The 27th Connecticut Infantry was one of those hard luck regiments that served with the Army of the Potomac. The Nutmeg State men entered Federal service during the “Emergency of 1862,” when Robert E. Lee turned the wars Eastern Theater on its ear. Although the unit was made up of 9-month men, it saw service in some of the wars most hellacious spots.
The 27th Ct. was attached to the vaunted 1st Division of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps, and “saw the elephant” at the battle of Fredericksburg. Their attack path carried them against the famed Marye’s Heights. Being in the second wave of Federal assaults that day meant that the green soldiers were trapped on the open killing grounds for the better part of the afternoon, and some all night. “Those who say they would like to visit a battlefield seldom know what they are talking about,” lamented Private Erskine Church of the 27th Connecticut Infantry. “After darkness has put an end to the struggle, a hush settles over the field. Such a contrast to the roar of the fight. Never is silence more oppressive, more eloquent. You hear the cries of the wounded, which is never distinguished in the roar of battle…. You see the outlines of forms gliding through the gloom carrying on litters pale bloody men. Or perhaps your friend with his hair matted with blood over his white face and his dead eyes staring blindly up to the sky.”
Fredericksburg was a brutal awakening to the horrors of war.
The unit fared little better five months later, at Chancellorsville. Fighting on the eastern side of the Chancellorsville crossroads, on May 3rd, the majority of eight companies of the 27th were cut off during the Federal retreat. An officer from the 10th Georgia Infantry produced a white flag and offered the unit the opportunity to surrender. “The first impulse among officers and men was to attempt to force our way through,” wrote the historian of the 27th Connecticut. “But it was evident that such a course would result in the destruction of more than half our number, while the remainder would inevitably fall into the hands of the enemy.”
The dejected Yankee prisoners were sent to Richmond. Officers were transported via the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Potomac Railroad, where they were picked up at Guinea Station, on May 7th. The enlisted men were force to march the more than 55 miles to the Confederate Capital.
Once at Richmond the men were heckled by the civilian population. Some asking where was Hooker’s army? One man replied, “Oh! we [sic] are only Hooker’s advance guard, come down to act as pall-bearers at Stonewall Jackson’s funeral.”
The men were broken up between Libby Prison, Belle Isle, and various tobacco warehouses along Cary Street, with some 300 Federal prisoners on each floor of the warehouses.
By the first week of June men of the 27th Connecticut were being paroled and/or exchanged, and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was beginning their marching north towards Pennsylvania. Those Connecticut men attempting to rejoin the army had a circuitous route to take. Some traveled via City Point (near Petersburg), Fort Monroe, Annapolis, and Alexandria. Few of the men actually made it back to the army for their unit’s third and final battle at Gettysburg.
As Lt. Gen. James Longstreet opened his July 2nd assault on the Union left, things went from bad to worse along the Federal 3rd Corps line in the Wheatfield. Initially reinforced by elements of the 5th Corps, a see-saw battle took shape in George Rose’s 20-acre wheat field and the woods surrounding it.
George Meade and his subordinates scrambled to plug reinforcements into the failing line. Just after 6 P. M. Winfield Scott Hancock’s old 1st Division of 2nd Corps arrived at the edge of the Wheatfield. It was the only Federal infantry division at Gettysburg to contain four brigades of foot soldiers. Although there were four brigades, the division itself was woefully undermanned, numbering a mere 3,211 officers and men.
As the division entered the Wheatfield Sector, the Confederates had just taken control of the woods to the south and west side, Devil’s Den was falling into Rebel hands too. Division commander John Caldwell shook out two brigades into a line of battle. Those brigades of Colonel’s Patrick Kelly and Edward Cross swept into the open field and woods flanking it to the east and west, while a third swung onto Stony Hill to the west. Caldwell managed to momentarily stabilize the situation in the Wheatfield. The fighting was fierce and those in the open field did not fare well. By 6:30 PM Caldwell was committing his reserve, the brigade of Col. John R. Brooke. (Click here for a map of the action.)
Brooke’s brigade included the 27th Connecticut. By this time the Constitution State unit consisted of essentially three companies. Companies D and F were on detached duty when the bulk of the unit was bagged at Chancellorsville. The third “company” consisted of “squads” of men who also eluded capture.
Brooke’s men took up a position on a slight rise that runs on a southeast axis through the middle of the field. Realizing this was a poor position the young colonel led his men across the field in a counter attack.
The seventy-five men of the 27th Connecticut pressed forward with their comrades. Although their numbers were small, and their enlistments were running out, they did their full duty. “As the regiment enters the wheat-field…A few steps….bring[s] the men under the full sweep of the enemy’s fire. Lieutenant-Colonel [Henry] Merwin falls while leading the command with his accustomed bravery…the line still presses forward at [the] double-quick, through the wheat-field and woods beyond, driving the rebels a quarter of a mile, across a ravine…”
After crossing a branch of Rose Run at the base of the ravine, “The men with much difficulty clambered up the rocky steep, but as they appeared upon the crest of the hill, the enemy [was] drawn up in readiness…”
The woods were filled with Georgia troops. Brigadier General George T. Anderson’s Georgians had fought valiantly throughout the first two phases of the battle for the Wheatfield, but Brooke’s counterattack was too much, it sent the Peach State men reeling back. Behind Anderson’s line was a relatively fresh brigade led by the fiery Paul Semmes.
Semmes’ men came face-to-face with Brooke’s, who were “within pistol-range, [and] opened upon them a withering fire.”
The colors of the 27th, which had not fallen into enemy hands at Chancellorsville, were rushed to the crest of the ridge. The flags stood defiantly in the face of the enemy. The men themselves “loaded their pieces under the shelter of the brow of the hill, then rising up, delivered their fire.” As it happened, the Nutmeg State men squared off against the 51st and 10th Georgia. The 10th Georgia was the same unit that had captured their comrades at Chancellorsville! Thus, the Yankees had some revenge on their former captors prior to them leaving Federal service.
Brooke’s brigade stood toe-to-toe with the Confederates for perhaps 30 minutes. Their flanks threatened, and their comrades in the Wheatfield falling back, Brooke knew that it was time to go. Grudgingly the Federals pulled back.
Once back on Cemetery Ridge the men of the 27th Connecticut met for roll call. Of the seventy-five men that went into action 38 fell in the fight for the Wheatfield, “eleven killed-among them Lieutenant-Colonel Merwin, and Captain Jedediah Chapman-twenty three wounded, and four missing.”
What was left of the 27th Connecticut participated in the pursuit of Lee’s army, after Gettysburg. On July 23rd, the unit was mustered out of Federal service.
Although their numbers were small, the veterans were proud of what they had done in the three battles they participated in. The unit is well represented at Gettysburg. Some five monuments stand as tribute to the Nutmeg State unit, the most monuments to any one unit at Gettysburg. You can actually follow the units attack path across the Wheatfield. Three of the monuments are to the unit itself, while the other two mark the sites where Lt. Col. Merwin and Capt. Chapman fell.
To reach the Wheatfield:
-Starting in the town square, follow Baltimore Street for 0.5 miles.
-At the Y intersection with Steinwehr Ave. make a slight right. This turns into US-15 S (also called the Emmitsburg Road). Follow for 1.8 miles.
-Make a left onto the Wheatfield Road.
-Follow the Wheatfield Road for 0.6 miles.
-Turn right onto Ayres Ave. and park on the right hand side parking pull off 300 feet down the road.