The Battle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg: July 3, 1863

The Battle for The Bliss Farm:

July 3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg

by James W. Durney

Gettysburg is the most studied battle in American History, Noah Andre Trudeau in “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage” apologized for adding to the weight of books on the battle and called writing about Gettysburg a cottage industry.  In talking about Union Regiments making charges at Gettysburg, the charge of the 20th ME down Little Round Top is firmly fixed in the public mind.  This charge was documented in Oliver Willcox Norton’s “Attack and Defense of Little Round Top”, fixed as a turning point in John J. Pullen’s “The 20th Maine”, amplified in the “Killer Angles” and glorified by the movie “Gettysburg”.  Those familiar with Gettysburg may argue that the “Take those colors!” charge of the 1st MN was more important and had a larger impact.  However, that charge still waits to be enshrined in the popular culture.  What about this charge: “The Fourteenth won special and merited honors at Gettysburg by a charge, on the forenoon of the third day”, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War by William F. Fox.  The Fourteenth who?  Why was a Union regiment making a charge on July 3rd at Gettysburg?  In 140 years many things fade from memory, many things get lost in the rush of events, even in as studied an item as the battle of Gettysburg.  One of those things is the charge of the Fourteenth CT on July 3rd at Gettysburg.

“For sale 60-acre farm, two story house, bank barn, out buildings, ten-acre orchard, fields, close to town, $3,200.  Apply William Bliss, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania”.  If William Bliss had wanted to sell his farm he could have posted an ad very much like this one in the local paper in 1863.  Just off the Emmitsburg Road, South of Gettysburg the farm lay in the valley between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge.  The buildings were on an oblong flat hill almost equidistant between the two ridges and at about the same height as Seminary Ridge.  A small stream originated on the farm providing ample water for Bliss, his wife and two daughters.  The bank barn was a wood and stone structure, with an earthen bank allowing wagons to be driven directly into the second story.  Hay was stored in the loft while stables occupied the ground floor.  This barn was the largest most substantial structure on the farm, one of the largest buildings south of town and overlooked Cemetery Ridge, about 600 yards to the east.

As July 2, 1863 dawned, the abandoned Bliss Farm lay between the armies of Robert E. Lee and George Meade in what we now call No Man’s Land.  That term would not be coined for another 50 years but the men on a Civil War skirmish line would have understood the concept at once.  Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was on Cemetery Ridge, Brigadier General Alexander Hays’ 3rd Division was holding the ground overlooking Bliss’s farm.  On Seminary Ridge, Dorsey Pender’s Division was placing the brigades of James Lane and Alfred Scales to hold this section of the line.  These two brigades had seen hard fighting on the first, Scales had been wounded and Col. William Lowrance was in temporary command.  Lowrance reported the about 500 men in the brigade were “depressed, dilapidated and almost unorganized”.  Lowrance was wounded but not badly enough to be relived of command during this emergency.

The first task is to establish a strong skirmish line that provides protection to your main line.  In Scale’s Brigade the 38th NC was ordered to set up the skirmish line.  Opposite the 1st DE was getting similar orders over on Cemetery Ridge.  These orders were something relatively new for soldiers of both sides, skirmishing started with the specially trained and equipped Light Infantry units of the Napoleonic wars.  These units operated between the lines disrupting the enemy by shooting officers and any specialists they saw.  Skirmishing was unlike traditional picket line where the job was to watch and sound the alarm if the other side moved.  On a picket line, in spite of the best efforts of officers, the men usually managed to arrange a local truce.  After which, a brisk trade in tobacco, coffee and newspapers would flourish.  This truce allowed men to do all the things that soldiers do away from the main unit and out of an officer’s sight in relative safety while having a pleasant experience and plenty of free time.  The skirmish line held no such promise, it was about fighting, no truce was thought of and danger was expected.  Small groups of men slowly work their way forward taking advantage of any cover or concealment.  Fences, trees, standing crops, buildings all become instant forts, hotly contested and quickly abandoned as the skirmish moves back and forth over the field.  The object is to advance your skirmish line close to the enemies main line and disrupt any activities by rifle fire.  It is necessary that you hit anyone as the constant snap of a mini ball will disrupt things.   In the years since Napoleon, skirmishing had become just another duty the infantry performed, the only concession, most regiments tried to assign this duty to company’s armed with rifles.

