17th Pennsylvania Cavalry: Messages & Sabers

He grimaced, took a deep breath, and spoke with effort. “I’m Corporal Thomas Russell. 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. My company’s attached to the Eleventh Corps headquarters. We’re couriers.” ~Blue, Gray & Crimson

The 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry is unique because was actually in 3 different locations at Gettysburg – all at the same time. Why? The V and XI Corps headquarters needed messengers. Here’s an overview of this regiment’s unique experience at Gettysburg.

A “Late Regiment”

Compared to the 27th Indiana and 10th Virginia, the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry was formed “late.” This regiment was mustered in the autumn of 1862 and was official enrolled in the United States Army on October 25, 1862. Drawing troopers from twelve separate counties across the state, these men came from varying backgrounds – farmers, workmen, tradesmen, small business owners. Some probably did not know how to ride a horse – a typical problem for Union cavalry regiments – but most in this regiment had some riding experience from their country lives or previous work. Months of drill and practice made this regiment ready for the battlefield.

One thing I found particularly interesting is that some cavalry veterans from the Mexican War (1846-1848) enlisted with this unit. Just from their riding experience and “mentorship within the ranks”, this regiment would have advantage and opportunity on the battlefield.

Pre-Gettysburg Adventures

The Spring of 1863 was a decisive period for the Union cavalry. For the first time in Civil War history, they were successfully challenging the formerly superior Confederate horsemen.

The 17th took part in the some of the important cavalry battles and skirmishes in this season. They were at Kelly’s Ford, Chancellorsville, Beverly Ford, Aldie, Upperville, Ashby’s Gap, and Middleburg, before arriving at Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, the unit successfully held off part of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack, encouraging Union troops to rally.

Union Cavalry, dismounted - this the way the 17th would have been fighting at Gettysburg.

Union Cavalry, dismounted – this the way the 17th would have been fighting at Gettysburg.


The 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry – commanded by Colonel Josiah Kellogg – was part of Devin’s brigade, Buford’s division. The march northward was long and difficult; the men and horses were exhausted.

On June 29th a unique situation developed as the regiment passed through the town of Waynesboro, the hometown of the soldiers in Company G. They received permission to visit their families for the night, and it became a boasting point in the regiment that they all willing returned to duty the following morning.

That day – June 30th – unexpected skirmishing to the west and a ride to Gettysburg would bring the regiment to one of the most important conflicts they would face.

July 1st – the regiment was up before sunrise and spent the morning defending the ridges west of Gettysburg against overwhelming numbers of Confederates. As Union infantry came up later in the morning, the cavalry units were withdrawn. However, they would have one more important role on this day – they would help cover the infantry’s retreat to Cemetery Hill in the late afternoon. The 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry spent the night near Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, but got little rest, waiting to be called. The wagon train with the regiment’s rations finally arrived!

448 men of the 17th were present at Gettysburg, only 4 were wounded.

The regiment was sent south to Maryland, to guard supply trains and did not play a significant role in the following days at Gettysburg. However, without their tenacious defense of Seminary Ridge at the beginning, the battle’s outcome may have been very different.

Companies D, H, and K at Gettysburg

Remember, these are the days before radios. Battlefield communication is challenging. Skilled horsemen carry written or verbal messages from the commanders to the units on the march or on the battlefield. Couriers were often selected by company and had a reputation for bravery. During a battle, they delivered messages under enemy fire – the opposing side knew they carried orders and would often try to shoot the messenger. Generals learned to send multiple couriers into the fray when there were important messages, hoping that one might get through.

Companies D, H, and K of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry were not with the main part of the regiment, fighting on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg. Rather, they were at headquarters as couriers.

Commanded by Captain William Thompson, Companies D & H were messengers for the V Corps headquarters. The V Corps did not enter the battle until July 2, but the couriers would’ve been busy throughout the campaign carrying messages.

Company K, led by Captain Richard Fitzgerald, provided couriers for XI Corps headquarters. The XI Corps was the second Union infantry corps to arrive at Gettysburg on July 1st, so these messengers would have been continually under fire through their Gettysburg experience. Rushing messages from headquarters to the battlefield, pleas for aid to other corps still on the march, and updates to the Army of the Potomac commander, these couriers had a busy and dangerous Gettysburg experience.

Remembering The 17th

The 17th isn’t exactly forgotten. Most Gettysburg books mention or detail General Buford’s fight on Seminary Ridge. The 17th was there, so their “battle area” gets attention in history studies, but they don’t often get a lot of recognition. They didn’t fire the first shots at the Confederates, they were just a steady regiment fighting with all the others. But, if Buford hadn’t had good, sturdy regiments, what might have happened?

Couriers tend to be forgotten in studies of the Civil War. We forget how the commanders sent and received messages. But if the messengers from the 17th hadn’t got through, what might have happened?

At Gettysburg, every regiment, every man played an important part. While we’ll probably always have our favorite units, don’t forget the importance of all the regiments. One regiment did not single handedly win Gettysburg.

And one regiment – the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry – was in 3 separate locations, fighting or riding for victory.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on this unique cavalry regiment at Gettysburg?

