A dwindling color guard protected the 17th Maine’s flags

Artist Edwin Forbes painted this detailed panorama of the impending collision of Confederate and Union troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. As Federal artillery (right) fires at distant Confederate troops, Union infantrymen lie down to avoid casualties that could be inflicted by plunging enemy cannon balls. (Library of Congress)

Protecting the flags of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment took guts at Gettysburg.

Commanded by Lt. Col. Charles Benjamin Merrill, the 17th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps — the same corps that Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles deployed to its evisceration west of Cemetery Ridge on Thursday, July 2, 1863. He had led all but two brigades of his corps into Gettysburg the previous day.

To guard against a Confederate attack, Sickles left in Emmitsburg those two brigades, including the 3rd and its French commander, Col. Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand; he settled for “Regis” in his official correspondence.

With the Army of the Potomac’s 1st and 11th corps rudely handled on July 1, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade needed men. Couriers pushed lathered horses through the Pennsylvania and Maryland darkness; hastening to summon “with all available speed” every unit not yet at Gettysburg, these hard-riding men stressed urgency to every commander they found …

… including de Trobriand. “An order having reached me at 2 o’clock on … [Thursday] morning to join the corps, I started at daybreak,” he reported some days later.

Rudely rousted at 3 a.m. on Thursday, the hungry 17th Maine boys scoffed “when ordered to get breakfast… we hadn’t a solitary thing to lay our jaws to except coffee,” commented Pvt. John Haley of Saco.

Then word came “to move immediately.” The 3rd Brigade stepped north on the Emmitsburg Road (today’s Business Route 15) and later “hauled up for coffee,” Haley noted. Apparently de Trobriand failed to relay to his combat veterans the “need for speed” before the marching began —

— but he certainly did now.

“Before the water was even warm,” orders came “telling us to move right on,” Haley groused. He soon learned, though, that “we were in danger of being cut off from the rest of the army.

“Lee’s army was extending to the left and wheeling around so as to envelop our flank and cover the road we were then on,” Haley explained.

The 3rd Brigade promptly hustled toward Gettysburg, marched “four or five miles,” and took yet another coffee break, this time under de Trobriand’s order.

Apparently Regis did not understand the need for speed, either.

The Maine soldiers started to heat water; then arrived a sweat-stained courier bearing “another imperative order” from the 1st Division commander, Maj. Gen. David Birney. He ordered the 3rd Brigade soldiers “to move right away,” Haley remembered.

They did, and “not a moment too soon was this order obeyed,” Haley admitted. “Less than fifteen minutes after we passed, the Rebels swung around across the Emmitsburg Road in [the] rear of our column.”

Haley realized that the attacking Confederates could have delivered “a demoralizing flank fire” on the Union troops as they marched toward Gettysburg; only “the ignorance of our presence” kept the enemy troops from doing so, he figured.

As the 3rd Brigades troops approached Gettysburg, they encountered many civilians fleeing the town aboard conveyances “loaded down with bedding and clothing,” Haley recalled. He wondered why the civilians fled “toward the Rebels.”

De Trobriand later reported that his brigade arrived on the field about 10 a.m. Haley confirmed the time in his journal; at approximately 10 a.m., the 17th Maine “turned off to the right [from the Emmitsburg Road] into the fields” and maneuvered across the undulating terrain.

He recalled turning right into a lane south of Sherfy’s Peach Orchard “and also near the house of one Rose.”

De Trobriand finally moved his regiments into the woods east of the Peach Orchard about 2 p.m. Recalling that the 17th Maine “didn’t settle into position until 3 P.M.,” Haley took time (perhaps 30-45 minutes) to relax with his comrades.

But Confederate Gen. James Longstreet had unleashed his hordes earlier that afternoon. 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.” He estimated that “the attacking column … comprised nearly one-half of [Robert E.] Lee’s army — the flower of it at that.”

Screaming the Rebel yell, Confederate troops poured across the Emmitsburg Road and the Bush and Slyder farms; the juggernaut struck to the south, where the 4th Maine Infantry held the Devil’s Den. Confederate brigades also targeted the north end of Houck’s Ridge, covered by Rose Woods. At their northern edge, the woods ended abruptly at a 20-acre wheatfield.

“The fire becoming more brisk, I was ordered to detach a regiment” to the Peach Orchard, de Trobriand reported. He sent the 3rd Michigan Infantry, commanded by Col. Byron Pierce.

Confederate brigades struck Houck’s Ridge south of the wheatfield and also the Peach Orchard to the west. Now the cream of Robert E. Lee’s infantry — Alabamians, Georgians, Mississippians, and the vaunted Texans — targeted the midpoint, Rose Woods and the 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.”

The survivors of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment erected a tall monument alongside the Wheat Field-bordering stone wall defended by the unit on July 2, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Haley remembered that “we double-quicked down the left” 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 color guard members bee lined for the stone wall. Around them hustled their dust-covered, road-weary comrades, who reached the wall and took position along it.

The 17th Maine boys cut it close. “By the time our line was formed, the Rebel column had arrived at the opposite edge of the woods,” Haley said; Charles Merrill estimated the distance at 100 yards, with the enemy troops visible through the trees.

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 Randolph’s battery [E, 1st Rhode Island Artillery], which was on a gentle rise in [the] rear of us, served a dose of grape and cannister (sic) every few seconds.”

Haley may have mistaken that battery for Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery, deployed on a slight rise almost due north of the 17th Maine. Commanded by Capt. George Winslow, the gunners used the advantageous elevation to fire effectively into Rose Woods without hitting the Maine boys. Randolph’s battery was deployed in the Peach Orchard, out of sight to the west.

Firing as fast as they could load, the 17th Maine boys inflicted many casualties. “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,” Charles Merrill reported. Sheltering along a rail fence, the right-flank companies fired furiously and accurately, 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.
“We knew the fate of the army hung on the result,” he wrote.

“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. He ordered the 17th Maine boys to withdraw, but they clung stubbornly to the stone wall.

Then Birney “came down and ordered us away from the wall, saying we were in grave danger of capture,” Haley recalled.

As “we fell back a short distance,” Confederate infantrymen 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.

He later reported that “as the enemy was pressing upon us on that side, I made a ‘retour offensif’ with that [Maine] regiment, re-enforced by the Fifth Michigan, keeping the enemy at bay in the woods.”

“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. Those 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 high the 17th Maine’s colors. Its line wickedly shrunken since the rush to the stone wall, the regiment stood with its bayonet-tipped rifles facing the Confederate regiments threatening both flanks and the front.

The regimental colors stayed erect as soldiers quickly passed ammunition to the 17th Maine boys. Winslow had withdrawn his cannons and surviving men; his men needed no encouraging as Charles Merrill passed among them and told them to load.

Of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment’s two monuments at Gettysburg, one stands on the southern edge of Cemetery Ridge and marks where the regiment deployed to help repel Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Confederate troops advanced across The Wheatfield. “At this point Gen’l Birney rode upon the field, and directed our Reg’t to advance,” Merrill reported. “With cheers for our gallant [division] commander, 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 across the field and 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.

About 6 p.m. arriving Union forces volley-fired across The Wheatfield “and saved the day,” John Haley remembered. “An injured companion and myself were very nearly surrounded by the Rebs” and probably destined for captivity “when, at this point, we encountered the division of the 6th Corps coming into line.”

The battle-thinned 17th Maine withdrew “but a short distance to the rear, where we bivouacked for the night,” Merrill later reported. Duncan and Lake brought off the colors.
His boys could not recover all their casualties that Thursday; in fact, more men fell as the 17th Maine boys helped repel Lee’s grand assault on Friday.

James Strout, the dead color guard corporal left 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 dead.

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.