Gulping Down the Disaster: The 119th Pennsylvania at Salem Church

    It was Sunday May 3rd 1863 and Private Israel A. Kurtz of the 119th Pennsylvania had visions of marching on Richmond as his regiment marched over Marye's Heights and headed west on the Plank Road. "I had almost begun to fancy what the steeples of Richmond would look like for up to this time we had been grossly deceived with regard to the operations of the army on the right: having been told every day that Hooker was driving the enemy, and it only remained to capture their trains," he wrote. "Suddenly we were brought to a halt, and soon discovered that a Rebel battery was planted at a point commanding the road for a long distance—and so favorable was its position that our artillery could not be brought to bear upon it except with great danger."

    The Sixth Army Corps under Major General John Sedgwick had marched west to join the rest of the Army of the Potomac then fighting near Chancellorsville. Robert E. Lee, aware of the danger that Sedgwick posed, dispatched General Lafayette McLaws' division east along the Plank Road to halt them. A meeting engagement with Cadmus Wilcox's brigade occurred on May 3rd, but the main action of what became known as the Battle of Salem Church took place the following day. General Jubal Early had circled around Sedgwick's force and retaken Marye's Heights which cut off Sedgwick's retreat to the east; General Richard T. Anderson's division lay to his south while the remainder of Lee's army lay to the west. Outnumbered and now surrounded on three sides with just two pontoon bridges as a secure retreat route, Sedgwick's troops fought off multiple Confederate attacks during the day and withdrew across the Rappahannock in the overnight hours.

    The 119th Pennsylvania, also known as the Gray Reserves, had enlisted from Philadelphia under the command of Colonel Peter Ellmaker in response to Lincoln's July 1862 call for 300,000 more troops. The regiment arrived in Washington on September 5, 1862 and spent a few months working on the capital's defenses before being assigned to the Sixth Army Corps.  The regiment took part in the first Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and remained with the Sixth Corps for the remainder of the war. Israel Kurtz's detailed account of the battle of Salem Church originally appeared in the May 23, 1863 issue of the North American and U.S. Gazette newspaper published in Philadelphia.


An unidentified member of the 119th Pennsylvania, also known as the Gray Reserves, wears the distinctive belt buckle of the Philadelphia Reserve Brigade. The reserve brigade was a home guard unit formed in 1861 and in 1862 many of its members joined the 119th Pennsylvania, seeing extensive service with the Sixth Army Corps. 

 Camp near White Oak Church, Stafford County, Virginia

Monday, May 18, 1863.

I am now compelled to send you the confirmation of the disagreeable intelligence you have already received through a hundred channels, to the effect that General Hooker has failed, as completely as did Burnside, in driving the Rebel forces from their position on the south side of the Rappahannock. In the newspapers which I have seen many incorrect statements are made, and not one appears to understand the real position of affairs. It is possible, therefore, that I may give you some little information on a subject that I know you are deeply interested in. In doing so I shall endeavor to discriminate between facts and unsupported rumors, many of which are afloat.

On Tuesday, April 23, the different divisions of the First (Reynolds') and Sixth (Sedgwick's) Corps left their camps with eight days' rations, and massed along the river front, just behind the range of hills surmounted by our artillery and commanding all the plateau on the south side. The right of this portion of the army was about one mile below the town, and the left, I suppose, about three miles. At the same point where the pontoons were laid for the left wing, in December last, it was intended to affect a sudden crossing in the boats. This was successfully done, at the first glimmer of daybreak; on the 29th—the 119th Pennsylvania and 95th Pennsylvania taking the lead. The enemy were thoroughly surprised, as there was only a small picket reserve of 300-400 men within reach, who fired a volley from the rifle pits, and then ran away. The morning being very foggy, they could not tell where to shoot, and we only lost one man killed and one slightly wounded. In a very short time our whole brigade had crossed, and it was light enough to see what we were about; so General Russell (our brigadier) advanced the skirmish line, and by sunrise we lay in line of battle about a quarter of a mile from the river.

In a few hours the pontoons were laid and the balance of the division (Brooks') came over, including Battery D 2nd U. S. Artillery—an excellent battery of six 12-pound brass pieces. Things now remained quiet for the day and night, and in the evening our brigade was relieved by the first Jersey brigade, when we fell back to the riverbank. Large details were made from all our companies to handle shovels, and in a few hours of darkness they turned the long line of rifle pits against the enemy, by simply transferring the earth bank from one side to the other. The First Division (Wadsworth's) of First Corps had also affected a crossing on the morning of the 29th a mile or so below us, and we continued to hear reports of what they were doing; but as far as I know they did nothing but hold their ground until Saturday morning, May 2, when they marched up to our pontoons and returned to the north bank of the river.

