‘Epic moments’ Diaries, letters of Northampton soldiers shed light on ferocious Battle of Gettysburg
Charles Harvey Brewster was a second lieutenant with the 10th Massachusetts Regiment, Company C. Brewster’s original Gettysburg letter and other Civil War artifacts and memorabilia are on display at the Historic Northampton Museum.
A view of the 10th Massachusetts Memorial Monument in Gettysburg, Pa.
Willard Bishop (seated) served with Company C, 10th Massachusetts Regiment, in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Willard Bishop's letter to Annie Bishop, July 11, 1863.
NORTHAMPTON — When Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address in November 1863, the scars of war were still fresh on the landscape. Just four months earlier, Northampton troops were in the thick of that battle.
Company C of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers had fought as part of the Army of the Potomac since the war began in April, 1861. In that first flush of enthusiasm, young men flocked to the banner and cheering townsfolk sent them off with bands playing.
In the preceding decade, Northampton had been a seedbed of abolitionist sentiment but no one imagined the massive bloodletting to come.
By 1863, the duration and the ferocity of the war had taken its toll on the battlefield and the homefront alike.
Lee’s thrust into Pennsylvania had taken the Army of the Potomac by surprise. Union forces scrambled desperately to head off Lee’s army from Washington.
Northampton’s 10th Massachusetts arrived at Gettysburg in pitch darkness, weary and exhausted, the night of July 1, having force-marched 37 miles in two days, an unprecedented feat for any army.
Though the Battle of Gettysburg these men would soon confront is one of the most thoroughly documented chapters in United States history, missing fragments occasionally come to light.
They help frame epic moments like this in human terms.
Among the manuscript collections at Historic Northampton are Civil War letters and diaries that unfurl the events of those three days in July 1863 as seen and experienced by Northampton soldiers.
On July 2, 1863, the men of Northampton’s 10th Massachusetts reinforced the defense of Little Round Top. Writing to his sister Annie eight days later, one of its leaders, Capt. Willard Bishop, described the scene:
“The artillery poured in its volumes of iron hail — the crash of musketry was incessant and the shouts of our officers urging on their men mingled with the groans of the wounded and dying and the demonic yell of the enemy as they charged upon our lines with the most obdurate fury formed one of the most exciting and awful scenes witnessed during the war.
“Our men fought with true Spartan bravery — the serried mass of the enemy were hurled upon our weak lines and charged up to the very muzzles of our guns — our troops discharged their pieces into the face of the enemy and then transfixed them with their bayonets as they came surging upon us.”
The line at Little Round Top held that afternoon, but the next day’s action was to decide the ultimate course of the war.
So it was that 150 years ago today, on July 3, 1863, the 10th Massachusetts was moved to the middle of the Union line taking shelter under a copse of trees behind a battery of artillery.
About mid-afternoon, this point became the objective for the Confederate assault that became known as Pickett’s Charge.
A murderous artillery barrage fell among the Northampton troops as casualties mounted.
As Bishop recounted: “The earth shook with the mighty concussion and the flying missiles howled and shrieked like demons in the air. Our artillery suffered fearfully — caissons were blown up, guns dismounted, hundreds of horses killed and a great number of men.
“The enemy suffered not less than ourselves as we found on going over the field subsequently … It was a loathsome and disgusting spectacle. Human bodies torn and mangled till hardly a likeness of humanity remained …. Terrible as this picture may appear, it is not equal to reality.”
The charge had been repulsed. The battle had been won, yet the war was far from over.
But the reality of the war had changed. Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg gave new meaning to the suffering and death on the battlefield. These “honored dead,” he argued, had consecrated the war to a new purpose. It was no longer a political struggle — a civil war to suppress succession and preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation had changed all that.
“We here highly resolve,” Lincoln said on that chilly November day, “that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom.”
It was not a war of restoration, but a revolution that would enlarge the meaning of freedom by abolishing human bondage once and for all.
But at what a price. The men of the 10th Massachusetts were seasoned soldiers. They had seen fierce fighting at Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Even these veterans were unprepared for what they saw at Gettysburg.
Second Lt. Charles Harvey Brewster of the Northampton command recorded his impressions after the battle:
“I thought I had seen the horror of war before, but the like of this battle is seldom seen. Men, Horses, Cannon, Caissons and all the implements of war piled up in almost inextricable confusion. Men with heads shot off, limbs shot off, Men shot in two, and men shot in pieces, and little fragments so as hardly to be recognizable as any part of a man.
“We passed yesterday nine dead Rebels in one heap in the road probably killed by one shell, and dead Rebels were scattered everywhere and yet the ground was dotted with single graves and pits full of them.”
It is well that, on that July afternoon, the men of Company C could not read the future. As bloody as the war had become, it was nothing compared to the mass slaughter of Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the Petersburg campaigns yet to come.
The Civil War had become America’s first “total war” in the modern sense.
A larger portion of the American population died in the Civil War than of the British population in World War I. When the 10th Massachusetts finally returned from the war, only 220 remained of the 1,000 originally enlisted.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln agonized over the mounting human costs of the conflict. Shall we fight “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword?”
In the final reckoning of that hard-won victory, Northampton paid its share of that terrible debt.
Bishop, the captain from Northampton, was wounded in the leg at the battle of Fair Oaks and lost an eye in the Wilderness campaign.
After the war, he lived in Hatfield and was an agent of the Connecticut River Railroad. Charles
Brewster, the second lieutenant, re-enlisted in 1864 to help recruit former slaves into the Union Army. He returned to Northampton following the war and, after a few false starts in business, found his true calling as a florist.
Kerry W. Buckley is executive director of Historic Northampton.