The sesquicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg — fought July 1, 2 and 3, 1863 — is ongoing this week, with re-enactments, scholarly seminars and thousands of visitors to that hallowed ground in Pennsylvania. As part of my preparation for an upcoming episode in my video series, “A Ramble Through Rowan History,” I explored the extent to which our county was involved. Here is what I found:
The majority of Confederate companies raised in Rowan were at Gettysburg; the only substantial group to be absent was on duty along the North Carolina coast. Rowan’s finest soldiers participated in one way or another in all three days of the great battle. More than 300 local men were involved, according to estimates by Ray Barber, a researcher for the Historic Salisbury Foundation. At least 20 died.
Why were they in Gettysburg?
Gen. Robert E. Lee had come to Pennsylvania to replenish his troops after a string of victories in Virginia. He also wanted to force key Northern states like Pennsylvania to consider an end to the war. He did not, however, want a military engagement until his widely scattered divisions could converge on “good ground.”
It did not happen that way. On July 1, Gen. Harry Heth, whose contingent included several Rowan companies, fired on a Union patrol near the Lutheran Seminary that had trained Rev. Samuel Rothrock, pastor of Organ Lutheran Church, in 1863.
The haphazard opening of the battle, on July 1, led to Confederate formations that were piecemeal and ill-conceived, and proved to be the most deadly moment of the war for Rowan Confederates.
Members of the 5th North Carolina Regiment, coming into Gettysburg from the northwest, were sent across a sloping field without real plan or coordination. No one spotted Union soldiers hiding behind a stone wall on the crest of a ridge. The Yankees raised up and fired an enfilade volley that devastated the Rebels. One witness said men “were left dead and wounded in a line as straight as a dress parade.” Ten Rowan citizens fell within 10 minutes. One was Milas P. Morgan, a member of the venerated family from the piney woods in eastern Rowan.
Their commander, Gen. Alfred Iverson, was hiding behind a tree at the time. He may have been drunk. After the battle, General Lee exiled him to collecting supplies in the backwoods of Georgia.
Despite the lack of coordination, the Confederates soon outnumbered and outflanked the North and forced them out of the town of Gettysburg. Rowan’s Col. Hamilton C. Jones Jr., whose planter family lived near the current site of the county fairgrounds, described the action vividly. “The men were wild with excitement, and when their time came they went in with the wildest enthusiasm.” The commander of the 57th regiment, with two companies of Rowan conscripts in it, remembered later that “it looked indeed as if the end of the war had come.”
Rowan troops were among the Confederates who rushed through the streets and headed south toward the town cemetery, now known as Cemetery Hill, a small but significant promontory that, given the approaches to warfare at the time, was the key to victory.
One was John C. Bringle, from the famed ferryman family. Bringle had been urged to enlist by his father in 1861 because he was the most expendable worker in the family business. Angered, the young Bringle agreed to do so, but said he would never work for his father again. He fought unscathed in the three days of Gettysburg. After the war, Bringle did go back to the ferry, joined St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church and lived into the 20th century.
Many of these Rowan troops were serving under Gen. Robert F. Hoke, namesake for the United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter here in Salisbury. Hoke, by the way, had been one of the early students at Catawba College when it was founded in Newton in the 1850s.
But the Confederates did not stay on the Cemetery Hill that first day. Hoke’s senior officer, corps commander Richard S. Ewell, did not follow up in force, and Union reinforcements regained the hill. It was, in retrospect, the likely turning point of the battle, and some historians argue, of the whole Civil War. From then on, the entire Confederate effort was uphill, both literally and figuratively. Ironically, the newspaper back in Salisbury that week published an article extolling Ewell’s generalship.
On July 2, the second day, Lee determined that he would do what he had been doing to achieve a string of victories back in Virginia: outflank the sluggish Army of the Potomac and come at it from an unexpected location. However, the continued lack of coordination in the Confederate army, which included poor scouting of the terrain, delayed the maneuver for most of the day.
Members of the Rowan Artillery, one of our two original Confederate units, played a key role in this phase of the battle. They fired hundreds of shells into the two small mountains, Big and Little Round Tops, that commanded the landscape south of Gettysburg. Several were wounded, but only one Rowan gunner, Henry W. Owens, was killed that day. This was miraculous, in a way, since one of the guns burst from overheating, and another had its axle blow apart.
Most of the Rowan soldiers engaged on the second day were part of secondary maneuvers aimed at the capture of Culp’s Hill, a steep knoll that would allow the Confederates to threaten the Union position on nearby Cemetery Hill. Troops under Hoke repeatedly scaled the slopes in the latter part of the day, to no avail.
Cabarrus farm boy Richard F. Fleming, who had joined the Rowan company in the 7th regiment, washed his wounded foot in Spangler’s Spring. Fleming, who was captured and later exchanged, survived the war. He would become a well-known member of Rowan’s Oak Grove Methodist Church. Neighbors called him “Nickel Dick” because of his trading and swapping accomplishments.
The same North Carolina troops that had tried to keep Cemetery Hill on the first day of the battle also launched an attack on it late in the day on July 2. The same fate awaited them that plagued Confederates all over the field. Uphill climbs did not succeed.
General Lee, determined to teach a lesson to “those people” — his term for the Union army that he was so used to defeating — decided on a frontal assault on July 3. It was folly, and Lee should have known better. The British and French had learned the ill-wisdom of such maneuvers in the Crimean War, and Lee himself had watched Union soldiers die needlessly in such an attack at Fredericksburg. Historians now agree that Lee was in poor health during the battle and perhaps not in top-flight command of his faculties or his generals.
The assault, known to history as Pickett’s Charge, involved more than 10,000 Virginians and North Carolinians who marched over a mile of open terrain toward the tail-off of the high ground at the cemetery.
Some Rowan troops, particularly in the 7th regiment, were in the center of the ill-fated attack. They crossed over a stone wall and silenced a Northern battery before being driven back. It was one of the worst moments of combat in the entire war. “The best writer in the universe could not give the faintest idea of this horrible conflict,” said Nat Rayner of the 4th regiment.
Amazingly, only one Rowan soldier is known to have died in Pickett’s Charge, Ibsom Miller of the 34th regiment, a company mostly from the Millbridge area which was one of the last to leave the field. A few others were wounded, but compared to the losses from other places in the South, Rowan’s cost in this maneuver was minimal.
Southerners did not at first acknowledge that the charge or the battle had been a loss. “Our forces,” said Nat Rayner, “taught the enemy a terrible lesson concerning the valor of Dixie’s boys.” As late as July 20, Salisbury newspaper readers were told that “the consequences of the battle are also in doubt.”
Over time, however, there was no doubt. The defeat at Gettysburg spiraled the Confederacy toward defeat.
Here at home, the loss began to splinter support for the Confederacy. The week of the battle the local newspaper published the first evidence that an anti-Confederate organization, the Heroes of America, was active in the area. By August, citizens around Setzer School, then located to the east of China Grove, held a meeting to promote a separate agreement with the North to come back into the Union. Allison Lippard, who had been a student at Setzer, had just deserted to the enemy after he had been captured on the first day of Gettysburg.
Pro-Confederates then held a counter meeting at Thyatira Presbyterian Church at Millbridge. By fall Unionist Nathaniel Boyden, Salisbury’s prominent lawyer, was elected to the state legislature as a Peace Movement proponent.
Two more years of war, both on the battlefield and on the home front, followed.
Dr. Gary Freeze, a history professor at Catawba College, is the host and writer for the series, “A Ramble Through Rowan History,” sponsored by the Rowan Public Library. The latest installment, “Rowan in the Civil War,” will premiere at the library sometime in late summer.