3rd Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg

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The 3rd Massachusetts Battery monument is located at the base of Little Round Top by Plum Run at the corner of the Wheatfield Road and Crawford Ave. It was dedicated in 1885.

On the anniversary of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, it seems appropriate to relate the experiences of another of the Massachusetts units engaged during that battle. The 3rd Massachusetts Battery was one of four Bay State artillery batteries on the field at Gettysburg. The unit had a low number of casualties but this fact belies the level of danger the unit found itself in on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. Things might have gone much worse for them.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the 3rd Massachusetts Battery was a part of the Artillery Brigade (Martin) attached to the V Corps (Sykes). Capt. Augustus Martin had commanded the 3rd Massachusetts Battery through most of its service in the war but had recently been promoted to command of the V Corps Artillery Brigade. During the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, the battery was engaged in several battles including Hanover Court House and, most notably, in the Battle of Gaines Mill during which the battery fired canister in the face of an overwhelming Confederate advance. In the campaigns that followed, between the Peninsula and Gettysburg, the battery was fortunate in being held in reserve or only lightly engaged.[1] After the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Capt. Martin was promoted and command of the 3rd Massachusetts Battery fell to Lt. Aaron Francis Walcott.

Walcott, Aaron

Lt. Aaron F. Walcott (1836-1907)

Twenty-six years old, Lt. Walcott commanded the unit for the first time in battle at Gettysburg. A resident of Boston, he had been a clerk in a construction company. He married his employer’s daughter, Harriet Adams, and they had one daughter before the war and two more children after. Little Ella was four at the time of Gettysburg.[2]

The 3rd Massachusetts took 124 men and six Napoleon field guns into battle on July 2. They arrived on the field about noon, having marched 65 miles in the past three days. They were ordered by their brigade commander, Capt. Martin, to keep close to Gen. James Barnes’s First Division of the V Corps which was posted on Stony Hill near the Wheatfield. Martin cautioned another of his battery commanders, Capt. Almont Barnes of Battery C, 1st New York Light Artillery to stay close to the V Corps and “don’t let Sickles get you.” Infantry commanders commonly “stole” artillery units from other Corps for support, claiming the the urgency of their position warranted it. Knowing Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles’s III Corps occupied a precarious position with its center on the Peach Orchard, not too far in front of the Wheatfield, Martin fully expected Sickles would attempt to grab some of his batteries.[3]

Instructing Lt. Walcott to keep his battery where it was, near the Wheatfield, and to await further orders, Martin went off to deal with a Herculean task. Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, Chief of Engineers, had observed the enormous tactical importance of Little Round Top in anchoring the left of the Union line. At that time in the afternoon, however, the Union had yet to occupy the boulder strewn hill. Warren called for an infantry brigade from the nearby V Corps and one artillery battery from Martin’s brigade. Martin selected the 5th United States Battery D commanded by Lt. Charles Hazlett. Getting artillery pieces atop that hill, up and over boulders, was a brutal task. Martin told Hazlett, “You work them up as far as you can with horses, and I will call for infantry volunteers, and throw them up by hand!” It took about 30 men on each piece to get them up Little Round Top. Once on the crest, they were enormously effective in delivering fire on Devil’s Den.[4]

No such maneuver was required of Walcott’s 3rd Massachusetts Battery as they awaited orders that afternoon. No further orders would come from Martin. In the confusion of battle, Martin would be unable to reach his other batteries by the Wheatfield. True to Martin’s prediction, however, a staff officer from the III Corps under Dan Sickles approached as the Confederate assault got underway and ordered the battery into the Peach Orchard. Walcott limbered up and the battery was partway up the road approaching the III Corps line when he received orders to go back. Another battery had occupied their intended position. Apparently Sickles took batteries from any place he could.

