There is a chapter in the history of this regiment which has never before been published, and yet it is a chronicle of one of the most important of the acts accomplished by members of the Seventeenth, for which credit has never been given. It was a squad of men, under two officers from this regiment which furnished the information that Lee had retreated, and which recaptured Gettysburg after three days of fighting outside the town. North and South alike were waiting for the result of the three days' battle, and 80,000 soldiers along Union lines were listening for the sound of the guns and the rattle of musketry, when they heard the cheer which told them that Lee had retreated and that the Northern army had been victorious.
That cheer came up from the squad from the Seventeenth and it was heard all over the country. It was the cheer of men who at the command had taken their muskets and stolen across a part of the meadows where the day before not a man could show himself without being either killed or wounded. These men did not know where they would meet the enemy or when they would be shot by the sharpshooters which for three days kept the place clear. It took brave men to move steadfastly along under such conditions, and yet there was no faltering. The news which the squad brought to the waiting army and states, well repaid them for their bravery. Among the men of that squad was Sergeant Patrick Wade, of this city , and he is one who gives the information of the second capturing of the town. He tells the story as follows:
"The regiment fought the first day on the north of the town of Gettysburg, on a spot known as Barlow's Knoll. The 17th occupied the left center of the line. During the day we were driven back by superior members through the town and to a position outside of and overlooking it. This was on East Cemetery Hill, and this was the line the regiment held until after the battle. We had opposed to us, in the town, the famous Louisiana Tigers, and on the night of the 2d they charged us with fixed bayonets. It was the brigade of which our regiment was a part that destroyed the Tigers, for after their charge they ceased to exist or to be recognized as a body in the Southern army. The 17th held their line in spite of the charge, and drove the Tigers back with great loss, Richmond losing very heavily.
(sentence off paper) which came late on the afternoon of the 3d, there was little or no firing, and this quiet continued during the night, with the exception of an occasional discharge on the picket line. This stillness of the enemy looked suspicious, for it was a common saying that when the enemy was quietest then they were up to their greatest tricks, and we suspected from this that they were working up some kind of mischief. The rank and file were not the only ones who suspected that there was something unusual going on within the lines of the enemy. This suspicion extended to the officers in command of the brigade and the division. Early on the morning of the Fourth of July, '63, an order came from General Ames, commanding the First division, to General William H. Noble, commander of Ames's brigade, to send out a skirmish line consisting of ten men under a lieutenant and sergeant.
"General Noble had just joined the regiment, having arrived on the battlefield the night of July 3, his first appearance with the regiment since the wounding in the arm at Chancellorsville, Va., on May 2. The order commanded the skirmish line to go out into the meadows at the foot of East Cemetery Hill, and to proceed toward the town, feeling for the enemy. That detail consisted of Lieutenant Milton H. Daniels of Company C, Sergeant Patrick Wade of Company K, and ten privates. We started out at 3:45, deployed in the meadows and started for the town.
"That journey was what might be considered a forlorn hope. It was a hazardous one. For three days the fire from the enemy's sharpshooters in the town had been so severe that a man who showed himself for a minute dropped back dead or wounded. There were some white faces in the squad when we started, and it was the first time in my army experience that I felt as though the odds were greatly against us. However, it was the first duty of the soldier to obey orders, and so we started.
"Before our start it was distinctly understood that there was to be no word spoken, and that all commands were to be given by signs of the hand, these signs being agreed upon and understood. When we deployed Lieutenant Daniels had the right of the line and I had charge of the left. The meadows being low damp ground, and the days being very hot, a heavy fog had risen during the night, and had settled over everything, making it almost impossible to see 300 feet ahead. We kept close together, for the fog was too thick for the usual distance between the skirmishers.
"We continued to advance, going forward about 400 feet and then lying flat on our faces and listening, trying to hear some sound from the enemy. Then we wou'd advance again. We knew well that we were treading on dangerous ground, as the Louisiana Tigers and Hoke's brigade of Early's division lay between us and the town, a position which they had occupied for three days. We passed over that portion of the ground where the rebel line had been stationed. We knew it by the trampled grass and by the bits of cracker and bread which had been dropped.
"When we came to this deserted line we felt as if we were being led into a trap. This was the line which for three days had been occupied by one of the most celebrated brigades in the rebel army, and yet where was the enemy? There was no sign of him, except the long grass which had been trampled flat, or the pieces of cracker, an empty canteen and all the refuse left by a line which had been sleeping on its arms. We knew that we were nearing the town. It was less than half a mile away, and yet since we had started we had seen no signs of the enemy.
"Suddenly the fog began slowly to lift, and we saw the cupola of the little church. We knew this was on the edge of the town, for we had seen it during all three days of the fight. We advanced a little further, and discerned objects moving about in the yard. Another advance and we saw that these objects were men, some clad in gray and some in blue. They discovered our advance, and some stooped to look under the fog, while others hastened away. Shortly afterward an officer appeared in the middle of the street waving his hat. We increased our pace to a double quick and in a few minutes reached the officer, who informed us that General Lee had been retreating since 3 o'clock in the morning.
"This officer also informed us that the barns and cow sheds all over the city were full of rebels, asleep, who had crawled into them the night before and had been left behind. We stared toward the center of the town, on the way going up to the barn doors and pounding on them with the butts of our muskets, making all the noise possible, and commanding the Johnnies to come out at once, and to leave their guns behind. Each man as he appeared was laughed at for being caught napping. We kept onward, and as soon as the hospital was reached we gave three cheers which were echoed back to our lines. This cheer was heard by General Ames, sitting in his headquarters at the cemetery gate, and it was the first intimation to our boys that the battle had been won.
"General Ames knowing that the town had been reached, ordered General Noble to charge with his brigade into Gettysburg. By this time our skirmish line had reached the center of the town, which was marked by a large square, and looking down the Baltimore road we saw General Noble at the head of his brigade, with our regiment in advance. We had with us 18 prisoners which we had captured in barns, and we went them back to be turned over to General Noble, while our line continued out through the town to the Harrisburg road.
"Here to our chagrin, we discovered a regiment of rebel cavalry drawn up in line to cover Lee's retreat. With a handful of men against a regiment of cavalry it was a question what was best to be done. Seeing a house a short distance away, we ran for it and commenced to fire out of the windows at the cavalry, which had started on a charge toward our retreat. After going but a short distance, however, the bugle sounded to the right, and we saw the line wheel about, recross Rock Creek to a little bridge, and shortly after disappear behind Seminary ridge.
"From the house we continued for a short distance to the town house, which had been turned into a hospital, in which were many wounded. Here we found a few out our regiment who had been captured on the first day of the fight, and had been left to take care of the sick. They were very much surprised to see us, supposing that we, too, had been captured. We reminded them that prisoners very seldom have guns in their hands, and assured them that they were no longer prisoners. Although they had been in back of Lee's lines, this was the first intimation they had of that general's retreat. We returned from the hospital to the town where we met our regiment. We turned over a total of 40 prisoners which we and captured that morning.
"Our regiment fought the battle of Gettysburg with empty stomachs. On the night of the first we were to draw three days' rations, and so at noon we had eaten everything we had in our haversacks, expecting to draw our rations in time for supper. The fighting began in the afternoon though, and our supply trains were sent to Westminster, some 20 miles back of our lines, before we had drawn any rations. From the morning of July 1 until the afternoon of the 4th, we had nothing to eat but what scraps of food we could pick up by foraging during lulls in the battle; and what water we had to drink came from a well which was constantly dipped dry, and was in so much demand that it was necessary to wait several hours before we could fill our canteens.
"The strain on our nerves, when we left our regiment on that skirmish may well be imagined. We were half starved, thirsty and very nervous from the constant strain of three days of firing and three nights of alarm, and then to start out on what seemed to be a mission the result of which could hardly be anything but death, it is no wonder we proceeded with the greatest caution. There was not a man in the party who would not have volunteered to go out, but those went who were chosen, and all arrived safely, with the great news that the battle which was the turning point in the civil war, had been won by the Northern Army.
"Of that squad of 12 who went out to Gettysburg on the morning of July 4th, 1863, there are now but three left alive. These are Lieutenant Milton H. Daniels of Company C., who at that time hailed from Danbury, but who is now from Indianapolis; myself, Sergeant Patrick Wade, of Bridgeport, a member of Company K, and Private John II. Grannis, of Saybrook. To the comrades of the 17th is due the credit that it was a squad of 12 of her men who sent back to the waiting army the news that the battle was over. It was news which the Union generals and army waited for; it was news which the president and his officers at Washington waited for; it was news which every family in the land prayed for; and the 17th was the first to bring it."