Sunday, October 27, 2013

'It would be a pleasure to linger here and write of the heroic deeds of those who fought.' – "Carleton"

I spent many days this past summer reading for possible book projects. One idea was to write the wartime life of Charles Carleton Coffin, the Boston Journal correspondent. “Carleton,” as he signed himself, was from Boscawen, N.H. He covered the war from beginning to end and appears in several chapters of Our War.

Charles Carleton Coffin
One chapter recounts his visit to Antietam a few days after the battle of Gettysburg. He had covered the battle there nearly a year earlier. I wrote of his return because I liked his reverence for the place and his attempt to describe its historical importance so soon after the battle.

This summer I read three of Carleton’s war memoirs. My book idea is to follow him through the war, showing where he was and what he did and assessing his reporting against later scholarship. The project has stalled for one reason: I have found a couple of his personal wartime letters but no large cache of papers in any archive.

I haven’t given up. Carleton lived to write, and his letters must be out there somewhere. If I find them, I plan to move forward. Without them I won’t. The details, thoughts and candor a subject pours into letters or a diary are essential to biography.

But today I thought I’d share another little piece of Carleton with you. It turns out he visited another battlefield not long after having covered the battle there. The differences were that it was two years later, not ten months, as at Antietam, and that by then the war was over.

On July 7, 1865, Carleton returned to the portion of the Gettysburg battlefield where the fighting raged on the second day, July 2, 1863. His letter to the Journal gives an almost panoramic view of what happened, mixing what he sees now with what he saw then with what he reported with what he was still learning through interviews with participants.

In addition to finding this piece interesting and informative, I am glad for the prominent mention of the 2nd and 5th New Hampshire and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Carr’s brigade, which included the 12th New Hampshire. In Our War I used soldiers from these three regiments to tell the story of the second-day fighting.

Note that Carleton also chronicles the battle on Little Round Top. More than a century later, this story became the basis for Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. Note also that Carleton sometimes refers to Little Round Top as Weed’s Hill. This is in tribute to Stephen H. Weed, a brigadier general from New York who was killed defending it. I have left Carleton’s imperfect spelling intact, correcting a few names in brackets.

[From the Boston Journal, July 17, 1865]

Second Day’s Fight at Gettysburg
                                                                             Gettysburg, July 8, 1865

The Codori house on the Emmitsburg Road,
Riding down the Emmittsburg road from the house of Nicholas Codoris [Codori], just east of which is the high water mark of the rebellion, we pass the houses of Mr. Velingel [Klingel] and Peter Rogers, and come to Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard. At this point there is a by-road leading east toward Weed’s Hill, or Little Round Top. The orchard is on a high knoll – high enough to command the surrounding country.

This was the most advanced position of the Union troops on the second day of the battle, and here commenced the great struggle. Standing here by the peach orchard, I see the scene as I beheld it at two o’clock on that afternoon. Gen. Sickles had advanced from the main line to this point. The 2d New Hampshire was lying in the orchard behind the little cabin belonging to John Wentz. A portion of the regiment was forming west and a portion south, conforming to the angle made by the roads. The 3d Maine and 3d Michigan were in the orchard south of the by-road, all of them east of the Emmittsburg road. The only regiment across or west of the Emmittsburg road, I believe, was the 1st Massachusetts. The 11th Massachusetts and the other regiments of Carr’s brigade were along the road by Velingel’s [Klingel’s] house. Ames’ New York Battery was in the peach orchard. East of Ames’ was Clark’s New Jersey. Then continuing along the by-road were Phillips’ and Bigelow’s, both of them Massachusetts batteries, which did a great work for their country on that day.

Klingel house and barn. The trees behind them are along Emmitsburg Road. 
It is about three-fourths of a mile east to Little Round Top. Southeast of the peach orchard, sixty rods, is the house of John Rose, who has a large stone barn. The buildings stand in a hollow, where a cool spring gushes from the ground, which becomes a rivulet and trickles south through a rocky grove. Looking southwest from the orchard along a narrow road we see the house of James Worfield [Warfield], where the rebel pickets were showing themselves at noon on the second day. Gen. Sickles [commander of the 3rd Corps, whose units in and around the Peach Orchard are mentioned above] had thrown forward nearly all of his corps to this line, which I have indicated, who were lying almost at right angles with the true line of defense. The fifth corps had not moved into position, but were resting after the hard march of sixteen miles from Hanover that morning.

