The first day's fighting saw Lee's men drive the Union forces through the town. The first Connecticut regiment to be engaged — the 17th, assigned to the 11th Corps — took heavy casualties, including the decapitation of its commanding officer. Still, despite their initial success, the Confederates failed to dislodge the Union troops from the high ground south of town, which became key to the entire battle.
On the second day, more troops from both sides poured into the fight. Furious rebel attacks on the two ends of the union position, anchored by Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill to the north and Big Round Top and Little Round Top to the south, failed to break the line. Despite epic heroism and horrific casualties, the outcome hung in the balance.
The Third Day
The 160 men of the 14th Connecticut, assigned to the Second Brigade, Third Division of Gen. Winfield Hancock's Second Corps, had arrived on the evening of July 1.
Mustered in late summer 1862, battle-hardened at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the regiment spent most of July 2 on picket duty, then was posted late that afternoon behind a stone wall on the northern edge of the corps' position on Cemetery Ridge.
On the morning of July 3, troops from four of its companies chased Confederate sharpshooters from the Bliss Barn, located between the two armies, and torched the structure, ending two days of seesaw control.
At 1 o'clock that afternoon, Confederate guns let loose with what Sgt. Major Hincks, a vivid diarist, recalled in the regimental history as "the heaviest cannonade I had ever witnessed.
"I am informed that the thunder of the guns upon this occasion was heard for nearly a hundred miles away, and the story hardly seems incredible to one who was upon the ground.
"I utterly despair of giving any idea of the various diabolical sounds to which we listened, the howling of the shells as they sped through the air was like the voice of the tornado upon the ocean, and the sound of their bursting like incessant crashes of the heaviest thunder."
The bombardment lasted two hours. Fortunately for the regiment, hunkered down behind its stone wall, the shells mostly passed harmlessly overhead.
When the shelling stopped, the men readied themselves for what their commander, Maj. Theodore Ellis of Hartford, in his official report, would term a "magnificent" sight: a mile-long, four-deep row of 12,000 Confederates marching out from the opposing woods.
As the rebels advanced, the firepower from the 14th — two companies were armed with Sharps breech-loading rifles — proved deadly effective. Hincks, himself, fired two guns, another man constantly reloading for him.
As attackers fell left and right, flag bearers for the 14th Tennessee planted their banner to rally their men, prompting Ellis to issue the challenge that Hincks, Broatch and Brigham took up.
For the Civil War soldier, whose regiment was his home, his family and his identity, the regimental banner was a potent symbol.
To capture an enemy's flag was an act of heroism and defiance and, on a battlefield without telephone or radio, deprived the foe of a critical communications tool. "Rally around the flag" was a way officers controlled the movements of their men.
The citation for Hincks' Medal Of Honor said: "Swinging his saber over the prostrate Confederates and uttering a terrific yell, he seized the flag and hastily returned to his lines ... The devotion to duty shown by Sgt. Major Hincks gave encouragement to many of his comrades at crucial moment of the battle."
Confederate dead and dying covered the field. "... Our boys sprang up over the fence and down the slope upon the wavering enemy, with a rush that nothing could withstand," Capt. Samuel Fiske, an officer of the 14th who wrote under the pseudonym Dunn Browne, informed his readers. "The enemy fled, throwing away everything. We captured thousands of prisoners.
"Hurrah for the gallant old 14th! She is getting some of the pay for Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville."
Lee had suffered a catastrophic defeat, losing 28,000 dead, wounded and missing. On the evening of July 4, much to Lincoln's dismay, his army limped home to Virginia, unopposed. The exhausted union troops had, themselves, sustained 23,000 casualties.