Those Lost then Found at Culp’s Hill

In the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, thousands of dead Union and Confederate soldiers covered the fields and hills surrounding this small Pennsylvania town. Workmen, soldiers, and townspeople sweated through the July heat to bury the dead, often in shallow trench or mass graves. These hasty, improper burials were more for the necessity of the living than the respect for the dead. By the end of July, however, an idea was proposed that would not only aid the fight against the spread of illness and disease from the dead and the poor burials, but also provide a more honorable burial for those Union soldiers that had “given their last full measure of devotion.”  From late October 1863 through March 1864, over 3,500 Union soldiers were disinterred from the battlefield and reburied in the newly established Soldiers’ National Cemetery atop Cemetery Hill.

The process of removing the dead and working to identify them now months removed from their initial burial was supervised by Samuel Weaver. As work progressed on the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for Union soldiers, Confederate remains were left on the battlefield for nearly another decade. Between 1871 and 1873, Rufus Weaver oversaw the disinterment of over 3,300 Confederate soldiers to cemeteries in the south, most to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Although his father, Samuel, had reburied Confederates upon the battlefield when they had been found during the creation of the National Cemetery, his records, when combined with those of Dr. John W.C. O’Neal, meant that many Confederates burials could still be located. The Hollywood Cemetery Memorial Association paid only a pittance of a few hundred dollars to Weaver, who was owed over $6,500 in labor and shipping fees. Ultimately, thousands of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, had been removed from the battlefield and reburied in cemeteries. Although the work of individuals such as the Weavers was carried out meticulously, there was no way for them to possibly find and remove every single soldier’s remains. This was especially true in the wooded terrain of Culp’s Hill.

LOC-32838v

Culp’s Hill, the anchor of the Federal right flank at Gettysburg, photographed a few weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

As late as 1899, large burial trenches were being found around Culp’s Hill and Spangler’s Spring as work to make the park more accessible continued. On September 19, 1899, the Gettysburg Compiler recorded “When digging a drain in the meadow near Spangler’s Spring last Thursday, battlefield workmen unearthed the bones of a Union soldier, about two feet below the surface of the ground. There were found also a U.S. plate (on account of which the body is supposed to have been that of a Union soldier), a knapsack, a cartridge belt and other articles.” Having been found near the meadow, it is possible that this soldier had served with the 2nd Massachusetts or 27th Indiana and been killed in their futile assault on the morning of July 3, 1863. Just a few days later, on September 23rd, a mass grave was discovered nearby. While widening and finishing the road now known as Geary Avenue near Spangler’s Spring, employees of the Farrell Brothers’ company unearthed the remains of seventeen Union soldiers. Somehow, they had been missed by the workmen carrying out re-internment of the Federal dead to the National Cemetery in 1863 and 1864.

ElliotMap Culp's Hill

Burial trenches at Culp’s Hill from the S.G. Elliott Map of the Gettysburg Battlefield,  published in 1864.  (Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/99447500/)

The Gettysburg Compiler reported “it is likely that, after the bones are put together by an expert surgeon, they will finally rest in the National Cemetery.” Unfortunately, the Compiler was only partially correct. Calvin Hamilton, the Superintendent of the National Cemetery, wrote to the Quartermaster Department in Washington recording that “The remains were put into two boxes by the U.S. Battlefield Commission, whose workmen found them, and brought to this cemetery for reinterment.” However, he noted “As the remains were put indiscriminately into the boxes… it is now impossible [to] preserve the identity of any single body,” and recommended that they be buried within one grave rather than individually. Having been laid to rest together for 36 years and gathered by workmen into two boxes, it was no longer possible to separate the men.

As news spread of the discovery of the mass grave on Culp’s Hill, various veterans wrote to park officials and the local newspaper claiming to know the identities of the men who had been found. David Monat of the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wrote to Col. John P. Nicholson of the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission:

Seeing an article in the press of yesterday in reference to the finding of the dead bodies on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg & which was supposed to be Union dead, I write and send a crude diagram…of my recollection of the place where we buried two separate lots of the Confederate dead on the morning of July 4. We also covered these bodies with our old blankets…. I do not know how the road runs where the bodies were found, but if it is any where near the spot I have designated, the other lot of bodies should be near by. There was one officer and 16 or 17 men in one lot and 13 men in the other.

Monat Map-Coco Collection 001

David Monat’s drawing of the location of burial trenches at Culp’s Hill. (Gregory Coco Collection, GNMP)

Monat’s sketch map placed the trench of men he helped bury near the intersection of Geary and Slocum Avenues, near the first monument for the 29th Pennsylvania. However, since these trenches were fairly obvious on the terrain and in a fairly clear location, it is likely that these dead had been removed to the South in the 1870s.

Additionally, Capt. Joseph Moore of the 147th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry shared his theory as to the identity of these men.  In a letter published in the Compiler, he wrote:

On our return up the hill, after crossing our breastworks on the crest, at a point near where the monument of the 28th P.V. stands, (back on level ground), probably 50 yards from our line of breastworks, I saw a deep ditch or long excavated series of graves dug, and a number of dead union soldiers laying ready for interment. They were covered with gray blankets. The ditch was about 50 feet long, and I think there were fully 17 dead bodies in the row. It occurred to me after reading this item, that these may be the same union soldiers, but it would be difficult to tell from which commands they were.

Moore placed this burial trench near the 28th Pennsylvania monument which is further north on Culp’s Hill. However, if he meant the specific breastworks of his regiment, the 147th Pennsylvania, when he wrote “our breastworks,” he may be describing a Union burial trench also near the 29th Pennsylvania monument. Although this conclusion is conjecture, this better fits the narrative of the first section of his letter, where he described collecting Confederate wounded and then heading back up the slope near that location. Unfortunately, the records of the Farrell Brothers finding the trench are not specific enough to note exactly where the soldiers had been found, meaning it is impossible to know for certain if the discovered trench was one described by Monat or Moore, or yet another one entirely. Although Monat had believed the grave to be that of Confederates, Calvin Hamilton had written that “The U.S. Plates, buttons, shoes, & etc. [found with the bodies] indicates beyond reasonable doubt that they were union soldiers.” It appears that the relics found with the bodies were abundant and uniform enough that Cemetery staff were confident in their identification as Union men. The abundance of Federal issue relics was also reported in the Compiler.

By the end of the September 1899, approval for proposed re-interment by the cemetery superintendent was received. These remains, buried in two boxes side by side, were then placed in the National Cemetery on September 30, under a headstone reading “19 Unknown Union Soldiers.” The number of bodies removed from the mass grave, however, varied from seventeen to eighteen depending on the source. Additionally, the Compiler article on the burial stated that a body found by workmen on Washington Street was added to the grave. Adding the additional soldier found during the drain construction near Spangler’s Meadow that may have also been buried in the same grave brings the total count of remains to nineteen.

These were not the final remains to be found in this area. In the early 1900’s, Samuel Robinson, a workman, found remains while working on the roads near Spangler’s Spring. He reported having found a portion of a skull, arm bone, and one leg with a U.S. belt plate, belt leather, parts of a cap box, loose percussion caps, and leather from a scabbard.

Robinson’s discovery was not the last. The most recent remains to be found on the battlefield was in March, 1996 in the famous Railroad Cut. But even after all these discoveries in the 156 years since the battle, there are doubtlessly more remains that still lie in the fields around Gettysburg. Although we cannot be sure how many soldiers still rest upon the battlefield today, they are a permanent reminder of the true cost of this battle and the American Civil War. This landscape will  remain, now and forever, hallowed.

-Jonathan Tracey
Seasonal Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park

 

 

 

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Paul Heller: A Young Marine’s Story

On a beautiful spring day in South-Central Pennsylvania there is likely not a more serene, peaceful, and awe-inspiring place to take a walk than the Gettysburg National Cemetery.   As you stroll among the rows upon rows of the deceased, and if you take your time, the headstones speak to you, albeit in muted tones.  The voice we hear today comes to us by way of the inscriptions upon the stones, unfortunately the nature of the headstones strips away all but the most basic details of the person’s identity.  Outside of the Civil War section the stones generally read the person’s name, their date of birth, date of death and where applicable, their branch of service.  Beyond that, the details of the person’s life:  who their parents were, what their upbringing was like and where they served are not evident.  Yet, from the little information given, some stories come to life from a simple reading of the headstone.  For example, the headstone of Clairus Riggs bears the date of his death, June 6, 1944.  To the novice historian of the Second World War this date means something: D-Day.  Likewise, George Stembrosky, December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.  This blog post is about one of those examples, a story that leaps from the headstone.  This is the story of a Marine who was killed in action October 8, 1942, a date that means little to all but the most well-read of military historians.  No, it is not the date of death that leaps from the stone- it is his date of birth.

The headstone reads:

Paul Heller

Pennsylvania
PVT
U.S. Marine Corps
World War II

May 9 1927
October 8 1942

This young Marine was only fifteen years old when he was killed in action during World War Two.

