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Colonel Smith And the 71st PA At Gettysburg, Part 2

The story continues. For Part 1, click here.

Locations of the 71st Pennsylvania During Pickett's Charge

Colonel Richard Penn Smith, Jr. was standing with General Alexander Webb near the Copse of Trees when the Southerners emerged from the woodline in preparation for their attack. By now, "the artillery firing had become less violent," the colonel recalled, but solid shot still screamed overhead. The general ordered Smith to move his men up to the stone wall and to place the left of the regiment next to a sapling. Quickly the prone men climbed to their feet and trotted down the slope toward the unoccupied segment of stone wall on the right of the 69th Pennsylvania.

As the 71st Pennsylvania arrived at the stone wall, Colonel Smith realized that he could not squeeze his entire command into the space on the right of the 69th. "I could not operate at ease and satisfaction," he explained. In consequence, the colonel was compelled to deploy the right wing of his line in the open field just north of the east-west stone wall, "a fearfully exposed position." In a display of what General Webb later referred to as "true military intelligence on the field," Smith, without orders, sent the exposed troops, approximately two companies of men, to the north-south-trending stone wall about 160 feet to the rear. The regiment hustled up the slope and formed behind a stretch of "dilapidated stone wall" recently abandoned by Captain Arnold’s battery and on the left of the 14th Connecticut Regiment.

Though the fence "yielded partial protection from musketry," the colonel believed that the neglected barrier offered little protection from Rebel artillery. Smith placed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kochersperger in command of the regiment’s left wing at the forward stone wall. Most of the men grabbed as many capped and loaded muskets as they could handle from the pile of weapons collected the day before that lay near the outer angle. According to Smith, some of the boys at the stone wall went into position with as many as three to a dozen weapons each.

After Colonel Smith had posted his two companies in the rear, he hurried down to the left wing and instructed Kochersperger to hold fire until the enemy had crossed the Emmitsburg Road and then "to load and fire as fast as possible." He also ordered that when the Rebels got so close that the 71st Pennsylvanians could not reload and fire, they were to fall back on the right wing of the regiment. Finally, he cautioned Kochersperger to be wary of an enfilading fire from the right or north of the position. Now Smith rushed back to the right wing where he found that the men had gathered numerous loose weapons lying about and had rested them against the wall. These men were to hold their fire until they "had determined the result with the left wing," and when their comrades at the forward wall had fallen back, they were to deliver a "sure and damaging enfilading fire" into the Rebels. Thus Smith had stipulated the conditions under which the front line men were to retreat. Specifically, no "hold to the last man" orders were issued; rather, the tactics involved drawing the Confederates into a situation where they could be subject to a destructive enfilading fire.

Meanwhile, the Southern columns continued their march to the Emmitsburg Road and the Copse of Trees beyond. "It was…the grandest spectacle, the most imposing and gallant charge of the war," wrote a member of the Philadelphia Brigade. Federal artillery fired with increasing frequency and although Rebels fell at every step, Lee’s veterans closed ranks and continued forward as if on parade review. Skirmishers of the Philadelphia Brigade deliberately withdrew to the main line, all the while loading and firing. The men of the 106th Pennsylvania withdrew to the Copse of Trees on the left of the 69th after which they rejoined Companies A and B on the reverse flank of the ridge. Confederate foot soldiers pushing toward the fences that lined the road continued to take heavy casualties.

The Copse of Trees at Gettysburg

The men of the 71st Pennsylvania at the forward stone wall had finished loading their artillery piece just as the Rebels arrived at the post-and-rail fence along the west side of the Emmitsburg Road. At about this time, First Sergeant Frederick Fuger of Alonzo Cushing’s battery rushed up and instructed the infantrymen to sight the gun on the road and fire just as the Rebels were climbing the fences. At the appointed moment, the lanyard was pulled and the cannon fired. Still, the stalwart Rebels clambered over the fences. "It was not a leaping over; it was rather an insensible tumbling to the ground, in the nervous hope of escaping the thickening missiles that buried themselves in falling victims, in the ground, and in the fence," remembered one Confederate. Even 37 years after the battle, a former officer in the 1st Tennessee Regiment stated he could still hear the bullets striking the fence "like hail upon a roof."

