West of the Bloody Wheatfield: The140th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg-Part 1

One of the monuments to the 140th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

One of the monuments to the 140th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

The actions in the fields around Gettysburg Pennsylvania, on July 2nd, 1863, indelibly etched the scenes of carnage into the American psyche. Hill’s with the names of Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill witnessed the terrible human drama that was playing out in the American Civil War. Lowlands and rock out cropping such as the Valley of Death and Devils Den also were named famous.  Though, no area more encompasses the true struggle of Gettysburg than the Wheatfield. This small 20 acre filed witnessed heroism and carnage beyond belief. Infantry volleys, mixed with gruesome bayonet attacks, and desperate hand to hand struggles brought an apt description of the fighting in this area, “a whirlpool of death.”

For as famous as the Wheatfield is today, another scene of intense fighting adjacent to the field is almost entirely overlooked. It is an area simply known as Stony Hill. To many the fighting on Stony Hill is simply a footnote in the larger story of the battle, for this small rise was wedged between the Wheatfield and the Sherfy Peach Orchard. The fight for Stony Hill is an integral part of the story of Gettysburg. The fighting that took place over a roughly 45 minute time frame, thwarted Confederate efforts to drive Meade’s entire left flank from the field, bought time for Union reinforcements to arrive in the field, while also tying up enough Confederates in the area so that Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s gunners were not completely over run while withdrawing to redeploy along Plum Run.

 The fighting atop Stony Hill, involved portions of the famed Irish Brigade, who, clashed with Georgian’s and South Carolinian’s of Paul Semmes’ and Joseph Kershaw’s brigade’s. The fighting also involved a relatively unknown Federal regiment, the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers. This overlooked unit proudly served in the 1st Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac from Chancellorsville to Appomattox, and everywhere in between. The regiment produced three recipients of the Medal of Honor, was the second Federal unit over the works at the famed Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania Court House, and was named one of Fox’s Fighting 300 Regiments. By war’s end the unit lost 732 men in combat (K-W-M). Of the 1,132 men that marched out of Western Pennsylvania in the summer of 1862, a mere 293 returned home in June of 1865. For a century and a half their story has been largely overshadowed by other events of that July day, but now it is their turn to have their story told.

The 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was born in the fallout of Major General George McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign.  The “Emergency of 1862”, witnessed McClellan and his vaunted Army of the Potomac being bested by the newly named Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the audacious Virginian Robert E. Lee.

In late July Lee began moving north, taking the war from the backdoor of Richmond to the front door of Washington D.C. In this period President Lincoln made his now famous call for 300,000 more men to defend the Union. A massive rally of over 15,000 people was held in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now the City of Pittsburgh’s North Side). Pro-Union speeches abounded, money was raised for the cause, the spirit of patriotism reverberated through the crowd.  In Southwestern Pennsylvania the call-to-arms went out on Monday July 18th, Governor Andrew Curtain called for 15 new regiments to be raised from the Commonwealth. That same day, recruiting for what became the 140th Pennsylvania began.

Pennsylvania wartime governor Andrew Gregg Curtain.

Pennsylvania wartime governor Andrew Gregg Curtain.

The first company to be raised for the regiment came from Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Its organizer was the 42 year old District Attorney of Beaver, Pennsylvania, Richard Roberts. Roberts was a staunch Republican, who fully backed Governor Curtain and President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861 Roberts expounded upon the virtues of the Union and what he viewed as the growing scourge that was the Southern Confederacy. Thorough out 1861 and early 1862 Roberts had talked a big game; finally in July 1862 he put his money where his mouth was. He called on Curtain to allow him to raise a company in defense of the Union, but did not wait for the governor’s reply. Instead on July 18th he began traveling to churches in rural Beaver County rallying men to the cause. He must have been a passionate and influential speaker, because instead of filling one company he filled three!

