This will be an extraordinary weekend for Connecticut residents William H. Hincks and Kierran Broatch.
Today, the two men will join 12,000 other blue- and gray-clad participants in the conclusion of a three-day re-enactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil, at Gettysburg, Pa., July 1 through 3, 1863.
For Hincks, 40, of East Hampton, and Broatch, 30, of Milford, it is not simply play-acting, but an opportunity to honor the Civil War heroism of their great-great-grandfathers who, as members of the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment, took action for a brief, but consequential, moment at the battle's dramatic conclusion.
For two days, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had launched a series of bloody but inclusive attacks against General George Meade's Army of the Potomac. Now, on the afternoon of the third day, Lee decided to roll the dice and attack the massed center of Union soldiers with the fresh divisions of Maj. Gen. George Pickett and Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew.
Positioned behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, the men of the 14th Connecticut were blazing away at the charging Confederates when the commanding officer shouted a challenge to capture the regimental flag of the 14th Tennessee Infantry Regiment planted in their front.
Sgt. Maj. William Bliss Hincks, Capt. John C. Broatch and Sgt. George Brigham responded.
Brigham was instantly shot and wounded. Hincks beat Broatch to the flag, grabbed it and raced back to his line, bounding atop the wall with a triumphant yell. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Descendants Bill Hincks and Kierran Broatch have never participated in historical re-enactments before. But when leaders of the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry history group approached them to portray their ancestors on that pivotal day, the opportunity was too precious to pass up.
"I'm honored to be a small part of it,'' said Broatch, a development officer at Quinnipiac University. "I'm blessed to be a keeper of my family history."
"I'm doing this for all the members of my family,'' said Hincks, whose family retains a number of cherished heirlooms from their ancestor, including his saber, belt and sash, but not, unfortunately, his Congressional medal. "It want to come the closest that I can to possibly understand the events of July 3, 1863."
Critical Turning Point
The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed as a critical turning point in the Civil War and remains a subject of endless fascination and debate.
It has been refought and analyzed in countless academic and popular histories, articles, lectures and documentaries. A great historical novel of the battle, Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels," was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975 and was successfully adapted for the screen a generation later.
More than 1 million visitors are drawn each year to Gettysburg National Military Park, where 1,328 monuments, memorials and markers are maintained across 6,000 acres of ridges, hills, fields and ravines.
At the dedication of its national cemetery, in November 1863, to honor Union soldiers killed in the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the most famous speech in American history.
That 165,000 men collided so violently in this small Pennsylvania town of 2,400 in the early summer of 1863 was largely happenstance.
In late May 1863, after routing a much larger Union army at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to take the war into enemy territory, as he had done the previous September at Antietam.
Confederate leaders realized that although their best general kept winning battles, they were no closer to achieving independence. Also, continued Union success along the Mississippi River, which culminated July 4, 1863, with the fall of Vicksburg, was splitting the Confederacy.
During June, Lee's army advanced west, then north behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, leaving Virginia and crossing Maryland into Pennsylvania. The Confederate movement galvanized Union forces, which were placed under Meade's command that month. As the two sides began concentrating forces, the gap between the armies shrank.
On the final day of June, troops from Gen. A.P. Hill's Confederate corps headed for Gettysburg looking for shoes they heard were there, and the next morning the lead elements of the two armies made contact.
The first day's fighting saw Lee's men drive the Union forces through the town. The first Connecticut regiment to be engaged — the 17th, assigned to the 11th Corps — took heavy casualties, including the decapitation of its commanding officer. Still, despite their initial success, the Confederates failed to dislodge the Union troops from the high ground south of town, which became key to the entire battle.
On the second day, more troops from both sides poured into the fight. Furious rebel attacks on the two ends of the union position, anchored by Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill to the north and Big Round Top and Little Round Top to the south, failed to break the line. Despite epic heroism and horrific casualties, the outcome hung in the balance.
The Third Day
The 160 men of the 14th Connecticut, assigned to the Second Brigade, Third Division of Gen. Winfield Hancock's Second Corps, had arrived on the evening of July 1.
Mustered in late summer 1862, battle-hardened at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the regiment spent most of July 2 on picket duty, then was posted late that afternoon behind a stone wall on the northern edge of the corps' position on Cemetery Ridge.
