Courage under Fire: Delaware's Medal of Honor winners at Gettysburg
The Medal of Honor — a small, five-pointed star that hangs from a blue ribbon — is a most-coveted decoration that dates from the early days of the Civil War. Since that time, some 3,500 recipients have added their names to the official Roll of Honor maintained by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, for bravery above and beyond the call of duty in actual combat.
As a result of three days of bloodshed at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, 63 Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor for bravery on the battlefield. Among those heroes were three men who served in the 1st Delaware Regiment. Although they were not heralded like Sgt. Alvin York for his exploits during World War I or Lt. Audie Murphy in World War II, the courage under fire of these Delawareans is no less remarkable.
Bernard McCarren immigrated to Delaware from Ireland, and when the Civil War erupted he enlisted and soon became a member of the 1st Delaware. Cpl. McCarren saw combat at Chantilly, Antietam and Fredericksburg before marching to Gettysburg in June 1863 with a brigade under the command of fellow Delawarean Lt. Col. Thomas A. Smyth.
During the horrendous fighting that took place near Cemetery Ridge on July 3 at Gettysburg, the third day of the battle, McCarren followed another Delaware hero, Lt. William Smith, who led a countercharge against the Confederates who had marched across the field in the face of murderous fire during the legendary action later hailed as “Pickett’s Charge.” Smith received a mortal wound during the countercharge, while McCarren captured the flag of the 13th Alabama Regiment.
Awarded the Medal of Honor for his feat of capturing an enemy flag, McCarren suffered a serious wound in May 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia that hospitalized him for eight months. He eventually recovered and, following the war, he returned to his wife and two children in the Wilmington area.
At the outset of the Civil War, one of Smyrna’s native sons, John B. Maberry, joined the 1st Delaware under the command of Col. Henry Hayes Lockwood of Camden. Pvt. Maberry followed in the same footsteps as Bernard McCarren, fighting at Chantilly, Antietam and Fredericksburg before arriving at Gettysburg on July 2.
Maberry also duplicated McCarren’s exploit of capturing an enemy flag — in this case, of the 7th North Carolina Regiment — on July 3 during the countercharge that helped repulse Pickett’s Charge. That earned him the coveted Medal of Honor.
Also like McCarren, Maberry had the misfortune of suffering a head wound at the Battle of the Wilderness, and ended up in a hospital in Washington, D.C. Maberry mustered out of the service in July 1865 and returned to Smyrna, but he later would move to Dover with his wife and children.
In recent years, the State of Delaware honored McCarren and Maberry by placing historical markers and new gravestones in the Wilmington-Brandywine Cemetery and Glenwood Cemetery in Smyrna recognizing their Medal of Honor heroism.
The third recipient of this great honor was James Parke Postles from Camden who joined the 1st Delaware and served under Lockwood. After commissioning as first lieutenant, he too fought in a number of battles where he “behaved with exemplary coolness and bravery.”
When Lt. Postles arrived at Gettysburg after an exhausting march from the Rappahannock River area of Virginia, he was quite ill. On July 2, the second day of battle, a serious firefight took place at the Bliss farm a half-mile from the Union position on Cemetery Ridge.
Postles’ brigade commander, Col. Smyth, received orders from division commander Brig. Gen. Alexander Hayes to have his men out at the Bliss farm attack the farmhouse that the rebels occupied. Smyth immediately called for a volunteer to make a dangerous dash on horseback to deliver the message.
When no one piped up to accept the challenge, Postles, though still suffering from sickness, told Smyth that he would attempt to carry the message to the troops in the field. Fate was with the 22-year-old officer as he rode through a withering fire without sustaining a hit.
Postles arrived at the Union position on the Bliss farm and shouted out Smyth’s message for the soldiers to storm the house. Then, on his still-harrowing return trip, the redoubtable lieutenant reigned in his horse, took off his cap and defiantly waved it at the rebel riflemen. Even the enemy soldiers showed their appreciation of this man’s singular act of bravery, giving him the rebel yell and ceasing to fire at him.
Once back in his own lines, wild cheers greeted Postles for successfully running the blistering gauntlet, and the Union corps commander, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, personally congratulated the lieutenant for his daring and courageous deed.
Unlike McCarren and Maberry, who received their Medals of Honor during the Civil War, Postles had to wait more than 29 years to be recognized. The citation read, “Voluntarily delivered an order in the face of heavy fire of the enemy.” He gained acknowledgment for his leadership abilities in other ways, however, when Gov. John Cochran appointed him adjutant general of Delaware in 1878.
Three relatively ordinary men from Delaware rose to the occasion and risked everything to defend their country during four years of unrelenting strife. To learn more about them, as well as other Delawareans who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, read Roger A. Martin’s “Delaware’s Medal of Honor Winners” that also includes everyone from Delaware who earned the award throughout America’s history.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at email@example.com.