July 1, 1863
A date emblazoned on the minds of all Civil War students.
This morning 156 years ago signaled the beginning of the end of the rebellion. For residents of Oswego County, the battle of Gettysburg will forever be associated with the heroic action of the soldiers of the 147th Regiment, the “Oswego plowboys,” in a wheat field outside the southern Pennsylvania village.
After the Chancellorsville Campaign of April 27-May 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee needed a way to force the Union Army out of Virginia and simultaneously to obtain supplies for his exhausted troops. After dividing his Army of Virginia into three parts, he set off for Pennsylvania, hoping that an invasion of the Union’s industrial areas would draw the Union Army north where he envisaged yet more victories which would hasten the end of the war in favor of the Confederacy.
General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac at the time, failed to follow Lee northward, instead contemplating yet another attack on now less-defended Richmond.
Hooker’s inaction frustrated President Abraham Lincoln to the point where, upon Hooker’s request to be relieved, Lincoln obliged him and installed General George Meade as the new commander on June 28.
Meade wondered if Lee was heading to Washington or Baltimore but once informed of the Confederate Army’s location, he followed and set in motion the most famous conflict of the Civil War.
Much has been written about the role of the 147th Regiment in the battle of Gettysburg, including letters and reminiscences written by the soldiers themselves detailing the titanic battle from their perspective. It is no exaggeration to say that the bravery displayed by this regiment in the opening moments of the battle was all the more remarkable since up until that time, the soldiers had seen only light action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. None had come face to face with the enemy on an open battlefield.
Grove Dutton, D Company, described the long, arduous march out of Virginia into Maryland:
“The march through Maryland was very severe. The roads generally were fair but at times very dusty, though when we passed through Frederick City they were the reverse. Maryland, or at least the portion we passed through, is a beautiful farming country. The growing wheat was nearly fit for cutting. Everything indicated thrift, so much different from the devastated field of Virginia. The ravages of the Army soon became apparent. Fences were burned for fuel and oftimes the grain trampled down. One night near Frederick City we camped in a field of several acres enclosed by a crooked rail fence... The next day we marched thirty-three miles. My feet were blistered as they have never been since. June 29 we mustered for pay, 380 men answering to their names... And now we were about to engage in a battle, which has become historic, where I witnessed sights that will never be effaced from my memory...”
Francis Pease, F Company, wrote to his parents:
“...July 1st we were routed out at daybreak and ordered to march. We started at seven o’clock. When we got within a couple miles of Gettysburg, off to the South of the town, we saw two or three shells burst in the air. It was the rebel batteries shelling our cavalry, which was on ahead. There was hard fighting to be done and we were ordered to load, which we did without delay. Then came the order, double quick, and the men started towards the front on a run. The road became so crowded, however, that we were compelled to slacken the pace and could only get over the ground on a run at rare intervals. The horses of the artillery were coming up at a mad gallop. Soon the rebel cannon balls began to whistle over our heads, some of them pretty close and probably the greatest battle of the rebellion was raging.”
The 147th, with the 56th Pennsylvania and the 76th New York, collided with 42nd and the 2nd Mississippi Regiments after crossing a railroad cut and lining up in a wheat field. The men of the 147th were within 30-40 rods from the enemy and were ordered to lie down in the wheat field to avoid the blistering firing power of the opposing Confederate troops.
“For fifteen or twenty minutes we fought hard, when the rebels flanked us on the right and began advancing upon us in large numbers. The firing from both sides was very rapid. Finally we got the order to retreat and we lost no time in obeying, leaving an awful sight of dead and wounded upon the field.”
The reason the 147th held its ground so long under withering fire was that the order to withdraw had not reached them. Lt. Col. Francis Miller, who received the order from General Cutler’s aide, was shot in the head before he could pass it along. His horse bolted and took him off the field, leaving Major George Harney in command.
The 50th and the 76th were in retreat as Lieutenant J. Volney Pierce described what he saw next:
“We were now nearly surrounded and the fight very hot – We stubbornly held that line. No order to fall back had been received. Col. Miller was wounded, early in the action and left the field. Maj. Harney was close up on the line with us. I saw an officer [Lt. Homer Chisman] of Gen. Cutler’s staff ride down towards us and wave his sword as a signal for us to fall back. In the meantime a brigade of Rebs crossed the fence on our right and rear, and we then broke for the rear ourselves.”
In the chaos that followed, many of the 147th were captured as they attempted to use the railroad cut as an escape route and were forced to surrender when they realized the Confederates had occupied both sides and were shooting fiercely. One of those was Francis Pease, who was paroled and sent to Parole Camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania until October when finally exchanged.
Pierce, who also used the railroad cut to escape, was able to get to safety. He joined the regiment as it reformed on the Chambersburg Pike south of Seminary Ridge and went into the woods where other parts of Cutler’s Brigade were located. The soldiers re-entered the fray and fought until about 4 o’clock when repulsed again. This time they regrouped behind the village.
For the next two days the 147th continued to fight, although their numbers were greatly diminished. The official record, which is disputed, states that 380 men from the 147th fought on July 1st and by July 3rd 76 had been killed or mortally wounded; 146 were wounded; 79 were missing. Homer Ames, a soldier in Battery G, 1st NY Light Artillery, put it succinctly: “The 147th regiment got it rather tight. Only 86 men remain to tell the tale.”
As time passed, a controversy arose as to which organization should have the distinction of being the first to engage the Rebels on July 1st. For years articles appeared in The National Tribune arguing for one unit or another. John Badger Bachelder was so fascinated by the tale of the
Union victory at Gettysburg that he contacted many of the survivors and asked them to describe what they recalled. The response filled several volumes of letters and maps.
July 1, 1888 saw many of the members of the 147th Regiment again at Gettysburg, this time to dedicate the monument commemorating the organization’s participation in the great battle.
J. Volney Pierce delivered the dedicatory oration and used the occasion to correct stories of the 147th’s “rescue” by other Union forces:
“We challenge the statement that the One hundred and forty-seventh New York was for a moment ‘cut off,’ but fought until ordered [to] retreat by the authority from the division commander, and not ‘rescued’ by the action of any other regiment. There was no other regiment in reach of us to assist while we were fighting on the right of this railroad cut; when we left the ground it was by order, and we carried our colors with us.”