The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2005

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Penn Yan's

Morris Brown, Jr., is a Hero


Wayne Mahood

Part II

Part I

On March 6, 1869, a Medal of Honor was issued posthumously to Captain Morris Brown, Jr., for bravery or self sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty—the capture of a Confederate flag at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Then, less than a year after his Gettysburg heroics, Brown, acting regimental commander of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry, was felled by a rifle bullet.

It's difficult to know where to start Brown's story. An obvious place is a speech given by his father, Morris Brown, Sr. as "President of the Day," on April 27, 1861. He was fired up, and he wanted his Penn Yan, New York, audience of between 3000 and 4000 equally inspired when he finished talking. Fort Sumter, the Federal fort located in Charleston Harbor, had been shelled by secessionists. That was treason, pure and simple, he proclaimed. Brown, a partner in the law firm of Judd and Brown, wanted the attendees to consider the perilous condition of our country. "War is upon us," Brown asserted as he stood in the court house square.

Fifty-three-year-old Morris Brown was a relative newcomer to Penn Yan. Barely five years earlier he had moved from Hammondsport, at the head of Keuka Lake, where he had served as a Steuben County Assemblyman and as the Town of Urbana (Hammondsport) Supervisor. But rapidly growing Penn Yan, the Yates County seat located on Keuka Lake Outlet, held more allure, so Brown relocated. Within three years the entrepreneurial Brown had purchased or mortgaged three houses and lots in the village, the latter six acres on Main Street. By 1860, when he returned to the practice of law, he was prosperous enough to support a household of nine. This included his wife, himself, a son (Morris Jr., age 18), two daughters, ages 16 and 12, and two domestics. (His two older sons had left home by this time.)

Though an avowed Democrat, on that April day, Brown wisely called for bipartisanship. Penn Yan's three protestant churches were split over the issue of slavery, and the same ardor carried over into elections. While the nascent Republican party was in the ascendancy, Democrats were not without influence. Not surprisingly, the two Penn Yan newspapers, the Yates County Chronicle (née Whig) and the Yates County Democrat, reflected the opposing views. Leaving no doubt about his commitment, Brown concluded his talk with a rousing: "Hesitation is cowardice—delay is treason...Today we talk—let us all talk—but tomorrow and henceforth it is our duty to fight." His words would come back to haunt him later.

The immediate upshot was the formation of a Vigilance Committee, which attorney Brown was asked to chair. Three weeks later the committee saw its first volunteers, a small contingent called the "Keuka Rifles," off to Elmira, the newly created military depot. Then on May 27, Brown bade a farewell to his first born, twenty-seven-year-old Ira (often listed as John) Smith Brown, who had enlisted as a private in what would become the 1st Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters.

But recruitment was a frustratingly slow process. By July 1862, over a year later, all hope for a short war had long since faded and the county had no regiment to call its own. So early that month a military committee, drawn from the 26th Senatorial District, was formed, with Morris Brown and six others from Yates County appointed to it. Their efforts finally bore fruit. By August 14, the Yates County Chronicle reported that Lieutenant Samuel Barras and Captains Truman Burrill and William Coleman had recruited two full companies. (A company was composed of 100 men; a regiment was ten companies, or 1000 men.) One of Burrill's recruits was Morris Brown's youngest son, twenty-one-year-old Morris, Jr., two years away from graduating at Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York.

On August 22, the 126th New York Infantry was officially mustered on the grounds of George N. Reed's White Springs Trotting Park, in Geneva, the site chosen by the military committee. Despite the blustery wind blowing dust in the soldiers' and in the attendees' faces, the silk regimental flag, procured in New York City by Penn Yan's Colonel or General Ephraim M. Whitaker, was duly presented to the new regiment.

Morris Jr. was mustered Orderly (or First) Sergeant in Captain Truman Burrill's Company A, and was advanced $21, a month's pay. (Typically Brown sent home his pay—a frequent topic of his letters—to be invested by his father.) Then, on Tuesday, August 26, sometime between 8:00 and 9:30 a.m. the recruits marched about a mile to Geneva's Steamboat Landing, where they boarded the three steamers that plied Seneca Lake, disembarking at the end of the lake at Jefferson (now Watkins Glen). There they boarded the Elmira, Jefferson and Canandaigua RR cars bound for the Elmira Depot, where they got their first discomforting taste of army food: two loaves of bread that one non-com used for footballs, two slices of cold beef, and two pieces of cheese.

