On the Skirmish Line with the 136th NY "Ironclads" at Gettysburg
by Gordon Thorsby
"Skirmish Line" by William Gilbert Gaul West Point Museum
“It is a terrible experience to support batteries when located in their front….I don’t believe men ever suffered more in the same time than those who lay along the road in front of the Cemetery that memorable day…you saw long, fiery tongues leaping toward you, thick clouds of sulphurous smoke settle down around you, blackening the countenance almost beyond recognition"– Lt. L.A. Smith, 136th New York
This was the description of what the 136th New York experienced July 3d, 1863. On that day they didn’t suffer from the Confederate guns across the field tow the Seminary Ridge. Suffering came at the muzzles of Union guns behind them, firing over them. However, the most deadly time came for the regiment the day before on July 2d. The story of the 136th escapes almost every Gettysburg story because the regiment fought in the spaces “in-betweens.” This is what they did.
The Ironclads were Western New Yorkers and Canadians from Smith’s Brigade, Von Steinwehr’s Division of the XI Corps. Col. Woods reported on July 1, “Von Steinwehr anchored Cemetery Hill while the other divisions proceeded north of town.” The regiment had recently completed a thirty-eight-mile march in twenty-four hours with no food or rest. They were simply an exhausted group of men.
“The village was hidden from our sight by a grove of trees, but to the north and east and beyond the town a beautiful landscape was spread before us.” – Capt. J. W. Hand. Lt. J.A. Smith saw it different. “… we trod beneath our feet the grass-grown mounds which marked the resting place of the dead…” –Lt J.A. Smith as they loaded, made ready and rested in the Evergreen Cemetery.
The regiment moved across the Taneytown road “30 yards in front of the muzzles of artillery, placed in position in our rear,” reported Col. James Woods of the 136th. The held the left flank of the division and connected with the right of the II Corps.
Just after dawn on July 2 the hated work of skirmishing began. Confederate skirmishers descended from Seminary Ridge recalled by a sergeant “and advanced out to the middle of the valley, where there was a slight rise of ground. Our skirmishers received them with a warm fire.”
The 136th advanced three companies for skirmishers as Woods reported, “sharpshooters were posted at about 150 yards from those of the enemy. The enemy kept up an almost continuous fire upon our skirmishers". Skirmishing to soldiers in the ranks was unproductive and dangerous and as Pvt John T. MacMahon recalled “just as soon as you put your head in sight they would fire at you.” Many reported something worse, going out to relieve another company or coming in.
“The skirmish line was a strong one and a lively exchange of shots took place whenever a relief went out. Most of the losses of our brigade occurred while relieving skirmishers. Another and perhaps greater source of danger was from the enemy’s sharpshooters stationed in the tops of the buildings in the outskirts of town.” – Capt. J. W. Hand
by W. Gilbert Gaul 1855-1918
The Ironclads were harassed by sharpshooters lodged in buildings at the end of town. Confederate sharpshooters regularly picked off Federal infantrymen, artillerymen, and horses atop Cemetery Hill requiring the 136th to push the skirmish line further out. Lieutenant Charles Troutman, of G Company, recalled “it was zip, zip all the way across the meadows,” and that a captain running beside him was struck above the right eye, “the noise of the bullet sounded exactly as that made by throwing a nail into a boot.” Skirmishers fought in details of four men, with a space of five feet in-between each man and approximately forty paces between groups. Measures were not precise since cover was most important. Unfortunately, cover for skirmishing that day was only wheat in the field.
Casualties in the regiment steadily mounted. At about 4 P.M. fighting over on the left spread to generalized firing across the entire front that included regular artillery falling into the line. Comrades not skirmishing hugged the wall along the road and piled more rails on top to improve protection. At one point, the color guard erected the flag in the rocks. “Suddenly there was a flurry of screeching artillery shells that thudded and exploded around them. One round struck the wall severed the staff and several men were wounded and killed.” Consensus ran that a Confederate battery had sited the range to the wall and the regiment shifted 100 feet to the right where the wall was less dangerous. The shooting stopped around 10.
An officer of the 126th NY describing skirmishing recalled, “I would do anything rather than skirmish with those fellows. I never want to do it again. I will charge and repel charges but don’t put me in that place again.” The 136th performed the deadly task though until the artillery barrage at 1PM July 3d.
The Ironclads took 488 men to Gettysburg, losing 17 killed, 89 wounded and 3 missing for 20% casualties. Almost 100 of the losses were from skirmishing on July 2d. Their actions demonstrated the real costs of skirmishing.
The Ironclads earned no medals and there were no heroes. They took no positions and they didn't repulse a grand charge with a clashing of bayonets. No, the only thing that 488 men who passed over Cemetery Hill did was they survived.
Note: There is a little visited monument on the west side of Cemetery Hill to the 136th New York Infantry.
Gettysburg, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, by Pfanz, Harry W. , University of North Carolina Press, 1993, ppg. 145-148.
John T. MacMahon’s Diary of the 136th New York, edited by John Michael Priesr, White Mane Publishing.
"Unwilling Witness to the Rage of Gettysburg The Experience of Battle," July 2 D. Scott Hartwig. NPS History.org, Gettysburg Symposium Series 11.
"Here Men Died for their Country: In the Footsteps of the 136th New York", Gettysburg Military National Park December 16, 2016.
National Data Resources Inc., P.O. Box 25, Duxbury, MA 03331.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I. Vol. 27. Part I. Reports. Serial No. 43, Report of Col. James Wood, jr., One hundred and thirty-sixth New York Infantry.