Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Willis Babcock Story: New Year, New Discovery

 'The Wheatfield' at Gettysburg
For some individuals it might be difficult to make the connection with stories of history.  Old tales of far off places and people that don't capture the imagination of our over-sensitized world can sometimes seem quite distant from the relevant circles of our fast paced lifestyles.  For this week's post, hopefully, the imagination might be captured once more through a thrilling discovery that involves a most dramatic, but somber tale.  That tale has been collecting cobwebs in the dark for far too long.  With its recent discovery maybe we can shed some light.  The quickly forgotten fact about the past is that its participants were very real people.  They were much like you and I; living, breathing, dreaming, feeling, loving and hoping...real people.


Colonel John R. Brooke
On July 2, 1863, the fighting had been swirling in and around a 22 acre Wheatfield on the farm of George Rose for nearly two hours in the heat and humidity of a Pennsylvania mid-summer's afternoon.  There were already thousands of men laying about the field when Colonel John Rutter Brooke was ordered to lead his Second Corps brigade across the already obliterated whirlpool of death.  His men moved gallantly forward, south across the Millerstown Road and into the vortex of that very deadly field.  There they met the same problems of the previous commands, both north and south, that ventured onto that open and exposed knoll where the wheat no longer stood tall.  His men from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Delaware were stopped cold in their tracks by the wall of lead that met them.  The stand-still lasted for maybe fifteen minutes with many good men giving the ultimate sacrifice.

All the while Colonel Brooke was trying to get his men moving, but his orders could not be passed down the line through the din of battle.  Finally realizing there was no other way, the twenty four year old grabbed the flag of his former regiment (53rd PA) and ran out in front of the battle line into the wall of fire.  His men quickly got the point and the rush was on.  The brigade stormed across the southern part of the field, not stopping until they nearly reached the crest of Rose's Hill, driving the Georgians in their front all the way.

My command was then moved forward in order of battle through a wheat-field, about the center of which we commenced firing, continuing for fifteen minutes or more, when orders were received from Colonel Brooke to fix bayonets.
This was done, and, in connection with the brigade, we charged upon the enemy, driving him before us, capturing some prisoners, and finally carrying the crest of the hill.
Lt. Colonel Richards McMichael, 53rd PA(1)

Flag carried by the 64th NY at Gettysburg
The heroic efforts of the Fourth Brigade, First Division, Second Corps bought more valuable time for the endangered Federal line and temporarily halted the ferocious Confederate attack by Longstreet's boys.  The only problem with this entire episode was discovered too late.  Brooke's men had counter-attacked so doggedly that they had outrun their supports and their new advanced battle line had both flanks hanging in the air.  Brooke knew that unless supports were on the way, his men's tough fighting would be for naught.

It was also around this time that Colonel Brooke was wounded.  He chose to remain on the field and try to keep his brigade above the rising tide.  All the while, more and more men of his tough veteran brigade were falling all around.  One regiment of the brigade, the 64th New York, was on the left side of the brigade line. They came to Gettysburg with two hundred and twenty-one men.  Before the day was through, only half of these would be able to consider their day's experience, unscathed in the safety of their own lines. The only regiment between the 64th NY and the brigade's hanging left flank was the 2nd Delaware which was losing men with each passing second.  The fighting had now reached a crisis point and the only strength upon which the brigade could rely was its veteran commanders, young as they might be.


Captain Henry Fuller, 64th NY
One of those veteran officers was twenty-four year old Henry Fuller who had just received his Captain straps as a result of the disastrous Federal campaign at Chancellorsville in May.  With three vacancies at the Captain's level in the 64th New York, Colonel Bingham submitted the brave young man's name for promotion and it was just as easily commissioned.  Fuller had been through the thickest of every engagement in which his regiment had been a part up to this point in the war and he was not about to shrink from the hot spot in which he found himself on this day.

Another young, but experienced officer was nineteen year old Lieutenant Willis Babock of Company G.  He also had experienced the trials and tribulations of the Virginia Peninsula, Fredericksburg and the horrors of Chancellorsville.  Both of his brothers were also serving the Union in different regiments that were not present at Gettysburg (Willoughby - 75th NY and Lucious - 9th MN).  Their father Samuel did not want any of his three boys to enlist.  He had just lost his wife and fourth son in 1859 and could not bear to lose another.  Honor and duty soon prevailed though and he gave his sons to the country that they all loved so much, knowing full well that one of them might not come home.

Lt. Willis Babcock, 64th NY
Those days of heading off to glorious war with pomp and circumstance were very distant memories by the time these experienced soldiers came to Gettysburg.  Beyond that, the valiant fight they had made thus far was now in great jeopardy.  It was do or die time. As Colonel Brooke states in his official report:
Both my aides being wounded, and myself severely bruised, I with great difficulty was able to maintain a proper knowledge of the enemy. Being notified about this time that a heavy column of the enemy was coming upon my left, I immediately took measures to meet them, sending word to that effect to the general commanding. I held them at bay for some time, when word was brought me that my right was being turned, and finding no troops coming to my support, and finding that unless I retired all would be killed or captured, I reluctantly gave the order to retire...(2)

The 64th New York was facing a very severe threat on its left.  The center of the brigade(53rd PA) received the orders to retreat first, followed shortly thereafter by the melting flanks.  As the 2nd Delaware started its withdrawal from the left, the 64th was exposed to the same enfilading heat that forced their Delaware brothers off the battle line.  This fire was concentrated on the New Yorkers in a large part by Brigadier General George Tige Anderson's Georgia Brigade.

Seldom visited monument to Captain Henry Fuller
along Rose Run south of 'The Wheatfield'
In the 64th New York, Private Whipple recalled Capt. Henry Fuller, lying slightly in advance, was firing at "some Rebel colors when the order came..." to fall back.  Fuller looked over his shoulder in disbelief and asked who gave the order.  Nobody seemed to know.  Suddenly an aide, possibly Lieutenant Wilson rode along the line calling out to "fall back" and "get out."  Now convinced, Fuller rose to his feet, but was quickly hit in the leg and fell.  Whipple grabbed Fuller's left arm and another man the right, and thus "we made several rods to the rear followed by the enemy..." Suddenly a bullet struck Fuller in the back and exited his body just under Whipple's arm.  As the other man abandoned them, Whipple dropped his rifle-musket and carried, then dragged his captain toward Rose Run.  When they neared the stream Fuller told Whipple to lay him down as he was fatally wounded.  Whipple recalled how Fuller "looked up and said, 'George, keep up good courage.'"  It was a look he would never forget.  Confederates soon appeared around him, demanding his surrender.  Denying the request to stay with Fuller a moment longer, the Confederates shouted, "Go to the rear you damned Yankee son of a bitch." As Whipple was taken away he recalled it being "the saddest moment I have ever seen....It seemed as if I were leaving the last friend that I had...."(3)

The worst was not yet over for the men of the 64th New York and other parts of Brooke's Brigade.  They continued their retreat just the way they had come onto the field, with Georgians hot on their heels.  After crossing Rose Run, it was time to once more cross that deadly whirlpool that we know today simply as 'The Wheatfield.'  For Lieutenant Willis Babcock, the fight thus far had been a trying one.  Although he had led his company bravely through the heat of the advance, and helped them back off the hill, he knew there was little aide he could provide his men now that it was time to cross that deadly open space.  It was every man for himself and at the most, small mixed bands of resistance fighting.  Ever the brave leader by example, the regiment's Major Leman Bradley, explained the fate of Willis in a letter to the young lieutenant's father written on July 5, 1863. 

64th NY Monument on Rose Hill
"Yesterday was a sad day to us -- We burried our dead.  Your brave son Lt. Willis G. Babcock has fought his last battle.  He sleeps by the side of a great rock covered by a running vine, just in front of our breastworks.  He was killed in battle July 2nd.  He was in the thickest of the fight, and to the very front in our charge.  The last position of the enemy that we took, was a rocky ledgey wood.  During the time we held the ledge, I saw Willis very active in directing the men how and were to shoot.  

