91st PA--W C Reiff, 'Struggle for the union'

'Struggle for the Union'

[source: William Coffin Reiff. 'Struggle for the Union. Trials of a boy in the Gettysburg campaign'. National Tribune 6 August 1896.

Trials of a boy in the Gettysburg Campaign.

EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: The Army of Northern Virginia had left its old camp upon the south bank of the Rappahannock, and Lee had headed its columns toward Pennsylvania. The ever-alert commander of that other often-defeated but never vanquished host, the Army of the Potomac, had his scouts and cavlry forces out to give quick warning of this anticipated movement of Lee. The veteran host withdrew from the north bank of the same deep-flowing stream, and moved forward by [illegible word; looks like 'intering'] lines toward the Keystone State. The enemy was forced to go west of the Blue Ridge, then down the Cumberland Valley of West Virginia, in order to cross the Potomac at or above Harper's Ferry; then across Maryland, and into the fertile valleys of a free State.

By the middle of June, both armies were well under way. Severe storms of wind and rain set in, soon followed, however, by clear, sunny, hot days, which made marching anything but pleasant.

Ere the close of June the enemy's column had crossed Mason and Dixon's famous line and reached the land of Pennsylvania. During all those days the Army of the Potomac's movements had been determined by those of a respected antagonist; Washington, as well as Baltimore, had been covered. In other words, well on to 100,000 loyal men had been a walking, living wall during those hot June days, a lively defense between the Nation's Capital and one of its large commercial cities, and a foe bent upon destruction and conquest.

Moses did not make all the mistakes of the world, for it is evident that Lee did his cause harm when he allowed his army to lose its "eyes" for so many days. Stuart and his cavalry were moasing around within the lines of the Union forces, unable to escape for days from within its tightening meshes, and only after such a lapse of time that, when it reached its own army finally, the information brought to its Chieftain was valueless.

Thus Meade was enabled to get upon the heels of his enemy before he was aware of his presence in the State. Once aware of that fact, however, he about-faced his columns and set them in rapid motion toward Gettysburg. The noble and heroic Reynolds, with his own First Corps, ably supported by the Eleventh, had reached, until then, a quiet, unpretentious, old-fashioned Pennsylvania hamlet. Buford's cavalry, the eyes of the Union army, were quickly advanced beyond Gettysburg upon the Chambersburg road to find the enemy.

At daylight of the morning of the 1st of July, 1863, Buford's advanced picket saw the enemy approaching upon the Chambersburg road, and at 5:30 the first fire came from our side as the dismounted cavalrymen took refuge behind the abutments of the bridge across Willoughby Run.

Lee's most advanced infantry came in contact first with the boys who wore the spherical badge. Soon after the German corps, that were always enthused upon seeing or hearing the name of their canny and former commander, Franz Sigel, came to the active and efficient support of Reynold's own.

The battle was on; with varying success, however, for soon Reynolds falls. My countrymen, what a loss was that for the day and the Union cause! Yet, what an inspiration for the future of our people! Reynolds died not in vain. His boys dropped a tear and pressed on to duty, some to wounds and death.

Hancock arrived, and, wise soldier as he was, recognized quickly the suitableness of that locality as a fit place for slavery and freedom to decide forever which shall have the supremacy in America.

Meade came, and quickly approved the selection. The various other corps, namely, the Second, Third, Fifth, and Sixth, were now either upon or rapidly nearing the scene of the impending conflict. The Sixth was the last to arrive, owing to the greater distance it had to march.

Very little sleep was had by the boys in blue during the night of the 1st and 2d of July. By daylight the work of the day began; troops were dispositioned and redispositioned as the movements of the enemy compelled. Finally the Confederates struck Sickles upon his flank, and before ample reinforcements could arrive his columns were for a time overpowered and forced back.

Sickles fell, the heroic man here gave a leg for the cause of freedom. Parts of the Second and all of the Fifth were soon thrown into the breach. Just then the standards of the Sixth could be seen in the near distance, which encouraged their comrades now in hot conflict.

No one can fully describe the fight that raged for hours within a radius of less, perhaps, than a mile of the Round Tops.

Our command left its camp at United States Ford, upon the Rappahannock, about June 13, 1863. The day was hot, and early that evening a drenching rain set in, which continued all night. Our line of march that ever-to-be-remembered night lay through dense woods of that wilderness region.

Our suffering that night I will not even attempt to portray. Dark as dark could be, the road became one long, deep, and narrow mortar-bed, through which men, officers, and horses wallowed and plunged. This mud-and-water ranged from ankle to waist-deep. Had we been kodaked the next morning, I'm sure our mothers wouldn't have recognized their patriotic offspring.

The following day was intensely hot. We dried our clothes upon our backs as we marched along. Many fell by the wayside, overcome by the heat. The next day we came up to and then marched along the west side of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad toward Manassas Junction. During this day many hundreds of the officers and men succumbed to the effects of heat. Your narrator, among the many, was overcome.

Thus it continued day by day until, with a few days' rest at Aldie, we reached the Potomac and entered Maryland at Edward's Ferry. Our days of marching in the latter State averaged about 35 miles each day. We plodded our weary way, and at last crossed the Pennsylvania and Maryland line near Littlestown, July 1, 1863, and continued our march in the Keystone State all that day, and by 2 a.m. of July 2 we rested an hour or two upon the roadside, within three miles of Gettysburg. Daylight found us upon the now historic field. Run here and run there upon a double-quick all that forenoon to form lines-of-battle, we became wearied indeed.

We thought that at last we were to have at least a short "nooning," as we were ordered under the cover of woods of Wolf's Hill. We could see our artillery briskly engaged in firing from among the tombstones and monuments of the old Gettysburg graveyard. No dinner for us the day before or this day. "Fall in, boys!--Forward!--Right-shoulder shift arms!--Double-quick!" Yes, we must get to the left.

The deafening roar of artillery, the rattle of the musketry, the clouds of rising dust, the hurried movements in vast bodies of infantry, the passing of numerous batteries of light artillery, spoke plainly enough that we had at last grappled with our old enemy. We realized it, and we believe that before the setting of the sun that now held the mercury up in the 90's they, too, had realized that they had more than the "green Dutch Pennsylvania militia" to operate upon for a day or two, at least.

Well, on and on we went toward Sickles. Upon arrival at the base of Little Round Top we started to clamber up its slopes. Just then we were ordered to about-face and double-quicked across Plum Run; thence along or across by the Wheatfield to support or recover a badly used-up battery; then again about-faced, retraced our steps; again went up the east, I think, slope of Little Round Top--some of the boys volunteering to help pull up the guns of Battery D, 5th U.S. Art., Griffin's old battery.

Here is where the writer's serious trouble commenced. The first he knew was that he "knew nothing". He fell for a moment insensible from the effects of the heat of that day and the exhaustion incident to a fortnight's almost incessant marching. He soon came to, however, (I was afterward told that my Captain had thrown water in my face,) then quickly passed on to the summit with his company. I saw a few others going toward the summit.

I soon found myself in line-of-battle with my company, and went to work at once to lighten my cartridge-box. I had "toted" that lead long enough. I put it in my Springfield, an ounce at a time, and sent it down the western slope of Little Round Top. Hood's Division of Texans and Alabamians recevied what reached them. The balance is there yet somewhere, unless the relic gatherers have secured the same. As the sun went down, which I thought it never would do that afternoon, I was so impressed and so tired firing at a foe that didn't seem to know that they were being rapidly annihilated, that I asked aloud to myself, "When will that sun go down?" My gun barrel had become so hot with such continuous firing that I could scarcely hold it.

A sharpshooter marked me for his own, simply helping to brush the hair off my right temple. I returned the compliment, as poor old Capt. Finney would testify if he were alive and asked about it. That fellow was in advance of the Devil's Den. I know he was polite, for after he fired, and while he looked upon his gunbarrel to see whether his bullet had reached its billet, I was looking along mine, too, and as the smoke lifted from the muzzle of his rifle the hammer of my gun fell. He bowed himself toward the ground, and further deponent sayeth not, except peace to his ashes.

Darkness, the blackness of darkness set in, but I failed to state that quite a little while before the above incident came to pass the enemy beat a hasty retreat, and the great conflict of the day had ended in a dearly-bought victory for the Union arms.

The Round Top was ours for keeps. The key, as Lee said, to the whole positoin was in the keeping of the old Fifth Corps. Instead of supper, "Reiff, get ready for picket." I didn't tell anybody that I hated that duty upon that particular occasion, but I did just the same.-- W. C. REIFF, Co. H, 91st Pa.

(To be continued.)
[I know of two other articles Reiff published on the Battle of Gettysburg--'Coffee on Little Round Top, Gettysburg' (National Tribune 19 May 1904) and 'Tortured for sleep' (National Tribune 25 May 1905). I do not know whether they are the promised continuation.]

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