1st Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

[Looking ahead to the new year, the big event for Civil War historians and reenactors will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 2013. In anticipation of this, I thought it might be interesting to commence a series of articles, each one devoted to the experiences of a different Massachusetts unit at Gettysburg. Perhaps I might get through all 25…]

The 1st Massachusetts Infantry monument is on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road, just north of the intersection of Sickles Ave.

The 1st Massachusetts Infantry monument is on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road, just north of the intersection of Sickles Ave.

During the Battle of Gettysburg the 1st Massachusetts Infantry was part of the First Brigade (Carr), Second Division (Humphreys), III Corps (Sickles).

The regiment had been mustered in at Camp Cameron in Cambridge in late May 1861. The 1st Massachusetts Infantry would be the first to leave the Commonwealth, on June 15, 1861, in response to Lincoln’s call for call for three-year regiments (five regiments had left earlier for 90 days of service). They also had the distinction of being the first three-year regiment to reach Washington.[1]

Half of the regiment was made up of old companies of the First Massachusetts Militia. The other half had been freshly recruited. They were almost entirely from Boston, but also included some companies from Roxbury and Chelsea. Some of the old militia companies of the 1st had been around a long time and had quaint names such as the “North End True Blues,” and the “Independent Boston Fusileers.”

At Gettysburg, the regiment was commanded by 42 year-old Lieutenant Colonel Clark Baldwin. Born in Vermont, Baldwin had been a clerk living in South Boston at the time of his enlistment. As captain of Company E, he had been slightly wounded during the Peninsular Campaign at Williamsburg, Virginia. He had been acting commanding officer for slightly more than three weeks while Colonel Napoleon McLaughlin was on sick leave.[2]

With the battle underway on July 1, the Union Army of the Potomac converged with all possible speed on Gettysburg. Approaching Gettysburg in the dark on July 1, Humphrey’s division was given bad directions by a staff officer and ended up taking a wrong turn. The detour landed them near the Black Horse Tavern on the Hagerstown Road, smack within Rebel lines…about three miles from where the rest of the Union army was gathering.

The regimental historian of the 1st Massachusetts wrote that the column stood in silence within a stone’s throw of thirty pieces of Rebel artillery as they tried to ascertain their whereabouts. The mistake was discovered when a Confederate artillery sergeant was taken captive and the column turned around and somehow managed to tiptoe away. They finally made it to the vicinity of Round Top at about 2 a.m on July 2.[3]

During the morning of July 2, all was generally quiet along the Union line as Confederate General James Longstreet spent hours positioning his Corps for a massive assault that would strike in the afternoon. At about 12:30, Union General Daniel Sickles, unhappy with his position upon low ground, moved his entire III Corps nearly a mile in front of the Union line to the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road. (Some would say this maneuver, opening a large gap in the Union line, was reckless).

Carr’s brigade, of which the 1st Massachusetts was a part, was on the extreme right of the III Corps line along the road. The regiment was deployed as skirmishers on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road in advance of their brigade, watching the woods in their front. When the attack struck around 3:30 p.m., it rolled slowly from south to north along the road. Carr’s brigade would be the last to be enveloped around 6 p.m.

With Union brigades giving way on their left and General Lang’s Floridians appearing en masse from the woods in front of them, the 1st Massachusetts soon retreated back to their brigade. Looking for orders as to where to form his regiment, Baldwin was told by an aide of General Carr to form “in front” of the 26th Pennsylvania. This made absolutely no sense. Baldwin questioned the order, but was assured it came from General Carr. He obeyed, and thus masked the 26th Pennsylvania for a time, but eventually the 1st Massachusetts moved off to the right.[4]

Even before the 1st Massachusetts was in position, the Confederate assault was pressing hard upon them. As the regiment struggled to fend off repeated charges, Lieutenant James Doherty, commanding a company of the 1st Massachusetts, sensed his men were on the verge of panic and ordered them to shoulder arms. He then, in the midst of a perfect hell of fire, put them through the manual of arms as if on the parade ground. The familiar ritual had the desired effect of calming his company and they fought on.[5]

Eventually, surrounded on three sides, under terrific fire and pressed by superior numbers, Carr’s brigade found itself in a position both “helpless” and “hopeless.”[6] The left of the brigade gave way first and soon the 1st Massachusetts was retreating with them back towards Cemetery Ridge. Lt. Col. Baldwin had been shot in the arm. Casualties were heavy and the regiment was in some disorder.

