O.O. Howard, July 6, 1863: "The more you look at the battle of Gettysburg, the more you will see the hand of a guiding Providence.".
On the morning of July 1, 1863, just west of Gettysburg, Union cavalry under General John Buford ran smack into Confederates of Gen. A. P. Hill's Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates, whose forces on the scene soon included Ewell's Corps (in fact, all of the Confederate corps were...
On the morning of July 1, 1863, just west of Gettysburg, Union cavalry under General John Buford ran smack into Confederates of Gen. A. P. Hill's Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates, whose forces on the scene soon included Ewell's Corps (in fact, all of the Confederate corps were converging at Gettysburg), attacked them, and Buford's men fought a holding action. Their goal was to delay the Confederates until the Union Army of the Potomac could reach the scene. Veteran troops of the Union 1st Corps under General John Reynolds, the lead element of the Army of the Potomac, arrived and became engaged; they were soon followed by the 11th Corps led by Gen. O.O. Howard, who deployed his men north of town. Now the battle commenced in earnest. In an effort to seize high ground in his immediate vicinity, Gen. Francis Barlow advanced his division of the 11th Corps to a knoll (ever after to be called Barlow's Knoll), his purpose being a dangerous (if not desperate) attempt to slow the oncoming Rebels. Barlow was, however, too far in advance of Union lines, and the Confederates, seeing this, converged on his exposed position. They seized the knoll and severely damaged the Union right. With Southern forces now in possession of the high ground, most Union troops beat a retreat through Gettysburg to the heights south of the town. Barlow's action, often criticized, actually accomplished its goal, though at a great cost. Confederate General Early, who had overrun Barlow's position, felt that his brigades had so suffered in their assault that they were in no condition to continue to attack. In his judgment, it was simply not practicable to pursue Union forces to the heights south of town. Union troops ended up controlling those heights, and this determined the result of the battle.
The story, which has become legend, of Lieut. Bayard Wilkeson is one of the most famous to come out the battle. His grandfather was a founder of the city of Buffalo, NY and of the American Colonization Society (that freed slaves, helping them settle in what is today the African country of Liberia). His father Sam was a war correspondent who had been Washington bureau chief for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and was now reporting at Gettysburg for the New York Times. He was married to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s sister Catherine. Bayard was 19 years old on July 1, 1863, and in command of Battery G, 4th US Artillery. He took his Napoleon guns twelve miles on the Emmitsburg Road to reach Gettysburg that morning. Passing directly through the village, he reported to Barlow, who dispatched him to Barlow's Knoll. Reaching the knoll's summit, Wilkeson directed his men to maintain a steady and effective fire. His battery quickly drew the attention of Confederate artillery battalions, and a dozen cannons pointed directly at his position kept up a devastating converging fire. A conspicuous target on his white horse, an enemy shell went through Wilkeson’s horse and mangled his right leg below the knee. With unimaginable courage, he took a small knife from his pocket and cut through the remaining pieces of flesh that kept his leg attached to his body. He then ordered four of his men to carry him to a nearby house, and then sent them to return to battle. 11th Corps artillery chief Maj. Thomas W Osborn met Bayard being carried to the rear. "One leg had been cut off at the knee by a cannon shot," he recalled, "I knew at a glance that the wound was fatal." Wilkeson lay in the cellar of what became a makeshift hospital with wounded from both sides, but with little medical staff. Two nurses told his father that Bayard was in great pain and died due to the loss of blood, adding that he was a gentleman throughout his ordeal.
Sam Wilkeson was unaware that his son had been wounded until the following day. When he arrived on the scene, he found that Bayard was dead. Sam wrote home with details, as he heard them. He soon received letters from generals Howard and Peck, offering their condolences and assessments of the battle. But because of a report Sam wrote that that was published on the front page of the New York Times on July 6, his son's story ceased being a private matter and became an inspirational one, and a metaphor, for the nation amidst its great sufferings. It read in part: "Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with his feet and reaching fraternally and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise – with his left he beckons to these mutilated, bloody, swollen forms to ascend." The report was then redistributed as a popular pamphlet under the title: Samuel Wilkeson's Thrilling Word Picture Of Gettysburgh. A.R. Waud published a drawing of the wounding of Bayard, an artist did a painting on the same theme, and Bayard's story and likeness spread far and wide. President Lincoln posthumously promoted him to captain. Perhaps it is not coincidence that, if you read Sam Wilkeson's words about Gettysburg (such as "second birth of Freedom"), you find distinct echoes in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address delivered four months after the President read Wilkeson's words. The former was touched by, and perhaps inspired by, the latter.
