Saturday, November 19, 2005

The One “Real” Hero of Gettysburg

Early this morning, I received a curious e-mail from a very pleasant visitor which, in part, read as follows:
    “I just read the book “The Killer Angels” for my US History class and it was great! My teacher asked us a question in class the other day:

    According to historians, who is the real Union hero at Gettysburg?

    I’ve done a lot of research and have not found a concise answer. My personal feeling, based on the book, is that it’s Chamberlain. When I asked my teacher if it was Chamberlain, he said no. He said it’s someone that I wouldn’t expect - someone from the first day in battle.”
Wiedrich's Battery
Needless to say, I found myself befuddled that historians as a whole had allegedly agreed upon the identity of the one true or “Real” Hero of Gettysburg. My mind scanned familiar and lesser known names seeking the possible identity of this singularly exceptional individual. The teacher’s words hinted that this one true hero, as agreed upon by historians, would prove to have been present July 1st but would not be an entirely obvious choice. The guardian of this valued tidbit of 19th Century trivia tactfully added that, although he wasn’t present July 1st, the mantle of real hero would not rest on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Conveniently ignoring the impression that few historians seem to hold consensus on much of anything, and instead of attempting to discern the mysterious person’s name, I wanted to consider the list of undeserving men these clues would necessarily eliminate.

The noted qualifications immediately exclude Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock from contention. Although present on Day 1, he certainly would not pass as “someone that I wouldn’t expect”. General Hancock would, at the behest of General George Gordon Meade, take command of the field towards the end of July 1st, 1863, notwithstanding the presence of an officer of greater seniority and despite currently heading only a division which had not yet reached the town. That evening he would write to Meade “General: When I arrived here an hour since, I found that our troops had given up the front of Gettysburg and the town. We have now taken up a position in the cemetery….The battle is quiet now. I think we will be all right until night. I have sent all the trains back. When night comes it can be told better what had best be done. I think we can retire; if not, we can fight here, as the ground appears not unfavorable with good troops.”

General Hancock
General Winfield Scott Hancock Monument
Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg, PA

On July 2nd, after General Sickle’s grievous wounding, Meade would again direct General Hancock to assume command of both his and the crumbling 3rd Corps. Among other acts that day, the ubiquitous Hancock would separately send the 1st Minnesota and Colonel George Willard's Brigade into the fray at the expense of countless brave men to maintain the center of the Union lines. On Day 3, Hancock's 2nd Corps would play the primary role in repulsing the Confederates’ grand charge. While actively moving along the northern lines, he would suffer a painful thigh wound which would plague him until his death several decades later.

The details given eliminate Union Generals Buford and Reynolds from consideration as “Real” heroes since again, they might be “expected” to reside on the list of deserving contenders. Brigadier General John Buford’s defense in depth and the fighting of his cavalry as infantry to delay the Rebel advance would not qualify him for real hero status. Major General John Fulton Reynolds, commander of the left wing of the venerable Army of the Potomac would not pass the heroism test, despite assuming the responsibility for committing his Corps to stopping the Confederate advance and surrendering his life to preserve the opportunity for eventual Union possession of the crucial heights south of town. Before the deadly bullet struck, General Reynolds would commit to General Meade “…we will hold the heights to the south of the town” adding “I will barricade the streets of the town if necessary.” Possession of this high ground combined with tremendous northern sacrifice would two days hence win the field for the men in blue.

By the parameters given, the stalwart soldiers of the Iron Brigade could not bear the label “real heroes”, despite sacrificing 1,153 of 1,885 (61%) men defending the Federals' claim to the high ground. During their later withdrawal, in the midst of a leaden hailstorm, these men of iron would repeatedly, stubbornly reform their lines to contest the Confederate advance. Wounds and death served as the immediate reward most often received for the performing of their duties.

The 147th New York Infantry, who fought just to the north of the Midwesterners, would also be excluded despite remaining alone on the field in a brutal slugfest with several Confederate regiments of Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis’ Brigade. Believing they had no orders to retreat, the New Yorkers continued to stand firm even after all other Union troops on that section withdrew to safer ground. Union Brigadier General Lysander Culter would report “The loss of this gallant regiment was fearful at this point, being officers 2 killed and 10 wounded, 42 men killed and 153 wounded--207 out of 380 men and officers within half an hour.”

