On the second day of Gettysburg, in one of the most controversial incidents of the battle, if not the war, Major General Dan Sickles took his 3d Corps one mile out from the rest of the left flank. His corps was attacked and vicious fighting occurred in the soon to be famous Wheatfield and Peach Orchard. Union Colonel Freeman McGilvery had already ordered several batteries to support Sickles collapsing line. Although the men of the 3rd Corps tenaciously fought to hold their ground, they could not halt the irresistible waves of gray-clad Southern soldiers pouring towards them from south and west. Brigadier Generals Barksdale and Wofford lead their veterans hoping to crush the slowly retreating federals in their front. Stephen Sears in his book “Gettysburg” describes what happened to John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery in their first action since it had been in the Washington D.C. garrison.
McGilvery was stunned to find that behind the crumbling Third Corps line there was a quarter-mile or more of space on Cemetery Ridge containing nothing but stragglers. While he attempted to cobble together some sort of last-ditch artillery line to fill this void, McGilvery ordered the 9th Massachusetts battery to buy him the time. “I gave Captain Bigelow orders,” he wrote, “to hold his position as long as possible at all hazards….” In Bigelow’s phrase, “In other words the sacrifice of the command was asked in order to save the line.” Bigelow posted his guns in Trostle’s cramped farmyard, piling ammunition by each piece for quick firing, and loaded double canister for a fight to the death.
The men of the 21st Mississippi obliged him. “When the enemy appeared breast high above the swell of ground, they were within 50 yards, and in close ranks,” Bigelow reported. “They attacked furiously, but the battery men double shotted every gun and swept them back. Again and again they rallied….” When the Yankees ran short of canister, they fired shell and case shot with fuzes cut short to explode at the muzzle. The Mississippians would be thrown back, rally and re-form, and come on again from three directions through the billowing smoke, “yelling like demons.” Finally they got in among the guns, and it was clubbed muskets against rammer staffs and handspikes. Colonel Humphreys saw “Lt. George Kempton … astraddle of a gun waving his sword and exclaiming ‘Colonel, I claim this gun for Company L.’ Lt. W. P. McNeily was astraddle of another, claiming it for Company E.” Two of the six guns were gotten away. Captain Bigelow, hit twice, escaped with the aid of his gallant bugler, Charles Reed. The 9th Massachusetts battery lost 28 men and 45 horses and four guns, but it won perhaps thirty minutes. That in the end proved to be enough.