12th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

Monument to the 12th Massachusetts on McPherson's Ridge, dedicated in 1885.

Monument to the 12th Massachusetts on McPherson’s Ridge, dedicated in 1885.

Today being the 151st anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, I thought it would be fitting to resume my series on Massachusetts at Gettysburg. When considering the first day of fighting, perhaps the most appropriate Bay State unit to cover is the 12th Massachusetts Infantry.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the 12th Massachusetts belonged to 2nd Brigade (Baxter), 2nd Division (Robinson) of the I Corps (Reynolds). It was known as “Webster’s Regiment” after their first colonel, Fletcher Webster, the only surviving son of the late Senator and famed orator Daniel Webster.

The 12th Massachusetts began to form through Fletcher Webster’s efforts on April 21, 1861. The regiment was mustered in at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor on June 14, 1861. They departed Boston by rail on July 23, 1861.[1]

The first year of service for the 12th Massachusetts was relatively uneventful as they spent most of that time serving picket duty in the vicinity of Frederick, Maryland, attached to the Department of the Shenandoah. In June 1862, they became part of the Army of Virginia and fought their first significant battle at Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. They were heavily engaged during the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862. Among the killed was their beloved Colonel Fletcher Webster.[2]

This tragedy was soon followed by a devastating ordeal during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. As General Hooker’s early morning assault fell apart, the 12th Massachusetts was one of the units that stood in the way of General Stonewall Jackson’s counterattack. Standing toe to toe with the Louisiana Tigers in the Cornfield, the outnumbered 12th Massachusetts eventually had to retreat under terrific fire. The 12th Massachusetts suffered the worst casualties of any Federal unit on the field that day, losing 224 out of 334 men.[3]

Again came heavy casualties at Fredericksburg. By January 1863, there was an unsuccessful attempt to have the 12th Massachusetts sent home only halfway through their term of service due to their decimated condition. Under 100 men, they were the smallest Massachusetts regiment in the field at the time.[4] The undersized unit was held back from the fighting during the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863.

When the Gettysburg Campaign began, the 12th Massachusetts was commanded by Col. James L. Bates, a 42 year-old merchant in the leather trade from Weymouth, Massachusetts. He had begun his service as captain of Company H, then was promoted to major of the regiment. When the 33rd Massachusetts Infantry was formed, he was transferred and served as major of that unit for a brief time while it was in training. With the death of Fletcher Webster, Bates was offered the command of his old regiment and he accepted. He had been in command nearly a  year when the Battle of Gettysburg began.

The 12th Massachusetts began its northward march with other elements of the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of Lee’s army on June 12, 1863. Two weeks and about 125 miles later, they were camped in Emmitsburg, Maryland near the Pennsylvania border on June 29. On July 1, they marched for Gettysburg just as the battle was getting underway. As part of the I Corps, they were among the first Union infantry troops to reach Gettysburg and had hard fighting ahead of them that day.

Since Fredericksburg, their numbers had increased due to the return of wounded men and some new recruits. The regiment numbered 261 at Gettysburg.[5]

The 12th Massachusetts approached Gettysburg with their brigade in mid morning via the Emmitsburg Road, listening to the growing noise of cannon as they marched. As they reached the Codori Farm, they left the Emmitsburg Road and obliqued northward through farmland towards Seminary Ridge. They came to a halt in front of the Lutheran Seminary about noon. Baxter’s regiments were soon deployed along McPherson’s Ridge to meet the rising tide of Confederates streaming in from the west and north. The 12th Massachusetts took a position in the form of an inverted “V”, refusing their flank along the Mummasburg Road. Other regiments formed up to their southwest and southeast. The 12th Massachusetts formed the salient point.[6]

In this position, the 12th Massachusetts could be attacked either from the left or right, but their line being bent back upon itself, they faced both directions prepared to fight. And they were indeed attacked from both sides, first from the right and then, more strongly, from the left. This second attack required the 12th Massachusetts to change front, now facing entirely northwest along McPherson’s Ridge. The second attack was repelled.

Then occurred one of the most bizarre and terrible episodes of the Battle of Gettysburg. Catching their breath, the 12th Massachusetts hunkered down along a stone wall, fairly well concealed behind the crest of a ridge. The other units of Baxter’s brigade on their right and left did the same. Before long a force of Confederates appeared in their front marching in perfect order as though on parade. They had no skirmishers deployed, meaning there was no screen to prevent their entire line from blundering into the Union position. This was General Alfred Iverson’s brigade of North Carolinians, 1,400 strong, and they apparently had no idea how close the Union lines stood.[7]

The view west from McPherson's Ridge. Iverson's brigade advanced over this ground towards the 12th Massachusetts.

The view west from McPherson’s Ridge. Iverson’s brigade advanced over this ground towards the 12th Massachusetts.

The men of Baxter’s brigade, including the 12th Massachusetts, watched with rifles cocked and fingers on their triggers as Iverson’s brigade came on, their ranks splendidly dressed. The 12th Massachusetts was repeatedly told to hold their fire. When the North Carolinians were within 50 yards, devastingly close range, the order was given to rise up and fire. Baxter’s brigade stood and opened fire with horrific effect. Hundreds of unsuspecting Confederates went down in the first volley, the dead lying in perfect rows testifying to the casual precision with which they had advanced. Lt. George Bullock of the 23rd North Carolina later said that it was the only time during the war that he actually saw blood coursing across the ground, forming a small river.

After the battle, the men of Iverson’s brigade would be buried in a mass grave that came to be known as Iverson’s Pits. Their remains were disinterred in 1873 and taken back to North Carolina for re-burial. But locals strongly felt that not all of them had been recovered. The site gained a notorious reputation for being haunted. Farm hands working in the area not long after the war were terrified of the spot. Today it is one of the most frequented destinations for ghost hunters on the battlefield.[8]

As the stunned men remaining in Iverson’s brigade took refuge in a small gully and waved improvised flags of surrender, the 12th Massachusetts and other units of Baxter’s brigade made a somewhat improvised charge to capture them. No one was quite sure who had given the order, if it was given at all. Forcing their prisoners to the rear, the 12th Massachusetts did not have much time to revel in their victory. A new and more powerful Confederate attack bore down on their position at about 3 p.m. The 12th Massachusetts was, by this time, virtually out of ammunition and the men crouched down, prepared to meet the assault with fixed bayonets.[9]

The attack was too much to bear, particularly with no ammunition. The 12th Massachusetts retreated with their brigade. The entire Union line north and west of Gettysburg was in the process of folding and Union soldiers retreated back through the town to the rallying point on Cemetery Hill. It was a desperate scramble and a good number of the unit were taken prisoner. At some point during the engagement, Colonel James Bates was wounded and Lt. Col. David Allen took command of the 12th Massachusetts.

Reaching Cemetery Hill, the 12th Massachusetts was posted in Ziegler’s Grove and settled down for a sleepless night. Over the course of the next two days of battle, they would be deployed to various points on Cemetery Hill in support of batteries and though under artillery fire, did not see any further pitched combat. They did not play a role in repulsing Pickett’s Charge but were deployed towards Seminary Ridge as skirmishers after the charge had ended to flush out Confederate sharpshooters.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the  12th Massachusetts had casualties of 5 killed, 52 wounded and 62 prisoners for a total of 119 or 62% Nearly all of those casualties took place on July 1, the first day of the battle.

[1] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War 1861-1865, (1888), p. 219
[2] Bowen, p. 220-225
[3] Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red, (2003), p. 190
[4] Bowen, p. 228
[5] Carl Smith, Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy, (2012), p. 27
[6] Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2003), p. 70
[7] Gottfried, p. 71
[8] James McPherson, Hallowed Ground, (2003), p. 46
[9] Gottfried, p. 73

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

9 responses to “12th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Your well-written post highlights a point I’ve wondered about: Did Union regiments not recruit to replace soldiers who had been killed, captured or discharged, or were new regiments simply formed and old ones folded into other units?

    I know that several Northern states had 100 or more infantry regiments and while they were populous states, it would be easier to reach that figure if one simply formed new regiments, rather than diverted new recruits to existing regiments to fill manpower losses.

    • Patrick Browne

      Generally, states preferred to form new units rather than fill up the ranks of old ones. This was certainly true of Massachusetts. A good part of this was for political reasons…it created new officer positions that could be filled. But veteran units were also replenished with new recruits every now and then, though not in huge numbers. Just off the cuff, but I think just about every Massachusetts regimental history I’ve read mentions getting new recruits at some point. I’ve also read letters by officers quite bitter at the state practice of forming new regiments and letting the older ones wither away.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        I’m in South Carolina and I know that here the regiments, as far as I can tell, simply replenished existing units. A couple of regiments were so decimated in early fighting that they were folded into new units, but most all were formed by the end of 1862. The only one created after Jan. 1, 1863, was the 27th South Carolina, which was formed by merging a couple of existing battalions in September 1863.

        Your explanation helps me understand how states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York, even with their larger populations, could field 150 or more infantry regiments.

      • Patrick Browne

        Interesting about South Carolina units generally being established by 1862. I did not know that. Yes, I should have stipulated that I was talking about northern states.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        I’m not sure if how South Carolina formed regiments holds true for other Southern states. Obviously, states such as Georgia and Virginia had significantly more regiments, but they also had greater population.

        In South Carolina at least there seems to have been a good deal of pride in joining some of the existing regiments, rather than forming new units. I don’t know if that had something to do with the way replenishing regiments and battalions was addressed.

      • Patrick Browne

        Interesting. What you describe is what many officers of veteran regiments from Massachusetts were advocating. But, by and large, their petitions were ignored and new regiments were formed instead. If older regiments had been sufficiently replenished it could have avoided a good deal of tragedy. There are many stories of entirely green units being fed into the thick of the worst fights against veteran regiments, taking terrible casualties and being routed. If the recruits had been placed in older units this phenomenon would probably have been much reduced.

  • Tim Reason

    Great article and you’re right about them replenishing their ranks. The 12th Massachusetts’s regimental history mentions their Colonel, who left after being wounded at Gettysburg, returning to the regiment with 176 conscripts, then leaving for Massachusetts less than a month later to get more, “the first batch was nearly all gone, 16 deserting in one day.” So they did do it–it just wasn’t very useful! http://www.archive.org/stream/websterregiment00cookrich#page/108/mode/2up

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks, Tim. I missed that they were conscripts. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the troops that joined existing Massachusetts units were draftees vs. volunteers.

  • Marti Fussell

    My great grandfather, Hugh Farley,and great uncle, Patrick Farley, were in the original Bates Company as volunteers and both survived the war. My great grandfather was later wounded twice and my great uncle was captured and spent 8 months imprisoned at Andersonville. What horrors they must have endured. Thank you for this recounting of their time at Gettysburg. It is the most detailed account I have read.

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