On a sultry afternoon 150 years ago, men marched into a maelstrom.
Soldiers of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment advanced toward Confederates hidden in woods and behind a stone wall.
As the sun sank on the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day, men from Boalsburg, Bellefonte, Aaronsburg, Milesburg, Centre Hall, Rebersburg, Madisonburg, Howard, Wolfs Store and other parts of Centre County found themselves in the hell immortalized as the Wheatfield.
“We were the first troops to cross the field, and the yellow grain was still standing,” Pvt. Henry Meyer, a Rebersburg man with Company A, recalled years later in “The Story of Our Regiment.”
“I noticed how the ears of the wheat flew in the air all over the field as they were cut off by the enemy’s bullets.”
This week in Gettysburg, celebrations and re-enactments will commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the most famous battle of the Civil War and perhaps in American history.
Over three days, July 1-3, 1863, the Union Army repulsed Gen. Robert Lee’s northernmost stab across the Mason-Dixon line, at the cost of thousands of casualties on both sides. The pivotal battle led to President Abraham Lincoln’s eternal Gettysburg Address and hastened the end of slavery.
The 148th, known as the Centre County regiment because seven of its 10 companies consisted primarily of county residents, played a central role on July 2.
Across the Wheatfield, in some of the battle’s heaviest fighting, the regiment joined the rest of the First Brigade of the Second Corps in stemming a Confederate counterattack and preventing Gen. James Longstreet from breaching the Union lines.
In the end, the regiment suffered 119 men killed or wounded, nearly all of its casualties at Gettysburg, said Dave Felice, a longtime 148th Company C re-enactor from State College.
But despite the cost, the 148th, and the brigade overall, carried out its orders and “did very well,” Felice said.
A monument to the regiment stands in the Wheatfield along Ayers Avenue.
“Basically, they fought until they ran out of ammo,” Felice said. “I would say the 148th gets an A-plus for their efforts in the Wheatfield.”
‘Command of a regiment’
Out of defeat, the 148th formed.
By the early summer of 1862, the Confederacy was reeling. Its armies had lost several major battles, including Shiloh, and New Orleans had fallen. Union soldiers closed in on Richmond.
In Washington, D.C., the War Department was so confident it halted recruiting efforts, said Jeff Wert, a Civil War historian and author in Centre Hall.
“Everything looked like the North was going to win the war,” he said.
But in a stunning reversal, the Federals were defeated and Richmond held. Wert said “a panic more or less seized the War Department” in August, and it assigned recruiting quotas for states, with counties assigned goals based on their populations.
Centre County native and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin called for volunteers to defend Pennsylvania. In Centre County, prominent figures such as Bellefonte attorney Hugh McAllister and Centre Furnace ironmaster Moses Thompson held meetings around the county and sponsored bounty money for volunteers.
Companies drew from regions. Brush Valley men, for example, composed Company A, while Company B mostly represented Bald Eagle valley and the Mountaintop area and Company G’s men largely hailed from Boalsburg and Harris Township.
Curtin named Lt. Col. James Beaver, a Bellefonte attorney who later became governor himself and president of Penn State, from the 45th Regiment to lead the 148th, promoting him to colonel.
By train, the regiment went to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg for training. Beaver recalled the ragtag appearance of his men, many of whom had never been outside Centre County before.
“The command of a regiment was not nearly so attractive and desirable as it appeared, when I left the 45th, with its year of service and consequent cleanliness, training and discipline,” Beaver wrote in “The Story of Our Regiment.”
“Some of you were not only much surprised when the (c)olonel at that inspection unbuttoned your coats and showed your dirty shirts and tore up your knapsacks from the bottom and displayed the soiled clothing which had been hidden by a carefully prepared ‘top dressing,’ but mad — in fact, very mad and did not hesitate to express your opinion of such a (c)olonel.”
Gradually, the men learned to be soldiers, but with sparse resources.
“The camp was regularly guarded by soldiers carrying guns without ammunition,” wrote J.W. Muffly, the regimental adjutant who compiled “The Story of Our Regiment.”
“Dress parade was held each evening, the boys appearing in line without arms. Maybe some of them carried canes, which served as guns.”
‘Words of welcome’
Guarding the Northern Central railway in Maryland that fall sharpened the regiment.
The Battle of Chancellorsville, in the spring of 1863, bloodied it.
Among the wounded was Beaver. While he recuperated, the 148th performed camp and picket duty near Fredericksburg, Va.
At the end of June, the 148th received orders to march north in response to Gen. Lee’s advance toward Gettysburg. Still weak from his injuries, Beaver was able to rejoin the regiment just before the battle but wasn’t allowed to take command.
Marches were long and exhausting. On June 29, Second Corps reached Uniontown, Md., after covering 35 miles that day.
But as Pvt. Meyer recalled, it wasn’t all bad.
“At every farm house, and in every village, along our route, the people, old and young, stood in front of their homes with buckets of water, baskets of bread, cakes and other eatables, which they distributed among the boys as they passed, until their provisions were all gone, meantime speaking words of welcome, sympathy and encouragement,” he wrote.
Still, Meyer remembered, stragglers lurched into the regiment’s bivouac site that night, so tired they immediately dropped to the ground and fell asleep.
