Editor’s note: You can read part 1 here.
Soon after Robert E. Lee launched his artillery bombardment at Gettysburg on Friday, July 3, 1863, some 115 to 150 Confederate cannons fired steadily, “the air was filled with projectiles, there being scarcely an instant but that several were seen bursting at once,” said Maj. Gen, Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding II Corps.
Hancock’s “infantry … maintained their position with great steadiness, covering themselves as best they might.” His men hunkered behind “trifling defenses they had erected” or behind rocks and trees. Even a shallow depression seemed safer than lying at ground level.
The Union artillery commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt, had ordered all federal batteries along Cemetery Ridge to wait some 15 to 20 minutes after the Confederate barrage began, and then reply by shooting slowly and targeting those enemy batteries causing the most trouble.
But Hancock ordered his artillery, which was “imperfectly supplied with ammunition,” to shoot at Southern guns.
Hunt rode quickly “to the Artillery Reserve to order fresh batteries and ammunition to be sent” to the Cemetery Ridge batteries when the enemy stopped shooting. But “the reserve had ‘decamped,’” Hunt discovered, and “the remains of a dozen exploded caissons” near the Taneytown Road explained why.
Although they targeted the Cemetery Ridge crest, many Confederate gunners overshot it, and shells had forced the artillery reserve to scamper. Finding messengers waiting at the reserve’s abandoned site, Hunt sent his orders “by them.”
Riding among the eight batteries he commanded on southern Cemetery Ridge, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery of Maine described the enemy shelling as “very rapid and inaccurate, most … projectiles passing from 20 to 100 feet over our lines.” He watched his batteries; when “some general commanding the infantry line ordered three “batteries to return the fire,” McGilvery pounced within “a few rounds” and stopped the shooting.
That “general,” Hancock, had noticed silent batteries south of II Corps. He “came riding up in hot haste,” recalled Capt. John Bigelow of the 9th Massachusetts Battery.
Hancock rode to where McGilvery, Capt. Patrick Hart, and Col. Patrick Kelly “were standing in my battery” (the 15th New York), Hart said.
“Why in [hell] do you not open fire with these batteries?” Hancock snarled.
Based on later discussions with McGilvery, Hunt understood that Hancock “galloped to [the] position,” angrily asked McGilvery “why he did not fire, and ordered him to open at once, and fire rapidly.
“McGilvery, a cool and clear headed officer,” explained why he waited, and Hancock “demanded from whom he received his instructions.”
“From the Chief of Artillery,” McGilvery replied.
Hancock responded that Hunt had no inkling of the Confederate bombardment “when he gave his order,” but “McGilvery replied that I had predicted just what was then occurring (the Confederate shelling) and that my orders were given to meet this very case,” Hunt commented.
“My troops cannot stand this cannonade and will not stand it if it is not replied to,” Hancock told McGilvery. Start shooting, now.
“Hancock seemed unnecessarily excited[,] was unduly emphatic,” Bigelow said. “McGilvray [sic] would not receive orders from him” as the Mainer was not “under General Hancocks’ orders.”
“General Hancock answered with an oath that unless our batteries opened fire[,] his troops would not stand it much longer,” said Hart, stressing that “I heard every word that passed between General Hancock and Colonel McGilvray [sic], as the remarks commenced with me and ended with Colonel McGilvray [sic].”
Bigelow concurred with McGilvery that firing at Southern artillery was useless. From McGilvery’s line the view extended west across primarily open fields to the Emmitsburg Road and northwest to the fields sloping from Cemetery Ridge downhill to that road.
“There was nothing in sight except puffs of smoke 1500 and more yards away,” Bigelow said. “His [Hancock’s] orders would result in a most dangerous and irreparable waste of ammunition.”
Hancock rode north and ordered Hart, Phillips, and James Thompson to shoot. Hart “obeyed this order, but after firing a few rounds … McGilvery ordered me to cease firing,” yet wrote later that “I am the Captain who refused to fire when General Hancock ordered me to do so.”
“We then opened fire” on Southern artillery after Hancock’s appearance, Phillips said, “but in the thick smoke probably did very little damage.” McGilvery growled, and “we soon ceased firing,” Phillips commented.
By the time that Lee’s infantry headed toward Cemetery Ridge, most of Hancock’s batteries had shot off their long-range ammunition and had only canister left in the ammunition chests. McGilvery’s eight batteries had plentiful long-range shot and shell.
After the incident with Hancock, McGilvery identified him only as “some general” in his after-action report.
Sources: Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, 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; Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 28, p. 239; Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 318, p. 883; Capt. Charles A. Phillips, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 319, p. 885; Capt. Patrick Hart, OR, Vol. 27, part, 1, No. 321, p. 888
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.