Editor’s note: This is the second of 2 parts.
In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Christine Comiskey has provided a unique and fascinating viewpoint on this pivotal Civil 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 presents this memoir in two parts. Foster fought in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, Company C. A large portion of Company C was made up of men from Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury, Georgetown and Rowley.
The narrative picks up on July 3, as Pickett’s Charge commences. As Confederate forces continue to bombard the Union troops with heavy artillery fire, our local soldiers of the 19th Massachusetts Company C take cover.
I was highly honored — although not then appreciating it — Col. Devereaux and Col. Mallon (42nd N.Y.) occupying the hollow with me, the former digging his spurs into my head, while the latter allowed me to comb his hair with my boot heels without remonstrating; we were equals for once. So thick did the missiles fly that in a few minutes nearly all the inverted muskets were knocked down or shot off; pieces of shell were plainly visible as they hissed by; I saw the lieutenant of the battery barely escape the butt of a shell by crouching down.
Albert Rogers was hit in the hand by a fragment and ran to the rear dodging from side to side as the shells screeched by on either side of him. Limber boxes and caissons were hit and blew up with stunning reports; the battery horses were nearly all shot down; the wounded screeching in their agony added to the horror of the occasion. Men lying flat behind large bounders are struck, a shot comes over and strikes a man in the back tearing him to pieces, arms and legs are shot off, men are constantly hobbling off with blood streaming from their persons; although enveloped in smoke not a musket had been fired, I doubt if one-third of the men knew just where their guns were, I am sure I had no idea where mine was.
The lieutenant of the battery came to Col. Devereaux and said: “For God’s sake, Colonel, let me have twelve men to work my guns; my men are all shot, I only have enough to work one!” The colonel rose up and called for volunteers to help man the battery and instantly the number required rose up and went forward. The colonel now told the men to hunt up their muskets; I hunted up mine and had just got back to the hollow when the lieutenant again begged for help. I said to the colonel, “I guess I might as well go.” “Yes,” he said, “go and help them,” and I joined with Ben Hall and others who were at work taking off a broken wheel from a gun and putting on a whole one taken from the caisson—all caissons carry spare wheels.
Lieut. Maginus of Co. K who had been at work with the battery for some time, was bossing the job. While at work changing this wheel, Gen. Hancock and staff rode up, he had come the whole length of the line. As he approached Cols. Devereaux and Mallon arose and advanced a few paces and met him; the general asked, “What are you doing here, supporting the battery?” Col. Devereaux answered that we were. “All right,” said the general, “but be ready when I want you,” then turned and started back along the line.
We pushed the gun up onto the ridge and I set my musket against the fence near a little tree, and then became an artillerist. We loaded and fired one shot in the direction of the enemy. I have often wondered where that shot dropped. Being new in the business and somewhat excited I did not take the proper position when we fired, and the jar came near taking all my teeth out, so it seemed.
Gen. Hancock had ridden back a few rods and we were preparing to load when our attention was diverted by hearing one of the general’s aids say, “Here they come!” and then I heard the exclamation repeated by others near us. Leaving my position I inquired, “Who’s coming?” Ben Hall, who was acting number three answered, “The rebs, you d____d fool,” at the same time dropping the rammer and starting for his musket in obedience to Capt. Palmer’s orders.
Looking across the fields I saw them; they were indeed coming, lots of them, part were just crossing the Emmitsburg Pike, while a little to the right they were approaching the little grove, in front of which, behind a stone wall, lay a regiment of the Pennsylvania brigade. Taking this all in, I went for my musket and while getting it was very much amused by the antics of a brigadier general, who stood trying to shield his aldermanic proportions behind a small tree in the next field; he was all alone, shouting and gesticulating wildly to some troops on his left. Once he got away from his cover in his excitement, when a shot passing near made him skip back lively.
The confederate line moved up in grand style, concentrating the force of the attack on the Pennsylvania boys, whose front line gave way and fell back on the second line, which caused the line in our front, composed of regiments of our brigade, to also fall back on us. About the time the rebel line struck the Pennsylvania brigade, Gen. Hancock was in the rear of our regiment, having turned and ridden back when the rebels showed themselves; riding up behind the 19th and 42nd and he said, “Now is your time! G__D___ you, get up and go at them!,” and that was the only order I heard from that time (excepting words of encouragement from officers of all ranks) until the close of the battle; every man seemed to feel that a crisis was reached and that all must do their best, but for a while, just a few minutes, the result looked doubtful. Much of the artillery was disabled and several guns were exposed to capture.
