Action Near the Wheatfield on July 3 Between Pennsylvania Reserves and 15th Georgia

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Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
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So often in war, a clash occurs as the result of a sequence of unrelated decisions. Such was the case with an action that pitted a full brigade against a depleted regiment late on July 3. The scene was set with decisions made by the opposing generals, James Longstreet and George Meade.

Soon after the repulse of the grand Confederate charge made against Cemetery ridge on the mid-afternoon of July 3, Lt. Gen. Longstreet ordered the withdrawal of his troops from the vicinity of the Wheatfield, Rose woods and Devil’s Den. This applied to the four brigades of Wofford, Kershaw and Bryan (who succeeded Semmes) from McLaw’s division, and Benning from Hood’s division. However, their skirmishers remained in place to mask the withdrawal, supported by a section of two cannon from an unidentified battery that was posted at the northwestern corner of the Wheatfield.

Meanwhile, across the field, Maj. Gen. Meade began a celebratory ride south along Cemetery ridge to Little Round Top, which elicited loud cheering from the soldiers he passed along the way. When Meade rode up the hill, he was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Sedgwick and Brig. Gen. Wright of the Sixth Corps. Possibly Maj. Gen. Sykes and Brig. Gen. Crawford of the Fifth Corps were there as well - they were at least close at hand. The group gathered near where the monument to the 146th New York stands on Little Round Top, and on which is inscribed: “From this position Maj. Gen. Meade observed the battle for a time on July 3.”

While the Union generals were looking over the field, two significant observations were made. One was a Confederate line that was seen falling back (most likely McLaw’s brigades), and the other was the annoying Confederate skirmish fire that threatened any Federal who showed himself on Little Round Top. These skirmishers had been active since daylight, but sometimes orders might come to show more aggression (for instance, when covering a withdrawal with a show of strength). In any case, it prompted Meade to order a reconnaissance to determine the enemy force in his front, and hopefully clear out the skirmishers who threatened life and limb.

Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserve brigade under Col. McCandless was chosen to make the main effort, to be supported by a couple of regiments from Col. Nevin’s brigade of the Sixth Corps. McCandless’ brigade had occupied the stone wall along the east border of the Wheatfield since the previous evening. It consisted of five regiments totaling at that moment just over 1,300 men: 13th (Bucktails), 2nd, 1st, 11th and 6th Pennsylvania Reserves.

Meanwhile, back in the Confederate lines, a problem had developed. While the withdrawal of McLaw’s brigades took place without a hitch, the courier sent by Brig. Gen. Laws (commanding Hood’s division since the latter’s wounding) to Brig. Gen. Benning was confused. The courier did not completely understand Laws’ orders, and could only wave his hand in a northwesterly direction when explaining where Benning should go. Benning, for his part, chose not to seek clarification from Laws and proceeded to act on the vague order. Col. DuBose’s 15th Georgia, now only 180 men strong, was on the left of the brigade, behind the wall of the triangular field west of Devil’s Den, facing north. DuBose was ready to go and was sent off alone to occupy what I believe was the bluff that was held by Semmes and then Brooke on the previous day. The other three regiments under Benning were made ready and were to follow shortly. Benning had no idea that McLaws had already been withdrawn on his left; he was walking right into a trap.

