Jul 3, 2013
Commander Sawyer’s Charge
By Lt. Col. Robert Bateman
“I formed the few remaining braves in a single line, and as the rebels came within short range of our skirmish line, charged them.” — Franklin Sawyer, Commander, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Stationed a few hundred yards forward of the center of the Union lines this morning is a solitary Union regiment. They were not set there as skirmishers, but instead were technically an “outpost” from the main line. This meant that they could not retreat without specific orders permitting them to do so. So roughly 180 men stayed there, along a road that ran between the lines, under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel named Franklin Sawyer. These were the men of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. What they did that afternoon has generally been relegated to historical footnotes. This, then, is the story of “Sawyer’s Charge.”
Alone and exposed, without supporting units on their flanks, the 8th Ohio stood in a tenuous position. They were about 300 yards forward of the main battle line, and they had been there since the previous day. They were too far away from the main line to expect supporting fire from their fellow infantrymen, and they had been out here all alone since the preceding afternoon. Sawyer recognized that they could not stay out there forever.
So early this morning, after a probing attack sapped yet more from his meager strength, Sawyer sent a request for relief to his brigade commander. The response came back, “You must hold your position at all costs.”
Sawyer, while he did not like these orders, accepted them. Now there would be no retreat, no retirement under pressure. The order meant that the 8th Ohio would hold this patch of Pennsylvania or die upon the same. How they did so should have made them legendary, because what happened in the next few hours was perhaps the most audacious display of mass human courage since…about two hours earlier.
At around one o’clock in the afternoon, just as Custer’s men were stopping Stuart’s rebels, roughly 160 Confederate cannon opened fire. (Please, folks, let us not descend into a debate about if it was 158, 164, or 172…okay?) As a part of Lee’s overall plan, this cannonade was supposed to soften the center of the American lines. The barrage of solid shot and exploding shells was to prepare the way for the coming infantry attack. It was an assault that he had asked his right-hand man and longest-serving corps commander, General James Longstreet, to conduct.
As the rounds whistled overhead the men of the 8th Ohio kept low. Death now spoke with a great booming voice. Yet for all the violence of the southern cannonade the Ohioans suffered only two additional casualties during the preparatory fire. (Cannonballs neatly bisected both men, if “neat” can be used to describe such a thing.) They had taken worse during the infantry attack in the morning. Still, though the cannon’s solid shots and shells might not be striking home among them, the message was clear, “The Rebs are coming, and they’re coming here.”
So it was that Sawyer and his men in the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry had the front-row seats as the rebel attack formed up in two main bodies, preparing to march west-to-east, and into history.
The division in the south, Pickett’s Division, came from Longstreet’s Corps. But it represented no direct threat to the Ohioans since it was so far away. The same was not true of the other division and supporting brigades in the attack.
These forces, a polyglot, were under the command of two different Confederate generals — Pettigrew and Trimble. Initially it appeared from the Ohioans’ vantage point, that these troops, the ones coming over the ridge opposite of them, would march right over the top of their solitary position.
The orientation of a group of 6,000 people three-quarters of a mile away is tough to assess. A few degrees left, or right, 1,000 yards later, makes a difference. This is simple geometry. But as the rebels initially mustered, bursting into sight from over the crest of Seminary Ridge and its treeline, all 6,000 of them appeared headed in a direct line for the Ohioans.
I will stop now, for a moment, and let you think about this. Two days ago I put you in the place of a rebel facing the Iron Brigade. Now I ask you to inhabit the place of an infantryman from northern Ohio.
This morning you shoved off an attack. In historical terms it was a little mite of a scrum. But you started with 180, and now you have about 160 men left unwounded, on the line. Yes, this is “little,” in historical context. But to call it that to the men who experienced it would be an insult. But losing a few men here and a few men there, adds up.
Yea, you are a “Regiment”, but who is kidding who? A company is supposed to be 100 men. Ten companies made up a Regiment. But there are only 160 of you left in your “regiment” by noon.
Out on the line when the cannonade begins, the 160 Ohioans shoulder up under the bank of the sunken road and under the load of the regimental honor they have accrued over the past two years of fighting. The fighting that brought them, from 1,000 men down to 160.
