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.
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.
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]
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 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]
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.
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.