Wilkinson County, the Third Georgia and Gettysburg
by John M. Whitaker
On a heavily overcast day in early May last year, Ann and I visited the Gettysburg Battlefield, site of the War's most pivotal battle. After a quick auto tour along Seminary Ridge, up onto Little Round Top, down into Devil's Den, over to the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, and across Plum Run we stopped on Cemetery Ridge. We parked just behind the small Clump of Trees which was the convergence point for the attack on July 3, 1863 by the 15,000 troops of Generals Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble -- the attack known as Pickett's Charge.
2nd Battle Flag of the 3rd GVI
State Capital Atlanta, GA
As I stood on that ridge near the angle where General Armistead of Virginia fell and only a short walk from the spot where Lincoln in dedicating the Union cemetery gave his famous Gettysburg Address, I looked westward across that open field and tried to visualize the battle which took place here on July 2, 1863.
From history and the movie "Gettysburg," we all know what happened here on July 3 with Pickett's Charge. But how many know that on this same spot late on the afternoon of July 2 about 80 men from Wilkinson County, members of Companies F and I of the 3rd Georgia, were part of the attack of Wright's Brigade on this same ridge.
At 6 P.M. Brig. General Ambrose R. Wright ordered his Brigade, the 3rd, 22nd, and 48th Georgia Regiments and the 2nd Georgia Battalion, to advance from Seminary Ridge across that mile of open ground to attack the enemy first at the Codori Farm on the Emmitsburg Road and then at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge.
This action was described at the first reunion of the Third Georgia veterans in 1874 by Col. Claiborne Snead of the Third Georgia. He was among the Confederate soldiers who were cut off and captured during the break out from Cemetery Ridge.
"..."General Wright ordered an advance", Snead said, "down through the woods into the open fields below. Rushing down the hill-side into a valley broken into small ridges and hollows, we were greeted by a sheet of fire rolling out from the opposite side, the smoke extending and ascending until it darkened the rays of the sun. But on we moved, scarcely seeing one hundred yards ahead, across the Emmitsburg road, until you came to a rock fence, from behind which a fire of musketry riddled your seried ranks. Leaping over it, seizing artillery horses, shooting down the riders and cutting the traces from the caissons, you press on over these guns up to the crest of the hill, where thirteen other pieces of artillery are captured -- thus cutting entirely in twain the army of Meade"..."
Briefly the Third Georgia flag, shown above, was planted upon that ridge and our Georgians held the key to this battle, maybe even the War and their independence, for they had broken the Union line. But they found themselves without supports and alone after having penetrated one half mile farther than the brigades of Lang and Wilcox on the right and Posey on the left.
Union General Meade seeing Wright's Brigade thus isolated quickly ordered Union forces to converge on these men. General Wright realizing that he was being attacked from the North, from the East, from the South and about to be cut off from the West along the Emmitsburg Road had to give up the ridge and guns and fight his way out. The brigade managed to get out but with great loss of men.
This brigade's marker on Seminary Ridge gives 1450 men carried into action on July 2nd resulting in 146 killed, 394 wounded, and 333 missing for a total of 873 casualties. In his report General Wright says the Third Regiment fought superbly and lost 196 men. Company's F and I of Wilkinson County lost 10 killed, 26 wounded and 2 captured.
"..."Papers in Virginia about the time and since have lauded Pickett's Division as having made "the charge," going farther over this very ground than any other body of men.", Snead said, "And while I would not, if I could, detract one iota from that grand division or pluck one leaf from its well earned crown, yet it is due to the vindication of the truth of history to say that they did not even get to the rock fence much less to the heights beyond, over which Wright's Brigade passed on the preceding day."..."
General Robert E. Lee must have had this near success in mind when he ordered the third days' attack at this same point, for his official report says, "Wilcox and Wright's Brigades advanced with great gallantry, breaking successive lines of infantry, and compelling him (the enemy) to abandon much of his artillery. Wilcox reached the foot, and Wright gained the crest of the ridge itself, driving the enemy down the opposite side."
Standing on that ridge in a forest of Union monuments in a light rain, my first objective was to see if I could locate a marker for Wright's Brigade. I quickly located the one for General Armistead and one for the twenty-sixth North Carolina Regiment of Pettigrew's Brigade. I walked down near the Codori Farm to check those which turned out to be for Union units. I then turned back toward the Clump of Trees very disappointed as the rain increased. About 40 yards west of the trees stood a rather large (about four feet square) black marker which was much too big to be a Confederate marker, I thought. Imagine my complete surprise and joy when I saw that this was it -- a marker for Wright's Brigade. I found no other Confederate markers on the ridge except for the Confederate High Water Mark monument.
My second objective was to check the Union monuments for information related to Wright's Brigade and the Third Georgia. But the rain was getting harder so I moved along the rock wall, not taking time to read the inscriptions, but photographing them to read later. And after viewing about a dozen monuments my visit was terminated by a pouring rain. After reading my photographed inscriptions I can now say that those Union monuments give almost as much attention to Wright's Brigade as they do to Pickett's Charge.
I had wanted to confirm the report of Captain W.C. Mathews of the 38th Georgia Regiment who attended the 1888 Federal and Confederate reunion at Gettysburg but because of the rain was unable to do so.
"..."To Anderson's Division," Mathews wrote, "these monuments pay almost as high a compliment as to their own troops. Especially is the 3rd Georgia Regiment complimented, and more so than any other Confederate regiment for three regiments from the State of New York all claim the honor of driving it back. One inscription says "that the charge of the 3rd Ga. the bravest best Regiment of the Confederacy, was so severe and terrific against the 59th New York, that out of 536 men carried into action, they (New Yorkers) lost 123 killed and 213 wounded." I asked a survivor, how was it that so many of their regiments had fought the 3rd Ga.
"Well Johnny, he said, the 3rd Ga. and the 2nd Ga. Battalion at the point attacked the 59th New York. And not only cut it all to pieces, but captured Brown's Battery of Artillery, thus were our lines broken, and the gap exposed both flanks, and our danger was so great, that the other regiments reinforced us, and then we drove them back and recaptured Brown's Artillery. Even after we had repulsed them, never turned their backs, but kept their faces toward us, and continued to fire as they retreated.""
And thus we left the field at Gettysburg somewhat as our Wilkinson County ancestors had done 131 years ago in a pouring rain, proud but disappointed in not having accomplished fully the purpose in going there. Perhaps another time.
"..." I will state", Snead said, "from my own personal knowledge, received from the lips of Gen. Lee, that he knew and recognized as well merited your fame as a regiment. In passing through Augusta to Florida a short time before his death, whither he was going with the vain hope of recruiting a shattered constitution and a broken heart, I remarked to him: "General, all Georgians feel attached to you, and so far as the regiment is concerned which I once had the honor to command -- the Third Georgia -- their attachment simply amounts to worship." "Ah (he replied, the tears gathering in his eyes), I remember them well, they were a part of Wright's Brigade. Say to them that I shall never cease to love them"."