Battle of Gettysburg : McPherson's Ridge

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Battle of Gettysburg McPherson’s Ridge McPherson’s Farm Chambersburg Pike Cashtown Turnpike General John Buford’s Cavalry Division General Henry Heth Iron Brigade John Reynolds Archer’s Brigade

Viewing north at McPherson's Farm
McPherson Farm photo.jpg
Chambersburg Pike is north of the barn (Gettysburg NMP)

The Edward McPherson farm is situated on the Chambersburg Road (US Rt.30) one half mile west of Gettysburg. Typical of many Pennsylvania farms, it included a house, barn, several outbuildings, pasture and cropland as well as a small orchard. Nearby was a small forest (often referred to as "woodlots" by farmers), owned by a neighbor named John Herbst. Most of McPherson's farm was pasture though two fields were planted in corn and wheat. A significant feature of the farm is the two ridges that run perpendicular to the Chambersburg Pike and offered Union cavalry and infantry a good position to defend against the Confederate attacks which took place here on the afternoon of July 1. It was on the McPherson Farm that Brig. General John Buford's Cavalry Division camped while pickets and scouts stood watch from posts between the farm and Cashtown, Pennsylvania, eight miles away. At approximately 8 A.M. on the morning of July 1, a Union picket post manned by the 8th Illinois Cavalry on the Chambersburg (or Cashtown) Pike near Seven Stars confronted Confederate infantry commanded by General Henry Heth. Heth's men brushed aside the first Union pickets and continued their advance toward Gettysburg while outnumbered Union troopers slowly fell back toward town. Buford had wisely posted the bulk of his troops along Willoughby Run on the western border of the McPherson Farm, with his artillery and other dismounted troopers resting on the ridge overlooking the stream and the bridge that crossed it. "The two lines soon became hotly engaged," Buford reported, "we having the advantage of position, he of numbers. The First Brigade held its own for more than two hours, and had to be... dragged back... to a position more secure and better sheltered. The Brigade maintained this unequal contest until the leading division of General Reynold's corps came up to its assistance."

The Union infantry was from the First Corps commanded by Maj. General John F. Reynolds. Arriving on the scene at about 10 A.M., the Union troops threw back Heth's soldiers in a furious counterattack. General Reynolds was shot dead while leading his troops into the woods south of the farm. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Reynolds was a highly respected officer in the Army of the Potomac and well known by his Confederate counterparts.

Gen. Archer
General Archer.jpg
Generals in Gray

The vicious Union counterattack inflicted heavy losses on the Confederates, a brigade commanded by Brig. General James Archer who taken prisoner by Private Patrick Maloney, a member of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry. General Archer was being led to the rear when he encountered General Abner Doubleday, his old West Point classmate. Seeing the Archer for the first time in many years, Doubleday thrust out his hand and remarked how glad he was to see him. "Well, I'm not glad to see you by a damned sight, Doubleday," Archer vehemently replied before he was escorted back and eventually into a prisoner of war camp.

Herbst Woods adjacent to the McPherson Farm
Herbst Woods.jpg
Location where Gen. John Reynolds was killed

North of the Chambersburg Pike, Brig. General Joseph Davis' Brigade routed a portion of Cutler's Brigade, opening the right flank of the Union troops battling Archer's men. Quick thinking Union officers ordered a counterattack and Davis' men were driven back after a desperate struggle in an unfinished railroad bed where the Confederates had taken refuge from Union fire. A short lull in the battle gave both sides time to reorganize. Major General Abner Doubleday of New York assumed command of the Union First Corps and established a defensive line through the McPherson Farm, northward along Seminary Ridge to Oak Hill. Other troops arrived and marched into the fields north of Gettysburg.

Meanwhile, two additional Confederate divisions under Robert Rodes and William Dorsey Pender arrived and went into battle formations west and north of the Union line.

