JOHNSTOWN — Part III of a four-part series printing Sundays in June.
The second day of 1863 was marked by an arms upgrade to the new .69-caliber rifled musket. Then soldiers
– including Westmoreland County native William Ferguson Leslie – encrusted it on Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s infamous Mud March three weeks later.
Afterward, a demoralized army dug in for the winter. Once again the average soldier had to reach deep into his soul to find inspiration, because it was not coming from the leadership. That was until Gen. Joseph Hooker was placed in charge.
As the Army of the Potomac languished at its headquarters near Falmouth, Va., he responded to a huge morale problem.
Hooker granted furloughs and improved rations and clothing and integrated all sorts of favorable incentives that by spring had renewed their enthusiasm and passion to fight. While at Stafford Heights on April 8, the 11th Pa. joined together with four infantry corps and collectively was ordered into parade formation all the while in suspense.
After a long wait, the 11th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry began marching in review with the dog-mascot Sallie in her typical place at the head of her regiment near the flag and behind Col. Richard Coulter, who was now fully recovered.
Upon approaching the review stand, they saw – to their surprise – President Lincoln among the officers of the high command.
The president appeared fraught and war-weary, burdened with the weight he had carried for so long. But the sight of that little dog leading the regiment stepping with a renewed spirit of honor and dignity gave Lincoln such delight that he tipped his stovepipe hat in salutation and was visibility moved with emotion.
North to Pennsylvania
May opened with the regiment at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The final week of
June 1863 found the 11th in peaceful repose back in the Middletown Valley, guarding Turner’s and Crampton’s Gaps at South Mountain as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army was again crossing into Maryland. As dreadful rumors circulated among the men, the 2nd Division went to Frederick on June 29.
An early wake-up on June 30 found them moving in the direction of Emmitsburg, Md.
With all excess baggage sent to the rear, they were now rushing north to guard against Lee’s invasion. During a halt, the soldiers were told in unusual specifics how the Confederates penetrated deep into Pennsylvania. Detailed were the enemy’s probable intentions and the crisis at hand.
Gen. George Meade was the Union Army’s new commander and the 11th Pennsylvania was brigaded with the 12th Massachusetts, the 83rd and 97th New York, and the 88th and 90th Pennsylvania under Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter. Chaplain and regiment historian William Henry Locke of Pittsburgh recorded that the Pennsylvania men gave a loud cheer as they crossed the Mason-Dixon line at the Adams County border – impassioned to defend their home state.
Some of the New Yorkers struck the John Brown chorus.
In the early morning hours of July 1, they could hear the swelling sound of artillery to their front and were increasingly hurried north as they passed several wagons of local residents evacuating. At that time and place, there was some question regarding the condition of their First Corps commander, Gen. John Reynolds, who was in Gettysburg – and every man was needed at the front. Just before approaching the Nicholas Codori farm, they turned to the northwest rapidly traveling overland through fields and woodlots. Approaching the Lutheran Theological Seminary just west of Gettysburg, they could see artillery shells bursting over the trees ahead. The walking wounded came streaming back through the lines and an occasional shrill yelp of the Rebels could be heard.
Pvt. Leslie and the 212 soldiers of the 11th Regiment reached the seminary area a little before noon.
Shorty thereafter, the 97th New York and our 11th Pennsylvania, both under Coulter’s command, were ordered to load their weapons and set out from the seminary. They crossed the Chambersburg Pike then a nearby unfinished railroad cut and proceeded north along the west slope of Oak Ridge toward Oak Hill with orders to connect with the 11th Corps coming onto the field – all the while under small arms and artillery fire.
‘A destructive volley’
Baxter’s other regiments soon followed. There they would confront troops of Confederate Col. Edward O’Neal. Baxter’s regiments dominated the Rebels from this initial position for about half an hour. But Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson’s North Carolinians were on their way and would soon be joined.
So the brigade did an about-face.
Undetected and under cover of woods, the Federals moved up to a low stone fence at the crest of Oak Ridge then cleverly concealed themselves in anticipation of Iverson’s approach. As they lay prone with flagstaffs lowered and out of sight, the men calmly watched the thick, straight lines draw near.
Through the open, lush timothy fields of the John Forney farm, the Tar Heels came but with no skirmishers thrown out front to detect such traps.
Through small gaps in the wall some of the crouching men of the 11th could read the names of their battles stitched to the approaching Rebel flags, which plainly identified these as veteran units. When the confederates reached 80 yards, Baxter’s men rose and fired a raking torrent, stopping the Southerners in their tracks. The shock was enormous.
One soldier later wrote, “rarely has such a destructive volley been fired on any field of battle,” strewing the field with dead and wounded.
Trapped in a broad shallow gully, Iverson’s remaining men fought on. However Baxter was concerned about running low on ammunition and ordered his men to charge. Baxter himself followed them in shouting, “give them the cold steel.”
Hundreds of prisoners were gathered and sent to the rear, but to the west, Confederate Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur was assembling reinforcements in preparation for another assault on the ridge. Once aware, the men hurriedly left the muddy recess and returned to their original positions at the stone fence, then realized ammunition was indeed dangerously depleted. Gathering the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded kept them in business for a while, but their firepower was soon depleted.
The Union 11th Corps was rapidly collapsing to their right and their own First Corps was threatened on the left.
Numbering 79 men
Then Ramseur singled them out for destruction with an overwhelming force. They had been fighting for close to three hours.
As Baxter’s men prepared to hold the line at the point of the bayonet, they were reinforced, then ordered to fall back. While doing so, the brigade redeployed back at the railroad cut in support of an artillery battery. There they encountered volley after volley while suffering severe casualties as the fighting escalated when overwhelming numbers of confederates reached the field.
At about 5 p.m. they were ordered to fall back to the town of Gettysburg and the 11th was the last of the brigade to leave the field, following along the unfinished railroad bed still taking heavy loses.
Locke recounted how they marched in fine assembly, halting to fire with good order then closing ranks with daring coolness. It then quickly became apparent to the last federals to retreat that the nearer they passed through the confines of the narrow streets of Gettysburg, the greater the probability of being captured.
Here the local men had to avoid their old nemesis, Harry Hays, as his Tigers were sweeping the town from the north after an earlier fight up at Kuhn’s brickyard.
Coulter later paid tribute to the credibility of his unit and reported that not a man faltered. They reassembled near the Evergreen Cemetery early that evening, the 11th Regimen now numbering 79 men. They were located at the inside bend of the fishhook-shaped federal line generally facing the Emmitsburg Road.
Slight repositioning took place over the next two days, all as the regiment was under artillery fire. During the afternoon barrage prior to Gen. George Pickett’s charge of July 3, with his men lined up, ready and waiting in support of Gen. Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps, Coulter was wounded in the arm by a shell burst.
During the retreat of July 1, Chaplain Locke was helping the regimental surgeons care for the wounded at a Lutheran church near the center of town when he became trapped behind confederate lines and remained there until the Southerners left.
Sallie became separated from the regiment during the retreat – perhaps not wanting to depart from her comrades left behind. She remained on Oak Ridge to watch over the dead and lick the wounds of the injured until found on July 6 by a member of the 12th Massachusetts.
She was returned to the 11th as they were in pursuit of Lee back across South Mountain and Antietam Creek.
The Rebel army crossed the Potomac and the two would not meet again until the Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns to end out the year.