Mainers go violent at the Devil’s Den, part 1

The famous Devil’s Den (left) forms the southern end of Houck’s Ridge (center and right) at Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, the 4th Maine Infantry fought in Plum Run Valley next to the Den, but charged up the ridge to recapture three cannons belonging to the 4th New York Battery. That outfit’s cannons and monument are located directly below the leafy tree on the ridge. The 4th Maine’s monolithic monument is located at lower right. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

As John Bell Hood’s division swept east from the Emmitsburg Road after 3 p.m., the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment occupied a position near the Devil’s Den, the rock-tumbled outcropping at the south end of Houck’s Ridge.

Atop it spread four 10-pounder Parrotts belonging to the 4th New York Battery, commanded by Capt. James E. Smith. To the battery’s right flank (north) stood the 124th New York Infantry of Col. Augustus van Horne Ellis, a seafaring lawyer and ship’s captain who brought the regiment into the army in September 1862.

The 4th Maine and 124th New York served in the 2nd Brigade (Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward), 1st Division (Maj. Gen. David B. Birney), III Corps (Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles). Through morning and early afternoon on that Thursday, the 1st Division held the Union army’s far left at Gettysburg, and except for the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters deployed a bit farther south below Plum Run Valley, the 4th Maine was “it,” the last organized rifle-toters on the left flank.

During the battle of Gettysburg, the 4th Maine Infantry belonged to the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward. He held the far left of the Union line when Confederates attacked on July 2, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Suspecting an impending Confederate attack, Sickles had pushed III Corps west from its original defense line. Ward got the Devil’s Den, Houck’s Ridge, and Rose’s Woods north to the stone wall marking the Wheatfield’s southern boundary.

He placed his available units from south to north (left to right): 4th Maine, 4th New York Battery, 124th New York, 86th New York, 20th Indiana, and 99th Pennsylvania. Smith hauled four Parrotts up Houck’s Ridge and left two guns (called a “section”) and his horses farther north in Plum Run Valley. That section pointed south toward the open terrain between Big Round Top and the Devil’s Den.

Ward’s assistant adjutant general, Capt. J.M. Cooney, soon rode up and ordered the 4th Maine “to the left, leaving Smith’s guns without support and creating” an undefended 200-yard gap on the battery’s left flank, Walker said.

I objected,” and “I unwillingly moved to the low ground” in lower Plum Run Valley, he growled.

A Rockland merchant, Col. Elijah Walker commanded the 4th Maine Infantry during the fighting around the Devil’s Den. (Maine State Archives)

Walker sent Capt. Arthur Libby (a 5-7 “tin plate maker” from Rockland) and “a few skirmishers … into the woods between the two mountains [Round Tops]” and strung “a strong” skirmish line … to my front.”

Noticing Union “troops … coming down behind Little Round Top” — Strong Vincent was moving his 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps around the hill’s southern brow — Walker “withdrew” Libby and his men. The 4th Maine’s skirmishers “had a severe time” with approaching Confederates.

Hood attacked, and the 44th and 48th Alabama infantry regiments ultimately curved north to attack the southern entrance to Plum Run Valley, the low ground between Houck’s Ridge on the west and the Round Tops on the east. Sound indicated the attack’s progress; Smith’s Parrotts thundered away behind the 4th Maine, and Walker heard the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters firing away at Evander M. Law’s approaching Alabama regiments.

Smith, Walker, and other soldiers referred to the woods flowing off Big Round Top’s eastern and northeastern slopes. Afraid that Confederates reaching the forest could outflank his battery, Smith asked Walker to “place his regiment” in the woods toward which the enemy headed.

If he did so, “I could take care of my front,” Smith noted, “but my request was not compiled with.”

A monument and a 10-pounder Parrott rifle mark the area where Capt. James E. Smith deployed four guns from his 4th New York Battery on July 2, 1863. Confederates came straight at him from the distant fields. (BFS)

Suddenly the startled Walker watched as “in a moment” the 48th Alabama suddenly emerged from “a wood of small pines on our flank.”

The 48th’s Col. James L. Sheffield realized the Yankees “were well and strongly situated” when he reached “the enemy’s lines.” He took his men “within about 20 paces,” into a “severe” musketry delivered by the 4th Maine.

His boys knocked down “one-third” the opposing Confederates, who opened fire and returned the favor, Walker said. The Alabamians “soon gave up and retired into the woods” on Big Round Top’s slope.

Union sharpshooters concealed amidst the Big Round Top rocks snipe at advancing Confederates on July 2, 1863. (Library of Congress)

The loss of men … forced” his left flank “to fall back” while his right flank held position, its fire “forcing the enemy [4th Maine] to withdraw and establish” a new “line a short distance to their rear,” Sheffield reported.

Ultimately Texans and Georgians overran Smith’s battery, and the 44th Alabama clambered up the Devil’s Den (then larger in area) and also fought the 4th Maine in Plum Run Valley. Van Horne Ellis led the brave 124th New York lads in a charge downslope on the Triangular Field; the assault briefly halted advancing Confederates, killed Ellis and his major, and almost destroyed his regiment.

Smith, on the high ground, abandoned his guns, and the rebels came over my right flank and in the rear of my skirmish line,” Walker noticed. The Mainers pulled back “about one hundred yards, fixed bayonets, and charged forward by the right oblique.

I shall never forget the ‘click’ that was made by the fixing of bayonets, it was as one,” Walker said.

Next week: In part 2, the 4th Maine storms Houck’s Ridge with the cold steel

Sources: Elijah Walker, The Old Soldier: History of the Fourth Maine Infantry, Tribune, Rockland, Maine, 1895; Arthur Libby, Edgar Mowry, Mark Perry, and Freeman Roberts, soldiers’ files, Maine State Archives; Capt. James E. Smith, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 184, p. 588; Col. James L. Sheffield, OR, Vol. 27, Part 2, No. 447, p. 395; Maine at Gettysburg: Report of Maine Commissioners, Lakeside Press, Portland, Maine 1898, p. 182; Peter A. Dalton, With Our Faces ti the Foe: A History of the 4th Maine Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, Union Publishing Company, Union, Maine, 1998, p. 278


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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. 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 visionsofmaine@tds.net.