Sometimes we have this unspoken idea that Gettysburg residents got exemption papers in the early days of the war because they would “host” a battle. Okay, maybe you never thought of it that way…but we don’t usually think of soldiers from Gettysburg. We think of soldiers at Gettysburg.
Gettysburg men served in several different regiments, including the 87th Pennsylvania, the 138th Pennsylvania, Emergency Militia, and the 2nd Virginia. Today we’ll briefly discuss these regiments and a few of the Gettysburg men who enlisted.
87th Pennsylvania Infantry
This regiment was formed in September 1861, and the soldiers enlisted for three years. The young men of several Gettysburg families joined this unit. In their first year of war, the 87th did a lot railroad guard duty (I know, that’s kind of boring).
However, in spring 1863, they fought at the Second Battle of Winchester (a conflict part of the Gettysburg Campaign). The regiment suffered casualties, including some of the Gettysburg boys, and many were also taken prisoner. In their hometown, reports and rumors of the Winchester battle arrived, but it wasn’t until after the Battle of Gettysburg that the families learned of the casualties. Jack Skelly – a 21 year old lad, and the supposed sweetheart of Miss Virginia Wade – was killed at Winchester.
The 87th did not fight at Gettysburg (consequences of being prisoners), but was present at 12 major battles or campaigns in the following two years.
138th Pennsylvania Infantry
Company B of this unit included men from the Gettysburg area. Organized in August 1862 and enlisted for three years, this regiment contained some of the older Gettysburg men or the young men whose families had insisted they wait to enlist.
One notable soldier from Gettysburg in this company was Peter Thorn, former caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery. During the battle, his wife, children, and in-laws would have to flee their home which was situated in the middle of the conflict on Cemetery Hill. The family would survive, and happily, Peter Thorn would come marching home at the war’s end.
**Spoiler Alert for Blue, Gray & Crimson** The 138th spent a lot of time guarding supply wagons and reserve areas during the first years of their war experience. They did not play a significant role at Gettysburg. The regiment’s “baptism of fire” occurred in November 1863 and after that they fought in most of the major battles in the Eastern Theater of war.
In June 1863 with rumors flying through the Southern Pennsylvania communities and Governor Andrew Curtain calling for extra troops to defend the state, Gettysburg men and boys headed the call to defend their homes. Mr. Robert Bell – a Gettysburg resident – organized a small cavalry unit. Then there was the infantry company – consisting of students from the Gettysburg colleges and other townsmen – which joined Colonel William Jenning’s regiment of emergency troops. The cavalry unit stayed in the Gettysburg area, but were no match for Confederate raiders.
Yes, this is a Confederate regiment. Not everybody in Gettysburg was pro-Union. One young man – Wesley Culp – went south and joined the 2nd Virginia Infantry in the early weeks of the war. Private Culp would return to Gettysburg with the Confederate army and would be killed on his family’s property.
There were soldiers from Gettysburg, and some of them fought in their town and fields during the battle. Let it be known: this is not a comprehensive list of regiments with Gettysburg soldiers, but I think it is enough to illustrate my point without getting too tedious.
As men from the community enlisted and marched off to war, they left behind their civilian families who would worry, watch, and wait for their return. These scenes happened all across the nation, and the small town in Pennsylvania received no exemption from duty. The American Civil War swept Gettysburg into the conflict long before the Gettysburg Campaign.
P.S. Surprised to learn about Gettysburg soldiers? How do you think they might have felt when they heard that their families were stuck in the middle of a battle?