Monday, July 01, 2013

Gettysburg Anniversary

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg.  A couple of years ago, while researching my family history, I discovered that one of my ancestors was wounded and captured there.  The fact that he survived at all is something of a miracle.

Lorenzo Whitaker was 19 when he joined Company K of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in Iuka on Saturday, March 1, 1862.  Company K was known as the "Iuka Rifles" from Tishomingo County.  His first action was the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia on May 31- June 1.  It was quickly followed by the battle at Gaines Mill, then at Second Manassas in August, where they routed Union forces.  Two weeks later, they routed three more Union units (4th and 8th Pennsylvania and 6th Wisconsin) at the Cornfield at Antietam, while losing almost half their men killed or wounded.  The 2nd Mississippi then retired to Goldsborough, North Carolina for the winter to recuperate and reorganize.

In the spring of 1863, Lorenzo and the unit laid seige to Suffolk, Virginia.  In June, they moved north as part of General Lee's plan to take the fight to the Union.  The 2nd Mississippi was in the vanguard of Confederate forces moving southeast along Chambersburg Pike towards Gettysburg when the fighting started on July 1.  The 2nd Mississippi hit BG Cutler's brigade of the Army of the Potomac head-on.  Cutler's unit lost about 500 men and were driven back.  Confederate troops captured one gun and limber and routed the Federal troops (the 147th New York and the 2nd Maine Artillery) from the field.  The Confederates chased the Union forces toward Seminary Ridge, but the chase became disorganized.  Much of the unit was trapped in the Railroad Cut by the sudden arrival of Union reinforcements.  This cut, which was too deep to allow the Mississippians to shoot effectively, became a killing ground.  Some escaped, but many more were killed, wounded, and captured, and their battle flag was lost.  Lorenzo Whitaker was probably one of the wounded and captured.  The unit rested on July 2nd.  On July 3rd, the remnants of the regiment participated in Pickett's Charge, where they were disciplined and effective, but decimated nonetheless.  Total casualties from Gettysburg are difficult to pin down.  It is estimated that there were just under 500 men at the start of the battle, but suffered approximately 380-390 killed, wounded, captured, or missing (about 80% of its complement).

This is the Railroad Cut today.  At the time of the battle, of course, there was no bridge, and the railroad had not yet been laid.  The 2nd Mississippi was trapped by Union forces on the ridge at left and the sudden arrival of reinforcements coming this way along the railroad bed.  The southern soldiers had nowhere to go.  Some at the far end of the cut got away, but most of the unit was killed or captured.

Lorenzo was sent to Fort Delaware, a prison camp.  Fort Delaware was a horrible place, on par with any concentration camp in any war.  It was a Union fort on Pea Patch Island, in the middle of the upper reaches of Delaware Bay, off Delaware City.  At one time, it held up to 13,000 prisoners, many from Gettysburg.  Water was putrified and food scarce.  Rats were a delicacy.  Diseases such as scurvy, smallpox, malnutrition, measles, dysentery, and diarrhea were widespread.  All had lice.  One prisoner wrote that he shrank from 140 pounds to 80 pounds during his time there.  Approximately 2700 Confederate prisoners died during captivity; 2436 are buried there.

Lorenzo survived Fort Delaware, though, and on June 11, 1865, was released, two months after Lee's surrender.  He returned home to Mississippi and became a farmer.  He married Jennie Billings on May 30, 1866, and raised six children.  He apparently died sometime around 1896 at about 55 years of age.

I wish I knew more about Lorenzo.  I wish there was a photograph of him, along with Jennie and the kids.  I'd like to know more about this man than what can be gleaned from a few recorded census and muster records and history books.  He must have been tough as nails, but he must have retained his humanity as well.  His daughter, my great-grandmother, was a cheerful and gentle woman who nonetheless had her own iron will: she defied her parents and eloped with her beau at age 21.

So as we commemorate Gettysburg over the next couple of days, and think about its impact on our country, I'm going to think instead about it's impact on me, personally.  Had anything been different there, had a bullet gone slightly right or left, or an order been given a second earlier or later, I might not be here.  The individual strength of one man, though, pulled him through multiple major battles, two years in a prison camp, and into a farmer's life in the reconstruction South, where he successfully raised a family, one of whom eventually led to me.

1 comment:

Sherry M. said...

Yes, I recently discovered Wm. T. King, my gggrand uncle was captured in Gettysburg. escaped and swam Delaware bay and joined Mosley's Cavalry where he perished. His oldest brother, Thomas D. King was killed on the Spotyslvania Court House, VA and buried in Arlington and his older brother James A. King perished alongside Stonewall jackson in fredericksburg. Mississippians were made of tougher cloth than I had imagined.