Returning to the V Corps line, the 3rd Massachusetts Battery took a position east of the Wheatfield and at the foot of Little Round Top, just north of the Wheatfield Road with Plum Run directly in their front. Plum Run, a small brook running along the base of Little Round Top, would be known after the battle as “Bloody Run.” Quartermaster Sergeant John D. Reed of the 3rd Massachusetts Battery later wrote that it was a bad position, “as there were both boulders and marshy ground to contend with.”[5] A small rise in their front known as Houck’s Ridge, between them and the Wheatfield, obscured their view of the battle. A stone wall ran in front of them which was occupied by the Regulars of Brig. Gen. Romeyn Ayres’s division of the V Corps. For roughly two hours the battery sat idle in this position, hearing the roar of battle but not understanding that General Longstreet’s Confederates were crushing the III and V Corps in their front.

Their first indication that the situation had turned bad came when General Charles Griffin of the V Corps rode by their position and shouted to Walcott, “Get that battery out of there! You can’t live in that place five minutes!”[6]

Lt. Walcott must have considered how much time he had to limber up and save his guns. The answer came when Wofford’s Brigade of Georgians burst over Houck’s Ridge directly in their front. The Georgians had plowed their way to that point in a hard fought advance from west of the Peach Orchard, down the Wheatfield Road, and now had reached the foot of Little Round Top. The Regulars at the stone wall, as surprised as the 3rd Massachusetts Battery, retreated in disorder, leaving the 3rd Massachusetts Battery exposed.

About 500 yards behind them, on Little Round Top, the Pennsylvanians of Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford’s brigade watched this sudden retreat with dismay and prepared to move forward. One of Crawford’s staff officers, Captain Richard T. Auchmuty, later wrote of the appearance of the Georgians, “Suddenly a sheet of fire swept the Regulars in the rear and flank. The rebels had flanked them. Up they rose, fell back a little way in good order, then broke and came in a disorderly mob back to our line, followed by the rebels, yelling like mad.”[7] General Crawford, from the same vantage point, recalled, “The plain to my front was covered with fugitives from all divisions…fragments of regiments came back in disorder, and without arms, and for a moment all seemed lost.”[8]

With Regulars streaming rearward all around him and his battery just minutes from being overwhelmed by the Georgians, Lt. Walcott gave the only order he could: spike the guns and abandon the battery. His men only had time to spike one gun (hammering a nail or spike down the vent and breaking it off, thus rendering the weapon useless to the enemy) before the Georgians were on top of them. The men of the 3rd Massachusetts Battery fled rearward with the Regulars.

They might have been decimated had it not been for the counterattack of Crawford’s Pennsylvanians. The 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, the famed “Bucktails,” advanced on the battery’s position, checked the Georgians, retook the guns of the 3rd Massachusetts Battery and pushed the Confederates back through the Wheatfield. Lt. Walcott rallied his men and quickly pulled his guns by prolonge to the rear. They were eventually posted to the southeast of Big Round Top along today’s Wright Avenue at the extreme left of the Union position with Colonel Lewis Grant’s brigade of Vermonters. The position was a quiet one during the third day of battle on July 3.

The 3rd Massachusetts Battery suffered casualties of only 6 wounded, or five percent, largely due to timely advance of the Pennsylvania Bucktails.

[1] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, 1861-1865, (Springfield: C.W. Bryan & Co, 1889), 797-798.
[2] “Aaron Francis Walcott,” Find-A-Grave
[3] Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg, the Second Day, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 223 and 239.
[4] John Lord Parker, Henry Wilson’s Regiment. History of the Twenty-second Massachusetts Infantry, the Second Company Sharpshooters, and the Third Light Battery, in the War of the Rebellion, (Boston: Pub. by the regimental Association, Press of Rand Avery Co., 1887), 313.
[5] Reed excerpt in Parker, Henry Wilson’s Regiment, 313.
[6] Parker, Henry Wilson’s Regiment, 313.
[7] Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 321.
[8] Uzal W. Ent, The Pennsylvania Reserves in the Civil War: A Comprehensive History, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2014), 211.


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