13th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

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The monument of the 13th Massachusetts was dedicated in 1885 and is located on the eastern slope of Oak Ridge on Robinson Avenue. It is the only Massachusetts monument to feature a likeness of a member of the unit, Color Sergeant Roland G. Morris, who fell at this spot on July 1.

As we approach the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it seems an appropriate time to post another entry to my “Massachusetts at Gettysburg” series. The 13th Massachusetts Infantry was one of only two Massachusetts units engaged west of town during the first day of battle on July 1, 1863. Held for too long in a difficult position, the unit took the heaviest casualties of any Massachusetts regiment on the field.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, the 13th Massachusetts was part of the First Brigade (Paul) of the Second Division (Robinson), of the I Corps (Reynolds). The nucleus of the regiment was the 4th Massachusetts Battalion of Rifles which was organized prior to and immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter. The battalion served garrison duty at Fort Independence in Boston harbor during the early months of the war. With the addition of five companies, the battalion became a regiment and was designated the 13th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment on July 16, 1861.[1]

Their first assignment was garrison duty along the Potomac with their headquarters in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Early in 1862, they were transferred to garrison duty in the vicinity of Manassas Junction, thus occupying two sites for an extended period that would eventually be the sites of major battles. In August 1862, they took part in the Second Battle of Manassas, taking heavy casualties. When Lee invaded Maryland, the 13th Massachusetts was absorbed by the Army of the Potomac and became a part of the I Corps. Finding themselves back in Sharpsburg under different circumstances, their brigade was the first into the infamous Cornfield where the 13th took 45% casualties.[2] They were spared the carnage of the Battle of Fredericksburg, being deployed as skirmishers on the far left of the Union line. They were posted behind the lines during the Battle of Chancellorsville, guarding one of the fords across the Rappahannock and were only lightly engaged when making a reconnaissance.[3] On June 12, 1863, “a scorching hot day,” the 13th Massachusetts marched off with the rest of the Army of the Potomac on the long pursuit of the Confederate Army into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Leonard, Samuel H

Colonel Samuel H. Leonard (1825-1902)

Col. Samuel H. Leonard commanded the 13th Massachusetts during the Battle of Gettysburg. He was the unit’s original commanding officer from the time of its organization. Born in Bolton, Massachusetts on July 10, 1835, Leonard would be just a few days shy of 38 years old during the Battle of Gettysburg. He lived in Boston at the start of the war but had spent most of his adult life living in Worcester, helping to manage his father’s successful express business, transporting items by rail and stage coach between Worcester and Boston. He sought active involvement in the state militia at a young age, becoming a private in the Worcester Guards. Rising through the ranks, he gained a reputation for being an excellent drill master. Upon his move to Boston in 1860, he became captain of the Boston City Guard, and then, just before the war, Major of the 4th Battalion.

Army of the Potomac unit universally experienced brutal forced marches during June as they pursued Lee’s army, and it was no exception for the 13th Massachusetts. However, being in the leading infantry Corps on July 1, the men of the 13th Massachusetts did not immediately perceive any urgency on that particular morning as the accidental collision at Gettysburg slowly unfolded. They began that day’s march, the regimental historian recalled, “under no pressure of haste,” making their way northward along the Emmitsburg Road to the Codori farmhouse on the outskirts of Gettysburg. The brief march was remembered as a pleasant one through bright fields and fragrant woods. While halted near the Codori house, they heard firing to the northwest. Their morning changed rapidly as they were ordered to fall in and pressed through fields to the Lutheran Seminary.[4]

Their brigade rushed to Oak Ridge northwest of town along the Mummasburg Road. Here they met Confederates streaming in from Chambersburg. The 13th Massachusetts formed the extreme right of the I Corps. There was a half-mile gap between them and the men of the XI Corps on their right. This left the 13th Massachusetts dreadfully exposed.

With heavy fire coming in on three sides, the 13th still managed to stick to their position along the Mummasburg Road. They scored something of a victory when a North Carolina regiment tried to dislodge them. Advancing across the Mummasburg Road, which was sunken, the Confederates found they could not press forward up the other slope in the face of such terrible fire. The 13th Massachusetts inflicted terrible damage, some of the men shouting, “Give it to ’em for Fredericksburg!” Most of the Confederate regiment surrendered and the 13th Mass took 132 prisoners.[5]

There was little time to celebrate as another Confederate line approached, and after that another. Ordered to stay put, there was little they could do, their historian recalled, “but stand still and fire.” Most of the afternoon they held their ground. “So many men had fallen that our line looked ridiculously small to be contending with the large army corps now approaching us.”[6] Their brigade commander, General Gabriel Paul, was shot in the face, permanently blinded, and command of the brigade fell to Col. Leonard of the 13th Massachusetts. Until he too was wounded, shot in the arm. The next regimental commander to step up was also wounded and soon it seemed that no one was in charge of the brigade. This confusion exacerbated a bad situation. Their brigade was left exposed for too long. And when brigades around them began to crumble, Paul’s brigade, the 13th Massachusetts included, were among the last to withdraw.[7]

Consequently, when the 13th Massachusetts retreated pell mell through the streets of Gettysburg, they found those streets had already been occupied by Confederates. It was complete chaos. “Over fences, into yards, through gates, anywhere an opening appeared,” wrote the regimental historian, “we rushed with all our speed to escape capture.” Every street and alley they raced into seemed to be swarming with Confederates. Many of them were “gobbled and sent to rot in rebel prisons.” The 13th Massachusetts did manage to reform on Cemetery Hill south of town, but 98 of them were captured during their scramble through town. They had taken 284 men into battle that morning. On July 2, only 99 were present for duty.[8] Their brigade took the highest casualties of any Union brigade in the battle, largely due to the number of prisoners taken during their retreat through town.[9]

Due to the heavy casualties they had taken, the 13th Massachusetts was kept in reserve with their brigade during the next two days of the battle. Posted for the most part on Cemetery Hill, they were occasionally rushed from one point to another to support various batteries and other units. Even in a supporting position, they were at times exposed to sharpshooter fire from the town of Gettysburg or pickets to the north and east of Cemetery Hill.

During Pickett’s Charge on July 3, the 13th Massachusetts (and virtually every infantry unit in the vicinity) was ordered towards “the Angle” where the charge broke. By the time the 13th Massachusetts reached the scene, the charge had ended and captured Confederates were being brought the to rear. Union units celebrated, the regimental historian recalled, and thousands of men shouted themselves hoarse. “It seemed as though the pent-up feelings of two long years had suddenly been released.”[10]

The 13th Massachusetts lost 7 killed, 77 wounded, and 101 missing (nearly all captured)–casualties of 65%.[11] The unit took the worst casualties, both numerically and by percentage, of any Massachusetts unit on the field at Gettysburg.

[1] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the war, 1861-1865, (Springfield: C.W. Bryan & Co, 1889), 235.
[2] Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg: the Union and Confederate brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 62; Charles E. Davis, Three years in the army. The story of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers from July 16, 1861, to August 1, 1864, (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1894), 135.
[3] Bowen, 240-242.
[4] Davis, 225-226.
[5] Davis, 227.
[6] Davis, 227.
[7] Gottfried, 65 and 68.
[8] Davis, 229.
[9] Gottfried, 68.
[10] Davis, 237.
[11] New York (State), William F. Fox, and Daniel Edgar Sickles, Final report on the battlefield of Gettysburg, (Albany: J.B. Lyon Co., Printers, 1900), 140.

About Patrick Browne

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

2 responses to “13th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

  • Ben

    Fantastic blog, and a wonderful entry. I wrote a lesson plan focusing on the 13th Mass at Gettysburg as part of an NEH seminar 2 years ago – I was actually inspired by your blog’s focus on individual units. Keep up the good work!

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks, Ben. I’m really glad you shared that. It’s good to know these ramblings are having some constructive influence. How excellent that you built the 13th Mass at Gettysburg into a lesson plan! Keep up the good work as well!

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