Twenty-two when he mustered as a corporal with Company I, 19th Maine Infantry Regiment on August 25, 1862, Edgar A. Burpee displayed leadership skills that saw him promoted to first lieutenant by summer 1863.
Midcoast men filled Company I, commanded on the march north to Gettysburg by Capt. George D. Smith of Rockland. The towns cited beside the Company I names published in Maine at Gettysburg read like a DeLorme map of Knox and Lincoln counties: Appleton, Bremen, Camden, and South Thomaston, among other places, and lots of Vinalhaven men: three corporals, eight privates, and one musician.
Stationed with II Corps on Cemetery Ridge on July 2, 1863, the 19th Maine lads fought hard, helping repulse James Longstreet’s flank attack that almost broke the Union left flank. As Confederate brigades tore apart the III Corps’ regiments holding the Peach Orchard and the Emmitsburg Road line to the southwest, Col. Francis Heath ordered his men to lay down as bullets and cannonballs flew past.
Pursuing Confederates nipping and shooting at their heels, shattered elements from III Corps streamed across Cemetery Ridge in late afternoon. Heath walked back and forth “in front of the Regiment, cautioning the men to lie still and permit the retreating troops to pass over us,” noted Corp. John Day Smith, who wrote the regimental history in the early 1900s.
With the III Corps refugees safely past and the Confederates approximately 35 yards away, “Heath gave the order to rise and fire,” Smith recalled. “About 400 men in line of battle … rose and delivered” a “deadly fire into the faces of the Confederates.”
“It was a trying moment when with a single line we rose up to breast the storm of lead from the enemies guns,” Edgar Burpee wrote his “dear Mother” on July 22.
Shedding bodies along their respective lines, the Johnnies and Yanks fired steadily “some thirty yards” apart, Smith estimated.
“The men dropped so fast that it seemed for a moment as if we should be overpowered and slain[,] but the thought of retreating never occurred to me,” Burpee said.
“We fired about eight rounds each into their ranks” as a Union artillery battery deployed off the 19th Maine’s left flank threw “shell and canister into, and” made “terrible havoc in the enemy’s ranks.”
Heath ordered his men to charge. “And when we charged down the hill”(westward on Cemetery Ridge) with “the enemy fleeing in confusion, though shell and grape was coming like a hurricane, the only thoughts I had were to press on- and how I wish you could be here to see us,” Burpee wrote.
That night the 19th Maine lads “lay down upon the ground … at nearly the point from which we charged in late afternoon,” noted Smith. “When the roll was called, many a brave boy for the first time failed to respond to his name.”
Haunted by “the cries of the wounded men, lying between the lines,” the 19th Maine boys slept perhaps 200-300 yards downhill from a grove of spindly oaks; Smith remembered this “clump of trees” located “about the middle of the Second Corps line,” he said.
Friday, July 3 dawned “an intensely hot day” with “hardly a breath of air stirring,” Smith noticed. “At one o’clock in the afternoon there was suddenly opened the most terrific cannonading ever witnessed on this continent” as “one hundred and thirty-eight Confederate guns were turned upon our lines, and mostly” upon the artillery and infantry deployed either side of the oak grove.
With George Smith mortally wounded on July 2, Burpee commanded Company I. He and his men hugged the earth.
“There[,] Mother[,] you cannot conceive the terrible shriek and noise of shell and appalling report [that] grape and cannister (sic) make when it strikes the ground,” he described the airborne terror. “It almost makes a man shudder & cringe to be a listener to it.
“It requires much strength of mind to compose oneself when lying under a rapid shelling, but strange as it may see,[,] one can get accustomed to it and even sleep while it is going on,” Burpee wrote, suggesting that some men fell asleep during the bombardment.
“We lay snug to the ground[,] but kept our ears open,” he said. “We can tell when a shell is coming toward us and if we hear it coming to our right or left[,] we dont (sic) much fear danger[,] but when we hear them coming right over our heads or within a few feet of us we make ourselves as flat as possible.”
“The very earth seemed to tremble as if in the convulsions of a mighty earthquake,” remembered John Day Smith. “The earth was thrown up in clouds and the air filled with screeching missiles of death.
“Upon every side horses were falling and caissons exploding,” and “animals fled in terror,” he wrote. “Shells exploding in the air sent their jagged fragments in all directions,” and “the crash and roar were unearthly.”
Confederate guns fell silent, and “the long line of Confederate infantry nearly a mile in length … presented one of the most inspiring sights ever seen on a field of battle,” Smith witnessed the enemy infantry emerging from the Seminary Ridge woods.
As Confederate troops broke through the Union line and reached the Copse of Trees, those scrub oaks at which Robert E. Lee pointed his men, the 19th Maine lads hustled northward and plowed into the rugby scum that ejected the Johnnies.
Burpee and Smith survived. At Gettysburg “I knew no fear,” Burpee told his mother. “What I call bravery and courage is when a man feels and knows his situation & is willing to face the danger[,] let the sacrifice be what it may.”
Sources: Edgar Burpee letter to his mother, July 22, 1863 (courtesy Calvin Arey); John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteers, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909; Maine at Gettysburg, Lakeside Press, Portland, Maine, 1898
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