Chapter Eight


Harper’s Ferry!"


For the men of the 111th and 126th the afternoon of July 2, 1863, was a time of stressful waiting. While they heard sporadic gunfire on their right and left, the field in front of them remained occupied only with the enemy’s skirmishers. For most of the afternoon the battlefield remained ominously quiet and the men waited for the sounds of cannon to signal the start of an assault on some part of the field. As the afternoon hours passed the tension increased, especially for the veterans of the Army of the Potomac who remembered what General Lee had done to them only two months earlier at Chancellorsville. There, Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson on a bold flanking maneuver that crashed into the exposed Federal right flank and eventually defeated the Army of the Potomac. The more time that passed the more anxious many of the men got.

Finally at about mid-afternoon the men’s anxiety became reality. General James Longstreet’s Corps had been sent south in an attempt to fall on the exposed left flank of the Federals. After several hours of delays the Confederates were launching their attack. The men of the 111th and 126th could hear the sound of artillery and see the explosions on their left as Colonel E.P. Alexander’s Confederate field pieces went into action. Before long the battle would be raging in places whose names were as yet unfamiliar to

72 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

these men – Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield.

General Lee designed the Confederate attack to be launched en echelon, that is in a series of trip-hammer blows from the Confederate right to left which were intended to roll up the Union flank as it went. The first of these Southern efforts was launched at approximately 4 p.m. as Major General John B. Hood’s Division moved forward. Soon the next echelon moved into action and as the attack developed, the Southern forces began driving into the positions occupied by the Federal Third Corps, which was commanded by Major General Daniel E. Sickles.

Earlier that afternoon General Sickles had recklessly advanced his troops out of line with the Second Corps to a position several hundred yards to the west. Sickles was a general who owed his rank more to his political connections than to his military expertise. His move not only endangered his command but also the Second Corps units; it created a gap between the two corps. Sickles had isolated his troops in a very vulnerable location, and here, in this exposed position, the Confederates struck. General Meade would spend the remainder of the day sending troops to aid Sickle’s Third Corps in an effort to prevent the Army of the Potomac’s left flank from collapsing. Since the move was made without Meade’s permission or direct knowledge, the Union commander was forced to throw in whatever troops were available in a piecemeal fashion rather than having the time to organize a coordinated shifting of reserves. That is why some of the brigades in the Second Corps were sent to the left during the course of the afternoon in an effort to plug the breaches created by the rebel attack.

For more than two hours the men of the 111th and 126th lay in their positions near Zeigler’s grove and listened to the battle rage. Sickles’ Third Corps and the reinforcements sent there were taking a beating. General Meade kept abreast of the situation and as the Federal lines were being driven back under the tremendous pressure from the Southern assaults, he sent word to General Hancock for another of his brigades to be sent to the left. Hancock dispatched a courier to General Hays with orders for Hays to send one of his commands to assist the Third Corps. As Hancock’s aid

The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 73

rode up, General Hays and Colonel Willard were discussing the situation on their left. "General Hancock sends you his compliments and wishes you to send one of your best Brigades over there," said the courier pointing to the left. Hays looked at Willard and exclaimed, "Take your Brigade over there and knock the H--- out of the rebs."1

Colonel Willard rushed back and assembled his regimental commanders. Soon the officers of the 111th and 126th were shouting, "Fall in!" The soldiers quickly assembled and waited for their next command. They did not wait long as, "Fix Bayonets; shoulder arms; left face; forward march!" were heard.2 The order to ‘Fix Bayonets’ was one that showed the aggressive attitude which Willard was taking into battle. The bayonet was a weapon that was attached to the musket when a commander felt that his unit was going to either charge or repel the enemy at close quarters. The problem with the bayonet was that it slightly increased the reloading time because the blade was in the way when the soldiers had to put the powder and ball down the muzzle of the weapon. If the Federals were going to stand their ground and exchange fire with the Confederates, this move might not be wise. However, if the colonel intended to charge into a mass of gray troops, then it would be advantageous for the soldiers to have their bayonets on the ends of their muskets. Apparently the former regular army officer was prepared to order his unit to charge headlong into the oncoming Confederates if necessary.

Willard’s brigade quickly fixed their bayonets and faced to the south for their march along Cemetery ridge. As the units were moving off toward the fighting, one of Meade’s aids rode up to General Hancock with a message. Hancock was ordered to the left where he was to assume command over the entire part of the field. The Third Corps commander, General Sickles, had been severely wounded in the leg by an artillery shell and he was unable to continue leading his Corps. Thus General Hancock personally led Willard’s Brigade into position.