At sundown, Sergeant Brown and the other new soldiers boarded the Northern Central RR train, bound for Baltimore. At Baltimore they entrained to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), to relieve militia there. There they began the inevitable adjustment to the military routine: 5:00 a.m. reveille, drills until dress parade twelve hours later, and "lights out" at 9:30 p.m.

Sergeant Brown's first letter home graphically describes what the newly minted 126th New York Infantry encountered:

Two miles below Harpers Ferry
Aug 31st/62

Well my dear parents, here we are away down here about on the very outskirts of civilization. How they came to place such a green regiment as ours, literly on the very outposts, I dont know...being so far South we are liable to have a fight almost any day. at least we see & hear enough to keep us considerably excited during most of the time. Oh if we were only drilled a little slower how I would like to lead such a regiment as this to battle. If we have a chance we'll show you how to fight.

...So far we have got along very nicely & everything has passed off very pleasantly; but Oh dear! what food. the first two days we only had raw bacon & hard crackers. Now we have some beans, pork; rice & sugar. I went two days without anything but about two inches of Bologna sausage. What do you think of that eh? Leave our table & go two days here without anything to eat.

If I had not dated my letter Sunday I would not know any difference between this & any others... The drum is beating now [for dress parade] & I must go, so good bye.
Your aff. son
Morris Brown Jr.
Orderly Co A 126th N.Y.
Harpers Ferry

This is characteristic of Brown's letters before 1864. He was full of bravado and uttering the usual complaints about food and conditions generally. Note he also refers to the recurring rumor of impending battle. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, planned an invasion of Maryland and had advanced the wings (later corps) of Generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and James Longstreet. Morris Brown and the others garrisoned at Harpers Ferry, stood in the way. Worse, Harpers Ferry was virtually defenseless. Consider Shelby Foote's memorable prose: "Low-lying Harpers Ferry, more trap than fortress, was dominated by heights that frowned down from three directions:... Seizure of these heights with guns bearing down on the [soldiers]...below would be something like shooting fish in a rain barrel."

Sergeant Morris Brown, Jr.'s October 3 letter confirmed the indefensibility of Harpers Ferry and how he came to be a prisoner of war.

Camp Douglas, Friday Evening
Oct. 3, 1862

My Dear Parents:.

...When we reached the summit [Harpers Ferry] the different companies of the 126th were sent out on picket, Co. __ holding the extreme left, which we all envied, as the enemy were encamped in that direction. The night passed away quietly, excepting a little skirmish which Co. B had with the rebels; but with the dawn of day [Saturday, September 13] came the rattle of musketry....Soon Co. A was ordered to march up the hill, to share her part in the hard and well contested fight in progress about a mile on our left. Joyfully the boys started, and as we took our course up the hill in single file [on a narrow bridle path], we first saw and began to realize in a slight degree the horrors of war. As the wounded and dying were carried by us it seemed only to hasten our drive the enemy from the mountain.... But this was not to be our good fortune: for as we reached the "Block House" the firing ceased, and soon the report came that our forces had been ordered to retreat...

When we had nearly reached the road, which is nearly half-way down the mountain, we received orders to reform the regiment and march back.... Soon we were back within a quarter of a mile of our former battle ground, and ready in line of battle, for whatever might appear. In a few minutes the rebels appeared, and after having fired one or two rounds, we were ordered to retreat and fall back across the Potomac to our camp. The rebels quickly took possession of the hights, and from their signals, we knew that before another eve the hights would be bristling with cannon, ready at any moment to belch forth their thundering fire on our weakness in the valley below.

That night as we wrapped our blankets around us and tried to get a little rest (for we were nearly exhausted from the hard task we had performed that day) we knew that the following morning (Sunday) would reveal to us our weakness, comparatively, surrounded as we were on all sides with the forces of Jackson, Longstreet, and the celebrated A. P. Hill. About two o'clock the next day our batteries, at a given signal, commenced to play upon all the points where the rebels could be seen. Immediately the firing on both sides began in terrible earnest. While the rebels had seven batteries posted advantageously on the surrounding hights, we had but three to answer them. The firing was kept up until sundown, when, as if by mutual consent, it ceased.

