Gettysburg: The Second Day
Houck’s Ridge/Devil’s Den-Part 1: Bombardment and Attack
Longstreet's Corps moved into position to attack just after 3 PM following a frustrating and for some brigades, a 26-mile march. July 2nd being a typical midsummer day made it no easier. As the Confederate Brigade Commanders assessed their front, it was clear that the Union line was nowhere near where it was expected to be. At the last moment Hood’s Division was ordered (by Lee) to lead the attack. This supplanted McLaw’s division that had been painstaking kept in the vanguard during the approach to attack. Hood tried several times to convince Longstreet to shift the line of attack around the Union Flank, but Longstreet denied the request flatly.
From each wing of Hood’s Division an artillery battery moved out into position and the battle commenced. Eleven guns in all began to search out the Union line. From the Southern vantage point Houck’s Ridge was clearly occupied as well as the Peach Orchard area only a few hundred yards from the Southern line. In between was the Rose Farm Woods, and while it was likely defended, any bombardment would be only guesswork.
The four ten-pound Parrott rifles of Captain James Smith's 4th New York Independent Battery returned fire. At once the Confederate command realized the importance of Smith's position and its artillery fire was concentrated onto the top of Houck's Ridge. The 124th New York found their position to be directly in the line of fire and temporarily moved to their right into the relative shelter of Rose Woods.
Smith’s battery had been moved onto Houck’s Ridge as part of Sickles’ new line, and indeed it was the southern anchor of Sickles’ Corps. Since the crest of Houck's Ridge was both small and exposed only four of his six weapons could be placed above the triangular field. All limbers and ammunition were left about 150 yards to the northeast near the remaining guns on the opposite side of Houck’s ridge in Plum Run Valley. This resulted in a backbreaking task of hand carrying ammunition up the rugged slopes.
After about 20 minutes of bombardment the Southern batteries ceased fire. A short lull in the exchange allowed General Jerome Robertson's and Evander Law's Brigades to move into place. After forming a double battle line more than a mile wide, the 3000 weary but battle tested soldiers moved forward down the shallow slopes toward Plum Run Valley.
The five Union regiments then on Houck's Ridge consisted of only 1490 infantrymen. The sight of twice as many attackers coming out of the woods on Warfield Ridge less than a mile away must have been enough to give pause to any Union soldier who enjoyed a vantage point. They would be more concerned if they could see the brigades of General Henry Benning and George Anderson, poised just behind Warfield Ridge, with eight more regiments matching the gray and butternut waves presently in view.
Brigadier General John H. Ward's Brigade represented the left flank of the Union Army. Thanks to Sickles' questionable initiative, that flank was not only susceptible to attack, but not readily capable of reinforcement. The unoccupied Round Tops lay in between the end of the Union line on the top of the Devil's Den rocks and any help that could come from the rest of the Union Army. For now, any assistance would have to come from Sickles' own over extended III Corps.
General Ward immediately recognized the overwhelming numbers moving down on him and across his left flank. He asked for and received support from Colonel Regis De Trobriand's Brigade in the form of the 17th Maine and the 40th New York. The 17th Maine moved toward the south boundary of the Wheatfield to plug the gap between the 99th Pennsylvania and DeTrobriand's position. DeTrobriand's 40th New York also moved out across the Wheatfield toward the Plum Run Valley, across the rear of Ward's position heading toward the exposed right flank.
On Houck's Ridge, Smith's Battery continued its heavy fire, now into the advancing ranks of Robertson and Law's Brigades. Perhaps its most effective shot exploded above John Bell Hood's horse on Slyder Lane (near Bushman Farm). Hood was struck with shrapnel, suffered a severe arm wound, and was out of the day's action, eventually losing the use of his left arm.
Lieutenant Smith also recognized the vulnerability of his Battery on the left flank. Finding Colonel Elijah Walker of the 4th Maine, Smith requested Walker to move his troops into a position to oppose the regiments moving into the woods at the base of Big Round Top. At least seven Confederate regiments were moving around the south end of Houck's Ridge to a position that put Smith's cannon as well the Union left in risk.
Walker was initially hesitant to leave his position above the rocks of Devils Den. He only relented somewhat when Smith persuaded General Ward to order the 4th Maine off the high ground. After protest, Walker left a single company atop the rocks and led his remaining 250 men into what would later be known as the "Valley of Death."
Indeed at that point due to confusion in Hood's command only Robertson's left two regiments, the 3 rd Arkansas and the 1 st Texas,
were proceeding directly toward Ward’s Brigade. This situation came
about due to the confusion about the direction of attack. Lee’s
original plan had Robertson's left wing guiding on the Emmitsburg Road
and moving northeasterly. This direction was based on the assumption
that the Union left flank would be somewhere just to the north of
Little Round Top.
From Law's vantage point, that plan was fading into
the smoky afternoon air. Upon realization that actual Union position
was at least as far south as Devil’s Den, Law decided to move south of
that obstacle, drive between the Round Tops and then turn north and leave Robertson to deal with the new Union Left flank. Law’s scouts had just
reported that there were undefended Union supply trains just east of
the Round Tops and that temptation certainly entered into his thoughts.
Robertson, not being a party to Law’s thoughts soon felt the effects of Law’s revision. Robertson’s right (the 4 th and 5th Texas) maintained their alignment with Law, while the 3 rd Arkansas and 1 st Texas tried to hold to the Emmitsburg Road, resulting in a significant gap in the line of attack.
Law attempted to fix the gap by having the 44 th and 48 th Alabama
move on a left oblique. In the final result this switched their
opponent from one tenacious Maine Regiment to another and
geographically from Little Round Top to Devil's Den and the Slaughter
Whether Hood or Robertson agreed with this move was
now moot, as Law was now the acting commander of Hood's division,
though Law would not be aware of this for about a half-hour.
Union skirmish lines located west of Plum Run and
Rose run harassed both wings of the advance. About 250 soldiers
principally from the 2 nd US Sharpshooters commanded by
Colonel Homer Stoughton peppered the advancing line with accurate fire
and made control more difficult. As the Southern attack pressed forward they fell back in small units, executing an ordered withdrawal.
To the north the 3 rd Arkansas, moving
fast and on the shortest path, were the first to reach the Union lines.
Just after crossing Rose Run they ran into a deadly volley of rifle
fire first from the wooded slope above and then from the Wheatfield to
The 3 rd Arkansas’s speedy advance had placed them in a vulnerable spot. They had become separated from the 1 st Texas upon entering Rose Woods. Crossfire from the 86 th New York, the 20 th Indiana, the 99 th Pennsylvania, and also the 17 th Maine (who had just arrived at the south end of the Wheatfield) stopped the Westerners in their tracks
With that, Ward’s three regiments moved down the hill
to a strong position overlooking the Rose Run Gully. 23 year old
Colonel VanNoy Manning, the Commander of the 3 rd Arkansas, regrouped and shortened his line to the south to attempt a more cautious advance.
That set the pattern for nearly the next hour in Rose
Woods. Both sides settled into thrust and parry with a bloody cost for
each yard of hillside. The 86 th NY’s Commanding Officer,
Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Higgins went down with a gunshot wound
during this phase. A few moments later Colonel John Wheeler of the 20 th Indiana was mortally wounded while moving his troops to the right to cover the ground of the departing 99 th Pennsylvania.
Both units rallied under their replacements and struggled on. Rose
Woods remained virtually the only place where the 3rd Corps’ initial
line remained completely intact during the next 1 ½ hours.
Figure 14: (above) The 3rd Arkansas in Rose Woods.