Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth’s Report on His Division at the Battle of Gettysburg
New York native James S. Wadsworth was named commander of the 1st Division of the Union 1st Corps on December 27th, 1862. Though he did not possess a military background (he had been a lawyer and politician in civilian life), he volunteered as an aide to General Irvin McDowell in 1861 and was commissioned as a Brigadier General in August of that year. He was the military governor of the District of Columbia, and was responsible for the defense of the capital, before assuming field command.
The 1st Corps commander was Major General John F. Reynolds. Wadsworth’s division consisted of two brigades. The 1st Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Solomon Meredith, was the Iron Brigade and included the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan infantry regiments. The 2nd Brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Lysander Cutler, and included the 7th Indiana, 76th, 84th, 95th, and 147th New York, plus the 56th Pennsylvania infantry regiments (the 84th New York was also known as the 14th Brooklyn).
Wadsworth’s division was the first Union infantry division to arrive at Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863, and immediately went into action in relief of General John Buford’s cavalry, which had been fighting a delaying action against Major General Henry Heth’s Confederates on the northwest edge of the town. Cutler’s brigade deployed on both sides of an unfinished railroad cut running northwest to southeast, while the Iron Brigade, except for the 6th Wisconsin, advanced towards the Herbst Woods and McPherson’s Ridge, to the left of Cutler’s brigade. The 6th Wisconsin was ordered to the right and fought alongside the 84th and 95th New York, advancing against Confederates who had taken cover in the railroad cut. Both brigades suffered extensive casualties, but bought valuable time for more of the Army of the Potomac to arrive and deploy in a good defensive position. With more and more Confederate troops arriving, and the collapse of the Federal 11th Corps on the division’s right, Wadsworth’s command was forced to retreat. After retreating, the two brigades were sent to Culp’s Hill, and although there would be fighting there, most of the action was away from the division’s location and it was only lightly engaged for the rest of the battle.
General Wadsworth submitted this report on his division’s action at Gettysburg:
HEADQUARTERS FIRST DIVISION, FIRST ARMY CORPS,
In the Field, near Gettysburg, Pa., July 4, 1863.
SIR: I have the honor to report to the major-general commanding the movements of this division during the last three days.
On the morning of July l, at 8 a.m., the division moved from Marsh Creek on Gettysburg, under the immediate direction of our deeply lamented commander, Major-General Reynolds. I
understand that the general received information when we were within about a mile of the town that the enemy were approaching from the direction of Cashtown. He immediately turned the head of the column to the left, across the fields, and struck the Cashtown road about three-quarters of a mile west of Gettysburg at about 10 a.m. The Second Brigade, Brigadier-General Cutler, led the column, followed by the Second Maine Battery, Captain Hall, the First Brigade, Brigadier-General Meredith, bringing up the rear. Here we met the advance guard of the enemy. Three regiments of the Second Brigade were ordered to deploy on the right of the road, the battery was placed in position near the road, and the balance of the division
ordered up to the left of the road.
The right became sharply engaged before the line was formed, and at this time (about 10.15 a.m.) our gallant leader fell, mortally wounded. The right encountered a heavy force, were outnumbered, outflanked, and after a resolute contest, bravely conducted by Brigadier-General Cutler, fell back in good order to Seminary Ridge, near the town, and a portion of the command to a point still nearer the town. As they fell back, followed by the enemy, the Fourteenth New York State Militia, Colonel Fowler; Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Dawes, and Ninety-fifth New York Volunteers, Colonel Biddle, gallantly charged on the advance of the enemy, and captured a large number of prisoners, including two entire regiments with their flags. The other regiments of the First Brigade advanced farther on the left, and captured several hundred prisoners, including Brigadier-General Archer. The enemy fell back. I reformed the line, the Second Brigade on the right, on a ridge, the First in a piece of woodland on the left. The battery had fallen to the rear, disabled by the loss of horses. I found Tidball’s battery on Seminary Ridge, and advanced it to the front line, where it engaged a battery of the enemy in front of us. Major-General Doubleday, commanding the corps at that time, arrived on the ground about the time, or very soon after, General Reynolds fell, with the Second and Third Divisions.
The enemy advanced in heavy force on our right, and placed a battery in position to enfilade the line, and I was obliged to order the right to fall back to Seminary Ridge, forming the line northwesterly and diagonal to the Cashtown road. Two brigades of the Second Division were sent to our right, and gallantly held the enemy in check for an hour, capturing a large number of prisoners. I received orders direct from Major-General Howard to hold Seminary Ridge as long as possible.
Tidball’s battery had been driven back, but about 3 p.m. Battery B, Fourth Regular Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Stewart, came to our assistance, and rendered effective service, demolishing a brigade of the enemy by a destructive fire of canister and shell Battery L, First New York Artillery, and the Fifth Maine Battery were likewise engaged in position near the seminary.
At about 2.30 p.m. Major-General Schurz, who had been advanced on our right, fell back after partially engaging the enemy, and left our right exposed. The enemy advanced in large force from that direction, and on our left the Third Division of this corps was driven back. Finding myself outflanked on both right and left, heavily pressed in front, and my ammunition nearly exhausted, at 3.45 o’clock I ordered the command to retire. The movement was effected in good order, and all the artillery brought off safely, excepting one caisson, the Seventh Wisconsin bringing up the rear, and suffering heavily, with the whole of the command, from the fire from our front and both flanks.
The severity of the contest during the day will be indicated by the painful fact that at least half of the officers and men who went into the engagement were killed or wounded.
On the evening of the 1st, we were ordered to occupy a hill on the right of the cemetery, which we held on the 2d and 3d against a sharp attack of the enemy on the evening of the 2d and morning of the 3d, with small loss to us.
The officers of my staff and of my command performed their whole duty without an exception. Under these circumstances I cannot particularly commend any of them without doing injustice to others equally meritorious.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAS. S. WADSWORTH,
Brigadier-General of Volunteers.
The ASSISTANT-ADJUTANT GENERAL,
First Army Corps.
The Army of the Potomac was reorganized in the spring of 1864, with the decimated regiments of the 1st Corps reassigned to other corps. General Wadsworth was assigned to a division command in the 5th Corps for the Overland Campaign. On May 6th, 1864, Wadsworth was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, dying in a Confederate field hospital on May 8th.
Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan
The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 13, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume XXVII, Part 1