Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt is not a household name. Even among aficionado’s of the Battle of Gettysburg, Merritt’s involvement in the fighting on July 3rd, 1863 is often a footnote to a footnote, overshadowed by larger events occurring elsewhere at the same time. His brigade of federal cavalry, belonging to the division of Gen. John Buford, arrived on July 3rd, and participated in heavy skirmishing and sparing with a detachment of the 1st South Carolina Cavalry in the fields and farms bordering the Emmitsburg Road. The Union cavalry temporarily drove the rebel skirmish line back (across land that would one day belong to President Dwight Eisenhower) but timely reinforcements from Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s Confederate division stalled and rebuffed their advance. Thus the fighting in that sector of South Cavalry Field ended, as did the larger Battle of Gettysburg.
On July 18, near the town of Petersville, Maryland, Merritt penned his official report on the Campaign, dedicating only a single paragraph to the fighting the men of his Reserve Cavalry Brigade participated in:
“…I marched with the brigade about 12 m. to attack the enemy’s right and rear, and annoy him, while the battle was progressing on the right. I marched on the Gettysburg road about 4 miles, where my advance and skirmishers were engaged. Here the brigade drove the enemy more than a mile, routing him from strong places, stone fences, and barricades. This fight last about four hours (some time after the cannonading had ceased on the right), and was finally brought to a close by heavy rain.”
The historiography of the Battle of Gettysburg, like Merritt himself, has largely glossed over the role his men played at Gettysburg. The size, scope, and carnage of Pickett’s Charge, which occurred at the same time, captured far more attention and played a far more significant role in dictating the ultimate outcome of the battle. Likewise, preservation efforts in the late 19th century were more focused on securing iconic locations such as Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill, than the fringe of the battlefield.
Geographical isolation, and the difficulty of visiting the scene where Merritt’s men battled has further obscured South Cavalry Field. Merritt’s brigade tablet, a sort of bronze and stone island unto itself, is virtually isolated from the rest of the National Military Park. A small strip of park land, numbering only a few acres, sits to the east of the Emmitsburg Road. A similar fate befell the tablets commemorating the regular army units under his command, the 1st, 2nd, and 5th United States Cavalry (The 6th US Cavalry, also under Merritt’s command, was engaged near Fairfield, Pennsylvania on July 3rd and did not participate in the fighting at South Cavalry Field). Visitors searching for the more impressive monument to the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry will have to look quickly. It sits partially hidden along the roadway, and is often missed.
The fields, farms, and woodlots where Merritt’s men engaged their Confederate foes was never preserved or protected in the same manner as other areas of the battlefield, though fortunately, much of it retains its 19th century agrarian appearance.
Nearly 154 years after the fighting along the Emmitsburg Road, the South Cavalry Battlefield has been granted a new lease on life. Nearly 75 acres of battlefield land located west of the Emmitsburg Road and south of the Eisenhower National Historic Site, has just recently been preserved and donated to the National Park Service. Visitors will now be able to explore an entirely new section of the Gettysburg Battlefield and thereby gain a much better appreciation of an oft neglected chapter in the Gettysburg story.
This new addition to the park is thanks to the generosity of Roxanne Quimby. Quimby is better known for lip balm and organic shampoo than for battlefield preservation, having founded and developed the popular Burt’s Bees company. She is also an avid conservationist and a long time supporter of the National Park Service.
On August 23, 2016 roughly 85,000 acres owned by Quimby in upstate Maine was transferred to the Department of the Interior. It was soon thereafter established as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the newest addition to the National Park Service system. At that same time, Quimby quietly donated other parcels of land to the National Park Service, including 75 acres south of the Gettysburg National Military Park on the historic George Bishop and the James Ewing farms.
In 1863 the George Bishop farm occupied the site. The house is post-battle, as is the majority of the red bank barn seen in the background of the photo.
Many of the timbers in the barn are hand-hewn, and perhaps date from the battle. Other elements of the structure are clearly 20th century, but one can’t help but wonder if Merritt’s cavalrymen or soldiers from the 1st South Carolina Cavalry encountered the same beams.
The property can be accessed by a narrow drive way that most likely runs along the original George Bishop farm land. Sweeping views to the north reveal the Show Barn of Eisenhower National Historic Site, an obvious post-battle structure. The most distant tree line marks the western slope of Seminary Ridge.
In 1863, near the center of the photo, stood the small farm of James Ewing. Ewing’s house was burned during the fighting, and many of the planks and fences on his property were cannibalized and used in the construction of a crude breastwork, or as Merritt described “a barricade.” The breastwork most likely ran left to right across the ridge line in the front of the Show Barn.
A one stage in the fighting, the 5th United States Cavalry attempted to outflank the Confederate defenders by launching an attack against the rebel right. The wood line and ridge above would have provided an avenue of approach for the advancing cavalrymen.
From near the center of the new property, looking south, can be seen the site of the George Bishop farm. Modern buildings now occupy the site. This is the same vantage point that members of the 1st South Carolina Cavalry would have had of the advancing Union forces.
Looking due south from the near the presumed site of the Confederate breastworks. The Bishop Farm site is marked by the buildings in the far distance.
Gettysburg National Military Park would like to extend our deep thanks for this new addition to the park. We are excited for future Battle Walks, trails, and new opportunities to explore and understand the Gettysburg battle and battlefield.