No Escape for the Wounded - McGowan's South Carolina Brigade at Gettysburg


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Mar 15, 2013

The nature of the ground was such and the contest so brief that the wounded could not be moved, and were wounded twice, thrice and as many as four times after being stricken down. A few, who with shattered arms or wounded bodies, ran back in safety to the surgeons, have not ceased to admire their legs for the good service rendered...

This account was written for The News and Courier by Col. Joseph N. Brown, of Anderson [SC], who at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg was Lieutenant Colonel of the 14th South Carolina regiment. He afterwards became Colonel of the regiment. The article was originally published in The News and Courier in July 1882 and was reprinted in The Lancaster News (Lancaster, SC) in 1913.

Anderson, S.C., July 12, 1882
To the Editor of The News and Courier:
....In May last, you requested me to write up one of the battles of McGowan's brigade for The Weekly News, which was also urged on me by officers of the brigade, and I have taken Gettysburg.
Very truly yours,
Joseph N. Brown

McGowan's South Carolina Brigade at Gettysburg
(By Lieut. Col. Joseph N. Brown, Afterwards Colonel 14th S.C.V.)
Gen. McGowan and Capt. A. C. Haskell, A.A.G., were both severely wounded at Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863, and Col. Abner Perrin, of the 14th South Carolina, commanded the brigade on the Pennsylvania campaign, with Lieut. J. G. Barnwell, of the 1st, as his A.A.G. The field officers of the several regiments were: Major W. M. Haddon, Orr's Rifles; Col. J. L. Miller, Lieut. Col. H. C. Davis and Major E. F. Bookter, 12th; Col. B. T. Brockman and Lieut. Col. J. F. Hunt, 13th; Lieut. Col. Joseph N. Brown and Major Edward Croft, 14th; and Captain W. T. Haskell, of the 1st, commanded the Battalion of sharpshooters....<text omitted>

The losses were immense. The 14th -- which was the largest regiment -- lost over 200 in killed and wounded out of 475 carried into action. All the regiments lost over one third. They were all killed or wounded. Over six hundred had fallen in front of these breastworks. The thousands of hostile bayonets that appeared and passed around the sides of the Seminary building comprised what remained of fifteen hundred carried into action.

The nature of the ground was such and the contest so brief that the wounded could not be moved, and were wounded twice, thrice and as many as four times after being stricken down. A few, who with shattered arms or wounded bodies, ran back in safety to the surgeons, have not ceased to admire their legs for the good service rendered. It was the only battlefield in which all avenues of escape for our wounded were closed. There was nothing that the ambulance corps could do.

The ground was swept at every point by the deadly minnie balls. The artillery fire is terrible, but the almost silent whirl of the minnie ball is the death-dealing missile in battle. Not a foot of ground presented a place of safety. The Union troops fired low, and their balls swept close to the ground on the dishlike field in the front. The terrible strife was over in a few minutes - fifteen, say twenty minutes at the most. Men never fell faster in this brigade, and perhaps never equally so, except in Orr's regiment at Gaines Mill.

On our side, the firing was not slack nor wild. The trees in the Seminary grounds, where the Union lines ran, are still thickly covered with scars, from the ground to the height of a man, made with the bullets of our unerring rifles. They are well-marked on their western sides. And the ground strewn with their dead and wounded well attested the accuracy of the deadly aim.

It was no ordinary soldier that we had met. The prisoners captured were more intelligent than on other fields. They were mostly Pennsylvanians, fighting for everything they held dear. The celebrated Iron Brigade was in our front. The 121st Pennsylvania, 143d Pennsylvania, 149th Pennsylvania, 151st Pennsylvania and others not remembered. Maine troops were there, who stated that they came in not fifteen minutes before the actions began, also the artillery on our right and the cavalry behind the stone wall, all holding to the death. But there was no crossing of swords and bayonets, for this is seldom done except on paper. It was no time for hairbreath escapes with nobody hurt. It was not the clipping of clothing, but the bodies of men that were struck. While the loss in line officers and men were great, it was remarkable that not a single field officer was disabled for duty, though they did not escape unstruck.

The Rev. W. B. Carson, chaplain of the 14th [SC] regiment, remained with the wounded, of whom ninety of his own were too badly wounded to be removed in ambulances south of the Potomac. He went in to the heavily shelled woods for blankets for his wounded men and remained to minister to their wants until death freed many from their sufferings.

Dr. Louis V. Huot, the eminent surgeon of the 14th [SC] performed many skillful operations, drawing praise from Union surgeons. He returned to us on the final retreat.

A soldier boy of the 14th [SC] captured the large flag of the 149th Pennsylvania in the works where all its guards were slain. Another captured a smaller one, and, folding it in his bosom, fell two days afterwards advancing in the picket line in front of Cemetery Heights.

R. Owens, color bearer, son of Capt. R. S. Owens of the 14th [SC], who had fallen at Frazier's Farm, was shot dead while carrying the flag of his regiment, and all his guard but one was slain.

In the 12th [SC] regiment, one color bearer after another was shot dead, until four were killed and two others wounded. And a scarcely less fatality attended the colors of the other regiments. The land of the Shamrock, as in other fields, continued its quota on the strongly contested ground.

Source: The Lancaster News. (Lancaster, SC), June 27, 1913, page 2.

Gettysburg Guide #154

Member of the Month
Dec 30, 2019
Thanks for posting this fine piece in which the author, Col. Brown, has done a superb job of capturing the brutal intensity of Civil War combat. One line that caught my notice was the sentence "But there was no crossing of swords and bayonets, for this is seldom done except on paper." Not long ago there was a thread in this forum discussing why there seemed to be relatively few bayonet wounds. Col. Brown confirms that these are indeed fairly rare. One more point, which is just a detail, is that these South Carolinians could not have captured the flags of the 149th Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the color guard of the 149th was in the wheat field between Chambersburg Pike and the railroad cut just north and a little west of the McPherson barn, The flags were captured by men from Davis' Brigade and Brockenbrough's Brigade.

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
Color Sergeant T. Rutledge Owens was struck by five minie balls!

The 14th was hit particularly hard as the left regiment of the brigade, because after Scales' men were shot up, many Federals turned their attention to the 14th. My draft map of 4 p.m., July 1 illustrates their tough spot, but fortunately they were saved by Colonel Abner Perrin's personal courage in moving forward the 1st South Carolina, which finally rolled up Biddle's left, in turn unraveling the entire Union First Corps position.


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Coonewah Creek

First Sergeant
Jun 1, 2018
Northern Alabama
One more point, which is just a detail, is that these South Carolinians could not have captured the flags of the 149th Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the color guard of the 149th was in the wheat field between Chambersburg Pike and the railroad cut just north and a little west of the McPherson barn, The flags were captured by men from Davis' Brigade and Brockenbrough's Brigade.
I know there are arguments about who captured the colors of the 149th Pennsylvania, But agree it was Davis and Brockenbrough as noted. There were two colors, the National colors and the Regimental colors for a Federal regiment of course. Which one is which in the Union army always confused me and I tend to mix them up, but obviously there were two. Well, this is my story and I'm sticking to it about the capture of the colors carried by Corporal Henry Spayd of the 149th PA and I do know there are at least a few versions concerning a member of the 42nd Mississippi, Sgt. Frank Price, and others. Here's the real deal:

Following the debacle at the Railroad Cut earlier in the morning, during the afternoon of July 1st​, Colonel Stone (who had been wounded but was still with the regiment) noticed a stand of Federal colors that had been advanced well to the front of the Union line near a pile of rails. Lieutenant A. K. Roberts of Company H volunteered to lead a party consisting of himself and four men from the 2nd​ Mississippi in an attempt to capture the enemy colors (so the 42nd Mississippi story, if true, those men either joined in Lt. Roberts' raiding party or created a separate raiding party). The colors belonged to the 149th​ Pennsylvania Infantry, and they had sent their color party forward as a ruse to draw the fire of Confederate artillery batteries away from enfilading their main line. As Lieutenant Roberts’ squad surprised the Pennsylvanians near the fence railings, a hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Lieutenant Roberts, less heavily encumbered than the other men and athletically inclined, neared the rail pile first, but to the surprise of the squad, the hidden color guard rose up and killed the Lieutenant. In the confusion that followed, the gun of one of Roberts’ men failed to fire, but he used it as a club and in so doing, stumbled and fell among the rails. When he recovered, he noted two of the Federal color guard were retreating with one of Roberts’ men as a prisoner, while the color bearer (Corporal Spayd) was also retreating with his flag. He recapped his gun and fired at the color bearer and broke his leg. He then rushed forward, seized the colors from the wounded Federal and, amid a hail of bullets from the Federal line, brought in the captured colors of the 149th​ Pennsylvania. This man was Private Henry “Tobe” McPherson, also a member of Company H. Colonel Stone offered McPherson the lieutenancy position created by Roberts’ death, which he declined, but accepted a furlough instead. Whatever happened to those colors, nobody knows, but this story primarily drawn from: J. H. Strain. “Heroic Henry McPherson,” Confederate Veteran, XXXI (1923): p. 205. At least some parts of the story are confirmed by the Compiled Military Service Records of Pvt. (posthumously promoted to 1st Lieutenant and Ensign) Henry McPherson. He was killed at the Wilderness before his promotion could take effect.

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
Private George Lake of Company D, 14th South Carolina recorded the war service of his captain, William Henry Brunson. Brunson was a lieutenant at Gettysburg: "In the first days fight at Gettysburg he was shot through both legs. He fell on a Federal captain, who was shot through one leg. After getting himself off the Federal officer, he said, 'Captain, you are bleeding profusely. I have some whiskey in my canteen which I thought I might need if badly wounded. Drink it,' handing him the canteen. The officer, taking the canteen and seeing it was light, said, 'There is no more than a drink here. Have you had any?' When Brunson said he had not, he for a time refused to take it, until he was convinced that he would soon faint if he did not. Two heroes had met - they both recovered."

