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Law's Brigade



15th Alabama battle flag

4th Alabama
15th Alabama
44th Alabama
47th Alabama
48th Alabama

History of Law's Brigade


by Bradley M. Gottfried
Although Brigadier General Evander Law commanded an all-Alabama brigade, its history as a fighting unit was fairly short.  Prior to being brigaded together, the five regiments had been assigned to no less than three brigades.  The 4th Alabama saw heavy fighting at the first battle of Manassas as part of Brigadier General Barnard Bee's Brigade and the 15th Alabama was a member of Brigadier General Isaac Trimble's Brigade saw considerable action in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.  By the battle of Fredericksburg, only the 4th and 44th Alabama had joined Law's Brigade, and it was not until January 1863 that all five regiments were assigned to the brigade.  As a result, the brigade had never fought as a unit prior to Gettysburg.
     A graduate of The Citadel, Evander Law had established his own military high school in Alabama prior to the war.  He recruited a company from the school and soon rose to lieutenant colonel of the 4th Alabama.  Wounded at the first battle of Manasses, he assumed command of the regiment when he returned during the fall of that year.  When Brigadier General William Whiting assumed command of a division, Law took over his brigade.  Law led the brigade at Seven Pines, Gaines's Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Manasses, and Sharpsburg, and was finally promoted to the rank of brigadier general on October 3, 1862.  His brigade was only lightly engaged at Fredericksburg and was not present at Chancellorsville.  By the Gettysburg campaign, he was acknowledged to be an effective brigadier commander.
     The brigade had the distinction of being one of the last Confederate brigades to reach the battlefield.  Left at New Guilford, Pennsylvania on June 30, the brigade made a "rapid and fatiguing marching of about 24 miles," according to Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Scruggs of the 4th Alabama.  This was the first segment of the march that the men could complain about, as most of the prior ones were not exhausting.  After crossing the Potomac, each man had been issued a half gill of whiskey.  Most added it to the contents of their canteens to make the treat go farther.  As the brigade marched through Greencastle on June 27, the fife and drum corps of the 48th Alabama played the "Bonnie Blue Flag."  The brigade stopped there to replenish its supplies.  Some of the soldiers walked up to citizens and snatched off their hats, offering their old ones in return.  When the column broke ranks, the men foraged and returned with a wealth of edibles.  Captain Henry Figures reported that "some of the army treated the citizens very badly, stole their chickens, milk, butter, etc."  Figures was particularly repulsed by the waste.  "There were a great many sheep killed that were not used."
     The brigade continued its march and reached Chambersburg on June 27.  As it made its way through the town, some of the women yelled out in derision, "This ain't the way to Harrisburg, now you are skedadling [sic], though you was going to Washington."  The brigade rested nearby with the rest of the division.  On the morning of June 30, the brigade was ordered to New Guilford to perform "outpost duty," which amounted to guarding Lee's flank.  It was from this small town that the men began what Private W. C. Ward called "the most fatiguing march of the war."  Asleep on July 1, "we were awakened by the unwelcome voice of a courier asking to be directed to the Colonel commanding," recalled Captain R. Coles of the 4th Alabama.  The messenger was from General Longstreet, ordering the brigade to Gettysburg without delay.  According to Coles, the men were on the march at 2:00 AM;  Longstreet thought it was by 3:00 AM.  Either way, by daybreak the men were ascending the passes through South Mountain and, without halt, descended toward Cashtown.  The men's spirits were buoyed by the large number of Federal prisoners passing to the rear and by the news that the Southern arms had been victorious during the first day's battle.  The march continued, and many men began complaining about the lack of rest stops, and more vocally about their empty canteens.  General Longstreet wrote long after the battle that Law's twenty-eight mile march in eleven hours was "the best marching done in either army to reach the field of Gettysburg."  It certainly helped that no obstructions blocked their way to the battlefield.  As the men approached Gettysburg, Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama recalled seeing Generals Lee and Longstreet intently studyin the Federal positions while on a nearby hill.  The men were finally permitted to rest.  Private Ward and others carried their comrade' canteens to a ditch still containing the long-past spring rains.  The water was hot and greenish in color, but the men were parched, and they greedily filled their canteens with the vile liquid.  The rest was all too short, for the men were ordered up to participate in Longstreet's long circuitous loop to reach its position on Warfield Ridge.
     After reaching their assigned position on the extreme right of the Confederate line at about 3:30 PM, General Law sent out six men to locate the Federal left flank.  While waiting for their return, he deployed the brigade in line of battle from left to right as 4th Alabama-47th Alabama-15th Alabama-44th Alabama-48th Alabama.  The brigade would have the distinction of being the "brigade of direction" and would lead the assault on the Federal left.  The cannonade precedin Hood's charge began shortly after the men had taken position.  A total of five companies from the 48th and 47th Alabama were thrown out as skirmishers.  Shortly after 4:00 PM the brigade prepared to advance.  Most of the men probably had the same reaction as Private Ward of the 4th Alabama:  "O God, just for a half hour's rest!"  Almost immediately after coming to attention, the men heard the commands, "Shoulder arms," then "Right shoulder; shift arms!" followed by "Forward; Guide center; March!"  The Rebel yell now erupted from every throat.  The Federal artillery opened fire on the line, but it did not dissuade the impetuous Alabamians.  Private Rufus Franks, who had just returned from Alabama with a new uniform, screamed to his comrades in the 4th Alabama, "Come on, boys; come on! The Fifth Texas will get there before the Fourth! Come on boys; come on!"  He would soon be lying dead on the field.  Because the line was rushing forward so impetuously, it soon became ragged, causing Adjutant Leigh Terrell to yell for them to emulate the disciplined orderly advance of the nearby 5th Texas.
