Roder's Lone Gun at Gettysburg
by Gordon Thorsby
Lieutenant John W. Roder would probably have stood to the left of guns #1 and #2, supervising the cannoneers’ work and looking with his glasses in the distance for movements toward the line. As he scanned off in the distance, a shot echoed from a cavalry carbine located from somewhere up the pike. Gunners automatically went to their work to prepare for action. July 1st was probably going to be a very busy one.
Battery A, 2nd US Artillery of three-inch rifled guns suspected action but hoped for quiet. They sparred with Confederate calvary at Brandy Station, Aldie and Upperville, and everyone was simply fagged out. Unfortunately, history and John Buford had plans Otherwise. Lt. Calef placed his three sections 600 yards ahead of Gamble’s troopers to cover an arc.
The left and center sections commanded by sergeants were placed in the south side of Chambersburg Pike. Roder, the only other officer in the battery other than Calef, had the right section (#1 and #2) of 3” rifles to the north side of the pike and right edge of the ridge with his responsibility to cover approaches from the north and anything in front. Not far off was an unfinished rail cut, a large ditch without rails.
When things started, who fired the first shot? There is no shortage of theories. We can say one of Roder’s left gun fired the first Union artillery shot as gray troops came into view, probably a mounted detachment of Jenkins troopers that trotted in from the direction of Heidlersburg Rd. The very moment John Roder’s left gun opened up on the right of the Pike, his left piece being the opening Union artillery piece of the battle, (specifically gun number 233, which was foraged at the Phoenixville Iron Works, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.) Marye’s Fredericksburg Battery from the west announced Heth’s readiness to advance.
John W. Roder was a German origin and Gettysburg would have been a comfortable place but on July 1, not as comfortable as he preferred. "Between war and peace, remarking how satisfactory it must be to go to bed at night without the liability of having one’s head shot off the next day." Roder conversed easily in his home tongue with farmers in the area who were all too anxious to use the language.
Quickly, all the guns were in action; Pergel on Archer’s brigade, Newman pounding away with counter-battery fire which they were receiving too much of. Archer’s brigade advanced on the left and Davis advanced in front and just to the right of Roder’s section. Davis’ 2nd and 42nd Mississippi regiments were using the rail cut to advance and fire on the flanks of infantry that had come on-line along with Hall’s 2nd Maine battery. The status quo was unacceptable and Roder was ordered to move one of his guns (probably #1) to neutralize their advantage. Calef reported “Lieutenant Roder took his right piece to the spot, and opened with canister, which had the effect of driving the enemy in great confusion.” Roder moved back and just east at the cut, dropped trail, and enfiladed the ditch with canister on the unsuspecting Mississippi regiments. There was no place to hide for the Mississippians and their lines went into great confusion.
The report continued, “Corporal Robert S. Watrous, (Chief of Piece) bringing up a round of canister, was shot in the leg by a minie bullet, and dropped to the ground. Private Thomas Slattery, the Number Two, ‘with commendable presence of mine,’ snatched the ammunition from the hands of the fallen corporal and got it in the gun just as the enemy were rushing forward to capture it. Some of the Rebs were so close to the piece when it was fired ‘they were literally blown away from the muzzle.’ The devastating effect of this round saved the piece from falling into the hands of the covetous enemy.”
Union infantry made their brave charge, capturing the Mississippi regiments in the cut after a brief close-quarters fight. Calef’s battery withdrew and the rest of Gettysburg is well told.
In Calef’s report:
“I took notice particularly of the coolness and intrepidity of the chiefs of sections during the hottest of the firing. Lieutenant Roder behaved very handsomely, showing himself equal to every emergency. Being short of officers, First Sergeant Newman and Sergeant Pergel each commanded a section. Of the other non-commissioned officers, Sergeants [Michael] Quinn, [James] Callanan, [Charles] Crittenden, [John] Brothers, [Malachi] Killern, and [Robert S.] Watrous deserve mention, the latter losing a leg. The battery did well, and I was highly gratified by the compliments paid it by General Buford,”
Calef was immediately promoted Berevet-Captain. What happened to 2nd Lieutenant John W. Roder? He eventually was promoted as well to 1st Lieutenant, commanded the battery in 1864 and he would survive the war.
If the story omits something, a pardon is appreciated. It is a story that may be well-described by rangers and experts. For Roder’s gun, it is one less spoken of and for a few minutes, it is a story that I thought would be nice to retell.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.
Coddington, Edwin, The Gettysburg Campaign, Charles Scribner and Sons, 1968, p684.
Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg, The First Day, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
“If Ever Men Stayed at Their Guns”, Bert Barnett. http://npshistory.com/series/symposia/gettysburg_seminars/9/essay4.pdf