The men of the 6th Wisconsin, the 95th New York, and the 14th Brooklyn would apparently qualify as also-rans despite their sacrifice as they charged the Butternuts sheltered in the Railroad Cut. In Steven W. Sears excellent book simply entitled “Gettysburg” he relates what Colonel Rufus Dawes, commanding the 6th Wisconsin, wrote to his fiancée concerning their “victory” at the Cut. “Our bravest and best are cold in the ground or suffering on beds of anguish. One young man, Corporal James Kelley of Company B, shot through the breast came staggering up to me before he fell and, opening his shirt, to show the wound said, Colonel, won't you write to my folks that I died a soldier?"

Little Round Top
Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA

Since the real hero had to have been present on Day 1, this would also immediately disqualify Colonels Joshua L. Chamberlain, Strong Vincent, and Patrick O’Rorke, General Stephen Weed and Lieutenant Charles Hazlett. All but Colonel Chamberlain died on these grounds as they fought to preserve their fragile hold on Little Round Top, the far left of the entire Union line. Colonels Vincent and O'Rorke would fall leading their men in battle. Lieutenant Hazlett would receive his death blow as he bent over to hear the words of his dying friend, General Stephen Weed.

None of the Union’s decimated 3rd Corps would be so honored, nor would any of the Brigades who battered themselves against tenacious Confederate attackers coming to their defense. Colonel Cross’ brigade, the Irish Brigade, and those of General Zook, and Colonel Brooke would allegedly not qualify as real Gettysburg heroes.

The men of the 1st Minnesota who obeyed General Hancock’s desperate, near suicidal order to advance against an entire Southern brigade, seemingly do not qualify. Despite this slight in awarding heroic status, Lieutenant Lochren of Minnesota’s 1st Regiment would report sadly but with pride, “What Hancock had given us to do was done thoroughly. The regiment had stopped the enemy, held back its mighty force, and saved the position, and probably that battle-field. But at what a sacrifice! Nearly every officer was dead, or lay weltering with bloody wounds--our gallant colonel and every field-officer among them. Of the two hundred and sixty-two men who made the charge, two hundred and fifteen lay upon the field, struck down by Rebel bullets; forty-seven men were still in line, and not a man was missing.”

Colonel Willard’s men, who blunted the devastating onslaught of General William Barksdale’s Mississippians, would find themselves blacklisted despite the comments of their division commander. Brigadier General Alexander Hayes later would say, “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.” Just as his men achieved success, part of Colonel Willard’s head would be torn off by a Confederate shell as he strove to lead his men forward.

Brigadier General George Sears Greene could not serve as the ever elusive real hero. While commanding a line of men stretched precariously thin, he ordered them to build substantial earthworks and defend Culp's Hill to the last. His foresight and bold generalship allowed his 1,500 men, the only remaining on a hill held just hours before by the Union 12th Corps, to fend off repeated assaults from an entire Confederate Division some 4 times their number. But, since one might anticipate his candidacy, he would not fit the guidelines supplied.

The 69th Pennsylvania
69th Pennsylvania Monument, Gettysburg, PA

The rules set by the equally anonymous teacher would preclude from contention Generals Alexander Web, John Gibbon, and Alexander Hayes, each of whom displayed active, effective generalship during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. The Ohioans and Vermonters, who flanked each end of the Confederate assault wreaking havoc on the unprotected Southerners, do not qualify. The men of the 69th New York, their ranks decimated as the offensive progressed while they dutifully held their ground at the swirling vortex of the leaden storm, do not qualify.

Since, by definition, only one “real” hero of Gettysburg exists, and since this paragon wore a uniform of blue, this would bar from consideration any of the butternuts contending from the other side of the field. None of the 23,000 to 28,000 killed, wounded, and missing apparently deserve status above that of “Gettysburg casualties”.

CSA Lieutenant General Longstreet, General Lee’s senior Corp commander and most trusted subordinate, would then find himself on the list of those excluded, despite the thoughts of Brigadier General James Kemper, a brigade commander in Pickett’s Division. He would later state of Longstreet’s conduct during the violent cannonade on July 3rd, “Longstreet rode slowly and alone immediately in front of our entire line. He sat his large charger with a magnificent grace and composure I never before beheld. His bearing was to me the grandest moral spectacle of the war. I expected to see him fall every instant. Still he moved on, slowly and majestically, with an inspiring confidence, composure, self-possession and repressed power in every movement and look that fascinated me."

