A Dearly Bought Victory to Us: Colonel Harris and the 75th Ohio at Gettysburg
Looking back at the situation of the 75th Ohio on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, state historian Whitelaw Reid described it as "very embarrassing." The regiment as part of the 11th Corps had gone into action on Barlow's Knoll the afternoon of July 1st when "the head of Ewell's corps arrived from York and made an effort to get in the rear of Howard. This caused Howard to fall hastily back to the town of Gettysburg, rendering the situation of the 75th very embarrassing as all connection with the brigade was severed and no chance left to receive orders. As a last resort, the regiment fell back though not without adding greatly to its list of killed and wounded."
The 75th Ohio was gutted during the battle with most of the casualties occurring on the first day of the battle. Out of 16 officers, three were killed, six were severely or dangerously wounded, and four more were taken prisoners, in all, 13 out of 16. The enlisted men also suffered heavily with 63 killed, 106 wounded, and 34 taken prisoner out of the 292 who went into action, a loss rate of 70%.
Colonel Andrew L. Harris of the 75th managed to retreat off the field with a small portion of his command. "The loss of mounted officers was terrific," he wrote. "I was soon left the senior officer of the brigade and assumed command under very trying circumstances, indeed. I had the honor of being complimented by General Ames who then commanded the division. This finished the battle of the first day and at night our little brigade was formed in a strong position on the hill where many a mortal man had been laid away in his tomb, little thinking his ashes were to be trampled over by the quick step of infantry and wheels of artillery. Nor did they think the quiet of this sacred place would ever be disturbed by the heavy roar of more than 150 pieces of cannon belching forth fire and destruction to all in front mingled with the shouts of the living and the groans of the dying."
Colonel Harris' account of the battle was written a week after when the regiment was in camp near Boonesboro, Maryland in pursuit of Lee's army. It originally saw publication in the Eaton Register.
Near Boonesboro, Maryland
July 11, 1863
You are aware that we just passed though another great battle and are in line and waiting for another. We are on the National Road about halfway between Boonesboro and Hagerstown and our skirmishers are hotly engaging the enemy. Unless they fall back, another battle is imminent before night.
We left Emmetsburg, Maryland on July 1st and after marching through a drenching rain and over miserable roads arrived at the scene of battle about 1 p.m. Without waiting to take the least rest, we took up our position on the right of the 1st Army Corps who were engaged and in a few moments were in the hottest of the fight. The first brigade of our division, composed of Blenker’s old division and true to their natural instinct being hard pressed by superior numbers, gave way and thus left our brigade now equally engaged with an enemy in front and flank to fire of the most terrible kind. The order was soon given to fall back to the point where the battle was afterwards fought, as the enemy was vastly superior to the two corps engaged and we were in danger of being flanked on both the left and right.
The ground was hotly contested as we went until we arrived at the foot of Washington St. when we took up the march and got into position on Cemetery Hill. It was night and the 11th Corps had suffered severely and especially our brigade: out of 1,200 men General Adelbert Ames led into the fight, only 464 answered the roll call that night, the rest were either killed, wounded, or missing. Nearly all the missing were taken prisoners as we were flanked so completely that if a man straggled he was certain to be captured and this was the case with many who were attempting to get off their wounded friends and chose to die with them rather than leave them to the foe. It was here that Captain Mulheran fell mortally wounded; Thomas Pttinger of Co. C was killed while Frank Brubaker, George Martin, and James Harbaugh were wounded.
|Colonel Andrew L. Harris|
Fortunately for the regiment, ten men out of each company were out on a scout at the time of the battle and did not get back in time to take part that afternoon. We lost half the number engaged all through the brigade. The loss of mounted officers was terrific. I was soon left the senior officer of the brigade and assumed command under very trying circumstances, indeed. I had the honor of being complimented by General Ames who then commanded the division. This finished the battle of the first day and at night our little brigade was formed in a strong position on the hill where many a mortal man had been laid away in his tomb, little thinking his ashes were to be trampled over by the quick step of infantry and wheels of artillery. Nor did they think the quiet of this sacred place would ever be disturbed by the heavy roar of more than 150 pieces of cannon belching forth fire and destruction to all in front mingled with the shouts of the living and the groans of the dying.
In the distance could be seen the smoke as it curled up at each discharge of the immense guns and in a few seconds the shells would come crashing among the trees in our front bursting into fragments and filling the air with deadly missiles and noises. The whole day of July 2nd was spent in this manner with an occasional heavy assault of Rebel infantry when just at dark a long line of Rebels was seen moving through a wheat field directly in our front in two solid columns. General Ames immediately ordered me to send one of the regiments of my brigade to the right of our line and in front of the First Brigade; this left us with but the fragments of the remaining three regiments of the brigade, amounting in all to less than 250 men to defend a long line of stone wall at all hazards.
Men never fought better than did these three regiments, especially the 75th, sustaining without wavering until overpowered by numbers a bayonet charge made by picked men of the Rebel army. As this point was an important one, they desired to have it, let it cost what it might, but they did not get it for after many of them got over the wall, they became panic stricken under the heavy fire which they received and retreated leaving two of their regimental colors on the ground with immense numbers of wounded and dead. We lost many in killed and wounded and some few prisoners here. We lay down on our arms among the dead bodies and slept until 3 a.m. when we were in line and ready again for whatever might come.
|Gravestone of Captain James Mulharen, Co. C, 75th O.V.I. who was killed during the battle of Gettysburg. (Photo courtesy of Phil Spaugy)|
The enemy did not attack us at this point again with infantry during the whole of the next day but contented themselves with shelling us at intervals from sunrise till sunset. This we were used to and nearly the whole line would stretch out and sleep, scarcely waking when his nearest man would be struck down with a piece of shell. This was the result of fatigue brought on by watching and fighting and not inhumanity. Just at daylight on July 4th, General Ames ordered me to push into the town and take it if possible. We had bayonets fixed and went in taking about 300 prisoners without exchanging a shot. This was the proudest moment that ever passed our heads, so long used to defeat, we felt sure of victory once. Even if we had been every so desponding, we could not have helped being cheerful with so many bright countenances surrounding us. We felt as though we had relieved so many innocent citizens from captivity. It was rather amusing to see the boys gather around the young ladies and hear their tales of Rebel cruelty.
This was a dearly bought victory to us, but it was a sore defeat to the Rebels. Their all was staked on it, and they were confident of success. They had been made to believe that victory would be easy and sure, but in this they were woefully deceived. They made assaults all along our line at different times but failed in all their attempts. My arm in which I was wounded last summer is always so much affected after so much exposure that I could not write even if I had a desk. I came near getting another on the 2nd. I was sitting on my horse waiting for the advancing column to open fire and their sharpshooters commenced on us. One ball struck me on the left side making a very sore place but not enough to make me quit my saddle.
Colonel Andrew L. Harris, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Eaton Register (Ohio), July 1863
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