If you’ve walked amidst the boulders at the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, you have crossed paths with a Maine soldier who should have received the Medal of Honor for what he did there.
Let me introduce Henry O. Ripley, an obscure hero who stepped onto the Gettysburg stage and emerged unscathed. Confederates should have killed him during the bloody maelstrom engulfing the 4th Maine Infantry at the Devil’s Den, but Ripley’s number was not up … yet.
Born in Appleton, Ripley later moved to Rockland and worked as a “compositor” at the Free Press, a local newspaper. “Compositor” is a quaint term for a typesetter; the work was likely mundane and the pay probably inadequate, so when local businessman Elijah Walker raised an infantry company in spring 1861, Ripley signed up.
Walker’s company became Co. B, 4th Maine Infantry.
Depending on the source (his gravestone or the 4th Maine regimental rolls), Riley was either 19 or 20 when he enlisted. He fought on the northern slope of Chinn Ridge at Manassas on July 21, 1861 and in the subsequent battles — Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Second Manassas, among others — involving the 4th Maine.
Promoted to corporal on Oct. 1, 1861, Ripley gained the third stripe of a sergeant sometime before the foot-sore 4th Maine boys tramped into Emmitsburg, Md. at 11 a.m., Wednesday, July 1, 1863 while en route to Gettysburg. Elijah Walker noted that his command arrived on the battlefield at 7 p.m. and then camped near Cemetery Ridge.
The regimental rolls counted some 300 men and 18 officers present and fit for duty. Any hope for a good night’s sleep vanished during the night, when Walker rousted his men and marched them through the darkness to establish “a line by a rail fence, some 30 or 40 rods west of the Emmitsburg road, making connection with the First corps” to the north.
Sometime that morning, a 4th Maine officer tapped 10 soldiers (typically one from each company) to form the color guard. Representing Co. B, the talented Sgt. Henry Ripley carried the regimental colors.
When a regiment deployed into line before a battle, the color guard usually stood in the center of the front line and comprised two color-bearers (often sergeants) and eight enlisted men (including sergeants and corporals) assigned to protect the “colors” (or flags).
A regiment typically displayed the national flag and a specific regimental flag. A regiment lacking the latter flag (and some Maine outfits did) displayed the state flag instead.
When on the march, color-bearers tugged leather sheaths over the flags to protect them against road dust and the weather. When deploying for battle or Army formations, the sheaths came off so the flags could fly grandly in the breeze — or as happened at First Manassas, hang limply in the wind-less air.
During battle, soldiers stationed on a regiment’s right and left flanks knew that wherever the colors went, so should the rest of the regiment, except for segments deployed elsewhere. As the 4th Maine maneuvered into position during the wee hours of Thursday, July 2, Ripley and the color guard went where Walker told them to go.
Men likely bumped into each other in the dark, tripped over rocks, and blundered into thickets. We came only image the muttered imprecations!
Assigned to picket duty all morning, the 4th Maine boys traded shots with nearby Confederates. The day passed quietly until the 1st Massachusetts Infantry relieved the 4th Maine at 2:30 p.m.
Let me set the stage for Ripley’s appearance at Gettysburg.
The 4th Maine belonged to the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. John Henry Hobart Ward. To him went responsibility for defending the boulder-strewn Devil’s Den and its vicinity.
Named by some superstitious local folks who believed the devil haunted the jumbled boulders, the Den formed the southern end of the wooded Houck’s Ridge, aligned north-south and separated from the nearby Round Tops by a rocky valley.
Ward stationed the 4th Maine in the Devil’s Den and the valley toward Big Round Top. Elijah Walker deployed his men accordingly; Henry Ripley and the color guard stood somewhere near or in the Den.
Capt. James Smith unlimbered four 10-pounder Parrott guns from his 4th New York Independent Light Artillery atop Houck’s Ridge, just to the right (north) of Walker’s right flank. The 124th New York Infantry Regiment settled in along the ridge just north of Smith’s guns.
Picket-line skirmishing back-dropped the relatively quiet midafternoon, and Walker’s men caught and slaughtered a heifer. “My men (including Henry Ripley) were hungry, having drank water for supper, breakfast and dinner,” Walker said.
“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,” he said.
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 Emmitsburg 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 said.
Pvt. A.W. Tucker of Co. B, 124th New York, had a front-row seat as his company was posted beside the artillery. First came the Confederate skirmish line, then “a long line of battle extending in either direction as far as the eye could reach,” he noticed. “It was followed by a second and third line, each in supporting distance.”
The 4th New York gunners were already firing. Smith “gave every order in a clear, distinct tone, that could be heard above the tumult,” Tucker said.
Smith ordered the shell fuses cut to five or six seconds. Firing rapidly, his gunners blew through their available case shot and shrapnel; informed that such excellent infantry-destroying munitions were gone, Smith said, “Give them shell. Give them solid shot.
“D—m them, give them anything!” he snarled.
Smith was in big trouble, because Ward had sent the 4th Maine “to the left [east], leaving Smith’s guns without support and creating a space of about two hundred yards without infantry,” Walker vehemently protested the asinine order.
Smith suddenly had no support on his left flank, and the Johnnies had closed “within pistol range,” Tucker said.
The 4th Maine’s colors now uncased, Henry O. Ripley awaited his cue to step onto the Gettysburg stage. He had only minutes to wait.
Next week: Young Rockland hero saves the flag at the Devil’s Den — Part II
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.