The afternoon of July 2, 1863 was hot and cloudless. Tens of thousands of soldiers in blue and gray had spent the morning in the humid, uncomfortable heat, maneuvering for position and occasionally exchanging shots as they eyed one another with resolution. For more than a day, portions of the two armies had ferociously grappled with one another in and around the small but strategically situated Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
Up to this hour the battle had gone in favor of the Confederates, whose superior numbers had pushed two Union corps back through the town and onto a ridge and several hills that lay to the southeast. The victorious Rebels had not pressed their advantage, though, and by the preceding evening, U.S. General Winfield Scott Hancock had managed to establish a solid line of defense on Cemetery Hill with Union reinforcements.
Union Army commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade had arrived on the field too late to witness the fighting. But after a quick survey of the field he readily agreed with his subordinate generals that Cemetery Hill and neighboring Culp’s Hill were suited for a defensive battle should Lee wish to continue his attack the following day.
Standing alone, however, this high ground was insufficient to guarantee a satisfactory outcome for the Union. To the left of Cemetery Hill, a low-lying ridge ran south through relatively open country along the Taneytown Road toward two more hills known locally as the Round Tops. Meade decided that his III Corps, led by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, was best suited to protect this vulnerable flank from attack. Although Sickles’ Corps was among the smallest, it was the obvious choice for the job, because his men had spent the previous night encamped nearby after having made a forced march from Emmitsburg, Md., on muddy and almost impassable roads. Later in the morning, Meade ordered V Corps to occupy a position in support of Sickles near the Round Tops.
Confederate Troops Made for High Ground, Threatening Sickles’ Position
Sickles followed Meade’s instructions, placing his two divisions adjacent to Hancock’s II Corps along Cemetery Ridge. Around noon, however, worrisome news arrived from units Sickles had dispatched to reconnoiter the territory in front of his position. Confederate troops in large numbers were reportedly moving to occupy some high ground in the vicinity of the Wentz and Rose farms near the Emmitsburg Road. Should this area fall into Rebel hands, Sickles would be at a disadvantage, because his troops—even on what was left of the declining Cemetery Ridge—would be exposed to plunging fire.
Sending word to Meade of his intentions, Sickles ordered his two divisions approximately one mile forward of Cemetery Ridge. Marching out with full colors flying and brigade bands playing, Sickles positioned Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphrey’s 2nd Division facing west along the Emmitsburg Road for about a half-mile stretch. Major General David B. Birney’s 1st Division continued this line by curving back to the south at a right angle at the Wentz farm peach orchard for another half-mile.
On the far left flank of Sickles’ line was a rise of mostly barren, rock-strewn ground known as Houck’s Ridge. To the south and running almost perpendicular to the ridge was a stream called Plum Run. It meandered through a gully of large boulders overgrown with vines and bushes. This area was called Devil’s Den or Devil’s Cave by locals, being named after a large rattlesnake known as the “Devil” that had occupied it in the early days of pioneer settlement. On the far side of Plum Run lay the heavily wooded slopes of Round Top, also called Sugar Loaf Hill, whose rocky crest was almost a half-mile from the creek. Adjacent to this hill and lying to the rear of Houck’s Ridge was a smaller, rock-strewn hill called Little Round Top which had recently been cleared of timber. Sickles had insufficient men to cover the hills in this sector, leaving the far left of the Union line vulnerable to attack.
The battle for this portion of the field began shortly after the arrival of approximately 1,500 Yankees from the 2nd Brigade of Birney’s Division under the able and experienced command of Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward. The 40-year- old Ward was a native of New York City and came from a family of soldiers—his grandfather had served in the American Revolution and his father in the Mexican War. Ward himself had enlisted in the 7th Regiment of the U.S. Army at age 18, rising to the rank of sergeant major in just four years. He, too, served in the Mexican War, receiving wounds at Monterrey and again at Vera Cruz where he was also captured. After the war, he served as Commissary General of New York. When the call to arms came in 1861, he recruited the 38th New York Volunteers and served as the regiment’s colonel until earning a promotion to command of the 2nd Brigade in the fall of 1862.
Ward Commanded Two Elite Sharpshooter Units
Ward’s Brigade comprised eight regiments—most of whom had seen hard service over the previous year in the battles of the Peninsula, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and most recently Chancellorsville. This was attested by the fact that virtually all of them counted fewer than 250 men in their ranks, and several had less than 200. The core of Ward’s Brigade consisted of four old veteran regiments: the 20th Indiana, the 3rd and 4th Maine, and 99th Pennsylvania. A few months earlier, they had been joined by the 86th and 124th New York of Whipple’s now defunct 3rd Division. Although less experienced, both had seen heavy action at Chancellorsville. All proudly wore the symbol of the red diamond on their forage caps, known affectionately by the 1st Division as the “Kearny patch” after their commander Phillip Kearny, killed leading his men at Second Bull Run.
Ward also had under his command the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. These were elite units of expert marksmen dressed in dark green uniforms who often served on detached duty. In fact, on July 2, both the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters and the 3rd Maine operated independently of Ward under Colonel Hiram Berdan. They spent the early afternoon of July 2 engaged in skirmish duty near the center of III Corps’ position.
Ward’s Brigade arrived at the ridge at about 3:30 pm and was formed up into battle order. Ward sent out the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters under Major Homer R. Stoughton as skirmishers about a half-mile ahead. He then deployed four of his regiments over a space of about 450 yards along the crest of the ridge. Lined up shoulder to shoulder was the 20th Indiana on the right, followed by the 86th New York, 99th Pennsylvania, and 124th New York, which was situated just above Devil’s Den. Much of the brigade was positioned in woods. The only exception was the 124th New York and an adjacent company of the 86th New York, which were completely out in the open. Off to the right, separated by a gap of about 250 yards, lay Colonel Regis de Trobriand’s 3rd Brigade. It was formed up along a stone wall and in some woods with its rear lying at the edge of a large wheat field. No efforts were made to construct breastworks by any of these men.
Soon thereafter, Ward’s men were joined by Captain James E. Smith’s 4th New York Battery, which was sent to support Birney’s defense of this position. Smith quickly sized up the situation and decided to place four of his six 10-pound Parrot rifles on the left side of Ward’s Brigade in the exposed area at the top of the ridge. Another section of two cannon along with the battery’s caissons and horses were sent 150 yards farther south and to the rear in the Plum Run valley to cover the left flank. It was difficult work, because the rocky slopes were steep, and the ridgeline contained little in the way of flat ground suitable for placing cannon. As these guns were being moved into position, the first shots from Confederate cannon located a half-mile distant began to fall along the ridge.
Seeing the logic of Smith’s decision to cover the Devil’s Den flank, Ward sent off nine of the 10 companies of the 4th Maine under Colonel Elijah Walker to bolster Smith’s two detached guns. Picking their way down into the low marshy swale, these men formed a rough line in the midst of the boulders located on the northern rim of Devil’s Den that stretched across to the far side of Plum Run. Wary of surprises, Walker then sent a company of skirmishers forward (south) into the valley, while another squad was deployed to the left on the lower slopes of Round Top.
Walker Makes a Regrettable Tactical Error
Smith soon rode up to Walker and pleaded with him to remove his men to the far side of Devil’s Den and form them in the woods at the base of Round Top. He argued that he could take care of his own front well enough with two guns, but feared that their flank would be turned if the Rebels controlled this strategic point. Walker did not comply, a decision he would soon regret.