The purpose of this blog is to describe the events, places, and personalities that impacted the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Infantry during the course of its service between 1861 and 1865.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"It was another Fredericksburg... only the wrong way" The 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863: Part One

"History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthemore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man."
-Victor Hugo, 1874

"When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend."
-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962

The Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault on the afternoon of July 3, 1863 is rapidly reaching its dramatic conclusion. Among the Confederates surging towards the Union line on Cemetery Ridge is a battered and determined group of soldiers from the 26th North Carolina. Despite the horrific losses suffered in the ranks from their involvement in the fighting of July 1, they push onward towards the awaiting Union defenders. As they close in on the low stone wall, the sheer bravery of the attackers, the stoic resolve of the defenders, and the terrible human cost of that day all seem to blend into one heroic, yet tragic, moment in time. Thomas Aldrich, from Captain William Arnold's Company A of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery wrote the following account in a 1904 history of the unit:
One of the guns of Battery A was double-shotted with canister. Private William C. Barker was No. 4, and he stood holding the lanyard which was attached to the primer to fire the piece, and, as a regiment of Pettigrew's brigade [the Twenty-sixth North Carolina] was charging the position held by the battery and the Fourteenth Connecticut and First Delaware regiments of infantry, and had almost reached the wall just in front of us, Sergt. Amos M. C. Olney cried out: "Barker, why the d--I don't you fire that gun! pull! pull!" The No. 4 obeyed orders and the gap made in that North Carolina regiment was simply terrible. [Lewis] Armistead had just fallen, and Pickett' s charge had failed. This was the last shot fired from our battery when the rebels broke in retreat, and Gettysburg was won.

Arnold's Battery and the 26th North Carolina from that moment on were forever connected in history. In 1986, the State of North Carolina with the support of many interested groups and individuals placed a marker a short distance from the section of the wall defended by Arnold's Battery to mark the advance of the 26th North Carolina and how their assault met its violent end (this was the second marker to the regiment at Gettysburg, the first was placed along Meredith Avenue in 1985). Since that time this scene has been immortalized through historical works, artistic works (such as Mort Kunstler's The High Water Mark), and briefly in the 1993 film Gettysburg. This does not include the thousands of visitors everyday who pass by and ponder the events that unfolded just a few feet in front of Arnold's guns on July 3.

Monument to the 26th North Carolina in front of Arnold's Battery on Cemetery Ridge

The following words are included on the 26th North Carolina monument near the Angle on Cemetery Ridge:

North Carolina Regiment
Pettigrew's Brigade Heth's Division,
Hill's Corps
Army of Northern Virginia

Although nearly destroyed during its successful attack against Meredith's Iron Brigade on July 1, the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Regiment joined in the Petigrew-Pickett Charge on the afternoon of July 3. Advancing under solid shot, spherical case, canister, and musketry the Regiment charge to within ten paces of the stone wall to their front.

The scene was described by an artilleryman of a Rhode Island Battery: ". . . As a regiment of Pettigrew's Brigade (the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina) was charging. . .and had almost reached the wall in front of us, Sergt. M.C.Onley cried out. . .'Fire that gun! Pull! Pull!' the No. 4 obeyed orders and the gap made in that North Carolina regiment was simply terrible." Under this galling fire, the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina was compelled to retire with the Brigade from this point to Seminary Ridge."

"The men of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment would
dress their colors in spite of the world. "

Erected by the State of North Carolina 1986

With each telling and printing of Aldrich's account the legend grew and the history of what actually happened seemed to become convoluted, combined, or at times overlooked. So how exactly did the legend overtake the history?

Since 1986 and the monument dedication the Aldrich account has become almost gospel in terms of Gettysburg history and variations of it have appeared in works about the 26th North Carolina since (McGee 26th North Carolina Regimental History, page 57; Gragg Covered With Glory, page 199; and Hess Lee's Tar Heels, page 149). Over time, the history and the legend merged, to create its own unique view. This does not mean that other historians and students of the battle did not raise an eyebrow at the placement of the monument.

Bruce Trinque was one of those historians. In a 1995 Gettysburg Magazine article (a copy of the article can be found here) Trinque, has to date made the best case, and in my opinion conclusively proved that the men in front of Arnold's guns were not members of the 26th North Carolina and that the 1986 monument is incorrectly placed. Yet, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the legend persists, and was included in the above works all published after Trinque's 1995 article. While the use of one account does not cloud the overall quality of the works by McGee, Gragg, and Hess, its has continued to cause a bit of confusion as to what exactly the 26th North Carolina did on July 3 and most importantly where.

The historical evidence points to the 26th North Carolina being around 175-200 yards north of the current monument location. Rather than facing the fire from Arnold, supported by the 14th Connecticut, the regiment attacked along the section of the line occupied by the 12th New Jersey and the 1st Delaware. The Union line was positioned behind a stone wall running north from Arnold's Battery towards towards the Brien barn was as follows: Arnold's Battery, the 14th Connecticut, 1st Delaware, 12th New Jersey, and the 111th New York. Following the same alignment the Confederates attacking were Fry's (Archer's) Brigade of Alabamians and Tennesseans, Marshall's (Pettigrew's) Brigade of North Carolinians, and Davis's Brigade of Mississippians and North Carolinians. The alignment for Marshall's Brigade was heading north the 52nd North Carolina, the 47th North Carolina, the 26th North Carolina, and the 11th North Carolina.

