that on Little Round Top, the Union army’s chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, had spotted additional Confederate regiments sweeping east and south of Houck’s Ridge. If these regiments flanked the 4th Maine and captured the Round Tops, the battle would be lost.

Warren grabbed the nearest available regiments, including the 20th Maine Infantry, and sent them up Little Round Top. As he shifted position across Plum Creek, Walker had sent Capt. Arthur Libby and “a few skirmishers … “into the woods between” the Round Tops. Walker 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 Ala. 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 Devil’s Den remains a major attraction at Gettysburg National Military Park. Around and within these strewn boulders did the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment battle several attacking Confederates regiments in mid-to late afternoon on Thursday, July 2, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The 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 the Devil’s Den, 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.

The 4th Maine would count many men missing by this day’s end; some were skirmishers overrun within the den.

Walker “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.

Smith remembered that the “fighting became so close that I ordered my men to cease firing, as many of the Fourth Maine had already advanced in front of my guns. I then went to the rear, and opened that section of [two] guns [placed on a knoll in the ravine], firing obliquely through the gully, doing good execution.”

Alfred Waud sketched Union troops retreating from the Devil’s Den in late afternoon on July 2, 1863. These could be 4th Maine boys. (Library of Congress)

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.”

The 6th New Jersey and 40th New York infantry regiments now “marched down the gully (the Valley of Death), fighting like tigers, exposed to a terrific fire of musketry, and when within 100 yards of the rebel line, the 4th Maine, which still held the hill, were forced to retreat,” James Smith 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.

Although “our flag was pierced by thirty-two bullets and two pieces of [artillery] shell, and its staff was shot off,” Ripley “did not allow the color to touch the ground, nor did he receive a scratch, though all the others of the color-guard were killed or wounded,” Walker acknowledged Ripley’s heroism.

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 1888, Elijah Walker walked again through Devil’s Den and into the Valley of Death as the 4th Maine survivors dedicated their regiment’s monument. Sculpted from Maine granite, the shaft rises 16 feet, 4 inches from its base set on a Devil’s Den boulder. Located slightly north of the den’s remains — time and tourism have not been good to the devil’s original Gettysburg den — the monument has as a striking backdrop the Valley of Death and the monument-studded Little Round Top.

Engraved on the 4th Maine monument are the July 2 casualties: 22 men dead, 38 wounded, and 56 missing. By October 1888, regimental survivors realized these figures were incorrect; the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment lost 23 killed, 44 wounded, and 73 captured. Some prisoners later died.

Walker delivered the dedication speech. The official records do not reveal whether he choked up at any point as he recapped the 4th Maine’s 1863 fight with the devil.

The regiment’s monument now stood in the Devil’s Den.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.