25d. Day 2 at Devil’s Den

Upon reading KUNKEL’s description of the intense battle that took place in and around the Devil’s Den area on that day. I was struck by the sense that had the ALT Hx scenario of Sickle’s remaining on LRT, the battle that ensued would have been nearly a reproduction of what actually occurred.

Here is my vision of how this would have come about:

McLaw’s Attacks

Lee’s vision was that the Union line was deployed along the Emmittsburg Road, about halfway between the two parallel ridge lines that formed the open valley. In Section 25b, I have described the debacle of how McLaw’s lead brigade would have come under intense long-range artillery fire as it emerged from behind the protection of the orchard knoll. Unlike Pickett (Day 3), McLaw’s likely would have preserved what was left of that brigade by having it retreat to the west into the protection of the trees on the lower slope of Seminary Ridge. He also would have halted the advance of the remainder of his division behind the peach orchard knoll. Just as Sickles feared, he then would likely have brought his artillery into the orchard to answer the Union artillery.

We will presume that McLaw was watching the advance of his division from the protection of the orchard and that MG Hood and LTG Longstreet would have joined him there to investigate the intense Union barrage that accompanied his advance.

With McLaw stymied, Longstreet would likely have had Hood’s division swing to the south and begin to advance towards what they now knew to be the actual Union left flank on LRT.

We have seen time and time again how the Union units seemingly refused to stay in a solid defensive line. There was always a tendency for them to move forward closer to the enemy. So too, Ward’s Brigade of Birney’s Division – who were positioned at the southern end of LRT – would have quite likely have pushed forward to establish themselves on and around Devil’s Den and the rocky knoll, known as Houck’s Ridge.

Much like Sickles’ thoughts about the Peach Orchard being a potential Rebel strong point, these areas at the foot of LRT would have been very tempting positions to occupy. We also know that the rocky nature of LRT, itself, did not lend itself to the positioning of artillery. The tiny but open valley at the foot of LRT offered an excellent field of fire for cannons to support the infantry. We know for a fact That Capt James Smith’s 6 Parrot guns were positioned there on the actual Day 2 battle.

Hood attacks:

BG Robertson’s Brigade of Hood’s Division was in the lead as they moved first south and then east in attack formation. They were guiding on the Wheatfield Road on their left flank and marching directly towards Devil’s Den and Houck’s Ridge.

Almost assuredly, as soon as McLaw’s movement provoked the artillery response to their NW, Ward’s regiments would have moved down from LRT into that forward area. Their reasoning would have been two-fold: 1) it would help protect LRT from a direct assault; 2) they were now in a position to possibly launch an attack towards the Peach Orchard if so ordered.

Hood’s primary objective would have been LRT itself, but he had little understanding of the geography his men needed to cross to get there. As shown in the map above, Robertson’s Brigade ran into a wall of seasoned Union infantry supported by Smith’s 6 cannons. They became engaged in an intense, hours-long, back and forth, at times hand-to-hand battle with Ward’s Brigade. This is the way the actual battle in this area took place on Day 2. The ALT Hx battle would have been no different. So is a quirk of ALT Hx that although some of the circumstances of the battle are altered, the scenario ends up playing out exactly as the actual battle.

Meanwhile, Law’s Brigade was marching on Robertson’s right flank aiming at the gap between Big and Little Round Tops. BG Benning’s Brigade was supposed to be trailing Law, but in the chaos of the battle they managed to shift to the left and eventually merged with Robertson’s units. While this initially caused great confusion and some problems with command and control, the weight of this fresh brigade was responsible for the Rebel victory as Ward’s men were forced to withdraw back onto LRT.

Exactly as transpired on the actual Day 2, COL Strong Vincent’s Brigade of LTG Sykes’ Fifth Union Corps arrived on the scene just as Ward’s Brigade was departing LRT thereby opening up space for Vincent to insert his regiments along the LRT ridge – to include the 20th Maine as the Union’s extreme left flank anchor. With only two divisions in his Corps, Sickles did not have enough men to defend the extreme lower end of LRT where the 20th eventually settled and fought.

Since this is an ALT Hx scenario, there is one factor which could have altered the outcome of this small section of the larger Day 2 battle. Since the entire Third Union Corps would have been in place on the crest of LRT, it is possible, although somewhat unlikely, that Col. de Trobriand’s Brigade could have lent support to Ward. In the real Day 2, they were deployed at the Wheatfield just to the north and west of Ward. In this scenario, they would have been to his north on LRT. I suggest that they would have been unlikely or unable to offer much support to Ward since they had no defensive position to their immediate front as Ward had. Plus any shift of troops to directly support Ward would have left LRT very lightly defended – at least until Sykes’ Fifth Corps could move up to occupy those positions.

McLaws attacks LRT:

Playing out this ALT Hx scenario, once Hood’s Division was fully engaged, Longstreet would likely have ordered McLaw to launch his two remaining brigades in an attack on Hood’s left flank. This would have taken them through the Wheatfield and directly onto the slopes of LRT. They would have hit LRT somewhere around the point where Birney’s and Humphrey’s Divisions met. Such a point of command change is always considered a weak spot in the warfare strategy of that era. Since this northern sector of LRT was rather heavily defended by Sickles – he would have concentrated most of his artillery there where the terrain was more accessible to the cannons and he would have been backed-up by Fifth Corps units as they continued to arrive at the battlefront — it is likely that McLaw would have had little success with a direct assault on LRT.

Meanwhile, Law’s Brigade would have found its way onto the southernmost sector of LRT and the ordeal and victory of the 20th Maine may still have played out.

All in all, had Sickles simply stayed put as Day 2 dawned, the Union army line would likely have been much stronger than at the end of the actual Day 2.

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