Friday, May 12, 2017

Grim Reunion at the Battle of Gettysburg

Sadly, the Civil War was the scene of many tragic reunions on the battlefield. This meeting took place shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this case, there was no last minute exchange between the father and son. The reunion occurred in a Confederate field hospital where a grieving father viewed his son's dead body.

Sam Wilkeson, Jr.
The story begins in Buffalo, New York. Samuel Wilkeson Jr. was a member of one of the city's leading families and the son of a former mayor. Samuel was an attorney before he became a newspaperman. Sam's son, Bayard Wilkeson, was a Union soldier. Sam Wilkeson came from an abolitionist family and hated slavery and he understood the carnage of war. However, Bayard was had a passion for serving the Union. Sam said that his son had "the war devil in him."
While working for the New York Tribune in 1862, Sam reported on the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. After the battle, Wilkeson searched the battlefield for the body of his nephew, John Wilkes Wilkeson. Wilkeson was one of eighteen enlisted men and three officers of the 100th Infantry Regiment from Buffalo, New York killed in the fighting on May 31 and June 1, 1862. The discovery of John's body added to the trauma Sam had already experienced reporting on the war. His exposure to the horrors of war reached new heights in 1863.
In 1863, The New York Times assigned Sam to cover the developing battle around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Wilkeson reached the battlefield on July 2 and covered the events over the next two days. Sam knew his son's unit was engaged somewhere on the battlefield, but he did not know where. Not only was Bayard Wilkeson on the battlefield; he was in to the most dangerous spot on the field in day one.
The first day of the battle proceeded in three phases as Union and Confederate troops arrived at the battlefield. In the morning, two brigades of Confederate Major General Henry Heth's division of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill's Third Corps were delayed by dismounted Union cavalrymen under Brig. Gen. John Buford. As infantry reinforcements arrived under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds of the Union I Corps, the Confederate assaults down the Chambersburg Pike were repulsed. However, General Reynolds was killed in the action.
By early afternoon, the Union XI Corps, commanded by Major General Oliver Otis Howard, had arrived, and the Union position was in a semicircle from west to north of the town. The Confederate Second Corps under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell began a massive assault from the north, with Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes's division attacking from Oak Hill and Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early's division attacking across the open fields north of town. The Union lines generally held under extremely heavy pressure, although the salient at Barlow's Knoll was overrun.
The third phase of the battle came as Rodes renewed his assault from the north and Heth returned with his entire division from the west, accompanied by the division of Maj. Gen. W. Dorsey Pender. Heavy fighting in Herbst's Woods near the Lutheran Theological Seminary and on Oak Ridge finally caused the Union line to collapse. Some of the Federals conducted a fighting withdrawal through the town, suffering heavy casualties and losing many prisoners; others simply retreated. They took up good defensive positions on Cemetery Hill and waited for additional attacks.

Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson
Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson commanded Battery G of the Fourth United States Artillery Battery in Major General Oliver Howard's XI Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg. According to Brigadier General Henry Hunt, the Union Army's Chief of Artillery, "About 11 a.m. Wilkeson's battery (G, Fourth United States, four 12-pounders) came up, and reported to General Barlow, who posted it close to the enemy's line of infantry, with which it immediately became engaged, sustaining at the same time the fire of two of his batteries."
The G battery's Second Lieutenant, C. F. Merkle, described the action. "I was assigned to a position by First Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson with my section about 1 mile or three-quarters northwest of the poor-house. I engaged one battery of the enemy for a few moments with solid shot, and then directed my attention to the rebel infantry as they were advancing in mass upon us. I used shell and spherical case shot at first, and, as the line of the enemy came closer, and I ran out of shot, shell, and case shot, I used canister; the enemy was then within canister range."
 Around 2:00 p.m. that the afternoon, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Gordon's men surged over Barlow Knoll and forced the Union's XI Corps to retreat back through the town.

"When the Confederates routed the Union infantry, the cannoneers were forced to withdraw." General Hunt said, "In the commencement of this unequal contest, Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson (Fourth U. S. Artillery), commanding the battery, a young officer of great gallantry, fell, mortally wounded, and was carried from the field."

Wilkeson was mortally wounded defending the Knoll when a cannonball nearly severed his leg. He was carried to a nearby almshouse, where, according to battlefield lore, he amputated the leg with a pocket knife [sic]. In his final act, he gave his last canteen of water to a dying comrade.

Sam Wilkeson soon learned about the death of his young son. His account for the Times included the following passages: 
The ground about me is covered thick with rebel dead, mingled with our own. Thousands of prisoners have been sent to the rear, and yet the conflict still continues.... It is near sunset.... The final results of the action I hope to be able to give you at a later hour.
Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly [sic] absorbing interest -- the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?...
My pen is heavy. Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh [sic] have baptised [sic] with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battle-field with his feet and reaching fraternal and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise -- with his left he beckons to these mutilated, bloody, swollen forms.  - July 3 & 4, 1863, The New York Times
Father and son are reunited in death in graves in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.

Bayard Wilkeson Grave

Bayard Wilkeson Grave

Sam Wilkeson, Jr. Grave

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