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Colonel Smith And the 71st PA At Gettysburg, Part 1

A family history story in honor of the 160th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

"The Angle" at Gettysburg
Col. Richard Penn Smith, Jr. (1837-1887)

Richard Penn Smith, Jr. (R. Penn Smith)

was born on 9 May 1837 in Philadelphia, PA. He was the son of Richard Penn Smith and his second wife, Isabell Stratton Knisell. Richard Penn Smith, Sr. was a lawyer, editor and author best known for writing a largely fictitious account of events at and leading up to the Battle of the Alamo, which was presented as the work of Davy Crockett.

Richard was a merchant in Philadelphia when the Civil War started in April 1861. He offered his services to help defend the Union and enlisted in Philadelphia on 28 May 1861. He was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in Company F, 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Oregon Senator Edward D. Baker and his San Francisco law partner, Isaac J. Wistar, by special authority from the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, recruited and organized the regiment. Since it was intended that this regiment would symbolize the commitment of the West Coast to the Union cause, the War Department credited the regiment to the State of California and was known as the "California Regiment." After the death of Colonel Baker at Ball's Bluff, 21 October 1861, the State of Pennsylvania claimed the regiments for their quota, and they became known as "The Philadelphia Brigade."

On 1 May 1863, Lieutenant Colonel John Markoe resigned due to complications from wounds he had received. By that time, Richard Penn Smith had risen to the rank of major and was then promoted to Colonel and commander of the 71st Pennsylvania. Two months later, he would lead his men during the Battle of Gettysburg.

On Wednesday, July 1st, the regiment was in Taneytown, Maryland when they were ordered north, in response to fighting near the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, about 15 miles away. They set off on the Taneytown Road through the early evening heat and gathering darkness, listening to the thud of artillery echoing from the north. They halted for the night several miles south of Gettysburg in a field at the base of a hill that the locals called "Round Top."

The next morning, the men of the Philadelphia Brigade rolled out of their blankets at 3:00 a.m., devoured a hurried breakfast of hardtack and uncooked salt pork and prepared to move out. They waited until about 6:30 a.m. when they marched to a low ridge soon to be known as "Cemetery Ridge." The regiment formed in line of battle to the right of the 69th Pennsylvania. Most of the men ate rations from their haversacks, wrote or read and reread letters or slept while their commanding officers kept an eye on skirmishing to their west. Meanwhile, there were those veterans who knew from experience that there was bound to be fighting in the near future, cleaned their weapons and checked their ammunition.

At about 4:00 p.m., Confederate General John Bell Hood's division initiated James Longstreet's assault on the Federal left flank, anchored by Major General Daniel E. Sickles, a mile or so south of the 71st's position. Within two hours, the line was shattered and the Yankees fell back toward the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. By 7: p.m., the Southern juggernaut, composed in part by four Georgia regiments, were making their way toward General Webb's command at the Copse of Trees. The 1st Rhode Island Artillery moved their six Napoleons forward to the stone wall and through a gate on the left of the 69th Pennsylvania. The cannons were unlimbered 150 to 200 yards in front of the Pennslyvanians and unleashed a raking fire against the oncoming Georgians.

The Rebels made a furious assault on the vulnerable artillery and the Copse of Trees beyond. Within minutes, twenty-four artillery horses were killed and their lieutenant was down with a wound to his neck. The battery was ordered to the rear. Four of the guns were pulled back, only to be stuck at the gate. The two remaining pieces were left on the field.

The Georgians rushed past the abandoned cannons and the 71st Pennsylvania were ordered up to the stone wall. As the Rhode Islanders struggled to get through the gate, the men of the 71st got to their feet and Colonel Smith led them into position to the right of thge 69th Pennsylvania where they knelt behind the wall and opened fire on the advancing Georgians. The men of the 106th Pennsylvania fixed bayonets and went over the wall into the left wing of the Rebels. With this, Colonel Smith and his men leapt to their feet and clambered over the wall. "I advanced a few paces under heavy fire - and seeing the enemy's push as steady as my own, I charged him," the colonel wrote. They surged down a slope and retook one of the cannons, capturing about 20 Georgians in the process. A small number of Smith's men, with assistance from members of the 106th Pennsylvania, rushed well beyond the artillery in pursuit of the fleeing Georgians. They struggled over the fences that lined the Emmitsburg Road and into the fields beyond before stopping, out of breath.

Colonel Smith reorganized his command and put the men to collecting the hundreds of small arms lying about the field and piling them behind the stone wall. Not long after darkness descended on the smoky field, he was ordered to accompany his regiment to East Cemetery Hill. The colonel quickly gathered his men and led them down the reverse slope of Cemetery Ridge, across the Taneytown Road and in the general direction of the Federal right flank. After some skirmishing, the regiment reformed and headed back to their old position on Cemetery Ridge, stacked their arms and went to sleep.


