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Weedsport-Gettysburg Connection

Dave and 111th NYVI monument in Gettysburg PA

Author with the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry monument in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (2007)

On a bright beautiful day in late September my girlfriend and I decided to take a walk through the civil war battlefield park near her home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of monuments have been placed on the battlefield commemorating the courage of the soldiers on both sides of the pivotal struggle that took place there. When I visit the Gettysburg battlefield it tends to be more a matter of viewing in awe the sheer number of brass and granite monuments studding the park, rather than contemplating any one of them in particular. Still, on this day, we stopped at one of the first monuments we came to outside the town on cemetery ridge, where the Union forces repelled Pickett’s charge on the last day of the battle. Reading the inscription on the monument, I was stunned. It read, in part:

“111TH NEW YORK INFANTRY ARRIVED EARLY MORNING JULY 2, 1863, POSITION NEAR ZIEGLER'S GROVE. .. TOOK THIS POSITION THAT EVENING AND HELD IT TO CLOSE OF BATTLE. … RECRUITED IN CAYUGA AND WAYNE COUNTIES. MUSTERED IN AT AUBURN, AUGUST 20, 1862…”

Cayuga county! People from my own county – perhaps my own home town of Weedsport had stood and fought on this very ground! I am no Civil War expert, but knew that it was quite common in those days for regiments to be recruited from a particular region or town, and then be kept together for the duration of the war. So very likely men who had as children walked to school on Jackson Street, and sledded down Science Hill had faced down Robert E. Lee’s divisions right there – right where we were standing!

When I got back to a computer, I started researching what I could about the 111th. Sure enough – Company F of the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Weedsport, Port Byron, and Auburn. Not all, or even most, of the 209 Weedsport Civil War veterans served with the 111th New York Infantry, but at least ten of my fellow Weedsporters had – as well as a fair number of volunteers from Port Byron.

The 111st NY Volunteers’ first month had been a nightmare of confusion. On August 20, 1862 they been mustered into service, and took a train from Cayuga County to Albany, where the steamer “Ohio” had shipped them by barge to New York City. From there, they had gotten on another ship that took them to Amboy, New Jersey, where they had gotten back on a different train for transport through Philadelphia to Baltimore. In Baltimore they boarded yet another train that took them to the rugged mountain pass town of Harper’s Ferry (just across the Potomac River from Maryland) where they arrived on August 26th, 1862. The raw farmers and villagers were placed under the command of one Colonel Dixon Miles. They had no training, and Colonel Miles had foolishly placed most of the defenders in a town that was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, rather than placing them on those cliffs. So when “Stonewall” Jackson attacked on September 12th, the results were predictable. The rebel army swept the inadequate and untrained defenders from the heights, blocked the only escape route, and then poured artillery into the town. Against the strong protests of his subordinate officers, Colonel Miles surrendered all 12,000 defenders on September 15th, earning the green recruits of the 111th and its sister unit, the 126th NY Volunteer Infantry, the entirely unfair nickname “Cowards of Harper’s Ferry.”

The surrendered men were “paroled” (meaning they promised not to fight until formally exchanged for confederate prisoners), disarmed, and then immediately released by the confederates. The disgraced and demoralized regiments marched 90 miles to Annapolis, Maryland, arriving on September 17th.

Consider what this first month in the Army was like for these men! They had been shipped around like lost baggage, delivered into a trap by an incompetent commander, bombarded with confederate artillery, surrendered against their will, and labeled by the press as “cowards!”

After arriving in Annapolis, the Army sent the111th west by rail in “cattle cars” without water or sanitary facilities to the filthy, lice-infested Camp Douglas near Chicago to await their exchange for confederate prisoners. To make matters worse, they had been told they were now to fight Souix Indians instead of the cause for which they had volunteered! Several members of the 111th deserted during their stay at Camp Douglas, and it’s hard to blame them! Others stayed – and died from disease.

