Friday, November 9, 2012

First to Fall

Morning light in the National Cemetery
          In all of history's greatest events there seems to be a human condition that makes our conscious ask, "who was first?" , along with a host of other 'most and biggest' questions.  The battle that took place at Gettysburg on the first three days of July 1863 is no different in this respect.  It is regarded as the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, nearly 51,000 Americans pouring out their life's blood in defense of cause and comrade.  Many historians would argue that the stakes were never higher than at Gettysburg.  It is true that when we look back at history already understanding the final outcome, it is much easier to point to the climactic events.
          In July of 1863 and further, to the period of tactical jostling by both armies as they moved back towards Virginia, no one would have defined Gettysburg as the turning point of the war at the time.  No one knew that Appomattox was only 21 bloody months away.  No one even knew that Gettysburg would be the biggest battle of the war.  They knew it was big, but the calculations of human cost at the time barely correlate to the numbers we now find to be the most accurate.  In fact in the fall of 1863 and even up until the siege of Petersburg, there was much hope and assurance to be found in the Confederacy that victory might still be a real possibility.  Something larger or even equal to the scale of Gettysburg was still in the cards and although no individual battle did reach the mass human costs of Gettysburg, later engagements were bloodier and more sustained.  For an example all one has to do is look at the Overland Campaign.
          Besides the question of the largest battle of the war, we have lesser touched on 'firsts and mosts.'  Historians have asked for many years who was the first victim to fall at Gettysburg.  This broad question in itself ignores more specific implications.  When we ask that question, are we talking about the entire campaign (June 3 - August 14), the fighting in Adams County near Gettysburg (June 26 - July 4), or the three day epic battle itself (July 1-3)?
          We do know the answer to all three of these questions and when it comes to the award for first in this category, there really are no winners, only patriotic men that fell in their budding youth.  No single death is more important than another, but for the sake of history, we should leave no stone un-turned.
21st PA Cavalry Monument -
Marking the spot where Pvt. George Sandoe fell
          The first soldier to fall north of the Mason-Dixon Line was Corporal William H. Rihl.  Rihl was a member of Company C, 1st New York Cavalry and in the summer of 1863 he was twenty years old.  On June 22 north of Greencastle, PA, his company was ambushed on the Flemming Farm by a band of Albert Jenkins' Confederate Cavalry.  During the brief, but hot engagement, Rihl was shot through the head and killed instantly.  Jenkins' troopers buried Rihl in a shallow grave near where a present monument honoring the corporal now stands.  After the Confederates moved on, local citizens buried Rihl in the Lutheran church yard.  In 1886, Rihl was re-interred for the last time by the local GAR post and now rests eternally near where he fell, his grave marked by a large obelisk to forever commemorate his status as the first to fall in the campaign.
          The first Union soldier to fall in fighting around Gettysburg (or in Adams Co.) was Private George Sandoe of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry.  On June 26, Confederate infantry moved through the town of Gettysburg in their effort to move east and take the Pennsylvania capitol of Harrisburg.  A division under Jubal Early and cavalry of Elijah White's Comanche Battalion got into a very brief scrap with the 26th PA Emergency Militia, driving them pell-mell into the countryside north of Gettysburg.  As the Confederate advance continued, they pushed skirmishers and cavalry pickets down the different roads radiating from the center of town.  The Baltimore Pike was one of those roads and Private Sandoe was sitting on his horse near the Nathaniel Lightner home talking to Mr. Lightner's son when the Confederate cavalry pickets approached.  They asked the men to surrender, but they refused. Turning their horses and trying to escape, the pickets fired upon the two Yankees.  Lightner made good his escape, but poor George Sandoe was shot in the head and died in the road.  Private Sandoe had only mustered into Federal service three days before this encounter and was within shouting distance of his Adams County home.  Sandoe's body was taken to the Mount Joy Church Cemetery south of Gettysburg where visitors can still visit the grave site of the first to fall in Adams County.  The 21st PA Cavalry monument now marks the spot where Private Sandoe fell that day.
          Our final soldier in this  unfortunate trio is Private John Weaver of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry.  He is considered the first casualty of the epic three day battle.  On the morning of July 1, Weaver and his regiment were a part of John Buford's cavalry division that started the action west of Gettysburg in an effort to slow down the advance of Confederate General Henry Heth's Division, allowing time for Union infantry to arrive on the field.  Private Weaver was the first to fall, his horse being killed outright beneath him and he taking a large piece of shrapnel in his left leg due to a Confederate shell exploding nearby.  22 year old Private Weaver was taken to the rear where they amputated his leg successfully, but this was just the beginning of the fight for his life.  Unfortunately Weaver succumbed to infection a month later on August 3.  He now rests eternally in the Indiana Plot of the National Cemetery.
          Although the memory of these brave men survives by the retelling of their story, they are still just three of the thousands that perished in the campaign, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more that fell on other battlefields during the war.  Inglorious as the distinction of first to fall may be, the record still stands and their sacrifice was not in vein.  Truth be told these men are at least remembered, unlike the 979 men lying unknown in the National Cemetery and the thousands more in national cemeteries that dot the southern landscape.
One of the many...Antietam National Cemetery

Some good reads and links! --- Also most of these stories are covered in the major books about the campaign...Coddington, Pfanz, Sears, Trudeau if you would like some different takes.

Pennsylvania Civil War Trails

The Fog of Gettysburg

Lincoln and the Human Interest Stories of the Gettysburg National Cemetery

Rihl Monument near Greencastle, PA

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