The cloudy and humid dawn of Friday, 3 July, found the men of the Philadelphia Brigade resting in the same area of Cemetery Ridge that they had defended less than twelve hours earlier. The men rolled out of their blankets to find themselves surrounded by the wreckage of battle. Unburied men and dead horses, destroyed artillery equipment and a surfeit of small arms and accouterments littered that viciously fought over acreage of Cemetery Ridge. It was going to be hot that day; by seven o’clock the temperature was 73 degrees and climbing.

Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing (1841-1863)

The 71st Pennsylvania Regiment lay behind Alonzo Cushing’s Battery A, 4th United States Artillery just to the west of the crest of the ridge with its right flank at or near the angle formed by the intersection of the east-west stone wall and a north-south trending stone wall set back from the forward wall about 150 to 160 feet, the inner angle. On Colonel Smith’s right was Captain William Arnold’s Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. The men of the 69th Pennsylvania held the same position at the forward stone wall behind which they had fought the day before. That portion of the wall from the right flank of the 69th to the east-west stone wall at the outer angle, a distance of roughly 155 feet, was unoccupied and served as a field of fire for Cushing’s rifles.

Artillery exchanges heralded the intense fighting on Culp’s Hill at 3:00 a.m., but another four hours would pass before field guns along the center of General Lee’s Seminary Ridge line opened fire on Federal positions on Cemetery Ridge between the Copse of Trees and Ziegler’s Grove to the north. At about 8:00 a.m., Alonzo Cushing’s battery came under direct artillery fire and three limbers were blown up sending burning debris in every direction. Still, artillery fire during the morning accounted for little damage and relatively few casualties.

Lieutenant Frank A. Haskell of General Gibbon’s staff recorded that by 11:00 a.m., the sharp skirmishing between the ridges and the struggle for Culp’s Hill to the east had subsided and the field lapsed into tense stillness. The sun was near its zenith and the temperature had ascended well into the 80’s. "The sun was shining in all its glory, giving forth a heat almost stifling and not a breath of air came to cause the slightest quiver to the most delicate leaf, or blade of grass," recounted a member of the 69th Pennsylvania.

It was a few minutes past 1:00 p.m. and Major Samuel Roberts of the 72nd Pennsylvania sat in the sweltering heat on the open ground behind the Copse of Trees. As he relaxed listening to a sergeant talk "about some girls in Philadelphia," Roberts heard the crack of a lone artillery piece and within a split second the boastful sergeant was slammed in the chest by an artillery shell. Then all hell broke loose. "The air is filling with the whirring, shrieking, hissing sounds almost in one, as a volley of artillery pours out its deafening roar," remembered the historian of the 69th Pennsylvania. "The shot seemed to be tearing and plowing the hill to its very foundation all around us," recounted one of Lieutenant Cushing’s batterymen. Colonel Smith tried to portray in words the fury of the barrage: "My God it was terrible….The field was a grave. Such a sight you never saw." Years later, the memory still was vivid in his mind’s eye: "The air appeared to be thick with cannon balls." The cannonade could be heard as far as 25 miles away.

Alonzo Cushing’s guns were the focus of much of the Southern iron. Colonel Smith wrote that "the destruction caused by them [the Confederate artillery rounds] was the most severe I had ever seen." Two shells exploded over open limber boxes exploding the caissons and showering the men of Companies A and F of the 71st Pennsylvania Regiment with debris and burning embers.

More than an hour of continuous shelling had badly damaged Arnold’s battery, had silenced the Rhode Island battery sited just south of the Copse of Trees, and had disabled many of Alonzo Cushing’s pieces and gunners. When some of his batterymen broke for the rear, the lieutenant threatened them with death impelling them back to their guns. At length, Cushing, who had sustained a shoulder wound, struggled over to General Webb seeking help from nearby infantry to work his guns. The plea for aid was transmitted to Colonel Smith whose call for volunteers was answered by as many as 50 of his men, including almost everybody in Company E. The men rushed out of formation to help the remaining batterymen work their cannons and to bring ammunition forward. "My men - my most brave men worked his [Cushing’s] battery, until all [ammunition] was gone," pronounced Colonel Smith. A number of the regiment were struck down while serving the guns.

Even though many of the Confederate shells soared over the infantry on Cemetery Ridge, some fell into, or ricocheted through the regiments. The scene was one of high chaos. Cannons, limbers, caissons, horses and men were literally blown apart. Fragments of iron and rocks whirred through the air striking man and animal alike. Colonel Smith claimed that the bombardment "made frightful decimation in the ranks of the Philadelphia Brigade."

The frightful artillery fusillade finally slackened by about 3:00 p.m. and an ominous stillness enveloped the smoke-filled field. Infantrymen on Cemetery Ridge strained to see through the low-lying haze. The heat and suffocating powder smoke and dust was almost unbearable, and the temperature had attained the highest reading it would reach for the month of July. Not long after the guns fell silent Rebel infantry emerged from the woods along Seminary Ridge, a welcome sight to most of the Northern infantry for it signaled the end of the bombardment. Then the gray lines began moving across the valley with a measured pace typical of veteran troops. "No holiday display seemed more imposing, nor troops on parade more regular, than this division of Pickett’s Rebels," wrote an admiring member of the Philadelphia Brigade.

To be continued....


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