Monday, July 2, 2012

Stand Here and Die Fighting: Captain Francis Irsch - Part 1

45th New York Monument on Howard Avenue, North of Gettysburg.
Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons.
On May 27, 1892, Francis Irsch received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg. The citation stated that he received the medal for "Gallantry in flanking the enemy and capturing a number of prisoners and in holding a part of the town against heavy odds while the Army was rallying on Cemetery Hill."

Ten years later, in 1902, a 62-year-old Irsch found himself imprisoned in the Ludlow Street Jail in Manhattan.

Irsch's heroics on the battlefield, and his difficult post-battle history, remain obscure Gettysburg stories today. I'll take a closer look in my next series of posts.


The 45th New York broke camp at St Joseph's college in Emmitsburg, Maryland at about 7 a.m. on the morning of July 1st, 1863. The regiment - sometimes known as the 5th German Rifles - had organized in New York City in the fall of 1861 - and consisted almost completely of German immigrants. To date the 45th had seen action in the Shenandoah Valley, during the 2nd Manassas Campaign, and at Chancellorsville two months prior to Gettysburg.

On this July morning the men trudged through a drenching local shower. Arriving at Horner's Mills at around 10:30, word reached Carl Schurz - commanding the 3rd division, 11th Corps - that the 1st Corps had engaged the enemy at Gettysburg. Orders came down the ranks to move forward on the double-quick.

The 45th led the advance of the division as it arrived near Cemetery Hill on the Taneytown Road around noontime. Schurz himself remembered that the "weather was sultry, and the troops, who had marched several hours without halting, much out of breadth." By this point news of John Reynold's demise had spread, and caused a shakeup of the command structure of the 11th Corps. With Oliver Otis Howard taking command of all forces on the field, he turned command of the Corps over to Schurz. Schurz's division passed to General Alexander Schimmelfennig, and command of the division's first brigade passed to Colonel George von Amsberg of the 45th. In his stead, Lieutenant Colonel Adolphus Dobke would command the 45th New York this day.

With no time to catch their breath, the 3rd division received orders to move through Gettysburg and "deploy on the right of the First Corps in two lines." Their task: to take and hold Oak Hill and secure the northern flank of the First Corps. The 45th New York jogged northward on Washington Street as the nervous citizens of Gettysburg watched from their doorways. Soon they moved to the sidewalks to make room for Battery I, First Ohio Light, commanded by Hubert Dilger, which went at a gallop through the town. Pennsylvania College Professor and Washington Street resident Michael Jacobs recalled the scene: "They kept pace without breaking ranks; but they flowed through and out into the battlefield beyond, a human tide, at millrace speed."

Arriving north of town,  Schimmelfennig saw that Confederates of Robert Rodes' division had already reached Oak Hill, making his initial instructions impossible. Instead, he saw that he must form a line as best he could on the flat plain north of town. While the rest of von Amsburg's brigade assembled and caught its breath after the race through town, Captain Francis Irsch of Company D received orders to take four companies of the regiment and push forward as skirmishers toward a red barn (owned by Moses McClean) some 700 yards distant to the northwest and at the base of Oak Ridge. Taking the barn as an objective point, von Amsberg ordered Irsch to advance along the right of the Mummasburg Road and stretch as far to the east as possible. The remaining six companies of the regiment would follow in support once it had closed up.

Captain Francis Irsch was born in Saarburg, Germany on December 4, 1840, but came to the United States with his family as a small child. Employed as a merchant in New York City at the outset of the war, Irsch enlisted in September of 1861 with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Standing about 5 feet, 7 inches tall with grey eyes and dark hair, Irsch received a slight wound at the battle of 2nd Manassas, and by February of 1863 had risen to command of Company D with the rank of Captain. On July 1st - he would go into battle in command of almost half the regiment, and would spend much of this day feeling very alone.

As Irsch and his roughly 150 men pushed toward the McClean barn to the northwest, they immediately came under fire from the Morris Artillery, a Virginia battery commanded by R. Channing Page and positioned on the slopes of Oak Hill above and to the west of the McClean barn. A battalion of Alabama sharpshooters waited in an orchard on the Hagy Farm, about halfway between the 45th's skirmish line and Oak Hill.

Rough sketch of the situation completed by author using Google Satellite Images of the battlefield today.
The 45th advanced slowly across the field, driving the Alabamians out of the orchard at the Hagy House. Those sharpshooters retreated to the farm lane running from the Mummasburg Road to the McClean farm and regroup there at the base of Oak Hill. Irsch and his men followed. Taking advantage of a fence line at the edge of Hagy's orchard, the men sought shelter and continued the contest with the sharpshooters and Page's battery from distance.

