In addition to the usual academic workload here at Gettysburg, I've opted to undertake an internship in the National Park Service Library, located in the Cyclorama Center of the Military Park. The position has allowed me to better understand the intricacies of historical interpretation while meeting many great personalities along the way. In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to work closely with both Scott Hartwig and John Heiser, the Supervisory Historian and Park Librarian respectively. Together we have undertaken a research project for the new museum - a "wall of faces" exhibit, displaying the images of soldiers from both sides who were casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg. In collecting the images, I've come across an endless array of fascinating names and faces, each with their own story in their own time. To date, we have collected nearly 600 photographs of men from both armies, all killed, wounded, or captured during the course of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Although the faces all seem to look the same during particularly slow days of research and collation, the reality of their stories is never far off. One name in particular never fails to hit home with me, bringing a seemingly endless collage of ranks, and faces back into focus once more: Jeremiah Saunders Gage. Although his tale has been better preserved and more often recalled than many similar experiences, it is nonetheless a testament to the sacrifices made by so many men during the war, on every field, in every theater.
Sergeant Gage was a member of the Eleventh Mississippi Infantry. A unit composed of the young men of Mississippi, its Company A was designated "The University Grays," a testament to the large numbers of University of Mississippi students in its ranks. The regiment undertook only one attack at Gettysburg, participating in the famous Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge of 3 July. Although the other three units of its brigade (Davis') had taken part in the melee near the Railroad Cut two days previous, the Eleventh was well to the rear on that fateful morning, guarding wagon trains near Cashtown. In the thick of the fighting now, the unit was fated for a macabre notoriety on account of the casualties it would suffer in the two and half hours between the opening salvoes of the pre-assault bombardment and the disintegration of the Confederate lines along the reaches of Cemetery Ridge.
While awaiting the orders to advance, the regiment hunkered down to escape the worst of the artillery barrage. As fate would have it, Gage was one of the Eleventh's first casualties of the campaign, the victim of a stray shell sent hurtling across the field from Union lines. The projectile nearly disemboweled the sergeant, who had been lying prone in the grass with his comrades. Entering Gage near his left side, the shell drove through his forearm, lacerating it before striking the hip. From there it drove across his abdomen, carrying away a rib, the spleen and surrounding tissues and rupturing his intestines and stomach.
Carried to the brigade field hospital behind the lines, Gage asked if the wound was mortal. Informed that it was indeed a mortal wound, he requested that pen and ink be brought to him. Balancing his paper on a hospital knapsack and supported in his last moments by an attendant, Gage penned the following note:
My Dear Mother,
This is the last you may ever hear from me. I have time to tell you that I died like a man. Bear my loss as best you can. Remember that I am true to my country and my greatest regret at dying is that she is not free and that you and my sisters are robbed of my worth, whatever that may be. I hope this will reach you and you must not regret that my body cannot be obtained. It is a mere matter of form anyhow. This is for my sisters too as I cannot write more. Send my dying release to Miss Mary....you know who.
J. S. Gage
The Eleventh lost more than half its number in the charge, some fifty-four percent. Its flag was also captured, one of thirty-three Confederate banners lost to the Union army that day. Company A (of which Gage was a part) suffered nine killed and twenty-one others wounded, an astounding one-hundred percent casualty rate. The remaining companies were equally shattered, sustaining losses between thirty and eighty-five percent each.
Dying in the last minutes of daylight on 3 July, Gage was sorely missed by his comrades. He was twenty-four years old. The record remark that accompanied the notice of his death was succinct: "Thus fell one of the immortals....he was the admiration of his comrades." Neither was such laudatory praise rare. Another member of the Eleventh, Adoniram Farmer of Company F, suffered the same fate as Gage. The record remark accompanying his death notice recalled him as a fine soldier, "brave almost to a fault."
Remembering their stories, I never fail to appreciate the effect that the struggle here must have had on the men, both casualties and survivors. Although we so often make note of our appreciation and recognize their sacrifice, we will never grasp the harsh reality of the issue, regardless of research or knowledge. No modern interpretation seems to carry the weight of veterans' recollections, and few have ever summed it up with more clarity and truth than Eppa Hunton, himself severely wounded in the charge of Pickett's division on 3 July:
I have frequently been invited to go over the battlefield of Gettysburg, but I could never summon the courage to do so. If I were to go over the line of our charge I would say, Here fell Captain Green; Here fell Captain Bisell; Here fell Captain Grayson; Here fell Captain Ayres - and a host of others. It would nearly kill me to see where so many brave men fell - all of them among the best friends I ever had.