...In a short time we were ordered out of our intrenchments toward the right... in a much more exposed position. ...a large force of cavalry appeared on our right nearly in front of Co. A, and attempted to drive in our pickets....In less than two minutes we were again in line prepared to give them a warm reception....In a short time the rebels were repelled with very little loss on our side and we laid down to rest.

At daylight the rebels again opened fire on us from forty or fifty guns, and having placed them during the night in much more favorable positions, were able to do with us about as they pleased. Soon our ammunition gave out, and ...we were ordered to leave them and retreat down the hill to the Potomac. A few minutes before we received the order Col. [Dixon] Miles ordered the white flag to be raised.... In about three-quarters of an hour the firing ceased, and the 126th who so manfully had borne their part in this contest, were prisoners of war....

The next day the rebels gave us three hard crackers and a small piece of maggoty bacon, to the man, and started us off for Frederick, which we reached about ten o'lock the next morning. The next day we started for Annapolis and arrived there Saturday evening. The next Wednesday we left Annapolis for Chicago, and arrived here Saturday evening, having been nearly two weeks on the way from Harpers Ferry....

Soon we hope to be again in active service, for paroled life in such a place as this, is anything but pleasant;—nothing to do—not even fight. ...I suppose we must remain here until exchanged.
Your affectionate Son,
Morris Brown, Jr.

As a prisoner of war Brown not only had time to write such a long letter, but, like his fellows, to rant. Accused of skedaddling, he and his comrades were labeled the "Cowards of Harpers Ferry." (In fact, fault finding and scapegoating occupied over 250 pages of testimony in Volume XIX of the Official Records.)

He and his fellow parolees were Union prisoners of war at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, guarded by other Union soldiers. Named for Illinois senator and 1860 presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, it sat near the windy shores of Lake Michigan some thirty blocks south of the heart of the city. The sixty-acre camp, built in late summer 1861, originally was to serve as a military depot and training site for the northern district of Illinois. Only later did it house Confederate prisoners.

With time on his hands Morris continued to protest his fate.

Camp Douglas
Monday afternoon
29th Sept. 1862

Well, my dear parents, here we are after a long & very tedious journey of two weeks, quartered in this lousy hole... ...In our retreat from the intrenchments at the Ferry I lost everything I had. I stole a blanket of[f] some one else; & besides that, I have nothing only what I have on. All those pocket silks, towels, &c. &c. are gone. I bought a cheap shirt & a pair of socks at Annapolis so as to have a change until I could send for more. I wish you would make me two or more flannel shirts; & send them to me, along with some hand kerchiefs & a couple of towels. & some woolen stockings; & have John Brown make me a pair of hip boots & send them along; & I would really like to have one palatable meal....There has not been a single day since I left Geneva that I have had enough to eat. I dont know as I ought to say that; but I have went to sleep many a night without anything to eat--unless it was one of those hard crackers.

The commissioned officers get along well enough for they can go & do as they please; but us poor ensigns have to get along as best we can.... Its too bad the papers accuse us of cowardice on Md Heights for if men ever fought anywhere they did there. It discourages the men & renders them unfit for future work; because they say if that is all the credit they are going to recieve [sic.]....I think this regiment will never recover from this defeat. It will never again be what it was when we went to Harpers Ferry...

If I was in Penn Yan, all the money there couldn't get me in this scrape again. As long as we were in the field in action service I liked it very much; but since we have been prisoners we have been treated like dogs. We cant get out side of this dirty camp, & cant do anything—Just lie around here from morning till night. I believe we ought to be sent home. Everyone of the soldiers think so, & I think if a person should desert they would not touch him...

Remember me to all my friends in Penn Yan.
Good by
Your Aff. son

At Camp Douglas not only did lice abound in the barracks, but the low, flat land, lacked drainage, resulting in standing water, and the parolees were destitute of clothing and food. (Their fare consisted of "sour bread, wormy rice, old beans" washed down with "poor whiskey," contended one parolee.)

Relief came on November 17, 1862, when Commissary General of Prisoners William Hoffman cut orders for the parolees to report to Washington for assignment. A week later they boarded passenger trains bound for Arlington Heights, across the Potomac from Washington, desperately wanting to erase the stigma of "cowards." Shortly thereafter, the parolees boarded flat cars of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, bound for Union Mills, Virginia. There they became part of Major General Silas Casey's Division of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's Twentieth Corps, Defenses of Washington, which was to defend the capital and surroundings.

Meanwhile command changes in the 126th occurred, from which Morris Brown, Jr. benefited. On December 13, 1862, he was promoted First Lieutenant Company A. While still at Camp Douglas, apparently Morris had sought endorsements from two Hamilton College professors, both of whom complied.

Professor Edward "Old Greek" North effusively wrote that Brown possessed the "qualities that belong to a successful officer—physical courage and self possession, intellectual strength and sagacity with fine social gifts and a character unsullied."

A photograph of the twenty-one-year-old in his officer's uniform captures his essence about as well as any photo could. His light complexioned square face, full beard and piercing gray eyes show the determination, even aggressiveness, increasingly evident in his letters home. Moreover, at 5 feet, 10½ inches, he was over two inches taller than average.

The atmosphere at Union Mills improved dramatically upon the arrival of Brigadier General Alexander Hays, the newly appointed brigade commander.

The forty-three-year-old Hays, a Pennsylvania native, had graduated from West Point in the class of 1844, had served with upperclassmen Ulysses Grant and James Longstreet and was cited for bravery in the Mexican War. Company C Captain Winfield Scott, a University of Rochester graduate and Baptist minister, spoke for most of his fellows: Hays was "A princely soldier; brave as a lion...we would have followed him to the death." Hays's spirit was emulated by newly promoted Lt. Morris Brown, Jr., who drilled Company A in Captain Truman Burrill's absence.

Centreville Va.
4th May 1863

My Dear Mother
Rcd your letter last evening, but have no time to answer regularly as it will be drill hours shortly & then I must go... [Yesterday] I could see him [regimental commander Colonel Sherrill] point to my company for an example & I could hear him tell them that "It was a darned shame for them to let so young an officer as me have the best company in the regiment." When he got around to see me he says Brown you have got the best company in the regiment, & I consider Co. A with its officers to be a grand credit to any regiment—you always look the best & are the best drilled & your men seem to take an interest in what they are doing.

One day before this...he was so well pleased with our way of drill that he went & made others do it as I did. He has consistently told me that my men always looked the best of any in the regiment. Now such notice as this is rarely taken by a Col. & to me it is exceedingly gratifying for I have taken a great deal of pains with my company & I am ready to brag a little on its efficiency of drill & discipline...

Write often
Your aff. son

Brown was so aroused that—rather than showing relief that he had been spared the two bloody Union defeats at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and at Chancellorsville early May, 1863—he chafed from inaction.

Centreville Va.
Wednesday afternoon
6th May 1863
...What a terrible battle Hooker has been fighting near Fredericksburg [the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 3 and 4]. As yet the news we have received here is very meager, but from the booming of the many cannon which we have heard, even at this distance, we know a terrible battle has been fought.

How the poor soldiers who were wounded must have suffered last night, lying out in the rain. Night before last (Monday) we could hear the cannon nearly all night. How I wish our regiment was there! This guarding a lot of sand hills & stumps is getting pretty much played out. I would run the risks incident to such a fight to be there. I want to get in one old whopper & then I will be contented to remain here, but not before. There is no glory to be gained about Centreville...Now I want you all to write oftener.

Your aff. son Morris Brown Jr.

Despite the relative inactivity, Brown and comrades sensed a "dangerous calm." Enemy troop movements around Centreville demanded greater vigilance by pickets, the construction of rifle pits and earthworks and target practice.

The good news was that Morris was promoted captain of Company A on April 24, though he was not commissioned until May 9. Now he would have the chance to lead his company if it ever saw combat, though it seemed farther away each day.

Centreville Va.
May 25th 1863.

My Dear Mother
...Here we lay in this camp, which although very beautiful... is becoming so monotonous as to be almost insufferable. We ought to move. We want to go some wheres where we can fight & do some good.... Oh that we could fight & gain the name which some of those two year regiments take home with them; because we can lie here through eternity & nobody would know anything more about us than that which happened at Harpers Ferry.... Only last night some of the boys of my company told me that... now they would follow me to hell if necessary.