74 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

The brigade marched in what was known as columns of division. This means that the regiments marched in two parallel columns as they had been formed while in reserve. The columns of troops headed south along the ridge under a steady artillery fire. As they marched the troops had to climb over the stone walls which ran perpendicular to their path. Along the way the men began to see the remnants of the Third Corps retreating under the pressure of the Confederate attack. After proceeding several hundred yards past the left of the Second Corps position, Hancock "established Colonel Willard’s Brigade at the point through which General Birney’s division [part of the Third Corps] had retired, and fronting the approach of the enemy, who were pressing vigorously on. There were no other troops on its right or left..."3

Here, all alone, the brigade was deployed. The regiments were arranged as follows: In the front line and farthest to the south was the 125th, with the 126th on its immediate right. Behind the 126th was the 111th, which had been placed 200 yards in the rear to cover the brigade’s right flank.4 The 39th New York was deployed approximately 250 yards behind the 125th to cover the brigade’s left flank.

Colonel Willard took great care to make sure his brigade was going to be properly deployed; this was a critical moment for the men of Willard’s command. They not only had the opportunity to erase the stain of the Harper’s Ferry surrender but they were in a decisive position to affect the outcome of this important battle. If they faltered and retreated, the gap they were filling would be wide open for the Southern forces to drive clear through to the rear of the Union position. If they could stop the rebel advance, however, then Union reinforcements would soon arrive to help shore up the defenses and prevent a breakthrough. It was critical to both the Union cause and the "Harper’s Ferry" regiments’ reputation that the soldiers did their duty here, alone, on this field.

Colonel Willard decided that he would take no chances concerning this advance; he was determined that his unit would not falter in the face of the enemy. Being a professional military man

The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 75

he realized the importance of maintaining alignment during a battle. With artillery shells bursting around the men, Willard ordered the officers to place markers out in front of the regiments. These markers assisted in making sure the brigade formed a straight line of battle. One member of the 111th remembered that Willard "lined us up as if we were on parade instead of under a perfect storm of missiles from minie balls to bursting shells."5 While this seems incredibly foolish in terms of twentieth century warfare, this alignment was imperative for the Civil War era. Once the order to advance was given, the continuity of the regiments would depend on their guiding on the companies next to them. If the integrity of the formation was not established from the beginning of the maneuver, then disorder could turn even a disciplined regiment into a confused mob.

Adding to the confusion for the New Yorkers were the members of the Third Corps who were retreating from the swale in front of the brigade. Many of these men came streaming right through the formation that Colonel Willard was working to establish. The sight of troops fleeing on a battlefield could unnerve even veteran troops so one can only imagine the thoughts that were racing through the minds of these still unseasoned soldiers.

Few soldiers ever experience the level of intensity that now faced the men in the 111th and 126th. Their hearts must have been pounding as they were thinking of what they were going to pass through in the next few minutes. During the weeks at Camp Douglas and then through the months of garrison duty, many of the men had waited for the time when they could finally redeem their unit’s reputation; finally the time they had waited for was at hand. The previous disgrace now worked in their favor as the men were more determined than most to prove their worth in combat.

When the lines were dressed the markers were withdrawn. The men noticed that the flow of retreating Federal soldiers on their front had ended. This meant that the next ones to appear would be the enemy. Unknown to the men of the 126th, was that the Confederate brigade they were about to confront was one of the same units they had faced on Maryland Heights at Harper’s

76 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

Ferry. This unit was commanded by Brigadier General William Barksdale. At Harper’s Ferry it was Barksdale’s Brigade which had flanked the Union position causing the regiments there to retire. Now, ten months later, the adversaries would unknowingly face each other again.

General Barksdale’s command of four Mississippi regiments was part of Longstreet’s Corps, and it had earned a reputation for being one of the fightingest brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia. The high spirited Barksdale had trouble waiting his turn to attack – the en echelon plan meant that he had to wait while the units on his right went into battle first. He continually asked Longstreet’s permission to launch his assault on the Peach Orchard, but Longstreet made Barksdale wait. Finally when the order to advance was given, the Mississippi lawyer led his troops against the salient where he crashed into the Federal position and drove them back. After pursuing the units for several hundred yards and coming under Union artillery fire, Barksdale’s Mississippians wheeled to their right and headed east toward the gap that Willard’s New Yorkers were sent to fill. The Mississippi troops briefly halted in a swale about 300 - 400 yards in front of Willard’s position. The fiery Barksdale ordered his tired men to press on and sweep the last of the Union resistance from their path.

The swale that the Confederates moved into was a rough piece of ground along which a small creek flowed. The low ground was covered with rocks, shrubs, small trees and bushes. This cover, combined with the smoke from the battle and the setting of the sun, helped to conceal Barksdale’s men. From this position the Confederates were able to see the Federal regiments forming on the ridge as they were out in the open on the ridge. Willard’s men quickly drew fire from the rebels and the shots were answered by some of the men in the 125th, who were anxious about being passive targets. Colonel Willard immediately ordered the men to cease fire as the identity of the troops in the swale was still unknown; they could be members of the Third Corps who were still retreating.

