Winfield Scott Hancock runs afoul a Maine sea captain, part 1

A gunner swabs the tube of a rifled cannon that will soon be fired during a Gettysburg re-enactment. After dawn on July 3, 1863, a Maine artillery officer positioned eight artillery batteries along the lower southern slope of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

After sunrise on Friday, July 3, 1863, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery started bringing batteries “into line on the low ground on our left center,” along Cemetery Ridge’s southern slope. His guns faced west toward distant Seminary Ridge and the nearer Emmitsburg Road, along which Confederates “were massing artillery in force.”

Hailing originally from Stockton Springs on Penobscot Bay, McGilvery was a former sea captain, accustomed to sailors obeying his every command. He went ashore in autumn 1861 to raise the 6th Maine Battery and first fought at Cedar Mountain in August ’62.

An ambitious individual, McGilvery technically was the lieutenant colonel of Maine’s mounted artillery by late June 1863. His official commission not yet arrived, he snapped peevishly at Maine politicians about this alleged oversight.

A sea captain from Stockton Springs, Freeman McGilvery commanded an artillery reserve brigade (four batteries) at Gettysburg. The morning of July 3, he had charge of eight batteries. (Maine State Archives)

At Gettysburg, McGilvery commanded the 1st Volunteer Brigade, Artillery Reserve, Army of the Potomac. Four battery commanders reported to him, he reported to Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler, and Tyler reported to the army’s artillery chief, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt.

Thus McGilvery did not report to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the physically adjacent II Corps on Cemetery Ridge.

His left flank abutting a Union infantry-occupied “oak wood,” McGilvery anchored that flank on Battery G, 1st New York Light Artillery (Capt. Nelson Ames), equipped with six Napoleons. A few batteries shifted to and from the artillery line, but McGilvery finished siting “thirty-nine guns” by late morning.

To Ames’ right flank (north) he placed the 6th Maine Battery (1st Lt. Edwin B. Dow); the 1st New Jersey Battery (1st Lt. Augustine N. Parsons); two 3-inch guns from the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery (Capt. William Rank); the 2nd Connecticut Battery (Capt. John W. Sterling); the 15th New York Battery (Capt. Patrick Hart); the 5th Massachusetts (Capt. Charles A. Phillips); and five 3-inch rifled cannons from the Batteries C/F, Pennsylvania Light (Capt. James Thompson).

In front of these guns I had a slight earthwork thrown up” to protect his gunners against Southern shells.

Rather than outflank the Yankees on July 3 as suggested by James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee decided to send his infantry across the open ground from Seminary Ridge (treeline) to attack the Union II Corps on Cemetery Ridge. The stone wall marks the Union’s main line in this sector of the ridge. (BFS)

His II Corps “so weakened by its losses” on July 2 that “it required every available man” to defend the same “ground the previous day,” Hancock noticed.

From 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. there was an ominous silence,” Hancock said. He noticed Confederate batteries forming “in a semicircle” around “1,400 yards from my line.”

Winfield Scott Hancock commanded II Corps on Cemetery Ridge during the battle of Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

Union artillery chief Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt finished inspecting the artillery supporting XI and XII corps sometime between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and “crossed over to Cemetery Ridge, to see what might be going on at other points.” Upon reaching the summit, he looked west.

Here a magnificent display greeted my eyes,” he said. “Our whole front for two miles was covered by [Confederate] batteries already in line or going into position” on Seminary Ridge. “They stretched — apparently in one unbroken mass — from opposite the town to the Peach Orchard … the ridges of which were planted thick with cannon.

What did it mean?” Hunt reviewed the possibilities and decided “it most probably meant an attack on our center, to be preceded by a cannonade … to crush our batteries and shake our infantry.”

Union artillery must therefore deal with enemy guns and infantry. “Beginning on the right” flank on Cemetery Ridge, Hunt told “the chiefs of artillery [including McGilvery] and battery commanders” to await the Confederate bombardment and wait 15 to 20 minutes before replying.

Concentrate “on those batteries which were most destructive to us,” but fire slowly, Hunt ordered.

Union artillery chief Henry J. Hunt ordered his battery commanders to fire slowly after a Confederate bombardment started around 1 p.m., July 3. Hancock overrode Hunt’s orders to II Corps’ batteries and then tried to impose his will on Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery from Maine. McGilvery literally stuck to his guns. (LOC)

Riding along the ridge, Hunt found “compactly arranged on its crest … McGilvery’s artillery, forty-one guns.” McGilvery did not mention talking with Hunt, Phillips later acknowledged the “orders from General Hunt and from you not to reply to their [Confederate] batteries.”

Patrick Hart recalled Hunt, while “passing along the line,” telling “me … not to return the enemy’s fire unless I saw his infantry advancing.” McGilvery later “repeated” the order.

Hunt and an aide had reached “the last battery on Little Round Top, when the signal-gun was fired, and the enemy opened with all his guns.” Hunt figured the time as “about 1 p.m.” and “estimated the number of his guns” between 100 and 120.

McGilvery said the Confederate artillery “opened a terrific fire” around 12:30 p.m.

About 1 o’clock … the enemy opened upon our front with the heaviest artillery fire I have ever known,” Hancock reported.

Sources: Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 318, p. 883; Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 76, p. 372; Maj. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, The Third Day at Gettysburg, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 3, Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Cough Buel, editors, Castle Books, New York, New York, pp. 371-372; Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 28, p. 239

Next week: Freeman McGilvery defies an illegal order issued by Winfield Scott Hancock. Read about all the excitement here!

“Swartz delves into the personal stories of sacrifice and loss…” — Civil War News

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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