Sometimes honor really sucks.
A few minutes after three o’clock, as the Confederate battle line of Pettigrew and Trimble stepped off from their positions on Seminary Ridge, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer ordered the surviving members of all companies to form a single line slightly behind the shallow crest of their skirmish line position.
Brockenbrough’s Brigade of Virginia Infantry was the Confederate unit directly opposite of the Ohioans. This was the only Virginian unit in Pettigrew’s command of mainly North Carolinians. This morning they are not well led. As Sawyer’s men looked on, across the shallow valley, Brockenbrough’s men came out of the woodline both disjointed and behind schedule from the rest of the rebel division. Then they were marching down the slope off Seminary ridge, subject to American cannon-fire every step of the way.
At the outset there were around 600 to 700 men in these rebel regiments. They too had a hard war. Again, in this we can never be exact. But they were the extreme left end of the rebel line and this put them furthest to the north.
Because they were dropping down into lower ground as they moved forward the Virginians could not see the solitary and under strength Union unit forming up to their front on the spur that came off Cemetery Ridge. But one man posted elsewhere on the battlefield could see everything.
From his location off to the south Confederate General Longstreet observed what Brockenbrough’s men could not. Longstreet recorded seeing a Union unit preparing to attack into the flank of the attack. His immediate reaction was concern, enough so that he sent one of his aides galloping forward to warn Pettigrew of the impending danger to his flank. What he saw was almost certainly the 8th Ohio.
He was too late.
From the 8th Ohio’s position Sawyer saw Pickett’s Division nearly parallel to them in the south, just crossing the Emmitsburg Pike and dressing their lines as they moved in towards the point of the attack, the place that would later be known as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” As this was happening Pettigrew’s Division moved through lower ground and crossed an intermittent stream. Pettigrew’s men were about to begin their climb up the shallow slope leading to the Emmitsburg Pike. But before they did, they too took a few moments to dress their lines. Brockenbrough’s Brigade, on the extreme northern end of Pettigrew’s division had started off late but now they caught up and formed on line with the rest of the rebel force.
The Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge was now at its peak strength. Both divisions were nearly joined and 38 regimental colors flew in front of 10,000 to 13,000 men marching forward with a grim determination. This was their most impressive moment. Union artillery, though telling, had not yet switched from solid shot and case to the more deadly canister. Pickett and Pettigrew’s divisions, and the supporting brigade of Trimble, then began to climb towards their fate at the crest of Cemetery Ridge.
One may ask, why? Why, if Lee was such a great general, had he allowed this attack to go forward?
Well, for starters, he may still have been pinning his hopes on the idea that although Stuart had been checked (and Lee would have known this by the time the infantry stepped off in the assault), Meade might still have weakened his center as a precaution. But I think there is something else in play here — a memory of events that took place almost sixteen years before. A memory made in mid-September 1847. Yes, friends, we are moving into the realm of hypothesis. I cede this freely, and only offer it for consideration. I do not claim that this next bit is, or ever can be, definitive. Such is history.
I believe that mental link was formed by events that took place just outside Mexico city at the base of the Mexican fortress named Chapultapec. On that day Captain Lee (who opposed the idea of a frontal assault like the one that was unfolding before him) watched American troops move forward after an initial artillery barrage softened up the defenders. The Americans were attacking at nearly even odds, which is usually not a good idea. Yet they moved forward, and forward, taking the initial Mexican positions and continuing on. Lee looked on from his position with the commander’s staff as then-Lieutenant James Longstreet fell wounded with a Mexican bullet in the thigh while carrying the regimental colors of his infantry unit at the front of the attack. But the colors did not stay down for long.
Longstreet called out to his friend and fellow infantryman, another young infantry officer, and passed the colors to him. That lieutenant then led the charge — the impossible charge — the rest of the way up the 200-foot high hill and up on to the walls of the castle, where he planted the colors. He was the very first American on the walls. The men stormed forward, following the audacious young officer. Inspired by his courage as the first man on the enemy’s walls and the presence of their flag there on the ramparts they surged ahead and took the whole castle. The entrance to Mexico city was breached and the attack continued until the entire city fell — effectively ending the war.
