Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Gettysburg Veteran of a Different Sort

Nicholas George Wilson
Not many Gettysburg enthusiasts will recognize the name Nicholas George Wilson. Yet Wilson, a Civil War veteran who did not fight in the battle, casts a huge shadow over our experience of visiting the Gettysburg battlefield to this day.

1858 Business Directory of Bendersville. Note Wilson's property
and blacksmith's shop at the bottom of the map.

Born on 6 October 1832 in Menallan Township in western Pennsylvania, as a young man Wilson took up the blacksmithing trade. Wilson first married in 1852, though his wife died three years later. In 1857 Wilson remarried Ellenora Walter. By 1858 the Wilsons were living in Bendersville, Pennsylvania, a little more than ten miles north of Gettysburg. In that year a map printed in the Bendersville business directory shows the location of Wilson's farm and blacksmith shop. In the 1860 Census Wilson was listed as a farmer. His household at the time included Ellenora and their two-year-old daughter, Susan.

By the beginning of the Civil War Wilson had become a teamster, and in July of that year he served as a first sergeant in a company of State Militia organized for border defense. In the summer of 1862 Wilson responded to President Lincoln's call for 300,000 troops by enlisting for three years of service in Company G of the 138th Pennsylvania.

The men of Company G came from the towns of Bendersville and Heidlersburg in Adams County. Wilson's company commander was James H. Walter - not an immediate family member of Ellenora's but likely related. The rest of the 138th came from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania with the exception of Company B, which was recruited in Gettysburg and commanded by John F. McCreary. Almost immediately Wilson was elected to serve as 1st Sergeant of the company, a position he occupied for the rest of the war. According to his obituary published in 1907, Wilson turned down the offer of a commission in order to serve with the enlisted men.

The 138th spent the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1863 guarding the B&O Railroad in Maryland. In response to Lee's invasion of the north in the summer of 1863, the 138th moved to Harper's Ferry, where it was organized into Elliot's Brigade. When Harper's Ferry was abandoned the regiment moved to Washington and then by rail to Frederick Maryland, where on July 7th the unit was added to the 3rd corps and became part of the Army of the Potomac for the first time.

Over the final two years of the war Wilson and the 138th would make up for their lack of action prior to Gettysburg. Wilson received the scare of his life in one of the regiment's first engagements at the battle of Locust Grove in the midst of the Mine Run Campaign. During the engagement a rebel bullet ripped through his knapsack - in which he had stored 40 rounds of ammunition. The bullet ignited those rounds, and his knapsack was blown right off his back. Wilson was otherwise unhurt, and lived to record the tale in a book of personal wartime sketches individually recorded by members of the Corporal Skelly G.A.R. Post 9, today preserved at the Adams County Historical Society.

In the spring of 1864 the regiment was reorganized into the 6th corps of the Army of the Potomac, and took part in Grant's Overland Campaign. Fighting on the extreme right of the army during the battle of the Wilderness, the 138th took part in a frontal assault on Confederate earthworks on the morning of May 6th. Moving forward through a nearly impenetrable underbrush and under a destructive fire from both front and flank, men were cut down left and right. One member of Company G, Cyrus Cook, recalled later that at one point in the engagement he looked around and noted that all the men around him for nearly 100 yards had been killed, wounded, or had fallen back excepting Sergeant Wilson and Corporal William Reed. Retiring to where the regiment had set up a second line, Cook noted that the impenetrable underbrush that had obstructed their advance had been completely shot off. The regiment suffered 153 casualties in the engagement. Later on the evening of the 6th, the regiment was caught up in a panicked retreat when Confederates under John B. Gordon launched a night assault against the 6th Corps's flank.

The regiment saw further action at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and served through the end of the war. In the summer of 1864 Wilson was wounded in the right hand at the battle of Monocacy, losing his second and third fingers and disabling his index and little fingers.

Wilson's Discharge from Service - dated 15 May 1865.

At the close of the war Wilson returned to his business as a teamster. His connection with the Gettysburg
Battlefield began in 1873, when he was elected to serve as the first superintendent of grounds for the Soldiers National Cemetery. He held this position for about fifteen years, overseeing the beautification of the grounds. In 1880 Wilson received election as a director on the board of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. In this capacity he played a significant role in the development of the battlefield, particularly the laying out of avenues. Indeed, his obituary relates: "For years the real work of the association on the field was the work of Sergeant Wilson, and he did much to bring the field to the development reached when turned over to the Government, having built a number of the avenues which have since been converted into Telford roads."

In the early 1880s the GBMA opened an avenue along Cemetery Ridge (today's Hancock, Sedwick, and Sykes Avenue) and constructed another across Culp's Hill, which makes up much of the modern Slocum and Colgrove Avenues today. More avenues followed - including what later became Sickles, Howard and Reynolds avenues. By 1887, Wilson had resigned his post with the National Cemetery and accepted a position as superintendent of grounds with the GBMA, earning $1,000 a year.

By the time the GBMA board agreed to transfer its holdings to the federal government in 1894, it had already constructed about seventeen miles of avenues giving access to about 320 monuments. Today, that avenue system - altered and updated over the years - continues to serve as the main interpretive system for the NPS, with the vast majority of visitors to the park experiencing the battlefield through 2-3 hour car and bus tours. This avenue system structures the order in which nearly every visitor experiences the battlefield, and determines which areas of the battle are most easily accessible. In the process, the avenue system naturally heightens the importance of some areas of the battlefield over others, simply by making some areas more accessible.

So next time you are traversing one of the park roads at Gettysburg - give a thought to N.G. Wilson and imagine how different (for good and bad) your battlefield experience today would be without his efforts.

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