Saturday, January 19, 2013

The 2nd Fire Zouaves

The 73rd New York's monument at Gettysburg. Photo by fauxto_digital. Creative Commons Licensing.

One of the more interesting monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park is dedicated to the 73rd New York Infantry, also commonly referred to as the 2nd Fire Zouaves. Dedicated in 1897, the unique design of this monument aptly represents the 73rd's unique story. Today, the monument not only tells us that story, it also reveals how veterans viewed the commemorative landscape of Gettysburg in the late nineteenth century.

Raised in the summer of 1861 and serving through the entirety of the war, the 73rd New York consisted largely of New York City volunteer firefighters. The regiment was recruited among all the fire departments of the city, and each firefighter remained on the active roll of his department throughout his service. The regiment was raised along with four other New York units, all of which were brigaded together as the Excelsior Brigade under former congressman Dan Sickles. At Gettysburg, the Excelsiors served under the command of Colonel William Brewster in the 2nd division of Sickles's 3rd Corps.

On the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863 - the 73rd found  itself positioned in reserve to the north of the Trostle farm lane, supporting the advanced line along the Emmitsburg Road. As the battle rolled toward the Peach Orchard salient that evening, Major Henry Tremain of Sickles's staff (and originally a member in the 73rd) appeared in front of the regiment. Captain Frank Moran of Company H recalled the scene in an article in the National Tribune in 1890:
Maj. Tremaine, "of ours," of Sickle's staff, came toward us from the left at a gallop. We knew his message well before he reached us, and the men sprang into line, and facing left we moved toward the orchard at double-quick through a shower of bullets and bursting shells. The 114th Pa., stretched along the Emmitsburg road from the gate of the Sherfy house and past the barn, were hotly at work and sorely pressed, but facing their foes gallantly...
The 73rd came to a halt on high ground near the Wentz house in rear of the 114th, which had crossed to the west side of the Emmitsburg Road to engage Barksdale's Mississippians. Here the Excelsiors would have to wait until the 114th had cleared their front, though they began taking fire from the Mississippians. They did not have to wait long, for soon the 114th began to retreat northward up the road. The 73rd found itself facing the 13th and 17th Mississippi, and advanced against them. Moran continued:
The 73rd New York monument and the Sherfy Farm in the distance.
This area was an orchard in July of 1863. Note that the house dates
to the battle, but the original barn burned on July 3, 1863.
Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons Licensing.
As the charging Mississippians rose to view above the crest, traversed at that point by the Emmitsburg road, we poured into their faces a hot and ringing volley that stretched them over the ground in scores. They staggered, but closed up, and with the familiar, "Hi-yi!" returned our fire and pressed forward with the savage courage of baited bulls....

The [federal] batteries...were belching shot, shell and grape into the faces of Longstreet's charging columns; showers of branches fell from the peach trees in the orchard in the leaden hurricane that swept it from two sides. Every door, window and sash of the Sherfy house was shivered to atoms. The barn close by was riddled like a sieve from base to roof, and cannon-shot at every instant split its boards and timbers into showers of kindling-wood....

Our little regiment was melting away fast in the deadly cross-fire, but stood to its work unflinchingly, and closed at last in semi-circle around its riddled flag. Our color-bearer was struck dead. A brave man instantly caught up the flag and waved it defiantly. A bullet shattered his arm in a few minutes, and a third man held it up. The men of my company fell dead and wounded beside me, and how Col. Burns, mounted on his conspicuous old white horse, escaped the bullets seemed miraculous.

But the fast melting line to our left grew perilously thin, and at last began to retire, while continuing the fire upon the heavy columns that Longstreet poured against the angle of the road and the lane.... The rebel infantry entered the orchard and we received their fire almost in our very backs. At last an officer of Humphreys's staff gave Col. Burns the order to retire toward the supports of Hancock, and the little remnant of the regiment, leaving their dead and dying under their feet, slowly retreated.

At this crisis an excited and bareheaded officer dashed up to us and implored us to help drag away a couple of imperiled guns, the horses having been all killed and the gunners shot. I called to a group near me, and we started after the officer at a run and back towards the front.
While Captain Moran and some of his men endeavored to recover the guns, a shell burst nearby and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke several minutes later her was a prisoner. Meanwhile, the rest of the regiment retreated back to its original position north of the Trostle farm lane and linked up with the rest of the Excelsior Brigade. Here they rallied and made a brief but doomed attempt to halt Barksdale's momentum. When that failed, they joined the retreat back toward Cemetery Ridge. In all, the Fire Zouaves lost 4 officers and 47 enlisted men killed, 11 officers and 92 enlisted men wounded, and 8 men missing - for a total of 162 casualties.

Like many other regiments at Gettysburg - the survivors of the 73rd New York would have the opportunity to dedicate two monuments to their service on the Gettysburg battlefield - one in 1893, and the other in 1897. I will take a look at these two monuments, and the dedicatory exercises around them, in a post later this week.


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