Sunday, June 17, 2012

A History Written in Blood - Part 2

The evening charge on July 2nd did not end the 125th New York's involvement in the battle of Gettysburg. Returning to their position on the Brian Farm that evening, the survivors sought what rest they could, but were called under arms at 3 a.m. on July 3rd. That morning, details from each of the brigade's regiments went forward and resumed the deadly duel with Confederate skirmishers on the flat in front of Cemetery Hill and west of the Emmitsburg Road.

Those of the brigade not out on the picket line formed in two parallel lines behind a stone wall in an orchard near the Brian House, providing support for Thomas A. Smyth's brigade in their front and the six rifled guns of Battery A, First Rhode Island Light Artillery commanded by William Arnold.

From this position, the 125th and its sister New York regiments bore the brunt of the Confederate bombardment preceding Pickett's Charge, and then assisted in repulsing the left flank of the Confederate assault force. In the engagement Colonel Eliakim Sherrill of the 126th - who had taken over brigade command upon Willard's death - was killed. In addition, Colonel Clinton D. MacDougall of the 111th fell wounded, though he refused to leave the field. By the end of the battle, the brigade command had passed to Lieutenant Colonel James M. Bull.

After two days of intense combat, the battle ended for the 125th New York. Entering with a total strength of 500, the regiment suffered 26 killed, 104 wounded, and 9 missing, for a total casualty list of 139.  In total the brigade suffered 714 casualties out of about 1,600 engaged, including two dead brigade commanders, George Willard and Eliakim Sherrill.

The 125th New York remained in the Army of the Potomac through the end of the war, seeing action at Bristoe Station, during the Mine Run and Overland Campaigns, and in engagements during the siege of Petersburg. The unit mustered out on June 5, 1865, its survivors returning home.

In the late 1880s, the survivors of the command, like those of many regiments, began to reflect on on the enthusiasms of their youth, and consider ways in which to honor their service. In the intervening years, much had happened to shape perceptions of the Civil War, and in particular the fight at Gettysburg.

By 1888, the 25th anniversary of the battle, memorial markers and regimental monuments dotted the fields of Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, an organization now dominated by veterans and dedicated to preserving the battlefield, encouraged the construction of monuments and set about carving out avenues to improve veteran and tourist access to the hallowed grounds. Aided by the growing influence of John Bachelder (a man best described as the official government-sanctioned historian of the battle) and "Lost Cause" proponents in the South, many came to see Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War. Bachelder himself coined the term "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy, and went a step further, by trying to establish the exact spot of ground where the tide 'turned.' His chosen location: the famed "Copse of Trees" (another Bachelder-inspired name), the furthest point reached by General George Pickett's men in their charge on the 3rd day. With Bachelder's influence, this culminating moment on the 3rd day became the center of fascination for those interested in studying and remembering the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg.

Amidst the backdrop of these influences, the 125th New York (along with the 126th and 39th) dedicated their Gettysburg monuments as the nation observed the 25th anniversary of the battle.
The 125th New York's monument located near Hancock Avenue on northern Cemetery Ridge. Note the old cyclorama building in the left background of the photo. Photo by Jenn Goellnitz.
In locating their monument the 125th (and the rest of Willard's brigade) had an interesting choice to make. Would they place emphasis on their charge into the Plum Run Swale at dusk on July 2nd? Or, would they instead choose to highlight their participation in the repulse of what had become known as Pickett's Charge?

In the end, the men of the 125th would dedicate their monument on October 3, 1888, placing it near the Brian farm on the northern stretch of Cemetery Ridge that the unit occupied for most of July 2nd, and from the vantage point the unit occupied during Pickett's Charge on July 3rd. They would place a smaller marker that same year in the Plum Run Swale, to denote the location where their Colonel, George Lamb Willard, fell in the waning hours of July 2nd.

The main monument on Cemetery Ridge bears the following inscription:

125th New York Infantry,
3d Brig. 3d Div. 2d Corps.
Recruited in Rensselaer Co. N.Y.
Mustered in at Troy, N.Y. Aug. 27th 1862.
Engaged in 23 battles.
Mustered out at Albany, N.Y. June 5th 1865

On the reverse of the monument the regimental association received approval to place an additional plaque in 1902:

George Lamb Willard
Colonel 125th New York Infantry. Major 19th
United States Infantry and Brevet-Colonel United
States Army.
Born August 15, 1837. Killed in action July 2,
1863 while in command of his brigade at the place
marked by a granite monument 1,070 yards to the 

July 2, 1863, Regiment in line at the stone wall until 7 p.m. when the Brigade went to the support of the Third Corps, charged and drove back Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade. Returned at 8:30 p.m.

July 3, 1863, Regiment in front on line of the stone wall west side of Hancock Avenue at time of Longstreet's Assault.