I have had so many different officers & men tell me the excellence of my company lately that I am really getting to be quite proud of myself. Even the enlisted men in other companies are talking of the improvement that has been made in my company since I took command of it.

You may think I am "bragging," but I have a right to, I am the youngest officer in the regiment & when I have the Col., Lt. Col., Major, Capts & all tell me that my company has grown from the poorest, to be the best, its enough to make anyone vain. Its my nature to brag & I am going to keep it up as long as I have so many compliments thrust upon me from almost every direction. I presume some of my company hate me (one or two) but they are those whom I have punished. I haven't punished but two or three yet since I enlisted — never had a man refuse to obey me. I punished one or two pretty severely & they know what will surely come; if they dont tread up to the scratch. I dont have any trouble & never did. Every man is perfectly obedient without a word of grumbling...

Your aff son Morris Brown Jr.

The tedium of camp life was rudely interrupted one mid June night when pickets observed a "great lot of small fires" and an unexpected commotion. Daylight revealed an army of dusty, hungry and hard-looking men. The unexpected arrival (and equally abrupt departure) of General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac, more than 90,000 troops, led to all kinds of speculation.

Then, at approximately 2:00 p.m. on June 25, Captain Brown and others in the brigade marched out of Centreville, their home for the past three months. Unaccustomed to long marches, especially on gummy, rain-soaked roads, before long they began ridding themselves of what they considered expendables, including their knapsacks. Ten hours and ten miles later, they wearily dropped to the ground at Gum Springs. The next day they joined the Army of the Potomac's Second Corps, becoming the corps' Third Brigade, Third Division.

Unknown to them, they were were hellbent to catch up with the Confederates who were taking the war north. There would be no let up for the Union soldiers. The longest and severest march was on June 29, somewhere between thirty and thirty-five miles on dusty roads, with occasional rests totaling three hours at most. Straggling peaked before the marchers reached Uniontown, Maryland. But, as Sergeant Harrison Ferguson from Orleans in Ontario County wrote home, "It does no good to fall out, for the first thing we meet is the point of the [file closer's] bayonet." Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had boldly struck out for the north again. The result was that more than 70,000 Confederates and 90,000 Federals were converging on the little crossroads town of Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania. Late on July 1, with a battle already raging, Major General Winfield S. Hancock's weary Second Corps dropped to the ground near the southeastern base of Round Top, south of Gettysburg, and tried unsuccessfully to rest.

Sleep was virtually impossible, for the eerie silence was broken by intermittent musketry fire. Aroused at 3:00 on that sultry, misty July 2, the groggy men stumbled to their feet. Five hours later Captain Brown and the foot-sore soldiers halted near the cemetery then moved to their left at the crest of Cemetery Ridge. A few managed to find sticks to build fires to boil coffee and nibble on hardtack, but most went hungry.

To their right was the village of Gettysburg, to their left woods and straight ahead a valley which rose gradually to Seminary Ridge. Their vision was unobstructed for miles. Directly in front of Brown and others in the brigade located in Zeigler's Grove, an elevated, crescent-shaped area, was a low, stone wall and an old rail fence.

During the day, Captain Brown's Company A was spared the inconclusive skirmishing going on before them. Then around 4:00 p.m. General Longstreet's corps attacked the Union's Third Corps, badly mauling it and opening a gaping hole in the Union line. Roughly three hours later General Hancock ordered acting Third Division commander, General Hays, to send "One of your best Brigades over there." In turn, Hays directed the Third Brigade (in which Morris Brown served) to go "Over there and knock the H--- out of the rebs."

The brigade, screaming "Remember Harpers Ferry," ducked "grape, canister and shell" raining in on them and charged through the brush toward the swale known as Plum Run. They ran uphill some 800 yards in an open field and into canister from Confederate guns which slashed through their ranks. Then they ran smack into elements of General William
Barksdale's Brigade of Major General Lafayette McLaw's Division, which delivered a withering fire. Given the chance to redeem themselves and with their fighting spirit aroused, they met the advancing Confederates "at the muzzles of their muskets and the points of their bayonets." Their inspired charge resulted not only in their overrunning the Confederates,
but it caused them to become dangerously exposed to a flanking fire from two other brigades. The Union troops fell in alarming numbers, so they were ordered to withdraw across Plum Run.

