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Letters From Emmitsburg's Past

Emmitsburg as described in Major Fredrick C. Winkler
 letters home, June 26 to July 8, 1863

Jefferson, June 26th, 1863.

A letter, at the end of which I noticed our marching orders from Goose Creek, Virginia, I gave to a gentleman who has left us for Washington. Since then, we have left the deserted fields of Virginia and come to a smiling, happy, thrifty land, to Maryland. We marched to Edward's Ferry day before yesterday and remained there until four o'clock yesterday, when we resumed our march.

We crossed the river on a pontoon bridge and marched through a land of exquisite rural beauty, such farms, such fields of heavy grain-some gathered - some ripening - at one place already bending under the reaper's cradle; the meandering river, the ranges of hills or mountains, it did the eye good to look upon them and made our very hearts happy. Of course, we suffered no want. We had an excellent dinner at a large farm house.

We camped outside the pleasant little village of Jefferson about dark, and took our headquarters at a farm house. It is a large brick one, two parlors thrown open to the Major General and his staff. We had a good supper and breakfast and I feel ready to start again. The rebels are said to be at South Mountain, ten miles from here, and we are marching that way. Before this reaches you, you will probably have news of a battle near by. Middletown, June 27th, 1863.

We came to this place, arriving at about 6 P.M. It is a small town of decidedly Union sentiments; as we came through, flags were displayed, ladies appeared at the windows waved handkerchiefs, and everywhere we see manifestations of pleasure at our appearance. We are stopping at the house of a miller, the proprietor of two mills, whose name is Miller. The rebels are said to be moving northward. Our stay here will only be long enough to concentrate our army and, as several corps arrived to-day, it is likely that we will go to-morrow.

I think, if we have an engagement here or anywhere north, our soldiers will fight with great courage; it cannot be otherwise. The entire population, who treat them so kindly, will anxiously look on to shower upon them benedictions for victory, but scorn and indignation for defeat; the soft beams of sympathy which have smiled upon them has already brought a new spirit into the army. You should see them as they come from the village or a neighboring farm house, laden with bread and milk and pies.

The whole female population is baking, and they sell to the soldiers with pleasure at very moderate prices. A number of the neighbors have come in and tendered their services as guides and scouts; it is evident that we will have one great advantage, that of reliable in formation in fighting in our own country. If we march to-morrow, we will probably go to Hagerstown. Lee is said to have left that place yesterday. We are here, right by the battle field of South Mountain many of the shells went into the house where we are. Mr. Miller himself, as he says, bore a conspicuous part in that battle, acting as guide, as also in a subsequent battle, that of Antietam.

Letter #70 - Emmitsburg, June 29th, 1863.

While we were at dinner yesterday, the order came to take up our tents at once and march to Frederick; it was pretty late when we started and we were much delayed by other troops and trains on the road, so that we did not arrive at our camping ground until near nine o'clock. The Town of Middletown is situated in a valley between the South Mountain and the Catoctin Range, we crossed the latter to come to Frederick, and from the heights that valley presented the most beautiful scene I have ever witnessed.

We stopped last night at a palatial mansion about a mile from Frederick. There were two young ladies there whose conversation seemed to delight two musical members of our staff; a very fine piano was played by the skilful hands of some of our officers for an hour, and then we composed ourselves to sleep on a large covered stoop in front of the house, to get up again at three A.M. At that hour reveille was sounded and we jumped up. I had not long been dressed when I was sent off to the other divisions, and when I returned our division was started.

Breakfast was over. We marched over twenty miles and it rained. we arrived at Emmetsburg at 6 P.M. and, after we had located our troops here, about a mile from the village, and attended to other necessary business, General Schurz and some of us rode through the village. The 1st corps was just passing through and there was a good deal of enthusiasm displayed. A large portion of the place is in ruins, having been destroyed by fire; expensive buildings of the Catholic Church, convents, etc., occupy very fine grounds on the limits of the place; not far from here too, at the foot of the mountains, there is Saint Mary's College, said to be the oldest college in the country. 

We are ordered to march again at daylight to-morrow; that will take us into Pennsylvania. Our whole army was collected near Frederick last night, and it is no longer under the command of General Hooker, but of General Meade. It can be but a few days before we will meet the enemy, probably this week. Who knows but the decisive battle of this war may be fought on the 4th of July. It is 9 P.M. Have only had one meal to-day and am very hungry and must try and get something to eat before I lie down.

Letter #71 June 30th, 1863.

Just about the time for reveille to sound, according to previous orders, orders were received at the headquarters countermanding our orders to march. We were not sorry to be allowed to sleep a couple of hours longer. We changed our camp this morning and came to the Sisterhood, to which I alluded last night. It is a wealthy institution of the Sisters of Charity, connected with Saint Joseph's Academy.

