Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Death at Gettysburg, 150 Years Later

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, my 2x-Great Uncle George Harrison Whitcher was killed in battle on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, Pa at the age of 21 years. He was born and raised in Lockport, NY, to Bailey Harrison Whitcher and Ordelia DeLozier. Around 1856, George moved to and took up residence in Michigan. My 2x Great-Grandma Emma was 10 years old when he left New York.
George Whitcher enlisted as a volunteer at Port Huron on Aug 6, 1861 at age 19. He again enlisted as a Private in Company A of the Michigan Seventh Volunteer Infantry on August 22, 1861 at Monroe, under the command of Captain Thomas H. Hunt of Port Huron. The Seventh left Michigan on September 5, 1861. George was in Company A with Charles Thompson from Port Huron, also 19 at his enlistment. Charles and Emma, my ancestress, exchanged letters in 1862, inferring that Charles and George were the best of companions. They were best friends. Charles was wounded but survived the war.
The Michigan Seventh saw engagement at Ball’s Bluff, VA on October 21, 1861. In April and May of 1862 they engaged at Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks. In June and July they engaged at Peach Orchard, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, Malvern Hill, and Manasses. The Seventh was commended for its “steadiness under fire and for its gallantry in action and its stubborn resistance when confronting the enemy.” In August and September they engaged at the 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain in Maryland, and Antietam on September 17, the bloodiest day of battle in the Civil War, where the infantry’s numbers were cut in half.
In December they fought at Fredericksburg, Virginia before the winter set in, where they volunteered to cross the Rappahannock River in pontoon boats against enemy fire, to drive Confederate sharpshooters from their hiding places, so that Union engineers could continue laying out the pontoon bridge for crossing. It is said that the Seventh rode so quickly across the water, their boats suffered minimal losses. They acted as provost-guard at Falmouth until the spring, when they saw battle at Chancellorsville and Haymarket, before advancing to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There they joined the Army of the Potomac’s Pennsylvania Campaign. Between June 27 and 29, they marched 73 miles, each soldier carrying a rifle, bayonet, cartridge-box, belts, blanket, haversack, and canteen. Upon their arrival, they were placed in the front of battle at Cemetery Ridge, where they remained for the duration.
The Michigan Seventh took 14 officers and 151 men into battle. In the two days of engagement with the enemy, they lost 21 men and 44 were wounded. My ancestor was among the slain. The hardest of bullets fell around two in the afternoon on July 3, and all guns were silent by 6 o’clock that evening. Between the 75,000 Confederate soldiers and the 83,000 Union soldiers, there were 50,000 casualties, more in three days than all of the eight years of the Revolutionary War.
Bodies of the dead on the battlefield.
Across the battlefield were 7,000 dead men and 3,000 dead horses; approximately 6 million pounds of dead flesh broiling beneath a summer sun. It was left to the population of 2,400 in Gettysburg to dispose of the carnage and care for the wounded. The smell of death cloyed the air for three months, until the first frost set in. And still, when Abraham Lincoln journeyed to Pennsylvania to dedicate the new Soldier’s National Cemetery in November, four and a half months later, stacks of coffins awaiting re-burial in the new cemetery sat nearby.
What must it have been like for the families with no answers? With no dead to bury? For the families whose loved ones blistered in the sun before an identification could be made?
The Seventh Michigan Infantry is honored by an 8’ tall monument at Gettysburg, installed in 1888. The Westerly blue granite monument, with a bronze relief, was sculpted by Joseph Pasetti, and dedicated on June 12, 1889. The marker stands where the Seventh held their position on July 2nd and 3rd in Gettysburg. It stands in the field where my ancestral Uncle fell. It sits east of Hancock Avenue and just south of the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge.
On the front, it is dedicated to the Seventh Michigan Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division 2nd Corps. On the back, a part of the monument states: “Regiment held this position during the engagement of July 2nd & 3rd. 1863. On the evening of the 2nd charged front to the left, meeting and aiding in driving back the enemy. On the 3rd assisted in repulsing Pickett’s Charge, changing front to the right and assaulting the advancing force in flank. Present for duty 14 officers, 151 men. Total 165. Casualties, 2 officers, 19 men killed; 3 officers, 41 men wounded. Total 65.”
There is no grave for my ancestor at Gettysburg. According to his dear friend Charles Thompson, he was not listed among the men buried in the Michigan plot there. There is no grave for him in Michigan, where he had settled for 10 years before joining the volunteers. There is no grave for him in Lockport, as there was no body for the family to mourn or bury.
The Whitcher family spent a large amount of time and money in a vain search for his body, or any trace of it, to no avail. I have seen the photos taken of the bodies strewn about the field. I have down the embalming history about how even the families who could afford to reclaim their dead for travel back home had tough luck identifying them on the battlefields. And still, some embalmers were taking unclaimed bodies for the purpose of posting them outside of their tents and stores as evidence of their work- a thing to which the surviving soldiers railed against at the time. But the thought remains that to a family who had the money to search but could find no body, whose friend was on-site to look for him, possibly encumbered by his own wounds… perhaps the earth claimed it faster under the blazing sun. Perhaps he became a prop in an indecent man’s business.
Sadness would follow the family when Orville Bailey Whitcher, George’s brother, died the next summer in battle in Virginia. Their father Bailey Harrison Whitcher died the following summer. George’s mother, Ordelia, died in 1888, just one year before Daniel Raymond Whitcher, her eldest son, received a letter from Charles Thompson, George’s old comrade. Twenty-seven years after the battle at Gettysburg, the late Lt. Col. Charles Thompson returned to the site- something he had perhaps done as an annual pilgrimage. There, he found “a small metallic plate battered and covered with hard earth, in which was stenciled the dead soldier’s name:”
George H. Whitcher
CO A, 7th MICH., V.
It had been buried for nearly 24 years and had been dug up from the field three years earlier. He sent the identifying metal to the family and inquired as to whether or not George’s body had been recovered and buried elsewhere, as his name was not among the list of the dead. So many years later, the story made the local paper, and while no body was ever brought home, it was more closure than many families received.

George was on the ridge above Little Round Top, along the vertical line of blue, where the Union soldiers were stationed.

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