AT GETTYSBURG IN 1863 AND 1888.
By Lieutenant and Adjutant Charles W. Roberts.
(Read December 5, 1888)
he 17th Maine Regiment, with which it was my privilege to be connected during the year 1863, was attached to the Third Brigade, First Division of the Third Army Corps, and on the first of July, the day that the battle of Gettysburg began, it was on the march between Taneytown and Emmettsburg, Md., arriving at the latter place, a small village about nine miles south of Gettysburg, late in the afternoon. The brigade with a section of artillery remained at Emmettsburg, guarding one of the mountain passes at that point, until about three o'clock on the following morning, when orders were received to proceed with all possible despatch to Gettysburg; and just before daylight the brigade moved out upon the Emmettsburg road, but, for reasons unknown to us at the time, our progress was slow and halts were frequent and tedious.
As we neared our destination we learned from the farmers living along the roadside the particulars of the battle of the previous day between the advance corps of the Union army (First and Eleventh) under General Reynolds, and the main body of the enemy, and we heard with deep sorrow the sad news of the death of the noble commander of the First Corps. As we approached the vicinity of Gettysburg, we became aware of the proximity of the enemy by the occasional whistling of bullets over our heads from his skirmishers (located in the woods at our left) who were then feeling the Union lines. Proceeding a little further along on the Emmettsburg road to a point near the famous peach orchard, we turned off to the right, and after marching something over half a mile through fields and woods we came to a rough and rocky pasture, where we finally halted and remained several hours.
While resting here, the first opportunity of the day to make coffee was improved, and this constituted the entire meal of many of the men, as our early and hasty departure from Emmettsburg prevented the distribution of rations of which we were greatly in need. I remember sitting upon a large rock with my messmates, Dr. Nahum A. Hersom, then the surgeon, and Dr. William Wescott, assistant surgeon of the regiment and taking what proved to be my last meal with my comrades in the field.
About two o'clock in the afternoon the regiment was ordered forward a short distance and took position in line of battle on a woody knoll a few hundred yards to the left of the peach orchard, facing in the direction of the Emmettsburg road. Noticing a clearing near the right of our line, I approached it with the commanding officer of the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Merrill, and found that it afforded an excellent view of the peach orchard and its surroundings. Up to this hour, about half-past three o'clock, there had been no firing of any consequence during the day in that vicinity; but while looking across the country I observed the enemy's skirmishers advancing through the fields beyond the Emmettsburg road, and almost at the same instant the Union skirmishers in the peach orchard, consisting in part of the 3d Maine Regiment, moved out to meet them. A brisk fire was at once opened, the shots of the enemy coming so uncomfortably near us that we deemed it prudent to seek the shelter of the woods where the regiment was lying awaiting orders. We did not have long to wait, however, for the movement of the skirmishers was immediately followed by the advance of the enemy's main lines, consisting of General Longstreet's corps, and the rattle of musketry began upon our right.
Noticing an unoccupied wheat-field to our left, forming a wide gap between the flank of our brigade and the right of Ward's brigade (of our division), our brigade commander, Colonel R. DeTrobriand, ordered the 17th Maine to occupy it. The regiment immediately moved by the left flank double-quick through the woods in our front, diagonally across the wheat-field to a stone wall separating it from thick woods beyond, which we found occupied by the enemy, who opened upon us a heavy musketry fire as we neared the wall; but upon reaching it we were well protected and had no difficulty in holding our position against his repeated assaults. The movement of the 17th Maine into the wheat-field was soon followed by a similar one on the part of a Pennsylvania regiment, the 110th, if I remember correctly, that was directed to connect with our right, necessitating its advance through a ravine about fifty yards from our flank under a severe fire from the enemy in the woods. Lacking the friendly shelter of the stone wall which barely extended to the right of our line, that regiment was unable to withstand the terrific fire poured in upon it and soon retired with the loss of many of its members.
Taking advantage of the repulse of the 110th, the enemy advanced into the ravine evidently with the intention of flanking the 17th Maine. As soon as his object was discovered, Colonel Merrill ordered a portion of our right wing to swing back at right angles with the stone wall in front, and it came within the line of my duty to communicate that order to the captains of the several companies, as the rattle of musketry and roar of artillery from a battery near us prevented the voice of our commander being heard along the line. The movement was promptly executed in the face of a severe fire from the enemy in front and upon our flank, but with heavy loss to the regiment, two of the captains and one of the lieutenants receiving mortal wounds and many of the enlisted men falling under the shower of bullets.
The attempt of the enemy, however, was frustrated for the time, and the regiment held its position until the ammunition gave out, when it retired across the wheat-field over a ridge in the rear into a narrow road by the side of a belt of woods where it halted, reformed and was resupplied with ammunition.
