20 June 2013

The March Of The Sixth Corps

Parts of the 6th Corps were involved in the fighting at Gettysburg.  They were placed covering both flanks of the Army, should Confederate General Robert E Lee have seen fit to move any of his troops to the far left or right, as he had done at Chancellorsville and other earlier battles.  The arrival on the field of the 6th Corps’ about 15,000 me in the early evening on 2 July 1863, lifted the morale of the Union troop in the line there.  But the true trial for the men of the 6th came from their 30+ mile march into Gettysburg in less than 18 hours.

Wednesday 1 July 1863 saw the 6th Corps; the largest of the Corps in the Union Army of the Potomac, encamped at Manchester, Maryland.  The 15,697 men settled in for a well deserved rest, and the residences of the town turned out to view the boys in blue.  It was dark when the commanding General of the 6th Corps, John Sedgwick received his first orders from Union General George Gordon Meade.  Sedgwick started his 36 Regiments and 8 Artillery Batteries on the road to Winchester.  The second order from Meade’s Headquarters set the tone for the march, it read, “general battle seems to be impending tomorrow at Gettysburg: that it is of utmost importance that your command should be up. He directs that you stop all trains that impede your progress, or turn them out of the road.  Your march will have to be a forced one to reach the scene of action, where we shall probably be outnumbered without your presence.”

Brigadier General Frank Wheaton’s Third Brigade of the Third Division led off the march at about 9pm.  The column stretched out for 10 miles.  The night was described by Andrew Bennett of the 1st Massachusetts Light Battery as a “typical July night, the sultry air retaining the mid-day heat, there was an uncomfortable closeness.

There was a late night countermarch, taking the Corps along a narrow road.  They formed again on the Baltimore Pike, and the march to Gettysburg continued.  When the 6th Corps reached the Maryland / Pennsylvania state line, the men of the 93rd Pennsylvania felt inspired to un-shuck their colors and sing “Home Sweet Home”.  By 8am the 6th was moving through the town of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, with ten more miles to go.

The long hot night was followed by and even hotter day.  The description of the march given by James Bowen of the 37th Massachusetts, relates the hell of all of those miles.  He wrote, “It was a hot, breathless July day.  The sun poured down with merciless, unbroken heat and dust that rose in great lazy clouds from the highway enveloped man and horse, general and private alike, in its all, embracing mantle of torture.  How exhausted lungs panted for one full breath of pure, cool fresh air!  Panted only to be mocked by the bitter, burning, dust - laden blast that seemed to come from the mouth of a furnace.  What wonder that he sunstroke was omnipresent along the line - that strong men gasped and staggered and fell, while the thick blood burst forth from mouth and nostrils.”  Another soldier in the Corps said, “Men reeled and staggered along as if drunken.  A man would fall in a quivering heap in the midst of the roadway.  He would be seized and dragged to the roadside, his musket laid beside him and comrades” would march on.

Sometime around 1 pm the men of the 6th stopped just long enough to make some coffee, then they pushed on.  A Union Signal Officer was the first to see “Uncle John and the 6th”, he reportedly said, “Glory be.  Hallelujah: The 6th Corps is coming.  The 6th Corps is coming.”  The Corps came up to Rock Creek in the early afternoon.  These men had been marching for 17 or more hours, covering somewhere between 32 and 35 miles.  Most of the men dropped “to the ground and lay like logs.”

After this long day some parts of the 6th Corps were thrown into the fight on the lower part of Little Round Top, on the evening of 2 July 1863.  In the early morning of 3 July 1863 more members helped hold and recapture Culp’s Hill.  Still other men among the Corps held the far left and right flanks of the Union army.  These were strong well trained and dedicated men.  General Alfred Torbert who commanded the First Brigade of the First Division wrote that they “arrived with only 25 men absent and they came up by morning.”