The Forgotten 5th Corps

Part one in a series.

As I have been teaching an extended course on the Battle of Gettysburg focusing on Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, and the Valley of Death, it occurred to me just how overlooked the 5th Corps’ role at Gettysburg really was.

I am no newbie when it comes to the battle. I have studied it all my life. I took and successfully passed the guide test and have led numerous tours from Boy Scout groups to military groups on the field. I have read countless first-hand accounts from the combatants. I have read most of the modern studies done on the battle.

And it amazes me how overlooked 5th Corps role has actually been.

What has been said about 5th Corps has mainly focused around Col. Strong Vincent, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, and the struggle on Little Round Top. Even on Little Round Top, the other units that were there fighting are overlooked. The charge of the 140th New York, key in driving back part of Jerome Robertson’s Texas Brigade, has until recently been more of a side note in battle studies.

In my class, when I asked who knew Colonel Patrick O’Rourke, a few hands went up. When I asked if they saw a monument on the hill with a man’s face and a shiny nose, the number of hands easily doubled. Some admitted to rubbing the nose. They knew the monument, but not the man and the heroic deed he performed, laying down his life to secure the position.

Major General George Sykes, 5th Corps Commander.

Keeping with the monuments theme, 5th Corps commander Major General George Sykes does not have a statue of his own on the field. His headquarters does have the obligatory upside down cannon to mark its position. He is only one of two commanders to arrive on the field at the head of a Union corps that does not have a statue in some way shape or form. The only other corps commander that does not have his own statue is Major General Daniel Sickles. Sickles famously stole the money for his proposed monument, so the pedestal in the Excelsior Brigades monument lays empty. (Sickles does have a small stone monument with the diamond of the 3rd Corps on it near the Trostle Barn.) Sykes appears to be the forgotten man among the Union high command, while most of his 5th Corps seems to be lost in the shuffle of the Wheatfield.

Over the next two or three posts, we will take a relaxed look at the 5th Corps’s role in the Gettysburg Campaign. Feel free to post your thoughts. You may not see the 5th Corps as overlooked at all, and by no means are they the only men on either side that I view as overlooked on the field. Johnson’s Division, the 11th Corps’ stand on July 1st, and the Culp’s Hill Sector in general are also greatly overlooked.

The 5th Corps accomplished much at a huge disadvantage in the Gettysburg Campaign. To understand the disadvantage, we will look back at the corps’s creation and its make up in the days before the battle.

The 5th Corps and Sykes Prior to Gettysburg:

The 5th Corps was born during Major General George McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign of 1862. McClellan was battling with President Lincoln and his corps commanders. The four corps commanders under McClellan were not chosen by him, which did not sit well with the egotistical McClellan. Over time, McClellan made his case to Lincoln and the war department as to why he needed more corps under his command. Finally, McClellan got his wish and on May 18, 1862 the provisional 5th and 6th Corps were created.

The man placed in charge of the 5th Corps was Brigadier General Fitz John Porter (at the time, McClellan was the only Major General in the Army of the Potomac). Porter was a staunch Democrat and supporter of McClellan, and he preformed well at the head of the new organization. The 5th turned out to be a reliable and tough fighting unit.

Porter led the new corps through the Peninsula Campaign. The 5th particularly distinguished themselves at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill, where they really showed their mettle.

During the Second Manassas Campaign, the 5th Corps again performed well but was roughly handled. At Antietam, the 5th stayed in a reserve position and saw little action. Post-Antietam, Porter was brought up on charges stemming from Second Manassas (Porter’s court-martial will be looked at in a post next year).

At Fredericksburg, the corps served under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. The men of 5th Corps went onto fight at the famous Marye’s Height’s sector of the battlefield late on December 13th.

Brigadier General James Barnes, 1st Division Commander.

When Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed Major General George G. Meade at the head of the corps. This did not sit well with the petty Butterfield, who accepted the position of Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Some of the post-Gettysburg anger that Butterfield wielded at Meade stems from Meade receiving the command.

Meade only led the 5th at one battle, Chancellorsville. The men of 5th performed well on May 1st but for the rest of the battle were in reserve.

By the time the army was marching north towards Gettysburg, the 5th Corps was undersized because it had lost its 3rd division. With the exception of two regiments, the third division was made up of mostly nine-month soldiers whose enlistments had run out shortly after Chancellorsville. The other two divisions lost six veteran regiments to the expiration of enlistments.

With the loss of the 3rd Division, 5th Corps also lost Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys. Humphreys was a battle-tested and tough-nosed division commander who now, without a division to lead, was transferred to 3rd Corps. Unfortunately for the men of the Maltese Cross, Humphreys was just the first senior officer to go.

As the 5th Corps moved towards Gettysburg, they lost three more senior officers. The first was the grizzled 1st Division commander Brigadier General Charles Griffin. Griffin was sick as the campaign wore on and was unable to rejoin the army until July 3rd. The second lost was Captain Stephen Weed. Weed was the 5th Corps Chief of Artillery. Weed was promoted to Brigadier General and assumed command of a brigade in Second Division. Though still with the corps, Weed was not in his familiar role. The third and most important officer lost was their corps commander, Major General George Gordon Meade. Meade was promoted to the command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28th, 1863.

