Michael Carolan: How my ancestor killed me 150 years ago at Gettysburg

Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013

BELCHERTOWN — A few years ago a distant cousin contacted me with the news that our ancestor was wounded at Gettysburg — the Civil War battle celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. I had sought a connection ever since I portrayed a soldier at a re-enactment 20 years ago — the foundation laid for a profound intersection: the haunted past rising unwittingly to meet the glorious present.

So on Aug. 1, 1861, a few months after the start of the war, Robert Cooey joins the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteers — an outfit of men from neighborhood firehouses across Philadelphia. His older brother joins the 24th Regiment. My paternal great-great-grandfather is 5 feet 6½ inches tall and weighs 150 pounds. He’s young and illegal — a 21-year-old immigrant from a place called Newtownstewart in Northern Ireland. Presbyterian and without papers. For immigrants like him, expedited citizenship for military service seemed a fair trade. Besides, the war would last months, not years.

What was there to lose?

By July 1, 1863, they have suffered defeats: the disastrous winter offensive known as the “Mud March,” the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. So when my great-great-grandfather crosses into his home state just before the big battle, his fellow soldiers shout, “No licking us this time. We are going to stay” and give three cheers for Pennsylvania.

They are ordered to the so-called barbed end of the “fish hook” — key to the Union defense of the entire battlefield — known as Culp’s Hill. Actually two hills — heavily forested and rocky — that make fighting all the more confusing and terrifyingly close-range. His regiment constructs breastworks and is suddenly called away. They get lost marching to another battle. It’s confusing, after all, to move thousands of men in wool coats and trousers, with iron cannons, through thick brush, in July.

Upon returning, the Confederates are in their fort.

“All the fiends of Hell were having a whistling and shrieking match over us,” a soldier wrote July 3. A famous but very ill general rides up to the front lines in an ambulance. Look for sharpshooters, he says, and loans a soldier the spyglass that had belonged to his famous brother, Elisha Kent Kane, the great Arctic explorer. After my great-great-grandfather and fellow soldiers fire at the enemy, their commander sees leaves falling from the trees.

“Shoot lower,” Colonel Rickards says. “Aim for their knees.” It works: his regiment reoccupies their breastworks, the enemy “demoralized by the undaunted bearing of the men of the Pennsylvania Brigade.” The fight lasts seven hours, the longest sustained firing of the entire battle.

The Second Massachusetts regiment doesn’t fare so well at Culp’s Hill. They lose 43 percent of their men. Massachusetts as a state fields nearly 5,800 men at Gettysburg — 18 infantry regiments, four batteries of light artillery, two companies of sharpshooters, and one cavalry unit.

At the end, trees are unrecognizably stripped of their foliage, others sheared off completely. One brigade expends 227,000 rounds. One of those strikes my great-great-grandfather’s right shoulder. He is carried off the field that day. The following January, surgeons finally operate, his wound documented in the “Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War,” page 495.

The renowned surgeon Henry Palmer took up my great-great-grandfather’s case on Jan. 24, 1864, at York Army Hospital. He encountered a “compound fracture of the spine of the right scapula by a miniball” and excised a portion of the spine.

Dr. Palmer knew warfare. He had been captured by Jubal Early’s Rebels on June 28, 1863, when Confederates occupied the hospital. Palmer later managed to escape during the Battle of Gettysburg and return to York.

My ancestor spends the rest of the war in a hospital in York, among the nearly 30,000 men wounded over those irrevocable three July days.

In 1993, 130 years into the future, I attend my first Civil War re-enactment. A nine-part documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns for public television has reinvigorated public interest. Groups of middle-aged men with families come together to relive history by enacting the local battles in period costumes before record crowds.

In Virginia, at the First Battle of Manassas, I am ready to view the spectacle. Suddenly, a guy in uniform with a canteen hurries up and asks, “Would you like to fight with us?” “Now?” I ask.

“Right now, five minutes in fact.” He dresses me in a muslin shirt, wool coat and pants, places a kepi — the period hat of soldiers — on my head and gives me a rifle. For the next 40 minutes, I march around a field in sweltering heat and shoot blanks out of a gun with 20 other guys. It is a blast. Afterward, it is revealed I am a Second Marylander.

“The North?” I ask, for my uniform is gray.

“No,” the recruiter tells me. “Confederate States of America. Maryland, you see, went both ways.” Indeed, the state was microcosm of the country at the time.

“But slavery,” I complain.

“Look,” the recruiter pleads. “Most guys join the North at these events so we never have enough guys. Besides, the war was as much about state’s rights as anything else.” After all, I do know that my mother’s great-grandfather, a Virginian, fought for south.

A few weeks later in July, she and I drive to Pennsylvania to re-enact the 130th anniversary of the battle. Her great grandfather was slated to fight at Gettysburg, with General Pickett, but his unit was called away at the last moment. She puts on a period hoop skirt to give spectators the full effect.

I have orders to re-enact what happened to Maryland on Culp’s Hill: lose. At the actual battle, history tells us that a dog breaks from the ranks and runs onto the field, licks the hand of a soldier, and “is perfectly riddled.”

Union General Thomas Kane orders him honorably buried, “as the only Christian minded being on either side.” The Pennsylvanians watch a wounded Marylander laboriously load his rifle and aim. Not at them, but at himself. Their general breaks down and weeps, “wringing his hands and crying ‘my poor boys.’ ” By the end of the war — their 500 men are decimated to 40.

At the mock battle, I am ordered to “fall.” Authenticity is our pride. The firing intense, I taste gunpowder. Cannons boom in front of us. Hay bales are set on fire across the fields. Horse-drawn ambulances arrive. The audience cheers.

I die.

It is horrifyingly spectacular.

A couple of years later, at the re-enactment of Chancellorsville, I am running from the “enemy” and trip and fall. True to history, the Marylanders win that battle. But my knee no longer works right, an injury requiring surgery. I turn in my kepi and give up the fight. Fifteen years pass and I am told of my Gettysburg connection.

Turns out we have met — my great-great-grandfather and I. The two regiments actually fought each other not only at Chancellorsville but on the same postage stamp of ground at Culp’s Hill. The battle maps show Maryland’s red arrow colliding with Pennsylvania’s blue.

In a peculiar post-historical gesture on that day at Gettysburg in 1993, my great-great-grandfather “kills” me.

Only in America.

You can see the monuments to the two companies at the battlefield today when you visit. They are right next to one another.

On this sesquicentennial of that terribly necessary battle, I find that history is “story,” and a personal one. Like my ancestor, I survived my mock Gettysburg. Yet, unlike him, I can’t comprehend the number of dead, maimed, and dismembered — nearly 8,000 alone in less than an hour at the famous Pickett’s charge — just over the hill from where we fought. All told, 50,000 in three days.

In sweltering heat. Thick wool. Heavy rifles. The fellow right-next-to-you’s exploding in your ear.

The price we paid.

One Union.

Under God.


With liberty and justice for all.

Pvt. Robert Cooey found his justice: he became a U.S. citizen 25 days after his discharge from the Army. His shoulder injury prevented him from manual labor — coloring leather as a currier before the war. Yet he died a successful co-owner of a Morocco works — crafters of fine leather for shoes and purses. Most important, he never forgot — his headstone inscribed “Post No. 10, G.A.R.,” for Grand Army of the Republic — the once powerful veterans organization.

By his death in 1903 he had fathered six children. His daughter’s Philadelphia funeral home operates today — four generations later.

I spoke recently with her grandson, Robert Cooey Rose, about the ancestor for whom he was named — our witness to that one holy and unforgettable American moment, even 150 years later.

Michael Carolan teaches at Clark University in Worcester and is finishing a novel.


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