On the afternoon of July 1, Confederate general Robert E. Rodes, commanding a division in Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, ordered the North Carolina brigade of Brigadier General Alfred Iverson to assault what Rodes believed was the enemy’s flank in a body of woods on Oak Ridge. The brigade of four regiments advanced from the western reverse slope of Oak Hill across the Mummasburg Road toward their objective. The 20th North Carolina, numbering about 370 officers and men, occupied the left center of the brigade’s line of battle. After crossing the Mummasburg Road it and the rest of the brigade, marched past the John S. Forney farm and then through one of Forney’s large meadows that extended toward Oak Ridge. There were no skirmishers in front and no direct support on either flank. Behind Oak Ridge, and concealed from the view of Iverson’s men, the soldiers of Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter’s Union brigade waited for the Confederates to come within range.
The manner in which Iverson’s men maneuvered across the field placed its left flank closer to the Federals than its right. When Iverson’s men arrived within about 100 yards of Baxter’s line, the Federal soldiers rose up and poured a murderously destructive fire into the North Carolinians who were caught in the open. Hundreds of men fell and the survivors dropped to the ground and attempted to return the fire. Lieutenant Oliver Wilcox, in the 20th, wrote that “I believe that every man who stood up was either killed or wounded.” According to Captain Lewis T. Hicks, commanding Company E, the firing between the two sides lasted for nearly ten minutes. “The smoke was so dense you could not perceive an object ten feet from you,” he wrote, although other accounts do not mention smoke this dense. Hicks claimed that his men lacked anything white to show their willingness to surrender and that they “hoisted their boots and hats on their bayonets to show their desperation.” Some men along Iverson’s line had white pieces of clothing however; handkerchiefs or rags, for Union accounts mention seeing “white emblems in token of surrender.” Whatever the case, Baxter’s men now rushed upon the prone and largely helpless soldiers of Iverson’s brigade, capturing a majority of the 5th, 20th, and 23rd North Carolina. A slight rise in the ground gave the 12th North Carolina cover and most of it escaped the destruction inflicted upon its sister regiments.
According to the history of the 20th North Carolina nearly 200 of its members, along with its battleflag, were captured. Among those captured was Captain Hicks. The prisoners were hurried behind Oak Ridge as rapidly as possible, then marched around the town and turned over to the Provost Marshal of the 11th Corps on the south side of Gettysburg, probably near or on Cemetery Hill. There was considerable confusion in both the capture and removal of the prisoners and only 123 men of the 20th actually became prisoners [records give the number of POW’s as 131, but for the purposes of this study I eliminated anyone that died of wounds at a Gettysburg field hospital]. The prisoners were marched to Westminster, Maryland, about 25 miles southeast of Gettysburg, where the nearest functioning railhead was located. From here, the majority of the 20th’s POW’s were shipped to Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. Those who were wounded were sent to David’s Island off of New Rochelle, New York in Long Island Sound, where the army had established De Camp General Hospital.
A random sampling of these 123 individuals provides us some insight into the experience of the Confederate Gettysburg prisoners. Corporal Julius Benton was a 20 year old farmer serving in Company F. He arrived at Fort McHenry on July 4 and was moved to Fort Delaware on July 5. In October, he and many others were transferred to Point Lookout Prison, on the southern tip of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, at the confluence of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Benton arrived on October 15. He would spend over a year here before being paroled on February 18, 1865. What the status of Benton’s health was is unknown but it was acceptable enough that he was returned to his unit with whom he surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
2nd Lieutenant McQueen Coleman, a 20 year old [this regiment had a large number of very young men] in Company K, arrived at Fort Delaware the same day as Benton, July 5, but was shortly transferred to Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, off of Sandusky, Ohio, where he arrived on July 20. Seven months later, in February 1864 he was transferred to Point Lookout. He moved again in June, this time to Fort Delaware. On March 5, 1865 he was paroled. There is no further record of Coleman after his parole.
Corporal Lewis Hill, a 30 year old farmer from Dulpin County in Company E, was one of the older men in the regiment. He arrived at Fort McHenry on July 5 and moved the next
day to Fort Delaware. On October 15 he was transferred to Point Lookout. On March 18, 1864 he was paroled and arrived at City Point, Virginia on March 20 when he was officially exchanged. According to his military records Hill was suffering from scurvy at the time of his parole and exchange and he was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond. Hill recovered to return to his unit only to be captured again at Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865. Three days later he found himself back at Point Lookout where he remained until June 27, 1865, when he took the oath of allegiance.
The records of these men have some consistencies with what we saw with the POW’s of the 69th Pennsylvania in my last post. Those who had wounds that might incapacitate
them for further service were often paroled later that summer. Henry Monk, a 19 year old in Company H, was one of these. He was wounded in the hip on July 1, but Monk defied the odds and returned to his regiment on August 1, 1863 after his parole, only to be captured again at Fort Stedman on March 25. The Federals sent him to Point Lookout where he took the Oath of Allegiance on June 29, 1865 and was released. Those who fell seriously ill, like Corporal Hill, were also candidates for parole and exchange. This was war and neither side was interested in sending able bodied men back to their opponent through the parole and exchange system. It was also possible for an able bodied man to take the Oath of Allegiance to get out of prison, but only two men of all the 20th’s POW’s, William and Nathan Hall, both of Company F, and who were likely brothers, took the oath before the end of the war.
Of the 123 POW’s from the 20th, 19 died while prisoners. The most lethal prison was Point Lookout, which claimed 14 lives. The other 5 died at Fort Delaware. The cause of death was invariably typhoid fever, chronic diarrhea, or scurvy. This was a 15% mortality rate. Compared to the 60% mortality rate the prisoners of the 69th Pennsylvania suffered, the men of the 20th fared significantly better. We cannot draw any broad conclusions from the statistics of only two regiments. More objective study is needed to understand the Gettysburg prisoner experience and why it proved more lethal for some than others. But to return to the lethality of being captured at Gettysburg; to place the 15% mortality rate of the 20th’s prisoners into a perspective that is more impactful, if that death rate applied to all the Confederates captured at Gettysburg (both wounded and unwounded), it would mean an additional 1,834 dead as a result of the battle.
D. Scott Hartwig
(Note: the statistics for the 20th’s prisoners of war was drawn from the American Civil War Research and Genealogy Database http://www.civilwardata.com/HDSlogin/hdslogin.aspx, a fee site, and from the compiled service records found at Fold3 http://www.fold3.com/institution-index.php, which is also a fee site)