On July 1 John Heiser, a fellow GNMP historian, and I, gave a three hour walking tour of the Emmanuel Harman (also spelled Harmon) farm. This past spring 95 acres of the old Harman farm – but more recently the Gettysburg Country Club – were acquired by the Conservation Fund with assistance from the Civil War Trust and transferred to the National Park Service. This is the most significant property that the NPS has acquired title to in decades. The story of why it took so long to protect this property is the subject for another blog post. I promised the group that day that I would post some historic images of the area as well as some maps showing the 1863 fence lines and troop positions overlaid upon a modern aerial view of the farm (these are pdf’s attached at the bottom of this post). But for those who were not with John and me on July 1, or are not familiar with the Harman farm I offer the following historical sketch to provide context for the photographs and maps.
In the days after the Battle of Gettysburg, Tom Setser, of the 26th North Carolina, wrote home to his family. “You may talk of this big fite and that big fite but tha hante bin [no] such fiting as was dun over thair for the first days fite. I could all but walk over the field on the dead and wounded. I never hav seen the like before.” Anyone who fought across the fields of the Emmanuel Harman farm, along Willoughby Run, in Herbst Woods and on McPherson’s Ridge, would have agreed with Setser. Not even the most battle experienced soldier that fought here had yet seen the type of carnage that occurred here on July 1.
On the morning of July 1 Confederate soldiers of General James Archer’s infantry brigade reached the woods and ridge just east of the Harman tract, pushing before them dismounted troopers of Gen. John Buford’s Union cavalry division. Archer’s men advanced across the Harman property to Willoughby Run. Pushing across the creek they were met by Union infantry of General Solomon Meredith’s Iron Brigade, one of the crack units of the Army of the Potomac. Meredith’s men outflanked Archer and drove his brigade pell-mell back across Willoughby Run, capturing many men, including Archer, the first general officer to be captured from the Army of Northern Virginia since Robt. E. Lee had assumed command over a year earlier. Meredith’s soldiers pursued part way across the Harmon farm before pulling back to the cover of Herbst Woods, east of Willoughby Run. At the high point of their advance, about mid-way across the Harman property, Jonathan Bryan of the 2nd Wisconsin waved his hat in the air and cheered their victory. A moment later he was killed by a Confederate bullet, a reminder that the battle was far from over.
The initial infantry encounter of the Battle of Gettysburg was a Union victory but the Confederates brought up powerful reinforcements. Among them was the North Carolina brigade of General James J. Pettigrew, the largest in the Confederate army at 2,600 men. Pettigrew’s men formed up in the woods west of the Harman farm. To harass them two companies of the 20th New York State Militia were ordered to occupy Harman’s farm buildings. From this cover the New Yorkers traded fire with Pettigrew’s skirmishers. At about 2:30 p.m., Pettigrew and two other brigades of General Henry Heth’s division were ordered to advance and drive the Federal soldiers from their front. The New Yorkers quickly vacated the Harman buildings. To assure they could not be used again for cover by Union soldiers Pettigrew’s men burned the buildings down as they passed by.
Pettigrew’s soldiers advanced quickly to the banks of Willoughby Run where they were met with a murderous fire from the Iron Brigade. One of Pettigrew’s men wrote that the Union bullets “mowed us down like wheat before the sickle.” Hardest hit were the 26th and 11th North Carolina. Despite the heavy losses the North Carolinians pushed down to the creek and pressed forward loading and firing as they advanced. Just how terrible was the fire they were under is illustrated by the story of the colors of the 26th North Carolina. Four men were shot simply attempting to advance them across Willoughby Run, which is only about ten yards across. The return fire of the North Carolinians exacted a terrible toll of the Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin men that opposed them. The slaughter, wrote a 19th Indiana sergeant, “became frightful beyond description.” The same soldier also recalled how the “shrieks and groans of the wounded was too horrible for contemplation.” The battle smoke was so thick that the lieutenant colonel of the 26th North Carolina wrote that the woods became “almost as dark as night.”
Slowly, the Iron Brigade was forced back and eventually driven out of Herbst Woods.
The cost to both sides was appalling. At no other point in the three day battle of Gettysburg was the slaughter as terrible as along the banks of Willoughby Run and Herbst Woods. The 26th North Carolina would earn the melancholy distinction of sustaining the highest losses of any infantry regiment in the entire battle. Over 500 men were killed or wounded on July 1. In Company F of the regiment only one man out of 91 who entered the battle remained unhurt. The men the 26th fought, the 24th Michigan, sustained the highest losses of any Union infantry regiment in the battle, losing 363 men that day, or 73 percent of their strength. The 19th Indiana lost 68 percent and the 11th North Carolina counted 250 casualties.
A number of the North Carolina dead were buried on Harman’s property not far from Willoughby Run. Amelia Miller was living at the Harman farm with her aunt at the time of the battle. She and her aunt were forced to flee when Pettigrew’s soldiers swept through the property and set fire to the house and other buildings. She returned to the farm on July 5. “I will not describe the sickening sights of the ground over which we passed,” she wrote, “I would that I myself could forget them.” She found at the site of her home “only a blackened ruin and the silence of death.”
With the acquisition of the old Gettysburg Country Club and the historic Harman farm property, this sad, tragic and dramatic story has been lifted from the mists of history. The ground upon which the Battle of Gettysburg opened, and some of its most terrible fighting occurred, is now protected as part of Gettysburg National Military Park.
D. Scott Hartwig, Supervisory Historian