11th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

[In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 2013, I continue my series of articles devoted to the experiences of Massachusetts units at Gettysburg.]

The 11th Massachusetts monument at Gettysburg in 2011, prior to the vadalism repairs. It was placed in 1885 at the junction of the Emmitsburg Road and Sickles Avenue.

The 11th Massachusetts monument at Gettysburg in 2011, prior to the vadalism repairs. It was placed in 1885 at the junction of the Emmitsburg Road and Sickles Avenue.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the 11th Massachusetts Infantry was part of the First Brigade (Carr), Second Division (Humphreys), of the III Corps (Sickles).

The 11th Massachusetts was among the first three-year regiments formed in the Bay State. The core companies were originally known as the “Boston Volunteers” and the regiment was composed mostly of men from Boston. The unit formed over the course of May 1861. They were quartered at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor for most of their training, also for a short time at Camp Cameron in North Cambridge. They departed the Bay State on June 29, 1861.[1]

The regiment was one of only three Massachusetts units to take part in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. The green unit saw some tough fighting there at the foot of Henry House Hill. In the spring and summer of 1862, the unit participated in the Peninsular Campaign. They saw action during the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862 and the Battle of Oak Grove (the first of the Seven Days Battles) on June 25, 1862. They did not play a major role in the remainder of the Seven Days Battles.

When the Army of the Potomac was pulled off the Virginia Peninsula in August 1862 to support the new Army of Virginia, the III Corps was among those units that reached the vicinity of Manassas in time to participate in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Of the 13 Massachusetts units that participated in this fight, only two (the 1st and 11th Massachusetts) had fought on that same ground slightly more than a year prior. It must have been a strange thing not only to return to the site of their first battle, but moreover to be fighting there once again.

And they were very heavily engaged at Second Bull Run. Their brigade, at the time commanded by Brigadier General Cuvier Grover, made a bayonet charge against the Confederate position along the unfinished railroad bed and was one of the few brigades to break through that heavily entrenched position. Sadly, this advantage was not supported and resulted in awful casualties for Grover’s Brigade. The 11th Massachusetts took 40% casualties in a span of just 20 minutes.[2]

Being reduced at that point to a very small regiment, the 11th Massachusetts was detached and remained on duty in the Washington trenches while the Army of the Potomac marched off on the Antietam Campaign. They were present for Fredericksburg but assigned to guard pontoon bridges and did not participate in assaults. During Chancellorsville in May 1863, they were again detached and assigned a position which may have been meant to keep the undersized unit out of the worst of the fighting…however they ended up being hotly engaged and again suffered severe casualties.

So, by the time of Gettysburg in July 1863, the 11th Massachusetts was a seriously war-torn unit. They were 1,000 strong when they left the Bay State. At Gettysburg the 11th Massachusetts fielded 286 men.[4]

Their commanding officer by the time of Gettysburg was Lieutenant Colonel Porter D. Tripp. For a regimental commander, he is a surprisingly elusive character. He was 36 at the time of Gettysburg. At the start of the war, he was a builder living in Boston. In May 1861 he was the force behind the formation of Company C of the 11th Massachusetts and became the company’s first captain. By October 1861 he had been promoted to major. Immediately after Second Bull Run, Tripp was promoted to lieutenant colonel (the previous Lt. Col. George F. Tileston had been killed in action during the charge on the railroad bed) and Tripp became second in command of the regiment. The actual commanding officer, Colonel William Blaisdell, seems to have been temporarily detached from the regiment and so, during the Battle of Gettysburg, command fell to Lt. Col. Tripp.

The Army of the Potomac’s forced march from Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania in pursuit of the invading Confederates during June 1863 is recorded in countless Yankee regimental histories as particularly brutal. Sgt. Gustavus B. Hutchinson later wrote that the 11th Massachusetts marched as many as 29 miles a day, “under the broiling sun, suffering intensely, many of the men being sunstruck.”[5]

The III Corps (the 11th Massachusetts included) arrived in the vicinity of Gettysburg in the late afternoon of July 1 while the battle was already underway. As night fell and they neared the field of battle, marching north from Emmitsburg, a guide mistakenly told Humphrey’s Division to take the wrong road…which landed the entire division within Confederate lines. The mistake was discovered before all-out calamity ensued and the entire division marched quietly back the way they had come under cover of darkness. Captain Henry Blake, commanding Company K of the 11th Massachusetts, recalled that many of the mounted officers, “looked and rode backward” as the division crept away. The rank and file were more upset about having to ford Marsh Run twice, getting their feet doubly wet.[6]

Section of the Emmitsburg Road (in the distance) occupied by Humphrey's division as it appeared in 1896. The Klingle Barn is at center. The position of the 11th Massachusetts is slightly further north, off to the right of this photo.