In Washington County Pennsylvania other influential men were flocking to Lincoln’s call as well. On July 26, David Acheson, a 21 year old junior at Washington College rallied his classmates, and took to the countryside like Roberts and raised a company for the Union. At Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania Professor John Fraser told his students, “Gentlemen…we will …become Sons of Mars, with ‘On to Richmond!’ as our cry. Permit me to introduce to you Captain John Fraser and announce that the chair of the mathematics in this college is now vacant.” Fraser began his recruiting on the opposite end of the county as Acheson.

At the Harrison House, the principal hotel in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania John McCullough began the recruitment effort in Greene County Pennsylvania. Like their counterparts to the north in Washington County, the Greene County boys began recruiting at the local college, the aptly named Waynesburg College (Today Waynesburg University); then moved to the countryside.

In mid-August all of the companies rallying to the Union cause in Southwestern Pennsylvania were ordered to Camp Howe, a camp of instruction in the modern day Oakland section of Pittsburgh. From there on September 4th the companies were ordered to Camp Curtain in Harrisburg where they were formed into regiments. The 140th comprised companies from four counties. Company A was made up of the men from Greene County. Company B hailed from Mercer County. Companies F, H and I consisted of the men from Beaver County that Richard Roberts had recruited. Finally, Companies C, D, E, G and K were all formed from Washington County. In all 1,132 men went to war under the colors of the 140th Pennsylvania. (All company designations came simply from drawing letters from a hat.)

Captain David Acheson

Captain David Acheson

While at Camp Curtain the men received their uniforms, which included the standard issue forage cap, blue trousers, and frock coat. Other necessities of war were issued and officer’s elections were held. Roberts was voted Colonel, John Fraser was elected Lieutenant Colonel , and Mercer County native Thomas Rodgers selected as Major. The senior Captain of the regiment was David Acheson of Company C.

The regiment spent its first few months of service guarding a rail line near Parkton Maryland. Luckily for the green unit they missed both the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, arriving on the banks of the Rappahannock River just days after Ambrose Burnside’s defeat at Fredericksburg.  Upon their arrival at the front the Keystone state men were dubbed the “walking artillery” by members of the Irish Brigade because of their heavy outdated armament of Vincennes muskets. The newbie’s settled into the dull routine of winter camp life. While in winter camp in Stafford County, Virginia the regiment built winter huts, stood picket on the banks of the Rappahannock, often trading insults and coffee with the Rebels on the south bank of the river.

Original Painting "Christmas on the Rappahannock" by Ray W. Forquer.

Original Painting “Christmas on the Rappahannock” by Ray W. Forquer.

The regiment was attached to Colonel Samuel K. Zook’s brigade of, Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock’s 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Zook, a fellow Pennsylvania, took to the regiment immediately. Hancock though did not. Upon drill one afternoon one of Hancock’s aides, Major George Washington Scott, found the regiment deficient in its battalion evolutions. The poor evaluation brought the harsh response by Hancock of revoking furlough privileges for the regiment. This did not sit well with Zook. He confronted Hancock by flat out saying that “Scotty lied”. Hancock rescinded his reprimand on the regiment, and Zook won the hearts of his Pennsylvania boys forever more. (This would not be the last clash between Zook and Major Scott, whom Zook had no respect for as an officer.)

This was not the first clash that Zook and Hancock had got into. The two men respected one another, but their personalities were such that the men were too similar to one another. During divisional drill Hancock “…usually does a lot of swearing.” When Zook felt the ire of his division commander he “…gives it as good as he gets without fear of consequences…” The two men “…think it great fun.” To Zook’s loyal staff officer Josiah M. Favill “…it is amusing to hear them go after one another.”

Preparations continued for the pending spring campaign, which would take Hancock’s Division to the Chancellorsville Crossroads. On the march Zook and Hancock yet again went at one another. Hancock was not pleased with the way Zook’s Brigade conducted themselves on the march towards Chancellorsville, thus he went into an expletive filled rant towards Zook. According to one onlooker, Zook bided his time until Hancock took a deep breath. The brigade commander then parried Hancock’s thrust and went into an expletive filled rage of his own. The onlooker stated “It was the greatest cursing match I ever listened to; Zook took advantage of Hancock, by waiting until the latter got out of breath, and then he opened his organ pipe, and the air was very blue.”

