On September 18, 1892, veterans of the 149th New York Volunteer Infantry met once again upon the battlefield of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania. As with many veterans groups who returned to Gettysburg years after the battle, their purpose that day was to dedicate a monument to the action which had taken place during those three days of July 1863, twenty-nine years before. The 149th New York had been one of the key regiments in the Army of the Potomac on July 2, 1863, holding the right flank of the Union battle line under severe pressure that evening as the sun set behind the Pennsylvania hills. Earlier that day, most of the 12th Corps had been sent elsewhere to reinforce the center of the Union battle line along Cemetery Ridge, leaving behind just one brigade of infantry under the command of Brigadier General George Sears Greene to hold Culp’s Hill. Backed up by battered units from the 1st and 11th Corps, which had suffered 50% losses fighting the day before north and west of town, Greene and his men—roughly 1,300 in number—had held off enemy attackers from the division of Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, over 5,000 strong. For over two hours, Greene’s men used the landscape around them, which they had worked at transforming with breastworks earlier that day, to repulse the repetitive Confederate assaults. When the guns fell quiet that evening, Johnson’s Confederates had gained a foothold at the base of Lower Culp’s Hill, but Greene’s soldiers still held the summit, anchoring the right flank of the Army of the Potomac.
In the midst of that heavy fighting, there were numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and sacrifice, many of which are not well known today. While popular history has afforded great notoriety to actions elsewhere on the fields of Gettysburg, Culp’s Hill and the men of George Greene’s brigade seem to languish in the shadows of history. Just as darkness covered them in their evening fight on Culp’s Hill, so too they and their stories are largely in the dark reaches of obscurity in popular renderings and histories of the battle.
In the dedicatory speeches delivered that day in 1892, however, the veterans of Greene’s brigade shined a light on the heroic acts of their comrades from twenty-nine years earlier. Among the names mentioned repeatedly was that of William Lilly.
William C. Lilly enlisted in the 149th New York in the summer of 1862, answering President Lincoln’s call of that summer for 300,000 new volunteers to fill the Union ranks and put down the rebellion. When he signed up, he was thirty-three years old. He had been married for nearly fourteen years when he joined the army. He and his wife, Mary Newbury, were wed on Christmas Eve in 1849 in their hometown of Syracuse, New York. Mary and William never had any children of their own, but that did not stop them from being parents. In 1851, they adopted a two year old boy and named him William H. Lilly. By the time the war began, the young William was a teenager. He and his mother Mary stayed at home while the elder William Lilly went off to fight.
In the months preceding the Battle of Gettysburg, Lilly gained experience and rose through the ranks. In March of 1863, he was promoted from corporal to the regiment’s color sergeant. He was to have the honor of bearing the regimental flag in battle for the 149th New York. At Chancellorsville in May, Lilly was wounded, but remained with the command. Indeed, he was with his regiment on July 2, when the men took position on Culp’s Hill just southeast of the town of Gettysburg.
The flag which Lilly carried at Gettysburg was the symbol and pride of the regiment, and of their home, Onondaga County. In May of 1962, the Onondaga Historical Society published a booklet on the Civil War flags which were in their care and collection. Among them was the flag of the 149th New York, the same one which Lilly held on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd. The flag was described as such:
“The flag is of the best silk, made of the regulation dimensions, bordered with heavy yellow silk fringe, and the 34 stars in the field richly embroidered. Across the middle of the stripes is the inscription: Presented to the 149th regiment, NYSV by the officers of Onondaga Salt Springs, September 1862. An extension staff for this elegant flag is mounted with an elaborate golden eagle, just below which hang rich bullion cords and tassels. The flag and its attachments are of the best quality and manufacture. Its cost was about one hundred dollars.”