After securing my musket I looked for my place in the ranks; but there were no ranks, the 19th was more or less mixed up with the 42nd N.Y. and other regiments. The rebels were close to the stone wall, which the Pennsylvanians were falling back from, and seeing nothing better to do I commenced firing at them; not a very Christian reception, perhaps, but I was just enough excited to believe that was what I was there for.
Our men were jammed in five or six deep, sometimes there were bunches much deeper, and every time I stopped to load they would crowd in ahead so that I would have to elbow my way through to get a chance to fire. Once when I was loading I thought the day was surely lost, so many men were running to the rear — wounded or not I could not tell— and not a cannon in sight with a man near it, all seemed to be abandoned by the cannoneers.
I started towards the right as soon as I had loaded, on the run; one of Col. Hall’s staff caught hold of me and said pleasantly, “Where are you going, corporal?” “Over there,” I answered, pointing to the little clump of trees. He looked in the direction indicated and said, “All right.”
Just before that I had seen him trying to get some of the men into a line when the commander of the brigade, Col. Hall, happened along and seeing what his aid was trying to do said to him, “Let them alone, colonel, let them alone! They are doing nobly, if you try to re-form the day is lost.” I made my way toward the little grove and soon had something to fire at. The rebels were now breaking through the grove and our men were crowding up to meet them; men of Massachusetts, of New York, Minnesota, Michigan and of Pennsylvania being mixed up in confusion.
All could not be in the front rank, the men in the rear were dodging around looking for a chance to shoot, firing through openings made by the changing crowd, no matter how small; no doubt many were wounded in this manner on account of the rapid changes being made as the whole mass forged ahead. Muskets were exploding all around, flashing their fire almost in the face and so close to the head as to make the ears ring; and so the battle goes on, you are continually making and losing acquaintances.
I stopped to load; two Pennsylvanians were by me doing the same, an acquaintance was at once made; one returned rammer and with a pleasant remark went forward to fire, putting on the cap as he went. Finding a good shot he turned to us, smilingly pointed to some rebel (as much to say see me hit him), brought his musket to his shoulder to fire, threw up his hands, dropped his musket and fell over backwards — dead. The other who was between us, turned to me and said, “That’s rough!” and immediately the changing throng hid him from view and I never saw him again.
A cannon shot came over and hit a man of the 42nd, hurling him to my feet, a mangled, bleeding, unrecognizable corpse. A rebel color-bearer came out from among the trees and placed his battle flag on one of Cushing’s guns, and fell dead beside it; another ran out to get it but before reaching the gun, fell on his face apparently dead; then several men rushed out together, they all fell about the piece and the flag still waved on the Union gun.
All this I saw while loading once, so rapidly do events follow each other in battle. Subsequently two more battle flags were placed on the gun, all of which were captured; one by Corporal DeCastro* of Co I. Although organizations were more or less broken up, and confusion reigned supreme, most of the men of the 19th gathered around the colors, thus in a measure holding its identity. In and around this little grove the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were grappling in final contest for the field of Gettysburg; each side was wrestling with full might for the prize.
Muskets were discharged in the very faces of foes and unwritten deeds of valor were being performed; the “high-water mark of the rebellion” was reached and its angry waves were surging to and fro mid flame and smoke; and here in the midst of this awful carnage, the national colors of the 19th goes down, but not to stay. It is immediately raised by the hand of Benjamin H. Jellison* of Co. C, who with its bright folds waving above his head, in company with Lieut. Moses Shackley of Co. B, rush forward in advance of the line. The regiment follows its colors, the whole line catches the enthusiasm and throws itself with redoubled force upon the enemy, “and the red field is won.”
But all through that little grove which has now become famous as the “Clump of Trees,” are scattered the dead** of the old Nineteeth.
Joseph DeCastro and local boy Benjamin Jellison of Newbury were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic acts at Gettysburg.
Among the members of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment killed on July 3 in Gettysburg were Sherman Robinson and Gorham Coffin of West Newbury and Joseph Hervey of Georgetown.