A last march of 21 miles on July 1 brought the 148th to Gettysburg by dark.
Along the way, the men could hear cannon fire in the distance. Closer to Gettysburg, they encountered a grimmer sign of what awaited them.
An ambulance passed them on the road.
Inside lay the corpse of the popular Gen. John Reynolds, shot from his horse that day in the battle’s opening salvos.
‘Crashing in our midst’
Early on the morning of July 2, the Second Corps took a position facing west between Cemetery Ridge to the north and Little Round Top to the south.
Not all of the worn-out men watched the unfolding battle before them.
“While lying in the hot sun in line of battle, some of the boys slept, though shells and solid shot came crashing in our midst,” Meyer wrote.
When a shell from the opposite ridge exploded over the regiment, Pvt. George Osman, of Company C, became the first in the regiment to die.
More would soon follow him.
To the left of the regiment, Gen. Dan Sickles controversially decided to attack without orders and sent his Third Corps into what became known as the Peach Orchard. The sight impressed Alfred Hamilton, the 148th’s assistant surgeon.
“The sunlight reflected from thousands of highly polished bayonets and musket barrels,” he wrote in “The Story of Our Regiment.”
After a strong start, Sickles’ men became entangled in fierce combat and were pushed back.
“The conflict was most desperate for a brief time, the smoke from the batteries rose in huge volumes like heavy summer clouds, enveloping the combatants and obscuring the sun,” Meyer wrote.
At about 6 p.m., the First Brigade — consisting of the 5th New Hampshire, the 61st New York and the 81st Pennsylvania in addition to the 148th — was rushed into action in the Wheatfield to counter the Confederate surge.
Under severe fire, the brigade moved diagonally across the field toward the southwest corner. Confederate fusillades rang out. One shot hit Col. Edward Cross, the brigade commander.
Another killed him.
‘A deafening tumult’
Company A on the left, Meyer recalled, reached the stone wall first while other companies were still in the field, flanked some Confederates and took them prisoner.
Soon, the fighting became ferocious and confusing. Meyer and others advanced to the front of the line, lay down and fired at rebels in the woods.
“Thick smoke soon covered the scene, but lying on the ground, we had a better view than standing,” he wrote. “Most of the boys in the rear lay down, too, and fired so close to our heads that the powder burned our faces.
“I watched the rebels as they moved from tree to tree, and shot at several with steady aim; whether any were hit, I could not tell.”
Wert said the 148th faced crack soldiers from Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.
“The men the 148th fought that day were arguably the best shock troops in Lee’s army,” he said.
When the Fifth Corps finally relieved the 148th, allowing it to withdraw, Meyer passed one slain comrade shot “through the head from ear to ear.” He gave his full canteen to a wounded sergeant unable to walk.
As the battle continued “in a deafening tumult,” Meyer eventually made his way to a slope on Little Round Top. He collapsed against a boulder.
“All night long were heard the monotonous tramp of moving troops, the low rumble of the wheels of the ambulances, the ammunition and supply trains, and the artillery over the stony roads,” Meyer wrote.
“The sharp command of the officers, the curses of the teamsters heard above the murmur of many voices, the groans of the wounded and dying made a medley of weird and discordant sounds.”
‘Keep that history alive’
On July 3, as the ground trembled from cannons, the 148th hunkered down behind breastworks of fence rails on the left flank of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.
Away from the center of the famous, climactic Pickett’s Charge assault, the regiment still captured hundreds of prisoners, suffering lighter casualties than other outfits.
As the day wore on, Hamilton recalled, wounded soldiers filled a barn turned into one of the many field hospitals.
“One poor fellow who was badly wounded seemed to be in the way of those moving among the wounded and, pained by being knocked about, got into the hopper of an old windmill after dark, hoping to be undisturbed,” Hamilton wrote.
“A shell struck him and tore him to pieces as he lay coiled in the hopper.”
After Gettysburg, the 148th fought through one bloodbath after another until the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Va. At Spotsylvania, Va., in 1864, it suffered 301 casualties, the most of any regiment in the battle.
Four 148th soldiers received the Medal of Honor by the war’s end.
Almost 16 percent of the regiment’s soldiers died, ranking it 14th among the 2,047 regiments in the Union Army.
Pvt. Samuel Gettig, of Madisonburg, survived the Wheatfield and later a Confederate prison camp to become the longtime postmaster of his town.
His great-grandson, Bill Gettig, now 87 and living in Millheim and State College, knew him as a small child.
Gettig remembers the Civil War veteran as an “affable and quiet” man with blue eyes and a white beard and mustache, who wore a string tie and a campaign hat. Once, he gave his great-grandson a currency note taken from a Confederate soldier.
As Gettysburg’s milestone anniversary approaches, Gettig thought not about his great-grandfather’s service, or the 148th at all. Rather, he mused about the Civil War’s hideous cost, then and for decades later.
“How strong and how great we would have been nobody will ever know with the unborn children lost,” he said.
At Gettysburg this week, the 148th’s colors will fly once more in the Wheatfield.
As a brigade commander, Felice will lead the first full re-enactment of the attack.
“It’s history that we need to recognize, to appreciate where we came from,” he said of the Civil War. “I think it’s extremely important that we teach and re-enact that so we keep that history alive.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.