Travails of a Wounded Brigadier: Charles K. Graham’s Gettysburg Experiences

     Brigadier General Charles K. Graham of New York, who commanded the First Brigade of the First Division of the III Army Corps at Gettysburg, was wounded and captured in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863 in the bitter fighting near the Sherfy peach orchard by soldiers of the 21st Mississippi of Barksdale’s brigade. In 1888, this private letter that General Graham wrote to his wife while he was imprisoned at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia saw publication in the Ohio Soldier newspaper, a newspaper “devoted to the interests of the surviving soldiers of the war for the Union.”

“A comrade sends up the following extract from a letter written by General Charles A. Graham of New York who was severely wounded and made prisoner at the Battle of Gettysburg,” the newspaper reported. “The letter was written to his wife while he was confined in the infamous Libby Prison. It was conveyed to Fortress Monroe by an exchanged wounded soldier who contrived to secrete it between the bands and splints that encircled his broken arm and was thus enabled to reach its destination. It will be noted that it breaks off abruptly, probably because “the mail” was ready to depart before it was finished.”


Brigadier General Charles K. Graham, commanding the First Brigade, First Division, III Army Corps

General Graham’s letter:

          I was wounded twice, once on the right hip by a piece of shell producing a severe contusion the size of your hand and the second time by a rifle ball which, striking the right sleeve of my coat, passed close to the right shoulder and plowing its way through the muscles and emerging directly over the spine, excavating a canal about four inches in length on my left shoulder by which it took its departure; the length of this wound is over eight inches. The first wound was received about an hour and a half before my capture and the other about an hour before, but so intent were all my thoughts upon the conflict that I paid no attention to them, believing they were mere grazes occasioned by fragments of shell with which the air was filled at the time. My sword was also knocked out of my hand by a rifle ball or piece of shell a few minutes after receiving the second wound.

          In retiring from the field, surmounting the crest of a hill, I saw a regiment in line of battle approaching me. Thinking from its position that it was one of ours, I checked my horse to allow it to come up when I was undeceived as to its character by the well-known battle flag and butternut uniforms of the Rebels. Turning my horse, I drove the spurs into his flanks at the same time throwing my body well forward and to one side of his neck to expose as little of my person as possible to the fire consequent upon my recognition by the enemy. As I did so a volley was discharged at me and my horse either falling from its effects or stumbling from fright rolled me over on the ground. Arising, I essayed to stand but fell back, completely exhausted by fatigue and weakness.

          At this moment, a Rebel private came up and supposing from the single star on my shoulder that I was a major (a single start on the collar designating that rank in their service) exclaimed, “Major, give me that ‘ere gold cord off your hat.” I replied that I was no major, but a general officer and would surrender to an officer of proper rank. Immediately thereafter an officer came up and to him I surrendered. Perceiving that I was feeble and could scarcely stand, he sat down by me a few minutes and when we started off to the rear, he offered me his arm upon which I gladly leaned. As we moved slowly along, he stopped several times to give a little water from his canteen to our wounded. The name of this gallant officer was Charles R. Dudley, a captain in one of the Mississippi regiments. [21st Mississippi] Reaching the woods which skirted the battlefield, he transferred me to the care of one of the wounded soldiers of his own regiment and returned to the field.

The Sherfy Farm and Peach Orchard where General Graham was captured on July 2, 1863. 

          In appreciation of his kindness and at his request to present him with some memento (knowing full well that it would be taken from me at some future time if retained), I took off a heavy leather sword belt and handed it to him. Later in the day, I appreciated it value upon discovering that it had probably saved my life, or at least my hip from fracture, the piece of shell which struck me in that region having cut off both my coat and pantaloons but had been stopped by that narrow shield from inflicting naught but a slight abrasion and violent contusion, accompanied by much soreness of the hip and a violent shock of the kidneys.

          Towards dark we reached this depot we reached the depot of prisoners, a mile or more distant from the scene of the fight. Here I found quite a number of officers, several of them belonging to my old brigade, in charge of Major John W. Fairfax of General Longstreet’s staff [inspector general]. Major William B. Neeper and Lieutenant Henry H. Hinds of the 57th Pennsylvania came to me, obtained water for me, and examined my wounds. At this time, I learned the nature of the wound across my shoulder. Complaining of a stiffness in that quarter, Major Neeper divested me of my coat, finding my vest and drawers completely saturated with blood, he stripped me. Greatly to my surprise, and with genuine concern expressed upon his face, he acquainted me with its extent and appearance. At first from the violence of the hemorrhage, he feared that the ball might have entered some vital part, but as time passed on, this hypothesis proved to be unfounded. Resting awhile until night finally set in, Major Fairfax ordered us to fall in. In excruciating agony and with a constantly increasing weariness, I took my position in the leading rank of the column but dropped rapidly to the rear and finally sank fainting to the ground. Leaving myself and faithful attendants with a small guard, the rest of the prisoners proceeded to the place of encampment in a fine wood not far distant.

          On reaching this place, Major Fairfax sent his horse for me and as soon as my strength permitted, with the assistance of my companions, I mounted him and soon reached my quarters, taking post at the foot of a tree with the firmament for a canopy and the earth for a couch, supperless and with a haversack for a pillow, and one blanket to cover three of us, I passed my first night in captivity and notwithstanding an internal vacuum, sore bones, and a right smart shower during the night, it was a comparatively pleasant one.

