THE 11TH PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES AT GETTYSBURG
The sinking sun was nearly touching the western horizon behind South Mountain on that long afternoon. It was July 2, 1863 and at that late moment in the day, a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves were about to leave the northern slopes of Little Round Top in their wake. Momentum was carrying the blue wave of veterans forward in a free-fall aimed at thwarting the steaming heap of butternut attackers bent on shattering the Union left. The attacked were transforming into the attacker. What happened next probably lasted less than fifteen minutes, but in post-war years it would become the proudest lifetime achievement for the Pennsylvania veterans who could count themselves as participants.
|Monument to the 11th PA Reserves at Gettysburg|
Even with extensive losses on the battlefield and by disease, by mid-1863, the 11th Reserves were a tough and experienced group of veteran soldiers. Just prior to the Gettysburg Campaign the unit was in Washington D.C. recruiting and recuperating from their losses. Once the Army of the Potomac began creeping northward from their Rappahannock Line to follow the Army of Northern Virginia, the Reserves were called back to the front line.2
The regiment broke camp at Vienna, Virginia on June 25 and started north to join the Army of the Potomac as part of the Third Division of the Fifth Corps. They had a new division commander as well, Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, a veteran who was present for the war's first shots at Fort Sumter and at many of the war's early battles. At Antietam he was severely wounded, necessitating a lengthy recovery, but now he was ready to lead some of the best troops in the army towards battle on northern soil. On June 28, the Army of the Potomac received a new commander, one whom the Pennsylvania Reserves were quite familiar with and happy to follow, their old division commander, George Gordon Meade.3
|Brevet Brigadier General Samuel M. Jackson,|
Grandfather of actor Jimmy Stewart
Rising through the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Jackson was finally commissioned Colonel on April 10, 1863. Although he had not yet led his men into battle with his new rank, he had proven his leadership and faithfulness to them on numerous bloody battlefields which now seemed a distant memory.5
On July 1, with 25 officers and 367 men, the 11th PA Reserves started marching at 5:00 am and reached the vicinity of Hanover, PA around 5:00 pm. They sluggishly continued forward through the darkness to the west of McSherrystown where they finally halted well past midnight. Colonel Jackson remembered about that wearisome evening, "Poor fellows, they had hardly touched the ground till they were fast asleep, the last sleep on earth for many of them." Captain Hannibal Sloan of Company B said that they found they were "laying in a swamp. The course swamp grass had served us for a bed, a softer bed I do not believe was ever given human beings - being composed largely of water."6
|Provision return written by Colonel Jackson in April of 1863,|
The regiment's numbers are only slightly higher than a few
months later at Gettysburg. - Author's Collection
"About 4 o'clock in the afternoon a single gun was fired in the direction of and beyond Big Round Top: this was followed by the sharp rattle of musketry and the heavy booming of artillery. Very soon aides and orderlies began to gallop in all directions. One soon found his way to division headquarters when General Crawford and his staff quickly mounted and the order was passed along to fall in. We moved in the rear and east of the Round Tops, filed to the left and crossed the ridge between Little Round Top and the Cemetery. We were then moved to the left and took position on the western slope of Little Round Top, massed in a battalion front with the Third Brigade leading. This formation placed my regiment in the rear of the brigade."8
General Crawford wrote that he was ordered "to mass his troops upon the right of a road running through our line, near our left flank, and which, descending a rocky slope, crossed a low marshy ground in front to a wheat-field lying between two thick belts of woods beyond. The position occupied by our troops on the left was a naturally strong one." By the time the Reserves had arrived in this position, things were dramatically shifting against Union success in the ground which Crawford described. Thousands of soldiers in both blue and gray had already fallen in areas such as The Wheatfield, Devil's Den, Stoney Hill, and even on the southern slopes of Little Round Top. The fighting on the Union left was about to reach a crescendo.9
Just as the United States Regulars were running into trouble in The Wheatfield, Crawford moved his men across the road to cover their possible withdrawal from his front. He was ordered to send one brigade "to the left of Barnes' division, on the crest of the ridge." He dispatched Colonel Joseph Fisher's Third Brigade to which the 11th PA Reserves were attached. The 12th, 5th and 10th Reserves filed off to the left from Colonel Jackson's front and just as he was about to follow, a major on General Crawford's staff came bounding up to him and shouted, "Colonel Jackson, General Crawford directs that you remain in position and hold this hill at all hazards." Jackson ordered his men to face front and realign into the position they were about to vacate. At this moment the men in the 11th PA Reserves had one of the grandest panoramas on the battlefield, albeit a deadly one. The United States Regular troops were being driven from The Wheatfield in their front and there was still heavy firing to their left along the slopes of Little Round Top. Colonel Jackson noted that the most troublesome fire was coming from Devil's Den and that "quite a number of my officers and men were here killed and wounded."10
Gibbs had his guns loaded with double canister and once the Regulars had cleared his front, he ordered them to belch forth their missiles of death. They did terrible execution on the approaching Confederate mobs from Anderson's, Semmes', Kershaw's and Wofford's Brigades. Gibbs reported that "so rapidly were the guns worked that they became too hot to lay the hand on."12
As the smoke from the artillery and musketry began to mask the view of the valley below, the situation disintegrated into confusion. Even with the hot work done by Gibbs' battery, the Confederates continued to press not only across Plum Run, but up the gentle slope towards the ridge and the Union soldiers above them. They seemed unstoppable. Colonel Jackson remembered inquiring to some men stumbling back towards him if the front was clear of Union men. They told him, "Yes; those fellows (pointing to the line moving up the hill a few rods in our front) are Johnnies. I immediately gave the command to fire, which was obeyed with alacrity, and we poured a terrible volley into the very faces of the enemy. This evidently was a surprise, for they faltered in the onward march and began to collect in groups."13
