The weather is warm. Occasional cloud cover offers relief but the sun feels good. It is the first day of summer, and I’m exactly where I should be on such a day: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I’m traveling over the First Day’s fields with a former student of mine, Eric, who recently graduated from Shepherd University. We share a nearly fanatical devotion to the battle. The story of one Confederate soldier, Corporal Leonidas Torrence, has driven me here today. He served with the 23rd North Carolina, part of Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson’s brigade.
I first came across Leonidas while conducting research for my book project. His letters, as well as those of friends and family, are housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The North Carolina Historical Quarterly printed Leonidas’s correspondence and wartime diary in the late 1950s. The collection contains some remarkable letters and a very gripping story about the Gettysburg campaign. I know these fields quite well having walked over them countless times. Today, though, they look different, filtered by the lens of one man’s story.
By late June 1863, Leonidas and members of 23rd North Carolina were marching through Pennsylvania. He went into the Keystone State as a veteran. Leonidas had survived a near miss during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign after one bullet had cut his coat sleeve and another ripped through the coat’s body. The bullets “were falling around us,” he wrote his mother, “as thick as hale.”[i] Almost one year later, after the battle of Chancellorsville, he offered a devastating account of the fight and the battlescape:
“Mother I thought I had saw as distressing sights on Battle Fields as I ever could see to look at the men Killed and Wounded but where he Faught last Sunday the Burns set the woods . . . a fire and to look at Killed and Wounded men burning was the worst looking sight I ever saw or heard of.” He continued with grim detail: “I cant give you any idea what a sight it was to walk over the Battle Field and see the men lying with their cloths burnt off their hair burnt close to their Head their arms and legs all drawed up with the fire I never saw such a distressing sight before and hope I may [strike] never see such another.”[ii]
Although distressed by the war’s carnage, Leonidas wrote a hopeful letter to his mother from Williamsport, Maryland, on June 17, 1863, as R.E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia snaked up the Valley: despite being footsore, he maintained that the rations were plentiful and that his spirits were high.
The First Day’s field offers a spectacular view of the Appalachian Mountains, which create a dichotomous landscape as we walk across deadly killing ground. The terrain is undulating and formidable for troops on the attack. In the early afternoon of July 1, Oak Ridge marked the right flank of the Union I Corps. Although the XI Corps had started to extend the line southeast, their left flank rested at the base of Oak Ridge and created a gap. Alabamian Col. Edward Asbury O’Neal saw the mistake and desired to affect a breach. Federal soldiers swung astride the Mummasburg Road and checked the Alabamians advance after firing several devastating volleys. Shortly thereafter, Iverson’s brigade, composed of the 5th, 20th, 23rd, and 12th North Carolina, started their advance toward McPherson’s Woods. They marched through an orchard and the Forney farm; thereafter, the ground is incredibly open and the men were desperately exposed.
Troops from Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s brigade were positioned in the northern corner of woods near the now-famous unfinished railroad cut. My companion and I start our journey here. Cutler’s men had already seen very hard fighting in the late morning and early afternoon of the first. The boundaries of National Park Service land weave in and out of this area today, as there are a number of 20th century houses and private lots along Oak Ridge. Iverson’s troops wheeled toward this position to advance on Cutler’s men.[iii] The North Carolinians were completely unaware of Brig. Gen. Henry L. Baxter’s soldiers who had taken cover behind a stone wall that runs near the crest of Oak Ridge. It is still there today. Eric and I walk its length calling out regimental designations: 11th Pennsylvania, 97th New York, 88th Pennsylvania, 12th Massachusetts, and 90th Pennsylvania.
On the morning of the first, Leonidas had described the brigade’s march into Gettysburg noting: “passed through Midletown, and near to Getteys Burg, formed [a] line of battle.”[iv] The conditions were not dissimilar to today: cloud cover and temperatures in the high 70s. Before Iverson’s men launched their attack, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes had encouraged the troops calling out, “Boys, they are advancing upon us; go and meet them.”[v] The North Carolinians moved “in magnificent order, with perfect alignment, guns at right shoulder and colors to the front.”[vi] Despite the precise movements, the brigade’s commander, Alfred Iverson, failed to lead the attack. His absence did not go unnoticed and gave rise to later controversy.[vii] A large depression defines the fields before the stone wall. Fence lines, too, cut across the terrain running along a roughly east-west axis. Today, after recent June rains, the depression is marshy and contains irregular vegetation. Iverson’s men moved into this feature, roughly 100 yards from Baxter’s command.
The North Carolinians may have drawn some comfort from the depression, for it was a low area on an otherwise exposed field. The position proved their undoing. Suddenly, “at the command,” a Pennsylvanian noted, “a sheet of flame and smoke burst from the wall . . . flaring full in the face of the advancing troops.”[viii] “Rarely,” wrote a New Yorker, “has such a destructive volley been fired on any field of battle.”[ix] I walk into the depression, feel the ground, and get a sense of the terrain. This is the spot. There is where it happened. “Leonodous was shot between the Eye and ear and in the thigh,” wrote his friend and fellow soldier W. J. O’Daniel. Continuing, he noted: “When he was shot he was lying in a hollow in a very mudy place. All that ware badly wounded and killed was shot in this same hollow.”[x]
The wounds had rendered Leonidas unconscious. At first, at least, he didn’t feel any pain. He was removed from the battlefield and regained consciousness. His condition worsened. “He could not eat any thing. He drank a great deal of water but he throwed it all up. I got him some milk but it would not ly on his stomick.” O’Daniel exchanged intimate words with his close friend. “When I went to tell him goodby he told me that I would never se him again. He said he was going to die. He also said that he was willing to die.”[xi] Leonidas Torrence, like many of his contemporaries, held a providential view of the world that offered succor under terrible circumstances. Leonidas’s beliefs surely gave him comfort as he writhed in pain from his wounds. On July 9, O’Daniel wrote Leonidas’s mother from Williamsport: “Leoidous was alive when I left him but I think that he is not alive now.”[xii]
“I think that he is not alive now.” The news must have floored Leonidas’s mother, Sarah Ann. She had written him on the sixth, a letter to which O’Daniel now responded. “It hurts my feelings so that I hardly no what to write.” O’Daniel had an unthinkable task. He related, “You doo not have any idea how bad that I hated to leav Lon.” But O’Daniel had to depart with the retreating Confederate army. Before doing so, his friend handed him a testament, a pocketknife, and a pocket book to be delivered to his mother.[xiii] Sarah wrote again, begging for more details. O’Daniel responded in kind telling her what he knew. His final letter, from August 10, 1863, found O’Daniel well but “verry lonesome.” He remained unsure of Leonidas’s fate. “I have not herd from any of the wounded since I left. I do not think that Leonodus could get well. He said himself that he could not get over it.”[xiv]
The carnage on Oak Ridge shocked onlookers. A Virginian reported: “I saw a sight which was perfectly sickening and heart-rending in the extreme. It would have satiated the most blood-thirsty and cruel man on God’s earth. There were, [with]in a few feet us, by actual count, seventy nine (79) North Carolinians laying dead in a straight line . . . It was perfectly dressed . . . Great God! When will this horrid war stop?”[xv] The fields today are under cultivation. An occasional car hums by but otherwise it is silent. An array of emotions sweep over me as I survey the ground. I look slightly northeast for a long time staring into the depression. I am lost for words as my mind runs through the accounts from the fight and its aftermath. But I have found Leonidas Torrence. I have uncovered something very personal by visiting these grounds. It is an important journey that humanizes the otherwise black and white pages recounting the events of July 1. Although troubled, I’m glad I came.
I don’t know when Sarah learned of her son’s fate. The days must have felt endless as she desperately sought news. I cannot imagine her anguish. Leonidas had been transferred to a field hospital most likely in the late afternoon or early evening of July 1. After seeing his friend O’Daniel, his condition continued to decline. He may have gone in and out of consciousness, as had happened upon the initial gun-shot wound. I don’t know what cover from the sun and the rain the field hospital afforded. I don’t know how much continued comfort his beliefs offered as the pain got worse and dehydration set-in. When such a big, well-documented battle is considered at the personal level the details get incredibly blurry. I can only be certain of one thing: Leonidas Torrence died from a fractured skull on July 7, 1863.
[i] Leonidas Torrence to “Dear Mother,” 8 June 1862, Subseries 1.2, Folder 21, L.C. Glenn Papers #3052, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[ii] Leonidas Torrence to “Dear Mother,” 7 May 1863, Folder 22, Glenn Papers.
[iii] Paul Clark Cooksey, “They Died As If On Dress Parade: The Annihilation of Iverson’s Brigade at Gettysburg and the Battle of Oak Ridge,” The Gettysburg Magazine, 20 (1998): 102.
[iv] Leonidas Torrence, 1 July 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg: The Diary and Letters of Leonidas Torrence of the Gaston Guards,” North Carolina Historical Quarterly, 36 (October 1959): 513.
[v] Rodes quoted in Cooksey, 102.
[vi] Quoted in Cooksey, 102.
[vii] Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler, A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield Through Its History, Places, and People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 76-7.
[viii] Quoted in Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 172.
[ix] Quoted in Cooksey, 102.
[x] W. J. O’Daniel to Mrs. Torrence, 20 July 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg,” 515.
[xi] W. J. O’Daniel to Mrs. Torrence, 20 July 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg,” 515.
[xii] W. J. O’Daniel to Mrs. Torrence, 9 July 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg,” 514.
[xiii] W. J. O’Daniel to “Mrs. Torrence,” 20 July 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg,” 515-16.
[xiv] W. J. O’Daniel to “Mrs. Torrence,” 10 August 1863, in “The Road to Gettysburg,” 517.
[xv] Reardon and Vossler, 72.