Crawford immediately ordered McCandless forward. The 6th PA Reserves moved first through the woods north of the Wheatfield in an effort to capture the enemy artillery section, but Confederate pickets gave the alarm, and the guns quickly withdrew. The remainder of the brigade moved rapidly to take up a position in those same woods, parallel to the Wheatfield road, and facing south. At the same time, the 15th Georgia was moving to its new position in Rose woods, both sides completely unaware of the other’s presence. Leaving the 6th PA Reserves behind on the western border of the woods north of the Wheatfield road, McCandless soon advanced into the Wheatfield, but wheeled to the right, heading for the Stony Hill (the Loop), which had seen such heavy fighting the day before, and all the while driving the enemy skirmishers before him. Just after McCandless halted in the woods west of the Wheatfield, his men might have soon noticed some Confederate skirmishers who appeared to their left and left rear; these could have been some flankers sent out by Col. Dubose to guard his exposed left flank. At that moment, the Federals faced west, while the 15th Georgia faced east, with about 250 yards separating them. Losing no time, McCandless about faced his four regiments, and wheeled right (south) into the woods, in column formation. The 13th Pennsylvania Reserves on the left was moving directly toward the open left flank of the 15th Georgia, and Col. DuBose dispatched Company D to bolster his left. Too little and too late. Rather than remain in column formation as directed, McCandless’ other regiments extended the line to the left of the 13th, bringing them successively around in front of the 15th Georgia. Col. DuBose soon pulled back a few yards and reoriented his men to face north and northeast to confront the oncoming Federals, but it quickly became apparent that the Georgians were being overwhelmed by an enemy force that outnumbered them by more than five to one. They soon escaped by moving off to the southwest, but not before giving up their flag and about 90 men – half the regiment. When the Pennsylvania Reserves arrived at the southern edge of the Rose woods, they encountered and surprised Benning’s other three regiments, which bolted in mad disorder toward the west. The fighting was over for the day, and Crawford had another reason to gloat.

Estimated timeline of events (preliminary):
4:15 p.m. – Meade begins his ride from central Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top.
4:38 p.m. – Meade arrives on Little Round Top; Sedgwick and Wright also present.
4:40 p.m. – Group observes Confederates pulling back (probably Wofford/Kershaw/Bryan).
4:45 p.m. – Meade orders woods in front to be cleared of enemy sharpshooters.
5:02 p.m. – 6 PA Reserves of McCandless’ brigade advances through woods north of the Wheatfield.
5:05 p.m. – Rest of McCandless’ brigade moves into the same woods north of the Wheatfield.
5:11 p.m. – 15 GA leaves triangular field moving west and northwesterly.
5:12 p.m. – McCandless’ brigade in position in woods north of Wheatfield, facing south.
5:14 p.m. – McCandless advances, his brigade wheeling to the right through the Wheatfield.
5:21 p.m. – 15 GA in position on bluff in Rose woods (which Brooke occupied on July 2).
5:23 p.m. – McCandless’ left regiment, 13 PA Reserves, arrives near Stony Hill.
5:26 p.m. – McCandless’ brigade about faces then moves south toward left flank of 15 GA.
5:30 p.m. – Clash initiated between McCandless’ brigade and 15 GA.
5:40 p.m. – Remainder of 15 GA retreats westerly.

Some principal sources:
-Official Reports of Benning, DuBose, Crawford
-Correspondence with Crawford, Address Delivered Wednesday, 28th November 1866, in Feller’s Hall, Madalin, Township of Red Hook, Duchess Co., New York, by J. Watts De Peyster
-Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 1:70-77, 100, 108-121, 224-231, 278-286
-Our Campaigns; Or the Marches, Bivouacs, Battles … by E. M. Woodward, Adj. of 2 PA Reserves
-History of the “Bucktails,” by O. R. Howard Thomson and William H. Rauch, Philadelphia: Electric Printing Company, 1906
-Benjamin F. W. Urben account, 1 PA Reserves, The Gettysburg Magazine, issue 37 (2008)
-History of Company K, 1st (Inft) Penn’a Reserves, by H. N. Minnigh, Duncansville, PA: “Home Print” Publisher, 1891
 

Andy Cardinal

2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
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Feb 27, 2017
Location
Ohio
I assume this action was what Meade later called his attempted counterattack on July 3 (JCCW testimony)?

As a point of reference, what time did Farnsworth's charge take place, and Merritt's battle at the South Cavalry Field?
 
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chucksr

Sergeant
Joined
May 26, 2017
Of all the areas of the fight at Gettysburg, over the entire 3 days, the Wheat Field section is the most confusing for me, there were portions of three different corps in what appears to me to be a back and forth battle for that piece of real estate, while, at the same time, contingent areas were being contested.
No matter how many times I read and study the episode, I still end up scratching my head trying to keep up with the units engaged, the timing, the results straight. Even watching an animated depiction is difficult with lines, regiments, divisions moving in and out. I can't even imagine what the participants went through on that bit of real estate.
 

Wallyfish

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 26, 2015
Location
Greensburg, Pa
Very interesting. Your post compelled me to read Benning's Gettysburg Campaign report (first time read for me). That report can be found in the link below.