We have obtained the original correspondence relating to Bayard Wilkeson and the Battle of Gettysburg, which is now offered for sale for the first time. It is extraordinary to find such a notable grouping, with the material intact after 150 years.
The Death of Bayard Wilkeson, Announced to the Family in Grim Detail by His Father 5 Days After It Occurred
He also gives details of the Battle of the Gettysburg and its aftermath just after it ended
"Bayard was on his horse in command of his battery giving special attention to the right section, a long shell struck the horse and passed through it and hit him on his right leg below the knee, crushing it shockingly. When he fell, his men put him in a blanket and carried into the rear into a low damp basement room in the county poorhouse, as wretched a place as well can be imagined…On the floor of the room where he was laid, I saw today a bloody mark about the size of a large man giving the outlines the human figure, that mark was made by Bayard as he lay six or eight hours dying from neglect and bleeding to death…After a while he became weak and suffered dreadful pains, moaning and groaning and calling loudly upon his father and his mother, writhing in tortures most horrible, and so continued till about 10 o'clock when he died."
Autograph letter signed, Buffalo, July 6, 1863, from Sam Wilkeson.
“My dear daughter, I dropped you a hasty note from Baltimore saying that I had just learned that poor Bayard had been wounded. On arriving next morning at headquarters I learned that the poor boy was dead. After hunting all over the town and vicinity nearly all day, I met Sam accidentally. What a picture of grief and despair he presented. The loss of this noble, brave boy is a very hard thing to bear. Bayard was very dear to him, and in every way worthy of such a love. I will tell you how Bayard died. He had with his corps of some 7000, by what was a blunder been ordered to attack the enemy on the north side of the town. In two short hours, both his corps and the first which advanced to its support were overwhelmed by the bulk of the Rebel army, another Fair Oaks fight. Bayard was on his horse in command of his battery giving special attention to the right section, a long shell struck the horse and passed through it and hit him on his right leg below the knee, crushing it shockingly. When he fell, his men put him in a blanket and carried into the rear into a low damp basement room in the county poorhouse, as wretched a place as well can be imagined. At this time the house was filled with wounded. Bayard went off the field bright and cheerful, in answer to his Second Lieutenant's demand for instructions, he told him to take the command, use his own judgment, the battery was limbered up. On the floor of the room where he was laid, I saw today a bloody mark about the size of a large man giving the outlines the human figure, that mark was made by Bayard as he lay six or eight hours dying from neglect and bleeding to death. No attention was given him by a surgeon. Where his body was taken up today out of the mud hole where it was buried, I saw tied around the leg above the knee what appeared to be cotton bandages, doubtless by his own hands in the vain hope of stanching the flow of blood. A Negro woman and also an Irish woman occasionally visited the room in which Bayard laid, said that after a while he became weak and suffered dreadful pains, moaning and groaning and calling loudly upon his father and his mother, writhing in tortures most horrible, and so continued till about 10 o'clock when he died. The little room where the poor boy died was full of wounded and he had to lie just within the door and alongside of him was another poor fellow who had received just such a wound, and who also died. The dead were suffered to to lie in the room till they became offensive. Bayard was taken out, wrapped up in a blanket and suffered to lie two days in a fence corner. It was necessary to exhume three men before Bayard was recognized. How dreadfully shocking was poor Bye's fate, worse than poor Johnny perhaps, but that is not certain. The Irish woman told how when she wiped the blood off his face and gave him water, how beautiful he looked up at her out of his eyes. The Negro woman said she knew he was a gentleman. He was gentle in his ways, and it was she thought so bad to leave him unburied out-of-doors. By my advice Sam has had Bayard put into the best coffin we could get, and he will be sent home to be buried. Sam wishes it done quietly without any funeral save perhaps a military escort, and at once, this is better than to have the poor boy's remains lie in a poor house backyard. I will not write of the dreadful scenes I have seen here. The battle was a most sanguinary one, the loss on both sides enormous. Our wounded over 16,000. Meade does not follow the enemy at all, and I fear he is another failure, slow, relying on the splendid fighting qualities of his men, solely. Such an army never fought before. The Rebels fight splendidly too. Windrows of them laid dead close up to our defenses, ferocious wretches they appear to be. July 7th, morning. Headquarters moved this morning to Frederick, and the army is on the move after the enemy, to late I fear to bring on their ruin. It has rained daily since the battle, all wretchedness and mud."