On the morning of July 3, troops from four of its companies chased Confederate sharpshooters from the Bliss Barn, located between the two armies, and torched the structure, ending two days of seesaw control.
At 1 o'clock that afternoon, Confederate guns let loose with what Sgt. Major Hincks, a vivid diarist, recalled in the regimental history as "the heaviest cannonade I had ever witnessed.
"I am informed that the thunder of the guns upon this occasion was heard for nearly a hundred miles away, and the story hardly seems incredible to one who was upon the ground.
"I utterly despair of giving any idea of the various diabolical sounds to which we listened, the howling of the shells as they sped through the air was like the voice of the tornado upon the ocean, and the sound of their bursting like incessant crashes of the heaviest thunder."
The bombardment lasted two hours. Fortunately for the regiment, hunkered down behind its stone wall, the shells mostly passed harmlessly overhead.
When the shelling stopped, the men readied themselves for what their commander, Maj. Theodore Ellis of Hartford, in his official report, would term a "magnificent" sight: a mile-long, four-deep row of 12,000 Confederates marching out from the opposing woods.
As the rebels advanced, the firepower from the 14th — two companies were armed with Sharps breech-loading rifles — proved deadly effective. Hincks, himself, fired two guns, another man constantly reloading for him.
As attackers fell left and right, flag bearers for the 14th Tennessee planted their banner to rally their men, prompting Ellis to issue the challenge that Hincks, Broatch and Brigham took up.
For the Civil War soldier, whose regiment was his home, his family and his identity, the regimental banner was a potent symbol.
To capture an enemy's flag was an act of heroism and defiance and, on a battlefield without telephone or radio, deprived the foe of a critical communications tool. "Rally around the flag" was a way officers controlled the movements of their men.
The citation for Hincks' Medal Of Honor said: "Swinging his saber over the prostrate Confederates and uttering a terrific yell, he seized the flag and hastily returned to his lines ... The devotion to duty shown by Sgt. Major Hincks gave encouragement to many of his comrades at crucial moment of the battle."
Confederate dead and dying covered the field. "... Our boys sprang up over the fence and down the slope upon the wavering enemy, with a rush that nothing could withstand," Capt. Samuel Fiske, an officer of the 14th who wrote under the pseudonym Dunn Browne, informed his readers. "The enemy fled, throwing away everything. We captured thousands of prisoners.
"Hurrah for the gallant old 14th! She is getting some of the pay for Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville."
Lee had suffered a catastrophic defeat, losing 28,000 dead, wounded and missing. On the evening of July 4, much to Lincoln's dismay, his army limped home to Virginia, unopposed. The exhausted union troops had, themselves, sustained 23,000 casualties.
Five Connecticut infantry regiments and a light artillery unit, 1,300 men in all, had been in the fight, losing 68 dead and 291 wounded.
Six of the 59 Union generals were from Connecticut. The heroic performance of the 14th regiment, in particular, was reflected in its capture of five Confederate regimental flags. In addition to Hincks, two other enlisted men from the regiment — Cpl. Christopher Flynn of Company K and Pvt. Elijah W. Bacon of Company F — were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Reduced to 100 men after Gettysburg, the regiment continued to serve through the remainder of the war and was present when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Hincks, a native of Maine who grew up in Bridgeport, ended the war as a major. He returned to Bridgeport afterwards and became one of the city's leading citizens, a successful businessman, published author, and bank officer. He was appointed co-executor of the estate of his good friend, P.T. Barnum, and helped found the Barnum Museum and Bridgeport Hospital. He died in 1903.
Broatch was only 20 at the time of Gettysburg. Seven months later, he was leading his men at the Battle of Morton's Ford when a Confederate bullet struck his right hand, severing a finger and 6 inches of his sword, which was hurled 20 feet skyward. Undaunted, he picked up the sword with his other hand and continued fighting.
Ending the war as a major, he returned to his hometown of Middletown where he worked as superintendent of the city's waterworks, spent one term in the General Assembly and was active in the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization. He died in 1904. His sword is on exhibit at the Middlesex Historical Society.
Kierran Broatch said his ancestor's service is remembered in two cherished family heirlooms.
"One is a hand-stitched regimental history that has his name on it — his wife must have stitched that — hanging up in the house I was raised in.
"I also have a [Grand Army of the Republic] ribbon he wore many years after the battle with a nutmeg hanging from it."
To learn more about the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, go to 14thconnecticut.org.