The 149th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is past and I thought this was an appropriate moment to reflect on the battle’s personal impact. Each casualty of that battle has its own story. We need to hear them from time to time to remind us of the battle’s reality and the cruel reach war has beyond the battlefield. This is the story of the William E. Harris and his brothers.
In the spring of 1862 it became necessary for the Confederacy to raise more troops to strengthen their armies in the field. During this time the 45th North Carolina Infantry was recruited from several different counties in the state. Among those who enlisted was a 36-year-old mechanic from rural Rockingham County (in the north part of the state) names William E. Harris. Harris’s photograph shows him to be a slender man, who looked considerably younger than 36. He apparently had leadership qualities for he was enlisted as a sergeant on March 11, 1862. Although it might seem odd that someone 36 years old would volunteer for service in the infantry, it was not unusual during the Civil War. Many men in their 30′s, 40′s and 50′s volunteered in both armies. Many of them were married with families. What would prompt someone with such responsibilities to enlist as a soldier in wartime? Often it was a fierce love of country, or of a particular cause. Sometimes, it was to escape the responsibilities that burdened their lives.
William had married Rachel Ann Bryant in 1850, and the marriage had produced three sons by the time of William’s enlistment, and a fourth child, a daughter, was born in 1863. Why Harris enlisted is unknown but we do know that he served in an early war militia regiment (from his photograph) so his prior military service may have prompted his enlistment.
Among those enlisting with William in Company F at Elm Grove, North Carolina on March 11 were two of William’s younger brothers, Samuel, a 27-year-old farmer, and John F. Harris, a 22 year old farmer, who both enlisted as privates. William’s company of 100 men nicknamed themselves the “Dan River Rangers,” for most of the men came from small communities located near the Dan River. Between March 11-12 the company organized itself in the small village of Elm Grove. From here it went to Camp Magnum, a training camp near Raleigh, North Carolina where Company F joined the other nine companies of their regiment. At full strength there were ten companies totaling 1,000 officers and men in the regiment.
After a period of training, William’s regiment was sent to Weldon, North Carolina, where it helped guard the vital railroad junction there. The commander of the 45th North Carolina was Colonel Junius Daniel, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and former U. S. Army regular army officer. Daniel stood 6 feet 4 inches and was described as a man of “stern integrity and cool courage.” He drilled his new regiment incessantly to prepare them for the harsh realities of the battlefield. One member of the regiment recalled they “were upon the drill field upon an average of six to eight hours each day.” William and his comrades may have grumbled – they enlisted to fight Yankees, not drill all day. But Colonel Daniel knew his soldiers had no concept of what a battle was like. He understood that well trained soldiers were more likely to survive than poorly trained ones. So he ignored the grumbling and kept drilling his men.
In May 1862 the 45th North Carolina were sent to Virginia to help defend Richmond from attack. They came under fire on June 30, during the Battle of Frazier’s Farm, from Union gunboats, but until 1863 this was their only combat experience. After the threat to Richmond subsided the 45th was assigned to duty in the defenses of the capital, and later moved to the vicinity of Goldsboro, North Carolina a vital railroad hub. In February 1863 William’s youngest brother, James W., who had turned 18 joined Company F. Any celebration there may have been that all the brothers were together in the same company was tempered when John, William’s 23-year-old brother, died of typhoid fever in April.
In May 1863, the 45th North Carolina were ordered to join the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg to help reinforce that army for its planned offensive into Pennsylvania. There were just over 600 men in the regiment, which was quite large for this point of the war. Most veteran regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia only had 300 to 350 men. By this time William had been promoted twice. In September 1862 he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, and in June 1863, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. This was a sign that his superiors considered William to be a good soldier with leadership ability.