Meade’s promotion left a gap in the 5th Corps chain of command. That gap was filled by forty-one year old Major General George Sykes. Sykes was a career army officer. The Delaware native was the son of a doctor and former governor James Sykes. James was able to help secure an appointment for George to West Point. George graduated in 1842 with the likes of James Longstreet, John Pope, Abner Doubleday, Seth Williams, Gustavus Smith, and John Newton. While at West Point, George acquired the nickname of “Tardy George” because of chronic slowness, and the moniker stuck with him for the rest of his life. Sykes was described as a “small, rather thin man, well dressed and gentlemanly…with the general air of one who is weary, and a little ill-natured.”

Sykes was assigned to the 3rd United States Infantry following graduation and fought in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War Sykes was a major in the 14th United States infantry. He led the Regulars Battalion at First Manassas, and he and his men were one of the few bright points during the retreat from the field.

Brigadier General Romeyn Beck Ayres, 2nd Division Commander.

Following Manassas, Sykes commanded a brigade of regulars who served as the Provost Guard of Washington. On the Peninsula, Sykes was assigned to the 5th Corps and assumed command of the Second Division. The 2nd Division earned the nickname of “Sykes’ Regulars.” Sykes led the division from the Peninsula until his promotion to 5th Corps command just a few days before the battle of Gettysburg.

Sykes, like Meade, was placed in an unenviable position. In the middle of a major campaign, he assumed command of an undersized corps with a weak divisional command structure. 1st Division was commanded by sixty-one year old James Barnes and 2nd Division was under the command of thirty-eight year old Romeyn Ayres. Both Barnes and Ayres were West Point graduates. Still both men had very little experience at brigade command and no experience at divisional command.

Barnes’ major tests as a brigade commander were at Shepherdstown, Virginia (West Virginia) in the days following Antietam. His men shot down by Confederates on the heights overlooking the Potomac River. At Fredericksburg in December, his men were committed late in the day to tangle with the Southerners at Marye’s Heights. Needless to say, that did not go well.

Ayres saw action in the artillery. He had commanded a battery at First Bull Run. He was the artillery chief for divisions in the 4th and 6th Corps and eventually commanded the 6th Corps artillery. He assumed brigade command prior to the Chancellorsville campaign. His men tangled with Lafayette McLaw’s Division the first day at Chancellorsville—and that amounted to Ayres combat experience at the brigade level.

To bolster 5th Corps, a division from the defenses of Washington was assigned to the corps on the march towards Gettysburg. This division was the famed Pennsylvania Reserves. Following the 1862 campaigns, the battered division had been transferred to Washington. With the crisis at hand, two brigades of the reserves made their way to the Army of the Potomac. The division was led to the field by thirty-two year old Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, a former army surgeon. Surprisingly Crawford, with no West Point background, was the most experienced division commander in the 5th Corps.

Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, 3rd Division Commander.

Crawford had led a brigade at Cedar Mountain and Antietam, where he even exercised division command for a short time following the fall of Joseph Mansfield. Mansfield’s successor, Alpheus Williams, was Crawford’s division commander, and Crawford being one of the last upright senior officers in the division took the reins. His time in the spotlight was cut short, though. Crawford, like many others that September day, was wounded and forced from the field.

The 5th Corps crossed into Pennsylvania with an unlikely corps commander and even more unlikely division commanders, although one officer thought that “[i]t would have been hard to find a better officer in the Army than Sykes…” In the end, Sykes and his inexperienced subordinates would help save the day for Meade and the Army of the Potomac July 2nd, 1863.

Next time we will look at the brigades of 5th Corps and the corps’ role as they enter the fight at Gettysburg.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Emerging Civil War, Leadership--Federal, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Forgotten 5th Corps

  1. Erik Kelemen says:

    Great post, I look forward to the next one.

  2. Dennis P. Wodzinski says:

    Great stuff…love the topic. Despite his shorter tenure in command, I think when one thinks of 5th Corp commander, one generally thinks ‘Sykes’ – such is the emphasis placed on Gettysburg commands.

    On another note, I’ve always wondered (and here is the place to ask for good answers) if there is a true connection between the maltese cross of the 5th Corps and the presence of the maltese cross on many current fire department crests? Is there any connection? I know Ayres’ zouaves were of the 5th Corps, and perhaps an emotional connection to Ellsworth’s firemen…anyway, anyone know of a connection?

    Thanks and keep it up. Go Pens.

    • I don’t know for sure if the Maltese Cross that the fire departments use comes from the 5th Corps. It is a good possibility.

      Butterfield commanded 5th Corps and he was the designer of many of the corps badges. Prior to the war Butterfield was a “firefighter.” G.K. Warren described the kind of firefighter Butterfield was. “I’ll tell you something-General Butterfield was Assistant Foreman on a fire-engine, when he was young in Utica; and he set fire to a church thinking to get there first to put it out; but the church burned down before they got there, and his father had to build a new church to keep him out of jail.”

  3. Pingback: The Forgotten 5th Corps….Part 2 | Emerging Civil War

  4. Pingback: The Forgotten 5th Corps: Additional Photos | Emerging Civil War

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