That young Lieutenant was now a general as well, and his name was George Pickett.
Lee had seen the impossible before from troops he had much less faith in than those he had command of that July afternoon in 1863. He had witnessed Pickett, taking the colors from Longstreet, assault, and surmount the insurmountable. He knew his men had surmounted impossible odds just weeks before, at Chancellorsville, he believed.
“Belief” is sometimes not a good idea, when calculating military odds.
Now it is, perhaps, about 3:20 in the afternoon, give or take half an hour. To those men on the northern end of Pettigrew’s line, their ultimate objective was now invisible beyond the crest of the slight rise to their front. From their position as they moved forward again they saw only tall grass and a small farmhouse to their right front since they had moved down into a swale. But as they started to move forward their final goal appeared to them some six hundred yards away. There was just a final slight crest to cross and then the lower spot around the Emmitsburg Pike before they began their final climb, but their target was now in sight.
These men of Brockenbrough’s already received more than their fair share of the Union artillery fire. Due to their position on the flank — and by a coincidence of the terrain — they alone were fully visible to the Union batteries for the majority of the distance they covered up until they dropped into the bottom of the swale and were concealed for a brief while.
This brigade had taken a beating on the first day of the battle, a mere 48 hours prior. They do not have a strong leader to stiffen their resolve. That artillery fire they saw in the several hundred yards until they got into the low ground must have acted on their morale. Undoubtedly something less than the roughly 600 to 700 who started the attack moved forward again with the rest of the division after the tactical pause. Stragglers appeared while others took the opportunity to help wounded comrades to the rear, and safety. Let us say, generously, that 500 of them remained.
It was at this moment, seeing the condition of the unit directly opposing them that Sawyer issued his incredible command, “CHARGE!” Mostly hidden until that moment from the view of the Virginians under Brockenbrough, the 160 Ohioans must have appeared as berserkers rising up from the earth. Because of a trick of the terrain, the same swale that concealed the Virginians from the Union artillery in those last moments as they straightened up their lines, also concealed the men of the 8th Ohio until the very last moment.
With a full-throated ‘Huzzah!’ which vented some of their frustrations and fears the men of Ohio charged forward along the flat ground on the spur with fixed bayonets into the range of the rifles of six thousand Confederates…and straight at the full brigade of rebels under Brockenbrough’s somewhat dubious command.
From the Confederate position at the bottom of the swale the appearance of these Yankees was too much. Rational men do not do something like what they were seeing. Rational units do not attack against odds like this, so obviously something else must be in play. Rational men, faced with odds like 160 to 6,000, give commands to fire and fall back. Rational men may be defeated.
Subjectively, therefore, these men from northern Ohio could not by any measure have been considered rational at that moment.
It appears that in Brockenbrough’s Brigade not a man stopped to reason. They did not count the devils, or consider how small in fact was the unit rushing towards them. What the Confederates saw to their front was a unit tearing forward with a mad intensity, rushing at them with fixed bayonets, and perhaps most significantly, carrying their national and regimental colors. To veterans this absolutely signified that this was a counterattack, since skirmishing units leave their colors behind in the safety of the main line.
Leading the charge was a capless Union officer with dried blood on his face (Sawyer had a slight head wound from earlier in the day) and carrying a musket. This was no genteel unit with city dandies for officers. In the internal battlefield calculations that all soldiers make individually, it seems likely that many of the southern soldiers believe that this attack right into their teeth must be merely the vanguard of something much bigger. Where there is one regiment there must be others soon to be revealed. (Remember, they could not see what might be behind the 8th Ohio, which was, to them, appearing over a crest.)
Brockenbrough’s brigade, probably some 600 men by that point, broke and ran as fast as their legs would carry them.
