When thousands of Civil War re-enactors and spectators gather at Gettysburg, Pa., next weekend to commemorate the 142nd anniversary of the war's pivotal battle, the courage of their forebears will be much on their minds.
One indicator of the ferocity of the fighting at Gettysburg is the number of soldiers who received the Medal of Honor.
"The Medal of Honor was born of the need to recognize the valor of soldiers in the Civil War, and nowhere were actions of bravery and courage in the war seen more than at the Battle of Gettysburg. In all, 63 medals were awarded to soldiers for their actions on the battlefield of southern Pennsylvania," according to the introductory note in the National Park Service's The Civil War Soldier.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the law authorizing the Medal of Honor for enlisted naval personnel on Dec. 21, 1861, and for enlisted army and volunteer troops on July 12, 1862. Army officers were made eligible March 3, 1863, but naval officers didn't qualify for the decoration until World War I.
The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration awarded by the United States. It is awarded for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty."
The medal was awarded 1,527 times for heroism in the Civil War. There were several additional instances where the decoration was improperly awarded during the war, but these awards were later revoked by a military review board.
Before the Civil War, awards and decorations were not a significant part of the U.S. military scene. In the American mind, such honors were tainted by association with the values of European aristocracy. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, the longtime commander of the U.S. army, reflected the thinking of the early Republic when he opposed the creation of the Medal of Honor, calling it not needed.
In one way, of course, Scott was right. The courage and sacrifice of the soldiers at Gettysburg would be remembered without the Medal of Honor, but in looking at the deeds of those three days, it seems entirely appropriate that their country chose to honor them as best it could.
On the first day, July 1, 1863, Sgt. Jefferson Coates of Company H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, was wounded during heavy fighting along McPherson's Ridge. His citation reads: "Unsurpassed courage in battle, where he had both eyes shot out," according to The Medal of Honor at Gettysburg by B. T. Arrington (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pa.).
On July 2, a unique action took place in which six men of the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves acted as a single unit. Their Citation reads: "The Union troops in this area were under a constant, deadly fire whose source could not be determined for some time. It was finally discovered to be coming from a small log cabin 'on the flank of the regiment.' Corporals Furman, Roush, and Smith with Sergeants Hart, Johnson, and Mears volunteered to charge the cabin and attempt to dislodge the Confederate sharpshooters." All six were awarded the Medal of Honor.
In the foreword of The Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, B.T. Arrington states, "Capturing a flag does not sound so heroic unless you know that the battle flag was considered the greatest prize on the battlefield. To lose one's flag was also a major way to destroy morale. It was considered a terrible dishonor."
Struggles for flags
About half of the Gettysburg Medal of Honor citations mention struggles over regimental colors:
Nathaniel M. Allen. Corporal. Citation: "When his regiment was falling back, this soldier, bearing the national color, returned in the face of the enemy's fire, pulled the regimental flag from under the body of its bearer, who had fallen, saved the flag from capture, and brought both colors off the field."
Elijah W. Bacon. Private. Citation: "Capture of flag of 16th North Carolina Regiment."
Morris Brown Jr. Citation: "Capture of flag."
Hugh Carey. Sergeant. Citation: "Captured the flag of the 7th Virginia Infantry, being twice wounded in the effort."
Harrison Clark. Corporal, Citation: "Seized the colors and advanced with them after the color bearer had been shot."
John E. Clopp, Private. Citation: "Capture of flag of 9th Virginia Infantry, wresting it from the color bearer."
Joseph H. De Castro. Corporal. Citation: "Capture of flag of 19th Virginia Regiment."
George H. Dore. Sergeant. Citation: "The colors being struck down by a shell as the enemy were charging, this soldier rushed out and seized the flag, exposing himself to the fire of both sides."
Benjamin F. Falls. Color sergeant. Citation: "Capture of flag."
Christopher Flynn. Corporal. Citation: "Capture of flag of 52d North Carolina Infantry."