     General Law rode up to Colonel Oates of the 15th Alabama and told him that he was on the extreme right of the line and oredered him to "hug the base of Great Round Top and go up the valley between the two mountains, until I found the left of the Union line, to tunr it and do all the damage I could."  Oates also recalled being told that the 47th Alabama on his left was to keep in close contact with him, and if the two regiments became seperated from the rest of the brigade, he was to oversee the actions of both.  Looking to his right, Oates was not happy to see the 44th and 48th Alabama gone.  As Colonel William Perry of the 44th Alabama advanced on Oates's right, he received orders from General Law to move north, behind the rest of the brigade.  Law told him that "he expected my regiment to take a battery [Smith's] which had been playing on our line from the moment the advance began."  After the 44th had pulled out of line, Law also sent orders for the 48th Alabama to silence the pesky battery.  These regiments actually formed on the left of the 4th and 5th Texas (Robertson's brigade), and helped seal a gap that has formed in the latter brigade.  The movement placed the 1th Alabama on the extreme right of the brigade.
     As the brigade dashed forward, it was hit by a volley from the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters (Ward's Brigade, Birney's Division), which was deployed in its path, west of the Slyder farm.  A few soldiers in the 15th Alabama fell.  The losses to the 47th Alabama were apparently greater, as their colonel wrote, "then the slaughter commenced in earnest[;] we were in good range of the sharpshooters, but we could get no crack at them," owing to their concealed position behind the fence.  The 15th Alabama and 47th Alabama continued on, only to be hit by a second volley.  Not knowing the size of the force in front of him.  Oates ordered his men to wheel to the right to take on the unknown enemy.  Colonel James Jackson of the 47th Alabama proudly wrote his wife that "we got in about a hundred yards of the first line when the men gave a shout & charged it at a double quick.  The Yanks waited until we came in forty or fifty paces & gave way and fled."  The 4th Alabama in the center of the line also dashed against the sharpshooters and assisted in dislodging them.  Oates admitted that because of his force had four times more men that the sharpshooters, he had little difficulty extracting them from their positions.  The sharpshooters took position again behind a stone wall at the foot of Big Round Top, and again were dislodged, this time scrambling up Big Round Top.
    Full of fight, Oates chose to ignore Law's orders and sent his men up the steep, rocky slope of Big Round Top, after the retreating sharpshooters.  The 47th Alabama also surged up the hill.  The sharpshooters periodically stopped to fire at their pursuers, but invariably fired over their heads.  About halfway up the hill, the sharpshooters split - one group moved north, and joined Company B or the 20th Maine;  the other moved around the south side of the hill.  Oates rested his exhausted men when they reached the top of the hill.  Many fainted because of the heat, their exhausted state after their thirteen-hour march to the battlefield, and a lack of water.  A water detail of twenty-two men that had been sent to fill the canteens had not returned before the attack began.  Colonel Jackson of the 47th Alabama noted only half of his men made it up to the top of the hill.  The others had either been killed or wounded, or more likely felled by exhaustion.
     After about five minutes on the hill, Captain Leigh Terrell of General Law's staff rode up and demanded to know why Oates was not attacking Little Round Top as ordered.  Oates explained that he wanted to remain on this hill for "within half an hour I could convert it into a Gibraltar that I could hold against ten times the number of men that I had . . . it should be held and occupied by artillery as soon as possible, as it . . . would command the entire field."  An exasperated Terrell listened impatiently, then said he had no authority to change orders.  He informed Oates that Hood was wounded, that Law was in charge of the division, and the Colonel James Sheffield of the 48th Alabama was now in command of the brigade.  Before riding off, Terrell repeated Oates's orders:  "Lose no time, but press forward and drive the enemy as far as possible."  Realizing the futility of further protest, Oates ordered his regiment down the hill to attack Little Round Top.
     While the 15th and 47th Alabama were engaging the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters and climbing up Big Round Top, the 4th Alabama, in the middle of line, had driven straight ahead until it reached the base of Little Round Top.  Here it found itself on the right of the 5th Texas of Robertson's Brigade.  Colonel L. Scruggs fell from sheer exhaustion.  In fact, he was one of three of the five regimental commanders who fell from exhaustion that afternoon.  Colonel William Perry of the 44th Alabama complained after the war that the officers were ordered to dismount prior to the charge, and this led to the high incidence of fainting among the higher-ranking officers.
    After briefly resting to reform its lines, the 4th Alabama scrambled up Little Round Top.  Dodging rocks and Federal bullets, the men approached the enemy Private William Ward lay on the side of the hill, listening to the sound of battle:  "Minie balls were falling through the leaves like hail in a thunderstorm."  They tried it again with the same result.  A third charge was ordered, and it too failed.  Ordered down toward the base of the hill, the exhausted men rested.  Soon one of General Lonstreet's aides rode up to the regiment and asked to speak with the commanding officer.  Thinking it was Captain Coles, the aide yelled, "Get your men into line, sir, and charge that position."  After being told his error, he merely turned his horse and rode away.  Coles lamented that his 4th Alabama had never lost more men as prisoners - 25% of its men, with nothing to show for its efforts.  Colonel Scruggs wrote in his official report, "owing to the exhausted condition of the men and the roughness of the mountanside, we found it impossible to carry the position.

