As I prepare for our upcoming tour I have been focusing on the Culp’s Hill sector of the Battle of Gettysburg. The actions around Spangler’s Spring and Spangler’s Meadow is an often misunderstood and overlooked piece of the Gettysburg puzzle. The spring and meadow was a favorite picnic spot of the locals prior to the war. In the post war years, stories emerged of the men of both sides coming together to fill canteens and bind each other wounds. These stories are farcical at best. What was not farcical was the assault of the 2nd Massachusetts and 27th Indiana on the morning of July 3rd. (Click here for a map of the action.)
On the morning of July 3rd Union and Confederate forces were locked in a seven hour struggle for the control of Culp’s Hill and the Baltimore Pike. On upper Culp’s Hill Union forces from the 12th, 6th, and 1st Corps’ held strong behind earthworks. Confederates rushed the hill time and again only to be thrown back.
On Lower Culp’s Hill, the two sides fought a see-saw action across a small field, today known as Pardee Field. Men from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina fought a ferocious battle. Neither side really gained the upper hand. The Union men blocked any flanking maneuver up Culp’s Hill, as well as the way to the Baltimore Pike.
Major General Henry Slocum was normally the Union 12th Corps commander, but on this day he was, at least in his mind, acting as the Union Right Wing commander. Because of Slocum’s elevated position, the Union command structure around Culp’s Hill was completely muddled. As Slocum was monitoring the action of his “wing” on and around Culp’s Hill, he yearned to break the impasse on his end of the field.
Slocum wanted to aid Brigadier General John White Geary’s Second Division of the 12th Corps. Geary’s men were fighting in and around Pardee Field. Slocum also wanted to reclaim the earthworks abandoned by his men on the evening of July 2nd, and now occupied by a harassing enemy.
Slocum called upon acting First Division commander Brigadier General Thomas Ruger. Ruger was a pre-war, regular army officer, and overly cautious officer at that. Near 6 AM, Slocum ordered Ruger to attack across Spangler’s Meadow. The objective was a low stonewall and the old 12thCorps earthworks on Lower Culp’s Hill.
The task to assault from a small woodlot name McAllister’s Woods to the hill fell upon the shoulder’s of Colonel Silas Colgrove. Colgrove, because of the muddled chain of command, was now an acting brigade commander. Though he commanded five regiments Colgrove only committed two of his regiments to the assault, his 27th Indiana commanded today by Lieutenant Colonel John Fesler and the 2nd Massachusetts under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Mudge.
Colgrove’s regiments were packed into the small woodlot. The regiments on the hill faced in three directions. The 2nd Massachusetts faced the enemy and the meadow. The 27th Indiana was directly to the rear of the 2nd Massachusetts, but they were not facing the meadow, nor were they facing in the proper direction to attack the meadow. Fesler’s men were facing Rock Creek. The right of the regiment was facing to the southeast and the left wing due east. It would take several minutes and several maneuvers to properly deploy the 27th and get the regiment facing roughly north to attack across the meadow.
When word of the assault reached Lt. Col. Mudge he questioned the order. The aide delivering the assault order confirmed that indeed the twenty four year old Harvard graduate was to attack across the open field. Mudge responded that “Well, it’s murder, but it’s the order.” Mudge relayed the orders to the 2nd and with a cheer they moved across the meadow. The Bay State men moved across the field before the 27th Indiana was ready to move.
The 27th was doing its best to change front and get online. The maneuver did not go well. The regiment collided with the 13th New Jersey to their left. It took several minutes to sort out the confusion, when they finally did the 2ndMassachusetts was already heavily engaged in the meadow.
The 2nd rushed across the field, as they did so Lt. Col. Mudge was shot through the neck and mortally wounded. By the time the regiment came aground in the heavy boulders near the spring, and at the base of their objective confusion began to set in. The 2nd had lost three color bearers to enemy fire. A fourth color bearer, Private Stephen Cody stood upon one of the great rocks the men were huddled behind and defiantly waived his flag. Cody was shot down like the other. At this point Major Charles Morse walked the ragged line off men looking for Mudge. Morse was informed of his commanders fall and assumed command of the regiment.
While the men of the 2nd Massachusetts were fighting for their lives, the 27th Indiana commenced their assault. The 27th, a veteran unit like their Massachusetts counter parts (three men of the 27th Indiana discovered Lee’s Special Order 191 during the Antietam Campaign), moved across the meadow to the right rear of Bay State men. The ground traversed by the 27th was not as rocky, this part of the meadow was actually open and quite marshy. The Hoosier’s trudged forward reaching a point some fifty yards from the enemy line. They could go no further. The Hoosier’s stood in the open field exchanging shots with Confederates along the fields edge. The two regiments stood the fire for perhaps fifteen minutes, then the orders to withdraw were given.
The 27th pulled back across the marshland as best they could. The 2ndpulled back in very good order as if they were on dress parade, to a stonewall in the middle of the meadow. There the regiment rallied and began pouring fire into the Confederates, who unwisely counterattacked into the field.
Two southern regiments, the 49th and 52nd Virginia Infantry, both of Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith’s brigade emerged into the open field. The Virginian’s suffered the same fate as their northern counterparts and were easily driven back. The counterattack should never have been ordered. Smith’s men were of Major General Jubal Early’s division, and Early had little use for Smith (the current Governor Elect of Virginia). It seemed that Early had placed Smith in a position where he could hopefully do little harm to himself or his men. Never the less the impetuous Smith bit off more than he could chew.
Both Smith’s two Regiments as well as Colgrove’s two regiments fell back to roughly their previous positions. All that was gained was the knowledge that assaults across the fields were fruitless at best, knowledge that even an untrained officer knew before the assaults took place.
In all the 2nd Massachusetts carried in 316 men to battle, their losses amounted to 23 killed, 109 wounded, and 4 missing. The 27th Indiana carried 339 men to battle, losing 23 killed, 86 wounded, and 1 missing. All nine of the 27th’s color guard fell in Spangler’s Meadow.
The 49th Virginia took 250 men to battle on July 3rd and lost 18 killed, 73 wounded, and 9 missing. The 52nd Virginia carried 254 men into action; they lost 9 killed, 26 wounded, and 19 missing.
All in all for a handful of regiments engaged, the cost in manpower was too high for what little information was gained.
The action in Spangler’s Meadow will be explored in-depth on our May 5th, 2012 tour of Gettysburg. There are great firsthand accounts and far more stories of the battle to tell. We hope to see you there.