Paul Heller was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on May 8, 1927 to parents Paul Sr. and Anna.  A grade school classmate of his described his upbringing as a little rough and tumble.  They said he had a hard time getting along with his peers and assumed that his home life may not have been the best.

In the winter of 1941-1942, when Heller would have likely been in the ninth grade the country was reeling from the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  This event would hurl the United States of America into the Second World War and would send hundreds of thousands of Americans into the armed forces.

Perhaps it was the desire to escape the reality of his home life, his inability to get along with his classmates or maybe it was a true sense of patriotism, we will never truly know

Paul Heller.jpg

A young Paul Heller at the time he joined the US Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of the USMC

what motivated Paul Heller, we do know that he apparently attempted to enlist locally in eastern Pennsylvania shortly after Pearl Harbor however, his age (at the time 14) was automatic cause for rejection by the recruiting office.

Undeterred, Heller took a more extreme step of leaving his home state altogether.  He needed to get away from those that knew him and how old he was.  At some point in early February 1942 he made his way to Savannah, Georgia.  Having learned his lesson the first time, Heller decided to lie about his age to the Marine Corps Recruiter, stating that he was born not in 1927 but in 1923, making him eighteen years of age. But how could he convince the recruiter of his lie?

It is unclear how exactly Heller got around this particular stumbling block on his journey into the service.  The signature on the parent/guardian consent form (which would serve to verify his age) reads “Betty Betrick, aunt” who is listed as living at 1205 Gervay Street Columbia, SC.  No record of this individual can be found to have lived in Columbia, SC.  Nevertheless, the officer who swore Heller into the United States Marine Corps on February 17, 1942 claimed that a woman named Betty Betrick verified, in person, that Heller was in fact eighteen years of age.  Therefore, it is safe to assume one of the following scenarios unfolded in the recruiting office.  Either the recruiter falsified the document himself claiming to have met Betty Betrick or Heller convinced someone to play the part of Betrick, walking into the recruiting office with the youth and signing him up for the Marines.  Whatever the case may be, Heller was in.

He followed in the footsteps of thousands of Marines before and after his time, taking a bus to Parris Island, South Carolina where he would undergo eight weeks of training before being hastily transferred to a unit bound for the Pacific theater of war.

On April 8, 1942 he was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which was already at sea sailing for the Pacific Theater of the war.  He departed the United States on May 17, 1942.

Heller caught up with the 1st Marine Division in New Zealand just as it was girding for war.  The coming campaign would be the first of many for the 1st Marine Division in America’s struggle to beat back the Japanese Empire, which consumed much of the south Pacific.  Their first target would be the Solomon Islands.  Evidently, the reality of war, including the possibility of his death weighed heavily upon Paul Heller’s mind.  By the third week of July, Heller made what would become a momentous decision.  He changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy from Miss Betrick to his father, Paul Heller Sr.

The baptism by fire for the 5th Marine Regiment in the Second World War would come on August 7, 1942 when they wade ashore on the island of Guadalcanal in what would be considered one of the first American amphibious assaults of the war.  Initial Japanese resistance was light and the Marines of the 5th Regiment, Paul Heller included quickly took control of a Japanese Airfield which they named Henderson Field in memory of an American pilot who was killed in the Battle of Midway.

Marines_rest_in_the_field_on_Guadalcanal

Marines of the 1st Division make there way through the dense jungles of Guadalcanal, August 1942 (LOC)

The resulting combat would pitch American and Japanese forces against one another as control for the Solomon Islands and its valuable airfield hung in the balance.   By the end of September the American beachhead which had been established in August was gradually expanding.  On October 7, 1942 elements of the 5th Marine Regiment were ordered to cross the Matanaiku River, expanding American holdings to the Japanese held side of the river.  Heller and the rest of his company were tapped for the assignment of crossing the river.  On October 8th American and Japanese forces grappled for control of the ground surrounding the river.  At some point in the melee, Paul Heller was killed in action along with a handful of other Marines that day.  Heller’s body was interred in grave five, row twenty-five of the 1st Marine Division Cemetery established on Guadalcanal.

Immediately following his death the Marine Corps began the process of notifying Heller’s family of his untimely passing.  This process was made more complex by his falsified documents.  The Marine Corps first attempted to contact Betty Betrick, the “aunt” that Heller used to sign his consent form and enlist.  On November 17, 1942 a telegram was sent to Miss Betty Betrick of 1205 Gervay Street, Columbia SC.   Again, it is unclear today if Betty Betrick was wholly created by Heller and the Marine Corps recruiter or if she was an actual person, unrelated or related to Paul Heller.  Nevertheless, due to the fact that Heller made his father the beneficiary on his life insurance policy, the Marine Corps was destined to get in touch with Paul Heller Sr. to inform him of his son’s death.  In fact, on the same day that Betty Betrick was informed, the standard telegram was sent to Paul Heller Sr. and Anna Heller (the two were separated at this point and so, were informed individually).

Of these three individuals the only person whose reaction exists in the historical record is that of his mother, Anna Heller.  By December 5th Mrs. Heller was in touch with the Allentown Chapter of the American Red Cross seeking assistance in securing the details of her son’s death and the interment of her son’s remains.  Evidently, she was not satisfied with the response the Marine Corps gave to the Red Cross concerning her inquiry because by December 16th she contacted her congressman, Charles Gerlach in search of more information.  In the letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gerlach states that Mrs. Heller “has contacted me and demands to know under what conditions he lost his life and more intimate details.  I realize this is impossible but she is very much exercised over what she terms the cold-blooded announcement she received and insists that I do something about it and get her more information.”

This brief window into the mindset of Anna Heller paints the picture of an understandably distraught mother in the wake of her son’s death.  Given the fact that Paul listed his “aunt” as next of kin and his father as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, is it possible that Anna Heller was unaware that her fifteen year old son had enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Pacific?  Was the notification sent to her house of his death the first indication she had of his service at all?  The paper trail left behind by Paul Heller does not give us a complete window into the ins and outs of the family in the fall and winter of 1942.

When the family was notified of his death, the Marine Corps indicated that the burial on Guadalcanal was intended to only be temporary and that final disposition of his remains would take place at the cessation of hostilities.  On May 7, 1948 the body of Paul Heller arrived back in the United States of America whereupon he was laid to rest in Section Two of The Gettysburg National Cemetery.

When you pass through the gates of a National Cemetery established amidst the American Civil War, it would be easy to assume that the youngest service person buried within the grounds would be a young drummer boy struck down in July 1863.  However, the youngest known casualty of war buried at Gettysburg is in fact Paul Heller, the young marine killed in action at the age of fifteen.  His legacy today, one of duty and sacrifice stands as a testament to what people, young and old are willing to do for their country.  On this Memorial Day we hope you will take a moment throughout your busy holiday weekend to reflect on the people, and their stories that fill our National Cemeteries.

 

Philip Brown
Park Guide
Gettysburg National Military Park

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A Winter Wonderland for Short-eared Owls

gett-302028629Last winter birders and wildlife photographers flocked to the fields of Pickett’s Charge to view and photograph short-eared owls. It was great to see civil war history buffs mingle with natural history buffs as both enjoyed viewing these charismatic birds. The most unique thing about this species is that, unlike other owls, they are active during daylight making photography and observation relatively easy. They are most active before dusk, but they may be seen even before that.

 

All plant and wild life are legally protected in our nation’s National Parks, and we take extra special care to protect rare species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the short-eared owls as Migratory Birds of Conservation Concern and in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania they are classified as Endangered.

 
For their winter habitat these owls prefer open grassy areas in close proximity to woods. They look for clumps of tall grass to hide in when they are not foraging. Last winter the area around the Virginia Monument was perfect for their needs. It was also perfect for the needs of photographers. Easy parking, easy access and dramatic backdrops. Everyone wanted to take that perfect photo of a short-eared owl perched on a worm fence or taking flight with a cannon or a monument in the background. Unfortunately, some photographers went too far in their quest for that perfect shot. We saw many cases of people walking through the fields trying to flush out the owls and causing them to take flight. We also had at least one case where an individual was broadcasting owl calls aimed at getting the owls to come out and investigate. Human activities such as approaching, flushing, making or playing calls constitute wildlife harassment. Simply put, any activity that causes an owl to change its behavior is harassment and is therefore illegal.

 
gett-302028529You may wonder what harm is done when a person walks through a field to flush an owl. It seems pretty harmless, right? Not to the owl. By the time the owls arrive in their wintering grounds they have traveled many, many miles. They are low in energy reserves and must find and acclimate to a new location. Even after they have been here for a while their survival is not certain. The winter environment is harsh and prey may be scarce. Energy conservation is of the utmost importance to their survival. Each time an owl is disturbed, it takes flight to escape the perceived threat, and expends a lot of energy. Furthermore, following a disturbance the owl may wait a long time to assure the danger has passed, thus losing time it could have spent foraging. Just like humans, short and long term stress brings negative health impacts to the owls.

