previous next

Kershaw's brigade at Gettysburg.

by J. B. Kershaw, Major-General, C. S. A.
My brigade, composed of South Carolinians,1 constituted, with Semmes's, Wofford's, and Barksdale's brigades, the division of Major-General Lafayette McLaws, and that, with the divisions of Pickett and Hood, formed the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, known as Longstreet's.

About sunset on the 1st of July we reached the top of the range of hills overlooking Gettysburg, from which could be seen and heard the smoke and din of battle, then raging in the distance. We encamped about midnight two miles from Gettysburg, on the left of the Chambersburg pike. On the 2d we were up and ready to move at 4 A. M., in obedience to orders, but, owing, as we understood at the time, to the occupancy of the road by trains of the Second Corps, Ewell's, did not march until about sunrise. With only a slight detention from trains in the way, we reached the high grounds near Gettysburg, and moved to the right of the Third Corps, Kershaw's brigade being at the head of the column, which was halted at the end of the lane leading to the Black Horse Tavern, situated some five hundred yards to our right. We lay there awaiting orders until noon, or an hour after. This position commanded a view of the Emmitsburg road about Kern's house, and during the morning a large body of troops, with flankers out in our direction, passed over that point and joined the Federal army. At length, General McLaws ordered me to move by a flank to the rear, get under the cover of the hill, and move along the bank of Marsh Creek toward the enemy, taking care to keep out of their view. In executing this order, we passed the Black Horse Tavern and followed the road leading from that point toward the Emmitsburg pike, until the head of column reached a point where the road passed over the top of a hill, from which our movement would have been plainly visible from the Federal signal station on Little Round Top. Here we were halted by General McLaws in person, while he and General Longstreet rode forward to reconnoiter. Very soon those gentlemen returned, both manifesting considerable irritation, as I thought. General McLaws ordered me [332] to countermarch, and in doing so we passed Hood's division, which had been following us. We moved back to the place where we had rest ed during the morning, and thence by a country road to Willoughby Run, then dry, and down that to the school-house beyond Pitzer's. There we turned to the left through the lane, moving directly toward Little Round Top. General Longstreet here commanded me to advance with my brigade and attack the enemy at the Peach Orchard, which lay a little to the left of my line of march, some six hundred yards from us. I was directed to turn the flank of that position, extend my line along the road we were then in beyond tile Emmitsburg pike, with my left resting on that road. At the same time a battery of artillery was moved alongside of the column, parallel to my line of march. At 3 P. M. the head of my column emerged from the woods, and came into the open field in front of the stone wall which extends along by Flaherty's farm, and to the east past Snyder's. Here we were in full view of the Federal position. Their main line appeared to extend from Little Round Top, where their signal flags were flying, until it was lost to sight far away to the left. An advanced line occupied the Peach Orchard, heavily supported by artillery, and extended from that point toward our left along the Emmitsburg road. The intervening ground was occupied by open fields, interspersed

Major-General E. M. Law, C. S. A. From a photograph.

and divided by stone walls. The position just here seemed almost impregnable. I immediately formed line of battle along the stone wall just mentioned, my left resting about Flaherty's house, and my right near Snyder's. This was done under cover of my skirmishers, who engaged those of the enemy near the Emmitsburg road. In the meantime I examined the position of the Federals with some care. I found them in superior force, strongly posted in the Peach Orchard, which bristled with artillery, with a main line of battle in their rear, apparently intrenched, and extending to, if not upon, Little Round Top, far beyond the point at which their left had been supposed to rest. To carry out my instructions would have been, if successful in driving the enemy from the Peach Orchard, to present my own right flank and rear to a large portion of the enemy's main line of battle. I therefore placed my command in position under the cover of the stone wall, and communicated the condition of matters to Major-General McLaws. The division was then formed on this line, Semmes's brigade two hundred yards in rear and supporting Kershaw's; Barksdale's on the left of Kershaw's, with Wofford's in Barksdale's rear supporting him. Cabell's battalion of artillery was placed along the wall to Kershaw's right, and the 15th South Carolina [333] regiment, Colonel de Saussure, was thrown to their right to support them on that flank.