Things improved for the 111th though – in December 1862, the Army changed its plans, and the Cayuga and Wayne County boys traveled back east again – this time to Centerville, Virginia, to help guard Washington, D.C. While there, the 111th got new management – Colonel Clinton MacDougall of Auburn, NY who finally gave the men the training and discipline they would need to have a chance against the Confederate army when the weather warmed, and serious fighting would resume.

In June 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved north into Maryland, and the 111th Regiment moved with the rest of General Hooker’s Army of the Potomac to keep between Lee and Washington, D.C. (General Hooker was replaced by General Meade only about a week before the battle of Gettysburg.) One historical curiosity resulting from this maneuvering is that the southern army had traveled far enough into Pennsylvania that when they attacked Gettysburg, they were heading from the north toward Washington, and the defending Yankees had to travel from the south to meet him! The Union army’s task was to stop General Lee’s soldiers from advancing down the Baltimore Pike to Washington. If Lee marched into Washington, the war was lost.

So it happened that on July 1st, the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, the 111th was marching north on Tanytown Road with the rest of 2nd Corps while General Buford’s cavalry was in a desperate struggle with Lee’s forces to buy time and thereby give the rest of his Union army the chance to occupy the coveted “high ground.” The 111th arrived in Gettysburg about 3:00 AM on July 2nd, tired and hungry. At first the “cowards of Harpers Ferry” were ordered to guard wagon trains in the rear, but later were moved up to some of the high ground that Buford’s cavalry had won them. They occupied a defensive line near a stone fence on Cemetery Ridge. And it is in this spot, near the little farmhouse and barn of a free black farmer, where the monument to the 111th stands today. Across an open field to the west the soldiers of General Lee planned their assault.

While standing near the monument, I looked out to the west over the open field where the Confederate forces had made their courageous and tragic advances. No doubt during the din of battle, with gunpowder smoke thick in the air and thousands of enemy advancing, there was no time to think about anything but survival. But perhaps when Company F first arrived near Ziegler’s Grove on July 2nd, the Weedsport residents had some time to eat apples from the nearby orchard (there is still an orchard there today), and to think of home. When the confederates began their artillery bombardment, perhaps they wondered if they ever again would have the chance to sit on their own porches and eat apples with their friends and neighbors. Maybe as they endured the endless explosions around them that afternoon, they imagined how happy they would be to someday ride the New York Central train back to the quiet little town that, for many of them, was the only place they had ever known before the war.

At about 4:00 PM General Longstreet launched an attack with ten regiments of infantry – three from Mississippi, four from Alabama, and four from Florida. The rebels crushed General Humphries’ Third Corps that had been forward and left of the 111th. The defeat of Humphries’ Corps left no effective Union forces between the Confederates and Washington! The battle of Gettysburg was about to become another in a long string of Confederate victories, and probably the last one they needed to win the war.

General Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps of which the 111th was a part, reacted to the emergency. He ordered the only nearby unit, a regiment of 262 Minnesota infantrymen, to attack the 1,000 confederates that had only moments earlier destroyed an entire Union Corps! Everyone knew it was suicide for the Minnesotans to attack, and everyone knew it was necessary. The First Minnesota Regiment took heavier casualties than any other Union regiment of the war. They lost 82 percent of their men. Their sacrifice bought five precious minutes for the four regiments (including the 111th), of Col Willard’s Third Brigade to hustle over to the left and fill the gap. America’s fate would now depend on the courage of the boys from Cayuga County.

Under heavy fire, the 111th swung around to the right of their brigade to prevent the confederates going around them, and then charged forward, shouting “Remember Harper’s Ferry!” With the other two regiments of their brigade on their left, the 111th braved withering confederate cannon fire, drove the Mississippians to surrender or run from the field, and recaptured four Union artillery pieces. In 20 minutes of fighting the 111th suffered 185 dead or wounded out of 390 engaged – more than twice the casualty rate of any other regiment in the brigade. Nobody would ever call these men “cowards” again. But the battle of Gettysburg was not yet history. There was another day of hard fighting yet to come.

