This weekend I will be donning the blue wool and participating in an encampment on the Gettysburg battlefield. This is a rare opportunity and I am very much looking forward to it. (If you are unfamiliar with Civil War reenacting, I should note that encampments and reenactments are not typically permitted on National Battlefield Parks). For me, this will be a first.
So, given my impending trip, it is probably time to get around to the second installment in my “Massachusetts at Gettysburg” series. Were I to comment on the actions of each of the 18 regiments of infantry, 4 artillery batteries, 2 sharpshooter companies and 1 cavalry regiment from Massachusetts present for the battle, this might be a long series indeed. We shall see. For today I’ll focus on just two infantry regiments.
The 9th Massachusetts Infantry (one of the two Irish regiments from the Bay State) was not heavily engaged during the Battle of Gettysburg. Their actions are interesting nonetheless. It is generally known that, on July 2, the second day of the battle, the left flank of the Union army rested on Little Round Top and the 20th Maine famously defended that all-important position. There were, however, other Union regiments further out there on the left, occupying positions on Big Round Top. These included the 9th Mass.
The 9th belonged to the Second Brigade, First Division, V Corps. On the afternoon of July 2, their brigade (Gen. Sweitzer’s) was deployed on Stony Hill near the Wheatfield. Prior to any action that day, the 9th Mass was detached from the brigade and posted on Big Round Top to act as pickets. It was about a mile removed from the rest of their brigade, in the woods on the northern slope of Big Round Top…what might as well have been the middle of nowhere.
This is not to say their actions were insignificant. If the Confederates had mounted a concentrated effort to take and hold Big Round Top, regiments like the 9th Mass were out there to stop them. And they were, in fact, attacked by Confederate skirmishers moving up the western slope of Big Round Top. But thanks to a sturdy stone wall (and the fact that the attacking force was not terribly strong) the 9th was able to repel them with almost no casualties.
Evidently, they were too far removed to be of any assistance to the regiments desperately holding Little Round Top. I wonder if they were aware of the large numbers of Confederates charging up the swale between the Roundtops. Probably not. It was unfortunate for the 20th Maine that the 9th Mass was evidently just out of range to lend support.
While the 9th was on Big Round Top, the rest of their brigade was hit horribly hard by McLaws’s Confederates and took terrible casualties in the Wheatfield. When the 9th Mass rejoined its brigade late that night they were horrified to see the casualties their brigade had taken. Col. Patrick Guiney, commanding the 9th Mass, wrote, “…We could scarcely be said to join the brigade, it seemed to me…that we constituted the brigade. There were flags of regiments, a remnant of a splendid regiment around each.”
The 2nd Massachusetts Infantry covered a great deal of ground during the battle. Mustered in on May 25, 1861, the 2nd had seen hard fighting in the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. They belonged to Gen. Thomas Ruger’s Brigade of the First Division, XII Corps. Like most of the Army of the Potomac, they were not engaged on the first day of battle, July 1, being en route. On the morning of July 2, the 2nd Mass marched with their brigade to McAllister’s Woods, next to Spangler’s Spring, just south of Culp’s Hill. They took up a defensive position and were told to dig in and build breastworks. At that time, their brigade formed the extreme right of the Union line. Over the course of that afternoon and evening, as things were going badly on the Union left, Gen. Meade pulled most of the XII Corps off of the right flank and ordered them towards the Roundtops as reinforcements.
The 2nd Mass marched with their division about three miles as the sun set on July 2nd. By the time they reached the vicinity of the Wheatfield, it was dark and the fighting had essentially ceased there. The 2nd Mass deployed skirmishers on that ground where so much vicious combat had taken place just hours before. And they waited. About 45 minutes later, Meade decided to send the XII Corps back to the right and so they returned, three more miles, to their former position.
While they were gone the Union right on Culp’s Hill had been hit hard, but held. The breastworks where the 2nd Mass had been were now occupied by Confederates. This was not known, however, to the 2nd Mass as they approached the position in the dark. A company was deployed as skirmishers and as the men crept up on their breastworks, they heard voices. Major Charles Morse advanced with two soldiers and one of the soldiers said, “Boys, what regiment do you belong to?” The answer, “Twenty-third.” Not very helpful. “Twenty-third what?” asked the Massachusetts man. “Twenty-third Virginia.” This came as a surprise. There was a scuffle and the 2nd Mass skirmishers managed to capture 23 of the Confederates. But there was no hope of re-taking their breastworks at that time, so the regiment pulled back.
The next day, July 3, the 2nd Massachusetts and the 27th Indiana made a desperate charge against the Confederates who had occupied their breastworks. Gen. Ruger, by then in charge of the division, ordered the new brigade commander, Col. Colgrove, to send skirmishers against the Confederate position. Colgrove decided that any skirmishers would simply be cut down and sent two regiments to carry the position by force. When Lt. Col. Charles Mudge, commanding the 2nd Mass, received the order to charge the breastworks over open ground, he calmly asked the orderly to repeat it. Then said, “Well, it is murder, but it’s the order.”
The 2nd Mass surged forward into the open ground around Spangler’s Spring, closely followed by the 27th Indiana. Lt. Col. Mudge was cut down early in the charge. As were five color bearers of the 2nd Mass. Major Charles Morse later wrote, “I never saw men behave so splendidly. It was awful, yet grand.” Soon enough, before they reached the breastworks, Morse had to order a retreat. The 2nd had suffered 43 percent casualties.
The 2nd Massachusetts monument near Spangler’s Spring was the first permanent regimental marker placed on the Gettysburg battlefield. I’ve been there and seen it, but that was before I knew their story. This weekend I will look on it with a new appreciation for what happened there.
[Sources: Daniel G. MacNamara, History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, (1899), 320-321; Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2002), 242, 364-368; Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg, (2003), 331, 366.]