A recent acquisition to the park library is a collection of letters written during the war by Samuel Chase Hodgman, a Michigan resident and soldier who served in the 7th Michigan Infantry. The letters he penned to his mother, father, and brother from 1861 to 1863 are striking for their unvarnished honesty, certainly a common trait with most Civil War soldier letters. Yet, Hodgman’s are very descriptive and offer the reader a view of the soldier experience that some accounts do not always offer, specifically in the attitude of soldiers toward sacrifice and death on the battlefield.
Though this collection has recently been showcased in lectures and programs in Michigan, it has not received much attention outside of the state. A resident of Climax,
Michigan, the thirty year-old Hodgman mustered into service as first sergeant in June 1861 in Company I, Seventh Michigan Infantry, a post he would hold until September 1862 when he received his promotion to second lieutenant. Barely two weeks later, Hodgman’s regiment was in the fury of the Battle of Antietam, fighting desperately in the East Woods. As a junior officer, one of his primary duties was to keep the enlisted men in the battle line and two soldiers caught his particular attention. Without hesitation, “by close watching and sundry threats, I got them to face the music. One of them lost his life, the other was shot through the thigh. The last I suspected at the time had swallowed some tobacco and commenced vomiting when within a few rods of the line where so many of us were to fall. I did not, under the circumstances feel any compunctions of conscience but placed my sword against him and pushed him along.” Hodgman confessed having little remorse for doing is duty- “My conscience does not accuse me of murder,” he wrote a month later while convalescing in a Philadelphia hospital from his own injury received at Antietam further recalling, “It was perfectly awful where we were. Infantry in front and in flank. Artillery in flank and in front all pouring in upon us a terrible storm of iron and lead. It seemed almost a miracle than any escaped. I did not feel the least degree any desire to get out of the way until after I was wounded. I then had to turn my back on the enemy and was not very ambitious to see how long I could stay among the balls. They were flying all around… over and in front, and behind me like plums in a pudding…. Still there seemed to be a clear spot for me to escape in.”
After recovering from his wound, Lt. Hodgman rejoined the regiment and in the summer of 1863 marched with officers and men of the Seventh north into Pennsylvania. The regiment wound up in an unenviable location on Cemetery Ridge adjacent to a substantial patch of scrubby trees and brush and exposed on the open side of the ridge. Fortunately, part of a low stone fence offered some protection and the men spent most of the early morning hours of July 2 adding rails and other rocks to the fence line to heighten its protection.
It was here, on Cemetery Ridge and just south of the famous Angle, where the regiment fought for two of the three days of Gettysburg in some of the bloodiest fighting the men had seen since Antietam. “We were under the fire of 120 guns for nearly two hours” Hodgman wrote his brother on July 18, “all the protection we had was a slight barricade of rails. There is no use trying to say anything about the cannonade(,) words won’t express it. Some how we seemed to be out of the range. There seemed to be two strata of the storm(,)one would burst over our heads or after they had passed over us. The other would strike in front and ricochet over us. ”
The cannonade Hodgman described to his brother was, of course, the great bombardment that preceded the Confederate attack on the Union center on July 3 and as frightening as the shelling was, far worse would follow. Soon after the guns fell silent long, massive lines of Southern infantry emerged, advancing toward Cemetery Ridge. With only 153 officers and men in line, a stern test awaited the Seventh Michigan.
To be continued…..
John Heiser, Historian