Two weeks after the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 18, 2nd Lt. Samuel Hodgman, Company I, 7th Michigan Infantry, wrote his brother that any attempt to describe the cannonade preceding “Pickett’s Charge” was useless for “words won’t express it.” Though we might expect that Hodgman would have then taken up his regiment role in repulsing the Confederate infantry assault that followed, he instead turned his attention to the 7th’s part in the July 2 battle. Aligned beside the 59th New York Infantry, so reduced in strength that it was smaller than the tiny 7th, the two regiments knelt behind their newly constructed line of earth, stone and rail breastworks as troops of Confederate General Richard H. Anderson’s Division swept past General Daniel Sickles’ 3rd Corps troops and drove toward a vulnerable section of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The body of Confederates advancing toward the 7th Michigan and 59th New York was the Georgia brigade of Brig. General Ambrose Wright:
“The 7th and 59th N.Y. saved the day on the 2nd,” wrote Hodgman. “Both our flanks were turned and two batteries one each side of us taken by the rebs yet we stuck to our barricade and fought till they- what were left of them- were glad to come into our line or skedaddle doublequick. Our boys expressed a determination never to retreat one inch from the line as long as they could use bullets or bayonets. We were fully prepared to meet them with either and the only reason that we did not use the bayonet was that we shot them down before they could get to us.”
Wright’s soldiers succeeded in overrunning Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery position in the right-front of the 7th and despite this temporary victory- later greatly exaggerated by General Wright and one of his regimental commanders- the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge held firm and thwarted the Georgians’ assault. It was the 7th’s exemplary defense here on July 2 that Hodgman described to his brother on July 18 and included in an exhaustive fourteen page account he wrote for the state
adjutant general. Although Hodgman was the author of this account, which amounted to an after-action report, it is credited to Major Samuel Curtis in the War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume 27, Part 1, pp. 449-450.
Hodgman’s talent with a pen is evident throughout this acccount. Describing the approach of Pickett’ Virginians on July 3 he writes:
“They soon came within a very short distance and our fire was opened on them with terrible effect, mowing them down by scores. Still they came on till within a few yards of us when the order was given to fix bayonets. Many of the enemy at this time crawled on their hands and feet under the sheet of fire, and, coming up to our line surrendered themselves prisoners. The enemy, soon finding our fire too hot for them, moved by the left flank, and joined in the assault upon the crest of the hill, driving our line from its position.
“At this time, Colonel (Amos) Steele received an order to form the regiment nearly at right angles… with the intention of attacking the enemy’s right flank. Owing to the great noise, the order was not understood by any excepting those nearest Colonel Steel. The rest of the officers seeing the men, as they supposed, retreating, made all efforts to rally them.”
Hodgman captures the confusion, disorder, and chaos that ensued in Pickett’s repulse. The cost to the Seventh Michigan Infantry was substantial, numbering 46 officers and men including Lt. Colonel Amos Steele, Jr., shot dead as he stood with his men at the clump of trees, while battling the Confederates who had broken through the line and raced into the clump of trees and brush.
Once the Confederates had been repulsed and the wounded accounted for, the exhausted Michiganders reorganized their depleted ranks and returned to improving their earthwork defenses, using what few tools they could find to scoop earth onto the pile of rails. The men also picked up fallen equipment and helped bury the dead. Hodgman did not ingnore the battle’s aftermath. Indeed, some of his most unsettling observations of Gettysburg were of the work that followed the fighting.
To be continued….
John Heiser, Historian