Six degrees from Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg took place 150 years ago, but it remains close in time and space. Maybe that's because everyone I've met lately seems to have some connection to it.

The soldiers who faced off in Gettysburg just bumped into each other as well. Gens. Robert E. Lee and George Meade had each planned a different site for the confrontation they both knew was coming, but because all of the roads in that part of Pennsylvania came together in Gettysburg, their armies stumbled across each other and the largest battle ever fought in North America was joined. Not only did all roads lead to Gettysburg, but the convergence of people that occurred there echoes down to the present day.

At a party in La Jolla, Calif., a while back I fell into a discussion of the movie "Gettysburg" with some of the other guests. One of them, Joel Nimon, said he was always interested in Gettysburg because one of the landmarks on that battlefield, the Spangler farm, had belonged to his family during the Civil War.

I found this especially interesting because in doing research for an upcoming novel, which is set in Gettysburg just after the battle, I kept stumbling over other descendants of people who'd been there. In fact, I am writing this essay in Lestat's Coffee Shop in San Diego, where I often write and which is owned by John Husler.

One day Mr. Husler asked me if his great-great-grandfather was going to figure in the story. It turns out he is related to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who commanded the Union's Second Corps at Gettysburg. Hancock was severely wounded during the repulse of Pickett's Charge but refused to be removed from the field until he knew the outcome of the battle. Hancock was born in Philadelphia and raised in Norristown.

For many years my father worked at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh with Alexander Hays IV. Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays (the first) commanded the First Brigade of the Third Division of Hancock's Second Corps. I had always found it an odd coincidence that I knew two people whose ancestors had known each other so well and worked so closely together at Gettysburg and in other Civil War engagements.

One story about the two men goes like this: Hancock had cursed out one of Hays' officers and, after the battle, Hancock said to Hays, "I guess I ought to apologize to him," to which Hays replied, "That's just like all of your damned apologies, Hancock. They come too late. He's dead."

My father knew the story of Hays at Gettysburg, having heard it from his co-worker, and he got me an invitation to visit the Hays family home in Sewickley, which was a shrine to the memory of the general who died leading his troops at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. There is a large memorial to Hays in Allegheny Cemetery, too, and smaller plaques were dedicated to him in South Park, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, his birthplace of Franklin, Pa., and elsewhere.

As you drive into Gettysburg National Military Park, the first statue that catches your eye, in fact, is one of Hays, his sword and bushy beard jutting out in front on him at heroic angles. Since Hays' troops took much of the brunt of Pickett's Charge, his statue was given prominent placement.

Hays' brigade captured the flags of more than 20 Confederate regiments, which broke apart in front of his lines. After the charge failed, Hays grabbed several of the captured colors and rode up and down the line trailing the flags in his dust to the wild cheers of the men in blue.

My father wasn't as familiar with the details of the battle as I have become from doing my research, so the last name of his priest at St. Thomas More in Bethel Park, Codori, never rang a bell with him during the years that Father Joe had been assigned to the church.

One day my father heard someone ask Father Joe if he was any relation to the Codori family of Gettysburg. He said yes. But I had never known his last name or I would have asked about his family history. Knowing my interest in Gettysburg, my father told me of the connection as soon as he learned of it.

The Codori house still stands in the middle of the battlefield, not far from the Spangler farm. Both farms still serve as reference points for historians and tourists.

On July 2, 1863 (the second day of the three-day battle), Hays asked Hancock for permission to burn the houses and barns in front of his lines that were obstructing his field of fire and being used as cover by Confederate snipers. Among the buildings were those belonging to the Codori family. In those early days of the war, before Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman made war on civilians an art form, soldiers tried to avoid damaging private property.

After looking over the situation, Hancock agreed that it was a military necessity to remove the buildings. He gave Hays permission to take the houses and barns from the enemy and burn them to the ground. Several buildings were torched, but the men sent to take the Codori farm failed to dislodge the Confederate defenders and it survived. Heavily damaged by shot and bullets, it still stands today, its scars mute testimony to the fighting it endured.

I found it an odd coincidence that the lives of Hays, Hancock and Codori would converge on that field years ago and that I now know descendants of all three. And as small as Gettysburg was back then and as close as the Codori and Spangler farms were, I'm sure the two families knew each other.

According to my grandmother, her grandfather was also present that day, wearing blue somewhere in Gettysburg, although my research has yet to turn up exactly where. There was a Thomas Donahue on the roster of the 28th Pennsylvania volunteers that day, but I have yet to determine conclusively if that is the same Thomas Donahue who is my ancestor.

Many other Americans can trace the roots of their family trees across the battlefield of Gettysburg as well. The great-great-uncle of Gen. George S. Patton, for instance, was killed leading his Virginia regiment in Pickett's Charge, and the great-grandfather of President Richard Nixon is buried at Gettysburg, having died of his wounds a few days after the battle.

Actor Matthew Broderick's great-great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg and survived, but was not as fortunate in the battle for Atlanta a year later. Mr. Broderick starred in the Civil War movie "Glory." He also appeared in "She's Having a Baby" with Kevin Bacon, who is from an old Philadelphia family.

Private Elijah W. Bacon, Company F, won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. I wonder ...

state - opinion_commentary - civilwar - edbudgetcuts - gettysburgstories

Walter G. Meyer grew up in Bethel Park and plans to get back to work on his Gettysburg novel once he finishes the sequel to his novel "Rounding Third." First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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