About this time General D. B. Birney, our gallant division commander, with several of his staff, rode along the line and, observing the enemy advancing toward a Federal battery near our left in the vicinity of the Devil's Den, turned to the 17th Maine and directed it to move forward, accompanying it in person into the wheat-field to the crest of the ridge over which we had passed but a few moments before. Here we were ordered to halt in the open field on what we supposed to be the prolongation of a new line of battle then being formed; but the nature of the ground prevented our knowing whether or not we were supported by other troops upon our flanks. While the regiment occupied this exposed position, in full view of the enemy that upon our advance had fallen back to the shelter of the woods, our ranks being rapidly thinned out by his musketry fire, I was struck in the right leg above the knee by a bullet with such force as to throw me upon my face. Colonel Merrill, who was standing near me, immediately cut one of the straps from his sword belt and bound it tightly around my limb to stop the flow of blood, and ordered four of the men near at hand to take me to the rear in a rubber blanket, as the stretchers of the ambulance corps were all in use at that moment. From this time my personal knowledge of the movements of the regiment ceased, but I afterwards learned that it remained on the wheat-field until relieved about dark by other troops, having lost about one hundred and twenty killed and wounded during the afternoon, and on the following day some twelve or fifteen more while supporting batteries engaged in the repulse of Pickett's charge.
In being carried to the rear I passed through two lines of battle that were apparently forming for the relief of the Third Corps, which had been under fire without support since early in the afternoon. I was conveyed to what was at that time presumed to be a safe distance from the front where I met the assistant surgeon of the regiment, who examined my wound and gave it such attention as the circumstances would permit. Later in the afternoon, when our forces were compelled to abandon the advanced position taken at the opening of the battle, the shells of the enemy's artillery began dropping among the wounded in my vicinity, and I, with others, was removed farther back into the woods to a place of safety where I found the division hospital established. During the evening an attendant, sent to me from the regiment, erected the fly of my wall tent which afforded me shelter during my stay in the field hospital, and where, lying by my side, Captain Almon L. Fogg of the 17th Maine, who received a mortal wound in the afternoon, died during the night.
On the afternoon of the following day, July 3, my wound was carefully examined by our regimental surgeon, Doctor Hersom, and upon his recommendation my limb was amputated by Surgeon Hildreth of the 4th Maine, under the personal supervision of Doctor Hersom. I remained in the field hospital, receiving every possible attention from the surgeons and comrades on duty, until July 6, when, through the efforts of Sergeant Frank Berry of our division ambulance corps, I secured accommodations in a private house in the town of Gettysburg. The nature of my wound rendered it imprudent to move me in an ambulance over the rough fields and roads in that vicinity, and I was carried upon a stretcher the entire distance of three miles. A number of the hospital attendants voluntarily undertook the task, but fortunately, after proceeding a short distance, we came to the headquarters of Major-General Slocum, commanding the Twelfth Corps, where I obtained a detail of men from his provost guard then consisting of a battalion of the 10th Maine Infantry, a regiment in which I served during the first year of the war.
Upon reaching Gettysburg, I was taken to the house of Mr. Henry Garlach, located on South Baltimore Street, the main thoroughfare leading out to the scene of the second and third days' battle and connecting with the Emmettsburg road. The house was an old-fashioned, two-story brick building, close to the sidewalk ; and the front hall being very narrow and small I was admitted through a window and a comfortable bed made for me in the parlor near the windows overlooking the street.
The family in the house consisted of Mr. Garlach, a man about forty-five years of age, of German descent, a cabinetmaker by trade, also engaged in the manufacture of coffins and caskets, (and, as can be readily imagined, having at that time all the business that he could attend to), his wife, a few years younger than himself, two daughters, one about my own age and the other quite small, and two sons, one of the latter an infant but a few months old. During the occupancy of the town by the enemy, July 2, and 3, the father fled to the woods for fear of being impressed into service, while the mother and children remained in the cellar of the house for safety from exploding shells and stray bullets.
I remained at the home of Mr. Garlach between four and five weeks, receiving every care and attention from the several members of the family, and no mother could have been more thoughtful and tender than was my good hostess, Mrs. Garlach. My every want seemed to be anticipated, and what their limited means and my own failed to obtain, the agents of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, that were early in the field and visited me daily, were always ready and willing to provide. Among them was Mrs. C. A. L. Sampson of Bath, so well and familiarly known as one of the most efficient army nurses, and whose many acts of kindness will long be remembered by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, and especially those from the state of Maine.
