Saturday, June 9, 2012

A History Written in Blood - Part 1

We like to think that the monuments placed on the Gettysburg battlefield by veterans help to preserve the memory of those veterans and their deeds during the first three days of July, 1863. Surely the veterans believed this. Occasionally though, the placement of some monuments combine with outside factors (such as the post war development of the battlefield) to cause our collective memories to dim, and over time some of the battle's most significant moments are relegated to an obscure status.

In my next series of posts I will explore this phenomenon with regard to the story of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac. On the evening of July 2nd, 1863, this brigade, commanded by Colonel George Lamb Willard, helped to plug an enormous gap in the federal line along lower Cemetery Ridge, and turn back the surging Mississippians of William Barksdale's brigade. In theory, their sacrifice should stand on par with other units who performed similar duties that very evening - such as Vincent's and Weed's brigades fighting on Little Round Top, or the First Minnesota, fighting on Cemetery Ridge.

Yet often the deeds of Willard's brigade are overshadowed by these other incidents. While well known to battlefield buffs and scholars, most visitors who tour the battlefield likely leave without ever hearing about George Lamb Willard and the redemption his brigade won at the battle of Gettysburg.
George L. Willard during the Civil War
In the inky pre-dawn blackness of July 2nd, the men of the 125th New York trudged up the Taneytown Road toward Gettysburg. Arriving just south of town, the Rensselaer County men passed by the Round Tops, and pulled into the fields east of the road, perhaps in the area of the William Patterson Farm.  Here the men of the 125th awaited further orders.

Recruited in Rensselaer County and organized at Troy, the 125th mustered into the United States service for three years at the end of August 1862. Arriving in Washington just weeks later amidst the crisis following the disaster at 2nd Manassas, the regiment, commanded by Colonel George Lamb Willard, rushed to reinforce the garrison at Harpers Ferry, present-day West Virginia. They arrived just before Stonewall Jackson surrounded the town, and a few days later suffered the disgrace of having to surrender along with the rest of the 11,500 man garrison.

Paroled, the 125th was sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago to await a formal exchange of prisoners, which took place that November. Willard and his men returned to Virginia and were assigned to the defenses of Washington, with the stain of the capitulation at Harpers Ferry hanging over their heads.  As part of the Capital defenses, the 125th remained encamped at Centreville, Virginia until June 24th, 1863, when they received orders to join the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac as it headed north towards a date with destiny at Gettysburg.

The 125th brigaded with three other New York regiments: the 39th New York (Garibaldi Guards), the 111th New York, and the 126th New York. Each of these regiments had been present for the surrender at Harper's Ferry, and anxiously awaited their moment to prove their worth to the Union cause. General Alexander Hays had commanded this brigade, but upon its addition to the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, Hays had assumed command of the 3rd division of that corps. Colonel Willard replaced Hays as brigade commander and on July 2nd Lieutenant Colonel Levin Crandall commanded the 125th. The brigade numbered just over 1,600 men when it arrived on the field that morning.

After resting in a field on the east side of the Taneytown Road for about an hour or so, Willard's brigade moved up closer to the town and crossed over to the west side of the Taneytown Road, ascending the slope of Cemetery Ridge. The men came to a halt just east of the ridge crest, facing the farmhouse and orchard of a free African American, Abraham Brian. The brigade deployed by battalion in mass, with each regiment stacked one behind the other facing westward. Almost immediately Colonel Willard ordered 3 companies of the 125th forward into the fields that lay between Cemetery and Seminary Ridge as skirmishers. These companies and others from the brigade spent much of the early afternoon hours sparring with Confederate skirmishers.

Born on August 15th, 1863 in New York City, George Lamb Willard always dreamed of gaining martial glory. Willard descended from generals in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. However, as a young man Willard's family sent him to live with a relative in Ohio, hoping he would turn his interest toward business. Instead, at the start of the Mexican War Willard enlisted in the 15th Ohio Volunteers, eventually becoming first sergeant of the regiment. Willard received a commission as second lieutenant in the 8th U.S. infantry in 1848, electing to stay in the army following the end of the war. He rose through the peacetime army and was serving as captain of the 8th infantry at the start of the Civil War. After a promotion to Major of the 19th U.S. in February of 1862, Willard received permission to take leave of this regiment that summer and became colonel of the 125th New York. At Gettysburg Willard will have his first chance to lead a full brigade.

