Stopping Pickett's Charge: the 126th New York at Gettysburg

Adjutant Ira Smith Brown of the 126th New York has been featured on this blog previously with an account of the fighting on the Peninsula while he was serving as adjutant of Berdan's Sharpshooters. He transferred to the 126th New York in September 1862 and suffered the onus of being surrendered at Harper's Ferry just a few weeks later. The regiment was lambasted in the press for its performance at Harper's Ferry and labeled cowards. Smith points out that at Gettysburg, the regiment "panted" to remove this stain from their honor, and his account points out, they certainly did so.

    His account of the Battle of Gettysburg was published on the first page of the July 30, 1863 issue of the Yates County Chronicle. In November 1863, Smith was promoted to the rank of major and following the death of William H. Baird, he was again promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. 
Adjutant Ira Smith Brown
126th New York Volunteers

“The Third Brigade at Gettysburg”
          I do not intend any labored description or effect. My whole will have been accomplished if I can present to the people of Yates County the simple story of the regiment they sent forth to battle for their country and their flag. To that regiment they committed their happiness and their honor. If that regiment proved brave and worthy, all the country was honored and glorified. If that regiment proved false and cowardly, all Yates County was forever disgraced. Thank God, it will never be a question of doubt.

The bloody plains of Pennsylvania drank the blood of 228 of the honored sons of New York. Their beloved chief laid down his life to prove his devotion and in all time to come will the people of our county relate the deeds of the Third Brigade: 2,800 prisoners captured by the Third Brigade alone. Five stand of colors captured by the 126th alone. Just 27 officers and 375 men by my actual count obeyed Colonel Sherrill’s command “forward Third Brigade.” Sixteen of those officers and 233 of those men lay that night in cold death or agony of wounds. Read and remember not the heroes of Greece and Rome but your own flesh and blood did these things, and as every man in town or on the farm reads the story of the 126th regiment, let them take new heart.  Such men can never be conquered.

The 126th New York Volunteers was raised in the 26th Senatorial District of state of New York in the summer of 1862. It was captured at Harper’s Ferry in September and after being paroled was sent to Chicago, Illinois where it remained until exchanged. In November it came to Washington and from December 3rd until June 25, 1863 did picket duty at Union Mills and Centreville, Virginia. It was brigaded with the 39th New York (Colonel Frederick D’Utassy), the 111th New York (Colonel Clinton D. McDougall) and the 125th New York (Colonel George L. Willard) and was a part of Casey’s Division of Heintzleman’s corps (the 22nd). General Abercrombie afterwards assumed command of this division and continued in command until we left Centreville. The brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Hays of Pennsylvania; General Hays now commands the 3rd Division, 2nd Corps and we are in the Third Brigade of his division.
General Alexander Hays led the 3rd Division
of the 2nd Corps at Gettysburg

This brigade broke camp at Centreville, Virginia on the 25th of June 1863 and marched to Gum Springs. On the next day our brigade acted as rear guard of the army, marched all night crossing the Potomac at midnight at Edwards’ Ferry. On the 26th we marched via Poolsville towards Sugar Loaf Mountain and on Sunday marched into Frederick City. On Monday the 29th we marched 33 miles, a very hard march, so hard that the Major General commanding issued a congratulatory order on the endurance of the troops. June 20th we were moved one mile, Colonel Willard commanding the brigade and General Hays the division. On July 1st we marched through Tarrytown and halted at 11 p.m. within six miles of Gettysburg.

At 3 a.m., wearied and sore, we rose and took up our line of march. It was rainy and had rained every day of our march. Unaccustomed to marching, many of the men were footsore and at 8 a.m. we had reached the extreme front and halted near the cemetery. But soon after, we moved on to a place on the left of our line with our right resting on the center of the village of Gettysburg. This position we held during the whole battle. On our right lay the village, in front a little valley bordered on the other side by woods. We were on a crest of ground sloping away from us and rising on the Rebel side. The bottom was contested by the skirmishers of both armies. Ricketts’ battery of brass field pieces was on the right of our regiment at first, other batteries were disposed around.

The disposition of our army was very peculiar as we were on a promontory that projected into the Rebel army. We formed nearly a circle or more correctly a horseshoe. We had as it were no flanks, front all around and we could move out troops to any point without marching three miles. To do the same thing the Rebels were forced to march ten miles. The ground receded away from us on every side and we here constructed hastily constructed defenses from rails, etc., all the advantages the Rebels have heretofore possessed, same at Malvern. We would not have had this position had it not been for the rashness of General John Reynolds, as by his premature attack Lee supposed our whole army was close upon him and he dared not move his army further. General Hooker having been removed, the army breathed freer and took courage. In front of the Third Brigade was a low stone wall and an old rail fence. As we were on the crest every form was already defined against the sky. Bear this in mind.

The enemy began a lively cannonade, doing no damage, and we retained our position nearly all day. The battle was progressing around, but in our front was comparative quiet. The Third Corps under Sickles was on our left and sustained a repulse. A battery was captured by the Rebels and the Third Corps was driven back. The enemy advancing with triumphant yells. The Third Corps wanted help and the Third Brigade was ordered to ‘fall in.’ This was half an hour before sundown. The brigade led by Willard left-faced and marched in a line parallel with the crest till they reached the gap formed by the defeat of a portion of the Third Corps. The brigade halted, came to a front. [Jepther Z.] Sabin, a tall corporal of Co. D, was here wounded in his foot by a shell that passed between the legs of Captain Morris Brown of Co. A. I believe he was the first man shot in the regiment. Time was precious. The Rebels were upon us. One moment was given to a survey, then rang out the last words I ever heard Colonel Willard speak: ‘Forward!’
Colonel George L. Willard
Killed at Gettysburg July 2, 1863

And here one word as to the temper of the 126th. Once before they had done bravely, but had been maligned, and the most infernal lies told by those who have had its honor in their keeping. A ‘general order’ had been published to the whole army of the United States saying that the “126th N.Y.S.V. had acted disgracefully,” and one of the authors of that calumny I am informed is now a resident of Penn Yan. It was cruelly unjust, but the deed was done and the 126th stood convicted of cowardice, or misbehavior before the enemy, the soldiers’ unpardonable sin. The regiment panted to remove that stigma. Colonel Sherrill said to me, ‘I want to lead these boys once more’ and everyone was determined that half, aye that the whole regiment should die on the field, but that their record should be clear. And those who cruelly lied about the 126th can have the satisfaction that their falsehoods drove the 126th to even more certain death than that which awaited them. Raising above the thunder of cannon, the battle cry of ‘Harper’s Ferry,’ they threw themselves upon the enemy as the floods sweep through a valley. The Rebel line was broken in less time than it takes to write it. Backward over the hill fled the host that a moment before was victorious. Above all the roar could be heard the shout ‘Boys, remember Harper’s Ferry!’

Passing too far, our brigade was suddenly opened on by a Rebel battery with grape and canister at a very short range. Now the carnage was fearful. Colonel Willard was instantly killed. Colonel McDougal had two horses shot under him. Colonel [Eliakim] Sherrill assumed the command and the Rebels were gone out of sight. He withdrew the brigade a few rods to be out of range of that terrible battery. We had beaten the Rebels and recaptured our battery. Thus ended the first day. Harper’s Ferry was avenged, but at what a fearful loss. That night we slept on our arms.

Colonel Clinton D. McDougall of the 111th New York had two horses shot from under him in the fighting near Plum Run on July 2, 1863.

[Quoting from New York at Gettysburg by the New York Gettysburg Monuments Commission: “At about 7 o'clock in the afternoon, General Sickles having been wounded, General Hancock, who had been placed in command of the Third Corps with his own, personally conducted the brigade nearly a mile to the left, to the rear of a busby swale, filled with boulders, near the source of Plum Run, through which a portion of Birney's Division of the Third Corps Had just been driven. Here the One hundred and twenty-fifth New York on the left and the One hundred and twenty-sixth New York in the center, and the One hundred and eleventh New York on the right, charged into the thicket held by the Thirteenth, the Seventeenth, and the Eighteenth Mississippi Regiments of Barksdale's Brigade — the Thirty-ninth New York having been faced to the left to prevent a flank and rear attack on the other three New York regiments. The three New York regiments, although receiving a deadly volley at less than ten paces from the concealed enemy, charged and drove them to the farther edge of the swale, almost at arm's length, where large numbers of the enemy threw themselves down and raised their hands in token of surrender, and the rest fled up the hill pursued by our brigade 175 yards, towards the Emmitsburg Road, when the artillery ,fire from the front and the left became so hot that the brigade fell back to the swale, taking with them several pieces of artillery which had previously fallen into the hands of the enemy. Here Colonel Willard was instantly killed and the command devolved on Colonel Sherrill of the One hundred and twenty-sixth New York. Lieutenant Colonel Bull took command of the regiment.”]
Battle of Gettysburg situation, July 3, 1863
           (Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen,

 All night some of the officers and men were hunting for the killed and wounded. It was a dark, cloudy night and search was difficult. General Barksdale of Mississippi was shot by a member of Co. A of the 126th New York. He begged Lieutenant [Samuel] Wilson [Co. A] to bring him off, but our own men must be seen to first. Did the General think that last night of his life of the agency he had had in the accursed rebellion? He was brought off in the morning and did not live but a short time. [Barksdale had gained a reputation as a fire-eating states rights’ congressman from Mississippi. He was wounded three times: by a bullet to his left knee, then a cannonball struck his left foot, and finally a bullet to his chest. He died in the Joseph Hummelbaugh farmhouse on July 3, 1863.]

General William Barksdale of Mississippi
Smith claimed that he was shot down by a
member of the 126th New York  at Gettysburg

At 4 a.m. the cannonading commenced and it soon became a terrific roar; but in our immediate front was a comparative quiet, an ominous silence. We supplied ourselves with ammunition. The sun came out and it was intensely hot. General Meade’s headquarters was just in our rear and the orderlies were galloping to and fro. Our regiment lay facing Gettysburg, with the left flank toward Lee’s main batteries. I improved the occasion to snatch a mouthful to eat. We were in a state of expectancy. Just in front, as our regiment lay, was a small grove and some of our men were burying a comrade. It was twelve minutes to one. Colonel Sherrill, Lieutenant Colonel [James M.] Bull, and some others sat by a tree conversing about 20 feet in the rear of the regiment. No other regiment was near us. Magruder’s old battery occupied the crest on our left.

Suddenly, two shots were fired. An instant, and the roar of over 100 cannon filled the air, and the most terrific cannonading that ever took place on this continent was fairly begun. It was a brilliant idea, one of the great Napoleon’s which Lee had adopted. He intended to silence our cannon, demoralize our men, and then, his favorite plan, the grand charge. The cannonading lasted one hour and twelve minutes. Nearly all of our horses were killed around the batteries, caissons blown up, and hell itself seemed let loose. Our ammunition was exhausted, and the guns were drawn off by hand and the reserve artillery ordered up. It was at that moment, believing our guns silenced, Lee ordered the charge. Showing his men the retiring guns, he assured them they had nothing to fear from the artillery and he told his troops that we who supported the guns were only Pennsylvania militia, and let his men look through a glass at our new clothes to prove it.

And then formed the grandest line of battle I ever saw or ever shall see: 20,000 men in a line two miles long and three similar lines in reserve, only smaller. Their lines were straight, their banners flying, and as I looked on our small force, not one tenth of theirs, I almost felt that we were gone. The game was now not one of weeks or days or hours, but minutes, and perhaps the fate of the continent lay trembling in the balance.

Our line was hastily formed, but the 126th had no protection whatever. We were right on the crest, and our formed were marked distinctly against the sky, a fair mark for the Rebels. Our reserve artillery wheeled into line, grim monsters that were so pregnant with death, the horrible death of canister and shell. On our right, a few rods ahead of our line down the hill, Captain [Morris] Brown and Lieutenant [Samuel] Wilson had deployed Co. A as skirmishers. Captain Armstrong of the 125th was there also and a few of the 39th New York.  Upon an eminence in the rear stood General Meade and a group of generals around him anxiously surveying the whole scene- how anxiously they alone knew.

Did you ever notice a shower as it came up? The dark clouds, the expectancy, the hast preparations, first a drop, then two, then three, a slight patter, and then the rush of falling waters. So came Lee. The lines advanced steadily as at a dress parade. Beautifully, gloriously beautiful did that cast array appear in that lovely little valley! But hark, a shot, two shots, a little patter of shots, and then the roar and crash of cannon and musketry and the deadly sweep of 20,000 bayonets crushing down upon the devoted band.
Colonel Eliakim Sherrill, 126th New York
Mortally wounded in the opening moments of Pickett's Charge, he was carted off the field by two members of the 39th New York and deposited in an 11th Corps field hospital. When he heard of how gallantly his regiment behaved that day, he said "I die content." The stain of Harper's Ferry had been removed but at tremendous cost. 

A moment before Colonel Sherrill called to me for his horse, a gray one, nearly white. I expostulated, ‘Colonel, don’t get on that horse. You will be too conspicuous. Guns will point involuntarily toward you on that crest and on such a horse,’ I said. But he mounted, and in five minutes fell shot through the body. As at Malvern Hill, our cannon mowed them terribly. Their line advanced to within three rods of the crest when they broke. They rallied again, advanced steadily as before a gun was fired. Again they came to within 50 feet of our regiment, but human nature could stand it no longer- they broke and were thrown into inextricable confusion. During their charge, Captain Brown, Lieutenant Wilson, and Co. A at once charged upon their grand flank and broke it up. Captain Morris Brown, Jr. captured with his own hands a stand of colors upon which were the following inscriptions: Sheppardstown, Malvern Hill, Manassas Junction, Sharpsburg, Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Cedar Run, Mechanicsville, Hanover, Ox Hill, Cold Harbor, Frazer’s Farm. It was taken, I believe, from the 14th North Carolina. Our regiment alone captured five stands of colors. 

And now could be seen one of the most extraordinary scenes of this war, fruitful as it is of incidents. Hundreds of rebels outside of line of fire entirely beyond our reach came thronging in, surrendering themselves up as prisoners. Our brigade took 2,800, many threw down their guns and run in to avoid the danger of being shot while retreating. That is common, but there now came in from outside of our guns entirely, some laughing, happy to get away, many of them were North Carolina men and they complained bitterly of the treatment they experienced. They brought their wounded into our lines, clear from their own side, giving as a reason that Lee had provided us accommodation for his sick and wounded, and in addition our surgeons were more experienced, our stock of medicines better, etc. The truth being that they wanted to be taken. If ever the human countenance expressed surprise, theirs did when they saw our small force. They were astonished and words could not express their feelings. Only our breastworks saved us, the spade proved efficient, in the open field we would have been whipped in one minute. Honor the spade.

As the Rebels fled, cheer after cheer rent the air. Our right cheered when they run Captain Brown’s flag with Harper’s Ferry on it- Harper’s Ferry was again avenged. General Hays dragged the Rebel flag after his horse on the ground in full view of the Rebel army.
Captain William Coleman, Co. B, 126th New York Volunteers
Image courtesy of New York State Military Museum

Early in the morning, Captain [Charles M.] Wheeler [Co. K], Captain [Isaac] Shimer [Co. F], and Captain [Orin J.] Herendeen [Co. H] had been killed on picket. Captain [John H.] Brough [Co. E] had been wounded in the arm, Lieutenant [Meletiah] Lawrence [Co. B] had been shot in the leg, Lieutenant Sydney E. Brown [Co. C], ditto. We suffered many casualties which the official record will show. Search was made for Colonel Sherrill but he could not be found, and nothing could be learned of his fate. He was not on the field, nor in any of the hospitals, nor in any house. He was never seen alive again by any of his friends. Night soon closed the scene and again we began the weary task of bringing off the wounded.

Early on the morning of the 4th, the search was resumed for Colonel Sherrill and finally we discovered that some German of the 39th New York had carried him to the Ellsworth Corps Hospital and never came to tell us. He had inquired as to his regiment and when informed of their gallantry and success, he exclaimed ‘I die content,’ and died. Never died a man more regretted. Others will speak of him in lines more eloquent than I. His body will repose at home, and his memory be cherished as long as the 126th has a name in the history of its state. He was an honest man and did his duty before God and Man.

It had rained all night and now the rain fell in torrents. The day passed heavily along as all were busy gathering up the wounded as far as they were able. Major Meyers of the 125th New York brought in Colonel Tisdall of the 12th Tennessee. He was the first man to enter Harper’s Ferry last September.  As night approached, the rain seemed, if possible, to increase in violence. We lay on our arms but the Battle of Gettysburg was finished.

As soon as day broke it became apparent that something unusual was transpiring. The skirmishers advanced, but found no enemy, and soon our men were all over the whole field lately occupied by Lee. On account of the rain, the wounded were in pitiable condition. They lay in mud puddles, and were drenched, cold, and shivering. The dead were swollen and putrid and appeared like giants. In the morning, I rode down to the Second Corps hospital. The men were being cared for as rapidly as circumstances would permit, but what comforts could a thousand men receive? Men with every variety of wound and mutilation had very little to eat save commissary rations. There was no shelter save a few shelter tents. The men lay on the ground and the rain soaked all through and through.
126th New York Monument at Gettysburg


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