Western Pennsylvanians served with distinction at Gettysburg


Pennsylvania sent 300,000 of its sons to fight in the Civil War, and many of those soldiers found themselves in Gettysburg in July 1863.

The Battle of Gettysburg, waged from July 1-3, 1863, saw participation from many notable units, including the 149th Pennsylvania Infantry, primarily from Allegheny County. Those men "fought in a severe contest in part of the battlefield called the McPherson farm," just west of the town center, on the first day of the battle, said John Heiser, a historian at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Other Union troops at Gettysburg came from the 140th Infantry, drawn mainly from Washington County. They fought in another vicious clash, in an area called The Wheatfield, just south of town.

And from Westmoreland County came the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, which fought on July 1 in an area just west of town, including the McPherson farm and a nearby Lutheran theological school on Seminary Ridge.

The fighting on July 1 "blunted the Southern attacks that afternoon, until Union soldiers ran out of ammunition and were forced to [retreat to Cemetery Ridge] with the rest of the brigade," Mr. Heiser said.

Another Washington County unit, the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, "performed picket duty along the roads east of town, guarding the flank of the Union army position on the hills south of Gettysburg."

Other Western Pennsylvania soldiers came from Fayette, Somerset, Venango, McKean, Mercer and Warren counties, added Barbara Franco, director of a new Civil War museum that will open July 1 on Seminary Ridge in a building built in 1832 that for decades housed the Lutheran seminary's classrooms.

Here are details on some of the Western Pennsylvania soldiers who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives:

Dr. William F. Osborn

This Fayette County native, with the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry and the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, fought on Seminary Ridge and treated wounded Union soldiers inside the theological school, whose interior on July 1 quickly shifted from classrooms to a makeshift hospital.

"He was called WF, and he left us a lot of pocket journals" that give details of his life during the war, said his great-granddaughter, Janet Osborn Oakley, a historian and author who grew up in Forest Hills and now lives in Washington state.

Osborn had several occupations, starting as a newspaper reporter after going to Missouri in the 1850s, then as a doctor and soldier during the war and later as a lawyer.

"In Memphis, Mo., someone threw rocks at the newspaper building where he worked, after he wrote articles about why the South shouldn't secede from the union," Ms. Oakley said.

Osborn was considered a "Republican," after Abraham Lincoln and others founded the Republican political party in the mid-1850s.

Some Southern advocates "said Republicans had to leave Missouri," Ms. Oakley said. "He was depressed and wasn't feeling good about things so he went back East, going up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh," finally ending up in Greensburg, where he set up a medical practice.

He joined the Somerset-based 11th Pennsylvania as an assistant surgeon in April 1861, at the start of the war. He later was promoted to full surgeon with the 13th.

"He was a civilian doctor and really had no idea what he was getting into" as the war started, she said. His journal has a lot of information about the first day of the Gettysburg fighting.

He wrote, "On July 1, we had orders to move at 8 a.m. and proceed on the road (going north from Maryland) to Gettysburg. We heard cannonading and found a part of our corps engaging the enemy, which was about 20,000 strong. A severe engagement followed and our forces were driven back by superior numbers."

He and other troops reached Seminary Ridge, where most of the fighting occurred on July 1, about 11 a.m. "My great-grandfather stood next to a Union chaplain who was shot," Ms. Oakley said. Then on July 2, "he had a busy day (caring for the wounded). Three hundred wounded Union troops were treated in a church."

But July 3, Osborn wrote, was "the hardest day of the fighting -- the cannonading was terrific." He went around the battlefield tending to more wounded.

Finally, on July 4, Southern troops retreated to Virginia. "The citizens and Union prisoners were greeted with the news that the rebels had left, and all felt greatly relieved," he wrote.

He fought in other fierce battles in Virginia in 1864, including Rappahannock and The Wilderness, and left the army when the war ended in 1865.

Sgt. Noah Koontz

Koontz joined the 142nd Pennsylvania, based in Somerset. His granddaughter, Janet Coleman, is now 82 and lives in Gettysburg. Her mother was one of Koontz's 11 children.

Koontz originally was from Emmitsburg, Md., just south of Gettysburg, and served first in a cavalry unit and later joined the 142nd infantry unit from Somerset, reaching the rank of sergeant.

A letter about Koontz -- written by a woman whose brothers were in his unit -- was found last year by workers on the museum construction project.

"I knew he had fought in the Civil War but we didn't find out until this letter that he had fought at Gettysburg," Mrs. Coleman said. "We also didn't know he'd been wounded on Seminary Ridge."

