On October 16, 1888 the surviving veterans of the 136th New York Volunteers paraded south through the streets of Gettysburg to dedicate their new regimental monument. The ornately sculpted stone, depicting a war-torn tree trunk adorned with the accouterments of an infantryman, had been placed along the shoulder of the Taneytown Road. For three days, July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, the men of the unit occupied the spot, dueling with Confederate skirmishers in the fields to the west, and not infrequently being harassed by sharpshooters lodged in buildings that in the southern end of town. They had participated in virtually no pitched combat and yet, astoundingly, suffered over one hundred casualties including seventeen killed. A testament to the ferocity of the skirmishing the men had engaged in. As one veteran of the regiment would recall, “The losses of a regiment in action are the measure of its sacrifices, not of its services.”
The aged veterans looked out over a landscape that, in most respects, bore a strong resemblance to what they had encountered twenty-five years previous. The odd house and outbuilding, an occasional barn, but mostly open farms fields and orchards. Surely the town had grown, new buildings had been built, new roads laid, and, like their own, monuments had sprung up across the battlefield. Otherwise Gettysburg retained much of that same sense of place. The road and wall where they had sought shelter, the open field spreading west to the Emmitsburg Road where they battled Confederate skirmishers, the stones in Evergreen Cemetery – all were still there.
“We think and and speak of other fields,” intoned former soldier Clinton H. Miner at the dedication of the monument, “where this band of patriots won other laurels, but not as we think and speak of Gettysburg…and today, after a lapse of a quarter of a century, my comrades, we gather here again, a shorter line ’tis true, than when we last held the Taneytown Road, but patriots still.”
Miner called the spot on which the monument stood, and the fields that surrounded it, “holy ground.” It would be here, the memorial stone along the Taneytown Road, that the memory of the men of the 136th New York would be enshrined and where future generations would come to pay homage.
By the end of the next century much had changed. Open fields where once the men of the 136th had fought, had been paved over. The view-sheds and topography that would have been familiar to the veterans had been altered. Their monument, perched along the edge of an expanded roadway, received only scant visitation.
Yet Gettysburg is a constantly evolving landscape. Recent changes made to the western face of Cemetery Hill, the removal of the old Visitor Center and its associated parking lot, and the re-contouring of the topography around where the 136th fought have opened up the landscape in a way that, perhaps, the veterans of the 136th might appreciate.
We braved the frigid temperatures today to visit the regimental battle-line and memorial of the 136th New York, and using the words of some of them men themselves, retraced this newly rehabilitated section of the Gettysburg battlefield.
“We reached Cemetery Hill, one mile south of Gettysburg, and halted. The village was hidden from our sight by a grove of trees, but to the north and east and beyond the town a beautiful landscape was spread before us.” – Capt. J. W. Hand, 136th NY
“About midway down the Cemetery we were halted to regain our breath and our first thoughts were of the seeming desecration, as we trod beneath our feet the grass-grown mounds which marked the resting place of the dead…” – Lt. L. A. Smith, 136th NY
“On arriving near Gettysburg, the brigade was put into position on Cemetery Hill, near to and south of the village…the position assigned to this regiment was on the left of the brigade, on the road leading from Gettysburg to Taneytown, about 30 yards in front of artillery, placed in position in our rear, on the crest of Cemetery Hill…In the position assigned us, the regiment was deployed in a line of battle behind a stonewall or fence, that fenced out the road from the adjoining field.” – Col. James Wood, 136th NY
“…What a magnificent panorama was here presented. As far as the eye could reach, until the earth touched the heavens in their convergence, was one expanse of every-varying field and wood, hill and dale, interspersed here and there with farm houses.” – Lt. L. A. Smith, 136th NY
“The enemy threw out a strong line of sharpshooters or skirmishers directly in our front, and within musket range of our line. To meet this, a similar line was of sharpshooters or skirmishers was thrown out upon our front toward the enemy….the enemy kept up an almost continuous fire upon our skirmishers…” – Col. James Wood, 136th NY
