The Second Day at Gettysburg: The Wheatfield

This entry is part 13 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

Longstreet’s attack on the Union left on the Second Day at Gettysburg was supposed to be a coordinated two-division assault but Longstreet had changed Lee’s plan and delayed Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws‘ attack against the Wheatfield until 5:00 PM. The third Confederate hammer blow against the Union line was to be carried out by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division of A.P. Hill‘s Third Corps at about 6:00 PM.

Longstreet had changed the attack plan to an en echelon style of attack rather than a coordinated frontal assault. The theory was that this type of attack would disrupt the defenders and cause them to shift troops to their left to defend against the initial assaults.

The one unforeseen complication was Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles’ movement of his III Corps into a position that blocked the Confederate advance. Sickles had moved his corps forward by about 1,100 yards in an attempt to deny the Confederates high ground on which they could have positioned their artillery and shelled his troops.

Gettysburg, Second Day, the WheatfieldSickles’ move had already delayed Hood’s attack and changed its direction. At this point Longstreet decided upon the en echelon attack. When Longstreet observed that Hood’s attack had reached its limits and that the enemy was fully engaged he order McLaws to commence his attack. It was now about 5:00 PM and the battle had been raging for about an hour.

McLaws had arranged his brigades in a two forward, two back formation as Hood had done. On the  left front, facing the Peach Orchard, the brigade of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale; right front, Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw; left rear, Brig. Gen. William T. Wofford; right rear, Brig. Gen. Paul Jones Semmes. McLaws had 6,924 men and 15 guns for the assault.

The area known as the Wheatfield had three geographic features, all owned by the John Rose family: the 20 acre field itself, Rose Woods bordering it on the west, and a modest elevation known as Stony Hill, also to the west. Immediately to the southeast was Houck’s Ridge and to the south Devil’s Den. The fighting here, consisting of numerous confusing attacks and counterattacks over two hours by eleven brigades, earned the field the nickname “Bloody Wheatfield.”

The initial attack in this area had been carried out by a brigade from Hood’s Division that had been repulsed by combined musket and artillery fire during Hood’s initial assault.

At about 5:30 PM, Kershaw’s Brigade approached the Rose Family farmhouse and Stony Hill. This position was defended by two brigades of the 1st Division, V Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. James Barnes. For some reason Barnes withdrew his men about 270 yards to the rear with alerting the neighboring brigades from Birney’s Division. This forced them to withdraw also, allowing the Confederates to seize Stony Hill.

Earlier, Meade realizing Sickles’ blunder ordered Maj. Gen Winfield Scott Hancock to reinforce the III Corps with one of his II Corps Divisions. Hancock sent Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell‘s Division from its reserve position behind Cemetery Ridge. Arriving at about 6:00 PM, the three brigades, under Cols. Samuel K. ZookPatrick Kelly (the Irish Brigade), and Edward E. Cross moved forward while the fourth brigade, under Col.General Lafayette McLaws John R. Brooke, was in reserve.

The fresh troops drove the Confederates from Stony Hill and the Wheatfield, driving the enemy back to the Rose Woods. It was a costly action for both sides. The Union lost brigade commanders Zook and Cross who were both mortally wounded while the Confederates lost Paul Semmes. Caldwell ordered Brooke forward once Cross’ men had exhausted their ammunition.

Brooke was forced to withdraw in some disorder when the Union position in the neighboring Peach Orchard collapsed. This allowed the Confederates to retake Stony Hill. One of Barnes’ brigades under Col. Jacob B. Sweitzer was sent in to delay the enemy which they did in fierce hand-to-hand fighting but the Wheatfield changed hands once again.

The 2nd Division of the V corps, under Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, arrived to reinforce the Union line but was repulsed with heavy casualties when they attempted to advance through the so-called Valley of Death. They received fire from both the Devil’s Den from sharpshooters but also flanking fire from the Confederates on Stony Hill and in Rose Woods. They withdrew in good order but sustained 829 casualties out of 2,613 engaged.

The final Confederate assault took place at about 7:30 PM. The four brigades from McLaws’ Division attempted to move through the  Wheatfield past Houck’s Ridge into the Valley of Death. They were exhausted from the summer heat and the hours of continuous fighting.

They were met with a counterattack from the 3rd Division (the Pennsylvania Reserves) of the V Corps, under Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford. The Confederate Dead at the Wheatfieldbrigade of Col. William McCandless, including a company from the Gettysburg area, spearheaded the attack and drove the exhausted Confederates back beyond the Wheatfield to Stony Hill. Crawford then pulled his troops back, fearing that they had advanced too far and were exposed.

The Confederates had fought six brigades against 13 (somewhat smaller) Federal brigades, and of the 20,444 men engaged, about 30% were casualties. Some of the wounded managed to crawl to Plum Run but could not cross it. The river ran red with their blood. As with the Cornfield at Antietam, this small expanse of agricultural ground would be remembered by veterans as a name of unique significance in the history of warfare.



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