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Barlow's Knoll Revisited
by
Chaplain Chuck Teague

Background

It was "idiotic." It was "a terrible blunder." It was "strange" and "disastrous." It was "unspeakable folly." Such has been the popular appraisal of Barlow’s decision to move forward with his division and take the little knoll north north-east of Gettysburg that would forever after bear his name.

The conventional wisdom remains that the move was foolhardy, but I would like to offer a contrarian perspective. What do we make of Barlow in his controversial advance at Gettysburg?

Francis Channing Barlow looked less like a general than anyone in the American Civil War who wore the stars. At first glance he appeared to be a mere teenager, and a slender and delicate one at that. His entry into the war had been as a private in the New York State Militia.

Those who knew Barlow soon changed their impressions. He was hard-driving, brilliant, and tough. By Antietam he leading his own well-disciplined regiment, heroically out ahead of his men waving his sword to stir their advance at the Sunken Road before being struck down.

After recovery from his wounds, he was given the challenge of firing up a division of German Americans in the XI Corps who had wilted at Chancellorsville when suddenly struck on their blind side by the daring Stonewall Jackson. He was only 28 years old when he found himself a brigadier general headed for one of the crucial battles of the war.

Barlow’s Arrival

July 1 was a warm, sultry day—though the heavy rains had ceased, the humidity remained high. The First Division of XI Corps, having marched steadily northward for several hours, began to arrive at Gettysburg shortly after 1:00 p.m. It was then that Barlow met Maj. General Oliver O. Howard near Cemetery Hill, while Von Steinwehr’s Division of XI Corps was busy fortifying that high ground as the fall-back defensive position for the Army of the Potomac.

Howard’s assumption of command of the Army of the Potomac left wing following the death of Maj. General John Reynolds had a cascading effect, as Brig. General Carl Schurz, in turn, took command of the XI Corps, Brig. General Alexander Schimmelfennig now led what had been Schurz’s Third Division, and Colonel George Von Amsberg rose to briefly command its First Brigade.

With little time to consider options and uncertain when reinforcements would arrive, Howard initially sought to continue the tactics Buford, then Reynolds, then Doubleday, had used: a defense in depth. He felt it crucial at all costs to slow the Rebel advance while holding Cemetery Hill behind Gettysburg until the 20,000 soldiers in the corps of Slocum and Sickles could arrive. To preclude the I Corp from being enveloped on its right flank, Howard intended to extend the Union line to include the high ground at Oak Hill beyond the Mummasburg Road. Howard so instructed Schurz "to seize and hold a prominent height on the right [note: north] of the Cashtown road and on the prolongation of Seminary Ridge."

Schurz in turn directed Schimmelfennig forward to support the Second Division of I Corps, perched on the ridge line. Schurz also issued orders for Barlow upon his arrival to form "on the right of the Third Division, its First Brigade to connect with the Third Division west of the road leading to Mummasburg," with the Second Brigade to be held en échelon behind the other east of that road.

Schurz then worked with Schimmelfennig to position Von Amsberg’s Brigade to the right of Robinson’s Division situated on Oak Ridge (also referred to as North Seminary Ridge). The situation was rapidly changing, however, as Howard received word from Buford that Maj. General Ewell’s II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was approaching from the north.

Von Amsberg pushed three regiments forward, beating back Blackford’s Alabama sharpshooters. But the arrival of two batteries of Confederate artillery on Oak Hill immediately changed the equation on the field. Facing hot fire therefrom, the three regiments not only were unable to reach the ridge, but were forced to form their line at a point starting 200 yards short of connecting with Robinson. These 950 men formed what amounted to a heavy skirmish line extending from the Hagey orchard on Mummasburg Road reaching east-northeast across farmland to the Carlisle Pike. A fourth regiment formed a reserve at the Hagey house and a fifth supported Dilger’s Ohio Battery, which had positioned itself behind Von Amsberg’s line to engage the Confederate cannons on Oak Hill.

Howard led Barlow through town as he explained his objective in bolstering the high ground south of town for the Union defense, but needing to delay the advance of the ANV until reinforcements arrived. Howard was understandably concerned that the right flank of the Union line might be turned. They paused briefly near the brick kiln as Howard completed in instructions.

In the meantime, the orders Schurz had issued for Barlow had become nonsensical due to the arrival on Oak Hill of artillery and infantry from Rodes’ CSA Division. Schurz himself had become consumed in his attention to the cannonade from that hill and the threat from the advance of O’Neal’s Brigade. He gave no immediate attention to Barlow, and there is no evidence of a corrected order having been issued.

Howard, almost as if he had not relinquished command of the XI Corps to Schurz, apparently directed Barlow to lengthen the Union defensive line. Howard then hastened to confer with Doubleday on Seminary Ridge, leaving Barlow to extend the infantry line according to his best judgment. Prior to doing so, Barlow directed Wheeler’s Battery to advance and join Dilger about a half mile north of town in challenging the Rebel artillery on Oak Hill.

Barlow, observing the field for the first time from the north edge of town, saw that the Second Brigade (1400 men) of the Third Division, led by Colonel Vladimir Krzyzanowski, had stopped to his left awaiting further orders. They were ready to move and obviously uncomfortable in that their concentration posed such a tempting target for the Rebel batteries.

Barlow also saw troopers of Col. Thomas Devin about three quarters of a mile out the Harrisburg Road. Earlier that morning they had done exceptional work in locating Ewell’s Corps of the ANV several miles to the north of Gettysburg and screening an advance guard of those Rebels from awareness of the developing Union line. They had held the Union right flank for two hours in a curved line of videttes, gradually shifting east in a reduced arc which they now held from the Harrisburg (or Heidlersburg) Road crossing of Rock Creek to the toll house on the York Pike.

Barlow Positions His Division

To assess the situation and allow his men briefly to rest, Barlow stopped his two brigades en masse in parallel columns on opposite sides of the Harrisburg Road just beyond the Almshouse. It was apparent that he had but minutes to position his men, but where and how? After an assessment of the situation, he chose to form his line forward seeking to take what advantage he could of Blocher’s Knoll and Rock Creek.

Schurz positioned himself at the Hagey house on what he deemed the "extreme left," giving most attention to his old division now technically commanded by Schimmelfennig. He grew anxious about reports that the enemy might also be approaching from the Harrisburg Road. The possibility that his line on the right might be enveloped was real and threatening. Now shifting the focus of his attention eastward, his mind was alerted by several immediate concerns.

First, Barlow had just advanced to the high ground some 700 yards beyond where he had first paused his division and where Schurz later said he had expected him to be. Schurz’s official report said he had instructed Barlow to form "on the right of the Third Division," which Barlow had indeed accomplished. But Schurz’s further explanation that this was to be "west of the road leading to Mummasburg" reveals either a confusion on his part of when this command had been issued or which road was in question. By the time Barlow arrived, the Third Division (Schimmelfennig now commanding) was stretched east of the Mummasburg Road extending to the Carlisle Road. Moreover, rather than being positioned en échelon, the Barlow’s two brigades had formed a double line with skirmishers to meet the anticipated arrival of the enemy. These brigades were only thinly connected to Schimmelfennig’s (now Van Amsberg’s) line by skirmishers of the 2nd German Rifles (68th New York Volunteers) and two companies of the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Of particular alarm to Schurz was his sighting of advance elements of Early’s Division of the II Corps now arriving in the distance on the Harrisburg Road. Skirmishers were firing upon one another and the artillery of Jones’ Battalion had started booming.

Schurz also realized that the four regiments of Krzyzanowski’s Second Brigade, Third Division, were still waiting and eager to be deployed. These soldiers, comprising nearly a third of the XI Corps assets available to Schurz, were still waiting in reserve though the line of defense was sorely overextended. He belatedly directed them to advance and form their line in the vulnerable gap between Schimmelfennig and Barlow.

Realizing the likelihood that his two divisions would likely be overrun, Schurz also dispatched an aide to Howard requesting reserves from Von Steinwehr’s Second Division be brought forward.

If Schurz was observant he would also have noticed that Devin’s troopers had in the meantime pulled back from the right flank. Considering himself relieved by the arrival of the XI Corps of infantry, Devin had disengaged his skirmishers and retreated. They now clustered at the east edge of town between the York Pike and Hanover Road, midway between Cemetery Hill and the advance of Early’s Division.

As it turned out, Devin’s Second Cavalry Brigade were there subjected to friendly fire. Howard had directed Weidrich’s Battery on Cemetery Hill to fire on Early’s developing line of battle. The distance of a mile and a half was not a problem for the 3 inch rifled guns, but what Howard deemed "the poor quality of the ammunition"—faulty fuses?—caused two or three of Devin’s horses to be struck. The cavalry commander immediately pulled his troopers to the rear of town, away from the heat of battle. The benefit of these veteran soldiers would indeed be missed. They suffered only 23 killed or wounded (contrasted with over four times that many in Gamble’s Brigade fighting on the left flank), most of them presumably falling in the two hours (roughly around noon) when Devin’s men effectively checked Early’s advance from Heidlersburg.

The Rebel Onslaught

Doles’ Brigade of Rodes’ Division and Gordon’s Brigade of Early’s Division timed their assault on Barlow’s men with devastating effectiveness. At about 3:00 p.m. these 2700 Georgians raised their Rebel yell and coordinated their attack from two directions. Hays’ Louisiana Brigade with another 1300 troops stood in support of Gordon to his rear left, though were not immediately needed.

The fighting was described by one observer to be severe as the men of Von Gilsa’s and Ames’ Brigades found themselves enveloped on both sides, doubtlessly feeling like they were reliving the nightmare of Chancellorsville. Though Krzyzanowski’s Brigade was soon in motion, it did not form in battle line on Barlow’s left until his men were already falling back.

The momentum was with the Rebels, and they would maintain it for the next two hours as they steadily pushed the Union troops back into and through town. Though there were several points at which XI Corps efforts slowed the onslaught, the retreat was admittedly done in great disorder.

Gordon later expressed respect for a stalwart defense put up by Barlow’s men, but they disappointed their own commander. He was twice shot and seriously wounded attempting to rally them, then was left on the field to be captured. It was a humiliating moment for the young general. Observers spoke of the division as being routed and casualty rates were indeed high, especially for those taken prisoner.

Issues Facing Barlow

In assessing the decision of Frank Barlow to position his division on Blocher’s Knoll (now known as Barlow’s Knoll), several factors need to be weighed. Envision what he knew at about 1:45 p.m., the time when he was to make his critical decision.

First is the mission as Howard would have explained it. Barlow’s immediate task was to intercept the anticipated advance of the enemy as it expanded from a westerly attack to include an assault from the north. Of prime concern was that the Union line not be enveloped. Moreover, Robinson’s Second Division of I Corps was positioned in an important but precarious position on Oak Ridge and must be supported by the XI Corps, lest the I Corps line be rolled from the north. Barlow’s ultimate objective was to slow the Rebel advance so as to enable Howard to have time to fortify and reinforce Cemetery Hill as the key Union line of defense. It would prove to be a daunting task.

Second was an appreciation of the enemy. The only enemy forces immediately visible as Barlow entered the field would have been artillery on Oak Hill, Blackford’s sharpshooters aligned along Blocher’s Run, and the arrival of Doles’ Brigade behind them. Devin had informed Howard that there was a large Confederate body of infantry proceeding from the north, apparently approaching on the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads. Though Barlow would not have known the size of this opposing force, it was composed of major elements of Ewell’s Corps: Rodes’ Division (5 brigades plus artillery), the advance units of which had already arrived, and Early’s Division (4 brigades plus artillery). As it turned out, Barlow’s men would be confronted by some 3,100 enemy soldiers, directly supported by another 1,200 with more behind them. Of further consequence would be twelve canon (Jones’ Battalion) effectively firing upon him from the Harrisburg Road, plus another eight from the two batteries on Oak Hill.

