Super Horse meets his Gettysburg kryptonite

Officers relied on horses for fast movement on the march and on the battlefield. On July 2, 1863, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery’s horse carried him through the horrid fighting around the Peach Orchard and east past the Trostle Farm. This particular horse was photographed at a Gettysburg re-enactment. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Super Horse carried a Maine officer throughout the July 2, 1863 slugfest at Gettysburg.

The officer was Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, commanding the 1st Volunteer Brigade, Artillery Reserve, Army of the Potomac.

His breed unknown, Super Horse was definitely a male (“he,” McGilvery commented), either a stallion or a gelding. We do not know the proper name for Super Horse, so we’ll go with that designation.

A sea captain from Stockton Springs, Freeman McGilvery raised the 6th Maine Battery. He commanded an artillery brigade at Gettysburg. (Maine State Archives)

From Stockton Springs in Waldo County, McGilvery was a hard-charging, 36-year-old sea captain when the Civil War began. The news caught up with him in a South American port, and McGilvery sailed home, stepped ashore, and soon raised the 6th Maine Battery.

Standing 5-8, he had a fair complexion, blue eyes, and auburn hair. McGilvery possibly walked with a sailor’s rolling gait (better adapted to a ship’s sea-pitching deck) and maybe could swear up a storm. He certainly was ambitious.

The army sharply limited promotion opportunities for artillery officers. A captain commanded a battery, so Capt. McGilvery took the 6th Maine Battery to war and proved at Cedar Mountain (August ’62) that he had mastered an artillerist’s skills.

But McGilvery wanted more. The army established an overall commander for each state’s accumulative artillery batteries. The rank was light colonel. Before Chancellorsville competition was fierce for Maine’s artillery chief.

Union gunners dueled with their Confederate counterparts around the Peach Orchard on July 2, 1863. Freeman McGilvery deployed his artillery brigade along the Wheatfield Road to bolster the Yankee firepower. (BFS Photo)

A major since February 11, 1863, McGilvery wanted that slot really bad, but it went to George Leppein, the 5th Maine Battery’s commander. He caught a mortal wound during the battery’s epic stand near the Chancellor House, so the promotion went instead to McGilvery, commissioned lieutenant colonel on June 23.

At Gettysburg he commanded the four-battery 1st Volunteer Brigade. A smart officer, he probably had more than one horse, but he rode Super Horse on that hot and humid Thursday, July 2.

Between 3 p.m. (or so) and 5 p.m., Hood’s, McLaws’s, and Anderson’s Confederates attacked the weak III Corps line created by Daniel Sickles. Initially there were only two Union artillery batteries in or near the Peach Orchard, planted in 1858 by Joseph Sherfy.

The orchard occupied a knoll at the Emmitsburg-Wheatfield road intersection. The knoll dominated the surrounding terrain. Sickles had neither sufficient artillery nor infantry to hold the orchard, which formed a salient, so he called for help.

Artillery Reserve commander Robert Tyler ordered McGilvery “about 3:30 p. m.” to take “one light 12-pounder and one rifled battery” and report to Sickles. Riding Super Horse, McGilvery hustled out his entire brigade, including John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery.

Assigned to McGilvery’s 1st Volunteer Brigade, the 9th Massachusetts Battery made a last stand on the Trostle Farm on July 2, 1863. McGilvery ordered the battery commander, John Bigerlow, to hold “at all hazards.” Dead battery horses were strewn around the farmyard after the fight. (Library of Congress)

Super Horse carried McGilvery through incoming enemy solid shot and shells as he deployed his batteries. Union gunners targeted specific Confederate batteries that targeting them. The enfilading fire “was inflicting serious damage” on “my command,” McGilvery noticed.

Around 5 p.m., “a heavy column of rebel infantry” moving “at quick time” started crossing “a grain-field about 850 yards” to the south, and Union batteries delivered “a well-directed fire,” he said

Southern artillery pounded the Peach Orchard, upon which Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolinians and William Barksdale’s Mississippians closed by 5-5:30 p.m.

A monument to the sacrificed 9th Massachusetts Battery stands in the Trostle Farm yard at Gettysburg. The battery belonged to Freeman McGilvery’s artillery brigade. (BFS)

Atop Super Horse, McGilvery presented a great target, but SH attracted attention instead. “A spent solid shot” bounced off his hip sometime before sunset, and a shell struck a fore-leg, McGilvery said.

Super Horse kept going. McGilvery’s batteries caught cannon shells and sharpshooter bullets, the 21st Mississippi got into the Peach Orchard and blew apart the 3rd Maine’s color company, and suddenly the Union infantry was going back.

Shooting all the way, Bigelow got his 9th Mass Battery into the Trostle Farm lane and yard, and Super Horse took McGilvery on a swift reconnaissance eastward to Cemetery Ridge. Discovering a 1,500-yard undefended gap in the Union lines, McGilvery rode hard back to Bigelow (then limbering up), and told him that “I must hold my position at all hazards.”

McGilvery said he needed time to find artillery or infantry (maybe both) to create a backup line. Those Mississippians were east-bound; there was nothing but the 9th Mass between them and the Taneytown Road.

So Bigelow’s men and horses stayed until overwhelmed, shot, or bayoneted. Meanwhile, Super Horse rushed back to Cemetery Ridge and carried McGilvery hither and yon as he yanked battery remnants into a makeshift line near the George Weikert farm.

These weren’t barnyard distances that Super Horse was covering at speed. Various estimates cite 1,000 yards or 1,400 yards between where McGilvery was and where he went. Then he came back the same distance on Super Horse, all the while as enemy bullets and cannon balls whizzed past.

McGilvery Avenue at Gettysburg National Military Park is one of only two park roads named for an officer lower in rank than a general. (BFS)

McGilvery brought the 6th Maine Battery from Artillery Reserve, and 1st Lt. Edwin B. Dow was proud to display the unit’s capabilities before its former commander. Darkness descended as the 6th Maine and other batteries (or sections thereof) drove off the Mississippians. Adequately supported, they probably would have broken through to the Taneytown Road.

Gettysburg kryptonite had found Super Horse. During those bloody hours before darkness ended the fighting, he “was hit four times in the fore-shoulder and musketry by musketry,” McGilvery noticed.

Another source, probably a McGilvery aide, reported that eight musket balls struck Super Horse.

He was tough, super tough, but unfortunately not indestructible. Punctured or bruised in multiple places, Super Horse “soon after died,” McGilvery lamented his late mount in a post-Gettysburg report.

Sources: Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 27, Part 1, No. 318, pp. 881-884; Letter from the Army of the Potomac, Portland Daily Press, Friday, August 14, 1863; John Bigelow, The Peach Orchard: Gettysburg July 2, 1863. Kimball-Storer Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1910, pp.55-56

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at