A place like the Bliss Farm acts as a huge magnet to the skirmishers on both sides.  The orchard, fences, house and out buildings are prizes in this deadly contest.  The grand prize is the bank barn.  In Union hands, the barn is an observation post monitoring activity on Seminary Ridge and dominating much of the area between the lines.  In Confederate hands, the barn is a fortress allowing aggressive sniping directed at any activity on Cemetery Ridge.  By about 9:00 a.m. the skirmish lines are in close contact with a “hot fire” being exchanged.  The 38th NC had established a line in the orchard while the 1st Delaware has control of the barn and farm buildings.  The barns’ height gives the 1st DE the ability to direct fire at the Southerners.  Using the other farm buildings as a base to organize attacks, they are able to bring heavy pressure on the 38th NC, requiring it to pull further back into the orchard away from the buildings.  Carnot Posey’s Mississippians, north of the farm, lend Scales’ men a hand and together they drive the Union skirmish line out of the buildings and captured the barn.  The 3rd Division’s front is now open to sniping as men in gray and butternut fortified their new position.  The Bliss Farm has changed hands for the first but not the last time in the next two days.  The farm is starting to build a reputation as a “bone of contention” while Confederate action is forcing General Hays to change priorities and reestablish his skirmish line.

As the 1st DE falls back past the Emmitsburg road, General Hays starts to build the force that can reestablish his skirmish line.  The 4th OH, 111th NY and the famed Garibaldi Guard contribute 10 companies to the retake the farm.  About the same time, the decision to extend the Confederate line south on Seminary Ridge is being implement.  Posey’s Mississippians, who had helped retake the Bliss Farm, would now use it as a platform to establish a new longer skirmish line to cover the shift south.  They would assume responsibility for the area around the Bliss Farm, just as the new Union skirmish line starts to put pressure on the barn.  They manage to force the Confederates back into the orchard until about 11:00 a.m.  At that time, Confederates advancing from the northwest through the orchard manage to push the Union skirmishers out of the barn and off the farm.  General Hays’ counters with the 12th NJ and the reorganized 1st DE.  This attack, supported by artillery, retakes the farm and all of the buildings.  By 1:00 p.m., the farm was back in Union hands and the Confederate skirmish line was back into the orchard.  After four hours, things were pretty much the same.  To get and idea of the intensity of this small action, the Garibaldi Guard reports 28 men killed or wounded in the two hours of skirmishing they were involved in.

The Confederate command seems to lose interest in aggressive operations about this time.  Scales Brigade is pulled off the line and sent to rejoin Pender’s Division.  Artillery is placed to support an attack on the farm but none is forth coming.  A mid-day lull settles over the field as each side closely watches the other but neither initiates any operations.  Taking advantage of the lull, General Hays reduces the number of troops on his skirmish line from an active operation to normal level.  With the two skirmish lines a long rifle shot apart, the men remained under cover content to initiate no real action.

About 3:00 o’clock General Posey receives an order to drive the Union skirmish line in and be ready to follow Wright’s Brigade in a general attack.  The 19th and 48th MS were assigned the task of driving in the Union skirmish line and about 4:00 PM they moved forward.  Col. Nat Harris saw that the advance of 19th MS was uncovering its’ right flank and halted until the 48th MS could join him in the attack.  Taking advantage of the mid-day lull, the Union skirmishers had moved further West into the Bliss Farm orchard and were not be easily driven, Posey was forced to add the 16th MS and support the attack with artillery.  The 16th MS was able to push through the orchard and retake the farm buildings.  General Hancock is recorded as having “choice and forcible” words with Lt. Colonel E. P. Harris over the 1st DE being driven from the farm and his shameful conduct in this affair.  The Union skirmish line was in danger of becoming flanked and one company of the 128th PA attacked the farm buildings.  The 16th MS allowed them to get very close and demanded they surrender.  The refusal cost the 128th PA 12 casualties, including one officer killed.  A second try produced no better results and the 128th PA started to stay clear of the farm.