As the Rebels struggled over the fences lining both sides of the Emmitsburg Road, two more of Lieutenant Cushing’s guns were rolled forward to the stone wall and positioned among the men of the right flank company of the 69th Pennsylvania, Company I. These rifles attracted much gunfire and soon members of the 69th and the left of the 71st Pennsylvania Regiment began to fall. The rifles, worked by batterymen and infantry alike, loosed only a few rounds, one of which exploded prematurely killing two members of the 69th Pennsylvania. With this, the gunners fled to the rear. Nevertheless, the one working rifle at the wall, and the 3-inch rifles of Captain Andrew Cowan’s 1st New York Independent Battery brought forward to replace the smashed Rhode Island battery, concentrated their fire on the Rebels who by now had crossed the road and were reforming under this storm of canister and spherical case shot in a depression just east of the road.

Colonel Smith was with his right wing at the rear stone wall as the Rebels crossed the Emmitsburg Road and resumed their advance now at the double-quick. When they had reached a point perhaps one-half to two-thirds of the way from the road to the forward stone wall, the Virginia regiments of General James Kemper’s brigade obliqued to the left and made for the Copse of Trees. Colonel Smith hastened to his left wing which he found "hotly engaged" with the enemy on its front. "The firing had became [sic] general and the sharp ring of musketry and roar of cannon and thunder of bursting shells made such a deafening noise that the human voice was drowned in the din," wrote Colonel Smith years after the battle. The soldiers were loading and firing as fast as they could. Wild shouts and oaths filled the air. Even the colonel picked up a rifle and fired a few rounds; "I fancied that if I could at least...scare [them] with noise, and I might, by accident, hit a gray-coat." Still the enemy continued forward.

The men of the 56th Virginia in front of the 71st Pennsylvanians at the forward stone wall bent into the Federal fire pouring into them and hurried up the slope. Without orders, these men volleyed into the Union soldiers, shouted and rushed the fence, many making for Cushing’s now silent guns near the left of the 71st Pennsylvania and the right of the 69th Pennsylvania. The 1st Tennessee, holding the right of Colonel Fry’s line and to the left of the 56th Virginia, was headed for the outer angle. The Rebels stopped about 15 paces from the wall, volleyed and lunged forward with bayonets fixed. Colonel Smith’s troops were beginning to fall.

General Lewis A. Armistead (1817-1863)

Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead and his men, including some of Kemper’s charges, covered the final yards to the stone wall, funneling toward the abandoned artillery pieces and the gap between the 69th Pennsylvania and 71st Pennsylvania. At the same time, the 1st Tennessee and elements of the 7th Tennessee came forward with what one 71st Pennsylvanian termed "a great rush," many of the Rebels climbing over the stone wall at a boulder or groups of boulders that marked the apex of the outer angle.

Colonel Smith, realizing that his men still at the forward wall could not load and fire before they would be overpowered, "wished it [the 71st Pennsylvania] back to a line abreast of the right wing." Implicit in this statement written to Isaac Wistar less than one month after the battle was the colonel’s desire to remove the left wing from the wall, as per his earlier order, and allow the men of the right wing to fire on the Rebels closing on or climbing over the wall. There is no existing evidence that Colonel Smith personally ordered the men back from the stone wall. Rather, it seems that the rank and file took it upon themselves to make that judgment. Years after the battle, the commander of the 1st Tennessee wrote that "the Federals in our immediate front and to our right [71st Pennsylvania] yielded and fled in confusion…abandoning their artillery." Although Smith claimed that his men fell back "in order," stopping to load and fire, others in agreement with the Tennessee officer, argued that the retreat was made "without order." This rupture in the Federal line would not be lost on General Armistead.