I did find it fascinating that Benning immediately reacted to the initial vague order as described below (excerpts from Benning's report) versus asking for clarification. Is there any evidence on why Law sent out that second "clarifying" order? Did the courier relay back to Law that he was confused and Benning needed clarification? Another possibility is Law visually saw Du Bose going to the wrong crest. Maybe the answer has been lost to history.

Below are a few lines from Benning's report.

Consequently, I immediately gave Colonel Du Bose orders to take his regiment along the crest to that ground, his regiment being most convenient, at the beginning of the crest. He moved off at once.

In a few minutes afterward, I received what was the same order from General Law, but this time clearly and in a very different sense. It was to move back immediately to the crest of the hill from which we had advanced the day before. I gave the necessary orders, and the three regiments remaining in position commenced moving out.



http://www.civilwarhome.com/benninggettysburgor.htm
 
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Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Very interesting. Your post compelled me to read Benning's Gettysburg Campaign report (first time read for me). That report can be found in the link below.

I did find it fascinating that Benning immediately reacted to the initial vague order as described below (excerpts from Benning's report) versus asking for clarification. Is there any evidence on why Law sent out that second "clarifying" order? Did the courier relay back to Law that he was confused and Benning needed clarification? Another possibility is Law visually saw Du Bose going to the wrong crest. Maybe the answer has been lost to history.

Below are a few lines from Benning's report.

Consequently, I immediately gave Colonel Du Bose orders to take his regiment along the crest to that ground, his regiment being most convenient, at the beginning of the crest. He moved off at once.

In a few minutes afterward, I received what was the same order from General Law, but this time clearly and in a very different sense. It was to move back immediately to the crest of the hill from which we had advanced the day before. I gave the necessary orders, and the three regiments remaining in position commenced moving out.

http://www.civilwarhome.com/benninggettysburgor.htm
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I don't think Law would have seen the 15th Georgia moving through the woods, but the courier relaying Benning's confusion is a possibility. In addition, important orders were sometimes conveyed by two couriers traveling separately, in case one did not make it through, however, there was not much firing going on at the time.

Benning is incorrect that McLaws moved off "some hours" earlier. We know from Capt. Lemon of Wofford's brigade that they did not get orders to fall back until after the charge was over, which probably could not have been earlier than 4:15 p.m., and other sources infer the same thing.

After the war, Benning put a possible "spin" concerning his withdrawal, suggesting that he sent the color bearers of his three other regiments ahead, in order that their men could quickly rally on them. If so, he had remarkable presence of mind. Federal participants did not agree with him. I think it more probable that when McCandless suddenly appeared perhaps 200-300 yards from Benning's three regiments, they were so surprised that they quickly broke and scattered, although they did rally some distance to the rear, before continuing their retreat to Warfield ridge.

The few Federal dead from this reconnaissance were buried in the Wheatfield, and most likely some Confederates were killed as well, so we should keep in mind that not all of the dead in the vicinity fell on July 2. The Federals also captured a number of other skirmishers in this foray, representing Wofford's and possibly Bryan's (Semmes) and maybe Kershaw's brigades. A few non-combatants were taken as well, including men skinning beeves (commissary department detailees).

By the way, G. T. Anderson's regiments had departed in the forenoon of July 3 for the far Confederate right near the Emmitsburg road. Robertson's 3rd Arkansas, 1st Texas and Company I of the 4th Texas had left before daylight on July 3 to join their comrades in works constructed just in front (west) of Big Round Top. (Company I of the 4th Texas had been deployed in front of the brigade as skirmishers when the attack was first launched on July 2, and, becoming separated from their regiment during the advance, joined and fought alongside the 1st Texas near Devil's Den.)

As darkness fell on July 3, McCandless held the southwest corner of Rose woods, the 6th PA Reserves on the right being 200 yards from the Rose spring house, where a guard was posted and gathered in a few stray Confederates who sought water there during the night (Kershaw's, Semmes' and Wofford's men would have been familiar with it). Just yards in front of the 6th PA Reserves would therefore have been those lines of Confederate dead depicted in the now famous Gibson/Gardner photos taken soon after the battle.
 
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