I don't know who 33 year old Colonel Robert Mercer Brockenbrough pissed off, but he must have been important. The farmer and lawyer been twice bumped up from command of the 40th Virginia regiment to brigade commander, the last time just before Chancellorsville after his boss, Henry Heth, got promoted to Division commander. But Lee again made it clear the promotion was only temporary. Then, at Chancellorsville, Brockenbrough's brigade took 50% casualties stopping a Federal counterattack, saving the victory for General Lee. And still Lee refused to even consider Brockenbrough for permanent promotion. And while nobody seemed eager to explain why he was being so “dissed”, the insult sapped the spirit out of Brockenbrough and seeped down to the 800 exhausted and dispirited survivors in the brigade - all of which contributed in a small way to Lee's defeat at Gettysburg.
While Archer's brigade of 1,200 men charged up Herr's Ridge north of the Chambersburg Pike, and then threw itself across Willoughby Run and up McPherson's ridge, Brigadier General Davis's brigade was doing the same south of the pike. But Davis noted that Brockenbrough's brigade, between the two “...refused to advance." Many maps of the battle (above) don't even bother to include them. And when the Federal Iron Brigade smashed into Archer's men and drove them back across the creek, Brockenborough's troops refused to fire on the Federals, pleading they feared hitting Archer's men. Even then, the dispirited Virginians might have charged the Federals to save the 200 of Archer's men forced to surrender. Instead they watched it happen. And soon the same fate was was to befall Davis' brigade.
The 38 year old Joseph Robert Davis (above) was a nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. That linage granted him certain disadvantages. His uncle's enemies initially denied his promotion as Brigadier General. But once promoted, Davis was, by all accounts a competent general. And driving the Federal cavalry skirmishers back across Willoughby Run, he was quick to take advantage of the ground, specifically the unfinished railroad cut through McPherson's ridge.
There were no iron rails or cross ties laid down yet. But using the cover provided by the earthen embankments, Davis pivoted his 2,000 North Carolina and Mississippi soldiers, and they hit the Iron Brigade on the flank, across the Chambersburg Pike.
Rushing to the defense of their brigade members, was the reserve of the Iron Brigade, the 6th Wisconsin regiment and a battery of cannon. And once in position their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Robertson Dawes (above), grandson of William Dawes who had spread the alarm with Paul Revere, gave the order to open fire.
Under the first volley said Dawes, “The rebel line swayed and bent, and suddenly stopped.” Sargent William Ray remembered, the Wisconsin boys, “just mowed the rebs, all in front of our Regiment was just mowed down. … Battery B was just in the rear of us... and every gun poured in the grape which swept the rebs.”
Slowly the rebels began to retreat, toward the protection of the railroad cut. Dawes then, “ordered my men to climb the over the turnpike fences and advance." And just as the Wisconsin boys were clambering over the rails, the 95th New York regiment of the 2nd brigade under Major Edward Pye, came up to the fence line in support. Colonel Dawes shouted to Pye, “We must charge!” And Pye replied, “Charge it is!” And with that, the 2 regiments began screaming and running across 400 yards toward the railroad cut with fixed bayonets.
From the shelter of the railroad cut three confederate regiments – the 2nd and 42nd Mississippi and the 55th North Carolina, poured a deadly fire into the 2 attacking federal regiments. Said Colonel Dawes,
“The only commands I gave as we advanced were, 'Align on the colors! Close up on the colors!”
Dawes wrote his wife, “ Corporal James Kelley of Company B, shot through the breast...said, "Colonel, won't you write to my folks that I died a soldier?" Dawes added in his memoir: "..The colors fell upon the ground several times but were raised again by the heroes of the color guard. Four hundred and twenty men started in the regiment from the turnpike fence, of whom about two hundred and forty reached the railroad cut." The collision when it came, was unimaginable.
Recalled Sargent William B. Murphy, the 2nd Mississippi regiment standard bearer, “...a squad of soldiers made a rush for my colors...Over a dozen men fell killed or wounded, and then a large man made a rush for me and the flag.” The large fellow was Corporal Francis (Frank) Ashbury Waller, from Company I of the 6th Wisconsin. Said Murphy, “As I tore the flag from the staff, he took hold of me and the color.” Waller and Murphy struggled over the cloth (above), falling to the ground, until Waller yanked the Mississippi battle flag from Murphy's hands.
The 14th Brooklyn regiment (Cutler's brigade) now appeared, flanking the rebels and firing directly up the railroad cut, where 200 of the 2nd Mississippi were trapped between the earthen walls - the rest scattering for the rear. Colonel Dawes ran forward and "...I found myself face to face with hundreds of rebels, whom I looked upon in the railroad cut...four feet deep. I shouted, 'Where is the colonel of this regiment?....Surrender, or I will fire.' The officer replied not a word, but promptly handed me his sword and his men...threw down their muskets.”
Brigadier General Davis admitted, "subjected to a most galling fire of musketry and artillery that so reduced the already thinned ranks...there was nothing left but to retire." Colonel Dawes lead 420 Wisconsin men up the Emmitsburg road on 1 July, 1863. They left 30 dead on McPherson's ridge, 170 causalities in total. Both New York regiments lost over 110 men each.
And the 2nd Mississippi regiment had 40 dead and 183 wounded, and surrendered 7 officers (including its commander Major Blair) and 225 enlisted men in the unfinished railroad cut. That evening only 60 men answered roll call of the regiment. About noon on 1 July, the battlefield west of Gettysburg quieted down out of exhaustion, and every soldier and civilian within earshot caught their breath, and took stock of what had been achieved and what had been wasted.
Two of Heth's brigades, Archer's and Davis', had been badly punished. The third under Colonel Brockenbrough had blackened their reputation a little more. But the largest brigade in Heth's division, – the largest in the entire rebel army – under Brigadier General James Johnson Pettigrew, had not yet been committed to combat. It's regulation to the rear of a column that was assumed to be marching into battle, had merely made that battle more difficult. It all highlighted the abilities and the failings of the division commander
Major General Henry Heth (above) , who had been ordered not to start an engagement, had done just that. And having started it, he had pushed his men blindly forward, into an ambush he had been warned might be waiting.
And now, with a major engagement begun, he was forced to pause to bring up reinforcements, which would take time, which was just what the federals wanted. Win or lose, men die in battle, men are wounded and scared in battle. It is not a General's job to save lives. But it is the obligation of every officer in a combat unit to make certain the loss of life and limb and soul are worth the sacrifice. By that fundamental measure, Henry Heth had failed this morning.
On the Federal side the cost had been equally high, and it had been worth the sacrifice. Time had been won. Time to march up the Emmitsbuir road. Time to occupy the ridges west of town. Time to keep the rebels off of Little Round Top. And the First Day of Gettysburg was not yet half over.