Edward L. Gilligan. First sergeant. Citation: "Assisted in the capture of a Confederate flag by knocking down the color sergeant."
William B. Hincks, Sergeant major. Citation: "During the high water mark of [Maj. Gen. George E.] Pickett's Charge on 3 July 1863 the colors of the 14th Tennessee Infantry were planted 50 yards in front of the center of Sgt. Maj. Hincks' regiment. There were no Confederates standing near it but several were lying down around it. Upon a call for volunteers by Major Ellis to capture this flag, this soldier and two others leaped the wall. One companion was instantly shot. Sgt. Maj. Hincks outran his remaining companion running straight and swift for the colors amid a storm of shot. Swinging his saber over the prostrate Confederates and uttering a terrific yell, he seized the flag and hastily returned to his lines. The 14th Tennessee carried twelve battle honors on its flag. The devotion to duty shown by Sgt. Maj. Hincks gave encouragement to many of his comrades at a crucial moment of the battle."
Thomas Horan. Sergeant. Citation: "In a charge of his regiment this soldier captured the regimental flag of the 8th Florida Infantry."
Benjamin H. Jellison. Sergeant, Citation: "Capture of flag of 57th Virginia Infantry. He also assisted in taking prisoners.
John B. Mayberry. Private. Citation: "Capture of flag."
Bernard McCarren. Private Citation: "Capture of flag."
John Miller. Corporal. Citation: "Capture of two flags."
Harvey M. Munsell. Sergeant. Citation: "Gallant and courageous conduct as color bearer. (This noncommissioned officer carried the colors of his regiment through 13 engagements.)
Henry D. O'Brien. Corporal. Citation: "Taking up the colors where they had fallen, he rushed ahead of his regiment, close to the muzzles of the enemy's guns, and engaged in the desperate struggle in which the enemy was defeated, and though severely wounded, he held the colors until wounded a second time."
George C. Platt. Private. Citation: "Seized the regimental flag upon the death of the standard bearer in a hand-to-hand fight and prevented it from falling into the hands of the enemy."
James Richmond. Citation: "Capture of flag."
John H. Robinson, Private. Citation: "Capture of flag of 57th Virginia Infantry."
Oliver P. Rood. Private. Citation: "Capture of flag of 21st North Carolina Infantry."
George W. Roosevelt. First sergeant. Citation: "At Bull Run, Va., recaptured the colors, which had been seized by the enemy. At Gettysburg, he captured a Confederate color bearer and colors, in which effort he was severely wounded."
Marshall Sherman. Private. Citation: "Capture of flag of 28th Virginia Infantry."
James B. Thompson. Sergeant. Citation: "Capture of flag of 15th Georgia Infantry."
Andrew J. Tozier. Sergeant. Citation: "At the crisis of the engagement this soldier, a color bearer, stood alone in an advanced position, the regiment having been borne back, and defended his colors with musket and ammunition picked up at his feet."
Jerry Wall. Private. Citation: "Capture of flag."
Francis A. Waller. Corporal. Citation: "Capture of flag of 2d Mississippi Infantry."
James Wiley. Sergeant. Citation: "Capture of flag of a Georgia regiment."
Others acts of courage
Recipients of the Medal of Honor for acts of courage other than those involving regimental colors include:
George G. Benedict. Citation: "Passed through a murderous fire of grape and canister in delivering orders and re-formed the crowded lines."
Casper R. Carlisle. Citation: "Saved a gun of his battery under heavy musketry fire, most of the horses being killed and the drivers wounded."
Joshua L. Chamberlain. Citation: "Daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top."
Richard Enderlin. Musician. Citation: "Voluntarily took a rifle and served as a soldier in the ranks during the first and second days of the battle. Voluntarily and at his own imminent peril went into the enemy's lines at night and, under a sharp fire, rescued a wounded comrade."
John B. Fassett. Captain. Citation: "While acting as an aide, voluntarily led a regiment to the relief of a battery and recaptured its guns from the enemy."