But not all of the men of the 71st Pennsylvania withdrew from behind the stone wall. Some of the men at the outer angle remained at their posts and put up a short but stiff hand-to-hand defense. Private Charles Olcott of Company E "fought and knocked down a Confederate officer with a sponge staff," remembered Colonel Smith. It appeared that the first 71st Pennsylvanians to fall back were those men who had been deployed closest to the right flank of the 69th Pennsylvania.

The 71st Pennsylvanians who had retreated toward the crest of the ridge, some stopping to load and fire, were rallied by Colonel Smith who had posted himself a short distance to the south of the inner angle. In any event, the embattled Pennsylvanians formed a line on the left of the regiment’s right wing and a short distance to the rear of the 72nd Pennsylvania which General Webb had called forward into that position most recently held by Alonzo Cushing’s now silent battery.

By now, the Rebels had gained control of that part of the stone wall vacated by the 71st Pennsylvania and were using it as a breastwork from behind which they loosed deadly volleys into the 72nd Pennsylvania on their front and the much closer right flank of the 69th Pennsylvania. Soon, Armistead, the only Confederate general officer still standing on this part of the field, saw that the time was ripe for the final drive. He raised himself up and, with his felt hat balanced on the tip of his sword so that his 100 to 150 men might see him, shouted, "Boys, give them cold steel", and over the wall they went. In order to counter this immediate threat, the right three companies of the 69th Pennsylvania, A, I and F, were ordered to pivot to face Armistead and his band making their way up the ridge. But the commander of Company F was struck down before the maneuver was accomplished and his men remained at the wall. Some of the Rebels gravitated into a gap that had opened between Companies A and F.

Just as the right wing of the 69th was changing front, the rear wing of the 71st, in tandem with the 14th Connecticut, loosed an enfilading fire on the Confederates streaming over the stone wall and up the slope. A member of the 106th Pennsylvania observed that the men of the 71st did "good service by a flanking fire," and Colonel Smith believed that this "most galling and rapid fire" prevented the Rebels from turning Cushing’s rifles against the Union troops in the area although it is unlikely this could have happened given the shattered state of the battery. Still, the destructive crossfire delivered by Smith’s left wing staggered and checked the left of the Confederate column sending some, but not all, of the Rebels back behind the stone wall.

Those resolute Confederates who had not been driven back by the deadly enfilade fire delivered by the right wing of the 71st Pennsylvania struggled up the slope. By now they were taking fire from the men of the 72nd Pennsylvania as well as from Companies A and B of the 106th Pennsylvania. Armistead apparently had pushed to within 30 paces of where Colonel Smith stood when the general fell mortally wounded among Cushing’s abandoned rifles. Smith believed that the Rebel general was brought down by "the heavy enfilading fire" delivered by the right wing of the 71st Pennsylvania.

Armistead’s wounding appears to have taken the drive out of the Southerners. Indeed, a member of one of the refused right flank companies of the 69th Pennsylvania claimed that there was virtually no firing after the Rebel general was struck. Another member of the Philadelphia Brigade asserted that many of the Southerners began throwing down their weapons after their commander had been wounded.

The 71st Pennsylvania, deployed as they were, could not have advanced until the 72nd had gone forward. But at about the same time that Webb called for his men to attack, Colonel Hall’s regiments, the 19th Massachusetts and 42nd New York, followed by the 20th Massachusetts, emerged from the small wood stand. This rush appeared to have caused the immovable 72nd Pennsylvania to join the charge, thereby enabling the 71st Pennsylvania to rush forward. The entire mass of Federals, members of the 71st, 72nd, 69th and 106th Pennsylvania, 42nd New York and 19th and 20th Massachusetts, moved as an irresistible tide toward the stone wall. An officer in the 56th Virginia claimed that he and his comrades "held the stone fence not less than 25 or 30 minutes." But, as Colonel William Aylett, 53rd Virginia and Armistead’s successor as brigade commander, wrote that "our position was untenable, and we were compelled to retire."