This reproduction of a Philadelphia Reserve Brigade belt buckle similar to that worn by the soldier in the first image is produced by Parsley's Brass 

The reason for this was obvious. They could accomplish nothing where they had been—their services were wanted elsewhere; a Rebel battery had splendid range of their pontoon and of a wide field beyond, which they would be compelled to cross; and as there a flat on the margin of the river, concealed from the rebels by a high bluff, they could move up in perfect safety, leaving the enemy under the impression that they still held their position. The lower pontoons were soon after removed and taken to Banks' Ford, some four miles above the town. The First Corps then proceeded to join the main army and arrived in time to assist in stopping skedaddle of that portion 11th corps that is made to shoulder all the responsibility of failure. With regard to the crossing on the right, at United States Ford and Kelly's Ford, I only know what has been published; and I shall confine my account to the 6th Corps, and make it as short as possible.

Nothing important occurred up to Saturday evening, except occasional firing by the skirmishers or pickets, in which several men were wounded, in different regiments. The enemy took occasion to send in a few shells at different times, but I know of no damage being done by them. On Saturday evening about sunset, it became apparent that something was to be done, the Second (General Albion P. Howe) and Third (General John Newton) divisions came rapidly across the pontoons and moved up to front. I omitted mention that the light division, of five regiments, commanded by Colonel Hiram Burnham, of the 6th Maine, had crossed on Friday evening. As soon as everything was over, the pontoons were taken up and relaid in front of Fredericksburg, which had been abandoned by the enemy, who retired to heights in the rear. I presume this was done partly because they were in very small force, and to prevent destruction of the houses. The 1st Connecticut Battery, of eight 32-pounders, can burn or batter them down at short notice. The laying of bridges at this point was partly accomplished by a detachment the Second Corps, the old Philadelphia brigade, containing Baxter's, Morehead's Owens', &c.

The 23,000 men of Sedgwick's corps were moving towards Chancellorsville when they were stopped on the afternoon of May 3rd. After a series of tough engagements on the 4th, the corps retreated north to cross the Rappahannock River at Banks' Ford and at a pontoon bridge placed just downstream. The Sixth Army Corps suffered more than 4,500 casualties during the campaign, the highest losses suffered by any other Union army corps. 

On Sunday morning, May 3rd, the fight commenced. It was our good luck at this time to support battery in which position we were shelled most severely but as we were under tolerably good cover, only two or three men of the 119th were hurt; our hour had not yet come. Towards noon General David A. Russell sent us, with the 95th, (both regiments under command of Colonel Gustavus W. Town, as senior Colonel) 300 or 400 yards to right, to a deep ravine. At one point, as we filed to our left to enter this ravine, a Rebel battery our left front espied us, and in an instant shells bursting all around us. It was only for a minute, and we gained ravine safety, one man in Company F receiving a slight wound in the hand. Our hour had not yet come.

In about an hour, some of the officers climbed up the banks of the ravine, and soon returned with the news that the long-coveted heights were carried, the batteries were silenced, and the stars and stripes were floating over the deserted fortifications. Then came shouts of victory, cheers for the old flag; then hearts that had been depressed for almost a week troubled with doubts of the possibility of carrying that position by any means, swelled almost to bursting with the fulness of joy. Congratulations were freely exchanged, and speculations as to what was to be done next were liberally indulged in. But there was little time for talk; in a few minutes we were ordered to mount the steep bank, at the top of which we found level fields, and a good road, running parallel with the river, and leading into the town.

This image from the collections of the Library of Congress depicts the members of the 119th Pennsylvania in winter camp. The log houses covered with shelter halves are laid out in regular Army order with the stacks of muskets in the company streets. The group of men in the foreground appear to be playing cards to pass the time while several men in the background drink from bottles.

