Thursday, July 1, 2010

In Their Footsteps...

Brig. Gen. Joe Davis' Brigade at Gettysburg with Scott Hartwig

It's the 147th anniversary of the battle here at Gettysburg. (It only comes once!) Amidst the thousands of tourists that will descend upon the community this weekend, scores of them will be attending Gettysburg National Military Park's Battle Walks, Real Time Programs, and Daily Summer Programs. One of them just happened to take place in our front yard this morning. Above, you can see the approximate 300 visitors walking down the Wills House Lane on the First Day's battlefield.

The tour was led by GNMP Supervisory Historian Scott Hartwig. The program's subject was the exploits of Brigadier General's Joseph Davis' Confederate Brigade on July 1, 1863. To watch a full telecast of this program, tune into the Pennsylvania Cable Network for those of you who live in the Keystone State.

Joe Davis was a rather wealthy and privileged officer of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. As the nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he was at first sheltered away from combat much like the sons of Robert E. Lee. He devoted the first half of his career as an aide to his executive uncle. However, his eagerness to engage the enemy in battle eventually got him a command of a southern brigade. (Hmm. I wonder how he got that appointment?) Gettysburg would be his first combat command.

In the full video coming soon, Scott gives us a brief biography of General Davis including his family background, his education, and his early military career in both the state militia and the Confederate Army.

The John Wills - William Job - Theodore Bender - W.A. Kelly - Leroy Weinbrenner House is post-battle but almost all of the site's structures have traces of the battle in them. According to the Library of Congress: "The farm dates to 1798, when it was owned by William McPherson. James J. Wills purchased the farm from McPherson's heirs in 1859 and constructed the barn during the following year. Wills employed William Job as a tenant farmer to work the farm. During the Battle (July 1, 1863), Confederate troops marched through the farm to attack Union troops in the fields and woodlots to the west and south. Confederate artillery was also posted near the buildings which were used as a field hospital for several days after the battle." William Job fled the Confederate invasion in early July but likely hid somewhere on the property during their initial June 26, 1863 expedition into Gettysburg led by Jubal Early. For more information on the myth of the battle beginning over a shoe supply, read my article here.

In our video, Scott offers some history on Davis' Brigade itself. More full video of the tour to come once I fix some technical glitches.

At this point, our large group of about 300 attendants formed into a line of battle and began our march similar to that of Davis' Brigade (minus the whizzing bullets of course). There were about 2,000 men stretched nearly a mile, quite a bit larger than our condensed unit. It took about an hour and a half for these men to deploy and prepare to enter the battle. These men and those under James Archer were ordered by General Ambrose Powell Hill "to move forward and occupy the town" (Sears Gettysburg 165).

The troops move out and kick up the dust! Davis' 2nd Mississippi, 42nd Mississippi, and 55th North Carolina caught the northerners of Lysander Cutler's brigade off guard just a short distance ahead of our column on McPherson Ridge. This clash quickly escalated and even Davis himself later noted that, "The engagement soon became very warm" (Sears 173).
As the fighting continued later into the day, the Mississippians and North Carolinaians sought refuge in the then-unfinished Railroad Cut they probably thought would have offered them protection as a form of ready-made earthworks. Unfortunately for them, this was not the case. The men of the 6th Wisconsin, 14th Brooklyn, and 95th New York soon took commanding positions on the high slopes of the embankment and fired into them largely like fish in a barrel.

In one particularly famous instance of this fighting, Union Corporal Francis Waller leaped toward Sergeant William Murphy of the 2nd Mississippi. This fight for the rebel colors claimed the lives of several man. Afterward, Murphy would write, ""I did all that was in my power to prevail upon the boys to come on and take the battery, not knowing at the time that we were overpowered by those regiments of the enemy in our front, right, and left. Just about that time a squad of soldiers made a rush for my colors and our men did their duty. They were all killed or wounded, but they still rushed for the colors with one of the most deadly struggles that was ever witnessed during any battle in the war. Over a dozen men fell killed or wounded, and then a large man made a rush for me and the flag. As I tore the flag from the staff he took hold of me and the color. The firing was still going on, and was kept up for several minutes after the flag was taken from me" (NPS). Painting by Don Troiani.
Another vivid depiction of the fighting at the unfinished railroad cut is offered to us via the artwork of Dale Gallon.

Because a number of their senior officers had been killed and the regiments were quickly pursuing federals in all directions, many of the units became disorganized and Davis could no longer access control of his men. A Major John Blair of the 2nd MS noted that the men "were jumbled together without regard to regiment of company." This combined with the relative inexperience of the units and commander in addition to the debacle at the railroad cut perhaps are just a few of the reasons of their heavy losses.
Today, a War Department marker stands on the northern portion of Reynolds Avenue to tell the store of the men in Davis' Brigade. Click to enlarge. More anniversary photos and video from Gettysburg coming soon!

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