What followed, even who gave the order to withdraw, depends upon the narrator. It remains that when Hancock saw the brigade withdraw, he loosened a stream of profanity, as only he could, and ordered acting brigade commander Sherrill arrested. He then directed Colonel Clinton MacDougall of the 111th New York to command the brigade. To top off a rather confusing event, Captain Morris Brown, Jr. assumed he too might be under arrest. As soon as he could, he penciled the following note to General Hays's adjutant general, Captain George Corts:

July 3 1863

Capt Corts
Supposing it to be possible that I may have been put under arrest last evening by the commanding General through a misapprehension of the facts I desire it my privilege briefly to state that we were executing the order of Col Willard who was in command of the Brigade [before he was killed] which was to have the Regt fall back [if] he fell[.] Upon observing ...that I was then the ranking officer I made the announcement and halted the Brigade. [A]bout this time Lt Col Crandle [Levin Crandell] in command of the 125th N Y Vols said to me, they are flanking us on the left [F]or Gods Sake move us to the Right. [A]s I could discern no enemy in front it seemed to be that this might be the reason for retiring the Brigade. I at once Right faced the Brigade.

Why Brown figured he was the ranking officer and why Colonel Crandell requested Captain Brown to relocate the brigade are unknowns. Nothing has been discovered to explain Brown's note, while the arrest of Colonel Sherrill, who was restored to brigade command the next morning, is documented.

That night the thoroughly exhausted, hungry, but vindicated brigade marched back to Zeigler's Grove. Again, Captain Brown spent a fitful night, while his brother, Smith, the regimental adjutant, suffered a sleepless one, assisting the surgeons in the painful hunt for the dead and wounded.

General Ewell's pre-dawn artillery attack on Culp's Hill ushered in the fighting on Friday, July 3. While Ewell failed to smash the Union right, Hays and his division were no less anxious. Most of the men "Quivered with instinctive readiness," a captain in the 8th Ohio recalled.

Fortunately, Captain Brown was spared the savage and unrelenting skirmishing that morning which proved fatal to three fellow company commanders and the wounding of a fourth. Instead, Brown's detached company remained in reserve on the brigade's right. Shortly thereafter—some time between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. there was an "Ominous deathlike silence." Then around 1:00 p.m. an ear-splitting and earth-shaking cannonade began. "The heavens looked like a continuous ball of fire," one participant recalled. "Shells struck the ground, dirt, gravel, stones and pieces of shell splattered the Union troops." Something like 150 Confederate cannon were aimed at the Union troops, which answered with between 100 and 120 guns.

After greater than an hour of the unprecedented cannonading (estimates run from an hour and a quarter to two hours), again there was silence—signaling the fateful Confederate infantry attack, thereafter known as "Pickett's Charge." Burly General Hays, standing by his old brigade and waving his sword, called out, "Now boys, look out; you will see some fun!" Hays's division, now only two brigades, was four deep in some places and extended close to 300 yards. The 126th New York, Brown's regiment, held the right behind the road in Zeigler's Grove.

At 3:00 p.m. Seminary Ridge came alive. "All at once, over their works and through the bushes that skirted them, came a heavy skirmish line," the 126th New York's Captain Winfield Scott recalled. "The skirmishers were about two paces apart, covering about three quarters of a mile on our front. Behind them about twenty rods came another heavy skirmish line. Behind them, about the same distance, came out the first line of battle." The mile-wide line of battle moved forward like "A stream or river of silver."

Approaching them were three Confederate divisions, approximately 13,000 men, representing Major General George Pickett's Division of Longstreet's Corps, Major General Henry Heth's Division of A. P. Hill's Corps, and behind Heth's was Major General William D. Pender's Division (Major General Isaac Trimble substituting).