General Hancock’s interest resulted in General Hays talking to Colonel Thomas Smyth about the situation.  Colonel Smyth, new to brigade command, was motivated to speak to Major John Hill of the 12th NJ.  Companies B, H. E and G volunteered for the attack lead by Captain Samuel Jobes.  To impress the men with the importance of this attack, Colonel Smyth accompanied them to the front.  This attack hit the 16th MS very hard and they were unable to stop it.  The 12th NJ armed with smoothbore muskets used the .69 caliber “buck and ball” with deadly effect at close range.  Taking the barn reduced the sniper fire but the house managed a galling fire at the Union line.  General Hays was getting frustrated by his division’s inability to control their front and Colonel Smyth was ordered to have the men in the barn take the house too.  Captain A. Parke Postles of the 1st DE though ill, took the message to Captain Jobes in the barn  For this action Captain Postles received the first Medal of Honor that would be awarded to the men in this fight.  The 12th NJ attacked and took the house; in all they had captured seven officers and eighty-five men while losing thirty-eight of their own.  The 1st Delaware would report five dead, sixteen wounded and eleven missing for the day.

General Posey received word of this new development about 6:00 PM and was starting to coordinate a new attack on the farm.  General James Longstreet’s attack was working its way up the Union line and the Confederate forces in the area made a general advance.  At the Bliss Farm, the 12th NJ was forced to fall back to the main line or be surrounded.  Posey was advancing on his front, as Wright’s brigade pushed almost to the crest of Cemetery Ridge.  Posey’s Brigade after hours of hard fighting stopped at the Bliss Farm when skirmishers, 200 yards to the North, behind a worm fence fired on his line.  General Posey requested a regiment be sent to handle them but was told that orders would not allow that  Little by little, from south to north, unit by unit, the great Confederate attack of July Second was failing.  Men in blue had first diverted, then slowed and finally broken the attack.  The sun was going down and with it went the best chance the Army of Northern Virginia had of finding the great victory on northern soil.

Men, on both sides, settled down for a second night on the battlefield.  Weariness allowed some to sleep amid the groans and cries of the wounded.  The only food was what each man carried and showing a light invited a mini ball.  Still the normal pushing and shoving had to occur even at night on the skirmish line.  The Union had to try and push out while the Confederates tried to maintain their line as far forward as possible.  In the dark, men wandered into the wrong lines, were ambushed or just sat quiet, waiting for the dawn.

As the sun cleared Cemetery Ridge, the value of the Bliss Farm became very apparent to both sides.  On July 2nd, the skirmish lines had each kept the other a reasonable distance from their armies’ main line.  Longstreet’s attack had destroyed this balance and the Confederate skirmish line was much closer to the Union lines than normal.  Given the lack of live fire exercise and the fact that most men do not understand a bullet’s trajectory, Civil War solders had a tendency to shoot high, shooting uphill aggravated this tendency.  The Bliss Barn was almost level with the crest of Cemetery Ridge and the 500-yard rear sight setting on rifles made this a reasonable range.  Fire directed at the crest was, at worst, likely to pass near a target.  Moreover, a miss would impact on the rear slope of the ridge among the artillery horses, infantry reserve and support units.  This was totally unacceptable and the finial day of fighting for the Bliss Farm quickly started.

Men in blue from Hays’, Gibbon’s and Doubleday’s division pushed against men in butternut or gray from the divisions of Anderson, Pender and Rhoads.  Descriptions of the fighting are varied, some men reported hard fighting and others that both sides conducted a slow but steady fight.  The OR reports that “Both sides were doing each other all the harm they could.” and most of the men on the line would agree.  Corporal William H. Raymond, 108th NY, won the Medal of Honor when alone he brought a box of one thousand cartages to the skirmish line.  While he was not wounded, after the battle he found seven new “button holes” in his uniform.

More and more the Bliss Barn came to dominate the area.  Described in many reports, it is listed as “almost a citadel in itself” and “a paradise for sharp-shooters”.  Seventy-five feet long, thirty-five feet wide, at least forty feet high with vertical slits in the upper story and wide windows at each end the barn controls the area.  The frame house two hundred feet north of the barn provides an additional strong point and supports troops in the barn.  To the men on Cemetery Ridge, taking the barn and that “dammed white house” is a requirement.