The rebels first in sight came from the woods behind Worfield’s house – a long line in the form of a crescent, reaching to the base of Round Top. They were Hood’s and McLane’s divisions of Longstreet’s corps, moving with the intention of gaining Weed’s hill. They advanced under cover of a rapid fire of artillery – not only here but all along the rebel line. It was not quite so fierce as that of the third day, when Pickett made his last desperate attempt. Ames’ battery, I believe, was the first to open. Thompson, who was to the right of Ames, followed. Clark and Phillips came next. Bigelow, from his position, could not get a sight of the rebels from his position till a minute or two later. The third Michigan, the third Maine and the second New Hampshire were the first [infantry] regiments to fire. It was the beginning of an obstinate struggle. Sickles, on his part, determined to maintain his position, but the advance of Hood threatened his left and he was forced to move his second line by the left flank to prevent Hood from gaining Weed’s hill. Ward’s brigade went down upon the double-quick, and came into position, on the rocky ridge directly in front of Weed’s hill, and east of Rose’s house.

Dead horses of Capt. John Bigelow's battery near Trostle's barn. 
Col. Edward E. Cross of the 5th New
 Hampshire was leading a brigade of
Caldwell's division when he was
mortally wounded in Rose's Woods.   
How fearful the fight in those woods, covering that ridge! Sickles’ front line, after a most desperate struggle, was forced back; but troops of the fifth corps and the second came in to help them. Caldwell’s brigade of the second came down past Jacob Trostle’s house, south of it, while Bigelow was thundering from the knoll west of the brick barn. Ayres’ division of regulars came down from Weed’s hill on Caldwell’s right. Barnes’ brigade of the fifth came through Trostle’s door yard and orchard. Zook’s brigade of the second was to the right of Barnes, and beyond him was Col. Tilton of the fifth. Regiments from three corps and from eight or ten brigades were fighting promiscuously. Sometimes they moved west, sometimes south, sometimes southeast, as the tide of battle surged in and out of the rocks and round and over the ridge. The 17th Maine was in the front line, about twenty rods east of Mr. Rose’s house. The 22d and 28th Mass. fought on the same ground during the afternoon. The 5th New Hampshire was on the left of Caldwell’s line when he came in, and then Col. Cross, who had fought the Indians and faced grizzly bears among the Rocky Mountains, faced the advancing foe until he fell mortally wounded. Gen. Sickles was wounded in the edge of the woods, but a few rods from Bigelow’s battery, east of it. His headquarters were at Trostle’s house. The Pennsylvania Reserves, under Crawford, made a gallant charge just at night to recover our lost ground – their right reaching up almost to Trostle’s, just after Bigelow went back firing his two guns – his others left on the field, with sixty of his horses torn to pieces by shells or disabled by sharpshooters.

The woods bear evidence of the conflict. Every tree has its bullet mark, and there in the path way, after every rain, you may pick up a score of bullets. The ground is yet strewn with knapsacks, hats, caps, bayonet scabbards, boots and shoes, and canteens and cartridge boxes. The sabots, which were fastened to the spherical case shot hurled by Bigelow and Phillips and Clark, are still to be seen. What lanes they mowed in the rebel ranks! Plum run, which trickles south from Trostles, was red with blood.

While standing on Weed’s hill this morning and looking down upon the spot, an officer of the 17th regulars came up. “We went down this hill upon the run,” said he, “and crossed the brook down there by that tree. It was like going down into hell, sir. The rebels were yelling like devils. Our men were falling back. It was terrible confusion – smoke, dust, the rattle of musketry, and the roar of cannon. We went up the ridge upon the run, reached the edge of the ridge, and there I lost my leg. Six of my men were shot while crossing the brook.” How thrilling it was to hear him, and to recall what I saw and heard of that contest! It was terrible to see our troops forced back side by side, but then when the rebels came within reach of the 2d corps batteries, east of Trostles, there would be another side to the story, and there was.

