Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Letter From Gettysburg

This is an interesting letter written by Captain David E. Beem, Company H, 14th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Written July 5, 1863, Beem gives an overview look at the Battle of Gettysburg. Although not extremely detailed, it does offer a glimpse of how one man witnessed the battle. It exudes the excitement he, as well as the entire Army of the Potomac felt upon achieving the “glorious victory”. Paragraphs and some punctuation have been added for clarity, and remarks in parentheses are added to place the narrative in context of the events. Otherwise it is as it was written.

My dear wife,

The Army of the Potomac has again met the enemy, and after three days desperate fighting, have achieved the most glorious victory of the war. The fighting ceased on the evening of the third but until now have had no chance to write and even now my facilities for writing are very poor, but I will give the best narrative of events I can.

I last wrote you at Frederick on Sunday last, which place we left on Monday. The Regiment marched during Monday and Monday night to Uniontown, a hard march indeed. I rode in an ambulance, the train took the wrong road and after driving hard all night and until 3 o'clock on Tuesday we got up to the Reg't Wednesday morning at day light. We were on the road, marched from Uniontown to Tannytown where we took the road to this place.

When we moved to within a few miles of this town we ascertained that the First Army Corps had that day engaged the enemy and it, with a portion of the Eleventh Corps was badly defeated, the rebels largely outnumbering them. They fell back a mile to the East and North of Gettysburg where they were reinforced by the 3rd, 5th, and 12th corps. Our 2nd Corps got within two miles on Wednesday, the 1st . On the morning of the 2nd we took our place in the line of battle and without having gone to eat breakfast we were ready for the great conflict. (On Cemetery Hill)
The Fish Hook
We had a splendid position, our line being somewhat shaped like a V. The 2nd Corps occupied the center, or apex of the V which was close to the town and on a high eminence in open fields where we had some 40 pieces of artillery planted. During the entire engagement this position was shelled by the enemy and in all my experience as heretofore, I was never under such a terrible shelling. On Thursday the 2nd , with the exception of occasional cannon, all was quiet until about 3 o'clock PM when the rebels opened all their batteries on their left, the firing was awful and proceeded from left to right, a distance of four miles, until the whole line sent up one grand roar and dense cloud of smoke. At 4 PM the artillery slackened and for a few moments it seemed the demonstration was for that day over. In a few minutes , however, our pickets commenced a rapid musketry fire on the extreme left, they soon came hurrying back to the lines and in a moment the rebels, massed in tremendous columns rushed with a loud cheer upon the 3rd Corps commanded by Sickles. (The Peach Orchard) Bravely did these gallant veterans meet and with the timely assistance of other forces this part of the line was made as strong as a mountain, which all the desperate energy of the rebels could not sway. Our artillery was used with great effect. Indeed, the artillery in this series of engagements did splendid service. The musketry firing was in a assent, and crash after crash resounded along the line for a mile and a half and the repeated efforts to turn our left were foiled before night. Only a part of our corps was engaged in this great attack on the left but the two divisions that were in the fight did nobly and suffered much. Our Brigade (Carroll’s) were during this time supporting the batteries in the center and were not in the musketry but under heavy artillery fire.

About six o'clock PM after the heavy attack on the left had been repulsed, a fourth attack was made on our right which did not last very long nor was it very desperate. Just at dark appearances indicated that a desperate attempt was to be made on our center to storm the batteries there. We were duly warned of this and ready for any event. The Eleventh Corps, or rather a part of it, supported a battery (Ricketts F-G, 1st Pennsylvania Light) just on our right which it was necessary to defend as the loss of it would have ruined the day. We had no confidence in the Dutch of the 11th. As soon as it was dark the rebels, a very heavy column, with great rapidity [fell] on this battery. The Dutch ran like cowards, the battery was unsupported and almost in the hands of the enemy.** Our Brigade was ordered to change front, which we did quickly, and went to the support of the battery on the double quick.
Carroll's Brigade moving to support Ricketts' Battery
We arrived just in the nick of time. They had already surrounded one gun. The artillerists defended their pieces bravely but nearly lost them. One artillerist knocked a rebel down with his sponge staff. When we approached the officers of the battery threw their hats in the air and shouted for joy. We pushed right on through to the rebel horde and got right in among them but they did not long stand our rapid volleys. They ran pell mell, several of their officers were wounded and fell into our hands together with a large number of prisoners and in thirty minutes the attack was repulsed and the battery saved.

Here occurred our only loss and here is the mournful part of my letter. Two of our very best men, Corporal Issac Norris and Sergeant John Troth were killed, both instantly. Norris was carrying the flag which was presented to us by the ladies of Spencer. A ball had previously shot the staff in two places. He was then shot by a ball through the head and never knew more. Troth was shot through the heart and never spoke. I could have laid my hand on him when he fell. Strange to say none were wounded-- all came out unscathed. I cannot say to much in praise of the two brave men who fell nor have I time to say what I would like. None ever fell more nobly, none were ever mourned more by surviving comrades. They were buried by their friends as decently as possible under an apple tree and headboards suitably inscribed placed at their graves. I will not probably have an opportunity soon to write to their friends but will do so soon as I can.

The rebels had thus far been repulsed with heavy loss on all sides but not an inch of ground had been taken from us. But the heaviest fighting was yet to come. At 4 ½ in the morning of the 3rd they made a desperate effort was made to break our right, which rested on a range of hills. The fighting was nearly all musketry and for six long hours the crash and roar of close fighting was kept up with greater desperation than has perhaps been witnessed in the war. Time and again the rebels charged our line which sometimes swayed backwards but only to come forward again. At 10 o'clock finding that they could not break our right wing, they fell back.

Comparative quiet then prevailed until about five in the evening. At this time they massed all their forces for a last bold dash. It seems that every available man was put in their columns for the desperate onslaught. The attack was made a little to the left of our center and they came on with tremendous power. They had to pass over open fields under our artillery which opened with a roar upon them and thinned their ranks. Three times were they repulsed. Again they swept forward to where our infantry advanced upon the open plain to meet them and there commenced the last and bloodiest conflict. It was soon decided. Our men swept the field like a tornado, left it strewn with the dead and dying, captured several thousands, and were victorious on the bloody field. This was a grand and glorious moment. All our banners floated and from one end of our line to the other, tens of thousands sent up their cheers. Thus ended the three days conflict. Fighting a desperate foe for three days on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of July.

The Army of the Potomac, long resting under the disgrace of public opinion celebrated the glorious 4th of July with their guns still black with powder and on the very field where they had vindicated their bravery.
I have not been over the battle field to a great extent but everywhere may be seen the horrible remains of a bloody day. When circumstances allow I will write you more particulars. All the boys of Co. H were in the engagement and all did their whole duty. Our flag has many scars and I shall send it home for safe keeping soon. I will write again when I can. Show this to father as I may not get to write to them at once. We will leave here probably to-day. No more at present, only my love to you and all- God bless you.
Your loving husband
David [1]
The men of the 14th Indiana Volunteer Infantry were long time veterans by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, with hard service at Winchester, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville to their credit. They were mustered into federal service June 7, 1861. They had originally formed in Vigo county in May as a one year regiment but soon volunteered for three years service and were so designated upon entering Federal service. The men comprising the regiment were drawn from Knox, Martin, Monroe, Owen, Parke, Putnam, Vanderburg, Vermillion, and Vigo counties. David Beem had in the beginning been company First Sergeant for company H, but was soon made first lieutenant. He was commissioned as Captain dating from May 13, 1862. He survived the war and mustered out at the end of three years service on June 24, 1864.
At Gettysburg the regiment lost 123 officers and men killed or wounded. [2] When Beem refers to Troth and Norris being their only loss he is speaking only of Company H.
** R. Bruce Ricketts, captain of the battery abandoned by the 11th Corps men later recorded:
As soon as the charge commenced they, although they had a stone wall in their front, commenced running in the greatest confusion to the rear, hardly a shot was fired, certainly not a volley, and so panic stricken were they that several ran into the canister fire of my guns and were knocked over.” (Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg, 2003, page 337-338)
The Picket

[1] David Beem letter transcribed by Steven R. Gore from the original at the Indiana Historical Society, from,144

[2] Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Volume 2, 1865. pages 118-123 from
Photo Credit
The 14TH Indiana Volunteer Infantry monument at Gettysburg. Craig Swain, February 21, 2009. from at
Craig Swain is the author of the blog “To the Sound of the Guns” at Check it out sometime!
Map Credit
Maps by Hal Jespersen, This is a neat place for maps while reading books that do not have maps.

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