19 Jul Victory Was Within Our Grasp: The First Michigan Infantry on the Stony Hill
by Thomas Nank
Colonel Ira Coray Abbott could see the trouble coming.
His regiment, the First Michigan Infantry, had arrived on the battlefield around 4:00 pm on July 2, and had been posted atop a small, boulder-strewn hill well in advance of the main Union battle line. In front of Abbott, a broad, open farm dominated by a stone house and barn was flanked by a peach orchard on the right and a thick woodlot on the left. A few hundred yards behind him, a field of summer wheat was edged by a small stream. His brigade, the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Fifth Corps, had been sent as reinforcements to plug the gaps in the line of the badly exposed Third Corps that stretched from the orchard through the woods. Not long after the brigade arrived on the hilltop, the Confederates of Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps moved off a ridge a half mile away to the west and advanced toward the hill defended by Abbott’s brigade. From Abbott’s elevated position, the Rebels could clearly be seen and it looked as if they were headed right for him.
Abbott, a 38-year old storekeeper and postmaster from Burr Oak, Michigan, was elected a captain in the 90-day First Michigan Infantry just weeks after Fort Sumter fell. Promoted three times, he had commanded the First since its re-organization as a 3-year regiment. Wounded at Second Manassas and Fredericksburg, he had participated in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac. Back home in Burr Oak, Abbott’s wife Electa and two children waited for him to return.
Abbott kept a diary of his wartime travels through Virginia and his brigade’s fight at Gettysburg:
…our movement was in column by Division the 18th Mass on the Right followed by 118 Pa and 1st Mich in the center & the 22 Mass in the left. This old brigade moved forward in splendid style feeling that victory was within our Grasp… our brigade reached the established line of battle & deployed into line.
The four regiments lined up across the top of the hill with the 22nd Massachusetts on the left, the 1st Michigan in the center, the 118th Pennsylvania on the right and the 18th Massachusetts in reserve, all facing “a little southwest” Abbott recalled. Although a volunteer, Abbott had seen enough combat to know what would happen next as he watched the Confederates approach the farmhouse:
I immediately gave orders for my men to lay down, and not after a few minutes a Stray shot from the enemy Sharp Shooters came over. I order[ed] the men to their feet, load & fix Bayonets and again lay down with positive instruction not to fire a shot until orders were given. [It] was my intention to wait until the enemy was well within short musket range and [to] make every shot. In consultation with [the] Lieut. Col & Major it was decided to hold the ground at all hazard, the honor of the First Mich [being] made brighter and the credit of the State maintained.
The lieutenant colonel of the First Michigan was William A. Throop, a 25-year-old Detroiter, who, like Abbott, had been with the regiment since its organization. The major was probably George C. Hopper, a 32-year-old railroad clerk also from Detroit. Both Throop and Hopper had been wounded at Gaines’ Mill the prior June. The experience of Abbott, Throop and Hopper would pay dividends for the soldiers of the First that afternoon.
The first division of attacking Confederates passed to the south of the farmhouse and into the woods across the First Michigan’s front. But the threat was not over. A second division emerged from the distant ridgeline and closed in on Abbott’s hill from his right. These Confederates were closer and came from a more westerly direction, directly across the open farm land between the farm house and the peach orchard. Abbott knew immediately his brigade was in trouble. With Rebels in his front and now on his flank, Abbott’s position was in danger. The 118th Pennsylvania on the right end of the brigade line bore the brunt of the new attack, and Abbott noticed they were soon heavily pressured. Abbott quickly gathered his company officers and made a new plan:
The captains are called out and the plan for defense was made: The regt to be doubled in the center and in case the regt on our right gave way we could hold the line changing front to the right forming [the letter] L and as they passed we would have an oblique and enfilading fire into their line.
Abbott’s diary shows a simple sketch of a right angle to indicate how the First Michigan would bend to meet the new attack. Abbott continued in his diary to describe the battle as the Michigan men were soon engaged and executed their planned maneuver:
…we did not wait long when troops on our right was driven back and the well known Rebel yell was heard in our immediate front. The Sharp Shooters were picking at the officers who’s duty it was to observe the enemy’s movement. They came down upon us with Banners flying… [The] Regt on my right had given way and it looked as though it would be hard to hold our line but I knew my men could be trusted. Now the 118 broke to the rear, the lines were within 10 rods of my front. At the words “Attention: Battalion” every man was on his feet, perfectly cool and at the command “Fire by files, commence firing” was repeated down the line and our fire was continuous. The enemy was badly crippled that their lines began to waver… They finally broke from our front and attempted to flank us on the right, when we changed first by thinning the right to the rear and meeting their flank movement.
Around this time, Abbott was struck by a Rebel bullet:
I received a wound in my face, the Ball passing under my nose nearly Severing the upper lip and completely demolishing my teeth… My face was badly swollen and [my] eyes badly effected. Being unable to give my commands, I turned the Regt over to Lieut Col Throop [and] went to the rear and had the lip stitched on by a Surgeon.
Throop, who was also slightly wounded, took command of the regiment and wrote later that “our men stood up bravely against the storm of bullets sent against them, loading and firing as cooly as though on drill.” As other Union brigades responded to the call for reinforcements, the First Michigan and the three other regiments were pulled back and replaced as the Confederates swept up over the boulders atop the hill and pressed on toward the field of wheat. “We maintained our line, repulsing and holding in check the enemy until 7:30 pm when we were ordered to fall back, which we did in good order,” wrote Throop later in his report. Throop later counted 62 dead Rebels in front of the regiment’s position.
After receiving medical attention at the Fifth Corps hospital, Abbott returned to his regiment:
Our loss was First Lieut Amos Ladd killed and 7 officers wounded, 4 men killed and 25 wounded… The next day an order was published from Division Hd Qrs complementing my Regt for the manner in which it discharged [its] duty.
The next day, as the fighting ended, Abbott had time to reflect on the battle:
A Great battle had been fought for three long days. General Mead had won the day and the turning point in one of the greatest wars of the nineteenth century had been reached. Gettysburg was ours at a dreadful cost. Thousands of wounded was brought in during the day and at night acres of ground was covered with wounded.
Today, a monument dedicated in 1889 marks the position of the First Michigan on the Stony Hill overlooking the Rose farm. Just a few yards away, halfway to the nearby 118th Pennsylvania monument, a lonely marker marks the spot where Abbott bent his regiment’s battle line and bought time for the defenders of the hill.
Diary of Ira Coray Abbott, Musselman Library Special Collections, Gettysburg College PA.
John Robertson, ed., Michigan in the War (Lansing MI, 1882), 179.
Photos from findagrave.com and the author