 

In the winter of 2017-18 incidents of owl harassment became so numerous that park management decided to close the area used by the owls for concealment. Many photographers were dismayed by this action but it was necessary to protect the owls. At the time of this blog writing there have been only very sporadic sightings on the battlefield. If sightings become more frequent and consistent the park will post informational signs asking the public to maintain their distance and not harass the owls. The signs will have a 24-hour/7 days a week phone number that can be called to report owl harassment to Law Enforcement Rangers. It is our hope that these signs will suffice and that we will not have to close down the area chosen by the owls.

 

Please help us to keep owl areas open by obeying the posted signs and immediately reporting owl harassment to 717-334-8101. Let’s work together so that owls and humans can have a positive winter experience here at Gettysburg National Military Park.

 

Written by Dafna Reiner, Park Biologist, Gettysburg National Military Park, January 2019

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“My Dear Carl” A Father Writes his Children after Gettysburg.

Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent home by soldiers to loved ones during the Civil War, most with several common themes: hardships, the weather, the writer’s health, a brief description of a battle, the boredom and routine of drill, and the longing for home. The majority of letters were meant for adults to read, not the youngest whose father or older brother was serving in the Army, so when letters written to children surface, they are quite special.

Three examples of letters written by a father to his children are housed at the Mercer County Historical Society in Mercer, Pennsylvania. It was in Mercer where Company A, 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was raised in the summer of 1862, commanded by a town attorney-turned-soldier, Abraham H. Snyder.

A.H. Snyder, 139th PA

Major Abram H. Snyder, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry, 1864. (courtesy of petersburgbreakthrough.org)

Abraham H. Snyder had a prominent law practice in Mercer, a town of 2,200 residents. The Snyders enjoyed the community and a warm home where they raised three children- Robert (the eldest), Jane and Carl, the youngest of the three. As difficult as it was to leave his growing family, Snyder was duty bound and in the call for volunteers over the summer of 1862, recruited a company of men in Mercer, which became Company A of the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Snyder was favored by the men in his company, who subsequently elected him their captain. Captain Snyder wrote home quite consistently and in mid-July 1863, as the regiment camped in northern Virginia, he took the opportunity to write each of his children an individual letter. The tone and narrative of each was different, dependent upon the age of the child and what they could understand, but all three carried the same theme of his children being good while briefly describing his life as a soldier.

Late on the evening of July 21, 1863, Snyder wrote to the eldest son, Robert:

“It is night. Many of the soldiers have laid themselves down to sleep. I shall myself soon retire for the night. But before doing so I will write you a short letter. I think mother wrote to me recently that you and sister were going to school this summer. I hope you will improve your time well, and thus become a good and intelligent boy.

“It is much easier and more pleasant to go to school than to be a soldier. Soldiers have to carry their clothes, rations, Gums etc., and on those long warm summer days they often get very tired. In times of battle and sometimes (page 2) on marches they get very little rest or sleep for days together. Then their food is not so good or so well prepared as yours is at home when you are going to school. Every way, therefore, you are more comfortable than the men in the Army.”

Early the next morning, Snyder addressed another letter to his daughter Jane:

“Nothing gives me more pleasure than to think of home. I often think of you and long for the time when this war shall be over, when peace shall prevail in our country and I shall again enjoy the comforts of home. In the meantime I am always glad to hear that my dear children are good and kind to their mother in my absence. It is a great comfort to me to know that such is the case. I hope it will always be so. I think the war will be over in another year and if I live I shall be happy to be with you again.”

Of the three, his special letter directed to the youngest is the most descriptive. The captain took great pains to fully describe what he was observing the moment he was placing pen to paper; a wonderful description of how his soldiers lived, worked and risked their lives to serve the Union, which also gives readers today a valuable insight into the daily life and diet of a soldier in 1863:

In Camp, Loudon County
Virginia, July 22nd, 1863

My Dear Carl,

It is six o’clock. The sun is up and shining beautifully. Most of the soldiers are either preparing or eating their breakfast. You would think they had rather a poor breakfast if you were here. They have Coffee and Sugar, Hard Bread, like that I sent you by Mr. Adams last winter, which they call Hardtack, and meat- generally salt pork, sometimes fresh beef. On marches and when not regularly encamped these things form the principal part of the food for the men. In Camp, where we stay for some time at one place, they get in addition to this Beans, Rice and sometimes Potatoes & soft or loaf bread, etc. The Government furnishes rations for the men. They get about enough for 3 days at one time which thy carry in their haversacks. When General Hooker was in command they often had to carry enough for 8 days, which filled their haversacks and knapsacks too. The officers have to buy their rations themselves. Sometimes they get bread and other things but sometimes they have to live just about as the men do. The Commissaries of the different Brigades follow the Army to supply them with rations and they sell such things as they have to the officers. Cattle are driven along and butchered from time to time as needed. Sometimes men get hungry for fresh meat and kill chickens, pigs, sheep, etc. wherever they find them. Still there are not many that do this. Sometimes too they offer to buy things and if people refuse to sell to them they rally and take what they want. This kind of conduct however is reprehensible as it sometimes subjects innocent people to great inconvenience and loss. We have no tables here, but set our breakfast on the ground on a Gum blanket &  sit down beside it to eat. You would think it funny to see 10000 soldiers eating this way.

But soldiers have not only their rations to carry. They also carry their guns, their clothes and their ammunition, which altogether makes quite a heavy load. You will see from this that the men in the army often have a good deal of hard labor to perform.

War is itself a terrible calamity and should always be avoided if it can be consistently with the great principles of Justice and right. The present war has had its origin in the attempt of the people of the South (or rather the politicians of some of the Southern States) to subvert and destroy our government by establishing another pretended government within our own. They made war upon the Federal government and we are here in arms to defend ourselves and our country against this usurpation. It has been said all the South wants is to be left alone. But circumstances clearly show that if these traitors had the power they would rest satisfied with nothing short of the subjugation of the Northern States. General Lee has already several times attempted the invasion of Pennsylvania. You have probably heard of the battles at Gettysburg in the beginning of this month. I was present on the 2d. It was a great battle. Many men were killed and wounded. The rebels were driven back to Virginia again. They left thousands of their wounded and dead behind them. I hope that this war may soon be over and that we may never have another.

I hope you are well and still a good boy and that you will continue to be kind and obedient to your mother. And that we all may be spared by our kind Heavenly Father and permitted to see each other again.

Your Father
A.H. Snyder

Captain Snyder commanded his company through the difficult campaigns in northern Virginia through the fall of 1863. More often than not, he was the acting major or lt. colonel of the regiment due to the absence of other officers. Promoted to the rank of major in January 1863, Snyder proved to be as efficient in his role on the field and staff of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry as he had been as a company commander. In April 1864 while the regiment was in winter quarters near Brandy Station, Virginia, Major Snyder sat with fellow officers of the regiment’s field and staff for the portrait below.

F&S, 139th Pennsylvania

The field and staff of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry, April 1864. Major Abraham Snyder is seated at right with his hat on his lap, next to Colonel Frederick Collier, commanding officer of the 139th. (Library of Congress)

One week after this photograph was taken, Major Snyder was dead,  killed in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Despite his most sincere wishes, Snyder never saw his children again. Fortunately, Robert, Jane and Carl were not too young to understand the importance of the letters their father sent them the previous summer and carefully preserved all three for the rest of us to discover Major Snyder’s outstanding description of the life of a soldier during the Civil War as well as the hopes and dreams of a father so far from home.

John S. Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

 

Posted in Army of the Potomac, Soldier Life | 4 Comments

A Hard Road to Travel: Two Perspectives on the March to Gettysburg, Part 3

Dawn, July 5, 1863. The gloom of the day is accentuated by dense, gray clouds and intermittent rain showers. The sharp report of stray rifle shots echo across the battlefield as the last of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia leave their final line before dawn. Only a small rear guard of skirmishers remain to cover the tail of the gray column as it heads westward. Mud. Rain. Misery. Throughout the previous day and night, baggage trains and wagons loaded with wounded soldiers rolled over the rutted roads in a long, painful column. Fence rails piled high and set alight at crossroads helped guide the way for Lee’s exhausted veterans; tired and worn but still defiant and dangerous.  Closely following were infantrymen of the Sixth Corps and despite the heavy showers that drenched the column with stinging rain and roads so deeply rutted and muddy that made walking a straight line doubly difficult, the men forged on to Fairfield, pushed back the rear guard and made their way into the mountain passes. Even at this early stage of the pursuit, it may have already too late to catch Lee. The head of the Confederate column was already entering western Maryland and within two days would be concentrated near Hagerstown.