William’s regiment arrived at Gettysburg around noon on July 1. They found themselves near a wooded hill, now called Oak Hill, about two miles northwest of Gettysburg. Rumors passed down the column that there had been heavy fighting earlier in the morning. Orders were called out to deploy into line, the fighting formation. William’s place in the line would have been immediately in rear of the two rank line of battle. His job as a 1st Lieutenant was not only to supervise the men of his platoon, but also to act as a file closer. This meant that if someone was shot it was William’s job to close up the files to prevent disorder in the ranks.
The 45th and the other regiments of General Junius Daniel’s brigade of over 2,000 men took cover in some woods behind a rise of ground. [Colonel Daniel had been promoted to general by this time of the war]. William could not have seen any enemy soldiers yet although Confederate artillery nearby were firing away at targets beyond his line of sight. Around 1:30 p.m., General Daniel received orders to advance. The long lines of gray clad infantry advancing like an irresistible wave may have filled William with confidence. The regiment emerged from the woods into open ground. Fences were encountered and either knocked down or climbed over. Commands of “Close Up!” “Steady Men!” were probably repeated over and over by William and other officers. To the left, and out of sight, furious musketry fire broke out, a sound that sent chills down even the bravest man’s spine. The 45th North Carolina continued to advance. Still, no enemy soldiers were visible, although shells from their artillery came hurtling over with a terrifying scream. Another rail fence was reached. Suddenly, the enemy were seen – hundreds of them, in position along a road, in front of a farm, over 100 yards distant. The Yankee line seemed to explode as they fired their muskets. Men were struck and fell dead and wounded along the line, creating confusion that William would have attempted to prevent by pushing and shoving men to close up gaps in the line. The surprise and confusion created by the Yankee bullets was too great and the 45th North Carolina fell back under the cover of a hill to reform their lines and prepare to renew the attack.
While attempting to reform, the regiment remained under fire from Union artillery which continued to fire shrapnel and canister in their direction. The shrapnel burst in the air, above the heads of the men, with a stunning explosion followed by the whirr of shell fragments and shrapnel balls. Canister whipped through the air with a sound like the quick wing beats of a bird. For the men of the 45th, unused to being under artillery fire, it must have been a terrifying ordeal. At 2 p.m. a shell burst, an iron canister ball, or a Union infantryman’s minie ball found its mark in Company F and killed Lieutenant Harris.
Eventually, the 45th, along with many other Confederate units, drove the Yankees from the fields west of Gettysburg. Of the 605 men in the regiment, 63 men were killed, 156 wounded, and an un-reported number were missing or captured. William was reported buried on the battlefield, possibly by Sam and James. We do not know where William was buried, but there were many Confederate burials near the scene of the 45th’s battle. His grave may have been marked, but over time all identification was effaced, and when the bodies on this part of the field were removed to the South in the early 1870′s, William’s identity was lost.
Two days later, on the morning of July 3, the 45th North Carolina were again engaged in fierce fighting upon the slopes of Culp’s Hill. Among their casualties was Sam Harris, who was badly wounded in the arm and breast. He apparently fell near the Union lines and was removed to the George Bushman farm, a Union field hospital. Young James may have been captured with his brother, for sometime during or immediately after the battle, he was taken prisoner of war. On July 15, 1863, Sam Harris died of his wounds. James was imprisoned at various places until exchanged in September 1864. For nearly six months he recuperated at home in Rockingham County. He returned to duty in March 1865 and was wounded and captured in action near Petersburg, Virginia. This time he was sent to the Union prison camp at Elmira, New York where he remained until his release on July 3, 1865.
Of four sons the Harris family gave to the war only one returned. Imagine how the Harris family remembered Gettysburg. Historians are fond of debating whether the battle was a turning point in the war. There is no question it was a turning point in the life of Rachel Harris and her children, and William’s parents and his sisters. To them Gettysburg was more than a turning point. It was a cataclysm, a life shattering event from which the family never fully recovered.
D. Scott Hartwig
[My thanks to Rodney P. Williams, of Reidsville, North Carolina for his help in researching William Harris’s life.]