We at Gettysburg National Military Park are fortunate to have so many visitors who come to the park with unique documents and photos handed down through their families. Last week was no exception when a visitor from Texas walked through the door and showed the staff at the information desk the somewhat faded photo of an ancestor and veteran of Gettysburg, who returned in 1886 to have his photograph taken at the exact spot where he and some of his comrades nearly lost their lives in the horrendous fighting on July 2, 1863. What makes the story so unique is the handwritten description on the back, penned by a man who was actually a Gettysburg native and one of those few who fought near his boyhood home.
George Wesley Hancock Stouch was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1842, and moved with family members to Kentucky in the mid-1850’s. Mustered into service in Kentucky on November 30, 1861, Private Stouch was assigned to Company B, 11th United States Infantry and evidently found his niche in army life. Promotions rapidly followed and by January 1863, Stouch was wearing the stripes of sergeant major of the 11th United States Infantry, the highest ranking post for a non-commissioned officer in the regiment. Assigned to the Second Brigade commanded by Col. Sidney Burbank, Second Division under General Romeyn Ayres, in the Fifth Corps, his regiment had seen heavy action with the Army of the Potomac from Second Bull Run to Chancellorsville. By the evening of July 1, 1863, these footsore “Regulars” had marched through Maryland and into Pennsylvania in pursuit of Lee’s invading army, covering hundreds of miles since mid-June and they were probably thankful when the call came for a halt that evening, the bivouac approximately five miles from Gettysburg. The rest was brief; roused at 3:30 AM, the brigade marched toward Gettysburg where they went into a reserve position behind the center of the Union line. The scale of the fighting grew in intensity until 5:00 when the brigade was ordered to move to the field north of Little Round Top where, “we were ordered to advance in a line of battle, passing from the shelter of a wood across an open field, through which ran a morass.” (Report of Major Lancey Floyd-Jones, 11th United Infantry)
Burbank’s brigade reached a stone wall bordering the soon to be infamous Wheatfield, where they lay in line for a half hour before moving forward to relieve other Union troops engaged in the tumultuous fighting. Wheeling to the left, the entire line blazed away at Confederate troops in the woods ahead of them until a heavy column of southerners suddenly appeared on the right flank of the line. With his comrades of the 11th US, Sergeant Stouch could see the entire line was in jeopardy and under orders to withdraw, the regiment began to retreat. Leaving the ridge and into the valley behind, events quickly went from bad to worse when “we became exposed to a cross fire of the enemy, the effect of which was most deadly upon officers and men.” (Report of Major Lancey Floyd-Jones, 11th United Infantry). Unwilling to race away from the danger, most of the Regulars stood their ground or retired slowly, costing each regiment dearly. The Confederate force was overwhelming and raced into the valley after the now scattered soldiers. Among these was Sergeant Stouch who refused to leave a wounded soldier behind.
Twenty three years later, the aging soldier returned to the site where death had stared him in the face, to have his photograph taken at a very special place:
“I was Sergt Major 11th US. Infantry, at Gettysburg and was captured about 5 o’clock p.m. July 2d by ‘Cobb’s Georgia Legion’ of Wofford’s Brigade, McLaws’ Division, Longstreets Corps, at the repulse & retreat of our Brigade, the 2d (Regulars) of the 2d Division, 5th Army Corps. From this position on the crest, near the ‘wheat field’ and in the wood between the wheat-field and ‘Devils Den’, in front of Little Round Top, I was captured while helping to carry to the rear with us Luis Pettee (2d Lt. Lemuel Pettee) of our Regt, who was wounded while in the retreat(.) we were caught at the rock, and ordered by the Rebels to go behind it, to protect ourselves from the fire of our own men on Little Round Top, and those who had reformed at the foot, to resist the charge of the Rebels. With me behind the rock were Lieut Elder (1st Lt. Matthew Elder), Pettee, Sergt Price , Prvts Smith & Cooke all of the 11th Infty. Pettee & Elder, were wounded(.) Elder died from the effects of his wound on the 8th of July. We were prisoners until about 5:30 PM when we were recaptured by Crawford’s Division of ‘Pennsylvania Reserves,’ who drove back the Rebels beyond the wood we had occupied.”
Though about to be retaken by Crawford’s men, the true danger of their predicament was about to be realized: “To the right of us looking from Little Round Top, across a small ravine and on a rocky ledge running perpendicular to Little Round Top, between us and the Division, were a lot of Rebel Sharpshooters behind rocks(.) One of them about 50 yards from us… saw we were about to be recaptured, (and) commenced firing at us. I was sitting where Mamma (the woman in the center of the photo) is standing; on my right Cooke, next to him Smith and on the extreme right Price. Elder’s head resting on my lap(,) he lying on his back, Pettee in the same position with his head on Smith’s lap. The first shot fired at us struck Cooke in the fore-head killing him instantly, the next shot struck Price in the neck inflicting a severe wound, the third struck me in the left wrist, while I was supporting Elder’s head he drinking at the time from a canteen; in an instant after I was hit, we were recaptured and the Rebel Sharpshooters ran back over the rocky ledge towards the rear of Devils Den.”
Grateful to be rescued from their precarious position, Sergeant Stouch and his wounded comrades were taken to a field hospital. “My wound was very severe,” Stouch continued. The ball had struck his wrist and broken bones of the joint. “The surgeons want(ed) to amputate it that night, but I objected and did not have an operation performed until about 5 o’clock PM on the 4th, when they resected about 1 1/4 inch of the radius. It was about fourteen months before it was entirely healed.”
While he convalesced in York, Pennsylvania, Stouch was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and returned to the army the following year assigned to the 3rd United States Infantry. The end of the war was not the end of his military career. Lieutenant Stouch was eventually promoted to captain and then major as the Chief of Commissary and Subsistence for U.S. Volunteers during the Spanish American War. A grateful nation bestowed the rank of lt. colonel at the time of his retirement in 1904, and the old soldier retired to his home near Washington, attending a handful of veteran reunions. Colonel Stouch died in 1908 and is buried with his wife in Arlington National Cemetery.
For his entire career in military service, it had to be that one day at Gettysburg that held so much horror as well as fascination for the old soldier- so important that he revisit the field and that site of painful memories to share with his wife, son and daughter. “This Photo was taken about 4 P.M. the 2d of July 1886,” Stouch finished his descriptive note; “the 23rd Anniversary of the battle.”
Stouch wrote his description for the photo the following month and after 23 years, names of the soldiers who were with him behind that boulder obviously escaped his memory. 2d Lt. Lemuel Pettee of Co. B, 11th US Infantry, the first officer who was being assisted to the rear by Stouch, was severely wounded by a gunshot that shattered his leg “above the ankle”. Despite the injury that should have ended his career, Pettee remained in service, receiving a brevet promotion to Captain in 1865 for gallantry in action at Gettysburg. 1st Lt. Matthew Elder, the young officer cradled in Stouch’s lap, had been shot in the left knee, an injury that proved to be more severe than the glancing blow of the gunshot to his neck while behind the boulder. Elder’s leg was amputated above the knee by surgeons at the Fifth Corps field hospital, where he died on July 25. The other soldiers referred to in the narrative are inconclusive though “Cooke” who sat next to the sergeant major was probably Sgt. Alfred E. Cook, Co. G. Cook was not killed as Stouch recalled, but severely wounded in the left knee, shattered by a shot possibly from the sharpshooter who hit the others. His leg was amputated and though he appeared to rally, Sgt. Cook died August 10 at Camp Letterman. He is buried in the U.S. Regulars Plot, Row D, grave 21, in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
One of the greatest gifts of working at a historical park like Gettysburg is that so often we rediscover some long-forgotten story about the men who served on this symbolic battlefield, thanks quite often to the humble offerings of a park visitor. Every element of the park tells a story, not only in text and photographs, but in the physical elements that still survive 152 years after. On a warm June day as I stood in the high grass near the boulder by which then-Captain Stouch posed with his family in 1886, another piece of the fascinating puzzle of battle-related history fell into place. Most importantly, the personal story of Stouch and his fellow soldiers in the thick of deadly combat came to life thanks to his scribbled note on the back of an old photo and the cold gray granite boulder that still sits quietly and unnoticed in the “Valley of Death”.
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park
Thanks to Ashley Miller, Penn State University and summer intern at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her assistance with the transcription of Stouch’s narrative and park volunteer Rob Shoemaker for his assistance with the visitor who brought this to our attention.