In the meantime General Hood's division was moving in our rear to the right, to gain the enemy's left flank, and I was directed to commence the attack as soon as General Hood became engaged, swinging around toward the Peach Orchard, and at the same time establishing connection with Hood on my right, and cooperating with him. It was understood that he was to sweep down the Federal lines in a direction perpendicular to our line of battle. I was informed that Barksdale would move

Major-General Lafayette McLaws, C. S. A. From a photograph.

with me and conform to my movement; that Semmes would follow me, and Wofford follow Barksdale. These instructions I received in sundry messages from General Longstreet and General McLaws, and in part by personal communication with them. In my center-front was a stone farm-house [supposed to be Rose's], with a barn also of stone. These buildings were about five hundred yards from our position, and on a line with the crest of the Peach Orchard hill.

The Federal infantry was posted along the front of the orchard, and also on the face looking toward Rose's. Six of their batteries were in position, three at the orchard near the crest of the hill, and the others about two hundred yards in rear, extending in the direction of Little Round Top. Behind Rose's was a morass, and, on the right of that, a stone wall running parallel with our line, some two hundred yards from Rose's. Beyond the morass was a stony hill, covered with heavy timber and thick undergrowth, interspersed with bowlders and large fragments of rock, extending some distance toward the Federal main line, and in the direction of Round Top, and to our left and in rear of the orchard and the batteries posted there. Beyond the stone wall last mentioned, and to the right of the stony hill, was a dense forest extending far to the right. From the morass a small stream ran into this wood and along the base of the mountain. Between the stony hill and [334]

Sickles's position at the Peach Orchard, viewed from the Emmitsburg road, looking South. This and the other outline sketches were made in 1885 by C. W. Reed, of Bigelow's 9th Mass. Battery.

the forest was an interval of about one hundred yards, only sparsely covered with a scrubby undergrowth, through which a narrow road led in the direction of the mountain. Looking down this road from Rose's a large wheat-field was seen. In rear of the wheat-field, and between that and the mountain, there was a heavy force of Federals, posted in line behind a stone wall. Under my instructions I determined to move upon the stony hill, so as to strike it with my center, and thus attack the orchard on its left rear. About 4 o'clock I received the order to move, at a signal from Cabell's artillery. They were to fire for some minutes, then pause, and then fire three guns in rapid succession. At this I was to move without further orders. I communicated these instructions to the commanders of each of the regiments in my command, directing them to convey them to the company officers. They were told, at the signal, to order the men to leap the wall without further orders, and to align the troops in front of it. Accordingly, at the signal, the men leaped over the wall and were promptly aligned; the word was given, and the brigade moved off at the word, with great steadiness and precision, followed by Semmes with equal promptness. General Longstreet accompanied me in this advance on foot, as far as the Emmitsburg road. All the field and staff officers were dismounted on account of the many obstacles in the way. When we were about the Emmitsburg road, I heard Barksdale's drums beat the assembly, and knew then that I should have no immediate support on my left, about to be squarely presented to the heavy force of infantry and artillery at and

The “wheat-field,” looking toward Kershaw's position in front of Rose's House.


The Peach Orchard, viewed from Longstreet's extreme right on the Emmitsburg road.

in rear of the Peach Orchard. The 2d and 8th South Carolina regiments and James's (Third) battalion constituted the left wing of the brigade, and were then moving majestically across the fields to the left of the lane leading to Rose's, with the steadiness of troops on parade. They were ordered to change direction to the left, and attack the batteries in rear of the Peach Orchard, and accordingly moved rapidly on that point. In order to aid this attack, the direction of the 3d and 7th regiments was changed to the left, so as to occupy the stony hill and wood. After passing the buildings at Rose's, the charge of the left wing was no longer visible from my position; but the movement was reported to have been magnificently conducted until the cannoneers had left their guns and the caissons were moving off, when the order was given to “move by the right flank,” by some unauthorized person, and was immediately obeyed by the men. The Federals returned to their guns and opened on these doomed regiments a raking fire of grape and canister, at short distance, which proved most disastrous, and for a time destroyed their usefulness. Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell, victims of this fatal blunder. While this tragedy was being enacted, the 3d and 7th regiments were conducted rapidly to the stony hill. In consequence of the obstructions in the way, the 7th Regiment had lapped the 3d a few paces, and when they reached the cover of the stony hill I halted the line at the edge of the wood for a moment, and ordered the 7th to move by the right flank to uncover the 3d Regiment, which was promptly done. It was, no

Sickles's angle at the Peach Orchard, as seen from the road leading from the wheat-field to the Peach Orchard.

