As Gen. Robert. E. Lee marched the Rebel army back to the South and thousands of dead and wounded littered the fields of Gettysburg, news of the fate of Northampton County's 153rd Pennsylvania infantry regiment was slow to reach home.
The first reports on the great battle appeared in the weekly edition of The Easton Sentinel, published July 9, 1863, six days after the fighting ended, though Gettysburg was just 100 miles away from the 153rd's home county. Under the headline "Cheering News" the paper proclaimed a "glorious victory" for Union forces under Gen. George Meade.
But tucked underneath the accolades came sobering news on Northampton County's own men. Recognizing that "a most intense anxiety prevails throughout the county" to learn what happened to the regiment, the Sentinel published what it acknowledged was an "imperfect list" of casualties suffered July 1-3 at Gettysburg, 150 years ago.
The newspaper said it got the list in a telegraph from "Friday last," which would have been July 3.
It had nine names — four captains and five lieutenants. Killed was "Capt. Harrison Young, Moorsburg." Of the rest, one was missing and six were wounded. And perhaps most agonizing for family and friends was the confusion over the exact identity of the last officer on the list — "Lieut. Arther (likely Capt. Oerter)" — and his unknown fate.
Even more chilling for those awaiting news of loved ones and the fortunes of the regiment was a letter from "young Hayden of this Borough," who reported he and about 80 others were captured during the fighting on Barlow's Knoll just north of Gettysburg, and he does "not give even a guess at the loss the regiment sustained."
A week later, on July 16, The Easton Argus published what it believed to be a complete list of 19 who were killed. Modern historians put the number much higher — they believe 53 from the regiment were killed, though some may not have died until later that month.
As family members eventually learned the fate of their beloved soldiers in the weeks after the battle, some rushed to Gettysburg to tend to the wounded and search for the missing.
George Schlabach, 64, of Bath, got information that his 22-year-old son Benjamin had been wounded and captured by Confederates. He immediately went to Gettysburg, where Benjamin was being treated.
By the end of the month, Benjamin Schlabach was dead, according to research by Center Valley author Jeff Stocker.
While news of Gettysburg was slow to reach home, it was even slower to reach Alfred Pretz of Allentown, a private in the 47th Pennsylvania regiment.
Desperate for news about Gettysburg, Pretz wrote home from Key West, Fla., where his regiment was located.
"How would you like to be without the war news for sixteen days, if the battles to be fought were expected to take place on the soil of your native state?" Pretz wrote on July 18. "We have not heard a whisper of anything that has transpired since July 2. The latest that we know is that two Corps of the Army of the Potomac attacked the rebels outside of Gettysburg and that General Reynolds was killed in the engagement — But we do not know how that battle even ended."
Gettysburg was the last battle for the 153rd, which had left Easton nine months earlier nearly 1,000 strong. It would return home by the end of July 1863 with about half as many men.
The members of the 153rd who survived Gettysburg joined the rest of the 11th Corps in pursuit of Lee's troops. They made it as far as Hagerstown, Md., before being sent home on July 13 because their nine-month enlistment had ended.
In camp at Hagerstown, Col. Leopold von Gilsa bade farewell to his men just 10 days after they played their part in the Army of the Potomac's greatest victory of the war.
Raised almost entirely from Northampton County, the regiment had its baptism of fire at Chancellorsville, Va., where Confederate forces rolled up the Union's flank — including the 153rd's position — in a complete rout that led to the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania.
The invasion ended at Gettysburg, where the 153rd suffered great casualties in some of the earliest fighting outside of the small college town, but never allowed Confederates to break the Union flank.
On July 13, 1863, von Gilsa, who had served in the Prussian army in Europe before emigrating to New York where he played and taught piano, told his men to be proud of their service and to take care of each other.
"I am an old soldier, but never did I know soldiers, who, with greater alacrity and more good will, endeavored to fulfill their duties," von Gilsa said. "In the three days battle at Gettysburg, your behavior has put many an old soldier to the blush, and you are justly entitled to a great share of the glory which my Brigade has won for itself, by repulsing the two dreaded Tiger Brigades [from Louisiana].
"But remember also the braves in your midst, who fell on the field of honor, who have sealed with their death the trust of the oath they had sworn. Remember likewise the poor relics of these fallen ones. Be ever a friend to them in the hour of necessity, and evince your gratitude to the Almighty that he has mercifully shielded you, by taking charge of the widows and orphans of your fallen comrades, by never forsaking them and lending them a helping hand whenever they need it."
Von Gilsa also touched on the fate of the wounded. Many of the 153rd's men survived the war only to live their remaining years without limbs or with wounds that never healed.
The colonel did not muster out with the 153rd. Instead he went on to command a brigade in South Carolina, returning to civilian life after the war ended in 1865.
The men were mustered out in Harrisburg on July 24. A flag-waving crowd of 5,000 greeted them in Easton the next day.
"The regiment came in common box cars with clothing tattered and torn," wrote Dr. John Peter K. Kohler, who gave up a busy practice in the village of Egypt to be the 153rd's assistant surgeon. "Horses had no tails, no manes — men's coats hung in shreds, and they looked as if they had not seen a barber for months. They were hungry and tired and glad to get to the fair grounds for something to eat."
Remembering the fallen
Twenty-six years after their comrades fell at Gettysburg, veterans of the 153rd Pennsylvania gathered at the battlefield to remember and honor those who died.
At Barlow's Knoll, where the 153rd failed to stem the Rebel attack and suffered heavy casualties on July 1, 1863, surviving members of the regiment dedicated a 151/2-foot-tall granite statue of a bugler.
J. Clyde Millar, a lieutenant in the 153rd during the battle, gave one of the dedication speeches and noted the reconciliation and common brotherhood of the veterans from the North and South who gathered that day. But Millar's speech had a somber and sad tone as he called on the "Silent Bugler" to guard the dozen or so men of the 153rd buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery along with 3,500 of their comrades who fell.
"Call not back our loved ones gone, but watch over with a soldier's care yon voiceless city of our beloved dead — dead, but not forgotten," Millar said. "'Tis but a question of time, the rising and setting of a few more suns, when we too will cross over that river, where war drums never throb or battle flags unfurl."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun