Blog entry by Shayla Carey
History isn’t just what happens in a certain place at a certain time. It is all interconnected and what happens at one place likely effects another.
Take my recent trip with Boy Scout Troop 241. On our 15-mile hike around and through the Gettysburg battlefield, we stopped at various monuments to present research on the backgrounds of the men and women honored, as well as the structures themselves.
|Hiking along Cemetery Ridge|
I chose the 71st Pennsylvania, also known as the 1st California regiment. I have family in both states, so it seemed a good fit for me. In my research, though, I found a deeper connection to the regiment. At our Civil War Days, on July 25 & 26, re-enactors from the 71st will come to Landis Valley to interact with visitors and demonstrate life during the Civil War. Once I learned this, I became really excited and eagerly hit the books for more information to share here. I first got an idea for the background of the war as a whole and the Battle of Gettysburg, in particular, from the Ken Burns documentary, “The Civil War.” Then, I consulted the book, Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg, by Earl J. Hess, a paper titled, “The Unsung Heroes; A Report on the Unique History of the 71st Pennsylvania in the Civil War,” by Paul Cleveland, and the article, “The California Brigade: In West Philadelphia Born and Raised,” by Daniel Landsman, on the Civil War Trust’s website.
Their story began in April of 1861. Colonel and Senator Edward Baker mustered the 1st California Regiment, consisting of 15 companies of men from along the East Coast—around Philadelphia—to satisfy California’s quota of men for the U.S. Army. The men trained, lived and fought together as the 1st California under the command of Colonel Baker until the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October, 1861, where Baker was hit by a volley of bullets to the heart and brain. He died instantly. In November of that year, they were claimed by Pennsylvania as part of their quota.
They fought many other battles together, seeing action at Fredericksburg and Antietam. Among their officers was Captain Richard Penn Smith, who was promoted to Major after leading the men at Antietam and then to Colonel after the Battle of Bank’s Ford, during the Chancellorsville campaign.
|Plaque for the 71st at the Pennsylvania Monument|
Fast forward to May, 1863. General Ulysses S. Grant began a 2-month-long siege at Vicksburg, a strategic stronghold along the Mississippi River. Because of Vicksburg’s vital importance to the South, Confederate President Jefferson Davis summoned General Robert E. Lee after the Chancellorsville Campaign to Richmond, to discuss what to do about the Grant problem. Davis wanted to send reinforcements to Vicksburg from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, straight from a major Confederate victory, had a bolder plan. He proposed that his army move north into Pennsylvania, taking Harrisburg, then Philadelphia. This would force Grant to draw back to defend Washington. Davis was convinced.
The Army of Northern Virginia marched north, attracting the attention of the Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George G. Meade, which followed, carefully keeping between Lee and Washington D. C. Eventually, they reached a crossroads town called Gettysburg. Rumors state that the battle was started over shoes, but, according to the Civil War Trust, the armies met because the surrounding roads led to the town. The Union Army arrived nearby and fighting broke out on July 1. The federals retreated from the town to the hills to the south on the first day of fighting and, by the end of the day, both sides rested and regrouped. On the second day, after both sides received reinforcements overnight, Lee ordered General James Longstreet to swing around the flank of the Union Army to capture the strategic point of Little Round Top. Meade was equally determined to keep the position at all costs. After heavy fighting, the Confederates came very close to taking Little Round Top, but were forced back by the brilliant maneuvers of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. As for the 71st, it was part of the Philadelphia Brigade that was stationed at a sharp angle on the stone fence on Cemetery Ridge. They helped to repel a Confederate attack that evening, taking back a captured cannon in front of the wall. Later that night, they were sent to Culp’s Hill to assist the 137th New York, but retreated back to the Angle when met with heavy fire at a point their commander deemed indefensible. “Damn them, they had me flanked,” related Col. Richard Penn Smith. “It was not my fault.”
Both sides won and lost ground that day, losing many men in the process. “When the 2nd day’s battle was over, General Lee pronounced it a success. But, we had accomplished little towards victorious results,” wrote General Longstreet.