Pickett's Division had barely begun its advance when it was met by severe Union artillery fire that cut them down "like the chaff before the whirlwind." Shortly the other two divisions suffered from similar shelling. Somehow, despite the Union artillery raining shells on them, the Confederates kept reforming and coming and became entangled, so that "The shock of the assault fell upon the 2d and 3d divisions [Gibbons's and Hays's] of the 2d corps," General Hancock later testified. Finally, when the attackers were between 200 and 300 yards of them, division commander Hays shouted "Fire," though some of his anxious men had anticipated his command. They rose up and fired away, with something like 1700 muskets and Lt. Georg Woodruff's six-gun battery.

When the full force of the Confederate attack on his right did not materialize, Hays pivoted the 126th New York and the 125th New York reserves forward on the right. An excerpt from Adjutant Smith Brown's letter to his parents, written on July 4, summarizes the results: "...Morris is a hero. Captured a rebel flag. He charged the rebel line with 10 men & captured it...Morris's flag had inscribed on it 'Shepardstown,' 'Malvern Hill,' 'Manassas Junction,' 'Sharpsburgh,' 'Harpers Ferry,' 'Mechanicsville,' 'Hanover,' 'Ox Hill,' 'Cold Harbor,' 'Frazers Farm,' 'Manassas,' 'Cedar Run' ..."

Captain Morris Brown, along with Captain Samuel Armstrong of the 125th New York, had been ordered to strike the Confederate left with his small company. (Brown estimated he had barely eighteen men). After advancing about a quarter mile, Brown deployed them so as to strike the left flank of General Joseph Davis's broken and retreating brigade. After the firing died down, the youthful Brown, at the head of his column, proudly returned with an estimated fifty Confederate prisoners and, especially symbolic, the 28th North Carolina Regiment's flag, which proclaimed its capture of Brown and the Third Brigade at Harpers Ferry!

Though he confessed that "It was a terrible fight & I don't wish to get in another unless necessary," Morris gushed over his role in a letter written twelve days later:

When I captured that flag (I was about a quarter of a mile away from the rest of the brigade) I formed my company with about fifty prisoners which I also took & marched up to the Brigade carrying the flag myself at the head of my column. Oh!!! you ought to have heard the whole brigade cheer me. I bet you too would have yelled bully for another of those "miserable Browns." It was a proud day for me I can tell you. I cant see nor can I ever tell why I was not taken prisoner for I was on the left flank, & almost in the rear of the whole rebel army. I captured three times as many prisoners as I had men. Bully for me.

Only later did the tragic proportions of the battle of Gettysburg began to sink in. As General Hays lamented, "The angel of death alone can produce such a field as was presented." The Second Corps lost 4369 men, almost forty percent of those engaged. General Hays's division had suffered 1291 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), or greater than 35% of those engaged. Two of Hays's regiments lost greater than half of those engaged. The 111th New York and the 126th New York, representing the "Cowards of Harpers Ferry," sustained 63.8% casualties (58 killed) and 50.8% (40 killed) respectively. Brown's Company A was eleven men fewer, with one non-com killed, another wounded, and nine enlisted men wounded in their two days of fighting. General Hays could rightfully report that "The history of this [the Third] brigade's operations is written in blood." Smith Brown's letter in its entirety reveals the awful ordeal that he, his brother and the brigade had undergone.

July 4th 1863
9 a.m
My Dear Parents.
Had a terrible battle 126th annihilated Little over 100 left. (76%) Sixteen officers shot ....Brigade reduced from 2000 to 500. Col. Sherrill shot in grand charge of rebels. Morris is a hero. Captured a rebel flag. He charged the rebel line with 10 men & captured it. Our regiment captured 5 flags. We went in with 375 men & 27 officers. We have been fighting now continuously for 60 hours. are losing rest of our men very fast. I just came out to carry Co Sh[errill's] body to the rear.

Morris flag had inscribed on it "Shepardstown," "Malvern Hill" "Manassas Junction" "Sharpsburgh" "Harpers Ferry" "Mechanicsville" "Hanover" "Ox Hill" "Cold Harbor" "Frazers Farm" "Manassas" "Cedar Run" It belonged to 14th N.C

Rebels laid down their arms & came in and no one to make them. This is 4th day of battle....We are beating the Enemy I will write [Yates County Chronicle editor] Cleveland a detailed acct. Am writing on a pint cup do not know how I can send this. no battle going on now. It will be renewed soon....In haste

Part II
© 2005, Wayne Mahood
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