Firefighters' role in the Battle of Gettysburg

Volunteer firefighters joined the war effort, formed their own regiments, and sustained heavy losses


This July 1-3 we marked 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg, an event etched deeply into our collective historic memory. The American Civil War and its lessons are important to us as a country; the impact on our social institutions, our government, our politics and our military is visible today.

People come to Gettysburg to portray the event through living-history, going so far as to re-enact the battles. This is unique to us as a country; you do not see the French and Germans re-enacting World War I. There is something here, in this battle, which touches all of us.

Gettysburg as a salient event in our history stands out especially because of the scale of the loss in terms of human suffering and the significance of the location. The defeat of the Confederate forces by Federal forces on Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 3, 1863 marks the high-water mark of the southern states' succession effort.

And if the Gettysburg battle was not enough, Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant the next day — July 4 — effectively giving control of the Mississippi River to the Union. The two sides fought many more bloody battles, but it was downhill for the southern cause from Gettysburg onward.

Battle geography
Gettysburg, located in Adams County, in south-central Pennsylvania is not far from the Mason-Dixon Line and then, as now, roads run into and out of the small, college town like the spokes of wheel. For nineteenth-century armies, Gettysburg was strategic because of its transportation network and geography offering good fighting ground.

The town sits just east of South Mountain, the northern extension of the Blue Ridge Mountain. South Mountain runs from the Potomac River near Knoxville, Md., in the south, to Dillsburg, Pa., in the north; the 70-mile-long range separates the Hagerstown and Cumberland valleys from the Piedmont regions of the two states.

Gettysburg's wide, open valleys between low rolling hills offered army commanders superb land on which to maneuver, evade, and set up defensive positions.

Firefighters at war
Firefighters served in both armies and at least on the Union side groups of them formed into unique regiments. In 1861, when President Lincoln put out a call for volunteers to defend the Union many volunteer firefighters responded.

Firemen were known for their discipline, bravery, and physical ability putting them in high regard. New York firemen formed at least two regiments and Philadelphia formed one, known officially as the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, but also as Baxter's Philadelphia Fire Zouaves.

On a sweltering hot July afternoon, the firemen of the 72nd Pennsylvania met the brunt of Pickett's charging forces along a portion of a stonewall known as The Angle where they suffered heavy losses.

The lessons of Gettysburg before, during, and long after the battle are too numerous to list because there are so many individual stories of human sacrifice, courage, friendship, loyalty, devotion, bravery, comradeship, leadership and compassion.

War medics
When the two great armies marched away after the battle, they left behind their dead and severely wounded. The civilian populace of Gettysburg and later people from Pennsylvania and other states stepped in to help bury the thousands of dead soldiers and tend to the even greater number of wounded from both armies.

They also had to deal with the rotting corpses of hundreds of horses, destroyed farms and a ransacked town. People took the wounded into their homes and the buildings of the local college were converted into hospitals.

The Union medical staff that remained faced a need to provide better care if these wounded soldiers would have any chance of recovery. The military set up Camp Letterman General Hospital east of Gettysburg where all of the wounded were eventually taken before transport to permanent hospitals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Union surgeons worked with members of the U.S Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission to treat and care for over 20,000 injured Union and Confederate soldiers. By January 1864, the last patients were removed along with the surgeons, guards, nurses, tents and cookhouses. Only a temporary cemetery on the hillside remained as a testament to the courageous battle to save lives that took place at Camp Letterman.

When the human toll of this battle, the greatest north of the Mason-Dixon Line was finally recognized the national government and private organizations stepped in to help. Land was acquired near the town cemetery for a National Soldier's Cemetery. It was to dedicate that hallowed ground in November 1863 that President Lincoln rode the train to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address. 

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