No. 111. — Report of Capt. Henry L. Abbott, 20th Massachusetts Infantry.
NEAR SANDY HOOK, MD., July 16, 1863.
I have the honor to make the following report of the part taken by the Twentieth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers in the battle of Gettysburg, on July 2 and 3:
In the first day’s action (July 2), the regiment was in the second line all day, lying down, and, though not firing a shot, met with some losses from the shot and shell which came through the first line when the enemy advanced at the close of the day to the position held by the Second Division of the Second Corps. Col. Paul J. Revere was mortally wounded, and some 10 or 11 men were killed and wounded.
Two companies had been previously sent out as skirmishers, some distance in front of our lines, under Captain Patten. I wish to mention this officer particularly for the meet distinguished gallantry with which he held his position after losing a third of his command (10 men), remaining on the field after he himself had been severely wounded, only retiring his command when our own advance had been driven back completely routed and the rebel line was close upon him. Second Lieutenant Cowgill was also wounded on this picket.
After the repulse of the enemy on this night (the 2d), the regiment was moved up into the front line, where, during the night, with a single shovel, they threw up a slight rifle-pit, a foot deep and a foot high.
On the next day the regiment retained the same position.
About 2 p.m. the enemy opened a terrific cannonade, lasting perhaps two hours. The regiment lost only 4 or 5 men by this fire, being sheltered more by the slight depression in the ground where the pit was dug than by the earth thrown up, which was too thin to stop anything more than a spent ball.
After the cessation of the enemy’s artillery fire, their infantry advanced in large force. The men were kept lying on their bellies, without firing a shot, until orders to fire came from Colonel Hall, commanding the brigade, the enemy having got within 3 or 4 rods of us, when the regiment rose up and delivered two or three volleys, which broke the rebel regiment opposite us entirely to pieces, leaving only scattered groups. When the enemy’s advance was first checked by our fire, they tried to return it, but with little effect, hitting only 4 or 5 men.
We were feeling all the enthusiasm of victory, the men shouting out, “Fredericksburg,” imagining the victory as complete everywhere else as it was in front of the Third Brigade, when Colonel Macy drew my attention to a spot some rods to the right of us, near a clump of trees, where the enemy seemed to have broken in. The regiment immediately got orders to face to the right and to file to the right, with the intention of forming a line at right angles with the original one; in other words, changing front to the right. The noise was such, however, that it was impossible to make any order heard. An order having been given, though it could not be heard, was naturally interpreted to be an order to retire and form a new line not outflanked by the enemy. The regiment accordingly retired some 2 rods, but in the most perfect order. Perceiving, however, that an example could be seen, though words could not be heard, all the officers of the regiment rushed to the front, and without further formalities the regiment was hurried to the important spot. When they arrived there, there was a very thin line contending with the enemy, who was behind a rail fence, with the exception of a small number that climbed over, who were speedily dispatched. The enemy poured in a severe musketry fire, and at the clump of trees they burst also several shells, so that our loss was very heavy, more than half the enlisted men of the regiment being killed or disabled, while there remained but 3 out of 13 officers. Moreover, the contest round this important spot was very confused, every man fighting on his own hook, different regiments being mixed together, and half a dozen colors in a bunch, it being impossible to preserve a regimental line.
Notwithstanding these adverse circumstances, the men of this command kept so well together that after the contest near the trees, which lasted half an hour or so, was ended, I was enabled to collect, with the assistance of Lieutenant Summerhayes and Lieutenant Perkins, in an incredibly short period, nearly all the surviving men of the regiment and returned them to their original place in the pits. At the suggestion of Lieutenant Haskell, on the division staff, I prepared to move back to the trees again, having 100 men collected together. This order was, however, countermanded by Colonel Devereux, commanding the left wing of the brigade, because of the second and last advance of the enemy on our extreme left, which happened only a very short time after the completion of our own success at the clump of trees. Without meaning to reflect on other regiments at all, I think it but fair to this command to state that I observed at the time that very few other regiments had even settled on a rendezvous for their scattered members.
It seems to me that great praise is due the enlisted men of this regiment for the speed with which they reorganized, for the discipline and esprit de corps which made them stick together in such a scene of confusion, where organization had been so completely broken up for the time. All the officers of the regiment behaved with the greatest gallantry, but I am enabled to select two, as their position or occupation made them more conspicuous than the rest. One of these (Captain Patten) I have already mentioned. The other is First Lieut. Henry Ropes, who was shot dead. Never before has this regiment, in the death of any officer, received one-half so heavy a blow. His conduct in this action, as in all previous ones, was perfectly brave, but not with the bravery of excitement that nerves common men. He was in battle absolutely cool and collected, apparently unconscious of the existence of such a feeling as personal danger, the slight impetuosity and excitability natural to him at ordinary times being sobered down into the utmost self-possession, giving him an eye that noticed every circumstance, no matter how thick the shot and shell; a judgment that suggested in every case the proper measures, and a decision that made the application instantaneous. It is impossible for me to conceive of a man more perfectly master of himself; more completely noting and remembering every circumstance in times when the ordinary brave man sees nothing but a tumult and remembers after it is over nothing but a whirl of events which he is unable to separate. Lieutenant Ropes’ behavior in this battle was more conspicuous for coolness and absolute disregard of personal danger than I have ever witnessed in any other man. He entered the service and remained in it until his death from the purest patriotism; not a single ambitious or selfish motive mingled with it. He would have made the noblest sacrifice where he knew that no man would even hear it as readily as if the eyes of the whole world were fixed upon him. Such perfect purity of sentiment deserves this distinguished mention, which Lieutenant Ropes himself would have been the last to expect.
I find it impossible to discriminate among the enlisted men, as all behaved so well (there being but 4 missing), and particularly as 7 company commanders, the only proper persons to report the behavior of their men, are absent, killed or wounded.
I have the honor to be,
H. L. ABBOTT,
Captain, Comdg. Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers.
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
from Official Records, Series 1, Volume 27, Part 1