My wound was carefully looked after by the surgeons on duty where I was located and caused me but little pain, and with the tender care bestowed upon me by my attendant, Mr. Thomas M. Dennett of the 17th Maine, who was permitted to remain with me at Gettysburg, and my honored father, who came to me as soon as news reached him of the battle, as well as the untiring efforts of all the members of the household to leave nothing undone that could add to my comfort, served to make my stay there, aside from physical weakness, pleasant and agreeable; and it was with reluctance that on the sixth of August, I left their hospitable roof for my home in this city, where I arrived in safety about a week later.
For a time after reaching home I continued a correspondence with my friends at Gettysburg, but it finally ceased although they were not forgotten; and when, at the annual reunion of the survivors of the 17th Maine it was decided to make an excursion to Gettysburg during the month of October, 1888, my thoughts naturally turned to those who had befriended me in 1863, and a letter of inquiry, through a Grand Army comrade residing there, brought me the pleasing intelligence that the family of Mr. Garlach was still living in the old homestead, and I received soon after a letter from my old nurse, Mrs. Garlach herself, expressing great pleasure upon hearing that I still remembered them and soon contemplated a visit to Gettysburg. She informed me that her husband had died about one year before, but that the other members of the family were living in the town.
Upon arrival in Gettysburg with the 17th Maine excursion party on the afternoon of October 9, 1888, I lost no time in finding the home of my old friends, where I met with a warm reception. The lady of the house, now sixty-seven years of age, is still smart and active, and although the frosts of twenty-five winters have silvered her locks somewhat since I last saw her, I found the same kind heart and motherly welcome that greeted me, when weak and helpless I was borne to her house from the battlefield on that sultry July morning in 1863.
The younger members of the family had changed more than the mother. One of the daughters, who at the time of the battle was but eighteen years of age, is now the wife of a Union soldier who lost an arm at Spotsylvania, a lawyer by profession and a leading and influential man in Gettysburg, and they have a pleasant home of their own with an interesting family growing up around them. Another daughter, a small child when I first saw her, still remains at home and was a member of the choir that furnished beautiful music at the dedication of our regimental monument in the wheat-field on the following day. Of the sons, one is married and engaged in business in the town, and the other, the baby, who in his mother's arms passed the three anxious days of the battle in the cellar of their house, is now a fine-looking young man twenty-six years of age.
The room that I occupied after the battle had not materially changed in its general appearance except in the furnishings, and as I entered it to greet my old friends, it brought back to my mind the hours when I lay there watching through the window by my bedside the passing to and fro of anxious ones who were arriving by every train from the North, in search of wounded and perhaps dead or dying brothers, sons and friends scattered through the houses, hospitals and fields in and around Gettysburg. It recalled the pale face of a young captain of my own regiment lying in a house directly opposite with his arm amputated near the shoulder, from the effects of which he died soon after reaching home, and the ragged and forlorn appearance, as they passed my window, of thousands of Confederate prisoners captured during the several days of the battle. It also revived pleasant recollections of numerous visitors who daily dropped in upon me, speaking encouraging words and carrying messages to anxious friends at home. I was also reminded of the pleasant summer evenings when, after the noise and confusion of the day, the younger members of the family and their neighboring friends would assemble around me and enliven the twilight hours with music and social conversation. It also recalled the watchful care of faithful comrades and the cheerful countenances of kind friends in whose home I was made so comfortable; and as I looked about me it was indeed a rare privilege to meet again under that roof, and in that room, after an interval of twenty-five years, so many of those to whom I felt that I owed a debt of gratitude.
On the following day I visited the wheat-field, where the 17th Maine monument was dedicated with appropriate ceremony, and glancing around I could readily trace the different positions occupied by the regiment up to the time that I received my wound. The stone wall where we first met and repulsed the enemy, the ravine to our right where the Pennsylvanians were so terribly cut up, and the woods in our front and on our flank that sheltered the enemy, all had a familiar look, and the wheat-field itself, aside from the absence of the wheat, has undergone but little change except by roads and avenues recently cut through it by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, to obtain access to the numerous monuments that have been and are yet to be erected by the several states that were represented by organizations in the battle.
After making a tour of the entire field, following the lines of battle occupied by our troops on
each of the three days that they were engaged, now so clearly defined by the various monuments
and tablets located at nearly all of the prominent points of interest, and bidding good-by to my old
friends in Gettysburg with the promise that, if living, it should not be twenty-five years before I
would come again, I left there for a brief visit to Washington and other cities, arriving in Portland
on the twentieth of October, having enjoyed a pleasant visit to the historic battlefield of
Gettysburg, and renewed friendships formed under very peculiar circumstances.
(Source: War Papers, Maine MOLLUS, Volume 1, pages 49-57)