15th MVI at Gettysburg

Page Title


The Fifteenth Massachusetts

At Gettysburg


(from an account of the dedication of the Regiment’s memorial, 1886)




     GETTYSBURG, PA. June 2. The excursionists to the battle-field of Gettysburg arrived here yesterday. To-day the party has been driving about sight-seeing, and the formal exercises dedicating the 15th regimental memorial monument. Prayer was offered by Rev. C. M. Palmer of Westminster, and addresses were made by Gen. Charles Devens, Hon. W. W. Rice and Gen A. B. R. Sprague. A letter was read from Senator Hoar, expressing regret that public business in Washington prevented his attendance. Gen. Sprague’s speech was a eulogy of Col. Ware, and Mr. Rice  formally delivered the 15th regiment monument to the battle-field association. The following is a portion of Gen. Devens’s address.




An Eloquent Sketch of the Work of the 15th Regiment


     Comrades and Friends: We have met at a distance from our homes, on a great field rendered immortal forever by the victory won here for the Union of these states and for the great principles of liberty, and equality on which that heroism must live or else have no life, to dedicate this monument to the memory of those of the 15th Massachusetts regiment, who fell in that terrible conflict. If such be the immediate object of this monument, it has also a wider scope as in a large sense it commemorates all the brave men who nobly gave or bravely offered their lives and testifies to our own devotion to, and faith in the great cause which demanded this solemn sacrifice. Our gathering is in no sense ceremonial; yet simple and formal as they may be, we must willingly speak as we stand above these glorious graves some words that shall express, however inadequately, the gratitude we bear  this men for their priceless services and the love and honor in which we cherish their memory. So rapidly do the years move that in the near future the language of impartial history shall speak in the solemn and unanswered tones in which it had recorded its judgment upon brave men and heroic souls long gone before us in the ages past. But, although 23 years are gone since these hills rang with the echoes of the dead artillery and these fields almost shook with the tramp of contending armies, to us, then, men must ever be what they were that day, brothers and comrades, husbands, lovers, fathers and sons, everything that makes life sweet and beautiful gathers and entwines itself around their memory.


     The battle of Gettysburg indicates the high water mark of the rebellion.  Although many great battles were to be fought thereafter, many trials endured, many disasters encountered, yet  its culminating point was here and it was here that the tide was turned. If the so-called confederacy could establish itself firmly on the soil of one of the Northern states it would indicate to Europe that the civil war was

Something More than a Local One

Of vast rebellion and might, perhaps gain for it an admission into the family of nations by them who were covertly supporting it. Vicksburg was not yet taken. It could not be wrenched from the grasp of the iron hands which held it, but the blow might be parried if a victory could be won for the rebellion upon Northern soil. Whatever were the motives and hopes which induced the invasion of Pennsylvania by Gen. Lee, here they were seen to come to naught and were utterly blasted.


     In view, it may b fairly be presumed, of the consequences of this great victory, of the fact that it was upon the soil of one of the free states and that this field is an appropriate memorial of the whole war, the state of Massachusetts on March 25, 1884, appropriated to each of its regiments or batteries here engaged a sufficient sum for a suitable monument to be erected on the battle field. The work of the artist is before us, and that if simple, is yet graceful and appropriate, will be conceded. No state has proved more tenderly regardful of the children whom it sent forth to battle than our own Massachusetts. No troops ever went forth more carefully prepared, clothed and equipped than those which were sent out under her war-governor, John A. Andrew, whose name is never to be mentioned but with love and respect. Never were men watched over with more affectionate regard through those stormy day of trial. Since the war has closed no state has been more generous in supplementing the national bounty in behalf of our sick and wounded, our decayed and broken men. It is to her that we owe the means of erecting this tribute to our fallen comrades, and for this we render to her to-day our grateful and cordial thanks.


     The 15th on the night of July 1st, bivouacked about three miles from the field, and moved forward on the morning of July 2nd, with the rest of the 2nd Corps at daybreak, reaching the field about 7 o’clock. The other brigades of the division were in line. The 1st brigade was formed in the undulation of hollow behind the line of the regimental monument, so that it might be readily moved to the aid of the other parts of the line in column of regiments. Col. Ward, who had been relieved the arrival of the brigade commander

Now Took Command of the Regiment.

     He spoke briefly and spiritedly to the men, urged them to do their duty, and told them of the momentous issues  involved in their holding the ground firmly. It was not until about 4 o’clock that serious conflict took place by a terrific attack upon the left of the 3rd Corps which had been thrown forward to a more advanced position on the Emmetsburg road, which ran diagonally to the front of our general line. The lie of the 3rd Corps, commanded by Gen. Sickles, extended along that road by the peach orchard, then turning back to the foot of Round Top, its right resting on the Emmetsburg road in echelon, some 500 yards in advance of the line of the 2nd Corps. To protect his own left and the right of Gen. Sickles’s Corps, and to fill the gap, Gen. Hancock ordered two regiments to be advanced to the Emmetsburg road north of the Cadori house. He 15th Massachusetts, Col. Ward, and 82d New York, Lieut.-Col. Huston, were ordered to move forward, which they immediately did, forming along the road, the 15th being on the right and the 82d on the left. This line did not immediately connect with the extreme right of the 3rd Corps, but was some 200 yards from it, nor with the extreme left of the 2nd Corps, but was partially in front of it.


     The attack which had commenced at the extreme left of the 3rd Corps and at the Peach Orchard, gradually extended to its right until the whole line of the Corps was engaged. It was nearly 7 o’clock in the evening before the storm fell upon the 15th and the 82d New York. The extreme right of the 3rd Corps was now attacked by Barksdale’s, Wilson’s and Perry’s confederate brigades, and forced gradually back, thus uncovering the left of the line of the two regiments whose action we are following. Wright’s Georgia brigade now advanced and would have struck or swept around the right flank of the 3rd Corps but that it was encountered by these regiments. The engagement was desperate; from their advanced position the two regiments were to some extent under the fire of our own men as much as that of the enemy. The 82d, whose left was not wholly uncovered, was first forced back, and the whole weight of the assault fell upon the 15th. It was necessary to retire the line of the 2nd Corps, and thither it fought its way back. But the two regiments had done their work well in protecting the flank of their own Corps, for as the enemy followed closely

They were Handsomely Repulsed

By the Second brigade of their division, and by a portion of the 13th Vermont, which had just reached that part of the field. In this fearful conflict we had to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men, among them Col. Ward, who gallantly fighting as his regiment steadily retreated, had received the mortal wound of which in a few hours later, he died. Lieut.-Col. Huston was mortally wounded. But if terrible blows had been received they had been most terribly returned. The Georgia brigade of Wright had left on the field either killed or seriously and perhaps mortally wounded, three of their regimental commanders, col. Warden of the 22nd Georgia; Major Ross commanding the 2nd Georgia; Col. Gibson commanding the 48th Georgia, and its loss in subordinate officers and men was proportionately heavy.


     It was about 1 o’clock on the 3rd of July, when the preparation for the terrific assault intended to break the center of our line and drive in confusion its two separate fragments on two distinct lines of retreat, began by one of the most terrific cannonades ever known. The confederate army was especially strong that day in artillery, and Gen. Lee was able to concentrate for this 150 guns. For two hours or more this storm continued toward the center it was intended to break. Sheltering themselves as far as possible by such rude breastworks as they have been enabled to make, our troops, whom the artillery fire is intended to demoralize, await the struggle which is to come by the movements of the enemy’s infantry. The position in which the 15th Massachusetts, now under command of Col. Joslin, lay during this tempest of shot and shell is some 25 to 30 rods to the left of the monument. Hancock knows that somewhere on the 2nd Corps the weight of the assault is to fall, and as he rides along the line arouses his men by inspiring words and his own gallant bearing.


     It is about 3 o’clock and the confederate fire slackens so that their infantry may move out of the woods that have partially sheltered them. They are coming now in numbers nearly or quite 18,000 men. Longstreet organized the assault, but

Pickett’s Division of Virginians

 is to lead. It contains about 5,000 or 6,000 men who have not yet fought  Corps of their army. It is a relief to see them come, for fierce as the encounter must be the recumbent position of our men under the blazing July sun, is intolerable, and they spring to their feet with alacrity. The enemy was formed for the attack in two lines, which as they mo0ved out contracted their front and doubled or trebled their lines by reason of the difficulties and obstructions on the march, thus having the appearance and to some extent the formation of columns as they are generally termed. They were severely handled by our artillery, but the enemy came steadily. The assault was directed at first precisely towards the point of the line where the brigade was posted in which the 15th served, but more lately as it advanced it deflected to our right, perhaps because the clump of trees afforded them a prominent landmark, or because the fire of Stannard’s Vermont brigade, which was now thrown forward on the right flank of the enemy caused the change of direction.  