Brockenbrough's troops at the McPherson Farm
Brockenbrough's troops.jpg
Battles & Leaders

At 1 o'clock that afternoon, the Confederate assault was renewed. General Heth sent his two fresh brigades to press the attack on the McPherson Farm and heavy fighting quickly spread north and south along the ridge. Colonel John M. Brockenbrough's Virginia Brigade splashed through Willoughby Run and moved toward the McPherson buildings, surrounded by Colonel Roy Stone's Pennsylvania "Bucktail" Brigade. Positioned behind stout rail fences, Stone's men threw back repeated attacks from General Junius Daniels' North Carolina Brigade attacking through the fields north of the Chambersburg Pike. Meanwhile, Brockenbrough's men were forced to march across several hundred yards of open meadow in front of the Pennsylvanians who unleashed a withering fire into the struggling Confederates. Brockenbrough mistakenly sent in one or two regiments at a time, attempting to reserve some of his strength to exploit a break. The Virginians suffered under the Union rifle and artillery fire, and each attempt to force the Bucktails out was met with renewed defiance. Pinned by this murderous fire, Brockenbrough could only hold on and hope for support from Brig. General James J. Pettigrew's North Carolina Brigade, advancing on his right into the trees on the southern edge of the McPherson property.

McPherson's Farm (present-day)
McPherson's Farm (present-day).jpg

Yet Pettigrew's men had also run into a stone wall. When his "Tar Heels" waded Willoughby Run and ascended the wooded slope of the Herbst Farm woods (mistakenly called "McPherson's Woods" by some participants), they ran headlong into the "Iron Brigade". Major Jones of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment recalled: "The fighting was terrible- our men advancing, the enemy stubbornly resisting, until the two lines were pouring volleys into each other at a distance not greater than 20 paces." During one of the last charges, the 26th's twenty one year-old colonel, Harry Burgwyn, grasped the regimental flag and led his men up to the faces of the 24th Michigan Infantry. As Burgwyn turned to see his men follow him, he was struck through the side by a bullet that spun him around and flat to the ground. Lt. Colonel Lane picked up the flag and continued to encourage his men in the charge leaving the 26th's mortally wounded commander to the care of others. Within minutes, Lane was also shot, the bullet passing through his neck muscles, shattering his jaw and knocking out several teeth. Remarkably Lane survived his horrible wound, though Colonel Burgwyn died that evening.

The Iron Brigade's soldiers were down to their last cartridges and the position was beginning to break. Heavy losses and the arrival of fresh Confederate units compelled the Union regiments to give way, but losses in the Confederate ranks were equally bad and included many regimental and company officers. Among those severely injured was General Heth, wounded while directing his troops around the stubborn Union defense on the McPherson Farm. A Union bullet struck the general a glancing blow to the head though it could have been much worse- he was wearing a new hat that he had stuffed the interior sweat band with newspaper for a proper fit. The bullet hit at such an angle that it ringed the inside of his hat, knocking him senseless and leaving a mark around his scalp similar to a burn. General Pettigrew took command of the division as the dazed Heth was helped from the field.

General Lee arrived on the field by mid-afternoon, disturbed that a major battle had been initiated against his orders. Despite the fact that a large portion of his army was still miles away from the battle site, the general quickly realized that he had an advantage in numbers and was anxious to press the attack on the Union positions. Lee immediately ordered his generals to continue the attack and drive back the Union troops north and west of Gettysburg. After several hours of bitter fighting, the northerners withdrew from the McPherson Farm area to Seminary Ridge where they made one final stand prior to retreating to Cemetery Hill south of Gettysburg.

The fighting which swirled around this farm was heavy and bloody for both sides. After the battle, the McPherson buildings were used as a temporary hospital by Confederate surgeons. Of the original McPherson buildings only the McPherson Barn remains. Time and the elements had taken a heavy toll on the barn until 1978 when it was restored by the National Park Service. The barn is currently under lease to a local farmer who also uses land around it for pasture under a Park Service lease agreement.

McPherson's Ridge and "The Old Gettysburg Hero"

"The Old Gettysburg Hero"
John Burns.jpg
John Burns (LOC)

One of the more interesting personalities to participate in the battle that day was Gettysburg civilian John Burns. The 70 year-old veteran of the War of 1812 took up his flintlock musket and walked out to the scene of the fighting that morning.
Approaching an officer of a Pennsylvania Bucktail regiment, Burns requested that he be allowed to fall in with the officer's command. Not quite believing his eyes nor ears, the officer sent the aged Burns into the woods next to the McPherson Farm, where he fought beside members of the Iron Brigade throughout the afternoon until he was wounded. Injured and exhausted, the old man made his way through groups of victorious Confederates who remarkably allowed him to go home unmolested.
After the battle, he was elevated to the role of national hero. Hearing about the aged veteran, Mathew Brady photographed Burns while recuperating at his home on Chambersburg Street and took the story of Burns and his participation in the battle back home to Washington. Others soon became interested in the story and when President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery that fall, it was John Burns who the president wished to meet. Burns' fame quickly spread and a poem about his exploits was published in 1864. His notoriety faded after the war, but Burns was proud of his service to his country and his hometown. John Burns died in 1872 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg.