General Hays selects five companies of the 12th NJ to clear the barn.  By using a knoll for cover they reach the barn with few causalities.  In a quick hard fight they retake the barn simply by getting into the ground floor stable and climbing up to the main floor.  The rebels use the house and out buildings, as cover, to edge closer to the barn.  Supporting them, batteries on Seminary are firing solid shot against barn’s walls.  Inside the barn, the air is dark with gun smoke and limestone dust.  Outside, the rebels are edging ever closer and building up to launch an attack.  Lacking orders to hold the barn at all costs, the 12th New Jersey pulls back to the Union lines after losing two officers and over twenty enlisted men.

Sniper fire from the farm is directed at Captain William A. Arnold’s Battery A, 1st RI posted north of the copse of trees behind the inner stone wall.  About 10 a.m., Captain Arnold was forced to seek help from Colonel Smyth, suggesting to him that the barn if not held be burned.  General Hays ordered Colonel Smyth to detail a regiment to retake and hold the barn.  The eight available companies of the 14th CT, two companies being on the skirmish line, were given the task.  Major Theodore G. Ellis commanded four companies that will act as the support element and Captain Samuel A. Moore would attack the barn with about sixty men.  Captain Moore and the men quickly moved into the fields west of Emmitsburg Road.  Unlike the attack of the 12th NJ no formation was attempted, when the order was given each man attacked the barn “as best he could”.  Running, dodging the sixty men of the 12th NJ, raked by fire from the Bliss Barn, House and Long Lane retook the barn.  Once again the Mississippians gives up the barn taking positions in the house and orchard.  Wishing to prevent a repeat of the last Confederate attack, Major Ellis decides that the house has to be taken too.  This attack is subjected to an enfilade fire from Long Lane knocking down a number of men, after bitter fight the house is in Union hands too.

With the Confederate skirmish line driven into the orchard, III Corps responds with thirty cannon on Seminary Ridge firing solid and case shot at the house and barn.  For the Federals, the house becomes a death trap; the walls are not proof against minie balls much less against artillery rounds.  Major Ellis reluctantly orders the men to abandon the house.  Most run the gauntlet of fire taking position in the barn.  Others, not willing to take that risk, find cover in the outbuildings or behind a large woodpile in the farm yard.

For General Hays, this is a raise in what is a very expensive and deadly game of bluff.  Starting as an affair on the skirmish line, the Bliss Farm consumed companies, then regiments and now is requiring batteries of artillery.  The Army of Potomac’s artillery is tightly controlled and can not be ordered to fire by even a division commander.  On July Second, General George Meade had dispatched a staff officer to investigate why a battery was firing and commanders were cautioned not to waste ammunition on non-essential targets.  Even as the Confederate guns were firing on the farm, Major General Henry J. Hunt was issuing orders to his batteries to conserve ammunition for an expect attack.  Confederate Colonel E. Porter Alexander busy placing the guns for the largest artillery bombardment of the war was upset to hear III Corps guns firing.  Years after the battle, Alexander would write that this was a waste of long range ammunition that the army could not afford.  The Army of the Potomac, starting with more and better artillery ammunition was working to maintain that advantage.  Every round would be held for use against what would be called Pickett’s Charge later in the day.

If the Bliss barn could not be kept from the enemy it would have to be destroyed to deny them its’ use.  Orders were issued to destroy the barn and as many of the other farm buildings as possible.  Sergeant Charles Hitchcock of the 111th NY volunteered to carry the order to the barn taking matches and paper too.  Considering that Sergeant Hitchcock was on foot, Captain James Postles of Hays staff was dispatched as a second but mounted courier.  Captain Postles riding through heavy fire would later say that his only hope to survival was movement.  At the barn, he shouted, “Colonel Smyth orders you to burn the house and barn and retire.”  The order was heard by men in the barn, who shouted it to others.  Major Ellis acknowledged the order and Captain Postles returned to the Union lines as quickly as possible.  His action resulted in another Medal of Honor for action involving the Bliss Farm.

