The 17th Maine Infantry in the Wheatfield at the Battle of Gettysburg

The 17th Maine Infantry Regiment was one of many volunteer units organized in the summer of 1862. Assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division of the 3rd Corps in the Army of the Potomac, the regiment first saw action at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, followed by the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.

The 17th Maine arrived at Gettysburg on the morning of July 2nd, the second day of the battle. The regiment had been left at Emmettsburg, Maryland to guard a mountain pass before being ordered

Col. P. Regis de Trobriand

to join the rest of the 3rd Corps. The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, under command of Colonel P. Regis de Trobriand, deployed in the Rose Woods on the west side of the Wheatfield located between the rocky Devil’s Den and the slopes of Little Round Top on its left, and the Peach Orchard on the right. Besides the 17th Maine, Colonel de Trobriand’s command included the 3rd and 5th Michigan, the 40th New York, and six companies of the 110th Pennsylvania regiments. The 17th Maine was in a reserve position until Major General David Birney, commander of the 1st Division, requested that de Trobriand send the regiment to a stone wall in the southwest corner of the Wheatfield bordering the Rose Woods.

Upon arrival at the stone wall, the men spotted a line of advancing Confederates about 75 yards away. This was the 3rd Arkansas Infantry, part of a line of Confederates moving toward Little Round Top and pushing back Brigadier General Hobart Ward’s brigade. The 17th opened fire into the 3rd Arkansas’ left flank and temporarily stopped the Confederates, who took cover and waited for reinforcements.

Union Position Near the Center, Gettysburg, July 2nd

Those reinforcements arrived in the form of Georgians of Brigadier General George T. Anderson’s brigade. The 17th Maine was on the left flank of a line of five Union regiments, and the Georgians closed in on it. As the regiments on the immediate right of the 17th were driven back, the Maine regiment refused its three companies on the right; the regiment was now deployed in an L shape. This enabled the Maine troops to hit the advancing Georgians with enfilade fire. The fighting was intense, but the 17th held, with the valuable assistance of Captain George Winslow’s Battery D of the 1st New York Light Artillery, posted near the back of the Wheatfield.

Confederate Dead in the Wheatfield by Timothy o’Sullivan

Brig. Gen. George T. Anderson, CSA

Reinforcements from two 5th Corps brigades under Colonels Jacob Schweitzer and William Tilton arrived on the right of the Wheatfield and the 17th’s position. Anderson’s Confederates continued to attack, and he was joined by the 3rd and 7th South Carolina regiments from Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s brigade, with additional reinforcements from the 15th South Carolina also joining in the fight. Colonel Tilton, in his first action as a brigade commander, told his division commander, Brigadier General James Barnes, that he didn’t think he could hold his position. Barnes ordered him to fall back, although the Federals were keeping Kershaw in check. This exposed Schweitzer’s flank, forcing him to fall back as well. The remaining two regiments on the 17th’s right were now exposed on both flanks and front and had to retreat as well. De Trobriand then ordered the 17th Maine to retreat back to the Wheatfield Road at the northern end of the Wheatfield.

Soon after retreating, General Birney ordered the 17th Maine, along with the 5th Michigan and 115th Pennsylvania, to once again advance into the Wheatfield. Anderson’s Confederates now were behind the stone wall that had previously provided cover for the 17th Maine. The Maine men soon ran short of ammunition, but as they were prepared to use bayonets if necessary to stop the enemy, reinforcements in the form of Brigadier General James Caldwell’s division arrived. The 17th Maine was relieved and retired to the rear, ending its action on July 2nd.

On July 3rd, the 17th Maine provided infantry support for the 9th Michigan Battery during Pickett’s Charge. The regiment suffered additional casualties from Confederate artillery fire.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Merrill, commander of the 17th Maine at Gettysburg, filed this after action report:

Battle-field of GETTYSBURG, Pa.,
July 5, 1863.

