Screaming the famous “Rebel yell,” thousands of Confederates rolled east toward Houck’s Ridge and the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg around 4 p.m., Thursday, July 2, 1863. They rolled back a skirmish line comprising the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters and marksmen from the 4th Maine Infantry.
The fighting surged toward Devil’s Den and the valley (soon to be appended “Of Death”) separating it from Big Round Top. Elijah Walker, the 4th Maine’s colonel, watched as his men traded volleys with the 44th Alabama emerging from the woods near Big Round Top; Maine lads went down, but Sgt. Henry O. Ripley stood untouched where he held the flag amidst the color guard.
Sometime around 4:30-5 p.m., a bullet struck Walker in his left leg about 4 inches above the ankle, partially severed his Achilles tendon, and dropped his horse. Limping and bleeding, Walker stepped from the saddle to continue fighting on foot.
Over on the 4th Maine’s right (northern) flank fought the gunners of the 4th New York Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. James Smith. Stationed on Houck’s Ridge just north of the hard-pressed battery, Col. A. Van Horne Ellis of the 124th New York Infantry had ordered a charge minutes earlier that briefly stemmed the Confederate onslaught. Ellis rode “on a large, iron-gray horse,” noticed Pvt. A. W. Tucker of the 124th’s Co. B. The lieutenant colonel, Francis M. Cummins, advanced on foot; Maj. James Cromwell rode into battle, too.
“With such officers to lead them the ‘Orange Blossoms’ responded with a defiant cheer, and made as gallant and heroic a dash as the pages of history record,” Tucker said. Confederates “ran like frightened sheep,” with the Empire State wolves chasing them “fully 200 yards to a rail fence.”
Ellis and Cromwell died in that charge, and Cummins staggered from the field with a hip wound. The Orange Blossoms (named for the 124th’s origination in Orange County, N.Y.) fell back to their initial position on Houck’s Ridge.
Meanwhile, the moment of decision came for the 4th Maine. Confederates swarmed among Smith’s cannons; “Smith, on the high ground, abandoned his guns, and the rebels came over my right flank (across the Den) and in the rear of my skirmish line,” trapping some Maine lads in the Den’s boulders, Walker saw.
Walker pulled his 4th Maine back “about 100 yards” to the north of the Den. Enemy bullets zipped into the ranks, and the two flags protected by the color guard collected their share of Minie bullets; so did the color-guard members. Bullets tugged at the flag held aloft by Henry Ripley, miraculously untouched as men dropped around him.
Then the 4th Maine lads “fixed bayonets, and charged forward by the right oblique, driving the enemy from Smith’s guns,” Walker limped forward with his men. Up Houck’s Ridge went Ripley with the flag; up into hell he carried the bullet-punched banner.
And there, “at the brow of the hill, a little to the right of Devil’s Den,” the Maine boys “had a sharp encounter on our left” flank as Georgians and Texas poured over Houck’s Ridge, Walker said.
Somewhere in the “close quarters” fighting stood Ripley, with the surviving color-guard members now encircling him to keep Confederate hands off the flag. Mainers here and Confederates there bayoneted, clubbed, and throttled their enemies amidst the intermingled lines. Wielding his sword, Walker battled alongside his men; suddenly captured, he gained his freedom when two 4th Maine boys — Sgt. Edgar Mowry of Co. B and Corp. Freeman Roberts of Co. F — piled into the Confederates holding Walker prisoner.
Suddenly the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry hustled up to help. “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,” Walker said.
“With the 86th on our right in the woods, and the 4th Me. and the 99th Pa. on our left, we had no fear of being flanked from either direction,” A.W. Tucker sighed in relief. Back came the Confederate troops, but the 4th Maine lads and Orange Blossoms held their lines.
And Tucker, though he could not identify any particular Maine soldier, suddenly placed Henry Riley near or on Houck’s Ridge. The 124th had shed bodies until no “more than a strong skirmish-line left,” he said.
But “the 4th Maine’s colors stood beside ours,” he said. “We were not particular what regiment we were in, or who were fighting with us, so long as we held the ground.”
Tucker, writing in The National Tribune on Jan. 21, 1886, placed Henry O. Riley and his flag on the Gettysburg stage. Tucker could not identify Riley, of course, but he stood where “the 4th Maine’s colors stood” — and he was not yet done at Gettysburg.
The 4th Maine boys “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.”
In his closing moment on the Gettysburg stage, Sgt. Henry O. Ripley marched from the battlefield with the regimental colors still in his hands.
“Our flag was pierced by thirty-two bullets and two pieces of [artillery] shell,” Walker noticed.
A Confederate bullet (or perhaps a shell shard) had shattered the staff above the head of Riley, who caught the flag and fastened it to the remaining section of staff. He “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 said.
For such heroism the young color bearer should have received the Medal of Honor.
He did receive a prompt promotion to second lieutenant and then first lieutenant. Still serving with the 4th Maine’s Co. B, the unit with which he had gone to war, Henry O. Ripley caught a bullet through his neck on May 10, 1864, during a fight at the Po River in central Virginia.
Evacuated to a Washington, D.C. hospital, Ripley died on May 21, the day before his mother arrived to care for him. She got to the capital “only in season to accompany his lifeless remains” to Rockland, a Midcoast newspaper soon reported.
A funeral replete with military honors took place at Mrs. Ripley’s home; afterwards a large entourage followed the casket to its open grave in Jameson Point Cemetery.
Henry O. Riley died one week before his three-year enlistment would have expired. His mother lived until September 1901.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.