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Published:July 2nd, 2013 08:43 EST
At the Battle of Gettysburg, Is the Struggle at John Rose`s Wheat Field the Heart and Soul of Day Two?

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Is the Struggle at John Rose`s Wheat Field the Heart and Soul of Day Two?

By John G. Kays


Exactly 150 years ago, as of today, July 2nd, the Second Day of the Battle of Gettysburg took place; because of problems of coordination amongst the Confederate high command, the fighting didn`t commence in earnest until 5 PM. When studying the various components of a very complex and confusing battle, I focused in on John Rose`s Wheat Field, which seems to be the heart and soul of the battle. The rebels had won the Wheat Field, but at the very last moment (8 PM), Crawford`s Pennsylvania Reserves repelled the fatigued rebels!


It`s very difficult to understand just exactly what happened at Rose`s Wheat Field for around 2 hours (5:30-7:30 PM) on July 2nd, 1863; my conclusion is that the Confederates prevailed, but were forced to retreat from exhaustion. As they made an attempt to sweep up to Cemetery Hill, which all along, was Robert E. Lee`s approach to victory, Yankee reinforcements kept getting in position to stop them. And the important thing, is these guys were fresh! And then, one needs to take a look at the important role played by a clever, strategic placement of Yankee artillery.


In Allen C. Guelzo`s wonderful new monograph, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, page 302, we find out that perhaps General Longstreet had ordered William Wofford`s Georgian brigade to retreat, leaving Crawford`s Pennsylvania Reserve controlling Houck`s Ridge. Conspiracy theories might consider whether General James Longstreet subconsciously didn`t really want to win Gettysburg; or maybe not according to the battle plan Lee had in mind. Guelzo tells us Longstreet was very aware of Meade`s rapid reinforcements, which stopped the rebel forward thrust.


I might note, that early in the fighting for the Wheat Field, the Yankees had taken control, when Cols. Samuel K. Zook, Patrick Kelly from the Irish Brigade, and Edward E. Cross had Kershaw`s South Carolinians on the run. Yet, both Samuel Zook and Patrick Kelly were killed in the brave assault. In a sense William Wofford was the Confederates only reinforcements and they took back the Wheat Field, breaking the Yankee line. In my mind, the rebels really won this part of the battle. The only problem with this take on the battle, is that their energies were expended to surge any further.


One must consider the nature of the fighting too; brigades were face to face firing into to each other, sometimes from as little as six feet apart. Men were dropping all around you; you could hear mini balls whistle past you ears, since most shots missed their mark. Testimony from surviving soldiers tells us blood was running like rivers in the Wheat Field. I can`t give you exact statistics on how many men were killed or wounded there, but I believe it was thousands.


The Union had the upper hand with the use of artillery on Day Two of Gettysburg. The outcome of the Second Day was mostly a stalemate, but some have argued, if it was anything that gave the Yankees a slight edge, it must have been the clever deployment of artillery batteries. The shells exploding amongst the rebel ranks, marching toward the defensive Union position, often hit their mark, blowing apart entire sections of the rebel lines. It`s debilitating too, to see your comrades heads and limbs flying through the air, as you cautiously creep forward. Will you be next? Think about the Wheat Field today, as move about freely at the office water cooler!