While Lee made good his rapid withdrawal, the Army of the Potomac was slow to pursue. Footsore and weary from the weeks of marching, slim rations, and worn equipment, the 7th Maine finally made their camp on a farm on the western side of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, only a few miles from Greencastle.  The day’s duties finally complete, Lt. Colonel Selden Connor warily made an honest attempt to describe the whirlwind of events he had witnessed over the previous weeks:

Head Qtrs 7th Me Vols.
Camp near Waynesboro Pa
July 10th, 1863

My dear father:

            I have tried to write you several times lately, but ineffectively. I forget when I wrote you last- I think it was at Bristow Station. By making long and rapid marches our corps arrived just in season to turn the battle of Gettysburg in our favor. We started from Manchester, Md at 12 o’clock on the night of the first and arrived on the field at Gettysburg before dark the next day (second) a distance of thirtytwo miles. When we reached the ground the enemy had succeeded in turning our left (page 2) flank and everybody seemed to be a little uneasy. When Gen. Sedgewick arrived with the first division of our corps he made a straight course for the heavy firing and “pitched in” driving the enemy and holding our original position on the left. Our brigade guarded the right-flank of the army and the Vermont brigade the left. We were not heavily engaged but had smart skirmishing in which I had six men wounded, three mortally. The “7th” was lucky once; but -as is- was I lost more than all the rest of the brigade together. On the fifth our brigade was detached from the corps and with a brigade of Cavalry and a battery followed the rebs on this road, through (page 3) Fairfield and the mountains. We have been here a day or two; yesterday the New York and Pennsylvania militia to the number of 8000 or 111000 under Gen. Smith our old general, reached here from Harrisburg so that we now have quite a force here. Waynesboro is a nice little town in the center of the wheat growing country, the Cumberland Valley. The people are very hospitable and glad to see the Union soldiers after what they have suffered from the rebs. It would do you good to travel in this country; such farms I never saw before. I have not seen a paper for three weeks. We hear that Vicksburg has really fallen and that Gen. Dix is threatening Richmond. Port Hudson must follow Vicksburg (page 4) and if we annihilate Lee’s Army as we hope to, I think the bottom will be pretty well “Knocked out”. It is understood that the mass of Lee’s army is at Hagerstown, three miles from us and that his line extends to the Potomac. We have a force on the other side of the river to prevent his crossing so the probabilities are that Lee will get back with but a small portion of his army. My health is first rate, only it hurts my feelings to go among the patriotic young ladies here with my old ragged clothes! Clean shirts are unknown in our brigade now. Our men need shoes and clothing badly, but they (carry on) as long as there is a prospect of whipping the rebel army again and ending the war. I should like to hear from home, but our mail hasn’t reached us for a long time. Hoping that all at home are well I am as ever,

Your affectionate son,
Selden Connor

Falling Waters 1863

The Army of Northern Virginia crosses the Potomac River at Falling Waters, July 13-14, 1863, as  sketched by northern artist Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)

Connor’s hope for the near annihilation of Lee never materialized. The Army of Northern Virginia successfully crossed the swollen Potomac River overnight of July 13-14, the engineers cutting loose the pontoon bridges soon after dawn. Though the Gettysburg Campaign was technically over, there was still business at hand in northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was soon to follow its nemesis back to its old static line along the Rappahannock River.

After crossing over the Potomac River at Williamsport on July 13-14, Rodes’ Division marched southward to Martinsburg, then to the village of Darkesville where the men had a chance to draw rations and get a few hours rest before moving again, this time through northern Virginia and eventually to camps south of the Rappahannock River near Orange Court House.  By the time Lee’s soldiers had the chance to pitch what few tents they had near the court house, the men were physically drained and supplies of fresh uniforms, rations and medical supplies were virtually non-existent. Shortages were once again the daily routine. Some time between his daily duties,  Lt. John Gay penned a letter home, hopeful yet wary of what lay ahead for he and his comrades:

Orange C.H. Va.
Augt 2 1863

My Dear Wife,

            About one year ago we encamped at this same place. We were then on our way to Md. Now we are returning from there. Then our ranks were full; now they are thinned by casualties, sickness, etc in our late expedition. Then we were hopeful, cheerfull & sanguine- eagerly in pursuit of a retreating foe. Now the tables are turned, and we are retreating before an enemy pursuing; yes, foot sore, (many of us are bare footed) raged & dirty and worn out from heat and fatigue we are slowly retreating before Meades army. I don’t know the opinion of our Genls. They (page 2) make a stand here or may fall still father back. It is with them to decide. The men are defiant and most of them seem anxious to meet the enemy again, confidently expecting to gain a great victory. God grant that such may be the case, if we are compelled to fight them again soon, for the series of reverses that we have lately met with has indeed been a little disheartening. We must retrieve our character, and Oh! I fear it will be at a fearful cost. We are having some terribly hot weather. Yesterday we marched sixteen miles without a breath of air stirring and the sun broiling hot. I was completely exhausted when we got here, and verily believe I could not have gone two miles farther (page 3) had my life depended on it. I hope, though, we will not have much more hard marching to do this summer. My general health has improved lately. Joseph Ware was taken sick at Darktown and sent to the rear. I have heard nothing from him since. I am afraid he got worse after he left us. Our boys are all quite well. Mr James E. Evans preached for us last night and again this morning and the Rev. Mr. Jewett from the Geo(rgia) Conference preached the 11 o’clock sermon. The have come to spend two months with this army for the purpose of preaching to the Geo(rgia) soldiers during that time. I have had no letter from you lately. Write very soon. I am anxious to hear from you. Yours, J.T.G.

(page 4) It is strange that nothing can be heard from Joe Lennard (note- a family friend serving in the west.) Those Vixburg prisoners have all been paroled and could have certainly gotten a letter home before this.

I have got on a clean shirt to day and you have no idea how proud I am; but I don’t know when the next will come from. I have been almost tempted to hire a negro to wash for me to day (Sunday). Tell Mrs. Cartright that Billy Evans says he is thinking a little hard of her for not writing. You may also say to Mrs. G. that if she don’t do better I shall think hard of her too. Love & a kiss to Mary, Peggy & your Ma. Remember me kindly to all the negroes. Yours etc. J.T.G.

Despite the terrible losses in Pennsylvania and continued shortages, Gay and his fellow soldiers remained defiant and confident,  blithely unaware of the fateful condition of the Confederacy on the heels of disaster that was the Gettysburg Campaign. Yet confidence was not a trait owned solely by Lee’s soldiers. Men in the Army of the Potomac were also confident of success and few would let the cost of Gettysburg pass without a stubborn determination to see the war through to its bitter end.

Selden Connor

Selden Connor while serving as the governor of Maine. (State Archives of Maine; Wikipedia)

The following spring, Colonel Connor marched with the Army into the Wilderness of Virginia though not in command of his old 7th Maine. Promoted to full colonel in January 1864, he took command of the 19th Maine Infantry in Hancock’s Second Corps. Cast into the inferno that was the Battle of the Wilderness, Connor was in temporary command of the brigade on May 6 when seriously wounded by a Confederate ball that broke his thigh bone. Though his condition was considered grave, Connor’s strong stamina and immediate care saved his life. It was soon after his transfer to a Washington hospital when reports reached Maine that Connor had died, reports that he later wrote were “gravely exaggerated;” but the severe wound would prevent his return to the Army. Awarded a brigadier general’s star on June 11, 1864, he convalesced at home in Maine until mustered out of service in 1866. Unfortunately, he re-injured his broken leg that same month and would be confined to his home for an additional two years before he could work again.

Connor went onto a serve in a number of government positions, was a three-term governor of Maine, a Federal pension agent, and president of Northern Banking Company. General Connor died in 1917 and is buried in Augusta.

Fort Stedman, Petersburg

A stereoview of the interior of Fort Stedman, photographed several weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

1st Lieutenant John Gay did not survive the war. On March 25, 1865, Rodes’ old division took part in the surprise attack on Fort Stedman in the Petersburg siege line.  At 4:30 that morning, the 4th Georgia, in Brigadier General Philip Cook’s Brigade, stormed through the outer defenses and into the fort itself where the battle continued unabated for nearly two hours. Union infantry supported by artillery counterattacked and drove the southerners back to the Confederate defenses, across the no man’s land cris-crossed by Union fire. Felled while running the gauntlet, Lt. Gay stumbled into the Confederate lines. He was transported to a Richmond hospital, captured when the city was abandoned a week later. Despite the efforts of Confederate doctors and Union surgeons, Lt. Gay succumbed to his injuries on April 28, 1865, one of last casualties of the war from Georgia. The “fearful cost” of life he had predicted in his August 1863 letter had unfortunately included his own.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

Posted in 4th Georgia Infantry, 7th Maine Infantry, Aftermath, Soldier Life | Leave a comment

A Hard Road to Travel: Two Perspectives on the March to Gettysburg, Part 2

June 1863 was a warm month in northern Virginia, and some days were downright suffocating. As the armies plodded northward, man and animal alike suffered from the intense heat and choking dust.  Scores fell out of the ranks, exhausted and overheated, but the armies pushed onward. By the 25th of the month, the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia was north of the Potomac River, living off the bounty of the lush farms and supplies uncovered in Union warehouses. The columns marching north on dusty roads passed wagons head south filled with raw materials confiscated in Pennsylvania while food, medicine and feed for horses were added to the corps’ baggage and commissary trains. So far, Lee’s advance had been lightly opposed and apparently nothing stood in the way of the Confederates’ incursion into “Yankeedom”.