The fact is that it was a pretty measly charge, as such things are measured. The 8th Ohio’s charge only carried them between 50 to 75 yards forward, depending upon the soldier. A piddling distance for a charge, and at the end of it they were still probably 200 yards away from making physical contact with Brockenbrough’s disintegrating line. There was no crash of arms, no thrust of the bayonet. What finally broke the Virginians was the appearance, not the impact, of the Union troops charging towards them. It is a classic example of that hazily defined military concept called “shock.” Yet despite the short distance, the “impact” of the attack was enough to shake the morale of every southern soldier who saw what had happened. The 8th Ohio, a bruised and undersized regiment barely larger than a single company, broke an entire brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.
After bringing his men to a stop and firing a few volleys at the retreating Virginians, Sawyer wheeled the 8th Ohio in a line to his left.
They now faced south. Although it would have been the work of a moment to completely destroy this tiny American unit just yards away on their flank, the mass of the division continued on. As the Ohioans opened fire, Pettigrew’s Division was marching steadily past them, ignoring this flyspeck of an American unit and intently focused upon their own objective just a quarter-mile ahead.
Occupying a line along a wooden fence, the Ohioans poured fire into the flanks of Pettigrew’s Division and that of Trimble’s Division as it followed Pettigrew’s. Numerous Confederate accounts refer to this galling fire as a major factor in their defeat. Though it is doubtful that the physical effects were very great (there were, after all, just 160 of the Ohioans) the effect upon the Confederate morale from this flanking fire should not be discarded.
Moreover, Ohio was not alone; men of New York soon joined those of Ohio on their south-facing line with roughly 75 men of their own. Just as Sawyer had charged forward, and then made his wheeling movement, the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry came tearing down the Emmittsburg pike from the north. This unit then linked in with the Ohioans on the left flank of Sawyer’s command.
Together they fired repeatedly into the rebels as they passed by, heading for the crest of the ridge. It was an objective the Confederacy would never take.
Now it is about 3:30. Out there, upon a patch of ground less than 200 yards across and 300 yards deep, roughly 10,000 men from both sides ripped at each other with fire and steel. It was and would remain the classic example of the irresistible force against the immovable object. But it could not continue forever. Falling by the score, the Confederate soldiers knew that they must carry the ridge to survive. There is, however, only so much that the best of men can be asked to give for his fellow. This day the price proved too high for the Confederate soldiery.
The mere act of moving forward, straight into the cannon and thousands of American infantrymen was incredible. Many moved with their heads down and body leaning forward, as though walking into a strong rainfall and not a shattering storm of hot steel belching from double-canister loaded cannon. In even making it as far as the Emmitsburg Road these rebels put on display the incredible determination of the southern soldier. And within American history there are few examples that equal this action in sheer courage.
Courage, in the end, was not enough this day, because it was being matched by equal courage, and cannon. After crossing nearly a mile of open ground, losing an entire brigade to an audacious attack, and without follow-on support the Confederates could not carry the positions of the Union II Corps, commanded by a man we met yesterday named Hancock. In particular, they could not take the line held by the division commanded by a man who knew how to make good men hard. The division led by none other than General Gibbon, late of the Iron Brigade. The minutes passed and the men fell, but now surrounded on three sides by Americans firing into them as fast as they could reload, the rebels fell back in disorganized retreat. It was a crushing defeat.
And now the guns are quiet. Except for a single ill-advised Union cavalry assault later in the day well off to the south of the battlefield, the shooting is over. Both armies collapse in exhaustion, though Lee does have his men prepare in case of an American counter-attack. The battle of Gettysburg is over.
Today, 150 years later there is a single obelisk occupying a solitary position well to the front of the former Union lines. Nobody visits this site. Separated and solitary, it stands on the side of the road. No beaten track made by thousands of visitors leads to this chunk of rock on the far side of the Emmittsburg Pike as they do, say, on Little Roundtop. Indeed, it is well away from where most of the tourists ever walk at all. Few visitors to the battlefield will ever even notice these few tons of granite as they drive past down the road. Forever alone, forward and away from the greater monuments that stand upon the crest of Cemetery Ridge, this modest design attracts little attention. Upon it there is a simple inscription and the humble number 8.
In this way and forever does Ohio stand to the front of the Union.
And that is all for today. I do not know about you, but I am now exhausted. The campaign is not over though, so we will continue until it is complete. As always, you can write to me at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.