What had been the extreme right of the brigade, the 44th and 48th Alabama, was ordered during the charge to move to the left to take on Smith's battery in the Devil's Den sector. To accomplish this, the two regiments actually passed behind the 4th and 5th Texas and formed on their left. How the battery was to be captured was left up to the regimental commanders. As the 44th Alabama approached Devil's Den, Colonel Perry did not like what he saw-"a valley destitute of trees and filled with immense bowlders [sic] between them." Although he believed he saw two regiments defending the guns, probably only the 4th Maine (Ward's Brigade, Birney's Division) was present at this point. Rrealizing that his regiment was too far to the east, Perry ordered a left wheel, bringing his left wing opposite the battery, while his right extended toward Little Round Top. Perry ordered this movement when his regiment was not more than two hundred yards from the Federal line. The obstruction prevented most of the Maine troops from seeing Perry's movements.

The enemy troops lay hidden in the rocks of Devil's Den and opened fire as Perry's men cleared the woods. "A few scattered shots in the beginning gave warning in time for my men to fall flat, and thus largely to escape the effect of the main volley," wrote Perry after the war. Before the enemy soldiers had time to reload thier guns, Colonel Perry ordered his men to attack with the simple word, "Forward!" "The response was a bound, a yell, and a rush, and in less than a minute the righ wing of the regiment was pouring into the Den," recalled Perry. In an untenable situation, the 4th Maine pulled back. Unbeknownst to the Alabamians, the 1st Texas (Robertson's Brigade) and the 15th and 20th Georgia (Benning's Brigade) were also charging Smith's guns from the traingular field to the left. The fight between these regiments and the 4th Maine, 99th Pennsylvania, and the 124th New York was short and sharp, but ultimately three cannon were captured. Subsequent Federal counterattacks failed to retake the guns. Two regiments from Benning's Brigade, the 2nd and 17th Georgia, arrived and plugged the gap that had formed between the 44th and 48th Alabama. While Smith's battery had been neutralized, the sector was still pounded by Hazlett's battery atop Little Round Top.

