A Mystery Solved? Part 3

Who are they?  These dead men.  To Alexander Gardner and most of us who have viewed this image over the years they are tragic and grotesque props on a terrible stage.  We view them with revulsion but also curiosity.  Yet we are emotionally detached.   For nearly 150 they have remained anonymous Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.  With no unit designation or names there is no personal connection.  But every man in this image had a name and probably a family somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York that on the day Alexander Gardner took these images waited anxiously for word about their loved one they knew had probably been in the great battle.    

    I have searched to find someone who might have described this area, or might have been a member of the burial detail that is visible in two of the series of images.   My search discovered one man who passed through this ground or very close to it.  He was Edwin M. Gearhart, a soldier in the 142nd Pennsylvania, which occupied the right flank of Colonel Chapman Biddle’s brigade’s position on eastern McPherson’s Ridge [although the 151st Pennsylvania fought to the 142nd’s right they were detached and fought independent of the brigade line].  Gearhart was wounded west of the Seminary and captured on July 1 after the action near the Seminary ended.  His captor led him to the Confederate rear with some other prisoners.  Their path took them near the area which Gardner photographed four days later.  Gearhart recalled; “I was surprised to see so few dead and wounded rebels as I passed back over the ground but there was plenty of ours scattered around.  As we passed over the ridge where our men had first stood in line it could easily be traced by the blue line of fallen men of whom were lying right on their backs or upon their bellies, in fact they lay in all kinds of positions.”  [In the Years of ’62 to ’65: Personal Recollections of Edwin R. Gearhart A Veteran, Vertical File V6-PA142, GNMP] The line that Gearhart describes can be discerned in the photograph above, extending from the soldiers in the foreground down toward the burial detail in the distance.

    The burial detail that appears in some of Gardner’s images from this series might be from Gearhart’s regiment.  I could find no evidence that the 20th NYSM or 121st Pennsylvania were able to send out burial details to the July 1 battlefield, but the 142nd Pennsylvania definitely did.   In a history of the regiment, Horatio N. Warren, a captain at Gettysburg, related that the officers and men of each company of the regiment “devise all means in their power to render some assistance to our wounded and to bury our dead comrades with as much respect and love as it is possible for us to show them under the existing circumstances.  Visiting Seminary Ridge [actually eastern McPherson’s Ridge], where we were first engaged on the morning [afternoon] of the first, we find our dead lying where they fell, and their upturned faces black from the burning rays of the scorching sun, so that it was with much difficulty we were enabled to distinguish one from the other.” [Horatio N. Warren, The Declaration of Independence and War History (Buffalo: The Courier Co., 1894, 32] In Gardner’s photograph we can see the upturned faces, black and swollen from the burning rays of the sun.  That identification was difficult is borne out by the list of killed in the 20th NYSM and 121st Pennsylvania.  Only 2 of the 39 men killed in action in these two regiments on July 1 lay as identified burials in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery today.      

    In my first post on this series of photographs I mentioned that I had encountered circumstantial evidence long ago that Confederate soldiers had removed useable clothing from Union dead, including pants and uniform coats.  But when I examined this more closely in the research for these posts I found no evidence to support this so far as the first day’s battlefield was concerned.  Captain Warren made no mention of the dead being stripped of uniforms, and neither did 1st Corps Artillery Chief, Colonel Charles Wainwright, who observed the burials on July 5.  [Allan Nevins, ed., A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright (Gettysburg, PA: Stan Clark Military Books, 1962), 254]  

    Knowing what units the men in these images belonged allows us to make an informed guess as to whom some of them are.  One might be Private Amos Treat, of Company D, 20th New York State Militia.  Treat served with his brother Daniel.  He last words were reportedly “stick to the colors, boys,” before he was shot in the head and chest and killed.  Not far from Treat, Private Reuben C. Van Luven, also of Company D, was killed next to his best friend, Hugh Donihue.  His last words were “just break the news to mother.”  Treat was 22 while Van Luven was only 20 [Travis W. Busey & John W. Busy, Union Casualties at Gettysburg (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011).   

    Sergeant Samuel C. Miller, not yet 19 years old, likely lies among the men in the distance of Gardner’s view looking south.  Miller was in Company E.  He was probably a bright

Sgt. Samuel C. Miller, History of the 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers

young man because he was mustered into the army as a sergeant on August 15, 1862, four days after his 18th birthday.  He was working in his father’s store in Philadelphia when he decided to volunteer for service in the summer of 1862.  How he died on July 1 is not recorded, but the history of his regiment recalled that he was “beloved and respected by all who knew him.” 

