The Second Day at Gettysburg: The Peach Orchard and Cemetery Ridge

This entry is part 14 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The Confederate  en echelon attacks continued throughout the late afternoon of the Second Day at Gettysburg with the attacks at the Peach Orchard and Cemetary Ridge.

The Peach Orchard had been planted by Reverend Joseph Sherfy, who had a homestead to the north on the opposite (west) side of the Emmitsburg Road. Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, the III Corps commander, had ordered his troops forward into the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard forming a salient in the Union line. Both infantry and artillery had been positioned in and around the orchard.

One of Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws‘ brigades, led by Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, had split its force. Three regiments had attacked at the Wheatfield and three attacked the Peach Orchard from the southwest. The Union position in the Peach Orchard was a right angle of infantry and artillery. The artillery covered a gap in the Union lines between the orchard itself and the Stony Hill adjacent to the Wheatfield.

Gettysburg, Second Day, the Peach Orchard, initial assaultsTo Kershaw’s left or north was the Mississippi Brigade of Big. Gen. William Barksdale. Behind them in the second line were two brigades of Georgians led by Brig. Gens. Paul J. Semmes and William T. Wofford with Semmes to the south and Wofford to the north. McLaws’ Division number almost 7,000 men with at least 1,100 involved in the Wheatfield attack, leaving him with slightly less that 5,900 for the advance against the Peach Orchard.

While the right wing of Kershaw’s brigade attacked into the Wheatfield, its left wing wheeled left to attack the Pennsylvania troops in the brigade of Brig. Gen. Charles K. Graham, the right flank of Birney’s line, where 30 guns from the III Corps and the Artillery Reserve attempted to hold the sector. The South Carolinians were subjected to a galling fire into their flank from the Peach Orchard.

Barksdale and Wofford’s Brigades attacked directly into the Peach Orchard with Barksdale leading his men on horseback waving his sword , encouraging his men into the fight. Union Brig. Gen.Andrew A. Humphreys‘ division had only about 1,000 men to cover the 500 yards from the Peach Orchard northward along the Emmitsburg Road to the lane leading to the Abraham Trostle farm. Some were still facing south, from where they had been firing on Kershaw’s brigade, so they were hit in their vulnerable flank.

Barksdale’s 1,600 Mississippians wheeled left against Humphreys’ men, collapsing their line regiment by regiment. Graham’s brigade retreated back toward Cemetery Ridge; Graham had two horses shot under from under him. He was hit by a shell fragment, and by a bullet in his upper body. He was eventually captured by the 21st Mississippi. Wofford’s Brigade dealt with the remaining Union troops in the Peach Orchard.

As Barksdale’s troops moved further east toward the Trostle Barn, where Sickles’ headquarters was positioned, a cannonball struck the Union corps commander in the right leg. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, puffing on a cigar and encouraging his men. Sickles would have his lg amputated later that evening. He would never again lead troops in combat. Maj. Gen. David Birney assumed command of the III Corps.

The relentless Confederate infantry charges posed serious problems for the Union artillery. They were ordered to withdraw and set up a new position on Cemetary Ridge. Capt. John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts battery with six Napoleons, on the left of the line, “retired by prolonge,” a Gettysburg, Second Day, the Peach Orchard and Cemetary Ridgetechnique rarely used in which the cannon was dragged backwards as it fired rapidly, the movement aided by the gun’s recoil. By the time they reach the Trostle house, they were told to hold the position to cover the infantry retreat, where they were eventually overrun by the 21st Mississippi, losing three of their guns.

At about 6:00 PM the final en echelon attacks were begun by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division of A.P. Hill‘s Third Corps. Anderson had 5 brigades of infantry and a battalion of artillery that numbered 7,135 men and 17 guns. His attack commenced on the right with Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox, followed byPerry‘s Brigade (commanded by Col. David Lang), Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright, Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey, and Brig. Gen. William Mahone.

The attack on the right by Wilcox and Lang ended Humphreys’ defense along the Emmitsburg Road and completed the collapse of the Union III Corps. Despite Humphreys’ personal bravery during the fighting he was forced to order a withdrawal of his shattered division. He later wrote to his wife, “Twenty times did I [bring] my men to a halt and face about … forcing the men to it.” Although not well-liked by his men, they respected his bravery in battle. Charles A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, called him a man of “distinguished and brilliant profanity.”

At this point in the battle, Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander, found himself short of available troops. He ordered Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to send one of his brigades to attack Barksdale’s Mississippians. Col. George L. Willard‘s New Yorkers drover the Confederates back to the Emmitsburg Road.

Barksdale was wounded in his left knee, followed by a cannonball to his left foot, and finally was hit by another bullet to his chest, knocking him off his horse. His troops were forced to leave their general on the field and he died the next day in a Union field hospital. Willard was also killed, and Confederate guns drove back Willard’s men in turn.

Hancock, seeing a gap in the Union line and Confederate troops rushing to exploit it, ordered the the 1st Minnesota, Harrow’s Brigade, of the 2nd Division of the II Corps to the attack. The 262 Minnesotans charged the Alabama brigade with bayonets fixed, and they blunted their advance at Plum Run but at horrible cost of 215 casualties (82%), including 40 deaths or mortal wounds, one of the largest regimental single-action losses of the war. However, they stopped the Confederate advance.

Confederate dead along the Emmitsburg RoadBrig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright‘s Brigade reached the crest of Cemetary Ridge. He may have crossed the crest, although some dispute that. He later reported to General Lee that it was relatively easy to get to the crest, but difficult to remain there. His brigade was repulsed by a flank attack and forced to withdraw because he was not supported by either Carnot Posey or William Mahone’s Brigades.

Longstreet’s attacks were over and this part of the battlefield was quiet except for the wounded men and horses. Casualty figures are difficult to assess for a single day in the Battle of Gettysburg. It is estimated that the three Confederate divisions: Hood’s, McLaws’ and Anderson’s, suffered 30–40% casualties. Union casualties in all of the actions on the Second Day probably exceeded 9,000.


Series Navigation<< The Second Day at Gettysburg: The WheatfieldThe Second Day at Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetary Hill >>

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