Monument to John Burns
Monument to John Burns.jpg
Gettysburg NMP

"John Burns, although past his three score years and ten, learning of the enemies army approach took down his flintlock rifle, joined our troops in defence of his home and fireside..."

The popularity of John Burns' participation in the battle grew in the post war years. His home on Chambersburg Street was razed after his death and veterans of the battle remarked that something should be done to commemorate his services. Reacting to a proposal by a Pennsylvania chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans, the state enacted legislation to provide funds for a fitting monument. The Pennsylvania Board of Commissioners on Gettysburg Monuments desired that the monument be placed on the field where Burns had fought with the 150th Pennsylvania and 2nd Wisconsin regiments, and a site was chosen on McPherson's Ridge next to Herbst Woods. Sculptor Albert G. Bureau chose to depict a defiant Burns with clenched fist, stubbornly carrying his flintlock musket in battle. In reality, Burns used a rifle musket borrowed from a wounded Union soldier. Placed upon a boulder taken from the battlefield, the monument was dedicated on July 1, 1903, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the battle.

Source: National Park Service; Gettysburg National Military Park

Recommended Reading: Stone's Brigade and the Fight for the McPherson Farm (Hardcover). Description: As part of the I Corps at Gettysburg, Stone's (Bucktail) Brigade fought one of the most desperate actions of the battle. The defense of the McPherson farm bought valuable time for more Union units to arrive in the area and deploy for the ultimate victory. The Bucktail Brigade consisted of the 143rd, 149th, and 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. The 149th were the original "Bucktails" and became as well-known for the deer tails stuck in their hatbands as for their distinguished work as a light infantry unit in the Virginia campaign of 1862. As with many other governments, the Pennsylvania authorities sought to increase their number of elite units by expanding a renowned regiment to brigade strength. Giving two new regiments, bucktails to wear, it was hoped would create an entire elite brigade who all fought as well as the original unit. Continued below...

The men of the 149th took the extension of the bucktail distinction with bad grace, and the two junior regiments initially were given all the least desirable assignments. At Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863, the two new units proved themselves by their gallant stand at McPherson's Farm and the entire brigade remained highly regarded throughout the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war. James Dougherty describes this action in unprecedented detail, with extensive reference to the surviving diaries and eyewitness accounts. The author's extensive background in emergency medical services also gives him considerable expertise in describing the fearsome wounds sustained in this action and their subsequent treatment.


Recommended Reading: Gettysburg--The First Day, by Harry W. Pfanz (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: Though a great deal has been written about the battle of Gettysburg, much of it has focused on the events of the second and third days. With this book, the first day's fighting finally receives its due. Harry Pfanz, a former historian at Gettysburg National Military Park and author of two previous books on the battle, presents a deeply researched, definitive account of the events of July 1, 1863. Continued below…

After sketching the background of the Gettysburg campaign and recounting the events immediately preceding the battle, Pfanz offers a detailed tactical description of the first day's fighting. He describes the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, on Oak Ridge, on Seminary Ridge, and at Blocher's Knoll, as well as the retreat of Union forces through Gettysburg and the Federal rally on Cemetery Hill. Throughout, he draws on deep research in published and archival sources to challenge some of the common assumptions about the battle--for example, that Richard Ewell's failure to press an attack against Union troops at Cemetery Hill late on the first day ultimately cost the Confederacy the battle.

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Recommended Reading: Damn Dutch: Pennsylvania Germans at Gettysburg, by David L. Valuska (Author), Christian B. Keller (Author), Don Yoder (Foreword), Scott Hartwig (Contributor), Martin Oefele (Contributor) (Hardcover). Review: This is the first work to highlight the contributions of regiments of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the post 1820 immigrant Germans at the Battle of Gettysburg. On the first day, the 1st Corps, in which many of the Pennsylvania Dutch regiments served, and the half-German 11th Corps, which was composed of five regiments of either variety, bought, with their blood, enough time for the federals to adequately prepare the high ground, which proved critical in the end for the Union victory. On the second day, they participated in beating back Confederate attacks that threatened to crack the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill and in other strategic locations. Continued below...

