Saturday, March 18, 2017

Among the Last Sacrifices

John D. Gillespie was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, not too far outside of Philadelphia. Little is known about his formative years, but the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself in 1861 when Gillespie was only 17 years old. War had broken out and after Lincoln's call in the summer of that year for 500,000 volunteers, the young man enlisted in August for three years of Federal service, probably with many friends, in Company B of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry as a corporal.

Monument to the 49th PA at Gettysburg
The regiment earned a reputation through its list of engagements that continued to mount as the war lurched ahead; Seven Days, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Salem Church, and Gettysburg. In late 1863 John Gillespie re-enlisted with the regiment. Their worst battles ensued with the commencement of the Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. From May 4 -14 the regiment suffered 392 casualties. There were only 130 men left for service and one of them was young Corporal John Gillespie, who had passed unharmed through every single battle. Due to a combination of attrition and experience, he was promoted to sergeant.

The regiment was at Cold Harbor, with Sheridan in the Valley Campaign, and at Petersburg, and Gillespie was still unscathed. He was again promoted, this time to first sergeant of Company E. In April of 1865, Grant finally forced Lee out of his defenses at Petersburg and the Army of the Potomac pursued the wavering Confederates vigorously.

The 49th Pennsylvania saw their last major action at Sailor's Creek on April 6, 1865. They were pressing the enemy, specifically Ewell's Corps and the fight was nasty, but short-lived as they overwhelmed the tail of Lee's disintegrating army. Seven men in the regiment went down with Rebel lead that day. After three years and eight months of service, the luck of 21-year-old John D. Gillespie finally ran out.

He was taken to Carver Hospital in Washington, D.C. and surely he received news of the surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Over the following month though, he continued to decline. John D. Gillespie succumbed to his wound on May 12, 1865, among the last sacrifices of the bloody struggle. His remains were transported home where he was buried in the Saint Agnes Cemetery, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania with other members of his family. Although I have not been able to find any wartime documents that corroborate this information, his tombstone reads "Lieut." He may very well have been acting in that capacity at the time of his wounding, and surely if he had survived he probably would have received a promotion. Rank means little to the sacrifice, but in some way it might be an appropriate epitaph to the bravery of this young man.

Finally, here is a picture of young John D. Gillespie, so much youth and seemingly plenty of life ahead, but it was not to be.

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