Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Fall of Harrison Jeffords

Part of a series.

4th Michigan Monument in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg.

4th Michigan Monument in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg.

The battle in the Wheatfield was not going well for the Federals. By early evening of July 2nd, 1863, James Longstreet’s assault on the Union left flank was crashing against most of the 3rd Corps line.

The initial defenders of George Rose’s twenty acre wheat field, Col. Philippe De Trobriand’s brigade, put up a stout resistance. De Trobriand’s men were forced from the field by overwhelming Confederate numbers and the fact that a supporting division from 5th Corps marched off the field after being lightly engaged.

Next came John Caldwell’s division of 2nd Corps. After nearly an hour of brutal fighting, in which Caldwell’s men succeeded in clearing the field of Confederates, a renewed Rebel assault began driving those Federals away.

Colonel Harrison Jeffords, 4th Michigan Infantry.

Colonel Harrison Jeffords, 4th Michigan Infantry.

In an effort to support his bedraggled division, Caldwell rode to-and-fro in search of any assistance he could find. He located Brig. James Barnes division of 5th Corps. Barnes’ men had fought in the Wheatfield and Stony Hill earlier in the day. Barnes though, seemed to have lost his nerve as things heated up and he pulled his division out, which was protested by some of his subordinates. Now his men lay in Trostle Woods, just across the Wheatfield Road and within close supporting distance of Caldwell’s division.

Caldwell found Col. Jacob Sweitzer’s 5th Corps brigade along the Wheatfield Road. He asked Sweitzer for help. The Colonel was willing to re-enter the fight but not without permission from his division commander Barnes. Caldwell made his way to Barnes, who allowed Sweitzer’s three regiments to go back into action, but not before giving a time consuming speech about doing their patriotic duty. The brigade, finally released, made their way across the rocky and rolling Wheatfield. Sweitzer’s three regiments settled on a position in the open southern end of the field. Caldwell’s men fled pell-mell across the Wheatfield,   elements of five Confederate brigades hot on their heels.

Confederate's sweep the Wheatfield. Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen. www.posix.com/CW

Confederate’s sweep the Wheatfield. Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen. http://www.posix.com/CW

Sweitzer’s new line of battle was similar to his initial formation from earlier in the day. The 32nd Massachusetts faced southeast and the 62nd Pennsylvania and 4th Michigan faced to the west (Sweitzer’s fourth regiment, the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, were on detached duty and missed the action in the Wheatfield). These three regiments received the full force of the Confederate onslaught.

With Caldwell’s division set to flight, the butternut horde now focused on Sweitzer’s small brigade, and the hit the Union men from three sides. There was little the small band could do but stand their ground and return fire the best they could. “With the precision of a dress parade, that magnificent line of Federals lowered their pieces and the volley came,” wrote one admiring Confederate. The Confederates had the high ground of Stony Hill and were able to fire into the Wheatfield from the west, while others hid on the south side of the field on the banks of Rose Run peppering the 32nd Massachusetts with fire.

Colonel George Prescott of the 32nd Massachusetts fell wounded, as did his second in command. One of Sweitzer’s aides declared that “…I’ll be damned if I don’t think we are faced the wrong way; the rebs are up in the woods behind us on the right.” (The aide was referring to Stony Hill.) Sweitzer sent an aide to find Barnes, and help. The aide was unhorsed and unable to find their division commander. On the brigades left flank the 32nd Massachusetts began to withdraw as Confederates pressed them hard. When reengaged in the battle Sweitzer’s men fought ferociously, but they were deployed in a terrible position. According to Sweitzer “All stood their ground and fought unflinchingly…” Four of Sweitzer’s staff officers were unhorsed as was the colonel. The casualty lists also tell the story well. Of the 1,010 men engaged in the brigade, 466 men became casualties.

The 4th Michigan fought for their lives and their flag on the brigade’s right flank. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Colonel Harrison Jeffords saw the 4th’s prized flag in the hands of a Southern soldier. The Colonel ordered two officers to assist him in retrieving  the fallen standard. A Confederate had a hold of the flag and Jeffords brother hacked at the man with his sword, striking him in the neck. Another Rebel fired a ball into the Colonel’s brother. Both officers were felled in a vicious fight with sword, musket, and bayonet. Jeffords tried to retrieve the flag he had “pledged himself in decisive terms to be its special defender and guardian.”

Sword in hand Jeffords leapt forward and struggled with a Confederate for his beloved banner. One account states that Jeffords “his hat off, his eyes flashing with the light of battle, with sword drawn…” made his way toward the prized flag. In the fray Jeffords was run through the abdomen with a Rebel bayonet. Lieutenant Michael Vreeland pumped his revolver into the mass of Confederates in an effort to save Colonel Jeffords and the flag. Vreeland too was felled with multiple wounds. The struggle for the flag continued.

"Saving the Flag." By Don Troiani

“Saving the Flag.” By Don Troiani

Eventually the flag, and the mortally wounded Jeffords, were secured by men of the 4th Michigan, and taken from the field. The 28 year old colonel clung to life until July 3rd. When he died his final words were simply “Mother, mother, mother!” Jeffords is the highest ranking United States officer killed by a bayonet in the Civil War.

The Confederate onslaught was too much for Sweitzer’s unsupported and undersized brigade. James Barnes sent orders for Sweitzer to retreat, the order never reached its intended recipient. Sweitzer knew better anyhow and pulled his men out of the Wheatfield as best as he could, most of the men making their way to the rear in a bedraggled, fleeing line. “There goes the Second Brigade,” remarked one of Barnes’ aides, “we may as well bid it goodbye.”

To Reach the 4th Michigan’s Monument:

-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. follow it to the intersection with Sickles Ave. and turn right.
-Follow Sickles Ave. for about 400 feet and park on the right hand side of the road at the Wheatfield wayside exhibits. The monument sits about 75 feet across the street from the waysides.

4th Michigan Map Wheatfield

About Kristopher D. White

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

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