Sunday, June 29, 2008

Moments before the charge: General Pickett says goodbye to his wife-to-be

A few moments after General James "Old Pete" Longstreet reluctantly gave General Pickett his orders to begin the assault on the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge, General Pickett scribbled the following words on an envelope containing a letter to his wife-to-be, LaSalle "Sallie" Corbell:

"If Old Peter's nod means death then goodbye and God bless you, my little one."

He then presented the envelope to General Longstreet and aksed him to mail it. Pickett later reported that Longstreet had tears streaming down his cheeks as he accepted the letter. [Note: complete text of Pickett's letter is presented in this forum.]

As Sallie Corbell Pickett reports in her book Pickett and his men, Longstreet did indeed see to it that General Pickett's letter was mailed, and included with it some words of his own. Longstreet wrote:


MY DEAR LADY: General Pickett has just intrusted to me the safe conveyance of the inclosed letter. If it should turn out to be his farewell the penciled note on the outside will show you that I could not speak the words which would send so gallant a soldier into the jaws of a useless death. As I watched him, gallant and fearless as any knight of old, riding to certain doom, I said a prayer for his safety and made a vow to the Holy Father that my friendship for him, poor as it is, should be your heritance. We shall meet. I am, dear lady, with great respect, Yours to command,

James Longstreet

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Battle of Gettysburg: behavior of the townspeople

Part 1 in a series of posts on the behavior of the townspeople at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the July 7, 1863 edition of the New York Times, war correspondent L.L. Crounse wrote a scathing piece regarding the conduct of the people of Gettysburg. Some echoed Crounse's assessment while others disagreed vehemently. Both sides will be represented here in this forum in forthcoming posts. But first, we offer the July 7, 1863 piece by L.L. Crounse. He writes:

....But there is one thing the country cannot have too much of -- sympathy for the fallen -- or cannot give too much -- aid for the wounded, and unstinted praise for the valorous ones, whose steady and unflinching courage have turned the tide of successive disaster into a sweeping and surging victory -- let a nation be truly thankful.

And apropos to this, let me make it a matter of undeniable history that the conduct of the majority of the male citizens of Gettysburg, and the surrounding County of Adams, is such as to stamp them with dishonor and craven-hearted meanness. I do not speak hastily. I write but the unanimous sentiments of the whole army -- an army which now feels that the doors from which they drove a host of robbers, thieves, and cut-throats, were not worthy of being defended. The actions of the people of Gettysburg are so sordidly mean and unpatriotic, as to engender the belief that they were indifferent as to which party was whipped. I will give a few instances.


In the first place the male citizens mostly ran away, and left the women and children to the mercy of their enemies. On their return, instead of lending a helping hand to our wounded, and opening their houses to our famished officers and soldiers, they have only manifested indecent haste to present their bills to the military authorities for payment of losses inflicted by both armies. One man yesterday presented a Captain with a full bill for eighteen rails which his men had burned in cooking their coffee! On the streets the burden of their talk is their losses -- and speculations as to whether the Government can be compelled to pay for this or that. Almost entirely they are uncourteous -- but this is plainly form lack of intelligence and refinement. Their charges, too, were exorbitant -- hotels, $2.50 per day; milk, 10 and 15 cents per quart; bread, $1 and even $1.50 per loaf; twenty cents for a bandage for a wounded soldier! And these are only a few specimens of the sordid meanness and unpatriotic spirit manifested by these people, from whose doors our noble army had driven a hated enemy. I wish it to be understood that the facts I have stated can be fully substantiated by many officers high in rank, as well as by what I personally saw and experienced. This is Adams County -- a neighbor to Copperhead York, which is still nearer to the stupid and stingy Berks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

General Daniel E. Sickles loses a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg

Gens. Sickles, Carr & Graham. Taken near Trostle's barn, Gettysburg Battlefield - on spot where General Sickles lost his leg, July 2nd, 1863

Colorful, enigmatic, and controversial Union General Daniel E. Sickles suffered the misfortune of being struck by a cannonball at the Battle of Gettysburg. As a result of this injury, his right leg was amputated, thus ending his combat career. In typical Sickles fashion, he faced his handicap with extraordinary bravery and calm. Whitelaw Ried describes this calm in his Cincinnati Gazette column of July 4. Reid writes:

