Pennsylvanians made their marks in Battle of Gettysburg
The final presentation in the Bridgeville Area Historical Society's 2012-13 program series was a talk by Civil War historian Michael Kraus.
A curator at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Kraus is an expert on the Civil War, with particular emphasis on the Battle of Gettysburg. In addition to being an experienced re-enactor, he has served as military consultant on several major movies, including “Cold Mountain” and “Gettysburg.”
Although his talk was entitled “Gettysburg,” his subject really was the participation of Pennsylvania soldiers in the epic battle. He recently collaborated on a book of historic photographs of the battle and used excerpts from the book to illustrate his talk. This was the first time the horror of the battlefield was brought into the homes of civilians by photo journalists like Matthew Brady.
The speaker began his talk by describing the hysteria in the Pittsburgh area 150 years ago when it was learned that General Lee was invading Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was an attractive target for the Rebels — a transportation hub with railroads linking the Midwest with the East; and an industrial center that included the Allegheny Arsenal, a major supplier of munitions to the Union forces.
Fortunately, the Rebels stayed east of the Alleghenies.
The main Confederate force left the Cumberland Valley and headed east through a pass at Caledonia, heading toward an insignificant small town, Gettysburg. The 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, led by Col. William Jennings, encountered troops of Ewell's Corps almost by accident and managed to keep them from occupying the town. In the meantime the Army of the Potomac, under a new leader, Gen. George Gordon Meade, was hurrying north to its rendezvous with the Confederates at Gettysburg. Meade was a Pennsylvanian, a resident of Philadelphia.
President Lincoln, disillusioned with Gen. Joseph Hooker after his disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville, had offered command to Gen. John Reynolds. When Reynolds declined the offer, Meade was his next choice. In reality he was the perfect man for the battle that ensued. Meade was a veteran of the Mexican War and a topographic expert. He understood the significance of the terrain at Gettysburg and arranged his forces efficiently to fight a defensive battle.
Most of the Gettysburg residents deserted the village when the battle became imminent; an exception was 70-year-old John Burns. A veteran of the War of 1812, he picked up his musket and set off to find a unit that would accept him. After he was turned down by several units, the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment (the Bucktails) welcomed him. He claimed to have killed three Confederates before being wounded. After the battle, he was an instant celebrity; President Lincoln asked to meet him when he came to dedicate the National Cemetery.
The speaker's personal hero at Gettysburg was Col. Strong Vincent. A native of Erie, he was in command of a brigade composed of four regiments — 16th Michigan, 20th Maine, 44th New York, and 83rd Pennsylvania — at Gettysburg. On the second day of the battle, Gen. Gouvernor Warren visited a signal station on a hill called Little Round Top and immediately recognized its strategic significance. He sent a messenger to Corps Commander Gen. Barnes requesting troops to occupy this important point.
Strong Vincent intercepted the message and moved his brigade to Little Round Top. They arrived just in time to fight off a fierce attack by the Rebels. Vincent was wounded while standing on a boulder exhorting his men to hold their ground; he died five days later. He was promoted to Brigadier Gen. before he died.
Another significant Pennsylvanian in the battle was Gen. Alexander Hays. A native of Franklin, he was educated at Allegheny College before going on to West Point, where he was a classmate and personal friend of Ulysses S. Grant. Before the war he worked as a civil engineer for the City of Pittsburgh, primarily as a bridge designer.
At Gettysburg he commanded a division in the Second Corps. On the third day his division withstood the brunt of Pickett's Charge, on Cemetery Ridge. After the Rebels were thrown back, Hays triumphantly rode his horse back and forth in front of the lines, dragging a captured Confederate battle flag behind him. He was killed a year later at the battle of the Wilderness.
Kraus' presentation was excellent. Our compliments to historical society program chairperson Rosemary Kasper for an outstanding season of fine programs.
John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reacxhed at 412-343-1652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.