If you want more in-depth information about the unit, visit this post on Mr. Petruzzi’s blog. He’s an outstanding historian of Civil War cavalry.




Beyond The 20th Maine

I have something to confess. I committed sacrilege in the Gettysburg historical community. How? I didn’t write about (or even mention) Colonel J. L. Chamberlain or the 20th Maine regiment in my book.

gettysburg-1993-12I know, it seems unbelievable. And for your information, I have seen the movie Gettysburg, I have stood at the 20th Maine position on Little Round Top, and – being a young woman who’s not blind – I’ve swooned (a little) over The Colonel’s photos. So how did the un-imaginable, “horrifying” act of sacrilege happen?

Well, let me share three things I learned while reading a good-size stack of Gettysburg military books. And at the end of the article, I’ll share the regiments of the soldiers who interact with the civilians in my story.

1. The 20th Maine Was Not The Only Regiment At Gettysburg

We know this. (Or at least we think we do!) But I just LOVE – that’s sarcasm, there folks – how Every. Single. Book. published since about 1994 mentions the 20th Maine and the crucially dramatic fight on the Union’s left flank. It’s everywhere; the children’s books, the YA books, the large 3 inch thick history books. Chamberlain, Chamberlain, Chamberlain, 20th Maine, 20th Maine, 20th Maine.

However, the interesting thing? Chamberlain himself acknowledged that without the rest of the brigade – gracious, without the rest of the Union army – the battle wouldn’t have been won. (See I have read his writings!) Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the 1st Minnesota hadn’t kept the Rebels off Cemetery Ridge. Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the XI Corps hadn’t held onto to Cemetery Hill. And hey, why don’t we ever hear much about the units on Culp’s Hill, which was the right flank of the Union line? If they’d collapsed, Chamberlain would’ve really been in a mess. (Though he’d probably have said something like “Bayonet them both ways” – apologies to General Forrest for misusing his quote.)

So, there were hundreds of regiments holding the Gettysburg line. Many played a significant role in the defensive battle. And yes, there were other bayonet charges!


I’ve circled Culp’s Hill on the map

2. The Union’s Right Flank Was Far More Significant Than Most Of Us Realize

If you’d asked me when I was 14 about the Union right flank at Gettysburg, I could’ve told you it was on Culp’s Hill…and not much else. After all, most of the action was on the left flank with the 20th Maine, right? Wrong. Here’s what I learned later on –

Culp’s Hill (see map) was very important to the Union line. It was guarding their escape route, down Baltimore Pike. (Fortunately, General Meade never had to issue escape orders.) It was also guarding the rear of the Union position.

One startling reality for the Culp’s Hill fighting is that it lasted significantly longer than left flank conflict. Artillery fire toward the right flank began in the late afternoon of July 2, then faded off after a couple hours; the attacks disintegrated into confused night fighting, paused, and then exploded for another six hours of battle in the morning of July 3.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn't real effective on Culp's Hill - so this tree was shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn’t effective on Culp’s Hill – so this tree was probably shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

3. The Culp’s Hill Conflict Is Unique At Gettysburg

As I’m writing this, I’m imagining the confused looks after that last heading, so let me explain. Culp’s Hill was densely wooded. True, the undergrowth had been cleared in previously years, so it was fairly “open”, but let’s just say it’d be hard to see the forest for the trees. All those trees meant something very significant – it was next to impossible to use artillery on this part of the battlefield. Culp’s Hill is an infantry – and infantry only – fight. No cavalry, limited, ineffective artillery. That’s very unique in the Gettysburg battle. (**Note: there was artillery around the Union right flank area, but as far as the attacks actually on Culp’s Hill, it is insignificant.)

Another interesting development in the Union right flank lines is the intentional order to build fortifications. Okay, yes, all across Gettysburg battlefield men piled up fence rails or stones for some shelter. But, on Culp’s Hill, the generals actually gave orders for the men to dig and build fortifications. This is one of the first times in Civil War history that trenches are built during a battle. Unfortunately for the Union soldiers the entrenching tools (handy shovels and big axes) were in the supply wagons, which were still a long distance away, so they had to use their cups, plates, and bayonets to construct their shelters!

So…Culp’s Hill (like other places at Gettysburg) evolves into its own unique conflict and it really deserves more study and “limelight.”

The Lucky Regiments

I didn’t write about the 20th Maine in Blue, Gray & Crimson. I decided it was time for new regiments to get some attention or glory. How about the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 27th Indiana, or 10th Virginia?

Since the book isn’t due for release for a few more l…o…n…g weeks (Yes, I’m having trouble waiting too!), I thought I’d introduce you to the real regiments featured in the story. Hopefully, you’ll enjoying “meeting” the real units of the fictional characters who interact with the civilians.

So unfurl your Union flag and polish those bayonets because next week we’re making a bayonet charge with the 27th Indiana Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think? Time for some new regiments to have their recognized moment of glory? Or shall we continue watching the 20th Maine’s charge on replay?

(Where is my Gettysburg DVD anyway…that still sounds like an interesting way to spend the evening!)

Mad at me about my tirade about Chamberlain? Okay, here’s my four part series on that hero; Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4