“The skirmish line was a strong one and a lively exchange of shots took place whenever a relief went out. Most of the losses of our brigade occurred while relieving skirmishers. Another and perhaps greater source of danger was from the enemy’s sharpshooters stationed in the tops of the buildings in the outskirts of town.” – Capt. J. W. Hand
“On the morning of the third day all was quiet, except for the never ceasing annoyance of the enemies sharpshooters and the occasional aggressive demonstration of his skirmishers. It became evident that Lee was concentrating his forces for an attack on the center of the Union line. At 1 o’clock preparations were complete and a single gun boomed forth the signal.” – Capt. J. W. Hand, 136th NY
“If you turned around and looked over the wall toward the enemy each cannon ball seemed directed toward that particular spot.” – Lt. L. A. Smith, 136th NY
One of the color guard had a fragment of rock driven into his head, causing instant death…most of us hugged the wall closely, occasionally peeping over, but a single glance usually sufficed.” – Lt. L. A. Smith, 136th NY
“It is a terrible experience to support batteries when located in their front….I don’t believe men ever suffered more in the same time than those who lay along the road in front of the Cemetery that memorable day…If you sat down with your back to the stone wall and looked over into the Cemetery, you saw long, fiery tongues leaping toward you, thick clouds of sulphurous smoke settle down around you, blackening the countenance almost beyond recognition… History says the artillery duel lasted about two hours. It seemed an age to us; it was an age if you count time, not by minutes and second, but by the amount of nervous suffering and mental agony that can be condensed into a given period.” – Lt. L.A. Smith, 136th New York
“It was during this time that the colors of the 136th received their baptism of fire. They were not displayed as a target, but, carefully rolled and encased, stood leaning against the wall. A shell struck the wall near them and exploded, killing two men, wounding three others and striking the flag, which, when unfurled, showed the staff nearly one half cut asunder and a line of 13 holes somewhat larger than the stars in the field.” – Capt. J. W. Hand, 136th NY
“And now a strange physical phenomenon is observed: the crashing, deafening, roar of our own with the distant thunder of the enemy’s guns, blend with the screaming shell in a rather noisy but effective lullaby. Drowsiness and, in a few cases, sleep ensues. The sun no longer glares fiercely down with a blistering heat, but gleams redly through the smoky air. The sense of great personal peril gradually gives place to apprehension of general disaster as our guns one by one cease firing, until silent…we rise somewhat cautiously to our feet and look across the valley. We see a gleam of gun barrels as the indistinct gray line emerges from the opposite woods, their line of march directed on the brigade next to our own left. They move out rapidly in good form…” – Capt. J. W. Hand, 136th NY
“Just as the enemy was passing from our view behind the grove, a regiment [the 8th Ohio] that had, unobserved by us, taken position a little to our left and some 200 yards in front, arose from the ground, where it had been lying, changed direction by a left wheel, and delivered a volley on the enemy’s flank. The regiment had a new stand of colors, and the silken stripes bore in golden letters the story of honorable service….we watched that flag as though it were the index-finger of fate. Again, the roar of our brazen-throated howitzers mingled with the crash of ten thousand muskets. Again that gallant little regiment gave volley after volley on the broken retreating ranks of the enemy. But all was obscured in smoke. Then, through a rift in the clouds of battle, was seen that solitary flag waving in victory, its gorgeous hues resplendent with the sunbeams which rested upon it, as if it alone, of all earth’s objects, was worthy to be thus glorified.” – Capt. J.W. Hand, 136th NY
“The defeat of our army, and the capture or annihilation of the Eleventh Corps; the seizure of the Capitol; the recognition of the Confederacy; the dismemberment of the Union; a worthless currency; the payment of indemnity to the victors; the perpetuation of human slavery…These are some of the consequences likely to follow if they broke our lines. But they did not break through. Wave after wave of treason, billow after billow of rebellion rolled on, only to be dashed, broken and scattered against that solid wall of patriotism.” – Capt. J.W. Hand, 136th NY