One Moment of Glory: 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers, With Five Berks Companies, Write History at Gettysburg
By KERRY LANZA
“What does it mean to be brave?” wrote Private Robert F. Miller to his mother in 1863. “To do what you have to do when other people are counting on you,” was his own reply.
At 3:00 pm. on Wednesday, July 1, 1863, the 467 officers and men of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers regiment were counting on each other as they were ordered into position.
The place was Gettysburg.
After the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac had been fighting all day, a gap in the Union line opened around McPhearson’s Ridge, just west of town. To stay the Confederate tide which was fast sweeping on, the last reserve, the 151st, was thrown into action. Those Pennsylvania Volunteers had not yet gained their position when men began to fall. They had been told not to fire a shot until the word was given.
The 26th North Carolina of Pettigrew’s command, Heth’s Division, approached the 151st. The Tarheels came up to within 20 paces of the line of the Pennsylvanians. Then, the two regiments riddled each other at almost point-blank range with annihilating volleys which produced “losses the most remarkable in the annals of war!”
The 26th NC lost 584 out of 800 men, 11 shot down while bearing the colors. The 151st PA lost 337 men of the 467 engaged – a loss of 79% . The staggering losses occurred chiefly in the space of 40 minutes. Confederate Major General Henry Heth wrote of his adversary: “His dead marked his line of battle with the accuracy of a line at a dress parade.”
Gettysburg was to be the climax for the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers, their one moment of glory. The regiment’s recruits were in large measure from the farms of Berks County:
Company E had been recruited in Ontelaunee Township (Jacob S. Graeff, captain);
Company G came from the Bernville environs (Levi M. Gerhart, captain);
Company H was from Upper Tulpehocken Township (William K BoItz, captain);
Company K had been recruited in Longswamp Township (James W. Weida, captain);
Company I had been put together with men from northern Berks and adjacent Schuylkill County (William L. Grey, captain).
Companies A and C were recruited in Susquehanna County, B in Pike County, F in Warren County, and D in Juniata County.
It was the unique make-up of the Juniata contingent that caused the 151st to become known as the “teacher’s regiment.” There were 113 teachers in the ranks of D Company, including most of the teachers from the McAlisterville Academy in Juniata County, of which Lieutenant Colonel George F. McFarland was the principal.
The recruits had all signed up for a service term of nine months. “Nine monthlings hatched from $200 bounty eggs,” scornful veterans dubbed those nine-month regiments.
The soldiers life in the 151st can be told from the letters and diaries that remain. Many of the letters were written on Army issued paper with a letterhead of “Not A Star Must Fall” or “The Star Spangled Banner Must Be Upheld.”
The 151st Regiment was organized in September of 1862. All the companies rendezvoused at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg in October of that year. “There were 30,000 citizen soldiers there. The camp was an old stockyard. When the train pulled to the platform, we were greeted with Moo, Moo of Pennsylvania cattle.”
Lieutenant Theodore Chase, of F Company, wrote: “We drew rents, blankets, and cooking utensils and were soldiering in good style by dark. Boys are feeling well.”‘
The government issued the 151st smooth-bore muskets, not as accurate as the newer rifled muskets carried by the veteran troops. The reasoning was that the scatter-shot loads – “buck and ball” – though not accurate, were bound to hit something in heated close combat.
While at Camp Curtin, the regiment received state colors from Governor Andrew G. Curtin himself before leaving for Washington in late November. “Leaving Thanksgiving day 1862 and taking dinner in the city of Baltimore, our regiment was assigned to General Casey’s Division to do guard duty along Bull Run Creek at Union Mills at Fairfax Station, Va.”
It was there that the command was well instructed and drilled by Col. P.G. D’Utassary, “a Hungarian by birth but as Dutch as you please.” Though it was a hard school, the lessons they learned would serve them well in their most trying hour.
“A soldier’s life is a succession of extremes,” Private Miller wrote home, “first a long period of inactivity, followed by [a period] when all energies both mental and physical were taxed to the utmost.”
“On picket duty along the banks of Bull Run, frosty night as I looked out over an open field. We are cold and most sick. I eat my rations. Beans and pork for dinner. To cook, put it into a kettle of water, put over a fire. They come out as hard as they went in. The dog at home doesn’t eat such stuff as we eat. We call it first rate of the want of something else to call.”
