Onslow County at the Battle of Gettysburg
by Bernie Rosage, Jr.
July 1st through 3rd of every year our country commemorates the anniversary of the epic Battle of Gettysburg, often referred to as the turning point of America's Civil War. Thousands of people will converge on the small Pennsylvania town once again, not to do battle, but to remember. Lincoln put it best when he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here".
The anniversary embodies many special events, highlighted by reenactors clashing in battle reenactments of familiar names like; The Railroad Cut, The Wheat Field, The Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, The Bloody Angle, Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill to name a few. All done not to glorify war but to remember history and honor the men who fought and died.
This story is about the men of Onslow County, Company H of the 55th North Carolina Infantry in particular, who where there over 150 years ago to witness the historic event first hand.
The company, known as the "Alexander Boys," was raised mainly in Alexander and Onslow counties in March - April, 1862. It was mustered into Confederate service at Camp Mangum, near Raleigh, on May 31, 1862, and assigned to the 55th Regiment N.C. Troops as Company H.
The 55th NC, commanded by Colonel John K. Connally, was assigned to General Joseph R. Davis' Brigade (the nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) in the spring of 1863 where it remained until January of 1865. During the Gettysburg Campaign, Davis' Brigade consisted of the 2nd, 11th, and 42nd Mississippi regiments, along with the 55th NC and was part of Henry Heth's Division, A.P. Hill's III Corps, in Robert E. Lee's famed Army of Northern Virginia.
Heth's Division is given credit for starting the battle of Gettysburg. Heth wanted to procure some shoes for his barefoot troops and had heard there was a large supply in the town. Initially thinking Union General John Buford's cavalry was only Pennsylvania militia, he continued to push towards Gettysburg. Ironically the South entered town that day from the north and the North entered from the south. More and more troops from both sides were drawn to the sounds of fighting and on July 1, 1863 the great battle had begun.
The 55th NC formed the extreme left of Davis' Brigade, and owing to the nature of the ground was the first regiment to come into view of the enemy, and received the first fire in the battle. A volley from the 56th Pennsylvania Regiment of Cutler's Brigade. From the beginning, the fighting was fierce and as the regiment advanced, Colonel Connally seized the battle flag from a fallen soldier and rushed several paces in front of the regiment where he fell badly wounded in the arm and hip. Major Belo rushed up and asked him if he was badly wounded. Colonel Connally replied: "Yes, but pay no attention to me; take the colors and keep ahead of the Mississippians."
After driving Cutler's Brigade, Davis' units took shelter in an unfinished railroad cut to regroup. The "shelter" turned out to be a death trap because along much of its length, the walls of the cut were to deep for men to fire out of. The 6th Wisconsin and the Iron Brigade Guard, about 450 men total, took advantage of the situation and charged the cut, killing and wounding hundreds, and taking 232 of the brigade prisoner.
Onslow County was there --- John S. Meadows was killed in action; Abraham T. Autaway was wounded in the face, captured, and died in a Gettysburg hospital; Michael Rawls and Thomas Simpson, Jr. were captured and sent to Point Lookout --- to mention a few. Thomas' brother, Curtis Simpson, was furloughed home sick and missed the battle. (Curtis' son, the late Walter Caden Simpson --- 1894-2000, resided in Onslow County in the Back Swamp district. He was Camp 1302's "Real Son").
The 55th NC including Company H, suffered dearly on the first day's battle. The battle that would swell into a terrible three-day struggle, one in which 160,000 Americans would contest for supremacy within 25 square miles of ground and carve into history the greatest battle on American soil resulting in over 50,000 casualties. Day one wasn't the end for the "Alexander Boys" --- they still had to make one more grand charge!
Onslow County at the Battle of Gettysburg
North Carolina; Farthest at Gettysburg!
by Bernie Rosage, Jr.
The Tar Heels of the Old North State, including over 1300 men from Onslow County, have earned their page in history with their deeds of valor, contributions, and dedication to the Confederate Cause of 1861 - 1865. Often North Carolina wasn't given the respect due to her for such contributions and found herself defending her soldier's good name. Too many times other states got the glory and promotions while North Carolina did the work and was content with the simple attribute of duty. North Carolina was considered by her people as, "The valley of humility between the two pinnacles of conceit", referring to the hot-tempered South Carolinians who started the war and the illustrious lineage of the Virginians.