Carlisle Barracks

US Army quarters at Carlisle Barracks, ca. 1863. (courtesy USAHEC, Carlisle)

On June 26, General Robert Rodes’ Division marched into the town of Carlisle, the seat of Cumberland County, a modest town with numerous stores and businesses with an impressive Greek-revival court house in the town square. Nearby was the US Army’s Carlisle Barracks, of which several of Rodes’ officers were well acquainted with having been stationed there or passed through it when they had been in Federal service prior to the war. Now the barracks were empty of personnel but supplies had left behind, ready for the taking.

The march northward from Waynesboro had gone so rapidly that Rodes was allowed to let his division rest for a day in the town before moving toward the next objective and his soldiers took advantage of the respite to acquire supplies and visit the barracks. Notoriously, a cache of good quality whiskey was discovered and many of the high ranking officers took advantage of the confiscated refreshment, the celebration lasting quite late into the evening hours. Others rested their tired feet, washed their dirty shirts, or attended to other chores. Seated near the camp of Doles’ Brigade, Lt. John Gay of the 4th Georgia Infantry only had one sheet of dust-covered paper to scribble a quick letter to wife:

 Carlisle, Penn
June 27th, 1863

Dear Prudie,

            Without the least opposition our troops took possession of this place yesterday afternoon. It is a beautiful town of about five thousand inhabitants, several colleges, a number of fine churches & a regular Barracks for the U.S. Army. Our brigade is encamped in a beautiful park, encircling perhaps one of the oldest male colleges in the U.S. as it was founded in the year 1783. It is the “Dickinson College”. The (civilians) insist exercises were in progress when we arrived & I presume they did not like the audience, as they were discontinued immediately. This is the first place I have been to in the state where the women wear clean clothes & look really nice. Some of them are quite pretty but I don’t think I shall fall in love with any one here, so you need not be afraid. (page 2) Today is Sunday & we have stopped to eat. Don’t know when we will leave or whither we will go, but I assume we will proceed toward Harrisburg. Eighteen miles more will take us to [section indiscernible] which is the capital of Pa. I sincerely hope we will capture it. There we will probably be revenged for the burning of Jackson, Miss & Dorian, Ga. I received this morning a letter from you dated the 20th. You have no idea how much delighted I was to hear from you. The news was all quite interesting, but I regret to hear that Gus & Anna have to resort to such [indiscernible; letter damaged]. You must excuse short letters for this is the very last bit of paper I have & I know not when I shall get more. Love to all & a heart brimming full of love to my dear little (wife). I would give any thing to see her this evening. Write often and may God bless you. Yours & ever,

J.T.G.

On the march, by Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)

One hundred-plus miles away and south of the Potomac River, the 7th Maine Infantry was likewise settled into a restless bivouac. Like Lieutenant Gay, Lt. Colonel Selden Connor  had also tried to consistently write letters home but his attention had been focused on his duties, both day and night. The Sixth Corps was the last to leave their camps near Falmouth and trailed the rest of the Army of the Potomac as it cautiously marched through northern Virginia. The Third Division under Major General John Newton occupied Fairfax Courthouse and then moved toward Warrenton, the three brigades bivouacking in a large semi-circle to protect the rear of the army. Rumors of Confederate guerillas and mounted raiders made the men a bit jumpy but nothing of great interest threatened the peaceful camps. The men were grateful for the rest and looked after cleaning clothes and taking care of those tired feet.

Head Qtrs 7th Maine Vols
Camp near Bristoe Station
Va. June 25, 1863

My dear father,

            We have had hard work since we broke camp at Falmouth. We marched to Fairfax C.H. and after a stay of a day or two there our division was ordered to this point, about eight miles from Centerville in the direction of Warrenton. I came into camp yesterday from picket duty on the fords of Broad Run and the Occoquan. Our division with two batteries is here all alone, the nearest force being at Centerville. The rest of the 6th Corps is at Fairfax still. It is a beautiful country about here; (page 2) the celebrated “Plains of Manassas” contain some as fine barns as I ever saw. After eating hard bread on my horse for about a week I had a dinner yesterday that I could appreciate- roast lamb, green peas and lettuce. The boys are feasting on cherries which are abundant. I can’t imagine what our single division is put out here for, unless as a sort of picket; we have but four thousand men in all. Our movements are as much of a mystery to us as to people generally; probably Hooker is waiting for Lee to develop his plans a little further.

The army is in good spirits and in fighting shape. My men are well, but they need shoes and clothing badly. We expect a supply today. (page 3) I am in first rate health, only I’m annoyed by a sort of prickly heat contracted during the marches. We have had no mail for a week. I did expect to get home this summer, but the prospect now looks a little dubious. I hear nothing from Col Mason lately. Did I write you that Col. Rodney Mason visited us when we lay on the Rappahannock? My regiment was just behind the hill which skirts the north bank of the river. Gen. Sedgwick’s quarters were in an exposed position on the hill. Towards night the hill was lined with spectators viewing the broad plains on the other side of the river, our forces at work on the entrenchments there and (page 4) the “rebs” beyond. It was a very pretty sight. The Col. and I joined the crowd of lookers on about Gen. Sedgwick’s tents. He admired the scene very much. “Why” said he, “we don’t have such pretty fighting ground as this out west. We have to fight among the bushes and in the swamps. How I’d like to see a little fight here, this is so fine a place to look from.” Just then a battery of the enemy’s opened on us and lodged half a dozen shells within fifty feet of us. We got out of range very suddenly, the Col. remarking that the “practical advantages of that position were not apparent.”

With much love to all, I am your aff. Son

Selden Connor

Within the week, both soldiers would be on the battlefield of Gettysburg, thrown into a desperate and deadly struggle. Gay and Connor would survive the battle but the ordeal that both would face as they marched southward to the Potomac River and Virginia would test more than just their soldierly qualities. Those letters coming in part 3, to be continued.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

Posted in 4th Georgia Infantry, 7th Maine Infantry, Soldier Life, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Hard Road to Travel- Two Perspectives, Part 1

While the three day battle of Gettysburg is certainly the most figurative event in the eastern theater of war during the summer of 1863, the month-long campaign to reach that fateful encounter lasted from early June through mid-July, filled with numerous skirmishes and battles, hardships and heartaches. Arguably, the campaign extended through mid-August as both armies maneuvered through northern Virginia before taking up positions along the Rapidan River.  The campaign that saw the High Water Mark of the Confederacy was an experience the survivors would tell and re-tell through hundreds of letters sent to family and friends; stories, hopes and speculation expressed on paper give the reader insight into the daily routine of soldier life and what they endured on those long lost dusty roads north to the Potomac River and beyond. Here are two of thousands of examples of letters written before and after the battle of Gettysburg, which give us some insight on what these soldiers, North and South, hoped to achieve that summer and their reaction to the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Lt. Colonel Selden Connor, 7th Maine Infantry

Selden Connor- Maine at War

Colonel Selden Connor , 1863 (Maine Historical Society)

Selden Connor was born into a family of means in Fairfield, Maine on January 25, 1839. He attended Tufts College (now university) in Medford, Massachusetts. After graduation in 1859, Connor resided in Vermont where he pursued the study of law. The outbreak of the Civil War abruptly changed his plans, and he volunteered for service as a private in the 1st Vermont Infantry (three-month service) though a chronic sinus condition plagued his brief time with the regiment. Upon hearing that his home state was raising three years’ regiment, he applied to Governor Washburn, Jr. for an officer’s position and was given the rank of lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Organized at Augusta, the 7th Maine mustered into service August 21, 1861, and left the state two days later, bound for Baltimore, Maryland where it was attached to General Dix’s Division for guard and defensive duties. After six months of army re-organization and administrative adjustments, the 7th was finally assigned to the Third Brigade, Second Division, Sixth Army Corps, and its service under the Greek Cross began.  Colonel Connor excelled during this period, the regiment’s drill and inspections were top notch and the men developed a grudging respect for their commander. By the summer of 1863, the experience of war, its victories and defeats, intensity and tedium had hardened Connor and his regiment to the realities of campaigning and what lay ahead, expressed in his letters to family members throughout June:

Camp of the 7th Me Vols.
Near Fairfax Station Va.
June 17, 1863

My dear sister,

          We are after the “rebs”. Old “Strategy” is abroad. Last night was our first real rest since Friday. We left the Rappahannock last Saturday night and we’ve been traveling ever since as if the “devil” himself had kicked us hardly stopping to eat or sleep. It was the hardest march yet, worse than the retreat from Richmond. Men fell out by scores “played out” by the heat, dust and exertion. Some died in the road by sunstroke. This morning the boys (page 2) are as gay as larks; they have rested and washed themselves and soldierlike in the east of the present moment they forget all past hardships. They are anxious too to get at “Johnny Reb”. I am hearty and tough. The “7th” is “few” but neither “faint” or “fearful”. I heard the boys sing last night on the march-

“Then clear the track you rebs,
“Here comes the Seventh Maine;
“Our Colonel is a fighting man,
“His boys are all the same, etc.”