|View from the approximate position of the 11th PA Reserves|
into the Plum Run Valley, showing the entire area of their charge
Many claims place the resulting charge with the efforts of General Crawford, taking the colors of the 1st Reserves and leading the brigade forward, but no mention of this is made in his official report. Crawford did remark in his official report eight days later that "Not a moment was to be lost. Uncovering our front, I ordered an immediate advance. The command advanced gallantly..." Jackson remembered this moment differently, claiming that "I soon realized the fact that the only way to hold the hill was to charge forward. Therefore, I gave the command to fix bayonets and charge. This order was obeyed with a will and, with that familiar yell peculiar to the Pennsylvania Reserves, we rushed upon the foe with a determination to either drive the invaders back or sacrifice ourselves on our native soil."15
Regardless of who ordered the advance, Crawford and Jackson definitely agreed on two things. First, as the Reserves were given the order, they let out quite a yell. Secondly, the ensuing forward movement was made with some sort of indescribable enthusiasm. The front line charged down the rocky northwest slopes of Little Round Top at a run with the 1st, 11th and 6th Reserves (from left to right) in the front line. The 13th (Bucktails) and 2nd Reserves followed closely behind. At that same moment, or shortly after, the 98th PA from Wheaton's Brigade advanced on the left flank of the Reserves. The Confederate soldiers that just a few moments before seemed to be everywhere, evaporated from their front. Eventually reaching the base of the slope they continued to surge forward across the swampy lowlands bordering Plum Run and once across the stream made for the stone fence on the east side of The Wheatfield. Finally catching up to some of the fleeing Confederate soldiers, some brief hand-to-hand combat surrounded the stone fence over which so many hundreds of soldiers from both sides had moved that day. Eventually the Confederates were forced to relinquish the hard fought ground which was now littered with hundreds of dead and dying men.16
|Looking towards the stone wall|
|Private Alexander Eakman,|
Co B 11th PA RVC
wounded at Gettysburg -
Nightfall had set in across the day's field of battle and there was still the sound of musketry coming from the other end of the line to the northeast. A near full moon and clearing skies made matters worse as the smoke from thousands of small arms dissipated. It was almost as if the daylight had never gone away on a day that seemed to last an eternity. No one dared raise their scalp above the stone wall and it was suicide to even think of rushing aid to fallen comrades. Thousands of dead and wounded soldiers carpeted the bloody, nightmarish landscape. For now all the men could do was keep quiet, rest and wait.
|1st Lieutenant James P.|
Boggs who participated
in the charge that day with
Company D -
Around 5:00 pm the Reserves were called into action once more. The men of the Eleventh PA were ordered forward with McCandless' Brigade across The Wheatfield towards the Rose Farm. The attack surprised the Confederates there and the Reserves were able to fall upon their enemy's flank. On top of disbursing the Confederate soldiers in their immediate front, the Confederates were also forced to withdrawal from the area of Devil's Den and the Slyder Farm. Capturing over one hundred prisoners, one battle flag, one Napolean cannon and three caissons, the movement was deemed a complete success. They had regained all the ground previously lost by the Third Corps on July 2, and if the toll in human carnage hadn't been apparent before, the Union troops now had control of most of the major areas of fighting from that previous bloody day.19
The 11th PA Reserves remained in their position through July 4, when they were finally pulled back across The Wheatfield in a driving rain storm towards the stone fence they had fought so valiantly to win. They had taken significant losses in their brief fights on both July 2 and 3. Of the 25 officers and 367 men taken into battle, one officer and four men were killed, and two officers and thirty-three men were wounded, a casualty rate of thirteen percent. The morale of these tough Pennsylvanians was sky high and the sacrifices seemed to have meaning on their native soil, but there was much more fighting for these soldiers just ahead. Gettysburg definitely provided the men of the 11th PA Reserves with one bit of certainty though. They knew that the next time they would face the challenge of their Confederate foe, that they would be following a fearless leader who would fight alongside them to the last, until the crowning victory was won.20
4. Historical Data Systems, Inc., "American Civil War Research Database, Samuel McCartney Jackson." Accessed April 3, 2014. http://www.civilwardata.com/active/hdsquery.dll?SoldierHistory?U&852516. J.H. Beers & Co. Armstrong County, PA: Her People Past and Present, ( : 1914)http://www.pa-roots.com/armstrong/). Josiah R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1865), 441-442. Roger D. Hunt, and Jack R. Brown, Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue, (Gaithersburg, Maryland: Olde Soldier Books, Inc., 1997), 311.
6. Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968), 334-335. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285. John W. Busey, and David G. Martin, Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, (Hightstown, New Jersey: Longstreet House, 1982), 136.
9. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 2, p. 652-656.
10. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 2, p. 652-656.
11. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 1, p. 662.
13. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285.
15. Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2002), 269-281. Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968), 408-410. Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg The Second Day, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 398. Jeffrey F. Sherry. pabucktail.com, ""The Terrible Impetuosity": The Pennsylvania Reserves at Gettysburg." Accessed April 3, 2014. http://www.pabucktail.com/Reference/Terrible Impetuosity.htm. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285. Josiah R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1865), 460-462. Michael Dreese. "'I can't give you my colors'." Military Images Magazine, July/August 2003. http://www.pareserves.com/?q=node/1845 (accessed April 3, 2014). Richard Wagner, For Honor, Flag, and Family: Civil War Major General Samuel W. Crawford 1827-1892, (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: White Mane Books, 2005). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 2, p. 652-656.
20. John P. Nicholson, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Volume I, (Harrisburg, PA: WM. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1904), 274-285. John W. Busey, and David G. Martin, Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, (Hightstown, New Jersey: Longstreet House, 1982), 136.