The third key factor was an understanding of his allied troops. Barlow himself commanded only some 2,100 men. He would have six Napoleon’s from Wilkeson’s Battery to position (plus the able support of another six from Dilger’s Ohio Battery when they would shift to a position behind his lines about 2:30 p.m.). As he gazed on the already-formed Union line he would see Robinson to his far left on the ridge line, the heavy skirmish line formed by Schimmelfennig, and the cavalry videttes to his right front. These three units formed a large arc, though a gap had formed between the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads due to Devin’s shift. Krzyzanowski’s Brigade had not yet been moved into position but was waiting en masse (posing an enticing target for the ANV canon on Oak Hill). On the back side of town was Von Steinwehr’s Second Division with three batteries formed on Cemetery Hill. Barlow shared Howard’s hope that Sickles’ III Corps and Slocum’s XII Corps would be arriving on the field later that afternoon, providing important reinforcement.

A further important concern was the terrain. Buford and Reynolds had a distinct advantage in forming a defense in depth to delay the assault of Hill’s Corps from the west of town. There were a series of ridge lines (Herr, McPherson, Seminary) running north-south plus some wooded land as an aid to defense. North of town, however, the land was consisted of undulating fields with little cover and no obvious defensive position. The highest point was Oak Hill to the northwest, already taken by Rodes. The only other elevation worth noting was Blocher’s Knoll to the northeast. Another feature of consequence was Rock Creek, swollen from drenching rains, traversing a line in a south-southeasterly direction a mile or so northeast of town. The significance of the creek is evident through Gordon’s later comment that the "banks were so abrupt as to prevent passage excepting at certain points."

The fifth critical element was time, of which there was little. Barlow had about one hour to position his two brigades before the onslaught began. Any evaluation of his command decisions must factor in this short period. And while he was maneuvering his troops they were under artillery fire from one, then two directions.


Barlow’s Decision

Though Barlow demonstrated effective command on other occasions in the war both before and after Gettysburg, his decision to position his men on the knoll has brought him widespread censure. But was it so obviously an act of foolishness?

From a simple perspective, Barlow "connected the dots" of the Union line as it existed upon his arrival. Draw the curve from Robinson’s line, through Schimmelfennig’s line, and extend it to include Devin’s vidette line, and you incorporate the so-called "advanced" position he in fact took.

It was Devin who exposed the Union right flank when he withdrew his men from their key defensive position to form the massed column south of the York Pike. Devin claimed that he was ordered to withdraw his men, although his superiors Buford and Howard were determined to maintain the defense in depth. Would either commander have likely directed these 1,100 troopers away from the battle at such a crucial moment? I have found no evidence of such an order other than Devin’s own explanation for withdrawing his men from the line of fire.

Moreover, it is likely that Barlow would have assumed that Krzyzanowski’s brigade was preparing to move forward even as his own men had passed them at the north edge of town. The men of both divisions using parallel roads had arrived within minutes of each other. Krzyzanowski’s four regiments were positioned and standing as if ready to move out and, indeed, that was their own hope. Remaining massed as they were made them an easy target for Page and Reese’s Rebel batteries on Oak Hill.

Since Schurz was confused during the writing of his official report, it can be assumed that he was likewise confused early that afternoon. He apparently never reissued an order to Barlow after his first order became untenable. It appears that the advance of O’Neal’s ANV Brigade at 2:00 p.m. against Baxter and Von Amsberg had captured his attention to the exclusion of any immediate concern for Barlow and Krzyzanowski. When the booming of canons from Jones’ battalion then alerted him to action on his right flank, he was genuinely taken off guard.

The particular positioning of regiments by Barlow is worthy of further assessment, but here we are concerned simply with the question of whether he should have taken the knoll. As he moved out the Harrisburg Road, Barlow had few terrain features of which to take advantage. The Almshouse was on relatively low terrain with a small stream behind and high ground out ahead. With little time to ponder, Barlow apparently decided to bite the bullet and take the higher terrain.

His alternatives were two. Staying at the Almshouse, however, would limit his sight lines and the field of fire for his artillery and infantry to a 1000 feet or less. Positioning his line at Stephen’s Run (where Coster later made his stand), another option, would have created a huge and vulnerable salient for Robinson and Schimmelfennig. And once the position of Oak Ridge was lost, the entire I Corps line would be threatened in being rolled up.