I saw him standing by the side of Sargeant Peterson of his own Co. tearing cartridges for the Sargeant.  We had to abandon our advanced position, and were followed up by the rebels under cover of a wood, and lost way.  Willis was shot while we were falling back through a wheat field.  He was shot through the right breast by a rifle ball.  he fell about six A.M. [should be P.M.] That night the enemy held the field, and the next day their sharp shooters kept us back.  On the morning of the 4th I sent Capt Faport out with a detail to look for the wounded and dead.  Soon after Lieut. Orrin C. Burdick of the 27th Conn. came to me and informed me that he had found the body of Willis.  On his breast was an enevelop pinned, on which was written in strange hand Lt. W. G. Babcock 64th N.Y.V.  His sword memorandum book and purse were gone, but his clothing had not been disturbed.

We burried him on the farm of George Weikert back of his stone house.  He lies to the right of Capt Fuller of the 64th.  At the head of Capt F's grave I cut this mark + in the rock.  We put up head boards to each grave, cutting the name Lieut. W.G. Babcock, 64th N.Y. on the head board of Willis.  We made the best coffin we could of boards, and rolled him in his blanket.  On top of his box coffin I placed a bent bayonet.

We today built a fence around the two graves.  Mr. Weikert's Post Office address is Gettysburgh, Adams Co. Pa.  He lives about two miles south of the village.  He will protect the graves.  We are under marching orders.  I have written resting the paper on my knee, and have been so interrupted as not to be able to give as clear and connected an account as I wish."(4)


George Weikert House
And so it was, another heart wrenching loss to Samuel Babcock of Homer, New York.  He was one of thousands of people mourning all over the country for the losses they suffered at Gettysburg.  Part of a smaller denomination, he was one of those mourners that was lucky enough to receive word that his son had been given a proper burial.  Although an ironic use of the word fortunate, he was one of the fortunate few who ventured to the battleground to search for his son thanks to the diligence of Willis' comrades.  Samuel's goal was to find Willis' body and return it home.  On July 19, 1863 Samuel wrote to his two remaining sons from the US Hotel in York, Pennsylvania.  Willoughby was serving with the 75th New York and Lucius was with the 9th Minnesota.  This is the word they received from their father.

My Dear Children,
I wrote to Willoughby before leaving home for Gettysburgh intending it for you all and I do so now.  I left home on Monday for the battlefield as I told you and came by way of Elmyra Harrisburg York to Gettysburg arriving there Wednesday eve, on the train I came was 13 cars filled with fathers and brothers looking as I was for killed and wounded, it seemed to me the largest train of mourners I was ever in and I could not keep back the tears, for my heart was sad O how sad.  I thought of the last time poor Willie passed over the same road and of the sad parting I had with him at our depot when he left home for the last time and I thought of the letters you and I wrote him after the battle of Chancellorsville when he thought of leaving the army if he could do so with honor to himself and I must say I felt some misgivings over it and wished I had told him to do what he thought best under the circumstances.  But that like many other things has passed and con not be recalled.  I thought at the time I did wright, but my heart aches now while I think of it.  But I must come to particulars.  I found Codt Green and Eld Brigham on the ground.  I at once made arrangements to have Willie's body disinterred and embalmed, but the crowd was grate and all wanting the same thing dun dead bodys were passing away from the battlefield by hundreds and while I was waiting on Friday for the embalmer and his time a dispatch came to the express office to take no more bodys until further notice.

Grave of Lt. Willis Babcock in Homer, New York
Photo from by Stephen Woodward
Doct G Eld B and I went over to his grave and they thought as he was buried in a quiet place well secured..[ill.] I had better leave it until cold wether and then convey home.  The man who owned the farm said he could lay with so much care by Maj. Bradley with a sad heart, but when I came to lay my weary self on the bed that night and think of leaving Willie on the battlefield I could not do it if I had to stay weeks I would not leave without him.  In the morning I found at the express office that by getting a zink coffin and then another one for the body to go inside and seeling up both after embalming they would take him.  I lost no time in arrangein all this and in company with the embalmer and his hands Dr. G and I proceeded to Willie's grave, he had been buried 14 days--found the body in tolerable good state of preservation.  The ball struck him near the right collarbone Dr. G. thinks broke it and cut one or both greater veins and probably died in a few minutes.  His face neck and hair was covered with blood and quite dark.  We took him after the Doct had got him embalmed and taken or cut his clothes from him rolled him in army blanket put him in the coffin sealed both boxes tight and had him conveyed to the express office and Willie's body now while I write is on its way to the cemetery in Homer.  While on the battle field and visiting the diferent Corps hospitals I saw severall of the 64 and they all with one voice testified to his bravery good conduct and soldierly qualities.  His chaplin in particular said he was the favorit of the Regt and no one he thought more of. 

