Sterling’s Second Connecticut Light Battery at Gettysburg

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
I chose this unit because so little is known of its activities. It is absent from the pages of the Bachelder Papers, while Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler, commanding the artillery reserve, gives it scant mention in his official report. The battery’s monument on the field marks its position on July 3 – that’s about it. Even the usually dependable Union Casualties at Gettysburg states that no casualty list was found, although other sources note that three men were wounded and two others missing from among the 106 officers and enlisted men that the battery brought to the field. Three horses were also lost. One remarkable fact for a Union artillery battery at Gettysburg is its very unique armament: four James Rifles and two 12-pounder Howitzers. The battery entered the war on September 1862. It never saw action until Gettysburg, having been on the defensive line around Washington.

Fortunately a handful of other sources help to partially fill the gaps in our knowledge, and hopefully others will come to light in the future.

The briefest description is given on the marker to the Second Volunteer Brigade of the Artillery Reserve: “July 2d. Reinforced Third Corps line and late in the day retired and formed line under Lieut. Col. F. McGilvery on left of the Second Corps.” Surprisingly, nothing was said about July 3.

As for the battery’s movements and activities on July 2, Tyler merely wrote that he “sent it forward.” It must have played an insignificant role given the dearth of information. In fact, it is tempting to wonder if it might have been the unidentified battery that McGilvery mentioned in his official report, which was soon withdrawn. Cannoneer Eldridge B. Platt wrote home that the battery “did not go in that afternoon.” Presumably the new position that it took up “late in the day” is where it stood on July 3.

Captain John William Sterling commanded the battery. Born on September 16, 1826, Sterling became a merchant in Bridgeport, where the battery was organized. One of his men, Henry W. Hart, candidly described his captain in a letter to his wife two weeks after the battle: “There is not a man in the battery that likes him. He cares no more for the comfort of his men than he does about his horses.” Hart does not say why he was so disliked, so we are left to speculate. Perhaps judgment should be withheld. Comfort is a scarce commodity in the field, especially when compared to garrison duty in the nation’s capital. In any case Sterling survived the war and died on June 5, 1881 in Bridgeport.

We know considerably more about what the battery did on July 3. Actually the first action occurred very early in the morning when Confederate batteries opened up around 5 a.m. for a period of time. As Sterling’s men attempted to limber up, an incoming shell landed at the feet of young cannoneer Eldridge B. Platt and exploded, forcefully throwing up dirt and debris and resulting in the swelling of his face and eyes. Sterling ordered him to the hospital. Platt finally recovered his eyesight two days later. He would celebrate his 16th birthday on November 19, 1863, the same day Lincoln delivered his famous address at Gettysburg.

The bulk of the action for the battery of course occurred during the afternoon cannonade and subsequent Confederate assault of Cemetery Ridge. Hart wrote: “Our battery fired most of their ammunition. Our gun fired 100 rounds. It was very hot. Some of our men give out on account of the heat [heat exhaustion]. … We had one of our caissons blown up, three horses killed and three men slightly wounded. Our horses were in the woods. Our guns were behind breastworks. The cannoneers along the entire line had to load and fire on their knees.”

Sergeant D. B. Lockwood also offered a description: “Our battery was in position for fifty-six hours without being relieved, and a portion of the time under the hottest fire of the enemy’s artillery. It was our first engagement in a pitched battle; but the courage and coolness of our officers and men were such as to elicit commendation from experienced field officers, and veterans in the ranks. It was an excellent opportunity to test the accuracy and destructiveness of our guns (the James rifle); and the result was highly satisfactory. … Amid such fearful carnage we providentially escaped without the loss of a man: only three were wounded. Three of our horses were killed, and a caisson exploded by a shell.”

On the morning of July 3, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock personally placed the Irish brigade’s 116th Pennsylvania just in front of Sterling’s guns as a support. During the afternoon artillery duel, both “friendly” and less than friendly rounds passed directly over the regiment, the latter being mainly overshots that landed in the edge of the woods some 100 yards behind them. A provost guard posted to the rear thus suffered more than the front line. Regimental historian S. Mulholland recalled: “Sterling’s men made superb firing, their shells bursting in the faces of the advancing hosts [Pickett’s division]. One of the lieutenants of the battery, a very tall long legged fellow, could not restrain his delight at seeing the excellent work that his battery was doing, and when he could see a good shot and his shells bursting right in the ranks of the Confederates, the arms and legs flying, he would leap up, crack his heels together, and give a great scream of joy.”

So much for the “coolness” of the officers. There is little doubt, however, that Sterling’s battery did their full share of damage to Pickett’s men before they came within musket range of Federal infantry posted on the ridge. Besides Platt, one other injury to a battery member is known. William B. Wilcoxson was the victim of a premature cannon discharge on July 3. While his wound may have been characterized as “slight” in the records, he suffered constant pain for 29 more years, until death relieved him on August 3, 1894. All but one of his casket bearers had served in the battery.

My attached draft map shows the position of the 2nd Connecticut along with adjacent Federal batteries on July 3.

Sources:
-Official Reports of Robert O. Tyler and Freeman McGilvery.
-Union Casualties at Gettysburg, by Travis W. Busey and John W. Busey.
-https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/connecticut/2nd-connecticut-light-battery/#:~:text=The%20granite%20monument%20to%20the,by%20the%20State%20of%20Connecticut.
-https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Art-Res-2_3029-M.png
-https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/5845086/john-william-sterling
-Letters of Henry Waldo Hart to his wife, Virginia Polytechnical Institute (Virginia Tech), Blacksburg, Virginia.
-Sgt. D. B. Lockwood quoted in, The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, by W. A. Croffut and John W. Morris, NY: Ledyard Bill, 1868, p. 388.
-The Story of the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, by St. Clair A. Mulholland, 1903.
-Eldridge B. Platt Letters, Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
-Obituary of William B. Wilcoxson, National Tribune, August 30, 1894, p. 4.
 

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jameswoods

Private
Joined
Jul 29, 2015
According to David B. Lockwood's "Record of the Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy during the War of the Rebellion, History of the Second C.V. Light Battery, 105, the battery was ordered into position, "...just as the gallant Sickles was being borne to the rear." If correct, that would have the guns going into position probably no later than 7:00 PM. And, if the battery was not relieved until 56 hours later (apparently just before daylight on July 5), the position it held on July 3rd was, most likely, the same as it occupied on July 2.

Bachelder's map of the 3rd day has Sterling's guns placed where you show "H/1 Pa" (Cooper's B/ 1st Pa?). Any reason to believe their monument's location (south of the trapezoid shaped belt of woods) does not also reflect their 2nd day position?
 

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
I suppose the best evidence supporting Sterling's battery position is based upon the cited "trapezoid" woods being 100 yards in their rear, which evidently afforded some measure of protection to the caissons. The edge of those woods at present is 90 yards behind the vestige of the works, as measured on Google Earth.

Good catch on H/1 PA on my map, which should actually read "H/3 PA," that is, one section (two 3-inch Rifles) of Battery H, 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery (serving as light artillery) under Capt. William D. Rank.
 
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