Blocher’s Knoll had a distinct disadvantage. Though the swollen Rock Creek itself was a barrier of sorts, the trees along that stream as well as Blocher’s Run would give cover to advancing soldiers. Barlow sought to balance that by sending four companies of the 17th Connecticut across the bridge to the Josiah Benner homestead on the far side of Rock Creek. They were there as skirmishers to blunt the advance of Gordon’s troops and alert their comrades.

Probing Barlow’s mind is impossible from this historical distance, but one further factor that likely played most heavily in his decision. Blocher’s Knoll had marginal value as an artillery platform of his own, but would prove devastating if held by the enemy. The other significant high ground north of town (Oak Hill) was already the source of case shot being poured out against the Union infantry. If Ewell’s artillery also held Blocher’s Knoll, there would have been no viable defense for the Yanks north of town. In particular, Robinson’s I Corps Division, so effectively positioned against Iverson’s advance, would have been sitting ducks fired upon from behind. Once they collapsed, the entire I Corps position would have faced the same demise. Barlow’s taking of the knoll was thus crucial to protect the three I Corps brigades poised in their vulnerable position on Oak Ridge.

A Fresh Evaluation

What Barlow did was heroic and daring. Schurz later acknowledged that Barlow directed "the movements of his troops with the most praiseworthy coolness and intrepidity." The young general had exposed himself and his men in what proved to be a desperate attempt to slow the Rebel advance. He may well have expected Schurz to be more alert and Devin to be more stalwart.

What Colonel William Gamble’s men had done on the Union left flank, inspired by Buford to boldly support the I Corps, should have been mirrored on the right flank. But Devin chose to disconnect himself from the infantry. (Devin says he was ordered "to mass my command on the right of the York Road"— though neither Pleasonton, nor Buford, nor Howard mention issuing such an order—before pulling entirely back from the battle on his own initiative. The minimal involvement of Devin during the afternoon is apparent in that Edward Longacre in his 275 page study of The Cavalry at Gettysburg spends less than a dozen lines referencing what happened to the 2nd Cavalry Brigade during the time of the Confederate assault on July 1.)

It is also important to recognize that Barlow positioned his men as an extension of the only defensive line existent. The "skirmishers" Schimmelfennig sent forth were positioned at intervals of 2½ feet and constituted the only defensive line with which Barlow could have connected! To have remained back at the Almshouse, or worse yet Stephen’s Run, would have left the Third Division line flying in the wind.

Moreover, Barlow denied Ewell the option of using Blocher’s knoll as an artillery platform for Jones’ Battalion, a prospect that would have been horrifying to Robinson.

Barlow’s main problem was that the Confederates enveloped his men from both ends, causing panic. Yet recognize that would not have happened had Devin not withdrawn 30 minutes earlier and had Krzyzanowski, upon a prompt order from Schurz, moved forward 30 minutes sooner. Neither adjacent unit was under Barlow’s command, but he probably expected support from both. Had they done so, there would not have been a rout.

Krzyzanowski cannot be faulted for, as he noted, Schurz’s instructions to him had been "carried out to the letter." Whether Schurz intended to keep such a large contingent in reserve or momentarily forgot about them is puzzling. In fact, he had kept twice as many soldiers from his third division in reserve as had been placed in line of battle! Barlow, seeing Krzyzanowski’s brigade at 1:30 p.m. halted in the orchard north of town, probably assumed that they too would be moving into line of battle beside him. Alas, it happened too late.

Even with the collapse of his position on the knoll, did Barlow fail in his mission? If in fact his objective was to so obstruct the advance of Early’s forces that Howard might succeed in fortifying Cemetery Hill, then Barlow succeeded by a whisker. In what is another debated aspect of the battle, Early felt that his brigades had so suffered in their assault that they were in no condition to continue to attack. In his judgment, it was simply not practicable to advance on the heights of Cemetery Hill after two hours of hard battle.

Perhaps Barlow could have accomplished that mission with fewer casualties by not taking the knoll. That is a subject still worthy of debate. But a fair reevaluation can conclude that Frank Barlow’s decision was brave and, yes— far from being idiotic—it was reasoned and calculated.


Copyright © 2001 Charles Teague