Frederick Fuger. Sergeant. Citation: "All the officers of his battery having been killed or wounded and five of its guns disabled in Pickett's assault, he succeeded to the command and fought the remaining gun with most distinguished gallantry until the battery was ordered withdrawn."
Henry S. Huidekoper. Lieutenant colonel. Citation: "While engaged in repelling an attack of the enemy, received a severe wound of the right arm, but instead of retiring remained at the front in command of the regiment."
Francis Irsch. Captain. Citation: "Gallantry in flanking the enemy and capturing a number of prisoners and in holding a part of the town against heavy odds while the Army was rallying on Cemetery Hill."
Edward M. Knox. Second lieutenant. Citation: "Held his ground with the battery after the other batteries had fallen back until compelled to draw his piece off by hand; he was severely wounded."
John Lonergan. Citation: "Gallantry in the recapture of four guns and the capture of two additional guns from the enemy; also the capture of a number of prisoners."
William E. Miller. Captain. Citation: "Without orders, led a charge of his squadron upon the flank of the enemy, checked his attack, and cut off and dispersed the rear of his column."
James Pipes. Captain. Citation: "While a sergeant and retiring with his company before the rapid advance of the enemy at Gettysburg, he and a companion stopped and carried to a place of safety a wounded and helpless comrade; in this act both he and his companion were severely wounded. A year later, at Reams Station, Va., while commanding a skirmish line, voluntarily assisted in checking a flank movement of the enemy, and while so doing was severely wounded, suffering the loss of an arm."
James Parke Postles. Captain. Citation: "Voluntarily delivered an order in the face of heavy fire of the enemy."
James J. Purman. Lieutenant. Citation: "Voluntarily assisted a wounded comrade to a place of apparent safety while the enemy were in close proximity; he received the fire of the enemy and a wound which resulted in the amputation of his left leg."
William H. Raymond, Corporal Citation: "Voluntarily and under a severe fire brought a box of ammunition to his comrades on the skirmish line."
Charles W. Reed. Bugler. Citation: "Rescued his wounded captain from between the lines."
Monroe J. Reisinger. Corporal. Citation: "Specially brave and meritorious conduct in the face of the enemy."
Edmund Rice. Major. Citation: "Conspicuous bravery on the third day of the battle on the countercharge against Pickett's division where he fell severely wounded within the enemy's lines."
James M. Rutter. Sergeant. Citation: "At great risk of his life went to the assistance of a wounded comrade, and while under fire removed him to a place of safety."
Martin Schwenk. Sergeant. Citation: "Bravery in an attempt to carry a communication through the enemy's lines; also rescued an officer from the hands of the enemy."
Alfred J. Sellers, Major. Citation: "Voluntarily led the regiment under a withering fire to a position from which the enemy was repulsed."
Daniel E. Sickles, Major general, Citation: "Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded."
Charles Stacey. Private. Citation: "Voluntarily took an advanced position on the skirmish line for the purpose of ascertaining the location of Confederate sharpshooters, and under heavy fire held the position thus taken until the company of which he was a member went back to the main line."
Wheelock G. Veazey. Colonel. Citation: "Rapidly assembled his regiment and charged the enemy's flank; changed front under heavy fire, and charged and destroyed a Confederate brigade, all this with new troops in their first battle."
Alexander S. Webb. Brigadier general, U.S. Volunteers. Citation: "Distinguished personal gallantry in leading his men forward at a critical period in the contest."
William Wells. Major. Citation: "Led the second battalion of his regiment in a daring charge."
At the time of the Civil War the Army Medal of Honor was suspended from its blue ribbon by an American Eagle standing on crossed cannon and cannon balls.
The Navy Medal of Honor was suspended by an anchor. The medal was decorated with 34 stars representing the 34 states of the Union at the time. Under each ribbon was a field with one word in bas relief: "Valor."
Robert M. Duff is a freelance writer from Coatesville, Pa.