Battles & Leaders of the Civil War
THE BREASTWORKS AT CULP'S HILL.
THE Second Division of the Twelfth Corps camped on the night of the first day under the shadow of Little Round Top. About 6 o'clock the next morning it was marched over from that point, which was then the extreme left of our line, and posted on Culp's Hill, its left forming a right angle with the right of General Wadsworth's division of the First Corps. Our brigade, commanded by Brigadier- General George S. Greene and comprising five New York regiments, the 60th, 78th, 102d, 137th, and 149th, was on the left of the division, and our regiment, the 60th, was on the left of the brigade. This regiment was largely composed of men accustomed to woodcraft, and they fell to work to construct log breastworks with unaccustomed heartiness. All instinctively felt that a life-and-death struggle was impending, and that every help should be used. Culp's Hill was covered with woods; so all the materials needful were at our disposal. Right and left the men felled the trees, and blocked them up into a close log fence. Piles of cordwood which lay near by were quickly appropriated. The sticks, set slanting on end against the outer face of the logs, made excellent battening. All along the rest of the line of the corps a similar defense was constructed. Fortunate regiments, which had spades and picks, strengthened their work with earth. By 10 o'clock it was finished.
At 6 o'clock in the evening General Meade, finding himself hard pressed on the left, and deeming an attack on the right wing improbable at so late an hour, called for the Twelfth Corps. Our brigade was detailed to remain and hold the lines of the corps. Word was brought from the officer in charge of our pickets that the enemy was advancing in heavy force in line of battle, and, with all possible celerity, such dispositions as the case admitted of were made. The brigade was strung out into a thin line of separate men as far along the breastworks as it would reach. The intention was to place the men an arm's-length apart, but, by the time the left of the brigade had fairly undoubled files, the enemy was too near to allow of further arrangements being made.
In a short time the woods were all flecked with the flashes from the muskets of our skirmishers. Down in the hollow there, at the foot of the slope, you could catch a glimpse now and then, by the blaze of the powder, of our brave boys as they sprang from tree to tree, and sent back defiance to the advancing foe. With desperation they clung to each covering. For half an hour they obstructed the enemy's approach.
The men restrained their nervous fingers; the hostile guns flamed out against us not fifteen yards in front. Our men from the front were tumbling over the breastwork, and for a breathless moment those behind the breastwork waited. Then out into the night like chain-lightning leaped the zigzag line of fire. Now was the value of breastworks apparent, for, protected by these, few of our men were hit, and feeling a sense of security, we worked with corresponding energy. Without breastworks our line would have been swept away in an instant by the hailstorm of bullets and the flood of men. The enemy worked still farther around to our right, entered the breastwork beyond our line, and crumpled up and drove back, a short distance, our extreme right regiment. They advanced a little way, but were checked by the fire of a couple of small regiments borrowed for the emergency from General Wadsworth, and placed in echelon.
General Meade hardly mentioned this affair at the breastworks in his original report of the bat-tie, and those who were there think justice has never been done in the case,* and that what was there achieved has never been adequately apprehended and stated by any writer.
The left of our brigade was only about eighty rods from the Baltimore turnpike, while the right was somewhat nearer. There were no supports. All the force that there was to stay the onset was that one thin line. Had the breastworks not been built, and had there been only the thin line of our unprotected brigade, that line must have been swept away like leaves before the wind, by the oncoming of so heavy a mass of troops, and the pike would have been reached by the enemy. Once on the pike, the Confederate commander would have been full in the rear of one-third of our army, firmly planted on the middle of the chord of the are upon which that portion was posted. What the effect must have been it is not needful to describe. The least disaster would have sufficed to force us from the field.
During the night our commanders brought back the remainder of the corps, and, stumbling upon the enemy's pickets, found out what had taken place, something of which until that moment they had been entirely unaware.
"The detachment of so large a portion of the Twelfth Corps, with its temporary commander, Brigadier-General A. S. Williams, left the defense of the line previously held to the remaining brigade of the Second Division, commanded by Brigadier-General Greene, who held the left of the Twelfth Corps, now become the extreme right of the army. The enemy, perceiving the withdrawal of our troops, advanced and attacked General Greene with great vigor, who, making a gallant defense, and being soon reinforced by portions of the First and Eleventh corps, contiguous to him. succeeded in repulsing all the efforts of the enemy to dislodge him." Also, on the same day, in reply to a letter from General Slocum on the subject, General Meade wrote in part: