Battle brought valor to forefront

Medal of Honor awarded 63 times at Gettysburg

June 26, 2005|By Robert M. Duff | Robert M. Duff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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."

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