Throughout that afternoon Willard has his men busy keeping Confederate skirmishers at bay to the west. At around 4:00 the smattering of skirmish fire and occasional bark of a battery were overcome by the roar of a full fledged battle to south, announcing the beginning of Longstreet's assault. Simultaneously Confederates east of Gettysburg opened a cannonade on Cemetery Hill. As evening drew on the battle on the left began to go against the Army of the Potomac, and as the 3rd Corps line collapsed at the Peach Orchard, its commander Dan Sickles fell wounded.

Ordered to assume command of the 3rd corps in addition to his own, General Winfield Scott Hancock was also directed to send a brigade to the left to help stem the tide. He had already sent an entire division to the left earlier in the evening. Hancock reported:
I immediately led the Third Brigade, Third Division, under Colonel Willard... toward the left of the original line of battle of the Third Corps, and was about proceeding with it to the front, when I encountered General Birney, who informed me that his troops had all been driven to the rear, and had left the position to which I was moving.
Looking towards Cemetery Ridge (Pennsylvania Memorial in background) from modern day Sickles Avenue. Note how the ground slopes down to the Plum Run Swale (medium background) and then slopes upward toward Cemetery Ridge beyond. On the evening of July second Willard's brigade charged from Cemetery Ridge toward the Plum Run Swale. Emerging from the swale, Willard's men would be raked by Confederate artillery fire positioned to the right and rear of this camera angle.
Photo by lcm1863. Licensing.
The battle had reached a crisis. As the 125th and the rest of Willard's brigade reached the area, hardly any troops occupied lower cemetery ridge, creating an enormous gap between the lines of the 2nd corps to the north and Little Round Top, held currently by the 5th Corps. To the west, the New Yorkers could see the disintegrating masses of Sickles' 3rd Corps fleeing their lines along the Emmitsburg Road, with masses of Confederate infantry in hot pursuit. Reinforcements were on the way, but for the moment this one brigade would have to try and halt what looked like a growing rout.

In the growing darkness and with General Hancock personally observing, Willard swung his New Yorkers into line of battle. The 125th and 126th formed the front line, with the 111th in support and 39th held in reserve on Cemetery Ridge (the 39th would eventually be called on to fight on its own further to the south). The 125th's Regimental historian Ezra D. Simons remembered what happened next:
We were halted amid the smoke in front of some swale - a new growth of trees - in which we could see, dimly because of the smoke covering the field - men moving. The brigade was dressed on the colors, an unusual thing under such circumstances. Our men commenced to fire, but word was shouted: 'Firing on your own men!' Upon which the command was given by Colonel Willard: 'Cease firing!' Officers, as did the writer, rushed in front of our line repeating the order. But the interval permitted the enemy to reload, and we swiftly learned our mistake. A man to the left of the writer fell in an instant prostrated by a bullet. Then, doubt removed, the men await no orders, but press on, firing as they move.... On, on we rushed, through storm of fire and death, thundering above and darting around us like the thunder and lightning of heaven.
In the swale below waited Mississippians of General William Barksdale's brigade, fresh off of breaking the 3rd Corps line at the Peach Orchard. As the 125th and 126th approached the men began to shout "remember Harpers Ferry!", and the two regiments unleashed a deadly volley, killing many Mississippians and mortally wounding General Barksdale. Gradually, the Mississippians began to give way, leaving their leader wounded and a prisoner. Lieutenant Colonel James. M. Bull of the 126th reported what happened next:
Reaching the base of the hill, the brigade advanced at 'charge bayonets' up the hill mentioned, and within a few minutes recaptured part of a battery previously taken from us. After taking the battery, the brigade continued to advance under the fire of a battery higher up the hill to the left  and a concentric fire of musketry on the right. The commander, finding his brigade unable to stand so severe a fire, ordered the regiments to retire, which was done in good order down the hill and through the underbrush before mentioned.
As the men retreated to the swale and splashed across Plum Run  they continued to suffer heavily from the Confederate artillery along the Emmitsburg Road. As Willard went about reforming the brigade a shell fragment tore into his face, killing him instantly. Colonel Eliakim Sherrill of the 126th assumed command of the brigade. By this time, with the Confederates in retreat and reinforcements arriving, the crisis had passed. Colonel Sherrill and his New Yorkers fell back to Cemetery Ridge and returned to their original line by the Brian farm to see what else the battle had in store for them.

In this charge the brigade suffered fearful losses in addition to the tragic death of its commander. In his report written just six days later on July 8, division commander Alexander Hays wrote:
The history of this brigade's operations is written in blood.... The loss of this brigade amounts to one-half the casualties in the division. The acts of traitors at Harper's Ferry had not tainted their patriotism.

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