[In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 2013, I thought it might be interesting to commence a series of articles, each one devoted to the experiences of a different Massachusetts unit at Gettysburg. Perhaps I might get through all 25…]“Well, it is murder. But it’s the order…”
During the Battle of Gettysburg the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry was part of the Third Brigade (Ruger), Second Division (Williams), XII Corps (Slocum).
Mustered in on May 25, 1861 at Camp Andrew on Brook Farm in West Roxbury, the 2nd Massachusetts left the Commonwealth on July 8, 1861. They were mostly Boston men, but the unit also included companies from Lowell and Salem. The regiment had seen service with Banks during the Valley Campaign and had been through tough fighting at Cedar Mountain, Antietam and Chancellorsville.
By July 1863, the battle-hardened unit numbered just 316 officers and enlistedmen. It was commanded by 23 year-old Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Mudge who had risen through the ranks from First Lieutenant. A member of Harvard’s class of 1860, he was remembered as enormously popular, friendly and athletic. According to Thomas W. Higginson, “…There could be no chance of a word of harshness or of sarcasm from him…Each comrade felt that Mudge saw the bright side of his character, and recognized all his best qualities.”
Mudge’s youthful zeal for putting down the rebellion was typical of so many young men enlisting in the early days of the war. “I fully made up my mind to fight,” he wrote, “and when I say fight, I mean win or die.” Mudge had been shot in the leg at Winchester, grazed across the ribs by a bullet while in command of the 2nd Massachusetts color company at Antietam, and had commanded the regiment coolly at Chancellorsville when that responsibility fell upon him due to the disability of his superior officers. He had been in command of the 2nd Massachusetts ever since.
Like most of the Army of the Potomac, the 2nd Massachusetts was not engaged on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, being en route. On the morning of July 2, the 2nd Massachusetts 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, General Meade pulled most of the XII Corps off of the right flank and ordered them towards the Roundtops as reinforcements.
Leaving their breastworks, the 2nd Massachusetts marched with their division about three miles as the sun set on July 2. By the time they reached the vicinity of the Wheatfield, it was dark and the fighting had essentially ceased there. The 2nd Massachusetts 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 Massachusetts had been were now occupied by Confederates. This was not known, however, to the 2nd Massachusetts 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 Massachusetts 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. General Thomas Ruger, by then in command of the division, ordered the new brigade commander, Colonel Silas 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 Massachusetts, received the order, he could not believe his superior would order a frontal assault over open ground against an entrenched position. He calmly asked the orderly to repeat the order. Then Mudge replied, “Well, it is murder, but it’s the order.”
Mudge immediately gave the order, “Up men, over the breastworks! Forward at the double quick!” The order came so quickly that the men did not have time to fix bayonets. The 2nd Massachusetts surged forward into the open and marshy ground around Spangler’s Spring, closely followed by the 27th Indiana.
Early in the charge, Lt. Col. Mudge was shot just below the throat and died almost instantly. Five color bearers of the 2nd Massachusetts were also cut down. Major Charles Morse later wrote, “I never saw men behave so splendidly. It was awful, yet grand.” The regiment had just about reached the Confederate works when Morse realized the futility of it and ordered a withdrawal. Though badly mauled, the 2nd Massachusetts executed an about face and retired in perfect order as though on a parade ground.
General William Smith’s Virginians, whom they had attacked, quickly executed an equally ill-advised counterattack which the 2nd Massachusetts, now greatly reduced in numbers, helped to repel. Later that afternoon, they hunkered down behind their breastworks as the artillery barrage prior to Pickett’s Charge tore apart trees around them. They were far from Cemetery Ridge, however, and were not involved in repelling the final assault of the battle.
The 2nd Massachusetts had 43 killed, 90 wounded and six taken prisoner—a total of 139 casualties or 43%.
 Stone Sentinels, “2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.”
 James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888), p. 114.
 Bowen, p. 126.
 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Harvard Memorial Biographies, vol. II, (1867), p. 143.
 Higginson, p. 145-147.
 Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg, (2003), p. 331.
 Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2002), p. 368.
 Higginson, p. 150.
 Sears, p. 366.
 Gottfried, p. 370.
 Bowen, p. 126.