Finally, with the brigade in position and convinced that only the enemy was in their front, Willard ordered the unit forward. The regiments marched down the slope with the 125th and 126th


The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 77

in the lead. These two regiments began to fire at the Confederates as they advanced. Nearing the swale, and with the enemy’s fire increasing in intensity, Willard ordered the units to charge with their bayonets and drive the Confederates from the cover.

Here, as the men advanced toward the swale, a voice rang out saying "Remember Harper’s Ferry." Soon the cry was echoed as hundreds of voices yelled "Remember Harper’s Ferry."6 The New Yorkers crashed into the swale where their momentum slowed. After the line wavered temporarily, the men continued to press on driving the Confederates before them.

Seeing that his troops were beginning to give ground, Barksdale conspicuously attempted to inspire them. Cheering and yelling he drew the attention not only of his own men but also of those in the 126th. Several of these advancing soldiers leveled their muskets and fired. Barksdale went down mortally wounded in the chest.

Back up the slope General Hancock had watched the advance and became concerned as a unit of Confederates was advancing beyond the right flank of the 126th. Hancock rode over to Colonel MacDougall and ordered him to advance on the Confederates who were threatening the brigade’s right.7 The 111th marched "by the right flank" until they were in a position to face the on-coming Southern force. Then the order "left face" was given and they advanced down the slope driving the rebels back into the swale. As the 111th moved into the brush, they formed on the right of the 126th, thus giving the brigade a three regiment front. This was a difficult maneuver to execute but the months of drill under the watchful eye of General Hays had paid off. The units were able to maneuver, even under the hectic conditions of the battlefield.

As the regiments advanced through the brush their casualties began to mount. Color Sergeant Erasmus Bassett of the 126th paid little attention to the dangerous conditions, however. He remained several yards in advance of the line defiantly waving the Stars and Stripes in an attempt to encourage the men. Suddenly the impact of a musket ball was felt as the projectile sank into his leg. Ignor-



78 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

ing the wound he staggered on continuing to wave the national flag in one hand and his revolver in the other. After but a few steps the thud of another ball was heard. This time the missile struck him in the heart, "and he died without a groan."8

Down the line from where Sergeant Bassett fell, his brother, Lieutenant Richard Bassett, noticed that the colors "faltered, and finally fell; directly they were raised again and went on. I then knew that my dear brother had fallen."9

When Erasmus Bassett fell the colors were immediately grabbed by Corporal Ambrose Bedell of Company E. As Bedell grabbed the banner, Sergeant Byron Scott leveled his musket sights on the Confederate who he believed killed Sergeant Bassett and immediately fired.10 The two soldiers then continued on keeping the regimental flag visible for the men to guide on.

The personal tragedy was not over for Lieutenant Richard Bassett this day, for during this same charge a close friend fell mortally wounded. Private Melvin Bunce was from the same hometown (Dundee, New York) as the Bassetts and a member of the regimental band. Before the action he asked Richard about accompanying the regiment if they were to enter any combat. Most members of the band stayed in the rear and assisted with the wounded, but Bunce wanted to be in the line of battle. Although physically ill, he ignored advice from others to go to the hospital and instead grabbed a musket and followed the regiment to the left. As the unit advanced, Private Bunce was struck by a musket ball. After being hit he turned to Richard for assistance. The following is how Richard Bassett later explained these events to his family.

The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 79 The color bearers in the other units were also inviting targets for the Confederates. As the 111th advanced through the swale their national color bearer was also struck down. Sergeant Judson Hicks was carrying the Stars and Stripes at the lead of his regiment when "he was shot through the head and two balls went through his body,"12 killing him instantly. "Quick as lighting Corporal [Payson] Derby leaped forward, recovered our immortal banner, raised its folds to the breeze, and, flirting it defiantly in the face of the enemy, moved forward with our victorious ranks."13

Although the Southerners were able to continue their murderous fire on the advancing Federals, the gray lines were gradually giving ground. Soon the stubborn rebels were rooted out of the underbrush and into the open field beyond the swale. Seeing this, the New Yorkers renewed their efforts and drove the Confederates back toward the Emmitsburg Road. The advance again slowed as the men came under fire from the Confederate artillery. These batteries were part of Colonel E.P. Alexander’s battalion that had followed the advance of the Southern infantry. Once the Union soldiers cleared the cover of the swale and the retreating Mississippians were out of the way, Alexander’s artillery pieces began to unleash deadly loads of shell and canister. This type of fire from cannon was very effective at short range.

