|Unit History Project|
The 147th N. Y.’s Magnificent Fight
on the First Day of Gettysburg"
Sketches and Echoes
Editor National Tribune: On the morning of July 1, 1863 Cutler’s Brigade of Wadsworth’s division, First Corps was on the advance in the following order: 76th NY, 56th Pa., 147th NY, 14th Brooklyn and the 95th N.Y., the cavalry ahead. The roar of their artillery and the circling smoke of their bursting shells were evidence that after nearly a 30 days march we had met the enemy at “Gettysburg” Pa.
The brigade was ordered at the double-quick, load at will, hurrying to the assistance of the cavalry, hotly engaged with the enemy just outside of Gettysburg.
The head of the brigade reached the railroad cut, crossing at the middle or second ridge. The 76th NY and the 56th Pa. continuing along the second ridge, but the 147th which had halted to let Hall’s battery (which had come tearing and galloping along) pass. Perceiving that the 14th Brooklyn and the 95th NY were not following, the 147th on crossing the cut was faced to the left in the line of battle, and proceeded to a third ridge, immediately opening fire a strong line of the enemy’s skirmishers, which had attacked Hall’s Battery, in a short time silencing one of his pieces. Hall had been fiercely attacked, and withdrew his battery under supporting fire of the 147th with the exception of one of his guns.
Hall was undoubtedly sent in to present a strong front to the enemy, sustained by the infantry, thus checking or retarding the advance of the enemy until the arrival of the rest of the corps on the field. The fire of the 147th had checked and driven back this line of skirmishers thus enabling Hall to withdraw his battery, excepting the one piece alluded to
The advancing line of the enemy, extending beyond the right of the 147th NY meeting but little or no opposition continued their march.
Order to Retire Not Received
The 76th NY and 56th Pa. which had advanced on the second ridge, distant 200 yards or less from the third ridge, had received orders to retire. The order had also been given to the Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 147th (the Colonel being absent) but being wounded in the head at the moment of receiving the orders, the Lieutenant-Colonel went to the rear, failing to notify Maj. George A. Harney who succeeded to the command.
The Major ordered the right company to break to the rear at right angles to the front line; the company’s fire from that moment stopped the enemy’s advance on that flank.
The line of the 147th NY was lying in the field at and below the ridge, a wheat field, ready for the harvest. The fire of the enemy, the rippling of their bullets cut the grain completely covering the men, who would reach over the ridge, take deliberate aim, fire and then slide under their canopy of covering of straw, reload and continue their firing. Those of the regiment wounded here were wounded in the head or upper part of the body, consequently more fatal. One hundred and twenty-six of the 165 dead and missing lost in the three days battle are supposed to have answered the final call for duty on this line.
The Major realizing that we were alone, without support, and the overlapping of our right flank would soon be in our right rear, called a few us --- the officers --- nearest to him and explained how we were placed, and said, on seeing the withdrawal of the rest of the brigade on our right, his duty was clear to follow their movement. But there was a battery in our front how was he to know but for some good purpose not apparent to him he should remain there. As the result soon showed, it was for the good of the general cause although the sacrifice of a noble band of men. As matters then stood, it was surrender and save further loss or fight and fall back, when our loss would be heavy. The gun was abandoned and fell into the enemy hands, as the enemy were now in our right rear. The left of the regiment rested on the railroad cut, the cut enfiladed by the enemy’s fire and a perfect death trap to those who should enter it.
No Thought of Surrender
There was no question of surrender in the minds of the officers. The prison pens of the South, even at that day, were more to be dreaded than the foe in the field. At this juncture a mounted officer was seen circling in our rear, waving his hat and beckoning for us to retire. It would have been certain death for him to enter that maelstrom of fire, mounted as he was.
Maj. Harney then gave orders, to be communicated along the line, for his men to divest themselves of everything but rifle and cartridge box. Thus our rations, and until July 4, only two crackers from a passing regiment sustained us. Upon the order to retreat the men were to fire, rise up and immediately fall down, thus letting the enemy fire pass over them. Then, bending low, march in quick step to the rear, trailing their guns, loading and firing at will. The guide to the center and the color-bearer were instructed to align on some trees, quite a distance in our rear, but clearly to be seen. Our loss up to falling back had been heavy in mortality, but not in wounded, owing to the configuration of the ground. The ridge under which we were lying was sharp and broke abruptly to the rear, answering, in a measure, as a shallow riflepit. Upon the order to march, the line delivered a volley. The scourge of the lead that passed over was terrible, and it could almost be felt --- not the zip of bullets, but a rushing, forcing sound. Then the line rose again, and to us, --- the officers in the rear --- it seemed to _____ away as it received the retained fire of the enemy’s lines, by this time a full line of battle, the skirmishers having merged with it. As stated, 126 fell there on that line, and mostly by that fire.
