NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 4, 2013

Remembering the Battle of Gettysburg

A local soldier's eyewitness account


Newburyport Daily News

---- — Editor’s Note: In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Christine Comiskey has provided a unique and fascinating viewpoint on this pivotal City War battle.

Comiskey, the president of Georgetown Historical Society, has transcribed the series of articles written by Gettysburg veteran Richard R. Foster, as published in the Georgetown Advocate, 1889. The Daily News will present this memoir in two parts, published today and tomorrow.

Foster fought in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, Company C. He was only 19 years old at the time of the battle. A large portion of Company C was made up of men from Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury, Georgetown and Rowley.

Gettysburg is the largest battle ever fought on American soil. The three-day battle (July 1-3, 1863), was a major turning point in the war. The Confederacy saw its “High Tide” reached at Gettysburg, ending in the South’s devastating defeat of Pickett’s Charge. Foster was one of the soldiers who witnessed that charge.

Foster’s narrative picks up on July 2, 1863, on Cemetery Ridge. The 19th Massachusetts had thus far only watched the battle from a distance. However, things were about to change …

The men were doing splendidly and we were getting intensely interested when our position as spectators was suddenly interrupted by the command “Attention!” from Col. Devereaux., and away we started on the double quick along the Ridge towards Round Top, followed closely by the 42nd N.Y. The right flank of the 3rd corps was probably about a half mile from us when we started; when nearly opposite it we turned to the right and made straight toward the retreating troops. Seeing that there was going to be hot work I unclasped my empty knapsack and let it drop, and went in with nothing but canteen and cartridge box; we crossed Plum Run, beyond which there was a slight ridge running diagonally to the road … here we lay down to await the coming of the rebels (their bullets were already with us), and form a rallying point for the retreating and sorely pressed troops. The smoke was so dense that we could see but a short distance, as the fugitives came out of it we called upon them to fall in on our flanks; some of the men were taking it quite coolly, walking along dragging their muskets while they loaded, and then stopping to fire; others seemed to have lost their wits and rushed to the rear like mad. We had quite a line formed when from out of the smoke came the pursuers, so close onto the pursued that they almost intermingled; our little line opened on them and checked the foremost a little, until a cannon battery was run forward and opened on us, when, being also subjected to a heavy enfilading fire, the regiment commenced falling back, firing as it went; just as it reached some bushes a line was met, having on their caps the red Maltese cross, coming through; our line fell back through these bushes.

Reaching the other side I found that I had got behind the most of the regiment, and looking saw rebels in close pursuit, but where were the men with the Maltese cross? I never found out where they went, but they had disappeared and Johnny was coming on. Climbing over a stone fence covered with bushes, I entered another field in which a battery had just come into action and was pouring canister into the rebels. There were some infantry men dodging around firing from the cover of stones and trees. Feeling much more courageous backed by a battery of artillery, I stopped and was about to shoot at the confeds — to help the artillery out — when Maj. Rice suddenly appeared and wanted to borrow my gun to shoot a reb. Knowing that it is best to humor such people in any of their little whims, I handed the musket over to him and while he was dodging around trying to get a good shot, I amused myself playing with a Belgian rifle which I picked up and fired; the previous owner had loaded it before casting it away, yes, I should judge he had loaded it several times. It came near laying me out, hurt my shoulder and made my head swim; I came to the conclusion that the other fellow had forgot to fire.

The major got in his shot and liked the sport so well that he wanted to try again, and I loaded her up for him. While doing so, Serg. Velas, first sergeant of Co. E, came running past the battery calling out, “Come on! Come on! They are running!” Just as he reached a wall near us, he dropped his musket and clasped his arms across his breast, ran to the rear wounded in the arm, we subsequently learned. The major remarked, “There is a brave man,” and then hurried me up with my loading, as I was working rather slow; not being used to loading for majors I was rather nervous, but finally got the cap on and while he was going hunting for a reb I tried to load up the old Belgian but the bullets in our cartridges were too large and I gave up. The enemy now being in full retreat the major retired, bringing his command out in good order.

The picture there presented was one to be ever remembered. The exultant rebels crossed the Run and came well up the slope, where, meeting the withering fire of the battery (and the major’s), they faltered and finally fell back; the sun was just setting, its rays lighted up the smoke which hung heavily in our front with a lurid glare, in which the rebels were running hither and thither loading and firing, all making an unnatural scene which brought to mind the hot place we read about, the rebels appearing like the devil’s imps dancing in the sulphurous smoke of the bottomless pit.

July 3, 1863: Our local boys of the 19th Regiment Company C prepare for another day of battle, unaware that General Robert E. Lee is about to launch an attack, later known as “Pickett’s Charge,” aimed directly at their position.

On the 3rd we were aroused long before day and kept awake until morning broke fine and clear. No great fuss was made about breakfast; we did not expect rations until after the battle was settled. Firing was heard at different points but the 2nd corps was not disturbed until afternoon.

The day being extremely hot, many of the men improvised shelters by inverting their muskets with the stuck bayonets in the ground, thus making posts of them to which by means of the hammers, pieces of shelter tents or blankets were made fast.

Some of the officers who were fortunate enough to have secured some grub joined in a dinner party directly in the rear of Co. C.

About 1 o’clock, just as they had got through eating and had risen, a gun was heard in our front, in a second or two a round cannon shot came bounding diagonally over the ridge like a rubber ball; Corporal Hall was in the rear a short distance, and had he not dodged down the ball would have struck him in the head. In a second there was another report and a second shot came over from the same direction, and following the same course.

Lieut. Sherman Robinson was standing among the group of officers, facing us, in the act of wiping his mouth with his handkerchief; the shot struck him in the left side just below his shoulder, passing through his body and bearing him to the ground, literally torn in pieces. We had not a second in which to contemplate this sad sight, for before the sound of the second gun had died away all the rebel artillery in our front opened.

Then came an hour of horror which beggars description; the earth fairly shook, the Union artillery replied to the Confederate along our whole front, enveloping the whole ridge in flame and smoke, the deafening roar of the cannon was incessant; the rain of shot and shell continuous; the fragments of bursting shells were flying everywhere, there seemed to be no place where they did not strike, and no direction from which they did not come.

Officers and men alike crawled for places of safely, and there was no precedence according to rank; it was one of the most democratic of movements; the one that got there first was the best fellow; some got behind the few boulders, others took advantage of depressions in the ground. I crawled to a hollow by the side of a ridge, where had once been a fence, and after laying myself flat in it, looked around a little.

I did not dare lift my face but an inch or two from the hot sand, and then only for an instant at a time, for fear that a piece of shell might hit my head. It was awfully hot and the sweat poured out and dropped from the nose and chin into the sand, which was almost like a furnace, sending up hot air which made breathing difficult.

Tomorrow: Foster’s unit fights during Pickett’s Charge.