Saturday, November 3, 2012

Beloved Leaders

Major James Cromwell -
124th New York

          Major James Cromwell was 23 years old as he assisted in leading the 124th New York “Orange Blossoms” toward the tiny crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He was beloved by his men and marked as a young officer of great promise in the Army of the Potomac. The regiment's Colonel, Augustus Van Horne Ellis, at the age of 36, had a good deal of adventurous experience before the war and was not one to back away from a fight. He was a sea captain on the west coast and also befriended the King of Hawaii. Soon after the start of their blossoming friendship Ellis was offered the position of head of the Hawaiian Navy...that is until he found out they had no vessels.
          The 124th New York had been in the service of the United States since September of 1862 and was lightly engaged in their first campaign at Fredericksburg. The following spring at Chancellorsville the regiment lost over 200 men and were in the thickest of the fight. This hardening experience provided the men of the 124th a taste of that fatal type of contact with the enemy that festers in the mind for years after the conflict. Although a terrible price for any regiment, the experience would pay dividends in their next combat venture.
          July 1st, 1863 found the regiment on the march towards the destination by which the rest of the army was pacing itself in the fastest possible manner, Gettysburg. The Union First and Eleventh Corps had opened the battle with General Lee west and north of the town, buying time with lives. Finally forced to fall back, Union troops reformed on the high ground south of town, making the most defensible terrain in that part of Central Pennsylvania their bastion.
Colonel Augustus Van Horne Ellis -
124th New York
          The 124th New York arrived with the rest of Ward's Third Corps Brigade on the evening of the 1st. After a morning of confused dispositions on the part of their corps commander, General Daniel Sickles, they moved west towards a new position cresting the south end of Houck's Ridge around 2PM. The regiment was placed in support of Smith's New York Batter above Devils Den. The regiment to their left (4th Maine) was the extreme left of the Federal Army at Gettysburg. Around 4PM, General James Longstreet launched his audacious assault on the Union left flank. Colonel Ellis, Major Cromwell and the men of the 124th could see the tidal wave about to strike them as it swept off the ridge in their front. Berdan's Sharpshooters fell back in their front, fighting all the way. Smith's 4 guns in front of the New Yorkers belched their deadly iron towards the advancing Rebel ranks.
          The first hard contact reached the right of the 124th New York in front of the 20th Indiana. Major Cromwell went over to Colonel Ellis and asked if he might be given permission to make a charge and knock the Confederates of Robertson's Brigade off course. Ellis denied this request preferring to await the time when the enemy was within range. As the Confederates drew nearer, Cromwell sensed the urgency in an effort that might drive the momentum from the foe. He again approached Ellis for permission to charge the enemy in their front, meanwhile the 1st Texas under Colonel Philip Work inched closer and closer to their line under the deadly missiles of Smith's Battery until they reached a point by which Smith's guns could not depress their muzzles sufficiently to render any more damage.
          Finally Ellis decided that the time had come and he gave Major Cromwell permission to lead an advance. Ellis and Cromwell both donned steeds for the attack to the protests of many of their men. The commander of the right wing of the regiment, Lt. Colonel Francis Cummins remained on foot, but was soon felled by shrapnel from an exploding shell. Cromwell continued to carry out the assault. The attack was very successful and Ellis proudly watched as Cromwell led the left portion of the regiment into the advancing Texans, driving them forth in their own powerful tidal wave.
          As the Rebels began to scatter, victory, even if temporary, seemed near and at that moment a small band of the enemy unleashed a volley. With shouts of triumph on his lips, down went the gallant Major Cromwell, shot through the heart at the age of 23 years. Many of the men were horrified that their beloved leader had fallen and turned into ferocious beasts. Colonel Ellis screamed above the noise, “My God! My God men! Your Major's down; save him! Save him!”
          With that the energy of the men in the ranks swelled and they started pouring a devastating volley into the Texans. At that moment Colonel Ellis was directing the fire of his boys when a minie ball came crashing through his brain. The firefight turned vicious for both Federal and Confederate troops and then the 44th Alabama showed up on the regiment's left flank. Colonel William Perry ordered the left half of his regiment to wheel up over Devil's Den and the right half up the Plum Run Valley. This they did with fearful execution.
Monument to the 124th New York -
Erected in 1884, the first monument to a
New York Regiment
          The 124th New York was forced to fall back towards Smith's guns now under the command of a captain with all their colonel, lieutenant colonel and major all down. They retreated all the way back to the south edge of Rose's Woods. Finally to their appeal, help arrived in the form of the 99th Pennsylvania under Major John Moore. At the same time, the regiment that was holding the left flank of the brigade, the 4th Maine, finally was able to reform and charged up the north slope of Houck's Ridge above the Den to reclaim the lost territory. The combination of Maine and Pennsylvania men helped to re-stabilize the line for a short period.
          Eventually though, the Confederate numbers would tell and Ward's Brigade, including the remnants of the “Orange Blossoms,” were forced to withdrawal. The cost to the regiment in those left on the field was 35 men killed, 58 wounded, and 5 missing of the 238 men that went into battle on July Second. Even worse, the regiment's command structure was totally destroyed and their beloved leaders had breathed their last. 
          Today on the south end of Houck's Ridge stands a monument to the 124th New York. It was the first monument placed to honor a regiment from the state of New York. The crowning feature is a very life-like full casting of Colonel Augustus Van Horne Ellis, permanently watching over the fields upon which the enemy came charging nearly 150 years ago. One of the persisting Gettysburg legends is that the rock upon which the regimental monument stands is where the bodies of Ellis and Cromwell were taken in the midst of the fight.
Veterans of the 124th New York attend the dedication of their monument on Houck's Ridge - 1884

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