During the charge the losses in the 111th were especially heavy.14 This unit not only faced part of Barksdale’s Brigade on

80 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

their front, but they were also receiving fire from Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade which was on their right. Colonel MacDougall had two horses shot from under him during the advance and was also slightly wounded.15

Another officer in the 111th, Lieutenant Augustus Proseus of Company E, was killed while leading his men. Proseus had enlisted in the 17th New York Volunteers at the very beginning of the war and, after serving his original enlistment term, had resigned his commission and returned home. When the call for troops was again heard in 1862, he quickly responded by joining the 111th. At Gettysburg he was very ill and had only rejoined his company when he heard they were moving to the left. As his men advanced he encouraged them by yelling, "Stand firm, Don’t yield an inch!" Just as he finished this statement an enemy bullet struck him down.16

Even under the heavy artillery fire, the 111th and the rest of Willard’s brigade continued to press on. They advanced approximately 175 yards west of the swale to a fence that paralleled the Emmitsburg Road (about 350 yards to the east).17 Here the units recaptured several pieces of artillery which the Third Corps gunners were previously forced to abandon. At this point, with darkness coming fast, without support, and under heavy artillery fire, Willard reluctantly gave the orders to fall back. The regiments deployed skirmishers on their front and slowly retired back to the swale.

Colonel Willard had reason to be pleased with the conduct of his brigade in this effort, but he could not have anticipated what was soon to befall to him personally. As the regiments moved back into the cover of the swale, Willard, who was riding back through the rough ground trying to prepare a defensive position, was hit by an artillery projectile. The wound was ghastly as it struck him in the head and he fell dead from his horse. The com-


The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 81

mand of the brigade now passed to the senior regimental officer, Colonel Eliakim Sherrill of the 126th New York. Lieutenant Colonel James Bull in turn assumed command of Sherrill’s regiment.

With darkness falling on the battlefield the new brigade commander wondered what his next move should be. After allowing the men to rest for about fifteen minutes he ordered the regiments back to their original position on Cemetery ridge. During this march General Hancock rode up to the lead elements of the brigade, the 111th, and asked Colonel MacDougall where the units were going. MacDougall explained that Colonel Sherrill had ordered the regiments back to their original position. Hancock became angry. He quickly placed Sherrill under arrest and then placed Colonel MacDougall in command with orders to remain in their present position until relieved.18

The regiments temporarily remained in place until they were finally ordered back to their original position near Zeigler’s grove. The brigade had done much to redeem themselves from their Harper’s Ferry reputation this day. They had entered the battle unsupported and successfully stopped the advance of the Confederates, thus giving Meade valuable time to move a force into the threatened area. There was little time or energy for any celebration that evening, however. The men were tired, saddened by the loss of comrades, and to make matters worse, very hungry. The men had not received any rations all day and many had not eaten since having munched on crackers that morning.

Among those who were especially melancholy was Lieutenant Bassett. He found out from the men who were near Erasmus in the charge that his brother indeed was dead. After dark the lieutenant obtained permission to go back to the part of the field where his brother fell.

Lieutenant Bassett walked to the place on the field where he believed Erasmus went down. Bassett realized he would have to work quickly because details had already been sent out to bury the dead. With the light of the moon he went from body to body, examining each to see if it was the young color sergeant. Grimly he


82 The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards"

identified several friends and comrades until he finally came upon his brother.

Sadly Richard began the unpleasant task of removing the personal effects from his fallen brother’s pockets. In one pocket he found a diary their father had given Erasmus while he was home on sick leave in December. The following entry appears in the diary for July 2, 1863.

This loss was especially difficult for Richard and his parents because they had already lost a younger brother, George, at Antietam. Richard carefully marked his brother’s grave and then wrote a letter home explaining where on the field he was located so the family could retrieve the body. Near the end of this letter he wrote, "I thought of George and then to think of Rapsy [Erasmus] falling so near him. I could not help weeping (only think of a ‘soldier’ weeping)."20

Unfortunately Erasmus Bassett and Mel Bunce were not the only casualties from the small Finger Lakes community of Dundee that day. Lieutenant Walter Wolcott Jr., the son of the local doctor, also died on this field not far from where Bassett and Bunce fell. The ironic thing is that Wolcott was an officer in the 21st Mississippi, one of General Barksdale’s Confederate regiments. Apparently Wolcott was a businessman whose travels took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, before the war. At the outbreak of the con-

The Redemption of the "Harper’s Ferry Cowards" 83

flict he enlisted in the Confederate army and served with Barksdale’s men. While Wolcott’s regiment was not one of those in direct confrontation with the 126th, it is incredible that these neighbors should die so close to each other while serving in opposing armies. Today the graves of Erasmus Bassett and Walter Wolcott are not far from each other in a cemetery in their hometown of Dundee.21