I went all over the ground several times when the fight began and where Willie fell hoping to find some letter or scrap of his that I might recognize as his but could find none.  I could here nothing of his watch, sword, purse or memorandum book but can but hope that the man who pined the envelop on his coat has them and will return them. 

Willoughby Willie has layed himself on the alter of his country.  It was the bravery of him and others who saved the army from distruction and Penn from pillage and turned the whole tide of things here with Gen Meads army.  A wounded soldier in the 64 told me the night before the battle Gen M. issued an order to the officers alone and he inquired what it ment or what was up that they wer cald together and Willie told him it was that the country expedted of every officer to do there duty and that very probably the fate of the country hung upon the coming battle.  And now Willoughby  I think you have dun your part of the fighting and I do hope you will take care of yourself in future and as soon as you can with honor to yourself will take leave of the battle field and of the army.  

Grave of Samuel Babcock in Homer, New York
where he is buried with his wife and four sons
Things look now as if our hardest fighting had been dun, but I do feel as if our family had fully borne their part of this terible war.  I had no adaquate idea of what our soldiers had to bare until I came down here.  There are now at Gettysburgh and surrounding several thousand in other directions around town and the government has been carrying them away to Baltimore Harrisburg Philidelphia Washington New York and other places two trains a day for the last two weeks.  I went over the field of battle an arch of 7 miles considerably and the ground is the most admirable for fighting large rocks and ledges with heavy swells offering strong points quite often.  It seems to me as if all the horses in the country had been killed, as the lay just as they were when killed scatered over all the vast battle ground.  I counted 13 around one house and barn.  Knapsack haversacks blankets guns bayonets was every where to be seen and no one can visit the field without feeling that the fight was the most desperate on the continent.  As I visited the hospital saw the wounded in every state from the dying to the convalesant and see how cheerfull they all were I could but say our brave boys are heroes.  O how much our army of the Potomac has endured.  I can but feel bad when I think how much poor Willie has passed through in these terible long and fatigueing marches but he is at rest now and I hope in Heven to join his mother and little Charlie who had gon before.  May the Lord sactify this lesson to the good of us all.  I paid $58.00 for his two coffins and embalming his body and $26.00 express to Homer total $84.  I should not have left him if it had cost twice that sum Doct Greene is with here, we came here last eve and shall start this eve or tomorrow for home.  Eld B. is still at Gettysburgh doing what he can for the boys.

I hope to find letter from Kil and WIlloughby when I get home the papers say Port Hudson has surrendered and it rumored that Morris Island and Charleston has fallen which I hope may prove true.  The riot in New York people feel here will work for the good of the country, it is generally thought it will kill Coperheadism or at least silence there clamers and show the strength of the government.  Charles F. Pratt, Clark Stickney, John Owen and many other brave boys sleep on the battlefield.  I saw the grave of Barksdale and many other Reb officers.  I must close.
Your father,
Samuel Babcock(5)

In Mr. Babcock's letter we can find that odd mix of gut wrenching emotions to which few of us can ever imagine to attest.  The heartbreak is almost incomprehensible, but it did not end there for Samuel.  By the time the war ended nearly two years later he had lost his last two sons to the fighting as well.  Lucius of the 9th Minnesota was captured at Brice's Crossroads and died at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.  Willoughby was mortally wounded at the battle of Third Winchester in Virginia in 1864.  The price paid by Samuel Babcock in the American Civil War is difficult to fathom.  He lost his entire family in a span of five years.  His wife and youngest son dying in 1859, his beloved three boys...soldiers all, gave the last full measure of devotion for the Union.  


