The three main brigades which fought behind the Seminary were Col. Chapman Biddle’s Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers; Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith’s Iron Brigade; and Col. Roy Stone’s Pennsylvania Bucktails.
At Gettysburg, 124 of Biddle’s men were killed, and a total of 71.2 percent were casualties of some sort (killed, wounded, captured, or missing). Meredith lost 178 men killed, and a total of 65.2 percent were casualties. Stone lost 100 men killed, and a total of 65 percent were casualties.
That’s a total of 402 United States soldiers killed in just three brigades at one single battle—not to mention the more than 3,000 compatriots they lost in the entirety of the three days at Gettysburg.
The Union Army of the Potomac marched into Pennsylvania in late-June 1863 with 94,954 able-bodied soldiers, but left several days later 25 percent leaner, having suffered 23,501 physical casualties in some form. This does not even include the tens of thousands of veterans stricken with mental destruction with which they certainly agonized for the rest of their days on Earth, men who would never be properly diagnosed with nor treated for post-traumatic afflictions.
To be able to tell the stories of the individuals who made this building what it is, and who fought on the western slopes of the ridge named for the Seminary is one thing—to read (at the very locations they stood and fell) the words of the men who died there, and those words spoken and written by those with whom they fought and suffered, is quite another.
“I regret the loss of the many gallant patriots who lost their lives or received honorable scars in its ranks,” wrote McFarland, “but I rejoice it was in the battle of Gettysburg and in defense of human freedom and republican institutions.”
That is the quote that I chose to conclude my walking tour on Sunday morning. It encapsulates the meaning of Memorial Day, and the meaning of the loss incurred not only at Gettysburg, but on fields across the country and around the globe where members of the American armed services have fallen, never to return home.
“The past rises before us; we hear the roar and shriek of the bursting shell; the broken fetters fall; these heroes died,” wrote Civil War veteran and orator Robert G. Ingersoll in the late-19th century. “We look, instead of slaves we see men, women, and children. The wand of progress touches the auction block, the slave pen, the whipping post, and see homes and firesides, and schoolhouses and books, and where all was want and crime and cruelty and fetters, we see the faces of the free.”
“Earth may run red with other wars; they are at peace,” he concluded. “In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death.”
To all veterans who at any point fought on behalf of the United States, and whose purpose on the battlefield it was—and is—to preserve the ideals for which the nation was founded, I say, “Thank you.”
But today, my greatest sense of gratitude is dedicated to the veterans who have no means by which to read my words, or those of any other writer, for they did not live; their duty was completed, to the fullest means possible, and all they had to offer was left on the battlefield, memorialized today by monuments, headstones, and—for the most unfortunate souls—the moniker of “UNKNOWN.”
They “found the serenity of death,” and we must all remember on this day, and every day, “They died for liberty,—they died for us.”
The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties, and Maps, June 9-July 14, 1863 - J. David Petruzzi and Steven A. Stanley. This was the main source for casualty figures provided in this blog.
The Hospital on Seminary Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg - Michael A. Dreese
Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg - John W. Busey and David G. Martin
Those Damned Black Hats!: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign - Lance J. Herdegen