     The 15th Mass., with the other regiments of the brigade following this movement, promptly moved toward their own right to encounter the attack when it was about to strike on the line of the 2nd Corps. In this movement many of out own men fell, notably Capt. Jorgensen, and a little later Capt. Murkland. As the 15th regiment reached the clump of trees, the enemy breaking through the line of Gen. Webb, which was marked by a low stone wall, for a moment fairly pressed the Union line back. It was the last effort of desperation. The assaulting lines or columns could do no more. There was a moment’s pause, but the point penetrated by the enemy was instantly covered, and as if by common consent the order “Forward” was given, and our men resolutely advanced upon the foe. The first time I heard the order to ‘Advance the colors!’” says Capt. Hastings of the 15th, “was from Corporal Cunningham, although it was only the repetition of the order given him by Col. Joslin.” The ordered was uttered and repeated from man to man as well as from general and colonel, along the line. No one can say who gave it first. There was some confusion, for in the rapid movements and the heavy fire organization was to some extent lost, but all know what is to be done, and are resolute to do it. Firmly on, now comes

The Whole Union Front.

Officers, if they cannot always direct their commands, animate by their examples. For a few moments the contest is most furious, but such a struggle is too desperate to last long. The confederate lines waver, yield, break at last, while many of their men throw down their muskets and throw up their hands in surrender. A few wild disorganized bands strive to fall back to the confederate lines from which they had issued so bravely an hour or two before, and the Army of the Potomac, as it gathers up the straggling prisoners by the thousands, knows that by its steady valor a great victory has been won for the Union.


     In this conflict our regiment had its full share alike of the danger and the glory, for on both the 2nd and 3rd of July it was at the points where the fiercest fighting was done, and where the victory was finally secured. Depleted by its former engagements the 15th, brought into the battle only eighteen officers and 221 men. It lost, killed on the field, 3 officers and 19 enlisted men, and wounded (of whom many afterward died) 8 officers and 85 men, in round numbers  one-half of those whom it had engaged. Tested by a merely material point of view, Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world. While the loss in our own regiment was 50 per cent, throughout the whole army it was probably 25 to 30 per cent. In the confederate army it was without doubt larger, as it had been the attacking force. But dreadful as the story is we remember that the killed, wounded and prisoners of the federal army numbered 23,000 men, who shall say as we reflect how much was done here for freedom and law and good government throughout not only our own country but the world, that the victory won here was not worth even the noble lives it cost.


                    THE SPOT IS HOLY  WHERE THEY FOUGHT,

                            AND HOLY WHERE THEY FELL,


                            THAT LAND THEY LOVED SO WELL.


     How shall I speak, my friends and comrades, of those men, when I remember it was my duty to command them during nearly a year and lead them in the first of many bloody battles in which they fought. Certainly no better or braver men ever went forth in obedience to the solemn call of country. They were the young farmers, mechanics and business men of our County of Worcester, men who thought and felt as freemen.


        Before Them Lay the Path of Duty;

They could take no other road; they were animated by no hope of aggrandizement, for most of them left behind far more lucrative positions; they were enflamed by no wild enthusiasm. Calm and deliberate reflection had told them that it was by their hands and by the hands of men such as they, that  the Union must be defended. They were no kinless men, no waifs of society such as float on the surface of the turbulent waters of great towns and cities. Around them were all the most sacred ties which bind us to life. Yet they laid these aside to answer the call of country. They were such men as make the heart, and bone, and sinew of a nation and embraced all that was noblest and purest in its young life. When shall their glory fade? Not surely while the great flag that they followed waves above a free and united country. All who led this regiment in battle that are now living are here to-day. I am sure that I speak for all when I say that I wish we could have led and served them better.


     The monument we have reared to them is not a monument to the glories of war. If that were all, it were better that the state of Massachusetts had withheld  its gift and that this granite block was sleeping in its native quarry. No one known better than we who have seen the trampled fields, the desolated homes, the blazing towns, the agonies of the dying on such a field as this, less happy than the dead, who are past all pain, what the horrors of war are. A war can only be justified or ennobled by great and solemn cause, and that cause the American people had. It is the noble spirit and high resolve that their government should not be destroyed, that freedom should prevail wherever their flag floated, which we seek to commemorate. Patriotic self-devotion, unflinching loyalty to duty, these we would honor, these we would hold up to the reverence and imitation of those who are to come hereafter, whether he who displayed those great qualities fell with the stars of the general, or the eagle of the colonel on his shoulder, or the simple jacket of the private soldier.


(Worcester Telegram, 3 June 1886)

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