At about 3:30, the Confederates artillery started bombarding Union positions, which drew Union retaliation. Plumes of smoke swayed in the heat. Neither side could see the other clearly.
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The Confederate soldier in the family tree
The Confederate attack started at 4 p.m., with the far right side of the line charging toward a rocky hill called Little Round Top and a field of wheat. The rest were to follow in staggered succession, a rolling attack from the Confederate right to left. Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade would be among the last to go.
An hour passed, then two. Barksdale chafed as shells rained down on his men. “I wish you would let me go in, General,” he said to James Longstreet, the corps commander, as quoted in historian Shelby Foote’s classic account of the war. “I will take that battery in five minutes.”
The battery Barksdale was referring to was almost certainly the cannons of the First Rhode Island Light Artillery, according to several histories, including “Gettysburg: The Second Day,” by historian Harry W. Pfanz. The unit had six Napoleon cannons, set over a space of about 150 yards along the Emmitsburg Road.
Around 5:30 p.m., one of those Rhode Island guns fired long. The shell — probably a basic round ball, about 12 pounds and 4.6 inches across — arced over its intended target, the Confederate artillery positions, and into Pitzer’s Woods. It detonated into the 21st Mississippi.
“The shell exploded in the ranks of my company, near me,” soldier J.B. Booth later wrote, as quoted in “The Key to the Entire Situation: The Peach Orchard, July 2, 1863,” a seminar paper by Eric A. Campbell, a historian and ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.
“J.T. Worley was killed and Capt. H.H. Simmons, John H. Thompson and John T. Neely each lost a leg. . . . By the same shot there were other casualties.”
John’s left leg was blown apart below the knee, the hot shrapnel shattering the bones.
Minutes later, Barksdale finally led the Mississippi Brigade out of the woods at a run. The field was uneven and slightly uphill.
They overwhelmed Bucklyn’s Battery, they fought past infantry regiments from Pennsylvania. The 21st cleared a small rise, wiping out another Union line. They whipped down on the Trostle farmhouse, the fighting now hand to hand.
They got to a creek called Plum Run in a bushy swale, took it and made it further toward Cemetery Ridge.
Col. Benjamin Humphreys, leader of the 21st, was euphoric. “No other guns or a solitary soldier could be seen before us. The Fed Army was [cut] in twain,” he later wrote, as quoted by Campbell.
But Humphreys soon noticed Union troops cutting him off to the rear. Campbell writes that he retreated to the Trostle farmhouse and sat there in disbelief, amid the dead and dying men and horses, when, at dark, he was ordered all the way back to the Peach Orchard.