Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: Semmes Rocks

 

Brigadier General Paul Semmes

Part of a series.

Of the nine generals killed or mortally wounded at Gettysburg, five met their fate on the afternoon of July 2. One of those officers, Confederate Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes, has several conflicting stories regarding the exact location where he received his mortal wound.

Semmes and his men waited all afternoon to go into battle. They listened as Gen. John Bell Hood’s division engaged Union troops at Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and heard the thunderous cannon in the Peach Orchard as Joseph Kershaw’s brigade swept through. Finally, the Georgians stepped off from Warfield Ridge and followed Kershaw’s South Carolinians in the en echelon attack.

“Confederate dead; View on the left, on the battlefield of Gettysburg” by Alexander Gardner. The casualties in the photograph are likely Georgians from Semmes’s Brigade. Library of Congress.

But as the South Carolinians wheeled to the left and crashed against the Peach Orchard like a lapping wave, Semmes’s Georgians continued straight, tramping across the George Rose farm and into the Wheatfield. But that’s when stories begin to diverge. Sergeant William Jones of the 50th Georgia remembered Semmes falling early in the fight. “We advanced about two hundred yards when Col. Frank Kearse was killed by a grape shot, and soon afterward, Gen. Semmes was shot in the thigh, from which it is said he bled to death,” Jones recalled.[1]

Another soldier, Col. Wyatt Aiken of the 7th South Carolina, claimed that Semmes was hit even earlier in the attack while crossing the Emmitsburg Road. That is unlikely, however, since Aiken would have been in front of Semmes’s brigade as the Georgians crossed the road and would not have been in a position to witness Semmes’s wounding.[2] However, Capt. George Hillyer of the 9th Georgia placed Gen. Semmes between two large boulders in the southwest corner of the Wheatfield at the time of his wounding. This location seems more likely, but it seems to contradict how Semmes received his wound. The general was allegedly wounded by grapeshot or canister, which would seem unlikely to strike Semmes when he was between two rocks. The nearest battery (Capt. George B. Winslow’s Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery) was about 300 yards away—within canister range—but it is possible Semmes was struck by an exploding shell fragment, instead.[3]

The Semmes Rocks. Photo by author.

Thus, early historians and battlefield guides referred to those two boulders as the Semmes Rocks. National Park Service historian and Licensed Battlefield Guide Col. Jacob Sheads believed Semmes was passing through the rocks when he was hit. In any event, Semmes applied a tourniquet to his thigh almost immediately after being wounded. “Gen. Semmes had carried a tourniquet on his person since the beginning of the war,” journalist Peter Wellington Alexander wrote. “He applied the torniquet with his own hands and stopped the hemorrhage until a surgeon could take up the artery; otherwise he must have died in a few minutes.”[4] Semmes himself testified to this fact in his last letter to his wife on July 9, 1863: “I was wounded in the leg but stopped the flow of blood in the field by a Tournequet applied by myself and drawn by one of my men of the 10 Ga & lost but little blood.”[5] After stabilizing his wound, several of Semmes’s men carried him away from the fighting.

The Wheatfield, July 2, 1863. Wikipedia.

Major Samuel Prioleau Hamilton of Cabell’s Artillery battalion recalled his encounter with Semmes after the general was wounded:

I was standing at the guns where the gallant [John C.] Frazer had just before been struck down, when I observed a wounded man being borne from the field in a blanket. By the number of attendants I soon perceived it was an officer of rank and in a moment after recognized that officer as Gen. Semmes. Almost at the same instant he saw me, and called me to him, whither I had already started. I found him weak and exhausted, shot through the thigh, the femoral artery being almost severed. He caused himself to be lowered into a reclining position, and his eye brightening with a fire of peculiar brightness, he said: ‘Major Hamilton, I am glad to see you. I am badly wounded, (pointing to the spot,) and I believe I shall die—Perhaps, I may not; but something warns me that the chances are against my recovery. You and I are from the same State, and I wish you […] to bear testimony to the fact that I fell at the head of my brigade, leading them in a charge which up to that time was successful. I love my country as devotedly as any man ever has or can do. I had hoped to be spared to continue my endeavors (of whatever value they might be,) to secure her independence. My love for those I leave at home is beyond expression; you will understand and appreciate those to be the most sacred and holiest emotions of the human heart. But as much as these considerations weigh with me, and make me cling to life, with an assured trust and reliance in the goodness and mercies of God, I shall die with perfect resignation if it be known where my death-wound was received; that it was in my appointed place, where a soldier should, and where my State and country had a right to expect.’ [6]

Semmes traveled by ambulance to Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) where he succumbed to his wounds on July 10. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbia, Georgia. The Semmes Rocks remain on the Gettysburg battlefield and are located just off DeTrobriand Avenue.

For more information on the Semmes Rocks, watch this short video.

To Reach the Semmes Rocks

From the town square.
– Drive south on Baltimore Street.
– Make a slight right onto Steinwehr Avenue (US-15).
– Follow Steinwehr Avenue (US-15) for about 2 miles.
– Turn left onto Wheatfield Road.
– Follow Wheatfield Road for about half a mile, then turn right onto Ayres Avenue.
– When you reach the four-way intersection, go straight onto Cross Avenue. (Cross Avenue becomes Brooke Avenue which becomes DeTrobriand Avenue.)
– Follow Cross/Brooke/DeTrobriand Avenue for about 0.7 miles until you emerge from the woods.
– The Semmes Rocks are on the left-hand side of the road about 200 yards from the wood line.

Notes

[1] Keith Bohannon, “Wounded & Captured at Gettysburg: Reminiscence by Sgt. William Jones, 50th Georgia Infantry,” Military Images, Vol. 9, No. 6 (May-June 1988), 14.

[2] Letter from D. Wyatt Aiken, July 1863, Folder 7, David Wyatt Aiken Papers, South Carolinian Library, University of South Carolina.

[3] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896) Series I, Vol. 27, 399-401.

[4] Peter Wellington Alexander, Southern Recorder, (Milledgeville, GA.), July 28, 1863.

[5] Letter from Paul J. Semmes to Jane Hemphill Semmes, July 9, 1863, (Gilder Lehrman Collection), https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/death-soldier-1863-paul-semmes.

[6] Weekly Columbus Enquirer, (Columbus, GA), August 11, 1863.



2 Responses to Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: Semmes Rocks

  1. Counting Vincents death bed promotion and Pettigrew, the number is eleven generals killed

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!