The Forgotten 5th Corps…Part 4

Colonel Sidney Burbank

I bet you thought I forgot about them as well!

Part four in a series.

As the last of Caldwell’s Division and Sweitzer’s Brigade were driven by Anderson’s, Semmes, Wofford, and Kershaw’s Brigades, help was desperately needed. The Wheatfield was in danger of falling into Confederate hands. If this thrust wasn’t stopped, the Confederates could drive toward the vulnerable underbelly of southern Cemetery Ridge, cutting off the retreating 3rd and 2ndCorps units, and leave the Confederates poised to strike the north end of Little Round Top.

Luckily for Meade’s army, the 5th Corps still had units as-yet unengaged and arriving on the field. The troops of Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres’ 2nd Division made their way to the battlefield via back country roads and arrived near the northern slope of Little Round Top. Ayers’ division, until recently, was commanded by Major General George Sykes.  “Sykes Regulars,” as the division was known, now stood in the way of some of the best units Longstreet’s Corps could muster.

Two of the division’s three brigades moved toward the eastern edge of the Wheatfield. These two brigades were the two brigades of “Regulars.” The men of the regulars were veteran soldiers, well trained, well drilled, but sadly undersized.

To reach their objective, the men of Ayers’ division had to descend into the Plum Run valley, cross a marsh that was, according to many, 50 yards wide and at least ankle deep, then ascend Houcks Ridge and enter the Rose Woods—and then Wheatfield.

Click here for a map.

The lead brigade of Colonel Sidney Burbank went “…across the marsh at [the] double quick…” Burbank’s men reached the eastern edge of the Plum Run valley. Worried that the woods to his front were filled with Confederates, Burbank ordered the brigade to fire a volley into the woods. As the Union soldiers blasted away, they found no response. The brigade then moved forward into the Rose Woods and came across some Confederate sharpshooters who were easily driven out.

Fire then erupted to the brigade’s left. Hood’s men in Devil’s Den fired into the exposed left flank of the Union men. Burbank refused the brigades left by wheeling the 17th U.S. in the direction of the fire. Other Regulars entering Rose Woods took cover behind a small stone wall.

Colonel Hannibal Day

With the layout of the ground on the edge of the Wheatfield, and with the ground gained by Longstreet’s men in the Devil’s Den and southern Houcks Ridge, the Regulars were forced to stack themselves one brigade behind another. Burbank’s Brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 7th, 10th, 11th, 17th United States Infantry, held the front line and Rose Woods. Though the brigade numbered five regiments, the numbers were woefully thin, numbering only 954 officers and men. Following closely behind were the 1,553 men of Colonel Hannibal Day’s brigade.

Burbank’s men did not linger long in the woods; the brigade performed a left wheel into the Wheatfield. As Burbank’s men strode into the open ground of George Rose’s Wheatfield, the Regulars entered the battle at the worst possible moment. Streaming back through the Wheatfield were the remnants of Caldwell’s 2nd Corps. Sweitzer’s brigade was being overwhelmed and men of the 11th U. S. witnessed the struggle of Colonel Harrison Jeffords and his 4th Michigan as they fought for their colors. The men of the 11th cheered the 4th for their efforts. This was supposedly the only time the Regulars cheered in battle.

Burbank’s wheeling maneuver ended with his men aligned in a southwestern-facing battle line. Burbank’s left two regiments, the 11th and 17th U.S., were inside the wood line on the eastern edge of the field. His other three regiments, the 2nd, 7th, and 10th U.S., were in the open Wheatfield. The undersized brigade did what they could to slow the progress of Longstreet’s assault. but there was little the Regulars could do. Into their right rear was the hard-driving Georgia Brigade of William Wofford. Wofford had already mopped up Zook’s right flank on Stony Hill, and his brigade was driving eastward along the Wheatfield Road. To make matters worse for the Regulars, to their right and front came the South Carolina Brigade of Joseph Kershaw and the Georgia Brigade of Paul Semmes. From the left front came more Georgians from George Anderson’s Brigade.

The Regulars fired rapidly into the numerous targets. Confederates from all sides responded with overwhelming fire—and just as fast as the Regulars had entered the field, they were ordered out. Burbank stated the situation succinctly in his after-action report: “The enemy was seen at this time moving through a wheat-field to our rear, and the brigade was withdrawn as rapidly and in as good order as the nature of the ground would permit.”

Ayres did not even have time to deploy his second brigade of Regulars in the field. Day’s men took up Burbank’s position at the eastern edge of the Wheatfield in Rose Woods, after the latter moved into the fray. Now both brigades were ordered out. Ayres saw the futility in trying to hold the Wheatfield without support of other units. Day’s brigade about-faced and marched toward the northern end of Little Round Top.

Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed. His 3rd brigade was detached to support Vincent's men on Little Round Top.

Burbank in the Wheatfield also did an about face and his men double-quicked to the rear while wheeling toward the right. The men executed the maneuver as best as possible, but given the situation, the Regulars were shot in the back and men fell left and right. By the time they pulled off the field, Burbank’s brigade had suffered nearly 50% casualties. The time frame of their action was perhaps 20 minutes.

With the Confederates now holding the Wheatfield and Stony Hill, they were poised to strike the northern end of Little Round Top. The four Confederate brigades took some time trying to get reorganized to make the final push toward glory. Although the Wheatfield had been cleared of Union resistance, Sykes still had one last ace up his sleeve.

The next installment will finish the series by examining the actions of Sam Crawford’s division and Stephen Weed’s brigade.

About Kristopher D White

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

One Response to The Forgotten 5th Corps…Part 4

  1. Todd Berkoff says:

    I have always thought that George Sykes in his post-battle reports to George Meade unfairly ruined the promising career of John C. Caldwell by claiming that Caldwell mishandled his division during the fighting in the Wheatfield on July 2. If anyone mishandled troops that afternoon, it was “Tardy George.” Caldwell on the other hand performed extremely well and led the only division-size attack of the entire battle, a feat that D. Scott Hartwig analyzes in detail in his essay on the action some years ago. Sykes was petty and probably was trying to blame others–especially those in other corps–for the 5th Corps’s feckless piecemeal assaults that aftenoon (Crawford’s attack was successful, but this had nothing to do with Sykes’s leadership). By March 1864, both Sykes and Caldwell had lost their commands, and Sykes deservedly so.

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