By mid-February the regiment was transferred to Belle Plain, Virginia. “We left Camp Casey,” Bernville farmer Alfred D. Staudt wrote in his diary, “at about ten o’clock marchtd [marched] out to the railroad and then we went on the cars. When we were about 2 miles the cars ran of [off] the track the horse cars fell upside down and we get the horses all safe out when we came to Alexandra [Alexandria] it was six o’clock.”
A day after they arrived at Belle Plain – and found only pine brush for beds and ponchos for tents – it started to snow. “It is snowing all day and we have know [no] stove in our tand [tent] we were near frozen it is so cold.”
Other soldiers described long, cold, snowy days and nights on the picket lines. Many were sick; some died. The 151st had well over 100 men on sick-call at any given time. “Lying out in the snow and rain without shelter and being wet to the skin not having a dry thread to my body, I have been afflicted ever since with rheumatism.”
From a hospital in Union Mills, Va., one soldier wrote: “My disease is typhoid fever but am doing well as could be. Tell Mother not to fret about me for I think I shall be around in a few days. Accommodations are comfortable. I am in a large barn about forty feet square, well white-washed with lime. The Sanitary Commission furnished us with a complete outfit of flannel shirts and drawers.”‘
Even far from home, faith remained strong. “I attended service at Christ Church last Sabbath evening and had a seat in Washington’s pew which remains precisely the same as it did when the hero, sage, and patriot sat within it.”
By now the 151st was brigaded with the 121st, 135th and 143rd Pennsylvania, in the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac, with General Abner Doubleday commanding the Division and Major General John F. Reynolds commanding the 1st Corps.
In every sense, the raw volunteers of the regiment – and the farmers from Berks County – had been assimilated into military life.
Beside picket duty, soldiers described hot air balloons used for scouting enemy positions. They also wrote about their duties collecting water and rations: “We had a good time foraging. We captured an animal that some of the boys called venison. This morning we had a leg of some animal that the boys called venison, but to judge from a little of the skin that was left near the foot, it looked very much like wool.”
Most of that winter they drilled. New Springfield rifles were issued to replace their smooth-bore Harper’s Ferry muskets. Much later, Lt. Col. McFarland wrote of the significance of that equipment change: “New Springfield rifles were issued, and almost by accident I learned that men who could knock the eye out of a squirrel or take off a bird in the woods at home with old smooth-bored rifles were uncertain of hitting a five-foot target with their Springfield rifles. I saw at once they were unfit to meet in deadly battle the well-drilled enemy, until they were entirely familiar with their weapons and confident of their power to use them efficiently. I therefore took every occasion . . . to secure target practice, being once summoned to General Reynolds’ headquarters to answer for firing permitted near my picket line out of hours. But the result justified the means, and my men entered the Battle of Gettysburg good marksmen, pleased with their guns and conscious of the power to hold their own with any enemy they might meet. ”
The best summaries of camp life that winter were in their diary entries. “So this is war, running to keep warm, pounding my chest to make the blood circulate, tramping up and down this river (Bull Run Creek), wet feet, empty stomach, swollen nose. I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, butternut fellow over the river. Pshaw, I wish I were home. ”
Lt. Chase also wrote: “I thought much of home, would like to have been there but, alas, there is no consolation in wishing. So goes the world. ”
Spring of 1863 was welcomed with some expectation: “April 5, Centerville, Va. Dear Mother, Weather is changeable. You want to wear all your clothes to keep warm, then take them all off. A lot of snow in the last six weeks. The regiment expects to see some fighting before long.”
There was still some time until the 151st would see fighting. Now, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Major General Joseph Hooker. Before campaigning, the 1st Corps got to parade before the President.
On April 9, Bernville area farmer Alfred Staudt noted in his diary: “It was a very pleasant day we got a review with our first Army corps and we were received by the President of the United States A. Lincoln and Major General Hooper [Hooker] Commander of the Army of the Potomac. ”
Just previous to the opening of the Chancellorsville campaign, the 151st and the whole 3rd Division were sent to Port Conway, on the lower Rappahannock River, for a diversion in favor of an operation soon to start. The movement was successful, causing Stonewall Jackson’s forces to move to a point on the opposite bank.
The regiment was out for 46 straight hours, during which it rained incessantly for 36 of those hours.
