On the 17th of June, the regiment started on the Gettysburg campaign. Small bodies of the enemy hung upon the rear of the column, and when opposite Thoroughfare Gap, he made demonstrations in considerable force. The Second Corps was accordingly ordered to drive him back and occupy the Gap. On the second day of its occupation, the brigade was attacked and a spirited skirmish ensued, which lasted for two hours. After it was ended, Colonel Smith was ordered to advance upon-the road leading over the mountain and observe the position and force of the enemy, and blockade the road so as to prevent a sudden advance upon it. Three miles out the enemy was found in force. Trees were felled across the road, and, for a long distance, made impassable.
On the evening of the 1st day of July, the regiment reached the battle-field of Gettysburg. General Hancock was now in command of the corps, and General Alexander S. Webb of the brigade. It arrived just as the First and Eleventh Corps, which had been driven back, were coming into position upon Cemetery Hill. The brigade was posted upon the crest of the ridge, to the left and front of General Meade's headquarters, a little to the left of the angle in the low stone wall, along which the line was established, and behind which it took shelter.
On the following morning, skirmish firing commenced early, which was kept up until about the middle of the afternoon, when General Sickles, who had taken position with the Third Corps upon the left of the Second, and considerably in advance of the general line of battle, was fiercely attacked. Until after nightfall the battle raged with unabated fury. Sickles was driven back, and, as the enemy came within range of the brigade, a hot flank fire was opened, which checked his fiery onset.
A clump of trees in its front afforded some protection to a body of the rebels who had advanced npon the left, and had seized a brass piece from which the cannoneers had been driven. Wheeling it into position, they had loaded and were about turning it upon the brigade. Quickly divining their purpose, Colonel Smith ordered forward his regiment, and, with the Sixty-ninth, charged upon the foe, re-captured the gun with one hundred of their men, and, as their broken ranks were falling back, turned the gun upon them, producing at each discharge great carnage.
In this encounter the regiment lost about forty men. The wounded were cared for, and the ground, which was strewn with small arms, was cleared, the regiment collecting a large number and depositing them a little in the rear of the stone wall on the right, which rims perpendicular to the line of battle. These arms were fortunately gathered, and even more fortunately deposited in that particular place as subsequent events proved.
The battle in front had now closed; but still it raged on the extreme right, where the enemy had broken in upon the Union line, and had pushed out nearly to the Baltimore Pike. Late in the evening an order came for one of the regiments to report to General Howard at the Cemetery. The Seventy-first was detailed for this purpose, and on reaching the pike was met by a staff officer, representing himself as coming from General Greene, with orders to advance over the rugged grounds towards Rock Creek. Shirmishers were thrown out, and the regiment advanced cautiously, when suddenly a shot disclosed the fact that it was in the presence of a strong force of the enemy. Lieutenants Davis and Boughton, and Adjutant Hutchinson, in charge of the skirmishers, nineteen in number, fell into the enemy's hands. The command was at once withdrawn to a position parallel to the pike, and dispositions made to meet an attack. But the enemy failing to advance, and believing that the order which had been received was unauthorized by the officer from whom it purported to come, Colonel Smith led his men back to the ground which he had vacated.
On the following morning, July 3d, the decisive day, occasional picket firing was heard along the line, which continued until a little past noon, when the enemy opened from one hundred and fifty pieces of artillery, which had been speedily and in a most orderly manner run to the front, concentrating his fire upon the left centre, in the midst of which, in the exposed part of the field, stood Webb's brigade. Though this part of the line had now been occupied for nearly forty-eight hours, it still had little or no protection. A low stone wall surmounted by a rail, back of which the men had thrown a little earth dug with their bayonets, was all the shelter afforded them from the unparalleled storm of shells and fiery bolts which was hurled upon them. To the right of the position held by the Seventy-first, the wall was higher, and stood upon a shelving ledge five or six feet in height, and upon the left were groves, and clumps of trees and bushes both of which afforded better shelter; but the ground where it stood was swept by concentring ranges of artillery that made its occupation appalling. The batteries of Cushing, Arnold, and Brown, posted upon the left and a little to the rear, belched forth in reply over the heads of the men, a perfect torrent of shot and shells. Rarely in the world's battles has there been an infantry line more fearfully exposed to artillery fire than that held by this regiment. For two hours was this terrible duel incessantly maintained, in which the crash of the guns, the shrieking of shells and solid shots, the bursting and whirl of the shrapnell, and the flying fragments of rock shattered by the solid shot, formed a combination of terrors which the mind falters in conceiving.
Cushing's Battery was at length silenced, its commander dead, its cannoneers stricken down, and some of its guns disabled. Seeing its crippled condition, volunteers from the regiment and from the Sixty-ninth flew to its relief, and soon brought it again into play. Arnold's on the right, its guns having become overheated, many of its men cut down, struggled with the few spared to keep its voice in chorus, and thanks to their training and heroism were equal to the task. A shot struck one of Cushing's caissons, and instantly three of these standing near, and loaded down with fixed ammunition, were blown up, hurling into the air the fragments of this once powerful battery, which descended in a perfect shower upon companies A and F, lying near them. Men, horses, and limbers were hurled together in confusion.
When the battle with artillery, the best and most destructive which the wit of man has yet devised, had ceased, a body of eighteen thousand infantry, the flower of the rebel army, which during the morning had been concentrated, organized, and inspired with the belief of possessing resistless power, issued from the wood which crowns the Seminary Ridge a mile away in front, and in well-dressed lines of battle, with flags defiantly displayed, moved forward with all the steadiness and precision of a parade. Making as if to strike upon Doubieday's position farther to the rebel right, it suddenly veered to the left, and when the centre came opposite the position held by Webb's Brigade, it advanced full upon the Union line.