The grounds and buildings are very extensive. We just went through the school building under the guidance of Father Vorlando, who has charge of the whole and is I believe the head of the institution of the Sisters of Charity of the United States. He is a very refined, gentlemanly and accomplished Italian priest. One of the Sisters, an accomplished lady, accompanied us also. This institution is magnificent, and yet everything quite simple; we saw everything, even the sleeping room of the school girls; it is vacation, and at present most of the scholars away.

Our headquarters are on the ground in a house of the Sisters; it is quite a large frame house and we have the entire ground floor. The furniture is confined to tables, benches and chairs. Father Vorlando tells me that it was once used for an Orphan Asylum, and is not now devoted to any particular use but kept as a refuge for the houseless. When forty-two families of the village were made homeless by the fire of three weeks ago, this house offered them shelter, and a few of the families are still here. The Sisters gave us a very good dinner to-day, which all enjoyed heartily. It is said that the rebels are marching upon Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that is the place that we intended to go to to-day; if they do march upon It, they are coming directly towards us. It has been raining the greater part of the day. The air is very moist, and showers are still impending.

Letter #72 July 4th, 1863.

In three days' hard fighting we have whipped the rebels terribly; they've fled. We now start in pursuit I am saved from all harm, and that is all I can tell you now.

Letter #73 Battle of Gettysburg, Emmetsburg, Md., July 6th, 1863.

Back again in the hospitable mansion of the Sisterhood, where I wrote my last letter to you, except the little note of the 4th inst. It will be a week tomorrow since I wrote to you here before. The battle that was then impending has come off, has come off fiercely, virulently.

It swept away many of our men, of our bravest and best; it has told with terrible force upon the enemy and driven the rebel invader from northern soil. I thank God for having come safely out from the danger that environed me. Let me tell you, as near as I can, how it was. The order came last Wednesday morning to march for Gettysburg at seven A.M.: we started accordingly, our division having the advance.

The distance by the road is about thirteen miles; we had gotten half way when we heard firing in front-a little to the left-it was the same kind of firing that we have heard very often on our marches of late, and we attributed it to a cavalry fight. I was riding a little in advance of our column with Captain Dilger, who commands a battery in our division, one of the best artillery officers in the service. An aid from General Howard coming back met us and told us there was a high point about a mile to the left of the road where the ring could be seen plainly. Captain Dilger and my self concluded to go and take a look at it. We turned to the left and had ridden but a little ways when we noticed that all was quiet again, and therefore went no further.

Before we got back to the road we found several splendid cherry trees laden with ripe cherries and stopped to eat. When we rode back, we came to the head of the column and found that General Schurz was ahead. The firing had re-opened and became quite fierce; we soon learned that there was a battle going on on the other side of Gettysburg, and we hastened to overtake General Schurz. Just as we got to the edge of the village, one of our staff officers met us and told us that General Reynolds had fallen and General Howard taken command of the wing of the army which the latter had commanded, and General Schurz was in command of the corps.

I rode into the town and out on the other side, where the first corps was engaged and joined General S. It must have been about noon when our corps became engaged. General Reynolds had arrived there some hours before with the 1st Corps, and a small force of cavalry, and had immediately driven what rebels there were out of the town and advanced to the other side and engaged the enemy. This movement, when no other troops were within immediate supporting distance and when only one more corps, the 11th, was able to come to his assistance at all, was certainly very rash and inconsiderate. Our men were very tired when they got there; they had marched a great distance at a very rapid rate through deep mud and we met with heavy showers.

They were brought into action at once. The third division first, the first division on its right, the second was kept in reserve. Captain Dilger's battery was brought to the extreme front and did splendid work, so also another of our batteries; all of our troops behaved well and maintained their position against superior numbers; but at last the rebel forces came too strongly on their flanks and they had to retreat. General Schurz had sent for a brigade of the 2nd Division to come to his support, and as a severe attack on our right flank became imminent sent me to hurry it up.

I dashed through the town to the other side, where the reserves were stationed, as fast as my horse could carry me, and when I came up there the brigade had not yet started. I urged haste impetuously, and it set in motion at once. I rode ahead and met General Schurz just in time; just in sight of the town, on the north side, the 1st Division, in a retreat less orderly than it should have been, was crowding the sidewalk on both sides. I asked General Schurz what it meant.

The 1st Division had fallen back in confusion and all was in full retreat. I showed him the reenforcement who were marching on rapidly; he then turned around and lead this column a little beyond the village and had them deploy to the right of the road, where the rebels were advancing very strongly. In the outskirts and on the left of the line thus formed, were found the remnants of the 2nd brigade of our 3rd Division, and among them thirty-two men with the colors of the 26th Wisconsin, but without any officer; we rode by them and they called out to me and, with the General's permission, I sent my horse away and took command of this gallant squad.

Two men of Company B had saved the colors. I formed my little band in two ranks and had them sit down in the road. It was useless, of course, to try to resist the long rebel forces that were then approaching, but we could delay them and thus ensure a safe retreat to the rest of our troops. I here were three fresh regiments on our right, and there were one hundred to one hundred and fifty men of our brigade. While we were there, the rest of the brigade left me; I suppose it was just as well, we could perhaps do no good, but there was a brigade of infantry still on our right and I had no orders to fall back.