Complimentary, wasn’t it? Our Corps and the 2d are here; we rest here to day. We shall probably be on the move tomorrow. I hope mother is better with you; you must be (page 3) careful not to let her tire herself handling the “new baby”. Give my love to “John Henry Brooks”*. I think I will send him a pair of brass knuckles to enable him to fight his way through this vale of tears. Tell Katie that Uncle Sel loves her best because he didn’t know the boy. Love to mother and Linda. Let me hear from you often.

 As ever,
Sell[1]

[1] Selden Connor Papers, Brown University

(* recently born son of Connor’s sister)

1st Lt. John T. Gay, 4th Georgia Infantry

K, 4th Georgia

Company K, 4th Georgia Infantry, 1861. The LaGrange Light Guards were similarly uniformed and armed. (Library of Congress)

LaGrange, Georgia. Over its thirty-three year history, the seat of Troup County had blossomed into west Georgia’s finest and richest city, a center of commerce, host to several academies and colleges, fine homes and stores, surrounded by sprawling cotton plantations from which members of the “LaGrange Light Guards” were recruited. Monthly drills were a social affair, typically wrapped up with refreshments and social discourse on local events. The Guards’ last drill in LaGrange that warm day in April 1861 was marked by tearful goodbyes as the men boarded a train bound for Augusta where they were destined to be mustered into service as Company B of the 4th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, commanded by the dashing Colonel George Doles. By June 1863, Doles commanded the brigade as it trod northward and across the Potomac River, the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Among the regiment’s junior officers was John T. Gay, who began service as a private in the “LaGrange Light Guards”. Elected 2nd lieutenant in June 1862, Gay was wounded and captured at Sharpsburg that September. Paroled and exchanged in December, Gay recovered in a Petersburg hospital and after a brief furlough returned to the regiment the following winter as a newly minted 1st lieutenant.

The march into Maryland and Pennsylvania was a refreshing relief for Lt. Gay, who had seen so much devastation in Virginia. His letters home, written on scrounged paper and captured envelopes, reflect the same enthusiasm expressed by Colonel Connor, though certainly for different reasons:

Greencastle, Penn
June 23d, 1863

Dear Prudie,

            I have just learned that there would (be) an opportunity of sending a letter to the rear tomorrow, with a probability of getting it mailed; and not withstanding it is almost night, yet I cannot resist the temptation of writing a few lines just to let you know that, although, I have gone back into the Union again, I am alive & well. We have had a long, long tramp and now find ourselves in the dutch settlements lower Pennsylvania. We move forward tomorrow to Chambersburg- cant say (page 2) how much farther we will proceed. We are on a regular raid, gathering up horses, cattle and army stores- have already captured a great many of each, besides over a hundred negroes. All are sent back as soon as captured except such articles as are necessary for the army. The people here are nearly frightened to death. They think we will kill & take & burn every thing as we go. They are, however, happily disappointed in this one thing, as we only appropriate such things as are necessary for the comfort & benefit of the army. The soldiers are not permitted to commit any depredations of any kind. The citizens here are so badly frightened, that they (page 3) stand at their gates, as we pass along the road, with large pails & tubs of water- men & women- and give to the soldiers as they pass along. They even excell our own Southern ladies in waiting upon the soldiers. Anything they have, if you ask for it, you can get. Confederate money is perfectly good with many of them. All this though is done to obtain favor and prevent us from destroying their property. Really they hate us as bitterly as it is possible for mankind to hate. I have no idea how the expedition will turn out or when will return to Va. Before we proceed much further we will probably (page 4) have to meet a tremendous force of Pennsylvania militia. Our officers & men are confident and in high spirits. Our men hold up under the march splendidly. The boys of our company are quite willing. I have just been detailed to act as Quartermaster of the regt. I think I should well like the position most especially as I will have a horse to ride. This, however, is only temporary and I may be sent back to the co. in a few days. Our Quartermaster is with our main wagon train, in the rear & I will act until he comes up again. I haven’t had a letter from you since I left Williamsport. Perhaps I will not have another opportunity to write while I am in this state. (top of page 1) Prudie, I would give anything on earth to be at home to night.  I want to see you very much. I hope you remember me in your prayers. It is night. Love & a kiss to all & may God bless my dear little wife. . J.T.G.[2]

[2] Mary Barnard Nix Collection, University of Georgia

 Coming up in part 2, Connor’s and Gay’s letters home on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

Posted in 4th Georgia Infantry, 6th Army Corps, 7th Maine Infantry, Civilians, Soldier Life | Leave a comment

The Mears Party and the Medal of Honor, Part 2

Tipton view of Valley of Death 1886-88

The “Valley of Death” circa 1884-88. McCandless’ brigade charged across the open ground below Little Round Top to the edge of the Wheatfield. The Althoff Farm buildings in the center of this view were built long after the war, just east of the Weikert house site. (Tipton Photo, GNMP)

The memorable charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves on July 2,1863 was soon history, passed on in soldiers’discussions and newspaper articles. Left out of the printed accounts was the charge of the “Mears Party” that captured over a dozen southerners, a footnote to the success of the Reserves’ rush across the Valley of Death, and with the close of the Gettysburg Campaign, Sergeant George Mears quietly resumed his duties in Company A, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves. Doubtless, the tale of Mears’ courage at Gettysburg was passed among the rank and file but forgotten under the strain of the grueling campaigns in northern Virginia that fall. Sergeant Mears was at his post every day until that fateful November 27, 1863, when his regiment marched onto the battlefield at New Hope Church, Virginia. There a Confederate rifle ball smashed into his left arm near the shoulder, hopelessly destroying the joint and splintering the shoulder bones. Unable to save Mears’ arm, regimental surgeon Charles Powers performed a complicated amputation. The doctor performed a second surgery the following day to remove some of the splintered clavicle and particles of splintered bone that could not be extracted the day before. Powers preserved the shattered remains of Mears’ arm and shoulder bones for study by other surgeons in the US Army Medical Department. (The bones were later transferred to the Army Medical Museum.)

Admitted to the Fairfax Station branch of the First Division General Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, on December 8, Mears’ recovery was slow and difficult.  Transferred from one hospital to another the following year, he eventually arrived at a Philadelphia hospital on October 1, 1864, to be near his home as well as his old regiment, which had just returned to the city that month to be mustered out of service.  The one-armed sergeant mustered out of service the same month as his regiment.

Years passed. In 1881, Mears applied for and received a pension though a clerical error delayed compensation a year or more. By that time he had settled in Rupert, Pennsylvania, married, and become a partner in the Bloomsburg Brick Company. Mears was content with his wartime service to the Union and remained in close contact with comrades who served with him in the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, his brave act at Gettysburg mentioned now and then as a footnote to the battle, notably so among the veterans who visited Gettysburg and rode in carriages to that famous valley in front of the Round Tops. By that time, the land over which the Reserves had made their gallant charge was owned by Samuel Crawford, their former division commander, and appeared very much as it did in 1863.

Plum Run circa 1885

Scene of the charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves as it appeared around 1885. The Round Tops loom in the distance. (William Tipton photo, GNMP)

Fortunately, there was  renewed interest in the story of the Mears Party at Gettysburg  sparked by events in September 1890 when veterans of the “Pennsylvania Reserve Corps” journeyed to Gettysburg to dedicate their regimental monuments. Accompanied by wives and children, the veterans held brief ceremonies at each of the newly installed monuments to McCandless’ and Fisher’s regiments. Of special interest to most was the ongoing development and marking of the battlefield coupled with the many accounts, memoirs and discussions appearing in newspapers across the country. Among the stories retold that day was that of the intrepid sergeant whose bravery and quick thinking on July 2, 1863, had saved numerous lives.

6th PA Reserves

Monument to the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves at Gettysburg, dedicated in 1890. (Tipton, GNMP)

Further recognition was in order. At the annual reunion of the 6th Pennsylvania Veterans Reserve Corps Association in Bloomsburg on August 27, 1896, the discussion centered around the numerous Medals of Honor then being awarded to Union veterans. Among their own group, most believed that George Mears deserved the Medal. Forty members passed a resolution that same day to send a request to the Secretary of War through Congressman Monroe H. Kulp (R- Seventeenth Congressional District, Pennsylvania) to petition for the Medal of Honor to be awarded to George Mears. Congressman Kulp endorsed and forwarded the request to the Secretary on January 29, 1897, complete with affidavits signed by eyewitnesses to the incident and testimony by Mears’ former commander, William Dixon who finished his term of service as lieutenant colonel of the regiment. “Sergeant Mears took five men who volunteered to go with him,” Dixon wrote, “and made a gallant charge, capturing the house and all that were in it… twelve or thirteen prisoners. This was a most hazardous undertaking and I do not believe that there was a braver act performed during the whole battle than this voluntary act in the presence of the enemy’s line.” Dixon concluded that many of the veterans of his regiment “are living today that might have been killed or wounded but for the voluntary act of heroism and the tact and skill displayed in the dangerous undertaking.”