O.O. Howard, July 6, 1863: "The more you look at the battle of Gettysburg, the more you will see the hand of a guiding Providence."
One week after the battle ended, writing Sam Wilkeson about his son's death, Gen. O.O. Howard appreciates immediately the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg
Autograph letter signed, Middletown, MD, July 8, 1863, to Wilkeson. "Even after my meeting with you and your inquiry for your son, I have felt grieved. He had been but a short time attached to my corps, but his conduct was so marked that his brigade commander speaks to us of him in the highest terms. I hope nobody has added to your affliction by asserting that the battery was doing no good. Gen. Barlow had pushed the battery too far to the front, but it did us noble service where it was. Ours were the earliest of an advance guard when we were obliged to hold and check a large force. Under the circumstances the first division 11th corps did all that they could have done. From 10 until 4 PM they held back large divisions of Hill, Longstreet & Ewell. Your son contributed more than his proportionate part to this result. I heard he was wounded and thought he was left with the surgeons in town. At 1 PM I drew both the position where you found them. If Gen. Reynolds had not engaged the enemy, the battle of Gettysburg would not have been fought. At first I felt sorry that he pushed beyond Cemetery Ridge, but now I think it was necessary to meet the enemy just as he did, and the position of my corps at his right were a natural sequence. God bless you and comfort you. Your son has spilled his blood for our noble cause. Oh, do not think it was in vain. Criticism is easy, all officers offer it, but the more you look at the battle of Gettysburg the more you will see the hand of a guiding Providence." Letters by corps commanders in the immediate wake of Gettysburg, this close to the battle, are virtually impossible to find.
Bayard Wilkeson's Former Commander, Gen. John J. Peck, Lauds His Heroism, and Says He Played a Key Role in the Victory at Gettysburg
Peck tells Bayard's father: "For his services at the 'Deserted House' and other places near the Blackwater, I presented his name to the government for brevet promotion…Your country demanded this sacrifice upon the holy altar at Gettysburg, where the fearful, formidable tide of the rebellion was at its highest flood. That tide was only stemmed and turned back upon accursed Rebeldom by an ocean of the nation's blood. Who can say that without young Bayard, victory would have settled upon the torn and shattered standards of the Republic?"
Maj. Gen. John J. Peck was a division commander for McClellan, and distinguished himself at numerous battles during the Peninsula Campaign. When McClellan's forces evacuated the Peninsula, Peck was left in command of the Union garrison stationed at Yorktown. In September 1862 he was given command of all Union troops in Virginia south of the James River. On January 30, 1863, Confederate forces under Gen. Roger Pryor crossed the Blackwater River into southeast Virginia. This was within the region commanded by Peck, who organized a force to drive Pryor out of the area. Anticipating an attack from the Union garrison, Pryor prepared his forces for battle near Kelly’s Store, located 8 miles west of Suffolk, VA. Union troops engaged Pryor’s forces near a place called Deserted House. The Confederates retreated two miles before making another stand. Union troops charged and routed this new line. A final stand by the Confederates was made along the Blackwater, which was also broken, leading to a Confederate retreat. Bayard Wilkeson was at that time assigned to Peck's command, and he got to know Wilkeson. Here are his thoughts, conveyed to his father just two months after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Autograph letter signed, Newbern, NC, September 15, 1863, to Wilkeson. "You have all my sympathy for the loss of your noble and the most gallant boy. He died as all would prefer in the service of this country, battling for her sacred rights and for the preservation of the freest institutions ever vouchsafed man. He was of uncommon promise, and resolved upon making a high mark in his profession. For his services at the 'Deserted House' and other places near the Blackwater, I presented his name to the government for brevet promotion. When your brother's son was slain at Fair Oaks, you mourned bitterly for the lad, more as a parent than as a relative; and I have feared that the loss of Bayard would completely overwhelm you. Your country demanded this sacrifice upon the holy altar at Gettysburg, where the fearful, formidable tide of the rebellion was at its highest flood. That tide was only stemmed and turned back upon accursed Rebeldom by an ocean of the nation's blood. Who can say that without young Bayard, victory would have settled upon the torn and shattered standards of the Republic?"