On a stretcher, borne by a couple of stout privates lay General Sickles -- but yesterday leading his corps with all the enthusiasm and dash for which he has been distinguished -- to-day [sic] with his right leg amputated, More...and lying there, grim and stoical, with his cap pulled over his eyes, his hands calmly folded across his breast, and a cigar in his mouth! For a man who had just lost a leg, and whose life was yet in imminent jeopardy, it was cool indeed. He was being taken to the nearest railroad line<, to be carried to some city where he could get most careful attendance...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Definition of gallantry: the 26th North Carolina at the Battle of Gettysburg

The 26th North Carolina suffered incredible casualities at the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 1, the first day of battle, the 26th marched 800+ soldiers into battle and lost 588. After regrouping on July 2, the remaining members of the 26th participated in Pickett's Charge on July 3. Again, the 26th suffered heavy losses; an additional 120 men were killed, wounded, or captured, but they fought on and succeeded in planting their flag in the Federal works.

Below, William Cheek (Private, Company E, 26th North Carolina) recounts the death of Colonel Henry King Burgwyn on July, 1863. Cheek states:

It was in the first day's fight at Gettysburg. Our regiment had been formed in line of battle and advanced a considerable distance towards the Federal lines. Our colors were very prominent in the center. Time after time they were shot down by the hot fire of infantry and artillery, and in all they fell fifteen times, sometimes the staff being broken and sometimes a color- bearer being shot down.


The color-sergeant was killed quite early in the advance and then a private of F company took the flag. He was shot once, but rose and went on, saying, 'Come on, boys !' and as the words left his lips was again shot down, when the flag was taken by Captain McCreary, who was killed a moment or two later. Then Colonel Burgwyn himself took the colors and as we were advancing over the brow of a little hill and he was a few feet in advance of the center of the regiment, he was shot as he partly turned to give an order, a bullet passing through his abdomen. He fell backwards, the regiment continuing its advance, Lieutenant- Colonel John R. Lane taking command and at the same time taking the flag from Colonel Burgwyn. In a moment, it seemed, he was shot, and then Captain W. S. Brewer, of my company, took the flag and carried it through the remainder of the advance, Major John Jones having then assumed command of the regiment. Our regiment was recalled and retired. I was knocked down by the explosion of a shell, which injured my eyesight somewhat, but soon rose and as myself and some comrades went back, I saw Colonel Burgwyn being carried off the field by two soldiers, named Ellington and Staton, who were using one of their blankets for that purpose.

Colonel Burgwyn asked me, whom he recognized as being a member of his command, to help carry him off the field, and I at once gave my aid. We carried him some distance towards the place where our line of battle had been formed, and as we were thus moving him a lieutenant of some South Carolina regiment came up and took hold of the blanket to help us. Colonel Burgwyn did not seem to suffer much, but asked the lieutenant to pour some water on his wound. He was put down upon the ground while the water was poured from canteens upon him. His coat was taken off and I stooped to take his watch, which was held around his neck by a silk cord. As I did so the South Carolina lieutenant seized the watch, broke the cord, put the watch in his pocket and started off with it. I demanded the watch, telling the officer that he should not thus take away the watch of my colonel and that I would kill him as sure as powder would burn, with these words cocking my rifle and taking aim at him.

I made him come back and give up the watch, at the same time telling him he was nothing but a thief, and then ordering him to leave, which he did. In a few moments, Colonel Burgwyn said to me that he would never forget me, and I shall never forget the look he gave me as he spoke these words. We then picked him up again and carried him very close to the place where we had been formed in line of battle. Captain Young, of General Pettigrew's staff, came up and expressed much sympathy with Colonel Burgwyn. The latter said that he was very grateful for the sympathy, and added, 'The Lord's will be done. We have gained the greatest victory in the war. I have no regret at my approaching death. I fell in the defense of my country.'

About that time a shell exploded very near us and took off the entire top of the hat of Captain Brewer, who had joined our party. I left and went to search for one of our litters, in order to place Colonel Burgwyn upon it, so as to carry him more comfortably and conveniently. I found the litter with some difficulty, and as the bearers and myself came up to the spot where Colonel Burgwyn was lying on the ground, we found that he was dying. I sat down and took his hand in my lap. He had very little to say, but I remember that his last words were that he was entirely satisfied with everything, and 'The Lord's will be done.' Thus he died, very quietly and resignedly. I never saw a braver man than he. He was always cool under fire and knew exactly what to do, and his men were devoted to him.

He was the youngest colonel I ever saw in all my experience as a soldier. If he had lived he would have been given high rank, I feel sure.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Words from the condemned -- part 4 of 7: the diary of Henry Wirz

Selections from the diary Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prison called Andersonville, made in the days leading up to his November, 1865 execution. Originally appeared in the Boston Advertiser; reprinted in the November 15, 1856 edition of the New York Times on page 1, column 1.

October 4, 1865

What a mockery this trial is, they say they are anxious that I should have justice done to me, and then a witness is put on the stand to give testimony they give everything to try to break him down, if they cannot do it they try to assail his private character, when they had their witnesses up, they not alone were allowed to state everything I said, everything I done, but even what they heard others say that I had said so and so, done such and such things, and now when I wish to prove by my witnesses what I also said and done, it is said it is inadmissible, I just as well might be put on the stand myself, as if I had said these things now and not a year ago, when I had no idea that I should be held to account hereafter. But so the world goes and all I can say is oh God give me the strength to bear with my patience and humility what Thou seest fit to put on me. Be thou my judge.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Civil War drummer boys did more than just play the drums

A mention of the Civil War drummer boy often evokes images of a young lad banging out a rhythm as his regiment marches into battle. But the Civil War drummer boys did much more than just play the drums. In camp they were often used as orderlies for commanding officers. And in battle they helped to care for the wounded. Below, David Auld, drummer for the 43rd Ohio Volunteers, recounts his experiences helping the wounded at the Battle of Corinth. Auld writes:

While watching these battle lines so grand to look upon, but so terrible to think of when you remember the frightful waste of human lives they caused, the call came; "Bring the stretchers, a man hurt." Myself and Demas took the stretchers to look for the man, he was pointed out to us and proved to be Bradford (our older brother) who had been struck by a shell in the left shoulder while lying on the ground in line waiting for the first assault just opening. More...By his side lay James W. Conger, whose clothing was stained by his blood. We were little more than children and the shock to us can be better imagined than described. Demas and myself lifted him to the stretcher just as Col. Kirby Smith and Adjutant Heyl were shot from their horses a few steps away We carried him to the shallow ditch by the railroad a few rods to the rear, where the temporary field hospital was located, as it offered a slight protection to the wounded from the deadly hail of bullets that fell about them coming from all directions except the rear We then placed him in an ambulance still alive and conscious. We bid him goodbye and never saw him again. He only lived a short time and occupies an unknown grave.

Is this Hell? A prisoner describes his first view of the infamous Andersonville prison

In his description of life in the Confederate prisons, Robert H. Kellogg, Sergeant-Major of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers, recounts his arrival at the infamous Andersonville prison. In his description, he notes that he and his comrades had heard of the horrors of Andersonville, but thought that these stories were circulated in an effort to frighten them. Kellogg writes:

As we entered the place a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect; — stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.


At nine o'clock we were able to chronicle our arrival at Andersonville, or rather at the station, for there is no village, and the prison is nearly a mile out from this. This place, so notorious in the history of the war, is situated in Sumter Co., about sixty-five miles southwest from Macon, and fifty from the Alabama State line. We were counted as we left the cars, and then marched a short distance from the depot, where we remained all night, surrounded by a line of fires and a heavy guard. Here we heard terrible stories of small-pox being prevalent in the prison, and also about the "dead line" which was death to any one who should step over it, but even then we thought they might be trying to frighten us.

We were aroused from our slumbers the next morning at an early hour, and called to submit to the orders of a bustling officer, dressed in Captain's uniform, who did his work with a great deal of swearing and threatening, dividing us into messes of ninety men each, each mess to be in charge of a sergeant, who should call the roll every morning, draw the rations, and receive an extra one himself for his trouble. Three "nineties" constituted a detachment, which was also in charge of a sergeant. Thus classed, and our names taken, we were marched off to the prison. As we came near it, we found it to consist of twelve or fifteen acres of ground, enclosed by a high stockade of hewed pine logs, closely guarded by numerous sentinels, who stood in elevated boxes overlooking the camp.

As we entered the place a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect; — stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness, "Can this be hell ?" "God protect us!" and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place.

In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.

Along the edge of the swamp, from one side of the camp to the other, ran a little shallow brook, three or four feet wide, and this, with a few small springs, were to furnish our water for the season. Whatever we may have thought of the dangers of the past ; of the uncertainties which encircled us prior to our captivity, when we were exposed to the assaults of the enemy, we now felt that almost infinitely better would it be, to dwell in the midst of alarms, than reign in such a horrible place.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Newspaper coverage: Charles Carleton Coffin "predicts" the Battle of Gettysburg

As described in an earlier post, war correspondents often played an important military role by providing timely information to battlefield commanders. A fine example of the insightful observations of the war correspondents can be found in the writings of Charles Carleton Coffin, correspondent for the Boston Journal. In his June 29 column (five days before the battle), Carleton writes:

If Lee advances with nearly all his forces into Pennsylvania, there must be a collision of the two armies not many miles west of Gettysburg, probably among the rolling hills near the State line, on the head waters of the Monocacy... I believe that Washington Baltimore will not be harmed. I expect to see Adams, Franklin, Cumberland, and York counties run over somewhat by the rebels, and i also expect to see Lee utterly defeated in his plans. His army may not be annihilated. Hooker may not achieve a great, decisive victory. But I fully believe that Lee will gain nothing by this move.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Congressional Medal of Honor: J. Monoe "Roe" Reisinger recevies his for actions at the Battle of Gettysburg

1522 Congressional medals of honor have been awarded to soldiers who served in the American Civil War. One of the recipients, Roe Reisinger (aka J. Monroe Reisinger) received his award in 1907. The joint resolution authorizing the award reads as follows:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of War be, and is hereby authorized and directed to award the Congressional medal of honor to Roe Reisinger, alias J. Monroe Reisinger, late corporal, Company H, One hundred and fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, for specially brave and meritorious conduct in the face of the enemy at the battle of Gettysburg July first, eighteen hundred and sixty-three.

Approved January 25, 1907

Further evidence of Roe Reisinger's valor can be found in Lieutenant-Colonel Henry S. Huidekoper's official report of his Regiment at the battle of Gettysburg [Excerpted from: War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, series I, volume XXVII, part 1]. In his report, Huidekoper writes:

I cannot praise too highly the conduct of both officers and men. It was all that could have been desired. Among the many brave, I would especially commend for coolness and courage Major Chamberlain, Adjutant Ashurst, Lieutenants Sears, Chancellor (who lost his leg and has since died), Bell, Kilgore, Color-bearer [John] Pieffer, Sergeant [Duffy B.] Torbett, and Corporal’ [Roe] Reisinger.

[Note: Huidekoper's full report follows below.]


Report of Lieut. Got. Henry S. Huidekoper, One hundred and fiftieth Pennsylvania Infantry.

SIR: Report of the action of the One hundred and fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1:

On the morning of July 1, the One hundred and fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers left camp near Emmitsburg, and about noon arrived on the battle-field at Gettysburg. Rapidly throwing off their knapsacks, the regiment moved up on the ground between the Iron Brigade and the other regiments of Colonel Stone’s brigade, which reached to the Chambersburg road. After lying under shelling for an hour, the command of the regiment fell to me, Colonel Wister taking command of the brigade. Almost immediately, by order of Colonel Wister, a change of front forward on first company was made with regularity and promptness, and in that new position, protected by a fence, our men awaited the charge of a rebel regiment which was attempting to flank the One hundred and forty-third and One hundred and forty-ninth Regiments, which had gallantly repulsed an attack in their front. At the distance of 50 yards, a volley was poured into the rebels, which staggered them so completely that a second one was fired before an attempt was made to advance or retreat. At this juncture, Colonel Wister ordered the regiment to charge, and led it in person. The rebels were utterly routed, and the colors of the One hundred and forty-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, which had been lost, were recaptured and restored to that regiment.

The One hundred and fiftieth then fell back to the position from which it had advanced. The firing of the enemy, who was approaching in front of the corps, now became fearful, and the regiment changed front to rear to meet this new attack. The movement was made in perfect order, and then bravely did the men move to the front, following the color-sergeant, who rushed to place his standard on the small rise of ground in advance. Four companies again changed front to resist the flank attack, while the remainder of the regiment fought one entire brigade, which was prevented from advancing by a high fence. The severe loss attending fighting at such odds soon compelled our men to give way, but a battery coming up on our left, another stand was necessary, and again was the regiment moved forward until the battery had wheeled around and moved to the rear. At this moment a wound compelled me to relinquish the command to Captain Widdis, Major Chamberlain having been severely wounded some time before.

I cannot praise too highly the conduct of both officers and men. It was all that could have been desired. Among the many brave, I would especially commend for coolness and courage Major Chamberlain, Adjutant Ashurst, Lieutenants Sears, Chancellor (who lost his leg and has since died), Bell, Kilgore, Color-bearer [John] Pieffer, Sergeant [Duffy B.] Torbett, and Corporal [Roe] Reisinger.

The regiment numbered, including 17 officers, before the battle nearly 400 at roll-call; in the evening but 2 officers, 1 of those wounded, and 84 men were present. As far as I can learn, the number killed was about 60; the rest were wounded or captured.

I am, your obedient servant,


Lieut. Col. One hundred and fiftieth Pennsylvania Vols.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Newspaper coverage of the Civial War: journalists report on the Battle of Gettysburgh

During the American Civil War, Whitelaw Reid was a war correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette. In his coverage of the Battle of Gettysburg, he relates the following story wherein he encounters fellow journalist L.L. Crounse while enroute to Taneytown, Maryland to meet the newly installed commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade. Reid writes:

In a plain little wall-tent, just like the rest, pen in hand, seated on a camp-stool and bending over a map, is the new " General Commanding" for the army of the Potomac. More... Tall, slender, not ungainly, but certainly not handsome or graceful, thin-faced, with grizzled beard and moustache, a broad and high but retreating forehead, from each corner of which the slightly- ciirling hair recedes, as if giving premonition of baldness — apparently between forty-five and fifty years of age — altogether a man who impresses you rather as a thoughtful student than as a dashing soldier — so General Meade looks in his tent.

"I tell you, I think a great deal of that fine fellow Meade," I chanced to hear the President say, a few days after Chancellorsville. Here was the result of that good opinion. There is every reason to hope that the events of the next few days will justify it.

A horseman gallops up and hastily dismounts. It is a familiar face — L. L. Crounse, the well- known chief correspondent of the New York Times, with the army of the Potomac. As we exchange hurried salutations, he tells us that he has just returned from a little post-village in Southern Pennsylvania, ten or fifteen miles away ; that a fight, of what magnitude he cannot say, is now going on near Gettysburg, between the First corps and some unknown force of the enemy ; that Major-General Reynolds is already killed, and that there are rumors of more bad news.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

John Burns: citizen soldier at the Battle of Gettysburg

One of the more remarkable stories to come out of the first day of Battle at Gettysburg is the tale of John Burns, a 70 year old who heard the firing, grabbed his rifle, and asked permission to join the fight.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, was present as Burns approached the Union soldiers. He writes:

An incident which occurred about mid-day did much to create good feeling and stimulate the courage of the regiment. While watching and waiting, the attention of some of the men was called to an individual of rather bony frame and more than average stature who approached from the direction of the town, moving with a deliberate step, carrying in his right hand a rifle at a "trail". At any time his figure would have been noticeable, but it was doubly so at that moment, both on account of his age, which evidently neared threescore-and-ten, and the peculiarity of his dress. The latter consisted of dark trousers and waistcoat, a blue "swallow-tail" coat with brass buttons, and a high black silk hat, from which most of the original sheen had long departed, of a shape to be found only in the fashion-plates of a remote past. Presumably on account of the heat, no neckwear of any kind relieved the bluish tint of his clean-shaven face and chin. As his course brought him opposite the rear of the left battalion, he first met Major Chamberlin and asked, "Can I fight with your regiment?" The major answered affirmatively, but, seeing Colonel Wister approaching, added, "Here is our colonel; speak to him".

"Well, old man, what do you want?" demanded Colonel Wister.

"I want a chance to fight with your regiment."

"You do? Can you shoot?"

"Oh, yes;" and a smile crept over the old man's face which seemed to say, "If you knew that you had before you a soldier of the war of 1812, who fought with Scott at Lundy's Lane, you would not ask such a question".

"I see you have a gun, but where is your ammunition?"

For answer, he slapped his disengaged hand on his trousers pockets, which were bulging out with cartridges.

"Certainly you can fight with us", said the colonel, "and I wish there were many more like you".

He then advised him to go into the woods on the left, to the line of the Iron Brigade, where he would be more sheltered from sun and bullets, with an equal chance of doing good execution. With apparent reluctance, as if he preferred the open field, he moved towards the woods, and history has written the name of John Burns - for it was he - in the roll of the nation's heroes, and his deeds of that day are inseparably linked with the glories of Gettysburg!