Also included was the personal testimony of Dr. A. B. Jameson, former lieutenant of Company A: “The alacrity with which he (Mears) volunteered to lead a file of men at the colonel’s suggestion, the gallantry and skill displayed in capturing the whole party of sharpshooters, and the successful return to the regiment with twelve or thirteen prisoners of war which by the colonel’s  orders were disarmed and turned over to the provost guard, was an act of bravery which the surviving comrades of his regiment desire to see recognized by a medal of honor.”[i]

Mears, 6th PA Reserves, MOH

George Mears
(Find-A-Grave)

The Secretary of War approved. George Mears was officially awarded the Medal of Honor on February 16, 1897, and two months later a package from the United States War Department containing his inscribed Medal arrived at his residence.  But there were others in the Mears Party who likewise required recognition. Dixon scrambled with others in the 6th PA Reserves Association to identify who the others were and whether they were still alive. Dixon and Mears remembered Chester Furman, Hart and Roush, all of whom received their Medals that summer.  Unfortunately, no one could positively identify Sergeant Wallace Johnson and Corporal Thaddeus Smith as participants and contact between Smith and the Association had long been lost. Even Mears could not recall the names of those involved: “Thirty-six or seven years is a long time to remember,” he wrote in June 1900. “The squad was so quickly formed, the men not counted or their names taken down and I venture none were then thinking of medals of honor. The thing was done with such a rush, names or the number of men were not thought of and … the squad was disbanded as hurriedly as it was called together each returning to his company and place in line of battle, which was then raging. The thing was so quickly done that some of the men on the left of the Regt. did not know of the incident.”  Three years would pass before the two were positively identified as having been members of the Mears Party. It was the close bond of Reserves’ veterans and Johnson’s willingness to come forward that brought him to the attention of Mears: “Mr. Johnson is an honorable gentleman held in high esteem among his comrades. I am told he claims to have been one of the squad, and I hope all the comrades of the party will be able to establish their claim, all are equally entitled to credit.”[i]

Wallace Johnson, 6th PA Reserves

Wallace Johnson
(GNMP)

Wallace Johnson received his Medal on July 30, 1900, and on August 6, wrote to thank Secretary of War G. De Meicklejohn: “I was not thinking of ‘medals of honor’ at the time of my participation in the action at the Battle of Gettysburg for which this medal has been awarded. The consciousness of a duty faithfully and well done, was the only reward anticipated at the time,” Johnson confessed. “I look back upon my war record with, I hope, a pardonable degree of pride. I was with my regiment in its every campaign and battle… was never off duty from sickness, never was severely sick. I never asked for, nor received a furlough, nor leave of absence of any kind… was never away from the regiment for a day, except on account of wounds received in battle (and) have never asked the Gov’t for a pension, nor any recompense whatever. Please accept my sincere thanks for the promptness with which the medal was awarded.” [i]

With medals delivered to five of the party, the identity and location of the sixth member was still in question. Five years after mustering out of service, Thaddeus Smith left Pennsylvania for the west and eventually settled at Port Townsend, Washington. Only a handful of veterans stayed in touch with Smith, who was unaware of the accolades being given members of the Mears Party until a letter from a comrade arrived in his mailbox in 1899, asking “Why is it that all of that party are not so remembered?”   Feeling forgotten and somewhat slighted, Smith responded with questions of his own and finally received an answer from Dr. A.B. Jameson who had also vouched for Mears. Jameson stated he would support Smith’s case.

“Let me first thank you for the interest you have taken,” Smith wrote on January 18, 1900. “I had thought that as I had not received a ‘Medal’ when the rest did that I had been forgotton (sic), but the truth is the boys did not know where I was and I did not appreciate the fact that I have been out of the state since 1869.” The oversight had been a simple one and with feelings soothed, Smith concluded that “sometimes we are a little over sensitive,” while confessing that after 38 years even he was a bit hazy on exactly who had been in the Mears Party that day. Smith’s Medal arrived at his home in Port Townsend on May 13, 1900, the last of the six to be awarded to the valiant group. [ii]

J. Weikert House Site 2018

The site of the John Weikert house, which stood in this field near the edge of the woods. The Mears Party made their dash to the house across this grass-covered meadow. (GNMP)

The log house rushed by Sgt. Mears and his volunteers no longer stands.  After his discharge from service, John Weikert returned to his battle-scarred home and undertook the task of repairing the damage incurred on his small farm. The house was repaired and Weikert even added a frame addition to accommodate his growing family. Unfortunately, the house burned to the ground a year or more after Weikert sold the farm to Francis Althoff in 1876. Althoff abandoned the old house site and constructed a two-story frame house close by. He also added numerous sheds, a summer kitchen, and improved the small barn that still stands today as a physical reminder of the old Weikert farm.

Time was kind to the veterans of the Mears Party. Levi Roush died in 1906 at his home in Newry, Pennsylvania. Thomas Hart, who came from Germany to America as a child and found purpose in serving to preserve the Union, died the following year in Cumberland, Maryland. Chester Furman passed away after a brief illness in Bloomsburg in 1910 and is buried beside his wife and children in Old Rosemont Cemetery. Wallace Johnson, whose Medal of Honor is in the museum collection at Gettysburg National Military Park, died in 1911. George Mears died in 1921 and is also buried in Old Rosemont Cemetery in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. In a somewhat odd twist, Thaddeus Smith, the last of the party to receive the Medal of Honor, was also the last to pass away at Port Townsend in 1933.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg NMP

[i] Wallace W. Johnson to Secretary of War G. De Meicklejohn, August 6, 1900, Wallace W. John Medal of Honor fie, NARA.

[ii] Letter of Thaddeus Smith to Dr. A.B. Jameson, January 18, 1900, Thomas Smith Medal of Honor file, NARA

[i] Letter by George W. Mears, June 20, 1900, Wallace Johnson Medal of Honor file, NARA

[i] George W. Mears Medal of Honor file, NARA.

Posted in 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, Historical Memory, Medal of Honor at Gettysburg | 3 Comments

The Mears Party and the Medal of Honor, Part 1

Extraordinary incidents occur in the whirlwind of battle and the Battle of Gettysburg certainly has its share- heroism, cowardice, curiosity, gallantry and even humor. Few incidents are more enthralling than those which earned an individual the cherished Medal of Honor and sixty four Federal soldiers received that honor at Gettysburg. While most of the cases are well known, such as the courage displayed by Lt. Alonzo Cushing on July 3, 1863 (awarded in 2014), the incident that justified the award for six soldiers of the 35th Pennsylvania Infantry/6th Pennsylvania Reserves has been somewhat of a mystery to those who study the battle.

The 6th Pennsylvania Reserves was a battle-experienced regiment in Colonel William McCandless’ First Brigade that also included the 1st, 2nd and 13th Pennsylvania Reserve regiments. Colonel Joseph Fisher’s Second Brigade completed the division of Pennsylvania Reserves which rejoined the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, near Frederick, Maryland, after a brief respite near Washington. Designated as the Third Division of the Fifth Corps, the Pennsylvanians marched northward the next day, eventually crossing the Mason-Dixon Line and into Pennsylvania. Few of the soldiers truly believed they would ever be cast into a battle on their home soil.

After days of hard marching, the Reserves arrived on the battlefield around mid-afternoon of July 2. The toughened soldiers had just sat down to rest and locate a good well, when a staff officer galloped up with orders or them to rush to the southern end of the embattled Union line where the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The Confederate attack was crushing the Union left and every soldier with a musket was needed. Despite some confusion with directions, the Reserves pressed on to the Taneytown Road where they turned southward for some distance before cutting through a trampled meadow and onto the northern slope of Little Round Top overlooking the soon to be named “Valley of Death”. The scene before them was not encouraging. Union troops under attack in the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den were reeling back in disorder, closely pursued by Confederate troops under Brigadier General William Wofford. Joined by General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, the Confederate line swept eastward in a massive charge and stormed into Plum Run valley.  Following their red battle flags, the Confederates sloshed across the swampy plain right up to base of Little Round Top where Captain Frank Gibbs’ Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery had just rolled into position and opened fire. Shell and canister did not appear to be enough to stop the charge as southern bullets whizzed through the battery and over the heads of McCandless’s regiments, arranged close by the battery in a double line of battle. It was at this critical moment when General Samuel Crawford, commanding the division of Reserves, reined in his horse before Colonel McCandless, pointed into the valley, and ordered a charge. Bayonets clanged onto rifle barrels as the order to advance echoed along the line.  McCandless and Crawford led the sweeping charge, scattering the first line of southerners while those who followed hurriedly retraced their steps to the Wheatfield.  Confederate officers attempted to rally their men but the lines melted away as the Pennsylvanians came closer.