Brig. Gen. Weed was shot in the
chest after his brigade relieved
Strong Vincent's on Little Round
Top. Lt. Charles Hazlitt, an artillery
officer nearby, was killed trying
to hear Weed's last words.
There were about seventy thousand men on both sides, who took part in that struggle in front of Weed’s hill on the second day. It is generally known as the fight of Little Round Top, but most of the fighting was west of the hill, on the ridge between the hill and Mr. Rose’s house, on ground about a half mile square. The trees, fences, and rocks are all marked with bullets. Thousands of visitors have carried away relics and mementoes, and it is easy to find bullets, pieces of shell, especially after a shower. The grass is rank in the field across which the rebels marched in their attack upon Bigelow, enriched by the mouldering forms of the rebels who fell in the fight.

It would be a pleasure to linger here and write of the heroic deeds of those who fought, but there are other localities equally interesting.

On Weed’s hill, so named for Col. Weed, who was killed by a sharp-shooter on its summit, a desperate struggle took place, far less extensive, but not less important. The advance of Hood enveloped the force on the ridge below. Hood’s right skirted the base of [Big] Round Top, clambered over the rocks by the Devil’s Den, and began to pour into the gap – a depression between [Big] Round Top and Weed’s hill. This was not far from six o’clock in the afternoon. A portion of the 5th corps was down on the ridge – all of the regulars an the Pennsylvania Reserves. The 3d brigade of the 3d division – Vincent’s I believe – was holding the hill, with Weed, who commanded the 3d brigade of the same division. [Strong Vincent and Stephen H. Wood were both 5th Corps brigadiers, and both were mortally wounded on Little Round Top. Vincent commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, Weed the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division.] The 20th Maine, Col. Chamberlain, was on the extreme left, the soldiers resting upon the rocks and looking down upon the conflict. The 83d Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan stood next in line, connecting toward the right. There began to be a dropping of bullets along the line from the skirmishers climbing the hill. Then Col. Chamberlain saw the rebels moving through the hollow to gain his rear. He immediately extended his flank by forming his men in single rank. The fight began fiercely – from rock to rock, and tree to tree. Chamberlain was outnumbered five to one, but he had the advantage of position. He was on the rest of the hill and at every lull in the strife his men piled up the loose stones into walls. He sent hastily for assistance, but before the arrival of reinforcements Hood’s troops had gained the eastern slope of the ridge and Chamberlain’s regiment was in shape like the letter U.

By war's end Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a major
general. For his actions at Gettysburg he won the
Congressional Medal of Honor.
Well do I remember the din of the conflict, while the summer sun went down and while the summer twilight lingered on the hills. Then it was that a division of the 6th corps, after a march of thirty-two miles on that lowering day, threw aside their knapsacks and came over the walls, along the Taneytown road, upon the run. Then it was that a portion of the 12th corps came down from Calf’s hill [Carleton must mean Culp’s Hill]. Gillis’ [Gibbs’] Ohio battery was dragged up the steep over the rocks and through the woods, while Martin’s 3d Massachusetts, I think it was, flamed upon the western slope. I only know that troops went up to help Chamberlain. I only know that there were dark lines of men moving up the hill, which became lost to sight under the deepening shade of the forest – that there were a few volleys – a lighting up of the sky by sudden flashes – a sulphurous cloud rising from the hill – a triumphant hurrah, and a sudden cessation of the struggle.

The tide had turned. The heroic endurance of the 20th Maine – holding on, although out-flanked – refusing to yield the ground – saved us that day, and also the battle of Gettysburg, for had he rebels gained possession of Weed’s hill, Meade I think would have been compelled to take another position. All honor to the men who held on with such bull dog tenacity to that rugged crest, though out-numbered and out-flanked and all but overwhelmed. Other regiments no doubt fought just as bravely, but they were in the breach, and had they given way all would have been lost. Hence the special service rendered by those men from Down East.

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