Samuel T. Allen, adjutant, Company F (the Warren County unit), reported to his hometown newspaper: “Our march continued through rain and darkness, the men wading sometimes to a depth of two feet through mud and water. In one place a man could be seen standing on one foot, his shoe stuck in the mud below. Another digging for a shoe, one for a hat… A Lieutenant, perhaps with dreams of dignity and promotion, sliding down an embankment… and coming up astride a dead mule (while) uttering words which might be a declaration never, never, to enlist again”
Upon returning to camp, the 151st was commended by both Gen. Doubleday and Gen. Reynolds for the “good order and compactness which marked the march.”
By mid-April, there was much anticipation of battle: “Morning was pleasant but air very smoky from firing. All the cavalry and artillery moving toward the right. Indications of a move, all very anxious for it, hope it’s so.”
On April 28, the Regiment was ordered to move, assigned as rear baggage guards as the 1st Corps moved toward the Rappahanock River. The 1st and 2nd Divisions crossed at U.S. Ford, while the 3rd Division and the 151st stayed on the opposite side. With their camp near headquarters, the Regiment men witnessed many Confederate prisoners taken – as well as Union dead and wounded being brought back.
As the Battle of Chancellorsville approached, the Regiment’s position was shelled. “In the afternoon at about five o’clock the Reble [Rebel] bigen [began] to shell us but we run behind the bank. ” “Artillery played fast all night… Shells over our head and all around us, exploding and throwing dirt on us.”
“In the morning (of May 3) at six o’clock they begin to fight and fight till noon they were a great many wounded and killed but we were not in (it). In the evening our company went out on picked [picket]. ”
During the actual battle, Companies B, D, and G (from the Bernville area) of the 151st, while on picket duty, skirmished with the Confederates and took their first casualties, suffering a total of 16 dead and wounded during the campaign. When the armies withdrew, the Regiment went into camp near White Oak Church, Virginia.
“I am out on picked [picket] on the Rapphennick [Rappahannock] The Rebbles sent tobacco over on a little boat and we sent a newspaper over to the Rebble.
Even though Chancellorsville represented a humiliating loss for the Union, the Army remained proud and confident of their leaders; the men of the 151st were no exception.
“I do not think that the army has lost confidence in Gen. Hooker as many Copperhead Papers would have you believe. I saw a Copperhead (pro-Confederate) Paper and could hardly contain my rage as I saw the sneaky way it had of sneering at everything our army did and praising the Rebs.”
The truth was that the mercurial Joe Hooker was in trouble again after Chancellorsville. There ensued a bitter confrontation with Major General Henry W. Halleck about how to best use the Army of the Potomac to meet a threat from Robert E. Lee, who obviously intended to invade the North. Hooker resigned his command, to be immediately replaced by Major General George Gordon Meade – the fifth such change of command in ten months.
Thus, the next destination for the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers would be a part of the land familiar to all of them. The march toward Gettysburg commenced with the right wing of the army, composed of the 1st and 11th Corps under Gen. Reynolds, making a forced march of 105 miles in three days. “Did some hard marching. I had been sick, but our regiment is almost all sick and could get no convalescence.”
Just after crossing the Pennsylvania state line on June 30, the Regiment stopped and encamped. Sgt. Miller read a letter from home: “Dear Robert, Your Mother is as well as we can expect. She is very much troubled about you and James and more so since we had notion that another big battle is expected. . . . If it comes my prayer is that you may be spared… There is a great deal of excitement all over the country about the Rebels being in Pennsylvania. Your Father. ”
“On July 1, we got up late and started to find the Johnnies,” one member of the 151st wrote in his diary. “Advancing up the Emmitsburg Road, we got to Gettysburg at noon.”
The 151st, under the direct command now of Lt. Col. McFarland, pushed forward, unslinging knapsacks as they went, advancing obliquely to the top of a ridge west of the Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
It was a time for wildly shifting emotions. “The enthusiastic dream of my boyhood, a battlefield in all its glorious pomp and stern reality, opened to our view. ”
But the 151st had arrived just in time to see the popular Corps Commander, General John Reynolds, carried to the rear dead, the victim of a sharpshooter. “Many a tear fell at the site of the stretcher. ”
Some of the 151st may have regarded it as a terrible omen.