Based on the last sentence, it is supposed that Brunson had opened a post-war correspondence with this unidentified Federal officer. Brunson began his service as an orderly (first) sergeant in a six-months regiment, then became second lieutenant of Company D. He was badly wounded at Gaines Mill with a ball through his mouth and neck, and had a hand shattered at Chancellorsville. When he recovered from his Gettysburg wounds, he was assigned to the South Carolina Battalion of Sharpshooters and fought at the Wilderness and at the Petersburg siege. His parents were Rev. D. D. Brunson and Lucretia of Edgefield District (county). They had eight sons and one daughter; four of the Brunson boys entered the Confederate army.

(Recollections of a Confederate Soldier, by George Lake, Recollections and Reminiscences, 1861-1865, South Carolina Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, vol. I, pp. 323-324) Brunson's service record, Fold3, confirms his wounding (by gunshot) as described by Lake.
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Brigadier General
Jan 12, 2016
South Carolina
One of the first Civil War history books I ever read was "The History of a Brigade of South Carolinians" by J. F. J. Caldwell. Chapter 9 of that book covers the Gettysburg campaign, which Caldwell says they approached with great confidence. Here are a few excerpts describing the first day's fighting:

The brigade was commanded by Col. Abner Perrin, of the Fourteenth regiment. Lieut. J. G. Barnwell acted as assistant adjutant general, Capt. James P. Adams as volunteer aide-de-camp. Major c. W. McCreary com manded the First regiment, Col. J. L. Miller the Twelfth, Lieut. Col. B. T. Brockman the Thirteenth, Lieut. Col. J. N. Brown the Fourteenth, Capt. W. M. Hadden Orr's reg iment of Rifles, Capt. W. T. Haskell the battalion of Sharpshooters.​
We were advanced some half- a -mile across the wheat fields, and then rested an hour or more. Now our artillery became more active on the left and in front, and skirmish firing could be heard at some distance before us. The musketry would increase and falter, but, on the whole, became greater. We made a second advance of about the same distance as the first, and halted. These advances in line of battle are the most fatiguing exercise I had in the army. Now the perspiration poured from our bodies. The battle began in earnest. Heth's division, which was on the first line, became regularly engaged . Volleys of musketry ran along his line, accompanied with the shrill rebel cheer. Many of the enemy's balls fell among us, who were on the second line, but I recall no farther result than the startling of our nerves by their whistling past our ears and slapping the trees before us. The artillery fire was slow on both sides.​
Soon we were ordered forward. Passing an open meadow and a small stream of water, we mounted the smooth hill beyond. Here we found and marched over Pettigrew's brigade of North Carolinians and Mississippians, who had, for a length of time, fought the enemy. The field was thick with wounded hurrying to the rear, and the ground was grey with dead and disabled. There was a general cheer for South Carolina as we moved past them. They had fought well, but, like most new soldiers, had been content to stand and fire, instead of charging. The artillery of the enemy now opened upon us with fatal accuracy. They had a perfectly clear, unobstructed fire upon us. Still we advanced, with regular steps and a well-dressed line. Shell and canister continued to rain upon us. A good many were killed and disabled, especially on the left of the brigade. At one time, the line wavered under this murderous fire which we could not return . On the instant, Col. Perrin spurred his horse through the First regiment, and passing to the front, led the charge. Filled with ad miration for such courage as defied the whole fire of the enemy, (naturally drawn to his horse, his uniform and his flashing sword ,) the brigade followed, with a shout that was itself half a victory. The Federal infantry opened on us a repetition of the fire that had already slaughtered a brig ade. This was particularly heavy on the two right regi ments, for at that point the enemy were protected by a stone fence. Still there was no giving back on our part. The line passed on, many of the men throwing away their knapsacks and blankets to keep up . Struggling and pant ing, but cheering and closing up, they went, through the shell, through the Minie balls, heeding neither the dead who sank down by their sides, nor the fire from the front which killed them , until they threw themselves desperately on the line of Federals and swept them from the field . The enemy, however , did not fly readily . They fought obstinately , everywhere, and particularly opposite our right. In fact , it was not possible to dislodge them from that point, until, having broken the portion of their line opposed to our left, we threw an enfilade fire along the wall. They then gave back at all points , and the rebel turn came to kill. As the disordered mass fled towards Gettysburg, they suffered a far greater loss than they had previously been able to inflict upon us.​
Volunteers were called for, to go through Gettysburg and secure such of the enemy as might be lurking there. But so many offered themselves, that details had finally to be made. A few shots were fired at these men, from the win dows of the houses, but I am not informed of a single cas ualty in consequence. A goodly number of prisoners were brought in.​
The flag of the First South Carolina regiment was the first Confederate banner raised in Gettysburg.​


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