Fighting for Hearth and Home: Knap's Battery at Gettysburg

Lieutenant Charles Atwell commanding Knap’s Battery of Pennsylvania Light Artillery had scarcely recovered from a shoulder wound sustained at Chancellorsville before his battery of six 10-lb Parrott rifles was rolling towards Pennsylvania in the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg.

The 22-year-old Pennsylvanian had a number of things on his mind, most important being the expected birth of his first child that fall. But the sounds of battle echoing ahead riveted his attention to matters at hand and his battery would soon find action aplenty in their home state. The roads leading to Gettysburg were familiar ground and “our boys were all anxiety to reach the line. We were so close to it that we knew just the number of houses we had to pass,” he later wrote. The battle would prove “one of the most terrible fights the army has ever been in and General Meade proved himself our able general and gained the confidence of his army by achieving a thorough victory for us.”

Knap’s Battery, also known as Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery was attached to the artillery brigade of the 12th Army Corps during the Gettysburg campaign. Lieutenant Atwell’s account of the battle first saw publication in the July 16, 1863, edition of the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette.

 

The men of Knap's Pennsylvania Light Artillery pose with one of their deadly 10-pdr Parrott rifles upon the battlefield of Antietam on September 20, 1862. These same men and guns would fight for two days at Gettysburg the following July before transferring west to serve in the Army of the Cumberland for the remainder of the war. Most the men are wearing artillery shell jackets with a mix of slouch hats and forage caps. 

Littlestown, Pennsylvania

July 6, 1863

          We are still within the confines of the old Keystone State and today are taking a short rest after our rather hard work. We reached this place last night on our way to some place to us unknown. The general impression, however, was that the General’s object was to head off the enemy.

          Our approach to Pennsylvania was mostly over roads already familiar to me and until we reached Frederick there was but little manifested. After that, however, when it was certain we were going to our own state, our boys were all anxiety to reach the line. We were so close to it that we knew just the number of houses we had to pass when I was ordered to the front. I was then in the rear of the corps.

          So, mounting my men on the pieces, we passed the state line in a hurry and without bestowing much attention on it. On our arrival at this place three and half miles from the line, all the cause of excitement had subsided so we went quietly into camp. The next morning, we took up our line of march to Gettysburg, stopping for some time at Two Taverns.

          The fight at that time had commenced between the 1st and 11th Corps on our side and a portion of Lee’s army. On our arrival, we found the enemy had the better of us, having driven our forces back and capturing five pieces of artillery and most of our wounded. When our corps arrived, it was divided: the First Division going to the right, and the Third Division to the left. During the night, the Second, Third, and Fifth Corps came up and about noon the next day the Sixth Corps arrived. All were placed in position together with a considerable portion of the Reserve Artillery. Early in the morning of July 2nd, our corps was united and placed on the extreme right.

Captain Charles A. Atwell, commanding Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery

          All day until about 4 in the afternoon everything remained quiet, with the exception of a few skirmishes in front. At that time, the enemy opened with their artillery and from this time until dark, the roar of our artillery and musketry was very heavy. For a short time, great fears were entertained lest the enemy should turn our left flank held by the Third and most of the Second Corps. But just at that critical moment the Fifth Corps entered in with such impetuosity that they drove the enemy with terrible slaughter, firmly re-establishing our line.

I was ordered on to the right about half an hour after the fight commenced with one section, the Rebels having opened an enfilading fire along our lines. Our position was a terrible one on a woody point surrounded by large trees and the ground covered by numerous rocks. Before three shots were fired, I had one man mortally wounded and two others severely. We accomplished our object without any further loss.

Battery E has two monuments placed upon the Gettysburg battlefield; the one pictured above is located on Powers' Hill but there is also a monument on Culp's Hill. 
(Gettysburg Stone Sentinels

On Friday morning, we opened the ball with our battery from a fine open hill just behind the corps line of battle. From 4:30 until 11 o’clock the Second Division fought Ewell’s corps repulsing them five times. From noon until 2 p.m. we had a lull, when all at once the enemy opened on our lines with 80-100 pieces of artillery. This was promptly replied to be an equal number on our side. It was the most terrible noise I ever heard and from our position in the rear of the lines, we were exposed to the shells from every direction. The battery was tolerably well-protected. McGill and I secured ourselves behind a large rock and advised the men to do the same.

Our good fortune still stuck to us and we escaped without the loss of a man, horse, or piece, although all the other batteries of our corps lost. During this terrific cannonading, the Rebels tried hard to break our center, marching up to the very muzzles of our cannons, but without success and that night they left. It was one of the most terrible fights the army has ever been in and General Meade proved himself our able general and gained the confidence of his army by achieving a thorough victory for us. We lost from 10,000-12,000 on our side and the enemy lost 20,000-25,000. The news here today is that General French has captured and destroyed their pontoon bridges, cutting off their retreat, and that we will meet them once more.

 

Captain Atwell's gravestone in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh notes that he died November 2, 1863 after being wounded at the Battle of Wauhatchie a few days before. 

Although just 22 years of age, Lieutenant Atwell would be promoted to the rank of captain ten days after he wrote this letter and would lead Knap’s battery for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, that amounted to less than four months. The battery, along with the rest of the 12th Army Corps, was transferred to join the Army of the Cumberland at the end of September 1863. During a daring nighttime attack near Wauhatchie, Tennessee on the night of October 28-29, 1863, Captain Atwell’s battery came under a heavy fire that killed or wounded 27 of the 52 officers and men who were present. Among the slain of the battery was General Geary’s son Lieutenant Edward R. Geary and Captain Atwell. “The battery was exposed to a flank fire and Captain Atwell received a musket ball near the lower extremity of the spine,” Captain Veale of General John Geary’s staff reported. It was the second time in six months that Atwell had been wounded, the first time being a gunshot wound through the left shoulder suffered at Chancellorsville. Captain Atwell died of the wound on November 2, 1863, at Stevenson, Alabama. Captain Atwell left behind his new bride Martha, and infant daughter Ada.

Upon learning of his son’s demise courtesy of a likewise grieving General Geary, Captain Atwell’s father John traveled from Pittsburgh to Stevenson to retrieve the body. Meeting a friend in Indianapolis who assisted John with acquiring the necessary passes and letters to travel to Stevenson, the friend remembered “the face of the bereaved father is still vividly before me- stamped with patient, yet sorrowful resignation to the Providence that has so suddenly summoned him to bear away from the deadly field the remains of his gallant son.”

The friend had spoken with Captain Atwell a month before when Knap’s battery passed through Indianapolis on the way to Tennessee. “He spoke of his dear young wife and child and of his father for whom his affection was reverentially tender,” the friend noted “and said the only regret he felt in going to the field was in parting with these dear ones at home.” A funeral was held in Pittsburgh at the home of his father-in-law James Gregg on December 6, 1863, and Captain Atwell’s remains were interned at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. His newborn daughter Ada would not survive the year, passing away at the age of two months and 19 days. Martha would never remarry.

         

Sources:

Letter from First Lieutenant Charles A. Atwell, Pennsylvania Battery E, Light Artillery, Daily Pittsburgh Gazette (Pennsylvania), July 16, 1863, pg. 4

“Death of Lieut. Geary-Captain Atwell,” Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (Pennsylvania), November 7, 1863, pg. 3

“The Late Captain Charles A. Atwell,” Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (Pennsylvania), November 11, 1863, pg. 3

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