A Decade After the War, Gen. O.O. Howard Uses the Story of Bayard Wilkeson's Death, and His Father's Love, As Part of His Lectures on Gettysburg
"I have more frequently used the incidents connected with his death to illustrate the intensity of a father's love…I have never related the story of Bayard's gallantry, bleeding to & of your tender love for him without seeing many, many faces bathed in tears…. May God, who does not view death as we do, support, strengthen and direct you, that you may wait patiently the happy meeting of your son in that great and beautiful land where he has gone "
Autograph letter signed, Headquarters Department of the Columbia, March 19, 1875, to Wilkeson. "I have just received your kind letter. You are right – my lecture on Gettysburg was extemporaneous. I have often spoken upon the battle with maps but never have reduced the lecture to writing… I have given incidents in illustration as they have been suggested upon the occasion, but have generally said a few words concerning your noble son, Lieut. Bayard Wilkeson. I have more frequently used the incidents connected with his death to illustrate the intensity of a father's love as a steppingstone to an understanding of God's love as shown us in Christ. I have never related the story of Bayard's gallantry, bleeding to & of your tender love for him without seeing many, many faces bathed in tears. I have tried to recall the substance of what I have said. If I can get the time to write out my lecture, or a lecture on the great and decisive battle of the war, I will gladly send you a copy. May God, who does not view death as we do, support, strengthen and direct you, that you may wait patiently the happy meeting of your son in that great and beautiful land where he has gone."
Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, Wife of the Great Preacher, Offers Comfort Just After Getting the News of Bayard's Death
" If my husband was only near to write to you, for he has the gift of comforting the sad & weary-hearted. I have not. I can only sympathize most deeply with you. But I could not leave you to the torture of an aching heart and broken and shattered hopes without telling you that you and your kindness and your sorrows truly mourned are not forgotten. Four of our children 'sleep the sleep that knows no earthly waking' in Greenwood…. Throughout this great country how many families are there left that have not an aching heart in their midst! Garments rolled in blood are the ghastly memorials that are to be found everywhere. When will the end to be?"
Autograph letter signed, Peekskill, NY, July 7, 1863, to Wilkeson. "I was much grieved to learn of the death of your son. If my husband was only near to write to you, for he has the gift of comforting the sad & weary-hearted. I have not. I can only sympathize most deeply with you. But I could not leave you to the torture of an aching heart and broken and shattered hopes without telling you that you and your kindness and your sorrows truly mourned are not forgotten. Four of our children 'sleep the sleep that knows no earthly waking' in Greenwood. True, they died at home, carefully nursed by father and mother, and not amidst the horrors of the battlefield. Still, they went out from among us, and the empty cribs and blank places at our table – the merry, tuneful laugh – now silent – the busy hands and nimble feet – all still – all the yearnings that bereaved parent's hearts so sadly understand – have taught us to feel for others woes, though none but the hand that afflicts can bring the healing. The poor mother! If I could only comfort her! But words are so idle. In these cruel times that try fathers' souls and crush mothers' hearts, almost the only comfort I can imagine in the first weeks of sorrow is the thought – our dear country had need of their precious ones and for her sake they gave their lives. Since my husband's absence, I was called West to Indiana to a dying brother, the dearest and most noble of men. I reached his home, only to look upon the face – even in death – in whom Governor Morton had placed unbounded confidence and who has given his life in carrying out the Governor's noble plans for the sick and wounded Indiana boys. It is glorious, fearfully so, the news you report in the Times of yesterday, but ah! Throughout this great country how many families are there left that have not an aching heart in their midst! Garments rolled in blood are the ghastly memorials that are to be found everywhere. When will the end to be? Our boy, for whom you have manifested so much kindly interest, is still left, but my heart grows sick when I think what the next news may be. Excuse my intrusion upon your time and sorrows. Please convey my most earnest sympathy to your wife. Mrs. H.W. Beecher."
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