The story does not end there though.  A few weeks ago, Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Richard Rigney was sifting through files at the 'Guide Room' when he came across the deeply moving letters above.  By a bit of serendipity he also came across a book called "Where Duty Called Them:  The Story of the Samuel Babcock Family of Homer, New York in the Civil War," all in a very short time span.  After learning of the tragic story and being the ever curious explorer, Richard went out to the field to see if he could find the markings on the rock left by Major Bradley of the 64th New York, those marking the graves of Lieutenant Babcock and Captain Fuller.  To his amazement and mine, the inscription is still there!
Carving made by Major Bradley and his comrades to mark the graves of Captain Fuller and Lt. Babcock
Located near the Weikert Barn
This discovery is one more link from past to present and proof that the link is quite vibrant.  Located on a large, vine covered boulder (just as in the letter) approximately 50 yards southeast of the Weikert Barn (15 yards south of the stone wall) and behind the house, the symbol on the rock at first looks like an incomplete Maltese Cross (symbol of the 5th Corps).  This would not make sense since the 64th New York belongs to the 2nd Corps.  One idea is that the carver got tired and went the easier route.  Instead of carving all the curves to the trefoil symbol (2nd Corps), he shortened his work by making straight lines.  Another idea is that the symbol might simply represent a cross, or trinity.  Inside the larger Maltese Cross looking part is a sphere.  Inside the sphere is the symbol in Major Bradley's letter,'+.'

It is these very stories and discoveries that hopefully help to keep the interest of us all, nice and perked.  Rest be assured there are many more gems like this still awaiting the opportunity to be brought back out into the light.  With persistence, passion and the careful research by some very valuable people, slowly we can come closer to telling a more complete story of this traumatic history.

Thank you very much to LBG Richard Rigney for sharing his discovery and for sharing the materials used for this post.  His passion for the history of the battle runs deep, as anyone that attends one of his tours can attest to.  Thank you sincerely.  

1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 2, p. 409

2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 1, p. 401

3. Campbell, Eric. "Caldwell Clears The Wheatfield." Gettysburg Magazine, July 1, 1990, 47-48.

4. Bradley, Major Leman. "Letter to Samuel Babcock ." July 5, 1863.

5. Babcock, Samuel. "Letter to Sons." July 19, 1863.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

If Walls Could Talk - Part 1

In the Gettysburg Area, we are very fortunate to have so many significant pieces of the battlefield tract available to our personal interests.  With the National Park Service's efforts to return the battle ground to its 1863 appearance, visitors today can truly get an authentic visual experience at Gettysburg.  The initiative not only involves removing timber, but also reestablishing walls and fences...all the little details that truly made an impact or acted as an obstacle to the common soldiers on foot are being restored to their 1863 stature.

Another piece of the preservation puzzle that has really kept on target through the years is the town of Gettysburg itself.  Although there are of course many more structures now in the borough than during the battle, we are fortunate to have over 150 of the original structures still standing.  As you walk the streets of the town you'll notice many buildings with a little plaque on their facade with the text, "Civil War Building - July 1863."  Most, but not all of these structures were standing at the time of the battle.  Indeed many of them served as a refuge during the street fighting, and beyond that housed the thousands of wounded soldiers for many weeks after the battle.

The borough itself is not the only area with original structures though.  In fact, Adams County itself has many buildings that have historical prominence which relates to the Gettysburg Campaign.  For enthusiasts such as myself this provides an endless sea of folklore, exploration and fascinating new details.  For this week's post we'll explore some of the homes and taverns in the outlying areas of Gettysburg that were involved in some way with the campaign.  These important sites are an equally valuable component in our quest for preserving our heritage.

Mary Bruch's Tavern

The tavern of Mary Bruch sits on the Hilltown Road between Old Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) and state Route 30 in Cashtown Pass.  The large home is at the foot of the pass over South Mountain, the gateway used by the Army of Northern Virginia on both their advance and retreat during the Gettysburg Campaign. Mary Bruch's Tavern was established as early as 1846 and operated under a different proprietor just before the start of the Civil War.

