Extraordinary incidents occur in the whirlwind of battle and the Battle of Gettysburg certainly has its share- heroism, cowardice, curiosity, gallantry and even humor. Few incidents are more enthralling than those which earned an individual the cherished Medal of Honor and sixty four Federal soldiers received that honor at Gettysburg. While most of the cases are well known, such as the courage displayed by Lt. Alonzo Cushing on July 3, 1863 (awarded in 2014), the incident that justified the award for six soldiers of the 35th Pennsylvania Infantry/6th Pennsylvania Reserves has been somewhat of a mystery to those who study the battle.
The 6th Pennsylvania Reserves was a battle-experienced regiment in Colonel William McCandless’ First Brigade that also included the 1st, 2nd and 13th Pennsylvania Reserve regiments. Colonel Joseph Fisher’s Second Brigade completed the division of Pennsylvania Reserves which rejoined the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, near Frederick, Maryland, after a brief respite near Washington. Designated as the Third Division of the Fifth Corps, the Pennsylvanians marched northward the next day, eventually crossing the Mason-Dixon Line and into Pennsylvania. Few of the soldiers truly believed they would ever be cast into a battle on their home soil.
After days of hard marching, the Reserves arrived on the battlefield around mid-afternoon of July 2. The toughened soldiers had just sat down to rest and locate a good well, when a staff officer galloped up with orders or them to rush to the southern end of the embattled Union line where the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The Confederate attack was crushing the Union left and every soldier with a musket was needed. Despite some confusion with directions, the Reserves pressed on to the Taneytown Road where they turned southward for some distance before cutting through a trampled meadow and onto the northern slope of Little Round Top overlooking the soon to be named “Valley of Death”. The scene before them was not encouraging. Union troops under attack in the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den were reeling back in disorder, closely pursued by Confederate troops under Brigadier General William Wofford. Joined by General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, the Confederate line swept eastward in a massive charge and stormed into Plum Run valley. Following their red battle flags, the Confederates sloshed across the swampy plain right up to base of Little Round Top where Captain Frank Gibbs’ Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery had just rolled into position and opened fire. Shell and canister did not appear to be enough to stop the charge as southern bullets whizzed through the battery and over the heads of McCandless’s regiments, arranged close by the battery in a double line of battle. It was at this critical moment when General Samuel Crawford, commanding the division of Reserves, reined in his horse before Colonel McCandless, pointed into the valley, and ordered a charge. Bayonets clanged onto rifle barrels as the order to advance echoed along the line. McCandless and Crawford led the sweeping charge, scattering the first line of southerners while those who followed hurriedly retraced their steps to the Wheatfield. Confederate officers attempted to rally their men but the lines melted away as the Pennsylvanians came closer.
Slogging through the morass that was Plum Run, McCandless’ troop halted to return fire on the Confederates who rallied at the stonewall bordering the edge of the Wheatfield. Observing the left of his first line was exposed to a heavy fire from the southwest, Colonel McCandless ordered the 2nd and 13th Reserves from the second line to form on the left of the first, which extended his front some distance to match the southern resistance. The 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, commanded by Lt. Colonel Wellington Ent, was on the right of the first line and with all of their attention focused to the front, no one noticed a group of southerners who took refuge in a log house at the edge of some woods to the right of the regiment. The humble home of John T. Weikert, who was away serving as a soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry at the time, had been abandoned by Weikert’s wife earlier in the day. Once inside, the unwanted house guests quickly realized they had a perfect view of McCandless’ line and soon enough, bullets began whizzing into the Pennsylvania ranks with what seemed to be unerring accuracy.
In his position just behind the firing line of Company A, Sergeant George W. Mears saw men hit and fall. The sergeant turned just in time to see puffs of rifle smoke coming from the doorway and windows of the house. Mears immediately went to Captain William Dixon, standing at the lieutenant colonel’s post: “(Mears) reported to me that the enemy was occupying a log house on our immediate right flank and were picking off our officers and men. The regiment was hotly engaged and could not spare a company from the line, but by my verbal orders, Sergeant Mears took five men who volunteered to go with him and made a gallant charge.”[i]
Sergeant Mears collared Corporal Chester Furman from his own company and was soon joined by Sergeant John W. Hart and Corporal J. W. Roush of Company D. As Mears was explaining the mission, Sergeant Wallace W. Johnson of Company G and Corporal Thaddeus Smith of Company E arrived. The hastily formed “Mears Party” with Sergeant Mears leading, immediately set out for the Weikert house, no more than 80 feet away. The soldiers raced across a pasture of ankle high grass, crawled over a fence and pressed themselves against the rough-hewn log walls. Mears shouted for the Confederates to throw down their arms and surrender before bursting through the door, closely followed by Furman and two others. The small house was full of Confederates; more than a dozen men accompanied by a young sergeant. Shocked at how quickly the tables had turned, the trapped soldiers turned their weapons upside down and filed out the house under the watchful eye of Mears’ fellow soldiers who ordered them to run to the closest regiment, the 6th Reserves, just then preparing to renew the charge to the Wheatfield. With more urgent business at hand, Captain Dixon ordered the captives to throw down their rifles and accoutrements where they stood. The hapless prisoners were whisked to the rear under guard and the Reserves pushed ahead, scattering the last groups of defiant Confederates who bolted through the trodden wheat. The Pennsylvanians began to give chase when Colonel McCandless was ordered by General Crawford to go no further, but rally his regiments there at the stone wall on the field’s eastern boundary. Here they would remain until late the next day, July 3, when the brigade would advance, clear the Wheatfield and almost annihilate the 15th Georgia Infantry in a running fight through Rose Woods.
July 4 was far from a holiday for the Reserves. Details from McCandless’ brigade gathered over 3,000 discarded rifles and muskets from the battlefield along with countless sets of accoutrements and other government property. Others with shovels and picks buried the dead of both sides. Companies were deployed as skirmishers opposite the Confederate line on Seminary Ridge, dodging the occasional bullet from southern counterparts. Few spoke of the events of the preceding day, but lamented the loss of comrades whom they laid beneath the soil of their native state. It was the final scene of a long and exhausting week for the Reserves.
We should consider what goes through the mind of a soldier and how well one can process a series of events such as those experienced at Gettysburg by these Pennsylvanians- the hard march through Maryland, the race to the Union left, the charge through the Valley of Death, the defiant line reformed to place fire on the mass of retreating Confederates, the dangerous occupation of an exposed position for nearly twenty four hours while tortured by the moans of helpless wounded between the lines. Considering all this in the chaotic chain of events, how could the story of George Mears and his party be remembered? Certainly there were handshakes after the Mears Party had returned with the prisoners and perhaps later that evening after the charge was over. Lieutenant John McWilliams in Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves congratulated Sergeant Johnson “upon getting back with a whole hide” as he rejoined the regiment. The others probably received similar salutations but with the onset of darkness, their close proximity to the enemy, exhaustion and attention to other details, the success of the Mears Party that day soon became little more than a side note to the story of the Pennsylvania Reserves’ charge in the “Valley of Death”.[i]
To be continued.
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park
[i] Sworn statement of John McWilliams, May 2, 1900, included in “Case of Wallace W. Johnson, Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves Infantry Volunteers, Application for award of medal of honor for gallantry in action at Gettysburg”, Wallace W. Johnson Medal of Honor File, NARA.
[i] William D. Dixon to the Secretary of War, December 22, 1896, included in “Case of George W. Mears, Company A, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, Application for award of medal of honor….” George W Mears Medal of Honor file, NARA.