Wheatfield a 'whirlpool' of battle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On July 2, 1863, the charge and countercharge over the 19 acres of the Wheatfield resulted in 4,000 dead and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers on the second day of fighting at Gettysburg.

"The Wheatfield has been aptly called the 'whirlpool' of battle, because of the manner in which regiments on both sides were seemingly sucked into its vortex," observes author Edward J. Stackpole in They Met At Gettysburg.

The fighting began about 4:30 p.m. on farmer George Rose's fields, At 4:30 p.m., Col. P. Regis de Trobriand was positioned with Union regiments along the southern edge of the Wheatfield behind a stone wall.

The 17th Maine and 14th New York of Maj. Gen. James Barnes' 1st Division were positioned with de Trobriand.

The Union regiments were quickly outnumbered when the Georgia Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. George Anderson, passed through the woods next to the field.

Union officers of the 17th Maine Infantry yelled:

"Aim low, boys! Make every shot tell!"

The Union was determined to stand their position and prevent the Confederates from climbing over the wall. Parts of Maj. Gen. George Sykes' 5th Corps were rushed into the Wheatfield to aid the North.

The 17th Maine was forced to withdraw at 5:30 p.m. due to their lack of ammunition. As the regiment retreated through the Wheatfield, the Confederates started climbing over the wall.

Brig. Gen. David Birney ordered his section of the 17th Maine to about face and charge the Confederate with their bayonets. This counterattack slowed the South for a short time.

More Union regiments swept through the woods from the east and west, while Confederates moved in from the southwest.

Caldwell's division was ordered into the Wheatfield to aid Sykes' faltering 5th Corps.

With the help of the Irish Brigade, Caldwell's division advanced toward the southwest corner of the Wheatfield by Stony Hill.

When recalling the battle, one of the members of the Irish Brigade wrote:

"O comrades, step with reverent tread

Tow'rd this historic mound

The soil once wet with brave men's blood

Is always hold ground.

Here five-and-twenty years ago

An Irish phalanx stood,

And here they swelled the battle-tide

With generous Celtic blood."

South Carolina soldiers, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, crossed the Rose farm and attacked Union troops at a rocky knoll on the western edge of the field.

The South Carolina regiments caught artillery fire from the left and rifle fire from the front. Four of the color guards fell.

A Confederate yelled, "Lower the colors, down with flag." Color Sgt. William Lamb stepped to the front of the men and yelled, "This flag never goes down until I am down."

Capt. William Z. Leitner of the 2nd South Carolina was fatally shot, but didn't want to leave his position. He said:

"Men I am ruined but never give up the battle. I was shot down at the head of my company, and I would to God that I was there yet."

The South Carolina soldiers gradually gave way, retreating back to the Rose Farm. Kershaw responded by pushing another Georgia brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes, onto the knoll.

Semmes led two of his troops into a gap in the lower section of the Wheatfield. This proved unsuccessful since his troops were counterattacked by a Union brigade under Col. John Brooke.

Kershaw was shot in the leg as he entered the Wheatfield. He died from his injuries on July 10.

Brooke's small regiments used their bayonets to drive Confederate soldiers back to the Rose Farm orchards south of the house. This hand-to-hand fighting was utilized at the end of the battle.

A Confederate soldier bayoneted Col. Harrison Jeffords of the 4th Michigan Regiment as he attempted to capture his flag from the Union.

The fighting continued in a see-saw fashion, where the control went back and forth between the two armies. The battle was a confusing charade of men. A Union regiment's colonel overheard one of his men say:

"Colonel, I'll be damned if I don't think we're facing the wrong way; the rebs are up there in the woods behind us."

The Southern pressure grew overwhelming for the North. The Union began to retreat from the Wheatfield and the surrounding woods.

Pennsylvania Reserves eventually drove the Confederates across the Wheatfield, but the battle ended as night fell.

Neither side gained control of the Wheatfield. The land was covered with 4,000 bodies of the dead and wounded from both sides.

The 5th Michigan had lost 40 percent of its men, while the 17th Maine's causalities exceeded 35 percent of its men.

A Confederate stationed to the west of the Wheatfield serenaded his comrades with a rendition of When This Cruel War Is Over to the sounds of applause.

Annie Peroutka is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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