On June 26, 1863 after burning Thaddeus Steven's Iron Furnace on the eastern slopes of South Mountain, Jubal Early's Division continued east towards York, PA.  At the top of the pass, Early split his division.  Gordon's Brigade and the division's cavalry escort under the command of Colonel Elijah White continued straight on the Chambersburg/Gettysburg Pike.  Avery, Hays and Smith's Brigades, along with the division artillery, turned left onto the 1747 Pike (present Hilltown Road) and continued towards Mummasburg.  General Early stayed with the latter three brigades and artillery, heading northeast to the bottom of the pass.

At the foot of the pass the Confederate officers and members of their staff stopped in at Mary Bruch's Tavern to take a rest and get some refreshments.  General Early himself stopped in and noticed that behind the bar was a large copy of the 1858 Adams County Map.  Adams County being new to he and his staffers, they did not have many maps on hand and he found this to be the perfect opportunity to get an accurate picture of the areas roads.  He hopped across the bar, drew his knife, and cut out the center of the map, leaving a gaping hole in the once proudly displayed image.

We may never know how useful this "cutout" might have been to "Old Jube," but one thing is for certain.  That is that Mary Bruch never forgot about the incident.  Along with claiming the two horses she had stolen by Rebels, she also included in her damage claim the ruined map behind the bar.  Of course she never received anything for her claim, but she did take care of that hole in her map.

After the first casualty rolls were released for the armies, she procured a number of casualty lists for the Army of Northern Virginia and transformed them into a collage in the "cutout" area of her 1858 Adams County Map behind the bar.  She certainly had the last laugh.

Mary Bruch's Tavern still stands on the north side of Hilltown Road at the foot of the Cashtown Pass, now a private residence.

Willow Springs Tavern

The Willow Springs Tavern was built in 1795, also in the Cashtown Pass.  This tavern stands just up the hill from our previous location.  About 100 yards west of the Hilltown Road/Chambersburg Pike intersection, many a Confederate officer and soldier passed by these doors.  Surely during the campaign it was used by Confederate officers and even possibly to shelter the wounded.  Before Gettysburg on October 11, 1862,the tavern was visited by none other than JEB Stuart during raid and burning of Chambersburg.  It is currently a private residence and a beautiful structure at that.

Blackhorse Tavern (Bream's Tavern)

Few homes with involvement in the Gettysburg Campaign can claim as much history as the Blackhorse Tavern.  The tavern was built in 1812 along what is now the Fairfield/Hagerstown Road (formerly Nichols Gap Road) and Marsh Creek.  In 1843 it was purchased by Francis Bream who became the proprietor of the tavern.  By the time Mr. Bream took over, the tavern had been a well established rest point for travelers and its popularity grew after the road became worn by a stage coach route.

During the Gettysburg campaign it was truly a Grand Central Station for movements by both armies.  On July 1, troops of Biddle's Brigade passed by the tavern on their way to the fighting on McPherson's Ridge.  That evening as General Andrew Humphreys was trying to lead his division to the battlefield, he nearly led them straight into Confederate troops occupying the grounds around the Blackhorse Tavern.  Thanks to his own personal intuition this encounter never took place on the basis of faulty reconnaissance.

On July 2, Lt. General James Longstreet led two of his divisions towards the Emmitsburg Road near the Round Tops when he realized his column was visible to the Federal signal station on Little Round Top.  They were just cresting Breams Hill southeast of the tavern when the discovery was made.  Longstreet was forced to counter-march is men back in the direction from which they came, eating up more valuable time.  In truth, the Federal signal station reported that a strong enemy column was moving to the right, so the value in the entire episode had both positive and negative implications depending upon the perspective.

After the battle, the tavern became a major field hospital for the Confederate 1st Corps (mostly McLaws and Hood's Divisions, some from Pickett's).  The Breams lost almost everything because of the campaign and occupation as a hospital.  Upon their return they found over seventy bodies around the house and barn.  The house was ransacked for anything that could be of use in the care of 100s of wounded soldiers.  They filed a damage claim for nearly $7,000, of which none was ever compensated.

The tavern still stands on the north side of the Fairfield/Hagerstown Road (PA 116) just before it crosses Marsh Creek.  The tavern and home are part of a private residence, but there is a marker and pull-off along the road.  

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