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History of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery, Army of the Potomac

This is the story of the Ninth Massachusetts Light Battery at Gettysburg Thursday the second of July 1863. The tale of how that battery came to beat Gettysburg is as peculiar as the workings of destiny itself.

On June 25, 1863 the unit was ordered to join the Army of the Potomac marching north towards Gettysburg. Arriving at Gettysburg on July 2nd, the battery was ordered to take a position between the peach orchard and a Wheatfield in a field owned by Abraham Trostle.

On Wednesday evening July 1, the 100-odd men were bivouacked near Army headquarters, 15 miles south of Gettysburg at Tanytown, MD. The men got news of the first day's fighting by army grapevine; marching orders for dawn next day came as no surprise. They moved north rapidly over dusty roads so rough that the jolting exploded an improperly packed limber in the battery preceding them. Shortly before noon, they went into park a little south of Cemetery Hill. The sporadic skirmishing and jockeying for position by the two armies and ended and comparative silence had settled over the field. The boys attended the battery horses, cooked brief meals, and settled down for quick naps under bushes, caissons and limbers, or in the shade of hastily erected shelter tents.

One o'clock, two, and three went by with only the occasional boom of a cannon and crackle of skirmish fire. Three-thirty and a sudden clamor of gunfire to the west and south, a racket that deepened to the sustained roar of full-scale battle. The battery officers drew together near the battery guidon; a staff officer galloped up, Bugler Charles W. Reed sounded the: "Hitch and mount," and within five minutes the guns were rumbling southward at a brisk trot. At a byroad, Bigelow led them west down a farm lane, over a small run and up a slight rise to Trostle's white painted farmhouse.

Now the green battery boys saw for the first time the war they dreamed about and suddenly it didn't look much like fun. Across 600 yards of more or more of rolling fields they caught momentary glimpses of the swaying blue battle line of Graham's Brigade at the Peach Orchard, Half-hidden in the swirling fog of the gray-white smoke; they heard the stunning blasts of Ames' and Randolph's guns along the Emmitsburg Road, and the battle sound of the infantry, that ululating roar blent of shouts, screams, curses, and crash of musketry. And they saw the unromantic backwash of wounded and the unwounded who reached the limit of spiritual endurance in the face of imminent death. Those men would be soldiers again, but not today.

The battery boys weren't allowed time to become panicky. An order and a quick sweep of the hand from Colonel McGilvery, and Bigelow led the six guns in a 400 yard gallop across a field to the slight rise bordering the dusty lane we now call Wheatfield Road. Here the racing six-horse teams fanned out, each making a tight circle that left the guns pointed south toward the advancing Confederates. In this position they were a scant 300 yards from the Peach Orchard. The guns were scarcely "in battery" before men and horses began to drop in the sleet of bullets that swept around them.

Fourteen hundred yards down the Emmitsburg Road a Confederate battery, probably one of Henry's Battalion, opened on them. Bigelow promptly returned fire. In a few minutes, two of the gray limbers blew up in a gush of flame and the battery fire lost accuracy and slackened. Already discipline and training were paying off for Bigelow. But he had little time for self-congratulation. Semmes' gray infantry were forming in the battle line at the Rose farm buildings 600 yards away. Bigelow turned his guns of the left section to the right for unobstructed firing.

Not a moment too soon. An officer rode out in the front of the gray ranks; the next instant horse and rider were almost blown apart as a shell burst beneath them. More shell bursts in rapid succession; the Graybacks milled about in confusion, then ran for cover. The federal shells lashed them like an iron whip, searching the bushes and gullies with a hail of metal. Captain Bigelow noted later with professional satisfaction; "Our caseshot and shell broke beautifully." No one knows just how many of Semmes' men died there. We do know that J. Howard Wert, a soldier and competent observer, visiting that part of the field after the three days fighting saw wide ponds formed where the channel of the little stream near the house was dammed up by the heaps of Confederate dead; we know that at least 400 men were buried about the Rose Farm buildings.

No sooner had Semmes' incipient attack been broken up than a new danger threatened. A sudden wave of gray surged over a stone wall beyond the Emmitsburg Road. Slanting in a long steel-tipped diagonal toward the Ninth Massachusetts 400 yards away on the left and the rocky hill of "The Loop" on the right, Kershaw's Brigade swept forward. Kershaw meant his left flank regiments to overwhelm the battery, but an order to regiments on the right to move to the right " a little" led some unknown officer on the left to order "charge to the right oblique." The charging lines swung vertical to the astonished Yankee gunners, heading through a field of wheat for the fringe of trees bordering the wheatfield. Sitting ducks at 200 yards point blank range! The guns tore them. Kershaw reached the woods but his dead and wounded lay thick in the trampled field behind.

