The Second Day at Gettysburg: Devil’s Den

This entry is part 11 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign
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If the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg ended in the Confederate’s favor, then the Second Day was a draw with both sides having their near-complete forces on the battlefield. The Second Day features a series of Confederate attacks on the Union flanks in an attempt to thin the Union defensive position on Cemetary Ridge.

The Second Day features battles that are identifiable by their names: the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. Names that conjure for the reader the titanic struggle that took place in the green countryside of the Keystone State.

The Union troops at Gettysburg were fighting on their home ground and were prepared to fight to the extreme limits of their endurance to preserve home and hearth. The Confederates knew that Gettysburg was an opportunity to defeat the Army of the Potomac and win their independence. The inexorable force against the immovable object.

Gettysburg, Second Day, Devil's DenLee’s plan called for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps to drive up the Emmitsburg road in a two-corps assault. The attack was at an oblique angle and the plan called for it to roll up the Union flank. The attack was to be supported by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s Division of Hill’s Corps which would attack straight into the center of the Union line.

Longstreet’s attack was delayed because he first had to wait for his final brigade (Evander M. Law‘s, Hood’s division) to arrive, and then he was forced to march on a long, circuitous route so as not to be seen by Union Army Signal Corps observers on Little Round Top. It was 4:00 PM by the time his two divisions reached their jumping off points. Then he and his generals were astonished to find the III Corps planted directly in front of them on the Emmitsburg Road.

Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles had moved his corps forward about 1,100 yards in order to occupy a Peach Orchard on high ground and deny the Confederates its use as an artillery position. However, it created a salient in the Union defensive line that allowed the position to be attacked on three sides. It also placed a road block in LOngstreet’s advance and forced his troops to engage the III Corps, further delaying their attack.

Longstreet’s assault began with a 30-minute artillery barrage from his 36 guns. It punished the Union defenders in the Peach Orchard and on Houck’s Ridge. Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood‘s Division deployed in Biesecker’s Woods on Warfield Ridge (at the southern end of Seminary Ridge) in two lines of two brigades each: at the left front, Brig. Gen. Jerome B. Robertson‘s Texas Brigade (Hood’s old unit); right front, Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law; left rear, Brig. Gen. George T. Anderson; right rear, Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning.

At about 4:30 PM, Hood’s brigades stepped off. Their orders were to were to cross the Emmitsburg Road and wheel left, moving north with their left flank guiding on the road. This deviation from the plan became a serious issue when minutes into the attack Hood was severely wounded by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell. The primary assaulting division proceeded without a commander.

No plan survives contact with the enemy and General Robert E. Lee’s plan was no exception. There are a number of reasons why Hood’s assault General John Bell Hoodmay have deviated from the plan. Troops from the III Corps were in the Devil’s Den area and they threatened Hood’s flank. The 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters at Slyder’s farm drew the attention of Law’s troops who advanced against them. The difficulty of the terrain disrupting the attacking formations. Finally, General Law was not made aware of Hood’s injury, so he never took command.

Robertson and Law split their advance with one attack against Devil’s Den and the other against the Round Tops. The Union troops at Devil’s Den were from Brig. Gen. J. H. Hobart Ward‘s Brigade from Maj. Gen.David B. Birney‘s division. They numbered about 2,200 men, including 2 companies of sharpshooters. They were positioned at the southern end of Houck’s Ridge, a modest elevation on the northwest side of Plum Run Valley, made distinctive by piles of huge boulders.

The Confederates attacked the Union defenders straight on and since the Union troops had not erected defensive breastworks, the two sides had a ferocious stand-up fight for over an hour. In the first 30 minutes, the 20th Indiana lost more than half its strength, with its colonel killed and lieutenant colonel wounded. The 86th New York also lost its commander. The commander of the 3rd Arkansas fell wounded, one of 182 casualties in his regiment.

Two regiments from Law’s brigade pushed up Plum Run Valley and threatened to turn Ward’s flank. The commander of the 124th New YorkColonel Augustus Van Horne Ellis, and his major, James Cromwell, decided to counterattack. They mounted their horses despite the protests of soldiers who urged them to lead more safely on foot. Maj. Cromwell said, “The men must see us today.”

They were able to push the 1st Texas attackers back but the Texans rallied when the two Union commanders were killed. The New Yorkers retreated to their starting point, with only 100 survivors from the 283 they started with. As reinforcements from the 99th Pennsylvania arrived, Confederate attack at Devil's DenWard’s brigade retook the crest.

The second wave of Confederate attackers attacked through a gap in the Union defensive line but the defenders put up a ferocious defense and repulsed their advance. The Union defense was fierce, and Anderson’s brigade pulled back; Anderson was wounded in the leg and carried from the battle.

Two of Benning’s Confederate regiments, the 2nd and 17th Georgia, moved down Plum Run Valley around Ward’s flank. They received murderous fire but eventually were able to capture three 10-pound Parrott rifles from Captain James Smith’s 4th New York Independent artillery battery. They were used against Union troops the next day.

Birney scrambled to find reinforcements. He sent the 40th New York and 6th New Jersey from the Wheatfield into Plum Run Valley to block the approach into Ward’s flank. They collided with Benning’s and Law’s men in rocky, broken ground that the survivors would remember as the “Slaughter Pen”. (Plum Run itself was known as “Bloody Run”; Plum Run Valley as the “Valley of Death”.) As the men of the 40th fell back under relentless pressure, the 6th New Jersey covered their withdrawal and lost a third of its men in the process.

The pressure on Ward’s brigade was eventually too great, and he was forced to call for a retreat. Hood’s division secured Devil’s Den and the southern part of Houck’s Ridge. The center of the fighting shifted to the northwest, to Rose Woods and the Wheatfield, while five regiments under Evander Law assaulted Little Round Top to the east. Benning’s men spent the next 22 hours on Devil’s Den, firing across the Valley of Death on Dead soldiers at Devil's DenUnion troops massed on Little Round Top.

The assaults by Hood’s brigades were classic, tough infantry fights. Of 2,423 Union troops engaged, there were 821 casualties (138 killed, 548 wounded, 135 missing); the 5,525 Confederates lost 1,814 (329 killed, 1,107 wounded, 378 missing).

 

 

 

 

 

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