By this time, the rest of the regiment had come up in supporting distance, and Hubert Dilger's smoothbore guns dropped trail just to the rear of the skirmish line and began dueling with the Confederate guns on the hill. A historical sketch completed by the regimental committee described what happened next:
A strong column of the enemy (O'Neal's Alabama Brigade) was seen coming along a lane at the base of Oak Hill, stealthily moving towards our left, where a gap between the right flank of the First Corps and our left seemed their objective point.... The Alabama brigade alluded to, advanced steadily to the left without heeding our fire much, whereupon Captain Irsch sent word to Dilger's Battery, asking them to engage the Confederate infantry if possible with canister or shrapnel (while we laid down again), which they did so successfully that the massed enemy began to halt and waver. The supporting balance of our regiment moved obliquely to the left towards the gap between the First Corps right and our left, while Dilger's Battery worked all their guns on O'Neal's Brigade, jointly with our fire. This brigade had meantime...received a galling fire upon their flank and rear from our four companies. A few regiments of the First Corps near the Mummasburg Road, faced about behind a stone wall to the left of the Mummasburg Road, and fired at the enemy's advance column. Our other six companies, under Lieutenant Colonel Dobke, also opened fire. The enemy began to break and run up the slope of Oak Hill towards McClean's barn, and the Virginia Battery limbered up and hastily retired.
Sensing that his moment had arrived, Captain Irsch ordered his men to rush forward in pursuit, leaving the protection of their fence line. The Germans rushed into the farmyard, took the barn, and captured many of the Alabamians who did not have time to get away. After the war, they claimed as many as 300 prisoners, although that number seems highly exaggerated.

The McClean Barn - the objective point for Captain Irsch and his men. His four companies advanced over the fields beyond the barn, and initially halted at a fence line approximately located where the hedgerow exists today. This view was taken looking southeast from the slopes of Oak Hill, near where Page's Virginia Battery unlimbered.
Photo by bulletproofsoul67.Creative Commons.
Having repulsed the first assault of Rodes' division, Captain Irsch and his four companies fell back to the main line and established a skirmish line with the rest of the 45th New York in the fields north of Gettysburg in an attempt to guard the right flank of the First Corps. They had already suffered severely in their engagement with Blackford's Alabama sharpshooters and in the repulse of O'Neal's brigade. Late in the afternoon, the tide of battle began to shift permanently against the federal troops north of Gettysburg, as the right flank of the 11th Corps on Barlow's Knoll gave way, and the left flank of the First Corps west of town also collapsed. Meanwhile, the reserve brigades of Rodes' division on Oak Hill launched a second attack along Oak Ridge, this time more competently.

As the federal position slowly collapsed, the men of the 45th did not have any immediate pressure on their front. Ordered to retire, the regiment marched "leisurely" back to the grounds of Pennsylvania College, where they had first formed upon arriving north of town. There, they made preparations to defend the college. The men in the ranks could see broken remnants of the 1st and 11th Corps retreating around them, but still faced little pressure from the enemy in their front. After staying about fifteen to twenty minutes on the grounds of the college, a bugler sounded the retreat on the double-quick.

These soldiers who fought so well all afternoon stubbornly disobeyed at first - they had no desire to run from an enemy whom they had held in check all afternoon. Captain Irsch called aloud:
Kameraden, zum schnellen Retiriren ist's zu spät; hier giebt's hur trotziges Kämpfen, Gefangenschaft oder Tod!
[Rough Google Translation: Comrades, it is too late to retreat, here we face a defiant struggle, imprisonment or death!]
 His men responded:
So wollen wir heir stehen und Kämpfend sterben, oder in Gefangenschaft untergehen!
[Rough Google Translation: We want to stay here and die fighting, or perish in captivity!]
Finally, as the Confederate infantry closed in, discretion won out over valor. But instead of retiring at the double-quick, the 45th marched slowly back into town on Washington Street. Upon reaching the intersection of Washington and Chambersburg streets the column took fire from the west - Confederates from A.P. Hill's corps. They pushed on to the next intersection- Washington and Middle Street - but found it a mass of confusion with retreating 1st Corps soldiers and pursuing Confederates. The men turned back and retraced their steps to Chambersburg Street, where they turned east and headed towards the square at the center of town. Here they found more panic - retiring 11th Corps soldiers pursued by the men of Jubal Early's division.

Running out of options, the men returned to the center of the Chambersburg Street block, and passed through the alleys on each side of Christ Luthern Church on the south side of the street. Lieutenant Colonel Dobke reported what happened next in his official report:

Captain Irsch, still directed four companies of the regiment. They had been the first 11th Corps troops on the field that afternoon, and now they brought up the rear. To give the rest of the regiment an opportunity to pass through the alleys and head south to Cemetery Hill, these four companies took possession of the buildings around the intersection at Chambersburg and Washington Street. This rearguard bastion began to collect stray soldiers from other 1st and 11th Corps units. "We broke down the fences in the yards, and...gained more houses...occupying windows, barns and alleyways from which the enemy was continually harassed," the regimental committee remembered in a historical sketch. This action allowed about 100 of the regiment to escape, and bought valuable time for other units to make it safely to Cemetery Hill, but it doomed Irsch and his men.

After several attempts to dislodge Irsch's command, Confederates parleyed with Irsch under a flag of truce, and took him on a tour of the surrounding streets. Satisfied of the hopeless situation, Irsch returned to the survivors, ordered them to destroy their weapons and throw them into wells, and formally surrendered. Thus concluded Captain Irsch's battle of Gettysburg.

Their captors would offer Irsch and his men parole in the aftermath of the battle. Believing that their presence would encumber the Army of Northern Virginia on its retreat and hinder its chances of escape, most refused the offer. In the rest of this series, we'll take a look at Captain Irsch's ordeal following Gettysburg, and his life after the war.

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