Aftermath of Battle at Gettysburg’s Spangler’s Spring

Living historians carefully and respectfully portraying very limited aspects of the aftermath of battle at Gettysburg. They gathered equipment strewn across the Spangler’s Spring fields during a special 2019 evening interpretive program “The Deadened Woods: Death on Culps Hill.”

While battles themselves are glorified and the focus of most historical coverage, every battle has an aftermath. This aftermath is a horrifying sight, and something that veterans were deeply affected by every time they experienced it. This post explores the experiences of one Union infantry unit near the southern portions of Culp’s Hill, and how their short combat was overshadowed by the hours and days of aftermath. On the morning of July 3, 1863, Union troops flung themselves across Spangler’s Spring in a near-suicidal assault on Confederate positions, and spent the hours and days after dealing with the consequences of those orders.

The order to advance was given, and though officers later debated whether it was meant as a probe of enemy lines or a full-on assault on entrenched foes, the latter happened. The 2nd Massachusetts, in a frontal position, was able to immediately step over their own works, heading for the rocks and trees directly across from them, near the modern Spangler’s Spring parking lot. The 27th Indiana got a slower start, needing to maneuver through the 13th New Jersey, getting a delayed start towards the meadow where the Indiana state monument is located. The entire assault and retreat took well under an hour to occur. The assault blunted, the regiment began to pull back to the original position. The 2nd Massachusetts, who reached the cover of some trees, remain longer but are also forced to withdraw. In contrast, the wounded stranded between enemy lines lay out there for hours.

This picture looks at the positions occupied by Confederate troops on the morning of July 3. The 2nd Massachusetts advanced to the left of the photo, while the 27th Indiana moved into the meadow the image was taken from.

The wounded began to cry out to their friends for help. The regimental history of the 27th records:

their outcries from pain and thirst and their direct appeals for help were irresistible. In different instances they called the names of those who they hoped might take pity on them, sometimes calling one after another of the names on the roll of their companies. More than one of our men, when they heard their names called in this appealing way, by mess mates and “bunkies” could bear it no longer. Leaping over the breastworks, like men inspired, they rushed down to the meadow, gathered the helpless, suffering victim in their strong arms, and bore him to a place of safety and succor.

Despite the myth and idealized story of both sides peacefully sharing water from Spangler’s Spring there was no such mercy here. The 27th Indiana’s regimental history also noted that “No one ventured upon such a mission that did not run the gauntlet of a rain of lead.” Several who attempted to retrieve their friends became casualties themselves, such as Private George Bales of Company A who was killed after laying down his rifle and entering the field unarmed.

The next day, the men of the 27th Indiana were greeted by horrible sights as they carefully advanced into those stained fields. The Confederates once opposing them had slipped away overnight. Rather than bullets, these Union veterans were met only with their own dead and wounded, a sight that clearly affected them greatly. One veteran noted:

No pen can describe the appeals to sympathy and the horrors which were there revealed. No imagination can picture them, unaided by experience… Add to this the manner of their death and the condition of their bodies – many terribly disfigured, now swollen and decomposed – their lips as thick as one’s hand, their eyes wide open, with glassy, glaring eyeballs, unspeakably hideous and revolting. Add again, a back ground of an infinite amount of guns and parts of guns, scattered everywhere, torn and injured clothing and equipments, broken wheels and disabled wagons and cannons, hundreds of dead horses and hundreds more crippled, poor, mute sufferers, not to blame for war. Still another very revolting feature of a great battle-field that might not be thought of, if not mentioned, is that the surface of the ground, besides being everywhere gashed, seamed and trampled, is blackened, greased and besmirched, until one cannot think of remaining upon it or near it.

The regiment entered the battle with 339 men, and lost 16 killed and 139 wounded, 18 of whom died of their wounds. This was a total of 41% casualties almost entirely over the course of twenty minutes. Now, with the field finally safe, the wounded were removed to various hospitals. With the wounded treated or sent away for care, the rest of the 27th Indiana’s survivors shifted to the burial of the dead and the recovery of equipment strewn across the battlefield.

Another image of the 2019 special program, including the author as a seasonal ranger. Note the hand-painted burial markers made of discarded fence rails on left of image, as well as the handkerchief face cover with peppermint oil, used by many soldiers to mitigate the stench of death.

Regarding these burials, Samuel Fletcher of the 27th Indiana recorded that “The boys had gathered twenty-eight in one place and dug a long trench about six and one half feet wide, and long enough to lay the bodies, wrapped up in their blankets, side by side, with head boards to etch the letters being cut in with their knives.” This meticulous burial of their friends contributed to the fact that most of the regiment’s dead are identified in the National Cemetery rather than buried as unknown.

Most of the men were buried on William McAllister’s farm, between the Baltimore Pike and Rock Creek. Ten members of the 27th Indiana are listed as being buried along the property, mostly near the Mill Dam, along with fifteen members of the 2nd Massachusetts, all buried nearby their comrades, each in identified graves. These comprise the majority of their soldiers who were killed in action. The men from this burial location would then be reburied in the National Cemetery, identified today because of the work of their comrades.

When veterans of the 27th Indiana returned to dedicate their monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, they placed it upon a rock they claimed had sheltered their wounded during those long hours stranded between the lines. Even when dedicating that stone and remembering their combat experience at the battle, they still focused on the aftermath of that charge.

 

For more on the 27th Indiana at Gettysburg, see my prior blog post or my presentation on C-SPAN.

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References:

27th Indiana Infantry File, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.
Edmund Randolph Brown, The Twenty-Seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865. Monticello, Indiana, 1899.

 

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