[336] doubt, this movement, observed by some one from the left, that led to the terrible mistake which cost so dearly.

The moment the line was rectified the 7th and 3d regiments advanced into the wood and occupied the stony hill, the left of the 3d Regiment swinging around and attacking the batteries to the left of that position, which, for the reasons already stated, had resumed their fire. Very soon a heavy column moved in two lines of battle across the wheat-field to attack my position in such manner as to take the 7th Regiment in flank on the right. The right wing of this regiment was then thrown back to meet this attack, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Bland. I then hurried in person to General Semmes, then 150 yards in my right rear, to bring him up to meet the attack on my right, and also to bring forward my right regiment, the 15th, commanded by Colonel W. G. de Saussure, which, separated from the brigade by the artillery at the time of the advance, was cut off by Semmes's brigade. In the act of leading his regiment, this gallant and accomplished commander of the 15th had just fallen when I reached it. He fell some paces in front of the line, with sword drawn, leading the advance.

General Semmes promptly responded to my call, and put his brigade in motion toward the right, preparatory to moving to the front. While his troops were moving he fell, mortally wounded. Returning to the 7th Regiment, I reached it just as the advancing column of Federals had arrived at a point some two hundred yards off, whence they poured into us a volley from their whole line, and advanced to the charge. They were handsomely received and entertained by this veteran regiment, which long kept them at bay in its front. One regiment of Semmes's brigade came at a double-quick as far as the ravine in our rear, and checked the advance of the Federals in their front. There was still an interval of a hundred yards, or thereabout, between this regiment and the right of the 7th, and into this the enemy was forcing his way, causing my right to swing back more and more; still fighting, at a distance not exceeding thirty paces, until the two wings of the regiment were nearly doubled on each other.2

About this time, the fire of the battery on my left having ceased, I sent for the 2d South Carolina regiment to come to the right. Before I could hear anything of them the enemy had swung around and lapped my whole line at close quarters, and the fighting was general and desperate all along the line, and so continued for some time. These men were brave veterans who had fought from Bull Run to Gettysburg, and knew the strength of their position, and so held it as long as it was tenable. The 7th Regiment finally gave way, and I directed Colonel Aiken to re-form it at the stone wall about Rose's. I passed to the 3d Regiment, then hotly engaged on the crest of the hill, and gradually swung back its right as the enemy made progress around that flank. Semmes's advanced regiment had given way. One of his regiments had mingled with the 3d, and amid rocks and trees, within a few feet of each other, these brave men, Confederates and Federals, maintained a desperate [337] conflict. The enemy could make no progress in front, but slowly extended around my right. Separated from view of my left, of which I could hear nothing, all my staff being with that wing, the position of the 15th Regiment being wholly unknown, the 7th having retreated, and nothing being heard of the other troops of the division, I feared the brave men around me would be surrounded by the large force of the enemy constantly increasing in numbers and all the while gradually enveloping us. In order to avoid such a catastrophe, I ordered a retreat to the buildings at Rose's. On emerging from the wood as I followed the retreat, I saw Wofford riding at the head of his fine brigade, then coming in, his left being in the Peach Orchard, which was then clear of the enemy. His movement was such as to strike the stony hill on the left, and thus turn the flank of the troops that had driven us from that position. On his approach the enemy retreated across the wheat-field, where, with the regiments of my left wing, W offord attacked with great effect, driving the Federals upon and near to Little Round Top. I now ascertained that Barksdale had advanced upon the Peach Orchard after I had become engaged; that he had cleared that position with the assistance of my 8th South Carolina regiment, driving all before him, and, having advanced far beyond that point, until enveloped by superior forces, had fallen mortally wounded, and been left in the Federals' hands. He had passed too far to my left to afford me any relief except in silencing the batteries that had so cruelly punished my left. When Barksdale passed to the left, the. regiments of my left wing moved up into the wood on the left of the stony hill, and maintained that position against heavy odds, until the advance of Wofford's brigade.

When the enemy fell back from the stony hill on General Wofford's advance, the 15th South Carolina and a portion of Semmes's brigade followed them and joined Wofford in his attack upon the retreating column. I rallied the remainder of my brigade and Semmes's at Rose's, with the assistance of Colonel Sorrel of Longstreet's staff, and advanced with them to the support of Wofford, taking position at the stone wall overlooking the forest to the right of Rose's house, some two hundred yards in front. Finding that Wofford's men were coming out, I retained them at that point to check any attempt of the enemy to follow. It was now near nightfall, and the operations of the day were over. That night we occupied the ground over which we had fought, with my left at the Peach Orchard, on the hill, and gathered the dead and wounded — a long list of brave and efficient officers and men. Captain Cunningham's company of the 2d Regiment was reported to have gone into action with forty men, of whom but four remained unhurt to bury their fallen comrades. My losses exceeded 600 men killed and wounded,--about one-half the force engaged.

A glance at the map [see pp. 299, 308] showing the positions occupied by the troops on the 2d of July, will reveal the remarkable fact that the stony hill and wood occupied by this brigade and part of Semmes's was assailed or defended by the Federal brigades of De Trobriand, Sweitzer, Tilton, and Zook, of the divisions of Birney, Barnes, and Caldwell, and of the Second, Third, and Fifth corps. Nowhere have I found any more forcible evidence [338] of the nature and magnitude of this struggle by McLaws's and Hood's divisions than is contained in General Meade's report. He says:

“ About 3 P. M. I rode out to the extreme left. . . . Having found Major-General Sickles, I was explaining to him that he was too far in the advance, and discussing with him the propriety of withdrawing, when the enemy opened upon him with several batteries, in his front and flank, and immediately brought forward columns of infantry and made a vigorous assault. The Third Corps sustained the shock most heroically. Troops from the Second Corps were immediately sent by Major-General Hancock to cover the right flank of the Third Corps, and soon after the assault commenced the Fifth Corps most fortunately arrived and took position on the left of the Third, Major-General Sykes, commanding, immediately sending a force to occupy Round Top Ridge, where a most furious contest was maintained, the enemy making desperate but unsuccessful efforts to secure it. Notwithstanding the stubborn resistance of the Third Corps under Major-General Birney (Major-General Sickles having been wounded early in the action), superiority in numbers of corps of the enemy enabling him to outflank its advance position, General Birney was compelled to fall back and re-form behind the line originally designed to be held.

In the meantime, perceiving the great exertions of the enemy, the Sixth Corps, Major-General Sedgwick, and part of the First Corps to the command of which I had assigned Major-General Newton, particularly Lockwood's Maryland Brigade, with detachments from the Second Corps, were all brought up at different periods, and succeeded, together with a gallant resistance of the Fifth Corps, in checking and finally repulsing the assault of the enemy, who retired in confusion and disorder about sunset, and ceased any further efforts on our extreme left.


These mighty shocks of contending armies were sustained, on our part, by two divisions of infantry numbering, with the artillery, not more than 10,000, or at the highest estimate 13,000 men.

Kershaw's brigade remained unemployed during the 3d of July, in the position it held the evening before, along the stony hill and wood. It will be evident to the reader that the causes of the failure of the operations here described to achieve greater results, may be reduced to one, to wit: the want of simultaneous movement and cooperation between the troops employed. A careful examination of all that has been written of that eventful series of battles will show that this was the cause of all the failures. Every attack was magnificent and successful, but failed in the end for the want of cooperation between corps, divisions, brigades, and, in some instances, regiments of the same brigade. The want of cooperation, or, as the Comte de Paris terms it, the want of “coordination,” caused the loss of Gettysburg to the Confederates. It will be seen, too, that there was no loss of time on the part of McLaws's division, from the day it left Culpeper to that of its arrival at Gettysburg. If any ensued after that, it was due to circumstances wholly unknown to the writer. Certainly, the loss of time, if any, would not have lost the fight, if there had been perfect cooperation of all the troops. But, except to vindicate the truth, it is vain to inquire into the causes of our failure. [339]

The last Confederate gun at Gettysburg-on Longstreet's right, opposite Round Top.

1 The 2d, 3d, 7th, 8th and 15th South Carolina regiments, and the 3d South Carolina Battalion.--editors.

2 The Union force engaged in this movement consisted of De Trobriand's brigade (Birney's division) of the Third Corps.--editors.

3 In a supplementary report, General Meade amended this paragraph so as to include the First Division of the Twelfth Corps. Lockwood's brigade belonged to the Twelfth Corps, unattached.--editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1885 AD (1)
July 3rd (1)
July 2nd (1)
July 1st (1)
2nd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: