No one could say that the 84th Pennsylvania was not a hard fighting regiment. From the time the unit mustered in on the 21st day of December 1861 to the moment the shattered remnants of the regiment stacked their arms a final time on the 29th of June 1865, they had participated in twenty four battles and engagements, excluding the innumerable skirmishes, forays, and patrols that accompanied service with the Army of the Potomac. Of the 1,310 men that had at one time or another been enrolled in the regiment, a total of 750 would be listed as casualties. The grim efficiency of disease, which typically snuffed out more lives than actual combat, claimed 102 men in the regiment while the terrors of battle killed 128.
The 84th had seen action at Cedar Mountain and at Chancellorsville. They had confronted Jackson’s Foot Cavalry in the Valley and slugged it out with Longstreet’s men at the Wilderness. By the first month of 1865 the unit was so under-strength the survivors were consolidated with the 57th Pennsylvania and that new organization would see combat at Hatcher’s Run and during the long advance to Appomattox. When those still standing returned to Dauphin County, or Philadelphia, or Clearfield, they did so as hardened veterans. No one could say that the 84th Pennsylvania was not a hard fighting regiment.
On the 11th of September, 1889 the now aged and gray veterans of the regiment traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to officially dedicate their regimental monument. The imposing stone, detailing the many battles fought and campaigns undertaken, still stands prominently along Pleasonton Avenue. Crowned with an intricate representation of the symbol of the III Corps, and featuring a chiseled relief of two crossed rifles, the monument takes its place proudly aside the hundreds of others that dot the landscape and that help make Gettysburg one of the best marked battlefields in the world. Flank markers indicating the left and right of the line of battle provide modern visitors a visual clue as to the size and alignment of the regiment, and a brief description of the regiments service during the campaign is etched in the stone. From a distance there is nothing particularly unusual about the marker, though a closer examination reveals an interesting and unique tale.
When the surviving members of the 84th Pennsylvania decided to erect a monument honoring their regiment and fallen comrades, they could theoretically have placed it at any of the major battlefields on which they fought. Though not nearly as numerous as those at Gettysburg, Union regimental monuments can be found sprinkled through the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland. The 27th Indiana has a small marker on the Chancellorsville battlefield, the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery is commemorated at the Harris Farm, and in 1909 the veterans of the 15th New Jersey placed a monument in front of the works at Spotsylvania, to name but a few.
The regimental association of the 84th chose Gettysburg. Their desire to place a monument on the Gettysburg battlefield is in no way unique or remarkable. By the 1880’s the Gettysburg had emerged as the preeminent “Union Memorial Park,” where the sacrifice, devotion, and ultimate triumph of the Union Army – particularly the Army of the Potomac – was to be forever enshrined. Gettysburg was northern soil, the site of the first decisive victory against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and a Mecca of sorts for the cause of the Union, sanctified by the words of the martyred Abraham Lincoln. Comparatively few Americans would, as an act of pilgrimage, travel to Cedar Mountain or Hatcher’s Run, but at Gettysburg they would come in droves. A stone tablet on Cemetery Ridge, complete with flank markers and appropriate inscription, would stand eternal on the sacred landscape telling the story of those men long after their mortal remains had turned to dust. In short, Gettysburg was the place where Union veterans wanted to be remembered.
For the veterans of the 84th Pennsylvania this poised a problem. While the regiment certainly belonged to the Army of the Potomac, and while they most assuredly took part in the Gettysburg Campaign, they never actually took part in the battle itself. On the 30th of June as the regiment was approaching Taneytown, Milton Opp, the commanding officer of the regiment, was ordered to guard the supply trains that were following the army north. The following day, as news of an impending battle swept through the ranks, Opp requested that the order be rescinded. To his dismay it was not. Rather than making their way to the front, the rank and file of the 84th were ordered to accompany the trains to Westminster…even further from the field of battle.
On the 2nd of July, as the other regiments of Joseph’s Carr’s brigade battled along the Emmitsburg Road, the 84th Pennsylvania was twenty miles away. Perhaps the sound of battle reverberated that far, or perhaps an occasional gust of wind carried the scent of burned powder. If so, it would have been the 84th’s only sensory participation in the battle. Opp and his men rejoined their brigade a few days later. Two hundred and forty men were with the regiment. They suffered no casualties.
In 1889 the primary steward of the Gettysburg battlefield was the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. In order for the survivors of the 84th Pennsylvania to place a monument on the field, they had to first obtain approval of this organization, and more
importantly of John B. Bachelder. Bachelder, who carried the imposing title of “Superintendent of Tablets and Legends” considered himself a kind of guardian of the battlefield and its history. He had helped to establish a host of rules and regulations regarding the placement of monuments on the field that would serve to stymie, infuriate, and ultimately interpret the park. The most significant, at least as far as the 84th was concerned, was that regimental monuments had to be placed where the original line of battle had been established. For regiments like the 1st Minnesota or the 20th Maine, that was a fairly easy task. The 84th Pennsylvania had never formed a line of battle though…or if they had they did so twenty miles away. Another rule indicated that each regimental monument must be accompanied by flanks markers. Yet another problem for the Pennsylvanians.
The survivors of the regiment gained support from their former brigade commander Joseph B. Carr. In a letter addressed to the Board of Commissioners of the Memorial Association, Carr stated that “The Eighty Fourth Regiment was one of the best and most reliable commands…To deprive this regiment of the recognition it is entitled to, upon that memorable battlefield, would, in my opinion, be a very great injustice.”
As the veterans of the 84th repeatedly mentioned, that they were not at Gettysburg was no fault of theirs. The duty they performed was necessary work, and even if only in a small way, served to make the victory at Gettysburg possible. Captain Thomas Merchant gave voice to many former members of the regiment who had guarded the trains outside of Westminster. “That duty was quite as necessary of performance, fully as important, carrying with it as much of possible danger, as was actually encountered by regiments engaged on the field, and as much of actual danger as did not fall to the lot of several of the regiments who were no more on the field than were the troops with the trains, and which regiments wrote Gettysburg on their battle-flags without a question as to its being rightly there.”
“I would respectfully suggest that the monument be
erected at a point near where my headquarters were, previous to the second days engagement,” Carr concluded. Ultimately the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association agreed, though the ultimate placement of the monument was situated in a rear area reserved for such difficult cases. In keeping with the rules for the erection of monuments on the battlefield, the survivors of the 84th placed flank members astride their monument, positioned east to west rather than north to south, as if to indicate their deployment far from the field of battle.
For those unaware of the trials and tribulations of the unit, the presence of their monument on Cemetery Ridge might convey an erroneous depiction of the battle. Without reading the inscription, it is reasonable to assume the regiment was positioned at that spot and suffered from the shot and shell that rained down upon the other Union units positioned there. Yet the intent of the veterans of the regiment was never to inspire confusion. Rather it was to provide context.
Few survivors of the Army of the Potomac would have argued that Gettysburg represented, at least in retrospect, the defining moment in their years of service. Those who fought there, and survived, were duly proud of having been a participant in one of the titanic moments in American history. Ultimately though, Gettysburg was just one stop during the long campaign that was the American Civil War. Veterans wanted to be remembered at Gettysburg, but they didn’t want to be remembered just for Gettysburg. Their monument was to speak of the Mud March and the Battle of Williamsburg as much as it was to tell of the fighting at the Peach Orchard or Devil’s Den. It was to represent why they fought, as much as it was to indicate where they fought. For the men of the 84th, their monument at Gettysburg wasn’t just to tell future generations that they guarded trains in Westminster. It was to tell them of Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania and Winchester and the countless other places where their friends and comrades had died defending the Union.
As Thomas Merchant intoned in his dedicatory speech, “The memorial which is here placed speaks from all along the line, from Bath [The regiments first battle] to Appomattox…For the moment it moves aside, and where it was, and within the lengthening of its shadow, we see them all and as we glance from right to left, from front to rear, one is taken from here, another from there, one by one, from the highest in rank to the lowest, from the oldest in years to the youngest, the man and the boy; first the two hundred and thirty in the time of the war, then the many who have left us in the days that have intervened; and then comes the shaft into the space which was made for it. We look upon it now, and know that it stands for them. The time is coming when it will stand for all whose names made up a regimental roll.”