The artillery at first hurled shot upon it, but as it approched nearer, caniister was delivered in rapid rounds. But still the well ordered lines marched steadily on, and, as they came within musket range, a rapid fire was poured upon them. The ground was strewn with the dead and wounded. They quickly climbed the fences at the Emmittsburg Pike, and were soon in the open field skirted by the Union line. At this moment, Colonel Smith ordered the regiment up, and poured in a staggering volley upon the advancing foe. Still he came on in overwhelming force. The position of the Seventy-first was now most critical. The artillery, posted a few paces in the rear on more elevated ground, with the infantry supports, were pouring in a ceaseless fire over the heads of the men, who were in hardly less danger from this fire than from that of the enemy. Seeing this, and desirous of saving his men for a final determined resistance, leaving the left wing, which was less exposed, in command of Lieutenant Colonel Kochersperger, Colonel Smith posted the right behind a rude stone wall to the right and rear of the left wing, which had been entirely unoccupied. As he was leading his men to this new position, he ordered officers and men to seize as many of the loaded arms, which had been collected on the previous day, as they could take, and when they had reached the shelter were able, with these, to keep up a steady and well directed enfilading fire upon the foe, as with the madness of furies they rushed on, crossed the walls, and forced themselves up among the Union batteries. The left wing of the regiment, overborne by vastly superior numbers, was obliged to yield. As the enemy, with wild shouts, rushed over the slight wall and up through the little grove where were the guns, Smith, with the right wing, from his partial cover, poured in volley after volley with terrible effect.
But the impetus of the enemy's attack was now spent. In passing that fearful plain in front, it had been almost annihilated. General Armistead, who had reached the farthest point in this advance, and had his hand upon a Union gun, with the flags of his brigade about him, fell mortally wounded.
The left wing, though forced back, was still in good order, and joined with the Seventy-second posted in the second line, again moved forward, pushing the foe from the slight advantage gained. Supports came up rapidly. Stannard's Brigade sallied out upon the left, and, coming in upon the enemy's flank, swept in a goodly number of prisoners. The line was made secure, and that proud defiant body of men, which a few minutes before had advanced with banners, in measured tread, lay bleeding upon the plain.
The regiment lost one-half of its effective strength. Captains John A. Steffan and William H. Dull were among the killed. Of fifteen officers who entered the engagement, nine fell. When the cloud had lifted and the smoke of battle had cleared away, the field presented a ghastly appearance. Says one who was an eye witness to the scene,
" We had scarcely given way to a feeling of exultation over our victory, when we were filled with sadness at the evidence, on every hand, of the terrible sacrifice of life with which it had beeni purchased. Here lay a dead rebel stretched across the body of a wounded Federal. By their side was a pile of wounded and dead struggling to escape each other. The crippled and dead artillery horses lay scattered upon all the field. Disabled artillery, muskets, canteens, knapsacks, and all the munitions of war, were strewn thick on every hand. At the spot where the enemy made his last feeble charge, many were killed. The regiment buried these on the spot where they fell, and at one end of the huge grave a board was placed bearing this inscription,'
The remains of the Ninth and Seventeenth Virginia, Regiments. A worthy foe.
Generals Hancock, Gibbon, and Webb, commanding the corps, division, and brigade respectively, were wounded. General Webb was able to keep the field, and assumed command of the division, Colonel Smith of the brigade. The regiment captured in the battle four stands of rebel colors. Among them were the Ninth and Nineteenth Virginia.
Satisfied that the offensive could no longer be maintained, Lee withdrew, and at once began to throw up breast-works along his entire line, in semblance of holding his position, but as night came on commenced a rapid retreat. The Union army followed and came up with him near Hagerstown. The Seventy-first was immediately thrown forward on picket, occupying a position directly opposite the Saint James College, then held by the enemy. He, however, soon made good his escape into Virginia, without again coming to battle.
The regiment, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kochersperger, participated in the campaign which followed, and in the retrograde movement of the army, was engaged at Auburn Mills, and Bristoe Station. In the advance from Centreville, as Meade again assumed the offensive, it had a spirited skirmish at Bull Run, the fighting becoming general, and extending from Cub Run to the ford.
At Robertson's Tavern the enemy was again met, occupying an important position. The brigade, which held the right of the column, was immediately ordered forward upon a charge, and succeeded after a brief contest in clearing the ground, which was immediately occupied by Warren's Corps. The regiment was held upon the front line, and skirmishing was kept up until the enemy retired to his carefully selected line behind Mine Run. Shifting the division to the extreme left, beyond Hope Church, it was ordered to prepare to assault the enemy's works. The weather was intensely cold, and the work which it was called to perform seemed even more chilling than the weather.
The brigade was ordered to lead the charging column. All the necessary preparations had been made. The men stood in light marching order, ready to advance, many of them having made their wills, sent messages to their friends, attached slips of paper, containing name and description, securely to their clothing, conscious of the great peril before them, and believing that but few would ever come back alive. The signal gun was fired, but still the order was not given to move. Finally to the relief and unspeakable joy of all, word was brought that offensive operations had been abandoned.
The army now retired to winter-quarters, the regiment occupying a wooded slope near Stevensburg. The time was given during the winter to the construction of roads, fatigue duty, drills and reviews, the Seventy-first, by the cleanliness and beauty of its camp, challenging comparison with that of any other regiment. The only hostile demonstration was a reconnoissance to Morton's Ford, on the Rapidan, where the advance was led by Captain Seabury of company F. Charging through the stream he gained a foot-hold, and held the ground until the brigade, led by Colonel Smith, could cross. The enemy was driven back from his outer line of intrenchments to the more formidable ones in the rear, when, the object of the movement having been accomplished, the corps returned to camp. The loss fell principally upon the Third Division.
Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, Harrisburg, 1868-1871.