Even General Robert Edward Lee would apparently prove lacking in spite of his leadership on Day 3. A British military observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards, walked the Confederate lines as Pickett’s Charge advanced and ultimately failed. Watching General Lee move among the shattered remnants of the once formidable command, he would offer, "If Longstreet’s conduct was admirable, that of Lee was perfectly sublime. He was engaged in rallying and in encouraging the broken troops and was riding about a little in front of the wood, quite alone, the whole of his staff being engaged in a similar manner farther to the rear. His face, which was always placid and cheerful, did no show signs of the slightest disappointment, care, or annoyance; and he was addressing to every soldier he met a few words of encouragement, such as: ‘All this will come right in the end; we’ll talk it over afterwards; but in the meantime, all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now,’ etc. He spoke to all the wounded men that passed him, and the slightly wounded he exhorted to ‘bind up their hurts and take up a musket’ in this emergency. Very few failed to answer his appeal, and I saw many badly wounded men take off their hats and cheer him.

I saw General Wilcox come up to him, and explain, almost crying, the state of his brigade. General Lee immediately shook hands with him and said cheerfully, 'Never mind, General, all this has been my fault. It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can.' In this manner I saw General Lee encourage and reanimate his dispirited troops and magnanimously take upon his own shoulders the whole weight of the repulse."

And so the list could continue of those perhaps deserving of a better fate than relegation to the status of mock heroism. Yet after this somewhat cathartic writing, the hope remains that this unknown teacher had in actuality posed a misleading question to encourage reflection concerning the qualities of heroism. Perhaps also he intended to lend understanding of the potential impact and limitations of one person’s actions in such great and tragic events. Certainly, in the quest for those who behaved heroically, the three days at Gettysburg provided countless examples and candidates.

Gettysburg's 50th Reunion
A Union & Confederate Veteran at the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion
(Courtesy of the National Park Service)

If I may be so bold as to offer my opinion on this question, to me, along with the men named above and those who would forever sleep on the now sacred bloodstained fields, the greatest heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg will for all eternity remain those who lost fathers, husbands, sons, friends, comrades, limbs, sight, and other capacities only to then reconcile with their former adversaries with an eye towards mending the broken and bleeding country. A stroll along the Seminary Ridge wood line near where Pickett’s men weathered the cannonade reveals an example of this magnanimity noted on a National Park Service interpretive marker.

The placard notes that, from the cover of the woods along Seminary Ridge, Confederate Lieutenant Thomas C. Holland of the 28th Virginia waited with the men of his regiment. He and the soldiers of the 28th would endure the tremendous cannonade and then weather the swirling storm of iron and lead to cross the open fields and face their enemy. During the eventual determined surge of Pickett's Charge, a bullet slammed into Lieutenant Holland's face exiting through the back of his head.

Of the 88 men of the 28th Virginia to begin the charge, Lieutenant Holland found himself among the 81 noted casualties. Despite his grave wounding, he miraculously survived both the battle and the war. Half a century later, during one of Gettysburg’s Grand Reunions, on those same fields, he faced the Union soldier who had shot him. This time, as each beheld the other, they extended their now weaponless hands in mutual respect and friendship.



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All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

References for this article:
  1. NPS: Voices of Battle
  2. Home of the American Civil War: Buford’s Defense
  3. Wikipedia: The Iron Brigade
  4. eHistory: Official Records of the Rebellion
  5. The Longstreet Chronicles
  6. NPS: The Courage to Face Consequences
  7. Gettysburg. Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin, 2003
  8. The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle. Larry Tagg, DaCapo Press; July 1998


Novus Livy said...

Too often we look at reports of battles and wars, and read the casualty lists with sterile acceptance of numbers. We seldom stop to think of those who's lives were also affected by what those numbers represent.

Those who lost their loved ones in battle had much to endure. A temporary emptyness in their lives had now become permanent. No more would the widow gaze from her window to see her man behind the mule and the plow. No more would the young child feel that warm, secure embrace. No more would the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, break bread with the soldier now gone. Death in battle was a multiple thing. Not just a life snuffed out, but the part of that life that would have touched on the lives of the loved ones was suddenly, violently, irrevocably removed from their lives.

Anonymous said...

The real hero of Gettysburg was the Quartermaster, Rufus Ingalls.
His ability to organize and transport the tons of Union supplies to the battle was beyond heroic. He was truly unsung.

Andy Etman said...

I always thought that General George Custer and his cavalry were heroes that day - holding off Jeb Stuart from a behind attack may have saved the day.

Jerry said...

John Burns, the Gettysburg civilian, age 72, took up arms with the Union forces at McPherson farm and was wounded three times. Burns is the universally accepted "hero of Gettysburg"