The 48th Alabama took position just southeast of the 44th Alabama, and acted independent of it. Part of its line occupied what is now called the "Slaughter Pen." Colonel Sheffield led his men forward until they were within about "20 paces" of the 4th Maine. Both sides opended fire at about the same time. The fire was too hot on the left of Sheffield's line, forcing it to fall back. The rest of the regiment initially held its position, but it too withdrew before long. Another attack on the pesky 4th Maine failed, and so did a third. At this point a messenger sought out Sheffiedl with the news that with Law's ascension to divison command, he was in charge of the brigade. With the arrival of Benning's Brigade the enemy were finally driven from Devil's Den.

Although the accounts are sketchy, it appears that the 48th Alabama continued forward toward Little Round Top, where it formed on the left of the 4th Texas. The 4th and 5th Texas and 4th Alabama had pushed way up the hill twice before, and were preparing for yet another charge when the 48th Alabama arrived. Adjutant Henry Figures wrote home after the battle that the "enemy were upon the top of the mountain[;] the steepest place I ever saw in my life." The 48th Alabama's position on the left of the line permitted the Confederates to overlap Colonel Strong Vincent's Brigade on Little Round Top. As the 4th Texas and 48th Alabama scaled the heights, they could see the flag of the 16th Michigan moving back toward the summit. Victory was theirs-they had but to exploit it. Suddenly a mass of blue soldiers appeared at the crest of the hill. The 140th New York had arrived. The men fired at the newly arrived enemy force and its commanding officer, Colonel Patrick O'Rorke, fell dead. Feeling the fatigue from their exertions and realizing the futility of the situation, the Confederates fell back toward the base of the hill.

Just prior to this point, the 47th Alabama on the right of Law's line was scrambling down the side of Little Round Top. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Bulger's plan was to conceal his men behind boulders, fire at the enemy, and advance under cover of the rocks, until the regiment was close enough to charge the enemy. The plan soon unraveled when the regiment came face to face with the left flank of the 83rd Pennsylvania and right and center of the 20th Maine. This occurred as the 4th Alabama was into its third and last attack on Little Round Top, the 47th Alabama's left, and may have been why Bulger did not wait until the 15th Alabama arrived to launch its initial attacks. As the men advanced to take the southwest slope of Little Round Top, an aide from General Law rode up to Bulger with a one-word order - "Charge." An exasperated Bulger retorted, "Tell Law I am charging with the best of my ability. Put the 15th Alabama on my right and we will drive them when we come to them." The fighting between the 20th Maine and 47th Alabama was bitter and hand-to-hand. Colonel Chamberlain reported that Bulger's men "burst upon us in great fury." Bulger's was wounded, and when the 4th Alabama fell back, the 47th Alabama's left flank was exposed to a withering flank fire.

As the 47th Alabama engaged the enemy, Oates's 15th Alabama streamed down the north side of the hill. Suddenly, Oates saw somehting that most officers dream about - a large number of uprotected Federal ordnance wagons to his right. Just as he had deployed Company A to capture them, he received a brisk fire from the 20th Maine, so Oates ordered his men to quick-step to form the right of the 47th Alabama. Unfortunately for Oates and his men, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain had extended his line to the left (to the right of Oates) and refused two companies to face this new threat. Moving forward, the 15th Alabama was hit with a hot volley when only forty or fifty paces from the Federal line. The sudden fire caused the Alabamians to halt and close ranks. They now opened fire, causing heavy losses to Chamberlain's left. After a second volley, the two left companies on the Federal left began to waver and Oates ordered a charge. The Alabamians now face a fire that was "so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind." The line of battle finally halted, and started backward. Private William Jordan of the 15th Alabama complained that "they [the enemy] could see every movement we made, they would shoot down, we would have to elevate our guns."

Lieutenant Colonel Bulger of the 47th Alabama was Alabama was wounded at this time. The unit's next in command, Major James Campbell, could not hold the regiment in its position, and finally gave way. The fact that the left flank of the 47th Alabama hung in the air and was hit by an enfilading fire from the 44th New York and a frontal fire from the 83rd Pennsylvania a growing problem. According to Colonel James Jackson, the 47th Alabama charged the Federal works four times and four times were driven back. Jackson believed that the assigned task was just too great for men who had been marching most of the night without water. "[They] were completely exhausted before they began this charge & they fainted on the field by the hundreds." After the last repulse, Major Campbell pulled the regiment back about three hundred yards, where the men threw up breastworks.

