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The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 150 years ago on July 1st to July 3rd, 1863. On July 2, 1893, the Excelsior Brigade Monument was dedicated at the Gettysburg battlefield. Colonel John N. Coyne of the 70th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade and Medal of Honor Recipient for extraordinary valor at the Battle of Williamsburg said in his oration: “How peaceful and lovely the scene as we stood here on the morning of the 2nd of July, thirty years ago. The same golden sunlight and fragrance of wood and meadow greeted us as we arose from our slumber that morn; but, ere darkness again covered the earth it was all changed. These fair fields were turned into a crimson tide of blood; these hills that had stood unshaken for ages, trembled with the shock of war, and the sun was darkened with the smoke of battle.”

The Battle of Gettysburg took place following a series of stunning Confederate victories over the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. General Robert E. Lee initiated an aggressive offensive after the Battle of Chancellorsville (May, 1863) by turning his Army of Northern Virginia north through Maryland and into south-central Pennsylvania. His strategy was to: a. take the fighting into a key northern State to gain political support from dissident Northerners, b. capture the capital of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg, c. replenish his malnourished army from the rich farmlands, and d. subsequently turn his victorious army southeast to capture Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (see Stoker, Donald, The Grand Design. Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). As noted by Thomas M. Donnelly in his recent review of Allen C. Guelzo’s book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Knopf, 2013), “…Lee was correct in calculating that one more heavy blow might well have broken the North’s will to fight.”
Orrin L. Gatchell served in the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade, which was a unit of the III U.S. Army Corps commanded by Major General Daniel E. Sickles. Initially, on Wednesday, July 1stGeneral Sickles positioned the III Corps at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge (see Gettysburg Battlefield Mapin juxtaposition to the Wheatfield, which runs roughly parallel between Taneytown Road to the east and Emmitsburg Road to the west. General Sickles was dissatisfied with the assigned III Corps position. Without orders from the commanding Union General George G. Meade, he repositioned the III Corps early on Thursday, July 2nd to the west on slightly higher ground to straddle the Emmitsburg Road from the Devil’s Den northwest to the Sherfy farm’s Peach Orchard reaching nearly to the Codori farm. The unauthorized repositioning by General Sickles was a strategic error because it stretched the III Corps’ units too thinly to repulse a Confederate attack; it jeopardized the protection of the Union army’s left flank; and it placed the Excelsior Brigade’s six regiments in an untenable military position by requiring them and other volunteer regiments to defend the Angle.

Late in the afternoon of July 2nd, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate First Corps, launched a massive attack from the west against the poorly positioned III Corps stretched along the Emmitsburg Road. Confederate Major General Lafayette McClaws’ Division led the charge and essentially crushed the Excelsior Brigade and Union regiments positioned nearby at the Devil’s Den, the “bloody salient or Angle”, the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield (see position of Orrin’s 72nd NY under the command of Brewster on both maps). With General Sickles’ III Corps in full retreat, the Confederates aggressively moved east toward Cemetery Ridge; their advance was stayed later on the second day and repulsed on Friday, July 3rd, with vicious fighting at Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Little Round Top. At Gettysburg, Major General Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps was nearly annihilated as an effective combat unit, incurring 4,210 casualties or about 42% of the Corps’ soldiers, and General Sickles’ right leg was amputated after being shattered by a cannonball.

The Excelsior Brigade, positioned at the “bloody angle” on July 2nd, felt the full force of the assault by Confederate Major General McClaws. The Brigade consisted of the 70th through the 74th and the 120th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments commanded by Colonel William Brewster, who reported that his Brigade lost 778 or 42% of the 1,837 soldiers engaged in the battle. Tangible evidence of the extraordinary courage exhibited by members of the Excelsior Brigade was the bestowing of the Congressional Medal of Honor on two of its soldiers for their bravery at the Battle of Gettysburg. The first was given to Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles, commander of the III Army Corps, whose citation reads: “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded,” and the second to Sargent Thomas Horan of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from Dunkirk, New York, whose citation reads: “In a charge of his regiment this soldier captured the regimental flag of the 8th Florida Infantry (C.S.A.).”  This recognition represented but two of the fifteen recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to members of the Excelsior Brigade during the Civil War.

On July 30th, 1863, Orrin L. Gatchell wrote of his company’s experience at Gettysburg: “Old Co. D [of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Brigade] is reduced to twelve muskets. We started with from Falmouth [on June 12th] with 38. I begin to think that my turn will come soon. I thought all of us would catch it at Gettysburg, for the rebels massed their forces in front of our [III] corps and opened on us with 80 pieces of artillery…We were under a fire of shells for four hours to which our artillery could but make but a feeble resistance.” Orrin’s discouragement reflected not only his experiences at Gettysburg but also the recent Union losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville under the failed leadership of Union Major Generals Burnside and Hooker.

Although the Union Army was judged victorious at the Battle of Gettysburg, any positive morale gained by the troops was short-lived as General Robert E. Lee and his defeated Army of Northern Virginia withdrew from combat on Saturday, July 4th and retreated south toward Williamsport, Maryland on the Potomac River. Heavy rains on July 4th hampered caring for the wounded and burying both Union and Confederate dead, slowed the Confederate Army’s retreat through southern Pennsylvania and Maryland, and delayed by days the Confederate's crossing the tortuous Potomac River swollen by rising waters into Virginia. Yet the Union Army under General Meade’s command failed to take advantage of the situation, leading Orrin to write: “We, that is, the whole army, are greatly disappointed at Lee’s escape across the Potomac. We had him foul and had but to advance with a bold and determined front and his army was ours, but through the hesitation and indecision of our generals, he was allowed to escape with all his booty. I never saw our army so anxious for a fight as they were then and never expect to see it again. It was a golden opportunity lost.” Union soldiers added a verse about Meade to a song about their disappointing commanders (cited in Stoker, Donald, The Grand Design. Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 305) sung to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”:

Next came General Meade, a slow old plug,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Next came General Meade, a slow old plug,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Next came General Meade, a slow old plug,
For he let them get away at Gettysburg,
And we’ll all drink stone blind—
Johnny, fill up the bowl
.

In summary, the lack of aggressive pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia by Union Commanders of the Army of the Potomac following the Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and particularly Gettysburg clearly prolonged the Civil War, leading to the Battle of Manassas Gap on July 23, 1863 during the pursuit of General Lee’s army south through Virginia.



Related Images

  • Gettysburg: “Our corps was badly cut up.”
  • Gettysburg: “Our corps was badly cut up.”

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