    1st Sergeant William McCoy, age 23, also enlisted from Philadelphia, a week before Sam Miller.   He too must have possessed leadership potential for he was mustered in as the 1st Sergeant of Company C.  As 1st Sergeant, McCoy’s position in the line of battle was on the right of his company in the second rank.  If Company C were near the right flank of the part of the regiment that attempted to change front and meet the flank attack

1st Sergeant William McCoy, History of the 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers

of the 52nd North Carolina, McCoy would have been in a greatly exposed part of his company’s line.  His company commander, Captain J. Frank Sterling, wrote on July 2, that the fire upon the regiment was so severe, that “at one time it appeared to me the majority of our regiment was on the ground.”  Wherever McCoy was on the line he drew the attention of those around him by his courage.  In his after action report for the regiment, Major Alexander Biddle, cited McCoy as one of the enlisted men of “whom the men speak of as deserving of high commendation.”  McCoy too, probably lies among the dead in the image above, his body now unrecognizable after four days under the July sun.  Soon after the photographer captured this image the sergeant would be interred with the others as another unidentified Union soldier.   

Scott Hartwig, Supervisory Historian

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9 Responses to A Mystery Solved? Part 3

  1. jeff bell says:

    The Confederate soldiers likely only took what items that could be of immediate use, such as shoes or boots. If the Battle of Gettysburg had been fought during the winter, most likely Union jackets would have been used by them. I came across this occurance while researching the Battle of the Blue, which took place in late October,1864 in Jackson Co. Missouri. The Confederate Army had taken about 100 Union prisoners in that battle and being very limited in their clothing, used whatever they could take from them to stay warm. This also created confusion as the Rebel Army was being pursued by Union forces toward Arkansas – the Union prisoners were dressed in butternut rags and some of their captors had Union coats and trousers.

  2. ann mccartney wintermuse777@aol.com says:

    I am interewsted in the former farms on this marea and names of the dead

  3. Bill Hanlon says:

    Thank your for this interesting piece.. Each year during my Civil War unit (US History I/9th grade) incorporates the Gardenr photo as part of a Civil war photography section as part of the lesson and a assessment for photo analysis along with is it real questions. Your additional information will be a great way to conclude the lesson and give my students a way to personalize the lesson.

  4. Mike Brock says:

    I am related to Captain William W. Strong (he is my great-great-great uncle. Captain William W. Strong and Sgt. Samuel Miller were best friends with each other before war. They both went to same high school (Central High for boys)and lived in same area of Philadelphia. I think I have something in paperwork that Sgt. Miller’s family had taken his body back to Philadelphia. He was buried in his family plot. I have to go and look at paperwork again to be sure.

    Mike Brock

  5. Vince Diaz says:

    I respectfully say that none in the photographs can ever be identified.

  6. Steve Woolf says:

    I don’t see any bodies on their bellies in the Union Dead photographs, as Gearhart describes. Those were likely later turned over so their belongings could be got at. In fact it would seem miraculous that all fell onto their backs. I’m convinced of Gardner’s description. While it is true that Gardner did embellish and even manipulate some scenes he was photographing, there is no evidence that he ever knowingly misrepresented the location. Gardner was simply showing good business sense after learning where Reynolds fell. Also, a July 1 date seems right, as these bodies appear to be in a more advanced state of decay than those the photographers would soon encounter near the Rose Farm, where the deaths had occurred on July 2. Lastly, the terrain is a pretty decent match. Gardner must have gone directly into town with Charles Keener to learn something about the battle. In fact, Keener states that they “passed over the battlefield.”

    • The Staff says:

      Some of the bodies clearly appear to have been moved, and all have had their equipment removed, so it is very possible that some men fell face forward and were then rolled on their backs to take off their equipment or search the bodies. However, Henry Berkeley, a Confederate artilleryman, who walked over the ground where Iverson’s brigade was engaged wrote in his diary on July 2 that he counted 79 dead North Carolinians, and of these, “three had fallen to the front, the rest had fallen backward . . .” What Berkeley’s entry reflects is that generally those hit fell in the direction the bullet that struck them was traveling.

      Scott H.

  7. TF says:

    speaking of mysteries….for the answear see Frassanito “Gettysburg a Journey In Time” .pp.184-185

  8. can anyone tell me, where the Presbyterian Church Cemetery is, or was that had about 40 burials in it, and was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, Gettysburg, trying to find where Sgt. John Stratton was buried, of the 94th NY Inf. in the paper, The history of the Ice House complex, it appears that there was a Presb. Church there and grave yard during the battle. thank you .jrhodes@bluefrog.com

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