on July 1, 2013 - 12:16 AM
One-hundred and fifty years ago this morning, all hell was about to break loose on Seminary Ridge, the crest of rolling countryside on the northwestern edge of Gettysburg, Pa.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, fresh off a resounding victory in Chancellorsville, Va., had spent weeks snaking up the Blue Ridge Mountains and spoiling for a fight with Union troops on Northern soil.
Concerned the South would be unable to win a war of attrition with the North, which had more people and industry, Gen. Robert E. Lee hoped a daring victory on enemy territory might bring about an armistice that would split the United States into two countries.
The bulk of Lee’s army had beaten Union forces to Gettysburg, but the Rebel commander lost track in the meantime of his top scout, J.E.B. Stuart, so he was unclear about the exact location of the Union Army of the Potomac, which had shadowed the Confederates northward on a track further east.
These armies collided accidentally at about 5:30 a.m. July 1, 1863. The first shot fired by the Northerners came from the musket of a New York soldier, though more than one of them took credit.
That wouldn’t have mattered much to 19-year-old Bayard Wilkeson of Buffalo. All he knew as the sun beat down on the battlefield, and the smoke and humidity rose, was there was nowhere else he’d rather be.
Nine days before the clash, he penned a letter to his father, lamenting: “At the present time there is no chance for a fight. … I want to have a name at the end of this war.”
At Gettysburg, he would get the chance, and his bloodlines suggested it would be a noble one.
Wilkeson joined the Union Army two years earlier, at 17, and distinguished himself on the battlefield, where he was deemed capable of leading an artillery battery and noted for gallantry at Deserted House and Seven Pines.
The Buffalo native was the son of Samuel Wilkeson Jr., a lawyer and journalist who became president of the first chapter of the Erie County Anti-Slavery Society in the years before the war and who at one time owned the Buffalo Democracy newspaper, a precursor to the Courier-Express.
His mother, Catherine Cady Wilkeson, was the sister of women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
And his grandfather, former Buffalo Mayor Samuel Wilkeson Sr., who helped supply troop transports for American soldiers during the War of 1812, convinced then-New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton after that war to build the western end of the Erie Canal in Buffalo Harbor, instead of nearby Black Rock. That sealed a burst of development that helped make Buffalo the 10th largest city in the United States by 1860, the year before the Civil War began.
The Wilkeson homestead sat in Niagara Square, the site today of Buffalo City Hall, next door to the residence of former U.S. President Millard Fillmore.
“A very, very historic family indeed,” Forest Lawn researcher Patrick Kavanagh said last week at the cemetery, while he stood at the Wilkeson family burial plot.
By the time gunfire woke residents at Gettysburg on that July morning, Samuel Wilkeson Jr. had become the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times – and one of the newspaper’s top Civil War correspondents.
His son got to Gettysburg first.
Lt. Bayard Wilkeson, commander of Battery G, 4th U.S. Artillery, was among the thousands of Union troops summoned quickly during the early stages of the first day of the three-day battle from parts south of Gettysburg. By 11 a.m., after a 10-mile march from Emmitsburg, Md., he was astride a horse and taking a forward position with his force just northeast of town on a hilltop called Blocher’s Knoll.
The Union Army would number more than 91,000 troops by the time the battle ended two days later, but at this moment, a force of about 28,000 Confederates faced a smaller force of about 19,000 Union soldiers positioned west and north of Gettysburg, said Thomas M. Grace, secretary of the Buffalo Civil War Roundtable and part-time history professor at Erie Community College.
Young Wilkeson was unbowed. From the right flank of the Union position, the canons of his battery fired round after round in deadly precision onto Rebel forces in the lowlands below.
Southern Gen. John B. Gordon, peering through field glasses, took notice and commanded Confederate artillery to respond by taking out the soldier on horseback. Soon, cannon fire nearly severed young Wilkeson’s right leg. He used his sash to slow the bleeding, encouraged his men to continue the fight and was carried off the field to the nearby county alms house, where, according to several histories of the battle, he used a pocket knife to amputate his leg.
“In his dying act, he gave his last canteen of water to a dying comrade,” according to a National Parks Service marker at Gettysburg.
As he took his last breaths, the Union battle line already had collapsed along Seminary Ridge and on the fields north of town where Wilkeson’s 11th Corps battery had been posted. The nearby 94th New York, another upstate New York unit, was among those overrun, and its commander, Buffalo-born Col. Adrian Root, wounded and taken prisoner.
The fight soon spilled into the streets of Gettysburg as temperatures climbed toward 90 degrees. The 154th New York Infantry, from the Southern Tier, was overrun in town, and Wilkeson’s artillery battery, among other units, made an orderly retreat south toward Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill, where Union commanders were staging their growing forces.
If it hadn’t been for the sacrifice of these soldiers on the first day, the Rebel army would have raced through town much more quickly and could have overrun this union stronghold, propelling the Confederate army toward victory, Grace said.
“It was the best defensive ground that the Union Army of the Potomac occupied during the entire war,” he said. “They wouldn’t have been able to have held that ground if it hadn’t been for the 11th and 1st corps on the first day of the battle.”
This was little consolation to Samuel Wilkeson Jr.
He found his son a day or two after he arrived in Gettysburg, and his anguish was reflected in the piece he wrote for the New York Times, published July 6, 1863. It said in part:
“Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest – the dead body of an eldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?”
A piece in the Buffalo Express said the young Wilkeson’s body was returned to Buffalo, where Civil War soldiers and recruits participated in a large funeral cortege through downtown streets, at services in the family homestead and later at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“The flags of companies were draped in mourning,” the paper said, “and the occasion was a solemn and impressive one.”
Bayard Wilkeson is one of more than 2,000 Civil War veterans buried at Forest Lawn, Kavanagh said.
The story of his sacrifice continues, 150 years after his passing.
The sash he used to tie off his shattered leg, as well as his forage cap and military commission, sits inside a case at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum. A sign at the case reads: “He paid the price of his fearlessness.”
School teachers across the country also are learning to teach the Wilkeson story as a way to show Americans the human cost of the Civil War, through the House Divided Project at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
“Today, it’s hard to see faces when people read the Gettysburg Address,” but it would not have been in the midst of the war, said Matthew Pinsker, co-director of the project. Bayard Wilkeson, he said, would have been among those fresh on the minds of people not only in Buffalo, but anywhere in the North, had they read Samuel Wilkeson Jr.’s story from July 6. It included these words: “My pen is heavy. Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptised with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied!”
Pinsker maintains that the story also would have been familiar to then-President Abraham Lincoln, who knew the Wilkeson family and would four months later echo a mourning Buffalo father’s sentiments at the consecration of the new Gettysburg National Cemetery: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg ended with an order from Lee to Confederate Gen. Richard S. Ewell, whose soldiers had pushed the outnumbered northern Union flank to the southern edge of town. He told Ewell to pursue Union units to Cemetery Hill, in the southeast corner of the town “if practicable.” The soldiers, without adequate water and having marched more than a dozen miles before finding the hastily organized Union army units at Seminary Ridge, were told as nightfall approached to stay put for a new assault the next day.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Union reinforcements to the Union Army of the Potomac arrived at Gettysburg. They took to the high ground with their comrades on the hills outside town.
July 2 would be a key test of their resolve – and the future of the United States.
And as was the case on Day 1 of the battle, soldiers from Western New York would be in the thick of the fight.
TUESDAY: A regiment of German immigrants from Buffalo, which had been badly beaten on Southern ground, gets a chance to redeem itself on Cemetery Hill.