About noon, enemy fire started again. The 151st was ordered back to a hollow to support Cooper’s Battery, which was subject to constant fire. Having had his haversack containing three days rations knocked to pieces by an exploding shell, Private Charles Ammatell, of Longswamp Township’s Company K, recorded his anger in a letter: “The loss of the rations made me fighting mad.”
At about 2:30, the 151st was ordered to a reserve position on McPhearson’s Ridge, just behind the Iron Brigade and Biddle’s Brigade. Within half an hour a gap, caused by severe losses, opened between those brigades. And into that gap the 151st was now thrown. “We were ordered out to the place where Reynolds was killed.”
In perfect order, the Regiment moved forward and closed up the broken line. Company D – the unit made up principally of teachers from Juniata County – was at the exact point where Gen. Reynolds had been lost. Not yet gaining position, men began to fall. “That was the first sight I had of the Rebel Stars and Bars. There was a full regiment from 50 to 100 yards in front.”
We were ordered to fire by regiment, then load and fire, fire at will.” The situation heated up as the enemy came within 50 feet of the 151st. “Every man stood up to the work and fought like a tiger without a single exception. Our poor boys fell around me like ripe apples in a storm. God bless them. They were heroes – everyone of them.”
In a few minutes the Union’s Iron Brigade fell back, uncovering the right of the 151st. The enemy line extended far beyond to the left, thus exposing the left of the Regiment as well. Lt. Col. McFarland explained: “I felt we were holding the lines in front in check handsomely. I could not close my eyes to the galling fire on both flanks, which was doing far more execution than from the front. Receiving no orders to retire, I held my Regiment in position until nearly every third man had fallen. I gave the order to retire, firing. ”
I shot five times,” Bernville’s Alfred Staudt would write in his diary, “then I were shot threw (sic) my left arm and in my left leg. ”
The color bearer for the 151st, Sgt. Adam Heilman, a clerk from Reading, was badly wounded while carrying the state colors. A bullet struck his arm, another hit him in the chest, while yet another passed through his cap.
“Just as we were ordered to fall back,” one 151st veteran remembered later, “there came an old man wearing citizen clothes. He said to me ‘For God sake, don’t let them devils in the town tonight.’ My answer was “Old man, we must obey orders.”
“As we slowly retreated the enemy did not immediately follow us. After we reached the Theological Seminary Grove, we halted and took position behind the rail entrenchment.”
A fresh Confederate brigade then came up: Perrin’s Brigade of five South Carolina regiments. They attacked the 151st position fiercely with the 14th South Carolina in their immediate front.
“Then the Rebs outflanked us and got a cross-fire, and we had to git. Lt. Col. McFarland had his horse shot and he was standing within three feet of me. He said: ‘Retreat men, fall back in good order.’ Just then, he fell shot through both legs. I stopped to help him but he said: ‘Never mind me but run.’ As I always obeyed orders, I did run so fast the Rebs could not catch me.”
Retreating for the second time, we made directly for the town, thinking we would be able to make another stand, but to our great surprise, the Reb Cavalry cut off our retreat, and we were bottled up. ”
Some did get through town and reformed on Cemetery Ridge. A roll-call that night for the 151st had only 90 men answering to their names. By the next morning, more stragglers came into camp. That put the total remaining of the 151st at 119.
Many of the 151st found themselves behind enemy lines and were taken prisoner-75 in all. Being one of the 3,600 Union soldiers taken prisoner at the close of the eventful first day at Gettysburg, Pvt. Ammerell of Company K (from Longswamp Township), related his experience:
We were laying in a young orchard, when suddenly a troop of soldiers, faces begrimed with dust and perspiration, came tiding along post-haste for the purpose of throwing a guard around us. Presently a number of officers rode up. Among them was General Lee. I was able to recognize Lee through having seen pictures and engravings of him. He dismounted and walked around leisurely, eyeing the prisoners. I shall never forget the expression on his face – stern and well set. There was not a smile to relieve it. He wore a slouch hat, and his iron-gray whiskers were closely trimmed. His uniform was very plain. There was no gold lace or fancy trimming. I said to one of the Confederate guards, ‘That must be General Lee.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that is our Commander.”
As for the remaining 100 or so of the 151st, they were positioned near the cemetery in support of a battery. Now under Captain Walter L. Owens of Company D, the 151st moved double quick on the afternoon of the 2nd of July to support Sickles on the left. That evening, the Regiment moved up upon the front line, taking position to the left of the 2nd Corps.