Captain Bigelow had a moment to look around. What he saw would have frightened a less hardy soul. On his right the Peach Orchard salient had caved in, and even now Barksdale's triumphant Confederates were reforming for further advance, their lines extending further and further north along Emmitsburg Road. The union batteries that had fought so valiantly nearby and at the Orchard had limbered up and pulled out. One abandoned gun stood black and solitary against the smoke-darkened sky. In front, the attackers were reforming. To the left, through the trees and along a stone wall, sited a crouching line of gray-clad sharpshooters detached by Kershaw to finish off the battery. To the rear, the open field, now rapidly draining of men in blue. The enemy on three sides, no supports--and no orders for retreat! Bigelow turned his left section on Kershaw's sharpshooters. It was nearly six o'clock. The sun was dusky red in the smoky air.

Colonel McGilvery galloped up on a foam-spattered, blood-oozing horse. "Limber up and get out--no infantry support-save your guns!" Bigelow pointed. "Can't take time to hitch. Sharpshooters would have us all. I must retire by prolonge, firing." "Right-but get out. I'll try to get supports for you back at that barn, but don't count on it. The bugle blared "Attach prolonges." The men whipped the heavy ropes from the trail cleats. One end to the gun trail ring, the other to the limber pintie. Now the guns could be dragged backward, and served and fired as they moved. This was prolonge firing; Bigelow called it"...the only instance in the Civil War of its use on the battlefield without supporting infantry, and in the presence of an enemy advancing in force and so close at hand." And this by a battery in its first fight. But the boys were learning fast.

The Slow retreat began along that corridor of death. To the left, Kershaw' sharpshooters. To the right Barksdale's Brigade now augmented by one of Alexander's batteries. Left section, canister to discourage the sharpshooters; right section solid shot to plow through Barksdale's line. With each shot the guns recoiled; straining horse and men at limbers took up slack of the prolonges and dragged the guns back as loaders and rammers worked with fierce haste at the muzzles.

Yard by slow yard they moved back. Dead and wounded men and horses marked their pain. Before they reached the angle of stone wall at Trostle's Farm nearly half the men lay at their first position and in the field between. And the horses! Eighty-eight horses had galloped the battery caissons and limber into action. That night 60 were stiffening in death in Trostle's barnyard and field; twenty more bore shell and bullet wounds.

Yet all the punishment inflicted on the battery was being repaid twenty-fold and more on the advancing Confederates. The gunners had changed to canister against Barksdale and with every blast of the guns the Massachusetts men could see the close-ranked attackers mowed down in bloody swaths.

They came at last to the angle of wall, sheltered momentarily by rising ground, the men sprang to cast off prolonges and limber up. A shout-Colonel McGilvery again. "Captain, you've got to stay here. Our line is open back there for nearly a mile. We've no reserves. I must get infantry and batteries to plug that gap or the Johnnies will go right through us. It's up to you to hold 'em 'til we're ready." He galloped away.

So suddenly, there it was. The issue of the situation was starkly critical. On the right Hancock's second Corps was occupied in the covering of Humphrey's regiment from the Emmitsburg Road line, on the left Sykes' Fifth Corps was holding Little Round Top and fending off Hood's Confederates around the Wheatfield, and behind them was only the fought-out rabble of Sickles' retreating Third Corps, brave men, but men who had reached the extreme of what even the bravest soldier can take in the violence of close battle. Today they had had it. Until McGilvery could muster guns and fresh men a quarter of a mile back, it was all up to Bigelow's six bronze smoothbores and exhausted men who served them.

No time to work the battery in the regulation way. They stacked ammunition near the guns, loaded with double canister, and blasted the gray lines as they swarmed over the rise. The tow left guns, swung in among boulders, were unusable, one was sent through the gateway in the wall, overturned and was righted, galloping away in a shower of bullets. The other drove directly over the low wall, scattering the loosely piled rocks. Both helped next day to repel Pickett's charge.

Four guns remained to fight for time to save an army. The gray tide moved in again, and again staggered back in shattered disorder. Later Bigelow was to reflect proudly; "I don't think any of Barksdale's men came in on the front of the battery, weak as we were." But the flanks! Barksdale's next forward surge lapped the battery on the right and the 21st Mississippi engulfed the guns and limbers. The fight became now savagely hand-to-hand, muskets and bayonets against rammers and handspikes. Two bullets knocked Bigelow from his horse; the horse went down with two more. As his orderly helped him up onto his own mount Bigelow saw the welcome sight up the slope to the east of batteries sheeling into position on McGilvery's "Plum Run Line." The Ninth Massachusetts had held off Barksdale for nearly 30 priceless minutes.

The survivors went back through the face of batteries already belching shell and canister, batteries which held the line till dusk and prevented what would have been a disastrous breakthrough. Seldom before in the history of war had so few men accomplished so much in determining the outcome of a battle. Now the struggle at Gettysburg could run its destiny, bloody course; now the Union line could be manned and gunned and fortified from the cemetery to the Round Top; now Robert Lee would make his fatal decision for that last heroic, failure-doomed assault on the Union center that was to echo through a hundred years of history and mark the beginning of the end of the offensive power of the South.