Gettysburg: A conversation with a Delaware author


A small borough in Pennsylvania named for founder and tavern owner James Getty was the Adams County seat, with 10 roads radiating from it in every direction. That was a principal reason why Gettysburg became a battleground between two powerful Union and Confederates armies on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863.

Of the more than 165,000 men who fought on the surrounding hills and fields, a few hundred came wearing blue uniforms under the banner of a Delaware flag — while several other Delawareans wore gray. A number of these men who fought and died there remain at rest in the national cemetery.

To learn more, I interviewed author Jeffrey R. Biggs, an authority on Delaware military units during the Civil War. Biggs responded to these questions:

TR: What generated your interest in Delaware’s involvement in the Civil War?

JB: The role of the 1st Delaware Infantry played in restoring the Union has gone largely untold by the later generations of writers. I set out to rectify that gap in our history.

TR: Since Delaware was a slave state, how and why did it remain within the Union?

JB: It should be kept in mind Delaware politicians were split on the slavery issue. U.S. senator from Delaware, Willard Saulsbury, for example, took the position, “I am a Southern man; and I believe that slavery as it exists in this country is right, justified by the laws of God and Man.”

TR: Obviously, many other Delaware politicians disagreed with Saulsbury. Tell us more about the beliefs of people from this state.

JB: Thomas Murphey, the 1st Delaware’s chaplain, may have said it best, “The question of slavery was secondary to the reunification of the country; nevertheless, ultimately everywhere the world over, slavery will disappear before the progress of truth, knowledge and religion.”

TR: This week is the anniversary of the Civil War’s most celebrated battle, that took place at Gettysburg. What are some of the facts about Delaware’s role in this fight?

JB: Since my main focus has been the 1st Delaware, I’ll relate this regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Edward P. Harris — born and raised in Georgetown, Del., and lived for a time at the Brick Hotel — would begin the long march from the Rappahannock River area near Fredericksburg, Va., on June 14, 1863. After more than two weeks on the road, and having been pushed to their human endurance point, the regiment arrived near Taneytown, Md., while two corps of the Union Army of the Potomac engaged with the Rebel Army of Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Gettysburg on July 1.

TR: What happened next?

JB: On the second day of battle, the 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments were hotly engaged in the fighting. The 1st Delaware in the fields around the Bliss farm directly west of Cemetery Ridge, and the 2nd Delaware suffered heavy losses in the Rose farm “Wheatfield.”

TR: Tell us more!

JB: On July 3, a lull over the battlefield ended when a mammoth Rebel artillery barrage on Union positions along Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge preceded 12,000 Confederate soldiers who marched across the field into the fiery furnace of overwhelming artillery and small arms fire from Union troops waiting behind stone walls and makeshift barriers. Among those pouring lead into the swarm of Rebels were the 1st and 2nd Delaware.

TR: How did the Delawareans fare in this fighting?

JB: A number men from this state died or suffered wounds, most notably Col. Thomas Smyth, a brigade commander in the Second Corps, wounded from shell burst fragments. During the three-day battle, the casualty list included 77 Delawareans — killed, wounded, or captured.

TR: How important was the role of Delaware soldiers at Gettysburg?

J.B. Their participation in the Battle of Gettysburg is best exemplified by Medal of Honor awards to three Delawareans for bravery under fire, including Capt. James Parke Postles, Pvt. John B. Maberry and Pvt. Bernard McCarren.

To learn more about Delaware at Gettysburg, consult Jeffrey R. Biggs’ publications: “The Fought for the Union: A History of The First Delaware Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac,” and “William Penn Seville’s History of the 1st Delaware Volunteers.” Or contact the author at jeffreybiggs@verizon.net.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point