Along this road General William T.H. Brooks was now passing, with the First and Second brigades, and we fell in the rear, still commanded by Colonel Town—General Russell remaining behind, for some purpose, with the 49th Pennsylvania, and 18th and 32nd New York. Up the road, into the town, and then turning at a right angle to the left, up and over the captured heights, on the plank road toward Chancellorsville. Here we met the victorious regiments, returning for their knapsacks, which they left off before commencing the attack. On we went, and I had almost begun to fancy what the steeples of Richmond would look like—for up to this time we had been grossly deceived with regard to the operations of the army on the right: having been told every day that Hooker was driving the enemy, and it only remained to capture their trains—when suddenly we were brought to a halt, and soon discovered that a Rebel battery was planted at a point commanding the road for a long distance—and so favorable was its position that our artillery could not be brought to bear upon it except with great danger.

Colonel Gustavus W. Town
95th Pennsylvania
Killed in action May 4, 1863

The infantry, it was ascertained, were in the thick woods, which were now to be seen in front, and on all sides. Soon we moved on and formed in line of battle to the right of the road. Here we were obliged to take a little more shelling, and then Colonel Town ordered us to advance into the woods, 200-300 hundred yards ahead, where the New Jersey brigade [Colonel Henry W. Brown] was already engaged. Off we started, at double quick, over a ploughed field, encountering two or three brush fences, then a wide swamp, and so up to the edge of the woods; halting here a moment, to unsling knapsacks, then "Forward," and our hour had come! It is enough to say that we were received with terrific volleys from an unseen foe; that we could not tell where to shoot; that one moment we were ordered out, as it was said we were firing on the Jerseymen; that the next moment we were ordered in again; that in about five minutes the destruction was so great, the confusion so general, and the bad management so palpable, that both regiments broke and ran, in the utmost disorder, to the rear, leaving nearly or quite one-third of their members behind, killed, wounded, missing. How I escaped I do not know, for bullets fairly rained around, and men fell before, behind, and on both sides of me. I rallied, as did some others of our company, with the 139th Pennsylvania, supposing it to be our own, and then had the satisfaction of popping two or three times at their dirty red flag; for they came out and formed in line of battle. Another brigade just then appeared, a little to the left of us, opening a destructive crossfire upon them, which drove them back, and they retired into the woods again.

General David A. Russell
Killed in action at Third Winchester in 1864

The fight being now over for the evening, I looked out for the 119th, and soon discovered the colors, with the Colonel, and about 100 men, the remainder being scattered all over the country. They came in during the night in squads, and by sunrise on the 4th, some 300 had gathered round the colors. We were then sent to the front, on picket, where we remained all day; and we soon found out, from unmistakable signs, and from information derived from prisoners who came voluntarily into our lines, that Hooker had been worsted on the right, that the Eleventh Corps had certainly broken and ran away; that a large force had then been hurried over to meet and surround the devoted Sixth; and that we only waited for evening to make a hurried escape from destruction or capture. And so it turned out.

Soon after sunset our batteries poured a destructive fire into the woods, and into the Rebel lines that were advancing on our left flank; burned powder to make a smoke, then suddenly limbered up, and struck a bee line for Banks' Ford, the infantry following, and the pickets running in as fast as they could. When we reached the ford, three lines of battle were formed to hold the enemy in check until the artillery could cross. About 10 o'clock the front or skirmish line was attacked desperately, in front and on both flanks, and several companies of the Light division were captured. Finally, the remains of the Sixth Corps reached the safe side of the river about daybreak on the 5th. Its loss—in killed, wounded and prisoners—will reach fully 5,000, or more than one-fourth of the number who left camp to participate in this "battle of the war."

The 119th lost about 140, Company F’s share being 22, eight or nine of whom are believed to be dead. The printers lose six; Joe Moreau, killed; McCloy, badly wounded; Keyser, in arm; Weller, Rickards, Getz, missing—most likely killed or badly wounded. The fight in which we suffered is known as the Battle of Salem Church. When General Russell came up with the rest of the brigade, he was very angry; and when Colonel Peter C. Ellmaker informed him that he feared we had lost our good name, he replied that it was not so—that no regiment could have stood firm under the circumstances, and that we had no business to go there, or even to leave the ravine, until he came up. But as Colonel Town was killed, with his Lieutenant Colonel and Adjutant, there is no one to blame, and we had to gulp down the disaster and make the best of it. On the 6th, the other corps on the right recrossed the stream, took up the pontoons, in due time found their way back their old camps. All newspaper statements to the contrary are false.



Letter from Private Israel A. Kurtz, Co. F, 119th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, North American and U.S. Gazette (Pennsylvania), May 23, 1863


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