Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ghosts of Devil’s Den and Little Round Top

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the site for the most significant and bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The war had dragged on for two long years when the Union (North) and Confederate (South) soldiers met by accident at Gettysburg in July of 1863. 

At the end of this three-day battle, 53,000 Americans were dead. It was the battle that “broke the Confederates back” for they lost at Gettysburg and for the next two years till the war ended they were on the defense.

On July 2nd the second day of the battle the Confederates launched a joint attack on Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den in an attempt to secure the high ground for their troops.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a college professor in Maine when the Civil War started. He volunteered to fight for the Union. As Confederate troops from the 15th Alabama Infantry charged up the Little Round Top hill led by William C. Oates, it was Colonel Chamberlain and his men from the 20th Maine who were assigned to defend its southern slopes. 

Chamberlain knew that since his troops were at the end of the Union’s left flank that they needed, at all cost to strategically prevent the Confederates from taking the hill.

Time and time again the Confederates struck. With many causalities and hardly any ammunition left Colonel Chamberlain, knowing the Rebs were tired ordered his men to do a bayonet charge. 

They charged down the hill, most without bullets—this strategy worked for the Confederates started to retreat. Chamberlain’s men captured 101 Confederate soldiers, again without bullets, and successfully defended the hill. 

Chamberlain’s gallant effort raised him to the rank of Major General by the end of the war, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, he served as the governor of Maine for four terms and as president of Bowdoin College.

At the same time just south of Little Round Top, the Confederates First Corps under the command of Major General John Bell Hood, made up of men from the Texas Brigade and the 3rd Alabama, were charging the Union Armies left flank through very rocky terrain, near a central outcropping of massive boulders known as Devil’s Den. 

The Union lll Corps-- a division of the Union Army of the Potomac made up of Northeastern Virginians—defended the Devil’s Den. Their commander was Major General David B. Birney. The Confederates placed a sharpshooter hidden between the boulders at Devil’s Den. 

This strategy has become a legend among snipers. This one soldier was able to harass the Union artillery battery, preventing them from firing. He also was able to shoot many Union soldiers as they passed through the Den all the while staying undetected. *

When Birney’s division was demolished, the Union army was finally able to find this snipers location by using field glasses and mirrors which allowed them to spot the smoke coming from the sharpshooters’ discharging rifle, they then shot a percussion shell killing him. 

Hood was injured early in the fight and had to withdraw, Brigadier General Evander M. Law assumed command, this caused confusion, which ultimately changed the outcome of the battle. The Union Army stood their ground.

The next day during the “Battle of Gettysburg” the Confederates under the command of General Robert E. Lee made a fatal error in sending 12,500 troops across open ground against the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. 

The Union's rifle and artillery fire repulsed this attack resulting in terrible losses for the Confederate Army forcing Lee to retreat back to Virginia.

The ghosts of many of these soldiers still linger at Gettysburg—the area around Devil’s Den is one of the most active locations. Many explanations have been put forth as to why these soldiers are still present. 

This three-day battle and the human loss that resulted on both sides is more than just a tragic death toll.

The Civil War literally caused brother to fight against brother. At Gettysburg many of the officers on the Union side knew the officers on the Confederate side--they had attended West Point together or had served together before the south seceded from the union. 

Many officers knew enlisted men from the opposing sides—because these soldiers had served under their commands before the outbreak of the Civil War.

A compelling example of this is Captain Lewis “Lo” Armistead a Co, federate officer who was mortally wounded while leading his brigade towards the center of the Union line in Pickett’s Charge toward Cemetery Hill. 

Armistead was shot three times just after crossing a wall. When he went down, he gave the Masonic sign asking for assistance. A fellow Mason, Captain Henry H. Bingham, a Union officer, after the war he became a very influential Congressman, offered Armistead help. 

Bingham informed Armistead that an old friend of his—Winfred Scott Hancock who had served as Armistead’s quartermaster before the war in Los Angeles, California –had been commanding this part of the Union defensive line, but that Hancock too, had just been wounded. Armistead died two days later at a Union field hospital.

The ghosts at Devin’s Den want to be treated with respect. When people try to take pictures of the batteries their digital cameras and camcorders often drain. Are these soldiers so burdened they cannot leave Gettysburg? 

The reason for their presence is unknown, but it should be evident that they deserve to be left in peace.

* This report of just one sniper is hotly debated. Regardless, snipers placed in Devil's Den did keep the Union troops at bay for a time.

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