National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Gettysburg

   

JULY 2—THE WHEATFIELD

Even after Hood's men had taken Devil's Den, the fighting raged along a stone wall between Rose's Woods and the southern edge of the Wheatfield and among the trees on the stony, tree-covered hill along the Wheatfield's western edge. Third Corps units occupied the stone wall; Fifth Corps brigades manned the stony hill. Brig. Gen. George T. Anderson's brigade and the 3rd Arkansas Regiment attacked the troops behind the wall. "Aim low!, boys! make every shot tell!" cautioned officers of the 17th Maine behind the wall, and they repelled the Confederates' first attacks. After reforming, Anderson's men attacked again, and the brigades of Brig. Gens. Joseph B. Kershaw and Paul J. Semmes of McLaws's division advanced on their left against the Wheatfield from the west. The Fifth Corps troops, fearing that they would be flanked on their right, fell back behind the Wheatfield Road. Their retreat exposed the Third Corps line south of the Wheatfield to a flank attack, and its troops fell back. The Confederates advanced to the edge of the field. where Capt. George Winslow's New York battery held them at bay for a critical few minutes.

At the opening of the fight Meade ordered that Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell's division, which had been posted on the left of the Second Corps, be sent to the aid of Sykes. Caldwell's division reached the Wheatfield Road on the north side of the Wheatfield as the Confederates drove the Third and Fifth Corps from their positions on its southern and western sides. Caldwell's brigades formed quickly along the road, some doing so in such haste that their rear ranks were to the front. They charged through the ripe wheat and the surrounding woods, driving the Confederates back. Three brigade commanders, Col. Edward F. Cross and Brig. Gen. Samuel K. Zook of Caldwell's division and Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes of McLaws's division fell with mortal wounds.


(click on image for a PDF version)
JULY 2, 1863, THE CONFEDERATE ATTACK EXTENDS NORTH
As more Confederate troops entered the battle, the fighting spread north from Little Round Top and Devil's Den to Rose's Woods and the Wheatfield. The hard-pressed Union 3rd Corps is reinforced by troops of the 5th Corps who help to hold Sickles's advanced line.

Caldwell's men had but brief success, The repulsed Confederate brigades reformed quickly and counterattacked, this time with the help of Brig. Gen. William T. Wofford's Georgia brigade. Wofford's Georgians had helped break the Union line at the Peach Orchard and were sweeping victoriously down the Wheatfield Road on Kershaw's left. Caldwell's men, who had given their all, fell back in some disorder. Union commanders gained time by sending Col. Jacob B. Sweitzer's brigade into the Wheatfield to delay the Confederate assault, and Sweitzer's men did their futile task well. In hand-to-hand fighting, a Confederate soldier bayoneted Col. Harrison H. Jeffords, commander of the 4th Michigan Regiment, as he tried to save his colors from capture. Since only a relatively few men were bayoneted in this war, Jeffords achieved a rare if unwanted distinction.


(click on image for a PDF version)
JULY 2, 1863, THE WHEATFIELD AND PEACH ORCHARD
By 5:30 P.M. Confederate troops of Anderson, Kershaw and Semmes had driven the Union defenders from the Wheatfield. They were in turn counterattacked by Caldwell's division of the Union 2nd Corps and forced back. But Caldwell's success was undone by the attack of Barksdale and Wofford, which crushed the Union position at the Peach Orchard and outflanked the Union troops in the Wheatfield area, forcing them to retreat.

As Caldwell attacked, the Army of the Potomac's two brigades of Regular Army infantry, troops of Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres's division of the Fifth Corps, approached the Wheatfield from the east. They paused at the field's edge and saw Caldwell's men falling back. It became their task to delay the Confederate assault until the retreating troops and units from the reserve could set up a defensive position on the ridge line just north of Little Round Top. The Regulars did their job, but in doing so took 800 casualties. The attacking Confederates reached Plum Run at the base of Little Round Top but could go no farther. A brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves, including a company from the Gettysburg area, charged them there and drove them back across the Wheatfield. By this time it was dark. The Union forces occupied Round Top, and fighting ended there for the day.

PHOTOGRAPH OF THE WHEATFIELD TAKEN SHORTLY AFTER THE BATTLE (CWL)

THE BLOODY WHEATFIELD AFTERMATH (ILLUSTRATION BY GIL COHEN, COURTESY OF NPS)

When darkness came and the fighting died, dead and wounded abounded in the cockpit between Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard. Some wounded crawled to Plum Run, drank, perhaps, but could not cross it. They reddened its water with their blood and died along its banks. After the moon appeared and it was quiet, a Confederate soldier posted west of the Wheatfield serenaded all within hearing with hymns. He closed with a rendition of "When This Cruel War Is Over" and received cheers and applause from nearby men in blue.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture