Colonel James C. Rice’s Report On His Brigade’s Action on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg
On the morning of July 2nd, 1863, Colonel James C. Rice was in command of the 44th New York Infantry, which along with the 16th Michigan, 83rd Pennsylvania, and 20th Maine Infantry regiments, made up the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division of the Union Army’s 5th Corps. The commander of the brigade was Colonel Strong Vincent. The day before, the Battle of Gettysburg began and Vincent’s brigade marched 22 miles to get to the battlefield, arriving at 1 O’clock in the morning of the 2nd. After a few hours sleep, the men were up and awaiting orders to join in the fight. Those orders arrived late in the afternoon, when Vincent took his brigade to the top of Little Round Top, an important hill on the Union left flank that was undefended. Vincent was ordered to hold the position at all hazards; if the Confederates took the hill, they would collapse the flank and get in the Federal rear.
With Texans and Alabamians of General John Bell Hood’s division fast approaching, the four regiments were quickly deployed with the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania and 20th Maine in order from right to left. The two sides were soon engaged, with the Union troops narrowly beating back repeated Rebel assaults. With his men’s ammunition nearly exhausted, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine launched his famous bayonet charge downhill, catching the Confederates by surprise. The bayonet charge was accompanied by fire from Company B of the 20th Maine, which had been deployed as skirmishers about 150 yards to the left of the rest of the regiment. This action cleared out the Confederates and the Union position held.
Colonel Vincent was mortally wounded in the fighting, and the 44th New York’s Colonel Rice assumed command of the brigade. An experienced combat commander, Rice began the war as an officer with the 39th New York Infantry and fought at First Bull Run with that unit. He was later appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 44th, and saw action in the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Bull Run. He promptly and effectively took command at a critical time in the battle. Here is Rice’s after action report:
HDQRS. THIRD BRIGADE, FIRST DIVISION, FIFTH CORPS,
July 31, 1863.
CAPTAIN: In compliance with orders from division headquarters, I have the honor to report the operations of this brigade during the battle near Gettysburg, on the 2d and 3d instant.
The brigade, under the command of the late Colonel Vincent, was detached from the division and ordered into position at about 4 p.m. of the 2d instant, on the extreme left of our line of battle. The Twentieth Maine occupied the extreme left of the brigade line, the Sixteenth Michigan the extreme right, connecting with the Third Division, under General Crawford, while the Eighty-third Pennsylvania and Forty-fourth New York occupied the center. The muskets taken into action by the brigade numbered about 1,000.
The ground occupied by the brigade in line of battle was nearly that of a quarter circle, composed mostly of high rocks and cliffs on the center, and becoming more wooded and less rugged as you approached to the left. The right was thrown forward somewhat to the front of the ledge of rocks, and was much more exposed than other parts of the line. A comparatively smooth ravine extended along the entire front, perhaps 50 yards from our line, while on the left and beyond a high and jagged mountain rises, called Round Top hill. That the disposition of the forces and the nature of the ground may the better be understood by the general commanding, I send with this report a diagram of the same.
The brigade had scarcely formed line of battle and pushed forward its skirmishers when a division of the enemy’s forces, under General Hood, made a desperate attack along the entire line of the brigade. He approached in three columns, with no skirmishers in advance. The object of the enemy was evident. If he could gain the vantage ground occupied by this brigade, the left flank of our line must give way, opening to him a vast field for successful operations in the rear of our entire army.
To effect this object the enemy made every effort. Massing two or three brigades of his force, he tried for an hour in vain to break the lines of the Forty-fourth New York and Eighty-third Pennsylvania, charging again and again within a few yards of these unflinching troops. At every charge he was repulsed with terrible slaughter. Despairing of success at this point, he made a desperate attack upon the extreme right of the brigade, forcing back a part of the Sixteenth Michigan. This regiment was broken, and, through some misunderstanding of orders, explained in the official report of the commanding officer, it was thrown into confusion; but being immediately supported by the One hundred and fortieth New York Volunteers, the line became again firm and unbroken.
It was at this point of time that Colonel Vincent, commanding the brigade, fell, mortally wounded. Of the character of this gallant and accomplished officer I will speak before I close this report.
The enemy again attacked the center with great vigor, and the extreme left with desperation. Passing one brigade of his forces by the right flank in three columns, he pushed through the ravine toward the left of our brigade, came immediately to a “front,” and charged upon the Twentieth Maine. Now occurred the most critical time of the action. For above half an hour the struggle was desperate. At length the enemy pressed so strongly upon the left flank of Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment that he wisely determined to change the order of battle, and commanded his left wing to fall back at right angles to his right. He then ordered a charge, and repulsed the enemy at every point.
On assuming the command of the brigade during this attack upon the center and left, I at once passed along the line, and notified the officers and men of my own regiment that I was about to take command of the brigade, and that they must hold their position to the last. I did this that no panic might arise. I then notified all the commanders of the regiments in person, and assured them of my determination to hold the line to the last. Colonel Chamberlain and other officers immediately informed me that their commands were out of ammunition. I had at this time neither an aide nor an orderly even to bear a message. (See P.S.) The enemy was still pressing-heavily upon the line. I immediately pressed into service every officer and man in the rear not engaged in the action, whether known or unknown, and made them pledge their honor that they would deliver in person every order that I should send by them. I sent four of them, one after another, with orders for ammunition. The ammunition came promptly, was distributed at once, and the fight went on.
The enemy was now attempting to take possession of Round Top hill, a commanding position overlooking our left. It was evident no time was to be lost, and I sent at once other officers, whom I pressed into my service, with messages to the general commanding the corps, asking for re-enforcements to support the brigade. The messages were promptly delivered, and five regiments were at once sent to my support from the Third Division, General Crawford, under command of Colonel Fisher.
Having, with the aid of this officer, properly disposed of three regiments of this force, I ordered Colonel Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine, to advance and take possession of the mountain. This order was promptly and gallantly executed by this brave and accomplished officer, who rapidly drove the enemy over the mountain, capturing many prisoners. Colonel Fisher at once ordered two regiments of his command to support Colonel Chamberlain, and the hill remained permanently in our possession.
The forces of the enemy being now repulsed on our left and front, I ordered a detachment from the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers and the Eighty-third Pennsylvania to push forward and secure all the fruits of this hard-earned victory.
It was now 8 o’clock in the evening, and before 9 o’clock we had entire possession of the enemy’s ground, had gathered up and brought in all of our own wounded and those of the enemy, and had taken and sent to the rear over 500 prisoners, including 2 colonels and 15 commissioned officers, together with over 1,000 stand of arms belonging to the enemy.
The following morning the prisoners of the brigade buried all of our own dead and a large number of those of the enemy.
The fearful loss of the enemy during this struggle may be estimated from the fact that over 50 of his dead were counted in front of the Twentieth Maine Regiment, and his loss was nearly in that proportion along our entire line.
Although this brigade has been engaged in nearly all of the great battles of the Army of the Potomac, and has always greatly distinguished itself for gallant behavior, yet in none has it fought so desperately or achieved for itself such imperishable honors as in this severe conflict of the 2d instant.
A nominal and tabular list of the casualties of this brigade has already been forwarded to the major-general commanding, but it is fitting again to mention the names of the brave and faithful officers of the
command who fell in this desperate struggle. Of the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers, Capt. L. S. Larrabee and Lieutenants Dunham and Thomas; of the Twentieth Maine, Lieutenant Kendall, and of the Sixteenth Michigan, Lieutenants Browne, Jewett, and Borden were killed.
The brigade was relieved during the forenoon of the 3d instant by the First Brigade, and ordered to the center of the line, where it remained in reserve the balance of the day, exposed to a severe cannonading, but with no loss, from the security of its position.
The colonel commanding would commend to the favorable notice of the general commanding the following-named officers, for their gallant conduct in battle on the 2d instant: Colonel Chamberlain and Adjutant Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine; Lieutenant-Colonel Conner and Major Knox, of the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers; Captain Woodward and Adjutant Gifford, of the Eighty-third Pennsylvania, and Captain Elliott and Adjutant Jacklin, of the Sixteenth Michigan.
Especially would I call the attention of the general commanding to the distinguished services rendered by Colonel Chamberlain throughout the entire struggle.
To the loss sustained by this command in the death of Colonel Vincent I can refer in no more appropriate language than that used in the general order announcing it to the brigade, a copy of which I herewith annex.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAMES C. RICE,
Colonel Forty-fourth New York Vols., Comdg. Brigade.
Capt. C. B. MERVINE,
Assistant Adjutant-General, First Division.
P. S.–In justice to the officers composing the staff, it gives me satisfaction to state, in explanation of my report, that at the time I took command, Captain [Eugene A.] Nash, inspector-general of the brigade, was, in obedience to orders received from Colonel Vincent, at the front watching the movements of the enemy, to report the same if he should attempt a flank movement; that Captain [John M.] Clark, assistant adjutant-general, in obedience to orders, was absent for ammunition, and that Captain [Amos M.] Judson, by orders, was absent for re-enforcements. During the night these officers rendered me the greatest service, and I desire to commend each of them to the most favorable notice of the commanding general for their gallant conduct both under Colonel Vincent’s command as well as my own.
For his actions at Gettysburg, Rice was promoted to Brigadier General on August 17, 1863. During the Overland Campaign, Rice commanded a brigade of New York and Pennsylvania regiments in Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s division in the 5th Corps. On May 10th, 1864, Rice was mortally wounded in fighting at Spotsylvania Court House. According to the 44th New York’s regimental history:
After four days before the enemy in the Wilderness Battle, Va., the Second Brigade 4th Division 5th Corps commanded by Brig. Genl. James Clay Rice, exhausted, and without proper rest or food, was again called into action to repulse the enemy near Spotsylvania C. H. on May 10th at early dawn, without having time to breakfast. They were engaged until almost noon when they were about to be relieved. The relieving column was moving too far to the left, and Genl. Rice anxious to have his entire command relieved, sent Lieutenants Bush and Tamblin, his aides, to overtake them. After dispatching them, Genl Rice thought that by mounting the earth works he could reach the line by voice. After Lieut. Bush delivered the order he turned and saw the General fall, and at once joined those who were lifting him in a blanket, and assisted in bearing him to the rear. A sharp shooter had hit him in the left thigh, the ball furrowing the leg to the knee, severing the femoral artery. It was sometime before a tourniquet could be applied, so there was great exhaustion and shock from loss of blood before the hospital was reached. Primary amputation , under an anesthetic, was quickly performed….
Upon regaining consciousness after the amputation, he asked if he was dying, and when told he was, said: “Lieutenant Bush, tell Josephine (his wife) I have been faithful to my God, faithful to my country, and faithful to my wife”…After a short interval he manifested great restlessness and said: “Turn me over.” And when asked by his Aide which way, he replied, his voice growing strong for the effort, “Toward the enemy, let me die with my face to the foe.”
Rice’s body was returned to New York. He was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Albany County.
Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg
by Bradley M. Gottfried
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau
Gettysburg–The Second Day
by Harry W. Pfanz
History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry by Eugene Nash
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1.