During the retreat, the color-sergeant of the 1st Massachusetts was shot and the national banner went down. With Confederates pursuing fast, Corporal Nathan M. Allen turned around, went back for the colors through thick fire, and saved them from capture.

Carr’s brigade did manage to regroup and executed a counterattack. Captain John McDonough of Company G rallied what remained of the 1st Massachusetts and led them back to their former position along the Emmitsburg Road as the Confederates retreated. They would not remain there long as Carr’s brigade was soon ordered to retire.

The 1st Massachusetts regrouped behind the center of the Union line near the Hummelbaugh House which was being used as a field hospital. During the third day of the battle, they did not participate in repelling Pickett’s Charge but instead helped to tend the wounded. When the Confederate charge was broken and the battle ended, there was, as remembered by the 1st Massachusetts regimental historian, wild rejoicing with men cheering at “anything and everything” and bands playing in fortissimo. Even those too badly wounded to speak, “looked the assent and sympathy their pale lips were unable to utter.”[7]

Of the 321 men of the 1st Massachusetts that went into battle, 26 were killed, 77 wounded and 20 missing for a total of 123 casualties (or about 38%).[8]

[1] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888), p. 99.
[2] Warren H. Cudworth, History of the First Regiment (Massachusetts Infantry), (1866), p. 427.
[3] Cudworth, p. 393.
[4] Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2002), p. 217.
[5] Cudworth, p. 397.
[6] Asa W. Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, (1897), p. 126.
[7] Cudworth, p. 400.
[8] Cudworth, p. 404.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

7 responses to “1st Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

  • Anonymous

    I am a distant cousin of Brig. Gen. Thomas Harrison Dunham of the 11th Mass which I believe may have been in the area of the Peach Orchard under Sickles. Would be nice to see an article on the 11th.

  • Anonymous

    Sgt. William H. Colson 1st Mass. Infantry Company G was killed on July 2nd on the Emmitsburg Road. He is the only person killed in that company on that day. I have searched for more information about him and where he may have been buried, but have not found anything. He was one of 4 brothers to serve in the Union Army. Two of the brothers were in the 26th Mass. Inf. and my Great-great Grandfather Charles A. Colson served with the 5th Mass. Inf. Thanks for this article.

    • Patrick Browne

      Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading. An article on the 5th Mass will be coming up fairly soon. As for Sgt. Colson, I’ll do some poking around to see what I can find, but you’ve probably searched better than I could.

    • Patrick Browne

      Alas, sorry, I don’t think my head was on straight when I replied to you. The 5th Mass wasn’t at Gettysburg. I think I had the 15th Mass in my head at the time.

  • Patti McGinnis Duff

    Hello, Thank you for the article! I am the great, great, great grand niece (I think I have the correct amount of greats in there) of Sergeant Edward J. McGinnis of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Sgt. McGinnis died at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Have you ever come across any information on him?

    • Patrick Browne

      Hello, Patti. I have not come across anything particularly informative about Sgt. McGinnis. You perhaps have seen the information in his enlistment record: Residence Boston MA; a 22 year-old Caulker. Enlisted on 5/23/1861 as a Private. On 5/27/1861 he mustered into “C” Co. MA 1st Infantry. He was Killed on 7/2/1863 at Gettysburg, PA. Promotions:
      * Sergt. Buried: Gettysburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA. Gravesite: MA-B-34. – Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War.

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