As the Confederate attackers swept up the wooded hillside that evening, Lilly planted the flag of the 149th New York on the breastworks that the men had built earlier that day. As the heavy rate of fire intensified on both sides, the flag became a focal point for Confederate bullets. By some accounts, the flag was pierced by over eighty bullets during the fighting that night. This storm of lead tore apart the fine silk and fractured the staff. Once the staff was broken, the flag fell forward, off the breastworks and toward the charging enemy.
Bullet riddled trees on Culps Hill. A testament to the ferocity of the fighting there.
In this moment of intense firing, at great risk to his own life, Sergeant Lilly jumped forward into action. He crossed the breastworks, grasped the fractured flag staff and pulled the tattered colors back behind Union lines. Realizing the importance of keeping the flag flying during such a crucial moment, Lilly began fixing the flag staff itself. He broke apart the tops of ammunition boxes, using the fragments of wood to straighten the broken flag staff, tying it together with the leather straps he had removed from his knapsack. In this moment of ingenuity, when he and his comrades were being attacked by an entire division, five times their strength, Lilly was acting to save the symbol of the Union which his brothers in arms were fighting to save. Seeing the tattered flag, with its mended staff, emerge back atop the breastworks helped to renew the fighting spirit of the men of the 149th New York.
When the fighting subsided, Greene’s men had successfully repulsed the Confederate assaults. The following morning, fighting would resume at Culp’s Hill. The rest of the 12th Corps returned to their positions and were forced to fight back the Confederates who had made gains there the night before. The 12th Corps proved itself successful on July 3rd, reclaiming the lower slopes of Culp’s Hill and repulsing several more waves of Confederate attackers. The right flank of the Union was safe, and the route of supplies and communication along the Baltimore Pike was secure. All that would have been rendered moot without the bravery of Greene’s men on the night of July 2nd.
For William Lilly, as well as the rest of the 12th Corps, 1863 had more fighting in store for them. Several months after their success at Gettysburg, the men of the 11th and 12th Corps were hurried west to Chattanooga to help save the embattled and beleaguered Army of the Cumberland. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had nearly cut off the Union soldiers in Chattanooga from all outside assistance and supplies. In late October, it fell to some of the 12th Corps soldiers who held Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg to break through the impasse. On October 28, during fighting at Wauhatchie, Tennessee, Lilly was shot through the thigh and severely wounded. He was taken to a hospital in Bridgeport, Alabama, where he lingered. While in the hospital, Oliver Browne of the 149th observed Lilly in a moment of compassion with a wounded Confederate soldier.
Just after the battle of Wauhatchie, where Lilly was mortally wounded, he was transferred, in a cold driving rain-storm, from an open field hospital to an ambulance for transportation to the rear. In the same vehicle was a desperately wounded Confederate soldier, half naked and shivering cold. Poor Lilly, although suffering from pain and chilled from loss of blood, observed his fellow traveler, and being moved with compassion, remarked, “My friend, I guess I will have to share my blanket with you,” and suiting the action to the word, withdrew a part of the covering his friend had tenderly placed about him and wrapped it around his pristine foe.
Within a few days, Lilly was dead. He succumbed to his wound on November 2, 1863. He was thirty-four years old. His remains were brought home to Syracuse, where he was buried.
During that same fighting at Wauhatchie, other heroes of Culp’s Hill fell in battle. Most notably, George Greene himself was hit, with a Confederate bullet passing through his lower jaw. Greene’s wound effectively ended his Civil War combat career, though Greene would live until 1899.
The regimental flag which Lilly had saved would live beyond him. While Lilly died in early November, the fighting around Chattanooga continued for some time. Several weeks after Sgt. Lilly succumbed to his wounds, a new Color Sergeant, John Kiggins, bravely held aloft the same flag as the men advanced headlong into artillery fire on the slopes of Lookout Mountain. During their charge on November 24, 1863, the men of the 149th came under artillery bombardment from both Northern and Southern guns. Realizing the peril this crossfire was creating, Kiggins stood up on a stump and waved the regimental flag, signaling the Union guns to halt their friendly fire. Kiggins continued forward, carrying the flag up to the top of Lookout Mountain, and for his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming one of six soldiers of the 149th to receive the nation’s highest award during the Civil War.