Major Ellis and Company A ran to the house, which seems not to have been re-occupied, while the balance of the 14th readied the barn for burning.  The dead and wounded were removed from both buildings, fires were set in the house and the men retreated back into the barn.  There Major Ellis was asked if some of the men could take several live chickens back to their lines.  Telling the story after the war he stated that permission “on this occasion was granted.”  Shielded by the smoke from the house with the fire in the barn taking hold, chickens squawking, the 14th CT ran for the safety of the Union line along Emmitsburg Road.  In minutes, the house and barn were engulfed in flames and shortly collapsed, about 11:15 on the morning of July 3, 1863, William Bliss’s farm ceased to exist.

What makes the Bliss Farm Fight interesting is the documentation that exists about it.  Being Gettysburg, everything was of considered important and in the years after the war, remembered and written about.  Skirmish lines normally do not get this treatment and are seldom mentioned in official reports.  What little we do know indicates that they could be nasty deadly fire fights between formations up to regiment size.  In the fighting for the Bliss Farm we get to see the inner workings of a protracted skirmish line battle.  Additionally, it provides a window into the different workings of the armies at the brigade level.  While the AOP was centrally controlled, the AoNV seems to be allowed to use all resources available to solve any problem.  A. P. Hill’s artillery opened on one Union Regiment that posed no real threat to their line.  The fight was continued until the AOP was forced to destroy buildings that could have provided some cover for Pickett’s Charge.  The AOP never took their eye of the prize but III Corps was allowed to get sidetracked in a fight that did nothing to change the result of the battle.

What happened to William Bliss and his family?  The farm was ruined, what hadn’t been burned was gone or destroyed, at sixty-three William Bliss, with a wife and two unmarried daughters was homeless.  He filed several claims with the government, the first for $1,256.08 for loss of personal property.  As time passed with no payment, Bliss tried to sell his farm for $3,000.  In the end, Nicholas Cordi purchased everything for $1,000.  William Bliss died in 1888, his wife of sixty-five years died in 1889.  In 1902, his daughter, Frances Bliss managed to have a bill placed before the U.S. Senate, for payment of the claim.  However, the Supreme Court had ruled that the government was not responsible for personal property destroyed in actual combat and President Teddy Roosevelt voted the bill.  Frances, the last member of the family, died in 1921 and is buried in Sinclairsville with her parents and siblings.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Elwood Christ, The Struggle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg (Butternut and Blue 1994)

Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg

Wert, Gettysburg Day Three


James W. Durney got interested in the American Civil War, as a child, when the papers were full of stories about the deaths of the last two veterans of the war.  A Christmas gift of Avalon Hill’s board game “Gettysburg” in the late 50’s, followed by America Heritage’s “Centennial History of the Civil War” started a life long interest.  He is Treasurer of and a frequent presenter to his local Round Table.


6 responses to “The Battle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg: July 3, 1863”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brett Schulte and civilwarblog, civilwarblog. civilwarblog said: The Battle for the Bliss Farm at Gettysburg: July 3, 1863 […]

  2. Tim VanScoy Avatar
    Tim VanScoy

    Great article. Can anyone direct me towards a good source on Paul Semmes at Gettysburg and the battle for Rose Farm?

  3. Fred Ray Avatar
    Fred Ray

    This begins a pattern you see until the end of the war — the Confederate riflemen make things so hot for the Union line that they feel compelled to launch punitive attacks to shut down the sharpshooting. Federal attempts to silence the sharpshooters failed, even with their elite men, necessitating an infantry attack. Artillery might have worked but was, as you point out, not available.

  4. Jerry Hahn Avatar
    Jerry Hahn

    No 128th PA at Gettysburg. 111th & 126th NY Infantry (Willard’s Brigade) were skirmishers at Bliss Farm on 02 July, no 128th PA.

  5. Lorrin Bird Avatar
    Lorrin Bird

    Very well written and informative article. Would it be possible to share the source of the barn dimensions and window/vertical slit locations. I’am trying to build a model of the barn.

  6. George Ferrier Avatar
    George Ferrier

    No mention of the 8th Ohio on Union’s Right Flank

Leave a Reply to Fred Ray Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *