Such is the misfortune of a soldier: The 2nd Wisconsin at Gettysburg

By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Captain George H. Otis had become fairly jaded as to the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac. His regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, was part of the famous Iron Brigade (First Brigade, First Division, First Army Corps) and had garnered a reputation for tight discipline and hard fighting going back to the previous summer. But regardless of the heroism of Otis and his comrades, it always seemed like the Army of the Potomac came up on the short end of the stick.

 

This certainly looked true following the first day’s fight at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. The First Corps had arrived on the field that morning and promptly pushed back a portion of Henry Heth’s division and captured General James Archer in the bargain. This marked the first time that a general belonging to the Army of Northern Virginia had been captured.  But the situation changed in the afternoon when the First and Eleventh Corps were confronted with heavy Confederate reinforcements and were driven back in disorder to the heights south of town. “I wondered if such was to be the fate of this army. I imagined defeat as its portion in every strife, it mattering not how hard the troops fought, or how great was the energy displayed. You may well imagine the feelings of the Badger boys, to be obliged to leave upon the field their dead and wounded comrades. This is the third or fourth time we have had to leave our dead and wounded to the mercy of our unfeeling foe. But such is the misfortunes attending battles, as well as misfortunes of a soldier.”

 

The frightening cost of the Federal victory at Gettysburg hit the 2nd Wisconsin worst of all- 233 casualties out of 302 engaged, a loss of 77%, one of the highest of any Federal regiment in the war. In Captain Otis’ own Company I, 28 out of 38 men were killed, wounded, or missing, which left Otis, who had assumed regimental command during the battle, with the seemingly endless and emotionally draining task of writing letters home to the families of the casualties of his company. “Of the company much might be said, and I cannot forbear mentioning the fact that never since I have been with them did I know of them doing anything nobler, or displaying a greater share of gallantry. They are brave boys and cannot receive any too high consideration at the hands of the public,” he wrote.

 

Captain Otis’ account of the Battle of Gettysburg was published in the July 29, 1863 of the Mineral Point Weekly Tribune of Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The Weekly Tribune regularly ran letters from Otis throughout the war, one of which regarding the battles of Gainesville, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam was previously featured on this blog and can be viewed here.

 

Flag of the 2nd Wisconsin after the Battle of Gettysburg. As Captain Otis reports in this letter, only 69 men remained in the ranks at the end of the battle, the balance being killed, wounded, or missing. 

Headquarters, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers, Camp South Mountain Pass, Maryland

July 9, 1863

 

Dear Father,

I presume you are anxiously waiting for a letter from me and wondering why I have so long remained quiet; and I doubt not, the stirring events of the last few days have caused a greater anxiety, to know whether I am still among the survivors of the great battles of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of July.

 

Our march through Virginia and Maryland into Pennsylvania was very rapid. During that march we were continually in receipt of telegrams setting forth the sad havoc made by the Rebel army through the different counties, and of here and there an accession to their numbers, besides we were constantly reminded of the threats of Lee’s army to whip the militia and if necessary the Army of the Potomac. Not until the 28th or 29th ultimo, did we hear of the exact whereabouts of the invaders, and then we were full of misgivings, almost fearing an encounter, lest they outnumber us, two to one. On the 29th our Corps, (the First) reached within six miles of Gettysburg, where we encamped for the night. The next morning (the 1st instant) the “long roll” was beaten and the First Army Corps advanced to Gettysburg. 

 

Captain George H. Otis
2nd Wisconsin

We had scarcely reached the city when the artillery opened, and upon an open field could be seen a line of Rebel skirmishers advancing. Our regiment was on the right of the brigade and right of the division. We had scarcely reached the battery and in supporting distance when we received an order to advance in line of battle and engage the enemy. No sooner did the colonel give the command “forward into line,” than the right started off at double quick, climbing a fence and into the woods, where halting, fixed bayonets, loaded and again on the double quick, advanced within range. From the time we struck the fence, until we had halted, the Rebels poured an incessant fire into our ranks. As soon as the boys had got fairly at work, the Rebels wavered and finally turned their backs and run, our regiment in full pursuit. The regiment in this short engagement captured over a 150 prisoners, among whom was Brigadier General James J. Archer. 

 

"On the first day of the battle, General James J. Archer and staff with his brigade were captured by the First Corps. They marched down past our train and made quite a show; they were large, stalwart men, more dirty than ragged, and appeared to be in good spirits." ~Private William A. Brand, Co. G, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

 

Soon after we were joined by the brigade and fell back across Marsh Creek, where we remained, with a part of the Eleventh Corps attached to our line, until about one o’clock, when the rebels advanced upon us. Here we fought for more than an hour, until the left of our line had given way and we observed that the Rebels were marching heavy columns of troops upon both our flanks—then we give way, but in good style, contesting as best we could every inch of ground. Four different times we urged the mass of human beings to rally around our colors and with our little band charge upon the advancing columns of the enemy. Our regiment had lost heavy, and it seemed as if but a handful of men were left. 