So, when several of my men rose to follow the rest of the brigade, I told them to stay; they did stay. The brigade on our right was a little further out than we were and received all the attention of the enemy. My men crouched down, but I stood by them and saw all that was going on. We were not fired upon and I had an excellent opportunity to look on. There was a long line of battle approaching on each side of the road; that on the left had nothing opposed to it; that on the right was met with the brigade of the 2nd Division, but this brigade, of course, had to fall back at once, and as it did so and the others of our brigade had just left me, I saw an aid of Colonel K's, our brigade commander, and called out to him to let me know what my orders were. He answered to "fall back"; we fell back a little. There was a little white cottage where the little remnant of our brigade went into the yard and from there fired another volley at the advancing line of the right flank. My men went in, fired, and then followed the rest, running into the city.

All this occurred within a very short time. I saw them going; it was useless to attempt- useless to hold them-useless to stay there, but I was enraged; I felt furious when I saw the 1st Division all crowding the sidewalks; think of it, it was a northern village. I had ridden up and down its streets from one end to the other three times that day and everywhere there were manifestations of joy; handkerchiefs were waving everywhere, and ladies stood in the streets offering refreshments to the soldiers as they passed. It seemed so awful to march back through those same streets whipped and beaten. It was the most humiliating step I ever took. I saw my men leave me; I saw the brigade on the right go back, but I could not at once make up my mind to go. I stood in the middle of the street and saw the rebels coming; they didn't then fire at me; my first impulse was to stay there and let them fire and hit me if they could. I had no weapon but my saber, but I felt defiant.

We retreated to a high hill on the south side of the village where our position had been selected and there, under the protection of our strong artillery force, took a defensive position. If we don't march, I will continue this letter to-morrow. I only had two and a half hours' sleep last night; in fact we have not had a single night's proper rest since we left this house.

Letter #74 Middletown, Md., July 8th, 1863.

It was impossible to continue my letter to you yesterday, for we started on the march at four o' clock A.M., and marched full thirty miles, arriving at this place after nine o'clock at night, in a furious rain that drenched us to the skin, but we have a nice place for headquarters here, a large brick house of Mr. Kugel's, a true Union man. His wife and himself and two daughters do all they can for the soldiers. I had a nice, clean, white bed to sleep in last night and I assure you it was a luxury. We shall remain here to-day. The corps are just coming in. The army is concentrated to push upon the enemy, if he shall be found on this side of the river, but it would seem that he has some bridges left and will probably succeed in making his exit.

I intended, at first, to give you a full account of the battle of Gettysburg as I saw it, but I have not paper enough to do it upon. I hate now to return to the dreadful scenes of strife. The first day's fight, which I have already described, was the one in which our corps was principally engaged. We sent some of our forces to re-enforce the extreme right on Thursday; I went a little way with one brigade to show them the place where they should go. Both Thursday and Friday afternoons, a terrible cannonade was directed upon Cemetery Hill, where we were, and the shell and shot fairly danced about us; one shell came very near General Schurz.

It is strange indeed that more casualties did not happen at that time. Many horses were killed, mine got a big piece of shell right through his neck. It knocked him down, but he got up again and lives. I was not on him at the time. The distances were so short on Cemetery Hill that it was more convenient to serve on foot than on horseback. It was a hard few days on the Hill. We were with little food, had no rest, and an intense excitement all the time; we were where we could see the fierce struggles on our right and on our left, and how anxiously we watched them. If they had broken our lines, all would have been lost, and sometimes they came so very near, but our Generals were watchful and whenever our lines were closely pressed, wherever they were giving way, there, just before the critical moment arrived, we would see the serried ranks of the reserve march up and re-enforce our lines and drive the rebels back.

They were beaten, terribly beaten, and on Friday night retreated. On Saturday morning nothing was seen of them nearer than the mountains on the opposite side of the town. Their sharp-shooters, extending to the borders of the town, some movements took place on the part of our army, but just what they were, I don't know. Our corps remained until Sunday night, when we started on a horribly muddy road, marched till twelve o'clock at night, when we found ourselves five or six miles from Cemetery Hill; that was a beautiful cemetery when we entered it, but it has been terribly disfigured. The lieutenant colonel and major were both wounded.

The former had a leg amputated, the latter's wound is slight. Captain Lackner was also wounded in the leg, but not seriously; he will go home and recover in a short time. The 26th has only about two hundred and thirty men fit for duty just now. A number, I believe, have been taken prisoners. I hope we will have another battle this side of the river; we can concentrate a large force and, if their retreat is cut off, we can give the rebels a blow which will go far to end the war. We received news of the fall of Vicksburg last night, butt am afraid to believe it, lest we will be disappointed again.

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