By now, Lee’s blood was up. He was convinced that he could deliver a crushing blow to the Union Army if he could attack the center and drive a wedge through the enemy. Believing that his army was invincible and his men could do anything he told them to, he ordered Longstreet to concentrate his force on Cemetery Ridge, the heart of the Union Army’s position. Longstreet gathered 11 brigades and put General George Pickett in charge of 3 of them. Lee also ordered an attack on Culp’s Hill, to divert some of Meade’s forces, but it did little to help Longstreet’s attack.
The 71st took their position at “The Angle,” behind the sharp right turn in the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge and just to the right of Lt. Alonzo Cushing’s Battery A, 4th U. S. Artillery. From 11 a.m. to just after 1 p.m., the Confederates put the finishing touches on their attack formations and the Union forces rested. Finally, at 1:07 p.m., the Confederate heavy guns opened fire.
135 Confederate artillery guns bombarded the Union line, with the intention of softening the enemy. The Union Army’s chief of artillery, Henry J. Hunt, ordered his men to wait about 15 to 20 minutes before answering fire, in order to gauge the most effective targets.
Col. Smith recalled, “the air appeared to be thick with cannon balls, and the destruction caused by them was the most severe I have ever seen.” The 71st suffered minor casualties, but Cushing’s Battery, directly in front of them, did. Smith was ordered to help man the guns and he sent between fifteen and fifty men (his accounts, written years later, vacillate between the two numbers). These men stayed with the cannonade throughout the rest of the battle, according to Smith.
|The skirmish at The Angle, as depicted in the Cyclorama, located at Gettysburg's Visitor Center|
The actual charge was a slow and deliberate march that began at approximately 3 p.m. The 69th Pennsylvania, which had been in front of the wall, was ordered back behind it and the 71st was to stay to their immediate right flank. The 71st was too large for this position, though, and Smith pulled two companies of them to the rear wall, which offered them more protection and allowed them to reinforce the other eight companies on the left flank if they needed them. The left flank used their own weapons and others that they had taken from fallen men to fire into the advancing Confederate lines.
Turns out, they did need them as, despite the heavy losses the Confederates took as they marched across the field, they managed to reach The Angle. While the 69th fought tooth and nail, Smith pulled the 71st back. It was a questionable move, as this allowed the Confederates, led by General Lewis Armistead, to stream over the wall. Accounts other than Smith’s (including those of this superiors) suggest that the 71st broke rank and fled, but what happened next sealed the fate of the battle.
While the 71st’s left flank reformed and the Confederates fought the 69th at The Angle, the remaining two hundred men on the 71st’s right opened fire into the Confederates. The left flank joined in, along with the 72nd Pennsylvania (which, up until this point, had been held in reserve) and two companies of the 106th Pennsylvania. General Armistead fell and, with him, went the impetus of the Confederate attack. After this, the Union forces counter-attacked in a melee of blue and grey. Brigadier General John Gibbon said of the 71st and those they fought with that day, “had turned again, drove [the Confederates] back over the wall, capturing a large number of prisoners and many colors.” Cleveland states,
“Private John E. Clopp of the 71st’s Company F captured the regimental colors of the 9th Virginia, subduing the enemy colorbearer with literally his bare hands. Clopp received the Medal of Honor for his actions, and was the sole member of the California Regiment to be distinguished with the award.”
The 71st lost 21 killed, 58 wounded, and 19 missing of the 331 men who battled that day. Smith was commended by Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Federal II Corps.
They had other commanders since then, but, on July 2, 1864, almost a year after he led them at Gettysburg, the 71st Pennsylvania, formerly the 1st California, mustered out under Colonel Richard Penn Smith.
It didn’t rain during the battle and it didn’t rain while we marched 15 miles through the battlefield, but it rained the day after. We were bombarded with rain and, after a valiant effort to remain dry as we hiked through the town and upon returning to our campsite to flooded tents and more rain and storms in the forecast, we bid a hasty and wet retreat from Gettysburg, just as Lee did 152 years ago.
You can meet re-enactors from the 71st Pennsylvania during Landis Valley’s Civil War Days, to be held tomorrow, July 25, and Sunday, July 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. They will actually be in civilian costume and explaining the role of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, but they will, no doubt, be happy to talk about their regiment’s role in the war.