The Curmudgeon, The Eccentric, and the “Norse God”: How Three Men Impacted the Battle of Gettysburg: Part Five

Fifth Part of a Series

O’Neal’s Failure 

Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter

Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter

The men of Brig. Gen. John Robinson’s 2nd Division 1st Corps crouched low behind a stonewall to their front, skirmishers were deployed north of the Mummasburg Road, battle flags along the Federal line were furled. Robinson’s division had arrived on the field shortly after the morning phase at the railroad cut ended. Acting 1st Corps commander Abner Doubleday broke Robinson’s division in two, deploying one brigade along Seminary Ridge to act as a corps reserve, and prepare a fallback position and breastworks. The second half of the division was dispatched to the right end of the 1st Corps line at Oak Ridge, just below Oak Hill.

Brigadier General Henry Baxter led his six regiments to the ridge and halted his men near the Mummasburg Road. Doubleday had hoped to run the 1st Corps line, eventually bolstered by the 11th Corps, up Oak Ridge, across the Mummasburg Road, up across Oak Hill and Keckler’s Hill to the north. The arrival of Rodes on Oak Hill thwarted this plan, thus Doubleday improvised by ending the line at Oak Ridge, while trying to turn the line back to the right toward the Gettysburg plain, where the 11th Corps could tie into and extend the battle line east.

Baxter was a veteran officer, who once commanded the 7th Michigan Infantry. During a riverine crossing of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Dec. 11, 1862, he was severely wounded in the chest. Surviving the wound, he rose to brigade command in 1st Corps.

The "Norse God" Robert E. Rodes.

The “Norse God” Robert E. Rodes.

Robert Rodes wanted to make a three brigade assault, which in theory, would have swept Baxter’s men from Oak Ridge and flushed Cutler’s men from McPherson’s Woods. It was not to be. Rodes did not oversee the launching of the main assault. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Rodes had both Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart oversee the launching of his divisional assaults on May 2nd and 3rd respectively. At Gettysburg, even though Ewell had accompanied the young division commander to the field, he allowed Rodes to oversee and launch, his own assault, which Rodes and his brigade commanders botched.

O’Neal’s brigade stepped off prematurely. Neither the brigade commander, nor any members of his staff were with the three regiments that he committed to the attack. In fact “he [O’Neal] and his staff officers were not mounted, and he had no mounted men with him…” Which meant that if orders were required to go to the front, they would not arrive in a timely manner.

The three Alabama regiments, the 12th Alabama on the right, the 26th in the middle, and the 6th on the left, advanced behind “a cloud of busy skirmishers.” Elements of four Federal regiments poured their fire into the coming foe. “With the sharp crack of the muskets a fleecy cloud of smoke rolled down the front of the brigade and the Minie balls zipped and buzzed with a merry chorus toward the Southern line.”

Col. Edward O'Neal

Col. Edward O’Neal

The Alabamians never reached the Federal line; they were thrown back in great confusion well before they even reached the Mummasburg Road. O’Neal’s inaccurate and disingenuous report of the battle claimed that “We were compelled to fall back as the regiment on the extreme left, being flanked by a superior force of the enemy, gave way. It was impossible to hold the position we had gained, as the enemy had the advantage in numbers and position.” O’Neal looked to lay the blame at the feet of the 5th Alabama (Rodes former command), who were detached from the brigade, and at the time were engaging in a brisk skirmish with arriving 11th Corps troops on the plain below. O’Neal also claimed that he was deprived of two regiments that Rodes personally assigned to link with Doles on the left (the aforementioned 5th Alabama) and Daniel on the right (the 3rd Alabama). Instead of clarifying the roles of these regiments in the assault, O’Neal pouted and sent his men to their demise. Rodes was thoroughly disgusted by O’Neal’s actions at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg. A June 6, 1863 brigadier general commission was withheld from O’Neal by Lee. By the middle of July, O’Neal was ousted from brigade command and by early 1864 he was shipped out of the Army of Northern Virginia for good.

The failure at brigade level continued to plague the Army of Northern Virginia on July 1. Earlier in the morning Archer had fought well, but had been roughly handled by superior numbers and a superior foe, and Archer himself was captured. Joe Davis’s men at the railroad cut had started off very well, but lacking a brigade commander at the front and the loss of regimental commanders and unit cohesion cost them in the end. O’Neal failed at Oak Ridge, now another failure at brigade level was looming.

About Kristopher D. White

Civil War author and historian.
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