Shallow Earth Covers the Fallen
On July 4, again was seen that ridge, raised and reinforced by the additional mound of earth covering the bodies of those who had fallen there, hastily covered so that the outline of their bodies was plainly seen, showing where the advanced line of battle had been formed on the first day by the first infantry regiment that had arrived on the field and stemmed the tide of the advancing host of the enemy until the rest of the corps arrived on the ever-to-be remembered field of Gettysburg. This was rendered still more famous by him, the “Immortal One,” to consecrate the field but said it had already been hallowed, and it remained for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work before them, the world knows how faithfully he performed his part of the great work.
The color-bearer of the regiment, a Swede, six foot two, fair haired, blue eyes, rose with the colors, stood erect, faced the new direction, but fell to the earth, pierced many times by the bullets of the enemy, enrolled and enwrapped in the folds of the now torn and battered flag he so proudly carried, thoroughly drenched with his blood. The enemy now pressed closely from the front, also closing in on our right rear.
The two companies on our left dropped into the railroad cut, meeting the enfilading fire of the enemy. This enabled the regiment to oblique to the left, drawing away from the force on our right rear.
Saving The Colors
On the first break to the rear, Serg’t William A. Wybourn, a brave Irish lad, hastened to the line, unrolled the color-bearer from the enfolding folds of the flag, tearing it from its shattered staff, rolling it up in his race to the rear, he was struck by the enemy’s fire and went to the earth; then an officer hastened to him to recover the flag, but the gallant boy rose to his feet and joined the line in its movement to the rear. For this act, he was commissioned a Lieutenant, and on another field, for a similar act, he was commissioned a Captain.
Fresh from lying down, with the enemy winded by their quick thrust forward, we made progress to the rear. As soon as our guns were loaded the line halted, faced about, the volley given, and then the march continued, men falling at every step.
Many of the enemy, in their haste to capture us, failed to draw their ramrods after loading their guns, shooting them at us, and only those who have heard the sound can realize the demoralizing effect they produce.
The enemy was now so near, even their camp hatchets were hurled among us, with vile, and opprobrious taunts, as bitter as their fire, calling on us to surrender. Our men, were _____ failing and it seemed after all our efforts we would have to surrender at last. But the Major commanding encouraged the men by his coolness, word and example (freely exposing himself), to hold out. His action on that field and during the greater part of the war endeared him in the hearts of the whole command. Fortunately for the regiment, he was in command at this time, and until late in the war. In his zeal in discharge of his duties on the field of battle on October 27, 1864, he fell into the hands of the enemy and remained a prisoner to the close of the war.
Help At Last
Succor for the remaining few came at last, and from a direction that seemed impossible. A Union cheer, loud and clear, was heard in our rear (our former front), distinct, sonorous, so different from the rebel yell, --- Coming from that direction caused our hearts to beat fast with joy and thankfulness at the same time striking terror into the heart of those intent on our capture, and caused us all, on both sides, to halt and look to the rear. There, coming up in a solid line, were three regiments with Union flags borne high and flying to the breeze, guns at a charge, bayonets fixed, gleaming in the sun, marching in quick step, unable to fire, as the two lines were almost commingled. Our hearts were too full, our numbers to few, to respond to their welcome cheers as they closed in upon friend and foe. The enemy on recognizing the line in their rear, threw down their arms and held up their hands in token of surrender.
Our losses had been heavy, comrades and relatives falling; one brother had left two brothers on the ridge never to return. The taunts of our prisoners only adding to our bitterness, and when the enemy had dropped their guns our men also dropped theirs and went at them in regular fisticuff scrimmage. The officers threw themselves between us and it was soon over, and the feeling of anger passed away, forgotten in the joy that we were relieved and our pursuers had become our prisoners.
It seems the 95th N.Y., the 114th Brooklyn (sic), joined by the 6th Wis., seeing the enemy driving the 147th N. Y. crossed the cut, formed line, and advanced on the rear of our pursuers, capturing Davis’ brigade, composed of the 2d and 42d Mississippi and 55th N. C., over 700 in all, and brought in Hall’s gun. Our fire at the ridge, and in retreat, had cost the enemy as much, if not more, so what was our loss was the country’s gain.
A Fearful Death Toll
Thru the rest of the day and in different positions and at Culp’s Hill, and on the second and third day and in the recapture of the works of the Twelfth Corps, Greene’s Brigade line, our losses still went on, so that on our roll call on the fourth day we had but 65 men, a few having turned up during the day. The actual loss, verified and cut into the monument on the advanced line at Gettysburg shows
Leaving at the close of battle on the third day 79
This loss is fifth in regimental losses at Gettysburg and second in percentage of losses. The 2d Minn.’s loss was 82 percent. The 147th lost 201 out of 330 or 79 percent. The loss in killed, including the missing, none ever after appearing, was 155, or nearly 41 per cent.
---- JAMES COEY, MAJOR, 147th N.Y.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History