The 2nd Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg as depicted by Don Troiani.

 

Colonel Lucius Fairchild and Lieutenant Colonel George H. Stevens were both wounded. We reached the battery and then fought as long as we had ammunition, and until we were ordered to the rear of the city. Major John Mansfield had been wounded by the battery and the command of the regiment fell upon me. George Legate had fallen upon the field and as it were lay between the two fires. Columns of the enemy were moving upon all sides of us and it seemed as if we were bound to be captured. In fact, I look upon the scene, thought of Bull Run, and wondered if such was to be the fate of this army. I imagined defeat as its portion in every strife, it mattering not how hard the troops fought, or how great was the energy displayed. You may well imagine the feelings of the Badger boys, to be obliged to leave upon the field their dead and wounded comrades. But such is the misfortunes attending battles, as well as misfortunes of a soldier. This is the third or fourth time we have had to leave our dead and wounded to the mercy of our unfeeling foe, and I venture that very, very many of the wounded have died in consequence, and for want of a little humanity on the part of the Southern chivalry.

 

“The fight was the hardest I ever saw. At first we drove them, breaking their lines and capturing General Archer with a large portion of his brigade. In the afternoon they came on in stronger force, drove us back through Gettysburg, and captured a large portion of the First Army Corps and some of the Eleventh. Most of our wounded fell into the hands of the enemy but are treated kindly.” Second Lieutenant William Noble, Co. I, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers

 

Detail of the 2nd Wisconsin monument at Gettysburg captured in the evening light by Phil Spaugy. 


The two corps (First and Eleventh) reached the east side of the village, formed in line of battle, and threw up breast works, for better defense. During the fight of this day, our troops fought a force twice their number, and had that portion of the Eleventh corps acted as they should, I think the result could have been different, at least our loss could have been less and all could have retired in good order. As it was, the two corps were routed in perfect disorder. The loss on both sides was heavy—the enemy captured many prisoners, among whom was Lieutenant William Noble, Privates John Glanville, Thomas Pascoe, Mark W. Terrill, Ellis C. Taylor of my Company. Sergeant Joseph O. Williams, Privates Moritz A. Hesse and David W. Moffitt were killed. A list of the wounded I have sent to Mr. Bliss. The loss to my company was 28 killed, wounded and missing—to the regiment 230 out of 276 that went into the fight. We are very small as a regiment.


First Corps commander General John Reynolds orders the 2nd Wisconsin to charge  as depicted in "Iron Brigade Forward" by Mark Maritato


 

On Thursday the Rebels attacked the left of our line and were repulsed each time with great loss. In the evening they attacked the right of our line and were repulsed. On the 3rd they renewed the attack, and were driven on both flanks—in fact, they were perfectly routed and forced to seek shelter in the woods west of the town of Gettysburg, giving up our wounded, the city, and delivering upwards of 10,000 prisoners, 20 stands of colors, and arms of all kinds in abundance. Hundreds of their force delivered themselves up throwing down their arms and raising the white flag. The slaughter on both flanks was immense, and I believe the whipping given to Lee on the 2nd and 3rd was so thorough, that he will be unable to recover from it very soon. If his whole army is not destroyed this time, I very much mistake the lay of the ground and the disposition of our troops. In numbers we are all right, and for the quality of fighting material, the world is our judge.


Regimental monument at Gettysburg (Image courtesy of Phil Spaugy)

I might write you page after page of instances during these three days, but my time is limited. We will have another battle at or near the Antietam field, and it will be the decisive battle for General Lee. It will end his army, mark my word. I have many letters to write to those having friends and relations in the company either wounded, prisoners or killed. Of the company much might be said, and I cannot forbear mentioning the fact that never since I have been with them did I know of them doing nobler, or displaying a greater share of gallantry. They are brave boys and cannot receive any too high consideration at the hands of the public. 

 

I escaped unharmed—one bullet passed through my coat flaps, another through my pants, neither of which harmed me in the least.

 

Give my love to all. Adieu.

 


Sources:

Letter from Captain George H. Otis, Co. I, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (Wisconsin), July 29, 1863, pg. 1

Masters, Daniel A., editor. Army Life According to Arbaw: Civil War Letters of William A. Brand, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2019, pg. 153

Letter from Lieutenant William Noble, Co. I,  2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (Wisconsin), July 15, 1863, pg. 1


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