“They Taught Us How to Die Like Soldiers”: The U.S. Regulars at Gettysburg

One of several monuments to the U.S. Regulars on Houck's Ridge. Little Round Top can be seen to the right.
One of several monuments to the U.S. Regulars on Houck’s Ridge. Little Round Top can be seen to the right.

The fighting that occurred 153 years ago on the south end of the Gettysburg battlefield is some of the best known in American military history.  Names of key participants and individuals have been seared into the public conscience. Some gain more attention than others, such as Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top. One moment that stands out to me and has often been overshadowed are the actions of the U.S. Regular division in the Wheatfield.

As the fighting raged along Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ front on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the brigades of Cols. Sidney Burbank and Hannibal Day from Brig. Gen. Romeyn Ayres’ division of the V Corps made their way from the Baltimore Pike toward the Union line on Little Round Top. Each brigade was made up of companies from the various United States Regular infantry regiments. Day’s brigade consisted of the 3d U.S. (six), 4th U.S. (four), 6th U.S. (five), 12th U.S. (eight) and 14th U.S. (eight). Burbank’s brigade was made up of the 2nd U.S. (six), 7th U.S. (four), 10th U.S. (three), 11th U.S. (six) and 17th U.S. (seven). The Regulars took up a position along the northern face of the hill. To their immediate front, they observed the fight swirling in the Wheatfield. There, Brig. Gen. John Caldwell’s division of the II Corps was engaged with James Longstreet’s Confederates. In an effort to support Caldwell, Maj. Gen. George Sykes, the commander of the V Corps, ordered Ayres forward. Burbank’s brigade advanced first, supported by Day.

Ayres marched his men through the Plum Run Valley and up Houck’s Ridge. When he reached the Wheatfield, he conferred with Caldwell. The two decided to concentrate an attack against George “Tige” Anderson’s Georgians.  Ayres and Caldwell decided to half wheel Burbank’s brigade into the Wheatfield. The Regulars were to be joined by Col. John R. Brooke’s brigade from Caldwell’s division. Together, they would push back Anderson and secure the Federal hold on the Wheatfield.

Shortly after Burbank executed the order and entered the Wheatfield, Union fortunes on other parts of the battlefield began to unravel. Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward’s line in Devil’s Den collapsed and the Confederates were able to punch through Sickles’ position in the Peach Orchard. The gray tide crashed into Caldwell’s division and suddenly, the brigades of Anderson and Brig. Gens. Henry Benning, Paul Semmes, Joseph Kershaw and William Wofford bore down on Burbank’s Regulars.

Wofford’s Georgians struck the 2nd U.S. on Burbank’s right. The Second put up a stiff fight but threatened with being flanked, were forced to withdraw to their left behind the 7th U.S. As the line began to unfold, the Seventh was was also forced back. Seeing their comrades pushed back, the 10th and 11th U.S. managed to make a stand to cover the retreat. It was not long before Confederate pressure forced these regiments to retire, leaving only the 17th U.S. in line. Then, as Burbank’s line collapsed, an awe-inspiring event took place.

Rather than break ranks and run for the rear, the men of Burbank and Day calmly about faced and marched off the field as if they were on the parade ground. “The few hundred yards to the foot of Little Round Top, already strewn with our disabled comrades, became a very charnel house” wrote a soldier in Day’s brigade “and every step was marked by ghastly lines of dead and wounded. Our merciless foes from their vantage ground…poured in volley after volley.” Watching from Little Round Top, one Union soldier later wrote “For two years the U.S. Regulars taught us how to be soldiers. In the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, they taught us how to die like soldiers.”

View from Gibbs' position looking west to Houck's Ridge and the Wheatfield. Monuments to the U.S. Regular regiments dot Houck's Ridge. The Regulars withdrew from the Wheatfield beyond the far tree line to the area where the picture was taken.
View from Gibbs’ position looking west to Houck’s Ridge and the Wheatfield. Monuments to the U.S. Regular regiments dot Houck’s Ridge. The Regulars withdrew from the Wheatfield beyond the far tree line to the area where the picture was taken.

The Regulars headed for Capt. Frank Gibbs’ Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery positioned on the northwestern crest of Little Round Top. Gibbs’ artillery opened fire to cover their retreat, however, the ranks were too close to the guns and some of the Regulars fell victim to friendly fire. Gibbs and the arriving Pennsylvania Reserves provided a safe haven for Burbank and Day. The actions of the U.S. Regulars at Gettysburg serves as a testament to their dedication, professionalism and courage.

7 Responses to “They Taught Us How to Die Like Soldiers”: The U.S. Regulars at Gettysburg

  1. The waste of the Regular Bde was the final result of Meade’s lack of attention to his left flank. Without appointing an overall commander over the wing or going himself, not only Third but 1/3 of Second and 2/3 of Fifth Corps were commited to piecemeal and uncoordinated attacks that left the soldiers vulnerable to McLaws attack from the west. Lately appointed General Hancock could only restore a line on Cemetary Ridge because of the valor of his own outnumbered men, with help from reinforcements from the Right flank and, as importantly, Confederate mistakes. The regulars would have better skedaddled and rallied as the Regular Bde of the West did at Murfreesboro.

  2. Fine tribute to true soldiers. The Regulars were the core of each of the three main Federal Armies.

  3. So regrettable to be about faced and marched off the field to be shot in the back by rebels . The regulars’ lives were wasted in the wheatfield. When I was a boy I visited Gettysburg and at the wheatfield the ranger told us that the first Minnesota was thrown into the wheatfield in a desperate do or die attemp to hold the ground, and that they suffered 80% casualties . You could walk across the wheatfield on their bodies, we were told . Obviously it wasn’t the first Minnesota . Their stand took place farther up on cemetery ridge . Does anyone know what union unit the ranger was actually referring to?

    1. Hi Bob,
      While I’m not sure about the other regiments who fought in the Wheatfield, the 7th U,S., 10th U.S. and 17th U.S. all sustained over 50% casualties on July 2.

    2. The 1st Minnesota’s sacrifice happened a half mile north on Cemetery Ridge, not the Wheatfield.

  4. I am astonished at the discipline of the regulars . To about face and March off the field while be fired on from behind is amazing – almost fool hardy . But such was the rigorous training of regular soldiers at that time

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