Sergeant Cornelius Wheeler of the Second Wisconsin Infantry Recalls the Battle of Gettysburg
On the morning of July 1st, 1863, while Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry was fighting its delaying action against advance elements of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the northwestern outskirts of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Union 1st Corps under Major General John Reynolds, hurried forward to relieve the outnumbered cavalrymen. One of the first infantry units in the 1st Corps to arrive and go into action was the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division, nicknamed the Iron Brigade. This veteran brigade, consisted of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan.
Four regiments—the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan—were ordered to form in line of battle and advance into Herbst Woods (also known as McPherson’s Woods) to engage the approaching Tennessee and Alabama troops of Brigadier General James Archer’s Brigade. Initially held as a reserve, the 6th Wisconsin was soon ordered to advance on an unfinished railroad cut a short distance to the right of the rest of the brigade.
The 2nd Wisconsin, under the command of Colonel Lucius Fairchild, had a strength of 306 men on the morning of July 1st. One of those was Sergeant Cornelius Wheeler of Company I. After the war, Wheeler wrote an account of the fighting that day and the regiment’s retreat through town to Culp’s Hill.
Shortly after 7 o’clock the regiment moved out on the Emmitsburg pike at the head of the brigade, towards Gettysburg, without any particular anticipation in general of a fight on that bright morning…While I say that there was no anticipation in general of an impending battle, there were exceptions, and there came to me that morning two cases of presentiment—the only cases which came to my knowledge during my experience as a soldier. We had not been long upon the march before Sergeant Joseph O. Williams of my company, a soldier who had never missed a skirmish, a battle or a day’s duty, who had done a soldier’s duty at Bull Run, Gainesville, Second Bull Run, South mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Fitz-Hugh Crossing and Chancellorsville, and through skirmishes too numerous to mention, all without a scratch, came forward and fell in alongside of me at the head of the column, and opened up a conversation by saying that he did not feel quite right, that he felt as though something was going to happen to him, and that he should not get through the day. I laughed at him and told him he was foolish to feel so blue, there seemed to be no trouble ahead for the day, but if there should be, that he would come out all right as he always had done. Poor Joe did not have much more to say and soon fell back in his place But he was right. He fell—shot dead at the first volley we received as we made our charge that morning, not two hours later.
Soon after Sergeant Williams had left me, the Sergeant Major of the regiment, George H. Legate…came forward from the rear of the column, and he, too, had a presentiment and said, “Corny, we are going to have a fight today and I will not come out alive…” He was shot during the afternoon attack.
We had moved out on the Emmettsburg pike at the head of the Iron Brigade, as before stated, and in the lead of the 1st Army Corps, and of General Reynolds’ left wing of the Army of the Potomac. When within about a mile of Gettysburg, Buford’s Cavalry was soon heard to be engaged with the enemy off to the left or west, and about a mile distant. Almost immediately orders came from the front to our Colonel, Lucius Fairchild, and the regiment filed off from the road into a field at the left, and across that field into another, and soon came the order “Forward, into line,” followed with “Forward, double-quick.” Forward we went into line and towards Buford and to his relief. As our guns were not loaded, Colonel Fairchild gave the order, and we loaded as we double-quicked. The regiment soon passed over the intervening ground and over Seminary Ridge south and west of the seminary, and met
Heth’s Division of A. P. Hill’s Corps, which was posted on a wooded ridge about half a mile west of the seminary, receiving a volley as we advanced to the crest of the ridge, which cut down nearly one-half of the regiment, but, not daunted, it continued the charge upon the rebel line, crushed it and drove it in confusion across Willoughby Run, capturing the rebel General Archer, and some 600 of his brigade. At Willoughby Run the regiment was halted to await the results with the other regiments of the brigade for the Second, as on the right of the marching column, had gone into line and forward on the double-quick, and it very naturally took the balance of the column some little time to get forward. After a wait of about a half an hour the regiment was withdrawn from its advanced position and placed on a new line at nearly right angles with that just left, facing north, but after a short time the line was again reformed, its location this time being near the summit of the ridge but somewhat to the right of where the battle had opened, and facing again to the west.
Lieutenant Colonel George H. Stevens was mortally wounded, Lieutenant Winnegar was killed, Colonel Lucius Fairchild received a wound which cost him an arm, and Major-General John F. Reynolds was killed just as the charge ended at the crest of the ridge. He fell immediately in the rear of the right of the Second Wisconsin, and not over 100 feet distant…
The Second Wisconsin remained in line in the new position at the apex of something of an angle, being nearly joined on the right by the new Pennsylvania Bucktails, the Eleventh Corps prolonging the right, the balance of the brigade and division to our left, until about three o’clock in the afternoon, when the rebels advanced to the assault along out whole line in overwhelming numbers, and from then until about half past four o’clock it was a continuous struggle, advancing, retreating, and contesting every foot of the way. The ground was rolling, the little ridges running nearly or quite north and south, and as the rebels would drive us over a ridge we would reform on the other side and give it to them as they came to the top, and often ran them back some distance, but on the whole they were too much for us, and we could never gain quite so much ground as we had lost; and so it continued until we were forced back to the Seminary Ridge, where artillery had been posted, and there a stand was made for some time, but the Eleventh Corps having given away on the right, and the left having been turned, the position at the seminary became untenable, and what was left of the First Corps was forced to fall back through Gettysburg in considerable disorder. That we did not fall back any too soon is manifest by the fact that about 5000 of our men were captured before they could get through Gettysburg; and I know that when I passed up the street leading to Cemetery Hill, the rebels had appeared at each end of the cross streets, and it was like running a gauntlet as the bullets came from both sides. At Cemetery Heights the artillery having a good position, our troops naturally concentrated, and a stand was made which the rebels did not seem to care to contest, and was the first day’s battle at Gettysburg was ended.
Late in the evening the Iron Brigade, then reduced to the size of a very small regiment, was placed in position on Culp’s Hill to the right of the Baltimore pike.
The losses of the Second Wisconsin in this day’s battle were 2 officers and 25 men killed, 10 officers and 144 men wounded, 5 officers and 47 men missing, leaving a regiment of 45 men under command of Captain George H. Otis. I, as First Sergeant and ranking officer, was left in command of Company I, nine men, the largest company in the regiment.
The brigade remained unengaged in its position of Culps’s Hill during the succeeding days of the battle.
After Fairchild was wounded, Major John Mansfield assumed command of the 2nd Wisconsin. He filed this after action report. Sergeant Wheeler would be promoted to 1st Lieutenant on May 25th, 1864 and was mustered out of service at the completion of his enlistment at the end of June.
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan
The Maps of Gettysburg by Bradley H. Gottfried
Reminiscences of the Battle of Gettysburg by Cornelius Wheeler. In “War papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume II
Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1864, Volume I. Compiled by the Adjutant General’s Office, State of Wisconsin
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