Briscoe painting of PA Reserves

The charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Gettysburg. This early rendition by Franklin Briscoe looks south into the valley, the smoke-covered Round Tops looming in the distance. (Gettysburg NMP)

Slogging through the morass that was Plum Run, McCandless’ troop halted to return fire on the Confederates who rallied at the stonewall bordering the edge of the Wheatfield. Observing the left of his first line was exposed to a heavy fire from the southwest, Colonel McCandless ordered the 2nd and 13th Reserves from the second line to form on the left of the first, which extended his front some distance to match the southern resistance. The 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, commanded by Lt. Colonel Wellington Ent, was on the right of the first line and with all of their attention focused to the front, no one noticed a group of southerners who took refuge in a log house at the edge of some woods to the right of the regiment. The humble home of John T. Weikert, who was away serving as a soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry at the time, had been abandoned by Weikert’s wife earlier in the day. Once inside, the unwanted house guests quickly realized they had a perfect view of McCandless’ line and soon enough, bullets began whizzing into the Pennsylvania ranks with what seemed to be unerring accuracy.

In his position just behind the firing line of Company A, Sergeant George W. Mears saw men hit and fall. The sergeant turned just in time to see puffs of rifle smoke coming from the doorway and windows of the house.  Mears immediately went to Captain William Dixon, standing at the lieutenant colonel’s post: “(Mears) reported to me that the enemy was occupying a log house on our immediate right flank and were picking off our officers and men. The regiment was hotly engaged and could not spare a company from the line, but by my verbal orders, Sergeant Mears took five men who volunteered to go with him and made a gallant charge.”[i]

McCandless' Brigade charge 7-2-63

Charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves through the Valley of Death at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863. Sgt. Mears’ probable route to attack the log house is shown by an arrow. (map by author)

Sergeant Mears collared Corporal Chester Furman from his own company and was soon joined by Sergeant John W. Hart and Corporal J. W. Roush of Company D. As Mears was explaining the mission, Sergeant Wallace W. Johnson of Company G and Corporal Thaddeus Smith of Company E arrived. The hastily formed “Mears Party” with Sergeant Mears leading, immediately set out for the Weikert house, no more than 80 feet away. The soldiers raced across a pasture of ankle high grass, crawled over a fence and pressed themselves against the rough-hewn log walls. Mears shouted for the Confederates to throw down their arms and surrender before bursting through the door, closely followed by Furman and two others. The small house was full of Confederates; more than a dozen men accompanied by a young sergeant. Shocked at how quickly the tables had turned, the trapped soldiers turned their weapons upside down and filed out the house under the watchful eye of Mears’ fellow soldiers who ordered them to run to the closest regiment, the 6th Reserves, just then preparing to renew the charge to the Wheatfield.  With more urgent business at hand, Captain Dixon ordered the captives to throw down their rifles and accoutrements where they stood. The hapless prisoners were whisked to the rear under guard and the Reserves pushed ahead, scattering the last groups of defiant Confederates who bolted through the trodden wheat. The Pennsylvanians began to give chase when Colonel McCandless was ordered by General Crawford to go no further, but rally his regiments there at the stone wall on the field’s eastern boundary. Here they would remain until late the next day, July 3, when the brigade would advance, clear the Wheatfield and almost annihilate the 15th Georgia Infantry in a running fight through Rose Woods.

July 4 was far from a holiday for the Reserves. Details from McCandless’ brigade gathered over 3,000 discarded rifles and muskets from the battlefield along with countless sets of accoutrements and other government property. Others with shovels and picks buried the dead of both sides. Companies were deployed as skirmishers opposite the Confederate line on Seminary Ridge, dodging the occasional bullet from southern counterparts. Few spoke of the events of the preceding day, but lamented the loss of comrades whom they laid beneath the soil of their native state. It was the final scene of a long and exhausting week for the Reserves.

We should consider what goes through the mind of a soldier and how well one can process a series of events such as those experienced at Gettysburg by these Pennsylvanians- the hard march through Maryland, the race to the Union left, the charge through the Valley of Death, the defiant line reformed to place fire on the mass of retreating Confederates, the dangerous occupation of an exposed position for nearly twenty four hours while tortured by the moans of helpless wounded between the lines. Considering all this in the chaotic chain of events, how could the story of George Mears and his party be remembered? Certainly there were handshakes after the Mears Party had returned with the prisoners and perhaps later that evening after the charge was over. Lieutenant John McWilliams in Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves congratulated Sergeant Johnson “upon getting back with a whole hide” as he rejoined the regiment. The others probably received similar salutations but with the onset of darkness, their close proximity to the enemy, exhaustion and attention to other details, the success of the Mears Party that day soon became little more than a side note to the story of the Pennsylvania Reserves’ charge in the “Valley of Death”.[i]

To be continued.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

[i] Sworn statement of John McWilliams, May 2, 1900, included in “Case of Wallace W. Johnson, Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves Infantry Volunteers, Application for award of medal of honor for gallantry in action at Gettysburg”, Wallace W. Johnson Medal of Honor File, NARA.

[i] William D. Dixon to the Secretary of War, December 22, 1896, included in “Case of George W. Mears, Company A, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, Application for award of medal of honor….” George W Mears Medal of Honor file, NARA.

Posted in 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, Romances of Gettysburg, Veterans | Tagged | Leave a comment

Gettysburg and the Great War

On May 22, 1917, park officials were notified that Gettysburg would be the site of a U.S. Army training camp for infantry. Fully committed to the support of France and Britain in the Great War raging in Europe, the United States War Department had undertaken a rapid mobilization of men and material, so large that about every square inch of Federally-owned property had to be used for the purpose of induction and training. Gettysburg National Military Park was no exception. Established in 1895 under the administration of the United States War Department, the legislation creating the park stated its use as a training ground for National Guard units and the regular United States Army. The sight of khaki uniforms on park grounds and in the borough was not uncommon between 1900 and 1910, but most of the encampments had lasted no more than three or four weeks. This encampment would last much longer as the park’s role changed from commemoration of a great battle to that of a military post.

C-D 58th INF 1917

Companies C & D, 58th United States Infantry at Gettysburg, 1917

The first contingent of the 4th United States Infantry Regiment arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park on June 2 to begin training and re-organization for service overseas with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F). From the core of this regiment, the 58th and 59th United States Infantry regiments were organized. Throughout June and July, train loads of inductees arrived and settled into the camp routine. Four encampments, one for each battalion, were erected on the historic Codori, Trostle and Spangler Farms, with shops and quartermaster sheds built near the historic Angle, west of Hancock Avenue. Headquarters was located on the Emmitsburg Road on the site of  the 50th Anniversary Great Camp camp headquarters.

Basic training began in earnest that summer, the new men schooled in military etiquette, discipline, equipment and weapons, marching, and a rigorous program of exercise with road marches throughout the park and over back roads of Adams County. Popular at the time were panoramic photographs taken with specially outfitted cameras with gears that allowed the camera to pivot on its tripod. These “wide angle” panoramic images like the one above were typically of cities and mountain ranges though the military found a new use for this format. Panoramic images of company-sized units and even regiments became popular during the Great War period and thousands were produced by enterprising photographers who embraced the new technology and found a high demand for their services.

C-D 58th US Infantry detailDuring the warm summer of 1917, this photo of Companies C & D, 58th United States Infantry was taken at Devil’s Den by an assistant of Gettysburg photographer William Tipton. Recently found in a flea market in the Midwest, its remarkable condition shows the summer uniform worn by these soon to be dubbed “doughboys”, posing with their brand new Model 1903 Rifles. The soldiers in this photo were among those who trained at Gettysburg until November 1917 when the regiments left for Camp Greene, North Carolina. The 58th and 59th Infantry Regiments, both activated at Gettysburg, were designated the 8th Infantry Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division (“Ivy”), which completed its organization that December. The Fourth Infantry Division embarked for France the following April and saw its first action in the offensive at St. Mihiel in September 1918, quickly followed by the Meuse-Argonne campaign and subsequent battles up to the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

What had been the U.S. Infantry Training Camp at Gettysburg National Military Park officially closed in November 1917, only to be reopened the following spring as Camp Colt, training ground of the fledgling United States Army Tank Corps under the command of Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower.  It’s obvious to historians why Camp Colt gets more attention than the infantry training camp, though the story of the latter has come to the fore as we observe the centennial of the First World War, the arrival of the A.E.F. in France and the anniversary of the first American death in that war- Private Joseph William Guyton, 126th U.S. Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division, on May 24, 1918.

As we study the faces in this photograph, we have little doubt that a number of these young Americans were among the 13,000 casualties suffered by the Fourth Infantry Division in the five severe campaigns it was engaged in 100 years ago. Like the stoic and sometimes disturbing images of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on the battlefield of Gettysburg, this photograph, taken so many years after the carnage of that battle, carries the same haunting weight.

-John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

(A special thanks to Mr. David Finney for sharing this photograph and Mr. John Heckman for his efforts to honor the memory of Private Guyton. )

Posted in Historical Memory, Photography, U.S. Army and Gettysburg, World War I | 4 Comments