In our February 2017 Mewsing, we talked about the 9th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg. Here is the rest of the story—the courage and determination of Bugler Charles Reed to save his captain’s life.
As the Union line near the Wheatfield crumbled on July 2, 1863, Capt. John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery withdrew to the Trostle farmyard. The battery had had their first taste of battle that afternoon and now hoped to reach safety before the Confederate infantry overtook them. Just then, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery galloped up. “Captain Bigelow,” he shouted, “there is not an infantryman back of you along the whole line…you must remain where you are and hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery, if need be, until at least I can find some batteries to put in position….The enemy are coming down on you now.”
Bigelow’s six guns took up a position inside the angle of a stone wall. About fifty yards ahead of them, the ground rose, blocking their view. At first, Bigelow’s men ricocheted solid shot off the rise, but since they could not see if they hit any Confederates, they finally loaded the guns with double canister and waited. When infantry appeared over the rise, the guns opened fire and continued firing as quickly as possible.
As the two guns on the left fired, their recoil brought them closer and closer to the wall, until the crews ran out of space. Bigelow ordered them to the rear, while the other four continued to fire. The first gun’s team of horses sped through a gate and wheeled into Trostle’s Lane. But the cannon overturned, blocking the gate. The only way for the second gun to escape was to go over the wall. The artillerymen took away some of the rocks to make a gap, then galloped the horses over. Bugler Charles Reed recalled the gun “going over with a tilt on one side and then a crash of rocks and wheels”—but it made it over successfully.
Bigelow asked his men to enlarge the gap for the remaining guns. As he watched the men work, Confederates on the battery’s flank fired and wounded him in the side and hand. He fell from the saddle, and his orderly and Bugler Reed rushed to his side. Confederates swarmed over the guns, and the artillerymen fought hand-to-hand even while they still fired the cannons. Seeing that they could delay the Confederates no longer, Bigelow finally ordered his men to retreat.
Earlier in the day, Bigelow had ordered Reed to the rear, since he was unlikely to need a bugler in the thunder of battle. Reed obeyed…but then had second thoughts. “I…might be of some use after all so I disobeyed orders by turning round [and] going up to the battery again.” Bigelow and Reed could never have guessed what his decision would mean.
As Bigelow ordered the withdrawal, Reed recalled, he told his orderly and Reed “to leave him and get out as best we could.” But Reed couldn’t leave his captain. With the orderly’s help, he lifted Bigelow onto the orderly’s horse, then proceeded to the rear, controlling both horses with his left hand and steadying Bigelow with his right hand.
As they moved at a walk because of Bigelow’s wounds, some Confederates tried to pull them down and capture them. Reed fought them with his saber and the horses kicked. As the Confederates were about to shoot them, Reed recalled, their own officers told them “not to murder us in cold blood.” Reed and Bigelow continued on.
Now between the hostile lines, they were approached by an officer from the 6th Maine battery, the next in McGilvery’s line of defense. He urged them to hurry, since the battery was ready to open fire. Bigelow explained that they could not move faster than a walk, but to “fire away.” The battery did so, firing shell from two guns and canister from two guns. The orderly’s horse became frightened, but Reed managed to control the animal. Bigelow remembered, “Bugler Reed did not flinch; but steadily supported me; kept the horses at a walk although between the two fires and guided them, so that we entered the Battery between two of the guns that were firing heavily.” Amazingly, neither Bigelow nor Reed were harmed.
Bigelow credited Reed with saving his life, not only from capture (where the severity of his wounds would lessen his odds of survival as a prisoner of war), but from the 6th Maine’s friendly fire. In 1895, Bigelow recommended Reed for the Medal of Honor, and Reed received the award later that year.
Campbell, Eric. “We Saved the Line From Being Broken: Freeman McGilvery, John Bigelow, Charles Reed and the Battle of Gettysburg.” Gettysburg Seminar Papers: Unsung Heroes of Gettysburg. Last updated: 17 April 2016. Last accessed: 3 August 2018. http://npshistory.com/series/symposia/gettysburg_seminars/5/essay4.htm
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg—The Second Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.