          Before parting with Major Fairfax, I requested that if there was a flag of truce the following day to apprise the bearer of it on our side that I was a prisoner slightly wounded- the equivocation I considered justifiable to prevent my friends at home from being much ashamed. He replied that there would be no flag of truce, General Lee having resolved not to accept or send one during the invasion. This resolution was reconsidered, however, the day but one following his attack upon our position on the 3rd instant having convinced him of its hastiness and absurdity. At 6 a.m., we moved to a field a mile or so distant as we were subsequently informed because the presence of the “infernal Yanks” was distasteful to the Lord Pickett, he of tea-cup-like hat, rubicund visage, and ringletty locks, a really gallant officer but affected to an alarming extent with Virginia and Pickett on the brain.

Lieutenant Henry H. Hinds
Co. A, 57th Pennsylvania Volunteers

          Remaining in this spot a few hours, we moved a second time to wood a mile off where we stopped until the following day. About 11 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Edward Murray of General Lee’s staff waited upon me and offered me a parole. In doing so he said he conceived it to be his duty to apprise me that, although their government would consider a parole given on the field binding, our government would no doubt repudiate it, and order to that effect having been recently promulgated by our War Department. I replied that I was not familiar with the provisions of the order referred to, but if he would give me a few moments for reflection in the meantime making the same offer to my fellow prisoners, I would acquaint him with my intentions. He then made the same offer in substance to both officers and men.

          Before his return, quite a number of officers came to see me in a body and desired to know my conclusion. I declined the proposition. After consultation, they arrived at the same conclusion, as did the men also, when informed of our determination. Towards 1 o’clock, a Negro servant belonging to Major Wolf of Longstreet’s staff brought me a hoe cake with a few slices of bacon. These were highly acceptable, no food except a few pieces of hard bread, the raking of the men’s haversacks when captured, having passed my lips for nearly 30 hours. My fellow prisoners did not fare so well, no rations being served out to them that day.

          The 4th opened gloomily, the day drizzly, and the incessant roar of musketry the previous day turned into a painful quietness, ominous of disaster, but to which army at that time was unknown. At 7 a.m. we changed our camp again to a point much further off than either of the moves of the day before; in fact, the irresolution of exactly what to do with us indicating by the frequent moves, the hurry and bustle of the quartermasters and commissaries and the teams, the rapid transmission of orders by aides-de-camp, but above all, the lengthened visages of our guards conveyed, at least to our eager eyes, in unmistakable terms the fact that the movement of the previous day had been a crushing blow to the enemy. Although without breakfast, many of the officers not having partaken of any food for 60 hours and surrounded as we were by the most dispiriting circumstances, our gratification finally found vent in the familiar strains of our national airs, the choruses fully sustained, and the applause so vehement that we were politely requested to check it.

          At midday, the prisoners were ordered to form for the march and I was conveyed to a miserable old one-horse wagon with a ragged cover into which my attendants hoisted me, and in a terrific shower which soon made the abominable roar knee deep, the retreat commenced. Previous to moving, two barrels of flour were distributed to the 200 officers, that being about the number in the detachment, and a ration apportioned in the same liberal manner which was served out to the men. Up to this moment, very man had not tasted a mouthful and when the rations did come, it was in such form as to be entirely worthless. Very many had purchased of the meager rations of the Rebs by hat bands, haversacks, etc., in repeated cases by giving $1 greenbacks for a single biscuit the size of a silver dollar. As we moved on escorted by Pickett’s division, which had been fearfully cut up during the day previous, hundreds of wagons and ambulances passed us with the severely wounded of the Rebels and hordes of the slightly wounded escorting them on foot.

Corps badge for the 1st Division
3rd Army Corps

          Our own pace was slow and as we approached the precincts of the battlefield of the 2nd instant, my own supposition was that we were carried to the lines for exchange, but this turned out to be an illusion. At 5 p.m. we halted and encamped for the night. Major Neeper, Lieutenant Hinds, and myself sleeping in the wagon. The following day, the march was continued with the usual haltings. We reached Williamsport on the 7th instant. One the 6th, I had been transferred to a common army wagon, the shaft of the old conveyance having given way. On the route, we averaged no more than one meal of small proportions. At times, the loyal ladies of the places we passed through brought us slices of ham with liberal allowances of bread, butter, and apple butter. At night, borrowing a blanket from the guard regardless of its inhabitants, I rolled myself up and slept as completely as my sore frame and the constrained position I was obliged to adopt would allow.

          The New Yorker would be imprisoned at Libby for roughly two months when he was exchanged for another wounded general captured at Gettysburg, General James L. Kemper of Pickett’s Division. After his exchange, Graham’s next assignment found him in command of the Naval Brigade of Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James where he served for most of the rest of the war. This assignment tied in well with Graham’s skillset with his prior service in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican War and time working as constructing engineer of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. For his services during the Civil War, Graham was brevetted major general and returned to New York where he again undertook civil engineering, one of his key achievements being the planning and layout of Central Park. He died of pneumonia in New York in 1889 at the age of 64.



“A Letter with a History,” The Ohio Soldier, October 27, 1888, pg. 1


Most Popular Posts

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

A Buckeye Remembers Scenes of Horror After the Battle of Corinth

Mauled at Resaca: Eight Fatal Minutes for the 36th Alabama

Standing like pillars of adamant: the 61st Ohio at Freeman's Ford

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

Buckeye Rapid-Fire: The 21st Ohio and the Colt’s Revolving Rifles

Dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery

A Galvanized Yankee Executed at Tullahoma