At the start of the third day of the battle, the outcome was by no means certain. Union forces were surrounded on three sides. The 111th had returned to their original posting near Ziegler’s Grove – near the extreme north end of a blue Union line of about 5,700 men that extended roughly 1,200 yards. That’s a little longer than Seneca Street in Weedsport. At about 1:00 PM confederate artillery opened up with a fearsome barrage that lasted nearly an hour, attempting to drive the Federal soldiers away from their defensive lines. The artillery killed and maimed many – but the defenders held their ground. When Generals Pickett and Pettigrew attacked with their 15,000 – giving the rebels nearly a three to one numerical advantage – the men of the 111th would not yield, nor would the Union forces along the rest of the stone fence. In the area near the 111th, General Pettigrew’s forces came within a few feet of the defenders before they were driven off. General Pickett’s men, who attacked the Union line a bit further south, got even further – but ultimately they were repulsed as well.

What if the 111th had failed on either the 2nd or the 3rd of July, 1863? What if they had broken and run? What if Lee had been allowed to march into Washington? Would slavery have been maintained in the south for decades – maybe even until today? Might the Confederate States of America have sided with their white supremacist cousins in Germany in World War II? Of course, it is impossible to say what course history would have taken, but it is very likely that the entire world would now be a very different, and probably uglier, place if the men of Auburn, Weedsport and Port Byron had shown less courage on July 2nd or 3rd, 1863. Certainly they paid a heavy price. Of the nearly 250 regiments in the Union Army at Gettysburg, the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment suffered more deaths, as a percentage of the men brought to the battle, than any other. Nearly a quarter of their number was killed outright. Another forty percent was wounded, for an overall casualty rate of 64 percent!

The civil war era left a powerful imprint on Weedsport and Port Byron. The mid-1800s was a boom time for the canal towns, and much of the Weedsport/Port Byron area was built then. The aqueduct between Weedsport and Port Byron, where a park now sits, was completed in 1857, just three years prior to the outbreak of war. The red brick Methodist church that used to stand on East Brutus Street was built the same year the 111th was mustered into service. The Episcopal Church on East Brutus Street (a library when I was a child, now a private residence) was built one year after the civil war concluded. Now when I go to these places, I think of the Weedsport Civil War veterans – some of whom lived into the 1930s – who stood in these same places, and saw many of the same sights that we see today. They saw our red-brick downtown structures as they were built after the great fire of 1871, and would have no trouble navigating our streets today, or recognizing most of the buildings. Many of us inhabit the homes they built.

I sometimes think about the descendents that some of them, like John Lawrence, who died of his wounds at Gettysburg, never had a chance to produce. Might we have shared classroom memories with the offspring of their never-conceived children? Might some of them have been our friends and neighbors? Might some of us have married them? The achievements of our Civil War veterans live on among us, as do their sacrifices.

The memorial to the 111th at Gettysburg was dedicated by the veterans it commemorates during a ceremony held in 1891. Perhaps they hoped that people in their future, like us, might stop by the monument, and take a little time to remember them, what they did, what they lost, and what they bought us. Maybe that is not too much to ask. Perhaps we owe them that much.

Monument from the Front.

The monument represents a "skirmisher" from the 111th, and is forever scanning the tree-line ahead for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia

Monument at dusk - moon in the background

Monument at Sunset

COL MacDougal

Colonel (Bvt Brig Gen) Clinton D. MacDougall, Commander, 111th Volunteer NY Infantry Regiment

Monument at dusk

Survivors of the NY 111th, 125th and 126th Volunteer Infantry Regiments, apparently shortly before the monument was built

111th Reunion

Survivors of the 111th New York Volunteer Infrantry Regiment during their 1891 reunion in Gettysburg to dedicate their monument

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