Sir: In compliance with orders from brigade headquarters, I have the honor to submit the following report of the part sustained by the Seventeenth Regiment Maine Volunteers under my command in the battle of Gettysburg:

On the morning of July 2, we broke camp at Emmitsburg at 4.30 o’clock, and marched toward Gettysburg, arriving upon the battlefield about 10 o’clock. Already the pickets of both armies were busily engaged, and with our brigade we were at once drawn up in line of battle, facing the pike leading to Gettysburg, where we rested under arms for an hour. Soon after this the line was changed, and we were moved forward and placed in a new position, supporting a line of skirmishers thrown toward the front by this brigade.

About 4 p.m., the brigade of General Ward having become actively engaged with the enemy on our left, I was ordered by Colonel De Trobriand to march my regiment to connect with and support the line of General Ward, on his right. The regiment at once moved by the left flank, and, crossing an interval between the two brigades, our line was formed behind a stone wall, which afforded a strong position. We opened fire upon the enemy, then within 100 yards of us. The contest became very severe, the enemy at times being driven back by our line, and then by superior numbers compelling us in turn to give way. The ground was hotly contested, but we held our position till, finding the right of my regiment outflanked and exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy’s re-enforcements, I was obliged to form a new line, changing the right wing of the regiment into position at a right angle with the left. This movement was executed in good order, under a heavy fire from the advancing foe. In this position we continued the fight, checking the enemy till, receiving orders to retire, we fell back across a wheat-field in our rear to the edge of the woods.

Gen. David B. Birney

At this point, Major-General Birney rode upon the field and directed our line to advance. With cheers for our gallant commander, the regiment moved quickly forward, and pouring into the enemy volley upon volley, their advance was checked. The contest was now of a most deadly character, almost hand to hand, and our loss was very severe. In the color guard of 10, but 3 escaped uninjured.

Our ammunition being exhausted and fresh troops having arrived to take our places, we were ordered to withdraw from the field, which we did in good order. A new line was then formed but a short distance to the rear, where we bivouacked for the night.

At early dawn (July 3) the regiment was drawn up in line of battle in the same position held by us on the previous forenoon. At 1 p. m., the enemy opening upon the whole line of our army a heavy artillery fire, and advancing to break through the position held by the right, we were ordered to proceed to re-enforce General Doubleday. Proceeding at the double-quick, we were soon placed in line, supporting the Ninth Michigan Battery. Throughout the terrible attack of the enemy, we were exposed to a severe artillery fire, and suffered heavy loss of officers and men. After dark, the regiment was sent to the front on picket duty, where we remained during the night. Much attention was given by our men to the care of the wounded left upon the field.

On July 4, the regiment was occupied nearly all day in throwing up earthworks, expecting a renewal of the attack by the enemy.

On July 5, we moved into our present position.

It is with sadness that I am compelled to report the loss of several valuable line officers: Lieutenant Dyer, commanding Company G, was instantly killed in the engagement on the 2d, while Captain Fogg, Company H, was carried from the field mortally wounded. Adjt. C. W. Roberts, a gallant soldier, was seriously wounded in the leg, requiring amputation.

Throughout these engagements both officers and men of my command behaved with gallantry, and their conduct was worthy of the cause in which they were engaged and of the noble division to which they belong. Many of the men were without shoes; the whole command had been without rations for nearly twenty-four hours, and, after a long and tedious march from Camp Sickles, were poorly fitted for the labors which they were called upon to perform.

Our gratitude is due to Almighty God for the success with which He has crowned our exertions.

The list of casualties, herewith annexed, shows the severity of the contest in which the regiment participated:
[Merrill listed 18 killed, 112 wounded, and 2 missing for a total of 132 casualties. That was later amended to 3 missing for a total of 133].

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

CHARLES BENJAMIN MERRILL,
Lieut. Col. Comdg. Seventeenth Regt. Maine Volunteers.

Capt. Ben. M. Piatt, Assistant Adjutant-General.

The Wheatfield, Gettysburg National Military Park

Sources:

Brigades of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried.

The Campaigns of the Seventeenth Maine by Edwin B. Houghton

Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer

Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3-July 13, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 27, Part 1

“The Seventeenth Maine at Gettysburg and in the Wilderness” by George W. Verrill. In War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Volume 1.


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