Monday, July 1, 2013

Corporal Smith's Last March

95th New York Monument at Gettysburg.
Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons Licensing.
Company F of the 95th New York roused from their tents at an early hour on July 1st, 1863. They breakfasted and began to prepare for the day's march toward Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth, commanding the First Division of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac, issued orders for his men to fall in at around 7 a.m., and the march got under way by 7:30 or 8. The Second Brigade, under the command of Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler, led the column, and the 95th lined up fourth, following behind the 147th New York and in front of the 14th Brooklyn. At first, Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds and his staff accompanied Cutler's men on the march. Soon, the commander of the Army of the Potomac's left wing chose to ride ahead to Gettysburg in advance of his troops.

By the summer of 1863, the 95th New York had become a veteran outfit in the Army of the Potomac. It had seen service during Pope's Virginia Campaign, at South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign, and during the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. On June 30, the regiment mustered 24 officers and 239 men present for duty. One of those men was Corporal William G. Smith.

At the age of 18 in October of 1861, Smith joined up with the DeNoyelles Guards, soon designated Company F of the 95th New York. Smith was from Haverstraw, a community of about 7,000 located on the west bank of the Hudson River, some 40 miles north of New York City. His father, Robert Smith, was the editor and proprietor of the Rockland County Messenger. During his service, the young man who had worked as a letter press printer for his father would become one of the Messenger's frequent correspondents from the front lines. William's letters gave his father a steady stream of news to publish each week, and on occasion the Messenger would print them in full. In addition to his son, the elder Smith maintained correspondences with others in the regiment, including Edward Pye, a local lawyer and county judge. Pye had raised Company F and received a commission as its captain. In March of 1862, he became the 95th's Major. With such correspondents, the Messenger became a must read for Haverstraw families with loved-ones at the front.

As General Cutler's column approached Gettysburg, the men began to hear the thumping of artillery, and officers began to hurry the men on. Near the Codori farm south of town, pioneers rushed forward to tear holes in the fencing that lined the Emmitsburg Road, and General Cutler received orders to move his command obliquely across the fields to the west end of town at the double quick. As the men raced toward the sounds of battle, the six guns of Capt. James A. Hall's Battery B, 2nd Maine Light Artillery dashed by the column. Cutler's men arrived west of town and as they passed by the Lutheran Seminary they came under shell fire for the first time. Moving forward into the swale between Seminary and McPherson Ridge, Cutler moved across the Cashtown Pike and an unfinished railroad cut with his first three regiments. In between the pike and the railroad cut to the north, Hall's battery had unlimbered on the crest of McPherson's Ridge. Meanwhile, Col. Edward Fowler of the 14th Brooklyn received orders to take command of his regiment and the 95th and advance south of the pike to guard Hall's left flank.

The men of Company F dropped their knapsacks, loaded their guns, and formed a line of battle as they prepared to fight. They advanced up the slope toward the house and farm owned by Edward McPherson, and General Reynolds hurriedly gave Col. Fowler last minute instructions. The 14th held the left of the line near Herbst Woods, while the 95th formed the right. With skirmishers of Brig. Gen. John Buford's cavalry division falling back, the 95th entered a small orchard on the south side of the house and outbuildings and began to exchange fire with Confederate skirmishers from Archer's brigade of Tennesseans. For a short time the front of the 95th remained quiet as the battle raged in the woods to the south of their position and across the pike to their north. But soon the men began to notice the gunners of Hall's battery attempting to withdraw, and they realized that Cutler's three regiments north of the railroad cut had been driven back. To prevent being flanked, Col. Fowler ordered his two regiments to pull back eastward and change front to face the threat from the north, a complicated maneuver in the heat of battle. At some point during these opening stages of the fight, Col. George H. Biddle of the 95th went down with a wound, and Major Pye assumed command.

The troops approaching the 95th's flank belonged to Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis's Mississippi brigade, and as they neared the railroad cut many of them jumped into the ditch for cover. After completing their realignment, Col. Fowler ordered his demi-brigade forward to the post and rail fence that bordered the south side of the Cashtown Pike. The men laid down for protection and began to fire. The 14th continued to hold the left of the line and the 95th the right. As the men poured volleys into the Confederate line, smoke filled their front. Major Pye looked through the smoke and saw another Union force to his right moving against the cut - it was the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes. Dawes saw the New Yorkers about this time too, and he ran over to the 95th. Finding Pye, he yelled above the din of battle - "We must charge!" Pye responded: "Charge it is," and got his men back on their feet. The 95th scaled the fences along the pike under fire. Corporal William G. Smith moved forward with his comrades in Company F as the Mississippians in the cut let loose a destructive fire. As the regiment closed in on the cut, a ball fired by a Mississippian found its mark. The bullet struck Smith in the left temple and exited behind his right ear, killing Smith instantly. His comrades pushed forward, capturing many prisoners at the cut, and driving the Mississippians back in disorder. They held their advanced position for some time, but soon shell fire from Confederate batteries posted on Herr's ridge forced them to fall back eastward to reunite with the rest of Cutler's brigade. They left behind Corporal Smith's lifeless body.

Such was the respect for Corporal Smith within his regiment that Capt. James Creney of Company F reported that "all the members remaining of my own Company and members from other Companies in the Regiment, volunteered to attempt to bring in his body." General Cutler, however, refused several requests to recover the body made by both Captain Creney and Major Pye. The fight was not over, and Smith was not the last to fall. Just a few hours later, his tentmate, Corporal William Ackerman, another soldier from Haverstraw, took a bullet through head and was killed instantly. In all, the 95th would lose seven killed, sixty-two wounded, and forty-six missing. Three of those killed in action belonged to Company F, which also lost six men wounded.

In his printing office on Main Street in Haverstraw on that Wednesday morning, Robert Smith likely spent some time reading the news on the Army of the Potomac's latest movements. News of a great battle would begin to filter in over the next few days. But concrete news of his son's fate would have to wait until July 6th...

To be continued...

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