Most of General Armistead’s company-size band had surrendered, been killed or wounded, or withdrew down the west flank of Cemetery Ridge and back across the Emmitsburg Road. Meanwhile, several members of Company K of the 71st Pennsylvania helped carry the dying General Armistead to the rear on a stretcher.

Gray, sulfurous smoke hung low over the field that humid afternoon. Building anvil head clouds foretold of rain later in the evening and night. The area around the Copse of Trees, particularly on its front and right, was awash with shattered artillery equipment, knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, jackets and other clothing, blankets, diverse accouterments, weapons and ammunition. Captain McMahon and another man could be seen muscling one of the dead Alonzo Cushing’s guns up the flank of the ridge. Dead and crippled artillery horses marked the positions of the battery’s limbers.

Colonel Smith was struck by the horror that surrounded him. "I never saw so much human blood before," he described to Isaac Wistar. It was difficult to walk anywhere in the general area without stepping on the dead and dying. The cries of wounded men lying in the fields beyond the stone wall were "piteous. We could not comfort [them], it was a grave yard." Surgeons worked feverishly throughout the night trying to save shattered men of both sides. After nightfall, some of Smith's men were detailed to search the field by lantern and candlelight for wounded soldiers.

That evening, three days’ rations were issued to the exhausted men of the 71st Pennsylvania. By now, Colonel Smith had assumed temporary command of the brigade for General Webb, recently appointed to command of the division for John Gibbon who had been severely wounded in the left arm and shoulder. Meanwhile, the 71st Pennsylvanians, completely worn out by the afternoon’s fight, cleaned their weapons and looked for friends. Somewhat later, their duties completed, those men who still had blankets rolled into them along the stone wall they had fought over. An early evening thunderstorm which Colonel Smith reasoned was brought on by "the heavy cannonading," developed into an all night rainfall that completely soaked the men and their equipment including the rations in their haversacks. Some of the men huddled along the rock wall in the rain, probably talking over the day’s fighting and what it might mean for the future. They must have wondered if they would be called upon for a third day to defend the ridge. Before long, talk dwindled as the men drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July.

Colonel Smith spoke glowingly of the role that the right wing had played in "putting a temporary check on the enemy" surging up the gradient from the stone wall. "My regiment has lost nothing in the opinion of my superior officers by this battle," Smith proclaimed to Isaac Wistar. Indeed, the colonel was commended for his deployment of the regiment’s right wing by General Webb as well as by General Winfield Hancock, who, though seriously wounded just after Hall’s regiments charged into the Copse of Trees, declared that Smith and several other officers, "performed in like manner most distinguished services in leading their men forward at a critical period of the contest." But Colonel Smith may have gone a bit too far when he bragged that "Without flattery to it my regiment saved the day."

Notwithstanding Colonel Smith’s hyperbole, the 71st Pennsylvania Regiment had suffered its fair share of casualties in its two days of fighting at Gettysburg. Initial returns showed 21 men and officers killed, 58 wounded and 19 missing. In his post-battle report written on 12 July, the colonel cited slightly different numbers: 22 killed, 59 wounded and 19 missing. By his reckoning, Smith lost almost 40 percent of the men he took into the fight on the morning of July 2. In the end, twenty-five men had either been killed in battle or had died of wounds. The last two days of fighting had been difficult for the 71st Pennsylvania.

Private John E. Clopp of Company F was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on 3 July at Gettysburg when he captured the flag of the 9th Virginia Infantry, "wrestling it from the color bearer."

Today there stands a monument to the 71st Pennsylvania, located at The Angle. It was dedicated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1887.

71st Pennsylvania Monument

In 1887, a monument was erected by Colonel Smith and his 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment in honor of Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing and his 4th U.S. Battery A. It is also located at The Angle near the Copse of Trees.

Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing Memorial (The 71st Pennsylvania Monument is in the front right)


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