As the soldiers of Brigadier General Solomon Meredith’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Corps, marched up the Emmitsburg Road on the morning of July 1, 1863, Sergeant Major George Legate, of the 2nd Wisconsin, made his way up from the rear of the regiment to walk beside his friend, Corporal Cornelius Wheeler, who was in Company I, Legate’s old company. “Corny, we are going to have a fight today, and I will not come out alive,” said Legate. Wheeler, who only moments before had had a similar conversation with Sergeant Joseph Williams, who also had a presentiment that he would be killed that day, laughed at Legate “and told him he was the second man who had been to me, and that it was all nonsense, that there was no prospect of a fight and that if he really felt that way, he had better not go in if there should be one, as he could easily avoid it – that a Sergeant Major was not of much account in a fight, anyway.” Legate replied, “No, I will stay with the regiment whatever happens.” It was not too much longer before the sounds of fighting could be heard in the direction of Gettysburg. The pace of the march quickened and when the brigade reached the farm of Nicholas Codori, just south of town, they were turned off into the farm fields and ordered toward the sound of firing.
There were 1,829 officers and men in the five regiments of Meredith’s brigade. They bore the proud nickname “The Iron Brigade,” which they had earned for their performance in combat at 2nd Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Their other distinctive feature was that every enlisted man in the brigade wore the black felt Hardee hat, the regulation army headgear. They were tough and confident, among the best fighting men in the entire Army of the Potomac. In some ways this would the brigade’s last march because they would never be the same again after July 1. Corny Wheeler was wrong. There would be a fight that day and it would cost the brigade 1,153 casualties. Of this figure, 171 were killed, numbered among them Sergeant Major Legate and Sergeant Williams. Corny Wheeler survived to tell of his friends premonitions. To put this casualty figure in perspective, it was the highest loss sustained by any brigade in the Army of the Potomac in the Battle of Gettysburg.
On July 1, 2013 at 9:30 a.m., Dan Welch, a veteran seasonal ranger on our staff, and myself, will retrace The Last March of the Iron Brigade from the Codori farm to where they went into action on McPherson’s Ridge in one of our special Battlefield Experience programs during the Gettysburg 150th commemoration. Along the way we will meet some of the men like Legate, Williams and Wheeler who made history that day. Joining us will be the living history unit The Liberty Rifles, who will be in the uniform of the Iron Brigade, along with a color guard, and hopefully, a fife and drum unit. When the brigade marched up the Emmitsburg Road that morning their fifes and drums were playing the Scottish tune “The Campbells are Coming,” until the regiments were ordered toward the fighting. We would like to recreate that moment and the march of this brigade to its rendezvous with destiny on McPherson’s Ridge.
To participate in this program park at the National Cemetery North or South Lot (the old Visitor Center and Cyclorama Center parking lots), at the Museum and Visitor Center Lots, or on Hancock Avenue and walk to the Codori Farm, which is on the Emmitsburg Road a quarter mile south of Gettysburg. Do not park on the Emmitsburg Road. We will gather near Codori’s on the east side of the Emmitsburg Road. The march from Codori’s to McPherson’s Ridge is just under 2 miles, so bring something to drink, a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun, and clothes and footwear suitable for walking cross-country. You will need to make arrangements to get picked up at the end of the march near Stop 1 on the Battlefield Auto Tour. The park will be running a free shuttle service that day which you can pick up at the McPherson’s Ridge stop. It will drop you off at Musselman Stadium at Gettysburg College, our shuttle hub on July 1. From Musselman’s you would need to walk several blocks to the Transit Station on Carlisle Street where you can take one of the free Lincoln Line shuttles back to the Visitor Center area. Maps with further details about shuttles and parking are available in our Commemorative Events Guide, which can be downloaded from the park web site at http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-events-2013.htm
When the Confederates finally overwhelmed the Union lines on July 1 and drove the 1st and 11th Corps back through the streets of Gettysburg, Yankees, Rebels and civilians were all thrown together, as wounded and exhausted Union soldiers sought shelter in people’s homes and public buildings. Confederate soldiers pursued them taking hundreds of prisoners. For the citizens, it was a shocking ordeal, with combat in their streets, but with hundreds of wounded men needing shelter and help, they were forced to pitch in and help where they could. One of them was Mary McAllister, who lived on Chambersburg Street. She made her way over to nearby Chris Evangelical Lutheran Church, and found that
“every pew was full [of wounded]; some sitting, some lying, some leaning on others. They cut off arms and legs and threw them out of the windows.” At the “College Edifice” at Pennsylvania College, now Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College, nearly 900 Confederate wounded arrived from the day’s fighting for shelter and to receive medical attention. “The rooms and passages were densely crowded,” with the wounded wrote one Confederate. Several blocks away, four surgeons from the Iron Brigade had established a hospital at the Gettysburg Railroad Depot and Adams Express Office on Carlisle Street. After Confederate troops overran the town, General Jubal Early sent a message to Surgeon D. Cooper Ayres, of the 7th Wisconsin asking if he might want some whiskey for his patients. “Does a duck like to swim,” Ayres responded. The patients got their whiskey. Sergeant Austin Stearns, of the 13th Massachusetts, was among the wounded in Christ’s Church, sitting in a pew waiting his turn for medical attention, when he was touched on the shoulder by someone behind him. He turned and “saw a reb who was wounded in the arm.” The man was from a North Carolina regiment, probably the 55th North Carolina, and Stearns found him “a very intelligent man and we entered into conversation immediately, he doing most of the talking.”
At 4 p.m. on July 1, Rangers Chris Gwinn, John Hoptak and Caitlin Kostic, will present Yankees, Rebels and Civilians – The First Day of Battle Ends. This unique program will explore the stories of McCallister, Stearns, Ayres, and many others at three iconic sites within Gettysburg; Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College, and the Gettysburg Train Station. All of these sites have graciously allowed us access for this special event. The program will run from 4-6:30 p.m. At each location on the hour (4 p.m., 5 p.m., and 6 p.m.), Chris, John and Caitlin will offer a 30 minute program bringing to life the dramatic stories that happened there on July 1 and the days that followed. The sites are all within walking distance of each other. Parking is available at Musselman Stadium at Gettysburg College. You may start at any station and rotate through the others in whatever order you wish.
Each day of the anniversary, from July 1-4, we will offer two different Battlefield Experience programs. In my next posts we will explore those for July 2, 3, and 4.
D. Scott Hartwig