Section of the Emmitsburg Road (in the distance) occupied by Humphrey’s division as it appeared in 1896. The Klingle Barn is at center. The position of the 11th Massachusetts is slightly further north, off to the right of this photo.

The division eventually found the rest of the Union Army about 2 a.m. on July 2 and collapsed for a rest not far from the Round Tops. In the morning, the III Corps formed up and took up a position on Cemetery Ridge north of Little Round Top. General Daniel Sickles, commanding the III Corps, being unsatisfied with that position, infamously moved his corps without orders about three-quarters of a mile to the front and positioned them on higher ground at the Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road. This left the Union left flank hanging in mid air and terribly vulnerable.

Carr’s brigade, including the 11th Massachusetts, ended up on the right of the III Corps line along the Emmitsburg Road. At about 4 p.m. on July 2, the Confederate assault on the III Corps began, striking the left wing first at the Peach Orchard. For almost two hours the men of the 11th Massachusetts lay low while the battle raged just a half mile to the south. Shot and shell rained upon them. As they waited for the assault to develop in their front, the officers of the regiment tried to calm the men, repeating, “Keep cool…Steady boys…Wait for orders…Don’t fire yet.”[7]

At about 6 p.m., three Confederate brigades emerged from the woods beyond the Emmitsburg Road and advanced on Carr’s brigade. The Union skirmishers were quickly driven in. At this point, a confused order was delivered from General Carr to Lt. Col. Tripp of the 11th Massachusetts. Tripp was ordered not to fire. It seems that Carr believed there were still Federal skirmishers in front of the 11th Massachusetts…But the skirmishers had in fact fallen back and the Confederates were bearing down fast. As the other regiments in the brigade opened fire, Tripp still held the 11th Massachusetts in check.

In his memoirs, Captain Henry Blake of the 11th Massachusetts did not mince words regarding his contempt for General Carr. “Orders were duly transmitted from a blockhead…not to discharge a musket because they ‘would fire on their own men.'”[8] Finally, with the Confederates almost on top of them, Tripp disregarded the order and commanded the 11th Massachusetts to fire. They were equipped with smoothbore muskets and fired with buck and ball, devastating ammunition at short range.[9]

As the Union brigades to their left gave way, Carr’s brigade was soon enveloped on three sides. The intense fighting caused confusion within Carr’s brigade and the 11th Massachusetts. Blake observed, “the companies about faced in pursuance of the orders of some stupid general [probably Carr] and executed a right half wheel under severe fire with as much regularity as if they had been on parade.” This was apparently done to shift the focus of the 11th Massachusetts from the front to the left and rear, indicating that they were nearly surrounded and in a bad spot.

The restored 11th Massachusetts monument, April 2013. National Park Service photo.

The restored 11th Massachusetts monument, April 2013. National Park Service photo.

Finally, the 11th Massachusetts retreated with the rest of Carr’s brigade. The Confederate assault eventually wore out and there was a Union counterattack. Most of Carr’s brigade, including the 11th Massachusetts, retook the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road. But they were too spent to hold that position. Although the men badly wanted the satisfaction of remaining on the ground they had defended, the entire division was moved back to Cemetery Ridge that night.

On July 3, the 11th Massachusetts moved with Carr’s brigade to various points along the left flank, supporting II Corps artillery, then men of the V Corps on the Round Tops. They did not play any direct role in repelling Pickett’s Charge.

The regiment lost 26 killed, 93 wounded and ten missing for a total of 129 (roughly 50%).[10] By the end of the battle their numbers were reduced to approximately 150 men.

In 2006, the regimental monument of the 11th Massachusetts was vandalized. The entire crown was knocked off including a surmounting sculpture of a bent arm holding a sword. The disembodied arm might seem peculiar to some, but many Bay State residents would recognize it as part of the Massachusetts state seal…sometimes called the “sword of Standish.” On April 11, 2013, the National Park service completed restoration of the monument to this hard-fighting unit, including a splendid replica of the arm and sword. To learn more about the restoration, see the National Park’s interesting blog here.

[1] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888), p. 207-208.
[2] Bowen, p. 211.
[3] Bowen, p. 213.
[4] Carl Smith, Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy, (2012), p. 28. Sources differ on their strength at Gettysburg. Bowen, p. 213, places their strength at less than 250.
[5] Gustavus B. Hutchinson, A Narrative of the Formation and Services of the Eleventh Massachusetts Volunteers, (1893), p. 48.
[6] Bradley Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2002), p. 215.
[7] Gottfried, p. 216-217.
[8] Gottfried, p. 229.
[9] Gottried, p. 218.
[10] Bowen, p. 213.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

6 responses to “11th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

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