Number engaged, 500; killed 26; wounded, 104; missing, 9; total, 139. Regiment participated in all of the battles engaged in by the Army of the Potomac from that time up to and including Appomattox, Va., April 9, 1865.

The Willard marker in the Swale reads:

Colonel Willard
N.Y. Infantry
was killed
at this place on the 
evening of July 2nd 1863
while leading in a charge the 
3d Brig. 3d Div 2nd Corps

Erected by the survivors of
the 12th N.Y. Infantry, 1888

While we cannot possible hope to know all of the reasons why the survivors of the 125th (not to mention the rest of Willard's brigade) chose the specific locations of their monuments, we can learn more about the battle through looking more closely at their choice and reflecting on how post-war perceptions of the battle may have influenced the veterans.

One potential, though not entirely satisfactory, explanation is "the line of battle" rule. Faced with an increasing number of veteran organizations desiring to place monuments on the field, the GBMA at the behest of John Bachelder established this rule in 1887. Basically, the rule stated that future regimental monuments on the battlefield must be placed where the regiment entered the fight, as opposed to marking the spot of their furthest advance. The GBMA believed that this rule would ensure the accurate placement of monuments, and help visitors make sense of the battle. Some have argued that the rule also sought to discourage the placement of Confederate monuments on the field. In the case of the 125th, perhaps one could argue that they 'entered the fight' on the Brian farm. Yet the regiment did form a line of battle in front of lower Cemetery Ridge before advancing towards the Plum Run Swale in their charge, an important enough detail to allow the construction of their main monument in that location. Other units who held two distinct positions in a line of battle built multiple monuments.

A far more convincing argument involves the state of the Gettysburg battlefield in 1888, and the public memory of the battle. As previously noted, by this time Gettysburg had gained its status as "the High Water Mark" of the Confederacy, and already John Bachelder had purportedly pinpointed the exact spot of the cresting tide. Clearly, the place of honor for the Rensselaer County regiment was along the stonewall, not one hundred yards from the Copse of Trees. In the interim years, the GBMA had constructed Hancock Avenue, traversing Cemetery Ridge and providing easy access for visitors hoping to visit the famed sites of the field. Meanwhile, the low marshy land of the Plum Run Swale remained in private hands, and no avenue gave easy access. Only the intrepid battlefield hiker could trace to the endpoint of the New Yorkers' July 2nd charge a full quarter mile in front of Cemetery Ridge. From the standpoint of visibility and notoriety, the Cemetery Ridge site clearly provided the superior alternative. But at what cost to the memory of Willard and the charge on July 2nd?

Perhaps the survivors eventually realized the unintentional slighting of their heroics on July 2nd. In the 1890s the brigade placed an advanced marker west of the Plum Run Swale. This monument contained a detailed account of the brigade's charge. Then, in 1902, the men of the 125th added a plaque to their original monument near the Brian farm, honoring Willard and denoting the exact location of the his death site marker placed back in 1888.
Despite their efforts, today the sacrifices of George Willard and his New Yorkers remain somewhat obscure to the novice Gettysburg visitor. Their monuments along Cemetery Ridge struggle to stand out among the sea of monuments located in the vicinity - it turns out that many veteran organizations desired to have some association with the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. In the Plum Run Swale, the small markers that tell the story of their July 2nd adventure fail to attract much attention. While the brigade's advance monument does sit near Sickles Avenue, the 125th's marker honoring their late commander sits alone in the marshy ground around Plum Run, far from the modern battlefield avenues and rarely visited excepting battlefield buffs.

Back along lower Cemetery Ridge, near the gigantic Pennsylvania Monument (constructed in 1910) stands the tall monument to the 1st Minnesota Regiment. This regiment also aided in the repulse of Pickett's Charge, but instead chose to emphasize its role in the July 2nd fighting, which was similar to the services performed by Willard's brigade. Today, the First Minnesota receives a great deal of attention from the battlefield tourists who stop to admire the Pennsylvania Memorial (auto tour stop 12). Many of these same visitors may leave Gettysburg without ever hearing the name of George Lamb Willard.

In the end it is sadly ironic. Today most historians believe that Pickett's Charge had no chance of success. Instead, they point to the crises along the Union line on the evening of July 2nd as the moment at which the battle turned. Yet despite the importance historians place upon the charge of Willard's New Yorkers today, the majority of battlefield tourists lack the interpretive tools to learn about their heroic sacrifice. 


  1. Enjoyed your post. I often walk past George Lamb Willard's gravesite. Link to photo in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy NY

  2. Thanks for the comment - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I grew up not too far from Troy (Kinderhook), but have never had the pleasure of visiting Oakwood Cemetery.