The Battle of the Wheatfield :: The Fighting Begins

Had it not been for Major General Daniel E. Sickles, the commander of the Army of the Potomac's Third Corps, there probably would have never been a fight for a trapezoidal rock strewn field of wheat on the Rose farm.

Sickles left rested in a massive jumble of demonic boulders known as the Devil's Den. Ward's Brigade, of Birney's first division, held the maze of rocks along with Smith's New York battery. The 124th New York, the "Orange Blossoms" so named for the orange ribbons their colonel, the stern A.V.H. Ellis, had given them to foster unit pride, was posted to the right and rear of Smith's battery. The 4th Maine, commanded by a former lumber merchant, Elijah Walker, was placed to the left of the 124th, stretching Ward's line into the rock's of the Den. The 86th New York, commanded by the chief engineer of Saracuyse's fire department, Lt. Col. Benjamin L. Higgins, continued the 124th's line north into Rose Woods. The 20th Indiana, under the command of editor Colonel John Wheeler, and the 99th Pennsylvania under the command of Major John W. Moore, stretched the line the rest of the four hundred or so yards held by Ward's brigade to the southern edge of a wheatfield on the Rose Farm.

This wheatfield, one of many fields of grain that gleamed golden around the Gettysburg area, was to become forever known as The Wheat-Field, as if there was never another field of wheat. The Wheat-Field was located on the John Rose Farm, approximately midway between the rocks of Devil's Den and Sickle's salient at a peach orchard. Since this particular field will be our subject of focus, the Wheat-Field's physical features probably deserves some discussion. It was about twenty acres in size and was trapezoidal in shape. It was 300 yards wide on it's northern and southern sides, 400 on the west, and 250 on the east.

A road, known simply as the Wheatfield Road and a large roughly triangular plot of woods known as Trostle's woods hemmed in the northern side. A worm-rail fence bound in the western side separating it from the woods and bald knob that formed the Stony Hill. The southwest corner of the field was wet and marshy, the western branch of Plum Run only 120 feet away. A stonewall separated the Wheat-Field from Rose Woods on the south side. The highest ends of the field were on the northern and eastern sides.

Despite some advantages and attributes that made the Wheat-Field a good artillery position, the fields of fire would be limited to the field itself, though the battery placed there would indeed fire into the woods. Posted in the field was Battery D, First New York Light Artillery. The battery sat on the high ground fronting south across the field and roughly parallel to the Wheatfield Road. Battery D's first commander was Thomas W. Osborn, now commander of the artillery brigade in the Eleventh Corps. The battery's current commander, was 31 year old George Bigelow Winslow, who had been engaged in the hardware business before the Civil War began. The battery was made up of 116 men and six twelve pound bronze Napoleons. The Napoleon cannon was very useful for throwing canister. This turned the cannon into a sort of giant sawed off shot gun. In the cramped quarters of the Wheat-Field, this made Winslow's battery particularly well-suited to fight. The woods on both of the battery's flanks, however, made it particularly vulnerable to being approached by Confederate infantry.

The woods to the west of the Wheat-Field were occupied by Colonel Philip Regis De Troibriand's brigade of five regiments from Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine. The Peach Orchard high ground that so attracted Sickles sloped downwards through these woods to a small rise that separated them from the Wheatfield Road. The ground within these woods inclined to the east. The woods were studded with boulders and marshy in the lower areas.

Col. De Trobriand commanded the Third Brigade of the First (Birney's) Division of the Third Corps. De Trobriand wrote and edited in New York City before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. De Troibriand's initial deployment had the 5th Michigan, under command of Lieut. Col. John Pulford, fronted towards the Rose Farm buildings, and the 110th Pennsylvania under the command of 25 year old Lt. Col. David M. Jones, in line along the south side of the Stony Hill woods. The 40th New York, nicknamed the "Mozart Regiment", under the command of Col. Thomas W. Egan, was in place to the rear of the west edge of the woods facing the Emmitsburg Road. On the right of the 40th New York was placed the Seventeenth Maine, under the command of Lt. Col. Charles B. Merrill. The Third Michigan, under the command of Col. Byron R. Pierce, formed as part of the corp's skirmish line. General Charles Graham's brigade further stretched the line into a peach orchard.

Also in the Wheat-Field vicinity was the Eighth New Jersey of Burling's Brigade. The Eighth was commanded by Colonel John Ramsey. The Eighth was first put in place at the southwest corner of the Wheat-Field. Soon after however, the regiment was sent to the right, into the gap between Rose Woods and Stony Hill. The men attempted to strengthen their position behind the stone wall by making a make shift breastworks from fence rails.

The Fifth Corps arrives on the scene