North Carolina boasts a motto that no other state can revel; "First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, and last at Appomattox." A motto worthy of respect for all Confederate Tar Heels and one that, in part, was earned by a company of infantry consisting of men from Onslow and Alexander counties.
Longstreet's Assault on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, or what is generally but very incorrectly known as "Pickett's Charge," has not only had its proper place in books about the war, but has furnished a subject for more speeches, historical essays, paintings and poems than any other event which ever occurred in America. Many writings have led their readers to falsely think that Pickett's Virginians were the only ones in the grand charge.
Company H, nicknamed "The Alexander Boys," of the 55th North Carolina Troops were there. As the Alexander and Onslow boys crouched in the McMillan Woods they waited for the furious two-hour bombardment by some 150 Confederate cannons to cease. Their attack would then commence, and little did they know that the turning point of the war and their cause was at hand.
Company H stepped out of the woods atop Seminary Ridge and, with forty-one other Confederate regiments, formed ranks for the assault; eighteen regiments and one battalion from Virginia, fifteen regiments from North Carolina, three from Mississippi, three more from Tennessee, and one regiment and one battalion from Alabama. Before them, clearly unveiled as a breeze blew the smoke away, lay 1,300 yards of coverless ground and the bristling Federal lines beyond.
General Lee requested his "Old War-horse," General James Longstreet, to command the assault even though Pickett's fresh division was the only one from his I Corps. The other two divisions were from A. P. Hill's III Corps. Henry Heth's division was commanded by Johnston Pettigrew. Heth was wounded on the first day which would have been fatal if it were not for a few folded papers he stuffed in his hat. Upon the mortal wounding of Dorsey Pender, his division was now commanded by Isaac Trimble. Both divisions were heavily engaged during the first day's battle and suffered severely. The 55th NC was commanded by Captain George Gilreath upon the killing and wounding of all its' field officers on the first day's fight. Company H was commanded by Captain Edward Satterfield with many of the regiments' companies led by non-commissioned officers.
Major General George Pickett's Virginians took up position on the right of Pettigrew with Trimble in support of Pettigrew. The command to commence the assault was given to Pickett by a reluctant Longstreet and the grand charge had begun. Pettigrew dispatched Col. James Marshal, "Now Colonel, for the honor of the Old North State, Forward" and the Tar Heels stepped off.
Preceded by a line of skirmishers and "colors flying in the breeze," Pickett's and Pettigrew's men moved "in perfect order as if on dress parade" towards the Emmitsburg Road. Under severe fire from artillery and musketry the southern lines began to give way. Brockenborough's Virginia brigade was soon shattered which left Davis' brigade, which included the 55th NC, exposed on the far left where they were flanked by the Union 8th Ohio. Franklin Sawyer of the 8th Ohio Volunteers later wrote; "Changing our front, the men were ordered to fire into their left flank at will. The distinct graceful lines were at once enveloped in a dense smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were thrown and tossed in the air. A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle, but on they went, more like a cloud of moving smoke and dust than a column of troops."
The casualties of the charge were horrendous for every southern regiment involved. However, if the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in which it lost thirty-five percent has rendered it famous, why should not the Charge of Davis' brigade in which it lost sixty percent render it equally famous? The casualties for the 55th NC were 74 men killed or mortally wounded (of whom 27 died in the hands of the enemy), 76 wounded, 263 captured (of whom 107 were wounded), and two missing --- a total of 415 including many men from Onslow. The 55th as a regiment rivaled in casualties, the three brigades of Pickett's division who averaged 455 each.
The ocean of men in butternut and gray that flowed forward that summer's afternoon 150 years ago, created the "high-water mark" to which the tide of Southern success rose, and from which, it painfully ebbed away. General Lewis Armistead, (born in New Bern, N.C.), of Pickett's division, with about 150 men crossed the Union lines at an angle in a stonewall where he was mortally wounded 40 yards therein. The portion of the Union line assaulted by the 55th NC was a stonewall 80 yards farther in distance. Captain Satterfield of Company H, fell dead nine yards from that portion of the line. Allowing for the thickness of the wall, Captain Satterfield, company commander of Onslow County soldiers, fell 31 yards beyond Armistead and is responsible for North Carolina's motto: "Farthest at Gettysburg."
It should be noted that one Confederate soldier in every four who fell at Gettysburg was a North Carolinian.