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. A muster called a day earlier had numbered 500 or so men in the regimental ranks, but detached duty and sickness had culled 100 men from the firing line even before Heath arrived at the fight he could hear brewing in the distance.
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.
Anticipating a Confederate attack, Sickles “had a great deal of maneuvering to do while getting his lines established,” Heath noted. Sickles “had hardly finished” when Confederate divisions struck.
As close-order fighting spread from left to right (south to north) along the 3rd Corps’ thin line, Hancock shifted the 19th Maine 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 the brigade’s left flank.
Heath 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, who could not shoot without hitting their own men.
“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.
“Fearing that the Reg’t would be carried away with the disordered troops,” he declined.
“I told the General to get out of the way & that we would stop the [Confederate] pursuers,” Heath recalled.
The 19th Maine boys listened as the angry Humphreys, accompanied by “several staff officers,” rode along the regiment’s line 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,” Heath remembered. “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.”
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 slope to the Emmitsburg Road.
Friday’s hot and humid dawn found the 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 his Co. D and three other under-strength companies west to deploy as skirmishers along the Emmitsburg Road; Fogler’s right flank abutted the Codori Farm house.
Not fed yet, Heath’s hungry boys listened as fighting intensified at Culp’s Hill to the east. Then, signaling Lee’s intentions, two Confederate cannons fired somewhere along Seminary Ridge about 1 p.m.
Moments later more than 130 more 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 who estimated the time.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.
“For one I felt a great relief when the enemy’s skirmishers appeared, for we knew the decisive moment was near,” Heath recalled.
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. Other Union regiments spread along the stone wall also fired, pouring in heavy volleys that shredded the Confederates’ right flank.
Physically shying from the heavy damage to that flank and obeying Lee’s order to focus on the Copse of Trees, 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. “In their anxiety to reach the foe, men thrust their rifles over the shoulders, under the arms and between the legs of those in the front ranks of the melee,” recalled the “Historical Sketch.” Artillery shells detonated amidst the soldiers in blue and gray.
Now 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 that, added to Thursday’s bloodletting, boosted the final toll to 65 killed or mortally wounded and 137 men not fatally wounded. Another four men vanished; they were later added to the regiment’s Gettysburg death toll.
For the 19th Maine, this had been one heckuva date.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.