Because of the damage done to the battle flag in 1863, the regiment received a new one in 1864. The new flag was carried through the Atlanta Campaign, where the regiment took part in heavy fighting at Peachtree Creek on July 20, 1864. The men then participated in Sherman’s famed March to the Sea, campaigning in the Carolinas, and helping to ensure the final defeat of the Confederacy. Having performed valiantly on many a battlefield, the 149th mustered out on June 12, 1865.
For the men of the 149th New York who gathered on the wooded slopes of Culp’s Hill in 1892, though William Lilly was no longer with them, the memory of his actions that day still lingered.
Captain George Collis was one of the speakers that day. In his remarks that day, Collins spoke of the monument design which the men had chosen, describing the brass relief which adorned the stone on Culp’s Hill.
When a design was first broached, a statue placed on a suitable pedestal was suggested, and a pleasing and an appropriate subject was sought after. The courageous act of Color Sgt. William C. Lilly, who during the engagement at this place saw the staff of his colors while standing on yon breastwork shot in twain, gathered up the pieces and coolly, under fire, mended the broken member with splints from a cracker box and straps from his knapsack, was recalled. It resulted in a design drafted by Comrade George J. Sager, representing this act of heroism of our color bearer.
Afterwards a tablet was suggested by General Barnum [Col. Henry Barnum commanded the 149th at Gettysburg; he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Lookout Mountain in November 1863] showing breastworks and men under fire placed behind it; this resulted in the embodiment of the two ideas blended in one design.
Relief on the monument of the 149th New York, depicting Lilly splicing the flag staff. Image courtesy of Stone Sentinels.
For some today, it might seem strange that the remembrances of a regiment would focus so heavily on a soldier rescuing and fixing their flag in the midst of such a pivotal fight. The monument does not feature a bayonet charge or an officer who was slain defending the line, but a soldier who used broken ammunition boxes to fix a flag staff. Perhaps that is illustrative of what soldiers cherished both during and after the war. To the men of the 149th, the flag which they carried was a symbol of all they fought to save. Preserving the flag was as important as preserving the Union, and Sergeant William Lilly’s efforts helped to do both, giving the men strength to continue fighting in the midst of their most trying hours.
In remarks dedicating the monument to the 149th New York, Colonel Lewis Stegman, who had led the 102nd New York at the battle, had this to say of Lilly’s heroic actions.
And what of the One hundred and forty-ninth in these perilous hours? Right here it stood, here it fought, here it mastered the foe. In its historic character it is part of Greene’s Brigade, at Culp’s Hill, but just upon this spot is defined its own personality… here Lilly twice spliced the flagstaff shot from his hands as he reared them aloft, riddled and town by eighty gaping wounds. Does that tell a tale? It means that where that flag stood was an ordeal of death; that the men who defended it that night and the next day, who fired their muskets and held their swords, were worthy to be enshrined with the noblest, the bravest, and the truest of soldiers who have ever lived in any generation. Here they proved a heroism never surpassed in the annals of warfare.
Nine years after the men of the 149th dedicated their monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, in 1901, Captain George Collins wrote of the lasting significance of the regimental flag which Lilly had rescued in the fire of battle thirty-eight years before. Thanks to the efforts of Lilly, and of others, the flag was preserved and on display in Onandoga County clerk’s office in New York, where all could see it as a testament to the tenacity of those who fought to preserve the Union during its darkest and most trying of hours.
“To the present generation, this flag means little, but to me it is almost as dear as my life. Often I go to County Clerk’s office and look at it lovingly, and as I do so the tears invariably creep into my eyes as I think what that old flag means to me and to all the members of the old One Hundred and Forty-ninth regiment. They worship that flag and prize it as one of the most precious of their earthly possessions.”
Ranger Daniel Vermilya
Gettysburg National Military Park