On the eve of their first battle J. W. McFarland wrote “Coffee is cooked and we lie down to rest. The coming fight is discussed. Swearing, coarse, jesting and laughter are heard. At length this subsides; nothing is heard but the lonely voice of the Whippoorwill. The moon and stars look down as peacefully and sweetly as if there were no strife on the earth.”

Colonel Richard Roberts

Colonel Richard Roberts

On May 1st, 1863 Zook’s Brigade marched out the Orange Turnpike toward the enemy and the 140th witnessed their first taste of combat. In a letter home Captain Acheson penned his thoughts on his first taste of combat. “It would be impossible to describe the feelings of a green soldier in such a position.  A holy horror seizes him at first but he soon becomes accustomed to the whizzing and bursting of those fiery messengers and trusts to fate.”

The heaviest fighting of the Battle of Chancellorsville took place on Sunday, May 3rd. Confederates attacked the Federal position from three sides for almost five full hours. In the melee the 140th was called upon to help rescue the guns of Captain George F. Leppien’s 5th Maine, Battery E. Leppien’s horses and artillerists fell by the score.  The guns were hauled to the rear by a detachment of men from Company D, H, and C. Lieutenant Charles Linton oversaw this action until they reached a safe point, from which members of the Irish Brigade finished what the Pennsylvanian’s had started and hauled the guns farther to the rear.

Captain Thomas Henry of Company F was dispatched to the Chancellor House itself. The home, which served as Joseph Hooker’s headquarters, was ablaze. Wounded soldiers had to be evacuated. In the basement of the home too were the Chancellor women, who were withdrawn from the house. Henry saved three women himself, having one under each arm and another holding onto his coat tails.

Colonel Samuel K. Zook. Shown here shortly after his promotion to brigadier general.

Colonel Samuel K. Zook. Shown here shortly after his promotion to brigadier general.

Hancock’s Division was one of the last of the line on May 3rd. They served as the rearguard of the army as Hooker redeployed his men in a new line of battle north of the crossroads; a line he abandoned on the evening of May5th/morning of the 6th.

The Pennsylvanian’s had engaged in their first real combat and passed with flying colors. The regiment was relatively lucky, only sustaining 65 casualties. Colonel Roberts considered himself lucky to survive the battle unscathed and sent a quarter dollar piece that he carried in his pocket home to his daughter Emma. He told her to “… have a medal made of it.”

The game was all about to change for the men of the 140th Pennsylvania. Since joining the Army of the Potomac in December, 1862 the strategic initiative was squarely in Union hands. With the defeat at Chancellorsville all that changed. Lee planned to move north; by doing so he put the Union army on the defensive and tried to make that army bend to his will.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to West of the Bloody Wheatfield: The140th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg-Part 1

  1. Bob Volzer says:

    My Great Uncle John/Johann Volzer fought with the PA 139th Infantry Co I on the left flank of Round Top chasing Confederats thru the peach orchards and had several other Battles until
    he was wounded on May 12th 1864 at Battle of Spotsylvania, near courthouse in Virginia.
    He mustered in on Sept 1st 1862 at Camp Howe located in Oakland Pittsburgh around Schenley
    Park. He resided with my Great/Great Grandfather Ottmar Volzer at 15 Monastary Ave in the
    Southside of Pittsburgh where he collected a $5 a month Army pension for a leg amputation.
    My forefathers were 48ers who left Germany after the failed revolution and they helped
    nominate Lincoln who campained at The Monogahala House, located on what is now Smithfield
    Street in downtown Pgh. Carl Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote their Communist Manafesto in 1847
    defending the working class against the oppressive industrial bosses and of course had to leave
    Germany also. Interestingly, Marx and Lincoln corresponded constantly and had similar political
    views. The nomination occured at The Lafeyette House located in the now Market Square area
    of downtown Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

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