About the Authors: David L. Valuska is Freyberger professor of Pennsylvania German studies at Kutztown University and executive director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center. Christian B. Keller is assistant professor of American history at Dickinson College. Scott Hartwig has been an interpretive park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park since 1980. Martin Oefele is a former professor of American history at the University of Munich.

Recommended Reading: The Maps of Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 - July 13, 1863 (Hardcover). Description: More academic and photographic accounts on the battle of Gettysburg exist than for all other battles of the Civil War combined-and for good reason. The three-days of maneuver, attack, and counterattack consisted of literally scores of encounters, from corps-size actions to small unit engagements. Despite all its coverage, Gettysburg remains one of the most complex and difficult to understand battles of the war. Author Bradley Gottfried offers a unique approach to the study of this multifaceted engagement. The Maps of Gettysburg plows new ground in the study of the campaign by breaking down the entire campaign in 140 detailed original maps. These cartographic originals bore down to the regimental level, and offer Civil Warriors a unique and fascinating approach to studying the always climactic battle of the war. Continued below...

The Maps of Gettysburg offers thirty "action-sections" comprising the entire campaign. These include the march to and from the battlefield, and virtually every significant event in between. Gottfried's original maps further enrich each "action-section." Keyed to each piece of cartography is detailed text that includes hundreds of soldiers' quotes that make the Gettysburg story come alive. This presentation allows readers to easily and quickly find a map and text on virtually any portion of the campaign, from the great cavalry clash at Brandy Station on June 9, to the last Confederate withdrawal of troops across the Potomac River on July 15, 1863. Serious students of the battle will appreciate the extensive and authoritative endnotes. They will also want to bring the book along on their trips to the battlefield… Perfect for the easy chair or for stomping the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, The Maps of Gettysburg promises to be a seminal work that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious and casual student of the battle.


Recommended Reading: The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (928 pages). Description: Coddington's research is one of the most thorough and detailed studies of the Gettysburg Campaign. Exhaustive in scope and scale, Coddington delivers, with unrivaled research, in-depth battle descriptions and a complete history of the regiments involved. Continued below...

This is a must read for anyone seriously interested in American history and what transpired and shaped a nation on those pivotal days in July 1863.


NEW! Recommended Reading: The Gettysburg Companion: A Guide to the Most Famous Battle of the Civil War (Hardcover). Description: There have been many books about Gettysburg, but never one to rival this in scale or authority. Based on extensive research, The Gettysburg Companion describes the battle in detail, drawing on firsthand accounts of participants on all sides in order to give the reader a vivid sense of what it was like to experience the carnage at Gettysburg in early July 1863. The many full-color maps--all specially commissioned for the book--and the numerous photographs, charts, and diagrams make this book a feast for the eyes and a collector's dream. Includes a massive library of 500 color illustrations.


Recommended Reading: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, by James M. Mcpherson (Crown Journeys) (Hardcover). Review From Publishers Weekly: The country's most distinguished Civil War historian, a Pulitzer Prize winner (for Battle Cry of Freedom) and professor at Princeton, offers this compact and incisive study of the Battle of Gettysburg. In narrating "the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere," McPherson walks readers over its presently hallowed ground, with monuments numbering into the hundreds, many of which work to structure the narrative. They range from the equestrian monument to Union general John Reynolds to Amos Humiston, a New Yorker identified several months after the battle when family daguerreotypes found on his body were recognized by his widow. Indeed, while McPherson does the expected fine job of narrating the battle, in a manner suitable for the almost complete tyro in military history, he also skillfully hands out kudos and criticism each time he comes to a memorial. Continued below...

He praises Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, but also the 140th New York and its colonel, who died leading his regiment on the other Union flank in an equally desperate action. The cover is effective and moving: the quiet clean battlefield park above, the strewn bodies below. The author's knack for knocking myths on the head without jargon or insult is on display throughout: he gently points out that North Carolinians think that their General Pettigrew ought to share credit for Pickett's charge; that General Lee's possible illness is no excuse for the butchery that charge led to; that African-Americans were left out of the veterans' reunions; and that the kidnapping of African-Americans by the Confederates has been excised from most history books.

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