Part of the problem with the account of the 26th North Carolina and Arnold's Battery begins with the fact that it comes from a regimental history written by a veteran, with aid from others who were there. While regimental histories are a tremendous resource to historians, they must be looked at with a scrutinizing eye and not just accepted at face value. They are most effectively used when compared to other primary source accounts, only then does a clearer picture begin to emerge. The Aldrich account was written in 1904, 41 years after the battle, and the passage of time did have an impact on it. Adding to the confusion was the fact that a flag from a North Carolina regiment was captured near Arnold's guns by the 14th Connecticut (that of the 16th North Carolina). The similarity between the unit designations, along with the fact that the 26th North Carolina, along with the well-known accounts of their loss in the battle , coupled with the notoriety the 26th had after Gettysburg seems to have caused the account to place them in front of their guns. With all the regiment endured, and the high casualty rate, it was not a stretch logically to place them there, but historically the record just does not support the 26th North Carolina being in that location on July 3.

One way to place the regiments attacking is based on the Confederate battle flags captured by Union forces that afternoon. The flags of the Confederate units captured in the immediate vicinity of Arnold were those of Fry's Brigade, and Lowrance's (Scales) Brigade of North Carolinians, which the 16th North Carolina was a part of. The Union regiments that captured the various flags of those commands were the 14th Connecticut and the 1st Delaware. Yet the flag of the 26th (along with the 47th North Carolina who were beside them) were captured by the 12th New Jersey. This clearly places the 26th north of the current marker location.

The image of a regiment being hit at point-blank range by a double round of canister is something that the survivors of such an experience would not forget, yet the accounts from the 26th North Carolina do not make any mention of this. The regiment was certainly under artillery fire, but that was likely from Union batteries north of Arnold's position. Two great examples of primary source documentation from the 26th North Carolina come from Underwood's history of the regiment and the Official Report of Major John T. Jones. Underwood made use of official reports in his 1904 history, and his account does bear a similarity to the report of Major Jones written shortly after the battle.

Underwood's account is as follows:

When about 300 yards from their works the musketry of the enemy opened on us, but nothing daunted the brave men of the Twenty-sixth pressed quickly forward and when the regiment reached within forty yards of the enemy's works it had been reduced to a skirmish line. But the brave remnant still pressed ahead and the colors were triumphantly planted on the works by J.M. Brooks and Daniel Thomas, of Company E, when a cry came from the left, and it was seen that the entire left of the line had been swept away.

The Twenty-sixth now exposed to a front and enfilade fire, there was no alternative but to retreat, and the order was accordingly given...

In his report Major Jones writes:

When within 250 or 300 yards of the stone wall behind which the enemy was posted, we were met with a perfect hail-storm of lead from their small-arms. The brigade received a deadly volley from the left. The whole line on the left had given way, and we were being rapidly flanked. With our thinned ranks and in a such a position, it would have been folly to stand, and against such odds. We therefore fell back to our original position in the rear of the batteries...
These two accounts, with other primary source documentation from the regiment, point to a much different picture of the 26th North Carolina in the attack of July 3, than the one painted by Aldrich, and later used by subsequent historians.

While the account of Aldrich is dramatic and riveting, it did not involve the 26th North Carolina. Aldrich seems to have confused the 26th with one of Fry's regiments, or most likely the 16th North Carolina. Both the 16th North Carolina and the 26th North Carolina were regiments who could with pride claim the boast of "furthest at Gettysburg" and the men of both regiments endured some of the most murderous conditions imaginable in the attack that afternoon. In this case the legend outpaced the history and continues to do so to this day. The 26th North Carolina did not face double canister that day, but this still does not mean they were sparred from heavy fire. The high cost inflicted on the regiment by the 12th New Jersey as they closed in on their line is evidence of that. As Hugo stated, history and legend both at some level have truth, and the Aldrich account and its subsequent use in relation to the 26th shows how the combination of history and legend can form their own reality. But in the end we owe it to both regiments, the 16th and 26th North Carolina, to remember what they did that day, and that begins with setting the historical record straight.

Now that we have established where the 26th North Carolina was, and was not, on July 3, the next post on the blog will focus on their actions in one of the most famous attacks in American military history.


Lee's Tar Heels, Earl J. Hess, 2001

Covered With Glory, Rod Gragg, 2000

The 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops: A History, David McGee

"The gap made in that... regiment was simply terrible:" Arnold's Battery and the 26th North Carolina, Bruce A. Trinque, Gettysburg Magazine, Number Twelve, 1995.

The History of Battery A, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, in the War to Preserve the Union, 1861-1865, Thomas M. Aldrich, 1904

History of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of the North Carolina Troops in the Great War 1861-1865, George Underwood, 1901