Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Prescribed burn at Gettysburg to cover area of Confederate advance on Little Round Top, doomed Federal cavalry charge

Phase 1 of the prescribed fire was this one in April 2018 (NPS)

A field crossed by the 15th Alabama as it made its way toward Little Round Top, where it made a series of legendary assaults against the 20th Maine, will be part of an upcoming 117-acre prescribed burn at Gettysburg National Military Park.

The fire, on portions of land between Slyder Lane and South Confederate Avenue, will occur some time this month, on a day that meets proper weather conditions.

Prescribed fires are among the tools that national parks at Civil War sites use “to maintain the conditions of the battlefield as experienced by the soldiers who fought here,” and to control invasive species, reduce fire hazards and maintain wildlife habitat.

Park historian John Heiser told the Picket that the land was in agriculture use in 1863 and open, with few trees or bushes. “We know there were burials on the Slyder Farm, most being from Benning's and Law's Brigades, around or near the buildings and removed between 1871-1872.”

Area of planned prescribed fire (NPS)

Heiser gave a description of the historical significance of the burn area in an email:

“The bulk of the area is the historic John Slyder farm and the adjoining farm of Michael Bushman. Both were first occupied by the 2nd US Sharp Shooters, deployed to cover the front of the Union Third Corps, which had moved out from Cemetery Ridge around 1 p.m. of July 2, 1863. The Sharp Shooters contested the advance of both Law's and Robertson's brigades from Hood's Division on July 2 before withdrawing to Big Round Top and beyond. The burn area was subsequently crossed over by Law's Alabama Brigade, including the 15th and 4th Alabama Regiments, that would both advance up the side of Big Round Top before descending into the saddle between it and Little Round Top to do battle with Vincent's Federal brigade.”

View from Little Round Top shows burn area in far left distance (NPS)

The 4th, 15th and 47th Alabama are remembered for their attacks against the 20th Maine, led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, on the end of the Federal army’s left flank.

“The (Maine) regiment’s sudden, desperate bayonet charge blunted the Confederate assault on Little Round Top and has been credited with saving Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac, winning the Battle of Gettysburg and setting the South on a long, irreversible path to defeat,” according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Slyder farm barn and building (NPS)

Heiser said the burn area also figured on the afternoon of next day, July 3, as the scene of Union Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth’s charge, which came after Pickett’s Charge. Farnsworth was ordered under protest to make a controversial attack against a large contingent of Confederate infantry.

“Leading the 1st West Virginia Cavalry and 1st Vermont Cavalry of his brigade, Farnsworth charged into the pasture south of the Bushman farm buildings. The 1st WV was repulsed by the 9th Georgia Infantry positioned on the southern extension of Seminary Ridge, but the Vermonters rode on, one battalion racing north into the rear of Hood's line and the other battalion under Farnsworth veered east and north where they ran into Robertson's Texans posted along the western base of Big Round Top.

Gen. Farnsworth
“The two battalions of the regiment met and reformed along the Slyder lane (the northern edge of the burn area) and from there headed south to return to the relative safety of Bushman's Hill, from where the charge had begun, but Farnworth's group ran into a hornet's nest on the edge of Big Round Top and the troopers scattered. Farnsworth was killed on the west side of the hill where the monument to the 1st Vermont Cavalry stands today. The refugees from his column made their way back across this field and rejoined the other battalion in the woods south of Bushman's Hill, where they rallied. “

On the day of the prescribed fire, South Confederate Avenue will be closed, said park spokesman Jason Martz. “A combination of lawn sprinklers, hoses, mowed lines, and fire engines will be used to create a buffer and fire break to protect monuments and other cultural resources in the burn area.”

Martz said crews had hoped to burn the entire 215-acre site in April 2018, but were only able to do the northern half before it persistently rained. "This year's planned prescribed fire is a continuation of last year's efforts and will complete what we started, with Mother Nature's help, of course."

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