As the 47th Alabama was being driven back, Colonel Oates ordered four of his left companies to change position from front to left to enfilate the 20th Maine's right flank, giving the remnants of the 47th Alabama time to withdraw. The received enfilading fire from the 83rd Pennsylvania at this point. Realizing how exposed his men were , Oates passed through his line to the front with his sword drawn, yelling, "Forward, men, to the ledge!" According to Oates, his men drove the Maine men back five times, and five times the enemy countercharged to regain their positions. Twice the battle was so close that bayonets were used.

Realizing that he was getting nowhere, Oates sent an aide to the 4th Alabama for help. The aide quickly returned with sobering news: enemy troops were swarming along the 15th Alabama's left flank. Oates summarized the situation after the war: "The Fifteenth Alabama had infantry in front of them, to the right of them, dismounted calvary to the left, and infantry in the rear of them." Looking at his dead and dying men littering the forest floor all around him, Oates decided to launch one more charge. Within seconds, he changed his mind and instead decided to withdraw. "When the signal was given we ran like a herd of wild cattle," wrote Oates. He never acknowledged that the 20th Maine's bayonet charge helped hasten his retreat and added to his losses. As his men retreated, Company B of the 20th Maine and a detachment of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, occupying an advanced position, fired into Oates's rear and then pounced on the fleeing Alabamians, capturing many more.

Most of the remnants of Oates's 15th Alabama sought safety by yet again climbing Big Round Top. So exhausted was Colonel Oates that he fainted before reaching the top and was carried the rest of the way by two of his stout men. He went to his grave with heartfelt gratitude toward them, believing that capture was a fate worse than death.

The brigade was withdrawn a short distance on the morning of July 3. Still on the extreme right of the army, the men threw up stone breastworks near the base of Big Round Top and grimly waited for the enemy to attack. The brigade was deployed, from left to right, as 44th Alabama-48th Alabama-4th Alabama-47th Alabama-15th Alabama. Late in the afternoon, after the PPT attack had failed, two regiments of Farnsworth's Federal cavalry brigade broke through the Confederate picket line. One of Law's aides found help in the form of the 4th Alabama. Captain Coles reported that "everyone without the semblance of order, with rear in front and only keeping with each other, companies all commingled, the most fleet-footed leading, ran through the woods in the direction of the firing." Rushing through a woods and emerging on the other side, the men saw the 1st Vermont bearing down on them. "Cavalry boys, cavalry! This is no fight, only frolic, give it to 'em," yelled Lieutenant Vaughan. Because the horsemen were only thirty or forty paces away, most of the bullets found their mark. Each man loaded as fast as he could, but the cavalrymen veered away from them to the north.

Colonel Oates's 15th Alabama was ordered to rush toward Reilly's battery to help prevent its capture. Soon an enemy detachment was riding down on the regiment's skirmishers at the southern end of the Plum Run Valley. According to Oates, General Farnsworth rode up to the soldiers and demanded their capture. The soldiers opened fire, felling the general from his horse. They claimed that rather being taken prisoner, he pointed his pistol at himself and fired.

The brigade spent the remainder of the day and all of July 4 awaiting another Federal attack, which never came. The brigade joined the army's retreat on the early morning hours of July 5.

Despite their exhaustion after their lone march to the battlefield, Law's Brigade performed remarkably well. It fought essentially without coordination after Law ascended to division command, and it was some time before Colonel Sheffield learned that he was in command of the brigade. As a result, the brigade fought in three clusters. The 15th and 47th Alabama fought near the southern end of Little Round Top; the 4th Alabama took on the east-facing slope of the hill; and the 44th and 48th Alabama attacked the Devil's Den/Houck's Ridge sector. Two of the regiments (15th and 48th Alabama) came close to capturing Little Round Top, and the 44th Alabama and 48th Alabama were instrumental in driving the Federal infantry from Devil's Den and assisting in capturing several pieces of Smith's battery. On July 3, the 4th Alabama and 15th Alabama were skillfully maneuvered to cut off, and ultimately defeat, General Farnsworth's ill-fated expedition against Lee's right flank.