“… forced to halt and lie down by the tornado of canister…”: Stewart’s Battery at Gettysburg

Last summer, Civil War Trust re-opened the Thompson House site at Gettysburg, better known as Lee’s Headquarters.  The Trust’s site details the work from acquisition through restoration with sliding navigation and videos.  If you are not familiar with this story, the Trust finalized the purchase of the grounds in January 2015.  The restoration involved the demolition of non-historic structures, removal of a parking lot, and renovation of the historic structure.  We might simply say this was a “rollback of the asphalt” type preservation effort.  But there’s a little more.  The effort effectively restored a portion of the viewshed.  And given the prominence of the house in relation to the battle, as well as featuring in photographs from the war and immediate post-war period, the restoration aids in interpretation.

However, from my perspective the most anticipated change was the return of cannons to a location adjacent to the Thompson House.  Speaking here of the position for Battery B, 4th US, commanded by Lieutenant James Stewart at the time of the battle. I’ve heard several stories as to why the position has long been without cannons.  But all boil down to the park not having the resources to spread around. The concrete pads were there.  But no cannon.

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The spot was within the NPS easement, and thus technically not part of the Trust’s restoration, but the re-installation of the cannon just made perfect sense at this juncture.

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For those who query about such details, the guns are 12-pdr Napoleons.  The one on the left (of the photo above) is registry number 14 from Cyrus Alger (cast in 1862):

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And on the right is registry number 318 from Revere Copper, cast in 1863:

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The battery had six Napoleons in action during the battle.  Around mid-day on July 1, 1863, Stewart deployed the battery on the north side of the Chambersburg Pike.  Stewart himself took a three gun section to the north side of the railroad cut.  The other three, under Lieutenant James Davison, stood between the Pike and the railroad.  Augustus Buell, in “The Cannoneer”, described the disposition:

We were formed… “straddle” of the Railroad Cut, the “Old Man” [Stewart] with the three guns forming the right half-battery on the north side, and Davison with the three guns of the left half-battery on the south side.  Stewart’s three guns were somewhat in advance of ours, forming a slight echelon in half-battery, while our three guns were in open order, bringing the left gun close to the Cashtown Road.  We were formed in a small field just west of Mrs. Thompson’s dooryard, and our guns ranked the road to the top of the low crest forming the east bank of Willoughby’s Creek.

And today we can look over those guns at for a view similar to that of Davison’s gunners on the day of battle.  We might debate as to exactly where the guns were placed that day.  But we see here ample room to deploy a three gun section commanding the slope up to McPherson’s Ridge.  And what did the battery do in this position?  Again, Buell recalled:

Directly in our front -that is to say, on both sides of the pike – the Rebel infantry, whose left lapped the north side of the pike quite up to the line of the railroad grading, had been forced to halt and lie down by the tornado of canister that we had given them from the moment they came in sight over the bank of the creek.

However effective the battery fires were, they were somewhat exposed with the Confederate advance.

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Buell continued:

But the regiments in the field to their right (south side) of the pike kept on, and kept swinging their right flanks forward as if to take us in reverse or cut us off from the rest of our troops near the Seminary.  At this moment Davison, bleeding from two desperate wounds, and so weak that one of the men had to hold him on his feet (one ankle being totally shattered by a bullet), ordered us to form the half-battery, action left, by wheeling on the left gun as a pivot, so as to bring the half-battery on a line with the Cashtown Pike, muzzles facing south, his object being to rake the front of the Rebel line closing in on us from that side. Of the four men left at our gun when this order was given two had bloody heads, but they were still “standing by,” and Ord. Serg’t Mitchell jumped on our off wheel to help us.  “This is tough work, boys,” he shouted, as we wheeled the gun around, “but we are good for it.” And Pat Wallace, tugging at the near wheel, shouted back: “If we ain’t, where’ll you find them that is!”

Well, this change of front gave us a clean rake along the Rebel line for a whole brigade length, but it exposed our right flank to the ranking volleys of their infantry near the pike, who at that moment began to get up again and come on.  Then for seven or eight minutes ensued probably the most desperate fight ever waged between artillery and infantry at close range without a particle of cover on either side.  They gave us volley after volley in front and flank, and we gave them double canister as fast as we could load.  The 6th Wisconsin and 11th Pennsylvania men crawled up over the bank of the cut or behind the rail fence in rear of Stewart’s caissons and joined their musketry to our canister, while from the north side of the cut flashed the chain-lightning of the Old Man’s half-battery in one solid streak!

At this time our left half-battery, taking their first line en echarpe, swept it so clean with double canister that the Rebels sagged away from the road to get cover from the fences and trees that lined it.  From our second round on a gray squirrel could not have crossed the road alive.

All that drama taking place within easy view of the area now preserved around the Thompson house:

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(Citation from Augustus Buell, “The Cannoneer”: Recollections of Service in the Army of the Potomac, Washington, D.C.: The National Tribune, 1890, pages 67-8.)

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