A Bloody Half Hour: With Battery K at Gettysburg

     It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon of July 1, 1863 when the 118 men of Battery K of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery went into action on the grounds of Pennsylvania College on the northern edge of Gettysburg. The Federal line in this sector held by the 11th Corps had collapsed and as the blue coated infantry surged back towards town, Captain Lewis Heckman and his four-gun battery of 12-pdr cannon were tasked with covering the retreat. It was a desperate assignment, and for Battery K, a deadly one. In their bloodiest half hour of the war, the battery suffered 15 casualties, lost half its guns, had nine horses killed, and barely escaped being captured entire by the charging Confederates of Hays’ Louisiana brigade and Avery’s North Carolinians. 

    In that short half hour, the battery suffered the highest number of casualties of any of the four Ohio batteries engaged at Gettysburg, and was so beaten up by the experience that they were ordered to the rear and sat out the remainder of the battle. But Heckman's four guns certainly spread a lot of iron in those 30 minutes as the captain reported that his men fired 113 rounds of ammunition, mostly canister, which is a rate of a round per minute per gun. 

    Among the survivors of that afternoon was Quartermaster Sergeant Cecil C. Reed who penned the following account which saw publication in the July 24, 1863 edition of the Cleveland Morning Leader.

 

Monument of Battery K, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery at the corner of Carlisle and Lincoln in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The monument was designed by Frederick & Field of Quincy, Massachusetts and is constructed of  light Quincy granite. (Photo courtesy of Gary Milligan)

Camp near Hagerstown, Maryland

July 13, 1863

          We left Fredericksburg on the 12th day of June for parts unknown, and after a long and severe march of 19 days, on the last day of June arrived at Emmitsburg, a small town in Maryland near the foot of South Mountain eight miles from Gettysburg. Then came the report along the line that our advance had overtaken the invaders and there would surely be an engagement on the morrow. We soon received orders to make ourselves comfortable for the night, and you may rest assured that it was not long until the boys were snugly ensconced- some under rail piles, some under the bushes, and some under tents, with nothing to disturb their peaceful repose but some of the many pleasant dreams that never fail to visit the soldier’s couch. Wednesday morning came, the first day of July, with rather an unpleasant rain but we found that it did not interfere with our marching.

At 1 o’clock, the order came for our battery to go to the front as soon as possible; then we had to double quick it for three miles over the worst roads I have ever seen. We arrived on the field in due time and it was not long until we were assigned a position by General Oliver O. Howard in a field a little north and east of Gettysburg. We had hardly got our guns in position before the order came from the captain to commence firing for there was a brigade of Rebels advancing to take us without any ceremony. No sooner said than done, we commenced giving them our best wishes in the shape of shell and canister which mowed them down like wheat. But on they came, closing up their ranks wherever they were torn asunder by our shots, and they were not idle all the time; they were pouring in their volleys with telling effect. Our men were falling fast and they were coming so close that some of their skirmishers were literally blown to pieces from the muzzles of our guns.

Detail from the Elliott Map showing the Gettysburg and its northern approaches. Battery K set up its four guns on the grounds of Pennsylvania College and fell back through town around 4:30 p.m., leaving two of its four guns in the hands of the Confederates. 

We found it would not be very healthy for us to remain here, and we commenced making preparations for a retrograde movement. But when we came to move off the battery, we found that one section had lost nearly all their horses so we had to abandon it; not however until the guns were well-spiked and rendered unserviceable to the enemy. We finally came off with two guns and all their horses. Had it not been for Captain [Lewis] Heckman and his long experience as an artilleryman and an officer, I am afraid we might have lost some of the latter, but he had them far enough in the rear and so they had time enough to get out. He said he would rather give the Rebels all his guns than to give them his ammunition at the present time.

I think there was quite an oversight in not sending us a support; if we had had one regiment there, I think we could have got all our guns off. But we had to support ourselves the best we could. The boys used their revolvers with telling effect on the Rebels. All of our officers’ horses were shot from under them. Captain Heckman ran a very narrow escape; he had just dismounted when his favorite horse fell pierced by two balls, but it was not long until he had the saddle off and was again mounted on a fresh horse. After he had got the battery off, he rode back through the fire of the enemy to see if any of the boys were left on the field. We cannot compliment our captain too highly for the interest he took in our welfare, and the daring deeds he performed that day will be one long remembered by us.

Battery K Monument
Ohio at Gettysburg

The boys all stood their posts like brave men and not a man left his post until he was ordered to do so. We were under fire about a half hour. It was the warmest we ever experienced. The Rebels fought desperately and seemed very well pleased when they closed around our guns. Lieutenants [Columbus] Rodamour and [Charles M.] Schiely lost their horses. Major [Thomas] Osborne, chief of artillery, complimented us very highly and wondered that we got off so well. So ended our first and last day’s fight at the battle of Gettysburg. 

On the morning of the 3rd instant, we were ordered to the rear as a disabled battery, but this was too good a thing for us, so they gave us another gun and sent us to the front. We are now the first battery in position at Hagerstown and expect to have something to do in the coming battle.

 

Sources:

Letter from Quartermaster Sergeant Cecil C. Reed, Battery K, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), July 24, 1863, pg. 2

*Major Thomas Osborne's official report of Gettysburg states that Battery K lost one gun, but Captain Heckman in his report and QM Sergeant Reed in his letter state the battery came off with two guns and this is corroborated by the Ohio at Gettysburg Commission. 

**Battery K was one of the few batteries equipped with the Wiard rifles but it is unclear if the Battery was still equipped with the Wiards when it took the field at Gettysburg.   

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