Koontz enlisted in 1862 and was discharged in June 1865, a couple of months after the war had ended, she said. "He later married Martha Crouse and they had 11 children. My mother was the youngest."

Gen. Alexander Hays

Hays grew up in Franklin, Venango County, and went to Allegheny College before transferring to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Before the Civil War, Hays had been a civil engineer in Pittsburgh, helping to design some of the city's bridges.

He started the war as a colonel in the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and in early 1863 worked on the military defenses of Washington, D.C. He also became a friend of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander for the latter half of the war.

At Gettysburg, Hays commanded a division in the Second Corps. It defended the right side of the Union lines, stretched out along Cemetery Ridge. His troops held together on July 3 during the bloody "Pickett's Charge," an unsuccessful effort by Confederate troops under Gen. George Pickett to take Cemetery Ridge.

"When the smoke cleared, Hays, who was unhurt but had had two horses shot out from under him, kissed his aide in the exhilaration of the moment, grabbed a captured Rebel flag and, riding down the division's line, dragged it in the dirt," wrote author Larry Tagg in his book, "The Generals of Gettysburg."

The general fought in several later battles and was killed during The Wilderness battle in Virginia in 1864.

He is buried in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery. According to Pittsburgh newspapers cited on the cemetery's website, when Grant was campaigning for president in 1868, he stopped in Pittsburgh, visited Hays' grave and "openly wept."

On the Gettysburg battlefield is a large bronze statue of Hays standing atop a granite base, erected in 1915.

Col. Roy Stone

He was born in New York but married a woman from Pittsburgh, "where he often did business as a lumberman prior to the outbreak of the war," said Mr. Heiser.

Stone best known as the commander of the 149th Pennsylvania infantry, with soldiers mainly from Allegheny County. It was more commonly called the "Bucktail Brigade," Mr. Heiser said.

"He enlisted a brigade of Pennsylvania regiments with the men wearing buck tails on their caps as a sign of their loyalty and service" to Pennsylvania, known then as now for its plentiful deer population.

Mr. Heiser said Stone "led the brigade to Gettysburg and was severely wounded on July 1 in fighting at the McPherson farm west of Gettysburg."

Stone came up with a ploy that saved many of the troops. He told his color guard, a six-man team that carried state and federal flags into battle, to move off to a different part of the battlefield, leading Confederates to think an attack was coming from a different direction.

The color sergeant of the brigade, Henry Brehm of the 149th, "tightly gripped the state color ... and began brawling with a Mississippi soldier," says a Pennsylvania historical Web site. The flag fell to the ground and "several Confederates reached for the fallen prize, but Keystoners and fellow color guardsmen fired their muskets point-blank. The [Southern] antagonists fell dead." Brehm quickly reclaimed the tattered flag.

Brehm was later "cited for bravery and saving the state colors," Mr. Heiser said.

Pvt. Adam Kunkle

The vast majority of the Western Pennsylvania troops were not well-known or high-ranking. One of them, according to Mr. Heiser, was Kunkle of Pittsburgh, who was only 18 when he was wounded July 2, 1863.

A member of the 62nd Pennsylvania regiment, he was shot in the right thigh and stayed in a field hospital for two weeks before being transferred to a hospital in Baltimore.

"He was very anemic and feeble. Generous diet and iron were ordered," according to a doctor's report at the time, provided by Mr. Heiser. "Amputation ... was thought of, but it was concluded he would die ..."

Within two months "the wounds had almost healed and the patient was quite built up and walking on crutches." He was later returned to Pittsburgh and left the army in July 1864.

Gen. John White Geary

Talk about a busy life -- Geary, though a Pennsylvania native, became the first mayor of San Francisco, then later the governor of the Kansas territory, then a general in the Civil War and finally a two-term governor of Pennsylvania.

He grew up in Mount Pleasant and had a variety of business interests in Pittsburgh before fighting in the War with Mexico. After that war he moved to California and, in 1850, was elected mayor of San Francisco. A well-known street there, Geary Street, is named after him. He later left California and was named by federal officials as the top official in Kansas before it became a state.

But when the Civil War began, he was chosen as a colonel in the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry and was wounded in several battles in 1862. By 1863 he'd become a general and in Gettysburg fought to defend Culp's Hill, the right-side anchor of Union lines on July 2 and 3.

He was elected as governor of Pennsylvania for two terms, 1866-73. A statue honoring him was erected in 1914 on Culp's Hill in Gettysburg.

state - civilwar - gettysburgstories

Tom Barnes: hickeybarnes@yahoo.com or 1-717-623-1238. First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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