Volume XXVI Issue #4 • An Excerpt From:


Hancock's Line at Gettysburg
July 3, 1863

by Blake Magner

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.



Morning

The morning of July 3, 1863 dawned cloudy and gray. With the temperature around 73 degrees, everyone knew it was going to be another scorcher.1 After two days of bloody fighting the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac sat glaring at each other, except on Culp’s Hill where the Gods of War deemed that the men in blue and gray should continue to try to kill one another. Along Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s (left) II Corps front that ran along Cemetery Ridge from Ziegler’s Grove to near the George Weikert farm, the men stretched and strained trying to get out the aches and pains from sleeping on the hard Pennsylvania earth.

According to Lt. Frank Haskell of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s staff, “the Army of the Potomac was no band of school girls. They were not the men likely to be crushed or utterly discouraged by any new circumstances in which they might find themselves placed. They had lost some battles, they had gained some. They knew what defeat was, and what was victory.”2 Haskell then went on to say: “With the elation of victory or the depression of defeat, amidst the hardest toils of the campaign, under un-welcome leadership, at all times, and under all circumstances, they were a reliable army still. The Army of the Potomac would do as it was told, always.”3

Those on the left and center of the line were able to look out over the fields stretching to the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge and the dead, wounded and dying of Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright’s Georgians, who had charged their position the day before. Many of these men were still pleading for water and crying for help. Col. Wheelock G. Veazey of the 16th Vermont described the scene the night before, saying it was “the saddest night on picket that I ever passed. The line ran across the field that had been fought over the day before, and the dead and wounded of the two armies lying side by side, thick strewed the ground. The mingled imprecations and prayers of the wounded, and supplication for help were heart-rending. The stretcher-bearers of both armies were allowed to pass back and forth through the picket lines, but scores of wounded men died around up in the gloom, before anyone could bring relief or receive their dying messages.”4

A member of the 13th Vermont remembered the night: “We gave but little heed to the many dead scattered over the field in every direction as far as we could see, only those near by, and those temporarily and tenderly covered with their blankets to hide from view the horrid bloated mangled corpses with open eyes constantly crossing our vision and distracting our attention from the important duties at hand.”5

Plans for the day had already been made, though few knew it. Gen. Robert E. Lee indicated that, “The general plan was unchanged. Longstreet, re-enforced by Pickett’s three brigades . . . was ordered to attack the next morning [July 3], and General Ewell was directed to assail the enemy’s right at the same time.” This meant that both Lt. Gens. Richard S. Ewell and James Longstreet would take up where they had left off on the evening of July 2. Unfortunately, Pickett was slow coming up and Longstreet did not have a clear understanding of Lee’s plan. Also, Longstreet was still trying to find a way around the Union Army’s left flank, an idea he had come up with the day before. Although Ewell did begin his July 3 attack at Culp’s Hill early, Longstreet was delayed forcing a disappointed Lee to change his plan. Meeting with his commanders late in the morning of the 3rd, Lee chose to send his forces against the Federal center, focusing on a small copse of trees he could see on the Federal line. After all, Wright’s Georgians had reached those heights the day before—they just couldn’t stay there. Perhaps a larger force could take the ridge.6

A mile away behind the Union line, the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, the night before had indicated to one of his subordinates, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, that if Lee should choose to attack “it will be in your front,” that same center point.7

Less than 20 years after the battle, while preparing to paint his masterpiece known as the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, which today can be viewed in the new Visitor Center, Paul Philippoteaux had photographs taken of the battlefield. This area is known as the Angle. Out of view at left is the Copse of Trees.

Hancock’s Line

As the Army of the Potomac had worked its way onto the farms and fields of Gettysburg on July 1, the corps commanders, Hancock (II) and Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard (XI), among others, had placed their men in a line close to three miles long stretching from Culp’s Hill in the north to the Round Tops south of town. The II Corps line had pretty much been in its present position since its arrival on the battlefield, though various units had been moved to support troops on other portions of the field. The Confederates’ attack on the southern portion of the line on July 2 also had temporarily disrupted the corps alignment. However, as the men began to stir on the morning of the 3rd, Hancock had his men aligned the way he wanted them.

Anchoring the II Corps’ right were the six 12-pounder Napoleons of Lt. George Woodruff’s Battery I, 1st U. S. Artillery, sitting atop a little slope just north of the Bryan Farm and in front of Ziegler’s Grove. The battery was supported by the 108th New York Infantry (Col. Francis E. Pierce) of Col. Thomas Smyth’s 2nd Brigade. In front of Woodruff’s position and on the other side of the Emmitsburg Road was Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer and the 8th Ohio, the only portion of Col. Samuel Carroll’s brigade still in the immediate area (the rest had been sent to aid the XI Corps the night before). Acting as skirmishers, the 8th was out in front of the main line, pretty much on their own, though evidence does suggest they aligned themselves with skirmishers of Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr’s XI Corps division on their right, and with skirmishers of the 126th New York and a company of the 1st Delaware.8

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