|Unit History Project|
"General Hofmann on the Action of the 147th New York
To the Editor NATIONAL TRIBUNE:
The 147th New York has had a most singular experience at the hands of many writers who have written upon the operations on the 1st day of the battle of Gettysburg. Instead of being accredited with a full share of the honor won by the valor of the Union arms at Gettysburg, --- for the bravery, gallantry and self-devotion to duty of which they such a noble example on this occasion, --- the regiment has been made the recipient of the commiscration of many writers for having been, as alleged, “cut off” and held in captivity at a momentous period in the first onset of the battle, and thus held “until relieved” by the capture of a large part of the Confederate troops of Davis’ brigade, when, in fact, it was owing to the pertinacity of the 147th New York in holding on to their ground and their heroic fighting that kept this part of the enemy’s forces in check for a time, and thus enabled the other troops of Cutler’s brigade to arrive upon the field and make the capture possible.
To comprehend the part of the battlefield upon which the first engagement of the infantry took place, we will take in the view presented by the topographical map prepared under the supervision of the late Major-General Warren, of the United States engineers, by direction of the Secretary of War in 1876.
Moving over this part of the battlefield westward from the town of Gettysburg, on the Chambersburg turnpike, which penetrates the South Mountain at Cashtown at the end of about eight miles, we encounter the at the distance of three-fourths of a mile from Gettysburg the first of a series of ridges running north and south. The first is known as Seminary Ridge, from the fact of a seminary building thereon. It has an elevation of about fifty feet above the center of the town, and practically closes the view from the town towards the west. At a quarter of a mile further west we encounter the second ridge, its crest at a little less elevation; and at less than a quarter of a mile still further west we meet with the third ridge, with its crest nearly on a level with that of the second ridge. Upon the third ridge are the houses and barn of the McPherson farm. The western slope of this ridge descends to a small water-course --- known as Willoughby Run --- now historical, as having divided the territory occupied by the hostile forces on the night of June 30, 1863. The turnpike follows the surface of the land, but at the distance of about 300 yards north is the bed of an unfinished railroad. It runs nearly parallel with the turnpike, deflecting a little to the north; it passes at a level with the bottom of the valleys intervening between the ridges, and pierces the ridges in succession at about fifteen feet below the crests of the two farthest west.
How the Line Was Formed
When Cutler’s brigade of infantry, in the following order; 76th New York, 56th Pennsylvania, 147th and 95th New York, and 14th Brooklyn, arrived upon the ground about 10 a.m., July 1, --- after crossing the Seminary Ridge just south of the Seminary building, and descending, in column, into the low ground in front of it, --- the three leading regiments were moved north, across the turnpike, and north of the railroad grading, when the line of battle was formed., facing west, with the left of the left regiment, --- the 147th New York --- resting near the railroad cut of the second ridge. While these three regiments were going into position under the personal command of General Cutler, the 95th New York and the 14th Brooklyn were moved by General Wadsworth, the division commander to the front of the McPherson buildings to support a battery then in position, on the crest of the ridge between the turnpike and the railroad cutting through this ridge. The right of the battery was exposed to fire from the enemy on its right. The position of Cutler’s three right regiments gave but a moral support for their fire could not reach the railroad cut right of the battery, and the cut, in fact, formed a covered way for the approach of the enemy’s sharpshooters. When Meredith’s brigade which followed Cutler’s on the road that morning at some distance (a recent writer has given the distance as over one mile0, came upon on the ground, the 6th Wisconsin, under Lieutenant-Colonel Davis, was left near the seminary building as a reserve, and the other regiments were moved forward into the woods to the left of the McPherson house, by direction of General Reynolds, who superintended the movements of these regiments in person.
In A Tight Place
The three right regiments of Cutler’s brigade had scarce formed in a line of battle when they became heavily engaged with the enemy, and after sustaining a heavy loss, and being outnumbered and outflanked, were ordered by Gen. Wadsworth to be moved to the rear. The two right regiments moved to the rear, under command of Gen. Cutler, but the 147 th New York did not receive the order from the commanding officer, Lieut.-Col. Miller, to whom it had been given, --- he having been wounded and stunned and carried off the field at the moment of receiving the order, --- and Major Harney, upon whom the command then devolved, in ignorance of the order, held the regiment to the ground to which it had been assigned in the first formation. This position soon became a very perilous one. The enemy, after an unsuccessful effort to turn the left of the regiment, swung his own left forward to envelope the right of the 147th, whereupon, to guard against such a result, Major Harney threw back his two right companies so as to fall nearly north; but the loss of the 147th was now fearful, and Gen. Wadsworth seeing the unequal contest and the imperiled position of the regiment, directed Major Harney to move to the rear and join the regiments under General Cutler. This was accomplished, but not without additional loss. The enemy (Davis’ brigade of Heth’s division), in their eagerness to pursue, soon observed the approach of the 95th New York, 14th Brooklyn and 6th Wisconsin, which threatened their own safety, and they thereupon sought shelter in the railroad cut in the second ridge. The depth of this cut was, however, such as to deprive them of their fire, and thus, instead of affording them any advantage, the cut proved simply a trap. The rapid movement of the three regiments, under Col. Fowler, of the 14th Brooklyn, soon closed the cut at the east end and only a few were enabled to escape at the west opening. The remainder then surrendered.
Gen. Heth (Confederate), in his official report of the operations of his troops in the first onset, says that Davis’ brigade suffered heavily --- losing all but two of its field officers --- and was so reduced in numbers that it was unable to hold the ground it had gained; that its losses were in fact so great that it was not deemed advisable to put it into action again that day.
Where the Credit Belongs
There can be no doubt, with these facts in view, that the 147th New York is entitled to a full share of the honors of capturing the enemy’s troops in the railroad cut. It was the heroism displayed by the officers and men of the regiment in holding on to the ground, while suffering such terrible losses, that gave time for the regiments under Fowler to arrive and make the capture.
The statement that the 147th New York was “cut off” until “relieved” by the capture of the enemy’s troops in the railroad cut was first published in one of the New York papers soon after the battle, and may possibly appear in some of the official reports. The statement did not harmonize with facts known to the writer, and he therefore, shortly after the close of the war, wrote to Col. Harney and asked him to explain how it was that the regiment was “cut off,” and when it occurred. In his reply, before the close of the year 1865, Col. Harney says that he was not cut off at any time; that his line of retreat was always open; that he held on to the ground to which the regiment had been assigned, because he received no order to retire until he received the order from Gen. Wadsworth, and that upon receiving this he moved to the rear, and that as soon as he had joined Gen. Cutler the three right regiments were moved to their former ground again.
The writer regrets that these corrections could not have been made by the officers themselves, but it seems that neither Colonel Miller nor Major Harney mad an official report of the 147 th in the Gettysburg campaign, and he has been recently informed that the said officers have long been dead. The regiment, however, was frequently for short periods under his own command, --- and continuously so from May 12, 1864, to March 6, 1865, --- and so he had ample opportunities, during this period, of forming a correct judgment as to the character of its officers and men, and came to regard them as zealous patriots and gallant soldiers, he submits the foregoing in the hope that if it should chance to attract the attention of future writers upon the battle of Gettysburg and those who may be engaged in revising their works for republication, they will render the honor so justly due the 147th New York volunteers.
J. W. HOFMANN,
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History