When on the afternoon of the 3rd, the Confederates made their grand charge, known as Pickett’s Charge, the Regiment was on the left of the line at a point of attack. For a short time, they maintained “sharp fire” against the enemy.
After the fighting, the Regiment moved back near General Meade’s headquarters and rejoined the Brigade. At the end of the battle, Lieutenant William 0. Blodget reported to his hometown newspaper: “Gen. Reynolds was killed, but for our boys – the tears start at the thought of them and blot the page. Most of them said not a word, using only some exclamation when hit. I hardly heard a groan. (Pvt. Wilbur) Kimbell fell within three feet of me. I spoke to him but he never groaned. He was shot through the heart. Marcus Jaquary was shot through the temple. I did not know that (Sgt. James) Lott was hit until after the battle. He fought on, though how I do not know. He was wounded early but kept his place and fought until the last battle was done.”
At six o’clock on the morning of July 6th, the Regiment moved with the army in pursuit of Lee, coming up on their rear guard on the 12th and the main body on the 14th. That night, the enemy escaped. And by now the 151st’s nine-month term of service had expired.
All of the enlisted men captured were paroled at the end of the battle on July 4th and returned to the Regiment. However, at least three of the officers captured – Capt. William K. Boltz, Company H (from Upper Tulpehocken Township); Capt. William L. Grey, Company I, and 2nd Lieut. Charles P. Potts, also Company I – were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond or the infamous Andersonville in Georgia. There, they suffered the horrors of two years of imprisonment.
As for the wounded, their suffering had not ended. Many had to lie in field hospitals. Most were eventually sent off to hospitals in Philadelphia. Some like Pvt. Andrew Wagner of Company E (the group originally recruited in Ontelaunee Township) were sent to the Summit House General Hospital in West Philadelphia. “With 522 beds it was a lesser hospital compared to the West Philadelphia General Hospital’s 2,600 beds.”
Friends and relatives coming to Philadelphia to find a soldier who was the “object of their anxiety” had much difficulty finding them. Later the YMCA published a directory to help.
The 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers was relieved of duty on July 19, 1863, and sent back to Harrisburg, where it was formally mustered out of service on July 27. Its commander, Lt. Col. George F. McFarland survived his wounds but had to have a leg amputated.
The Regiment’s color bearer, Sgt. Adam Heilman, the clerk from Reading, recovered from his wounds and proudly carried the state colors again in an 1866 parade.
It would fall to General Abner Doubleday, who had succeeded the fallen John Reynolds as First Corps commandant, to summarize the worth of the 151st: “At Gettysburg, they won, under the brave McFarland, an imperishable fame. They defended the left front of the First Corps against vastly superior numbers; covered its retreat against the overwhelming masses of the enemy at the Seminary, west of the town, and enabled me, by their determined resistance, to withdraw the Corps in comparative safety. This was on the first day. In the crowning charge of the third day of the battle, the shattered remnants of the 151st Pennsylvania… flung themselves upon the front of the rebel column…. I believe they saved the First Corps, and were among the chief instruments to save the Army of the Potomac, and the country from unimaginable disaster.”
Important words that explain what happens when brave men stand firm and record one moment of glory.
About the author:
Kerry Lanza of Mohnton, a water management engineer, got interested in the story of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers when he learned that two of his ancestors served in this Civil War regiment which distinguished itself at Gettysburg. Both soldiers were in the lineage of his mother, June Wagner Lanza. One was Andrew B. Wagner, of Shartlesville, who was severely wounded at Gettysburg. The other was Daniel Badgenstose, who had been recruited in Pike County.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County, published quarterly by the the Historical Society of Berks County.
151st Berks County Casualties At Gettysburg July, 1863
By DR. CLAUDE V. REICH
The size of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers is often in question. The figure of 467 officers and men is in the range generally given. But the plaque to the 151st on the “Pennsylvania Monument” lists 527 officers and men, a list compiled by Col. McFarland. Later investigation found 210 more names for a total around 737, making the casualty rations for the 151st a bit lower than usually reported but still impressive. And when you concentrate on those five companies known to have included Berks Countians you find that Berks recruits (and their families) paid a dear price indeed.