Book review

Like Ripe Apples in a Storm: The 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers at Gettysburg

By: Michael A Dreese.

 

McFarland & Co, Jefferson N.C. & London, pp 190. Available from Shelwing Ltd, 4 Pleydell Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 2DN

Tel: 01303 850501 Fax: 01303 850162 E-mail: Info@shelwing.com

Website: www.shelwing.com Price 33.75

 

Review by: Allan Paterson Milne

 

It was not much of a regiment to begin with, and after the war, the survivors did not even bother to publish a unit history. For the 151st Pennsylvania was one of Lincoln's much decried "nine month" regiments. Real soldiers must have held not just their proficiency in arms, but their very courage and patriotism, in question. And small wonder. Even as they marched north to battle at Gettysburg, some officers and men were still arguing that their terms of enlistment had expired on June the 20th.

 

If it was remembered at all, it would be as a curiosity, as the 'Schoolteachers' Regiment'. Michael A Dreese, has now set the record straight. He shows that the regiment played a brief but vital role in the battle. Nor did it flinch from the fight. It suffered 337 casualties out of an engaged strength of 467 (i.e.72%).


The 151st's moment began uneventfully. On the afternoon of the first day they were moved in to the left rear of the Iron Brigade units based in Herbst's Woods along Willoughby Run. No doubt that was thought the safest place for them. Then, around 3 p.m., as a ferocious Confederate assault drove back the Iron Brigade men from Herbst's Woods on their right, and the Pennsylvania troops to their left, the 151st was sent forward to hold the line.

 

"The bullets was as thick as hale " Corporal Nathan Cooper recalled "I was just as cool and composed as I ever was butchering hogs. The men were falling every second but I paid no attention to them. I could not help them". As the author puts it "For what must have seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than fifteen to twenty minutes, the 151st stood alone, as a human dam against the unrelenting wave of Confederate attackers". One Confederate participant noted that both sides were pouring volleys into each other at a distance of twenty paces. F Company's William Blodget would later write "Our poor boys fell around me like ripe apples in a storm. God bless them! They were, and are, heroes every one". The 151st soon had to fall back, but behind it, the Union line had reformed on Seminary Ridge.

 

Despite its losses the regiment was plunged back into the fighting in front of the Lutheran Seminary, repelling rebel onslaughts until the Union line, taken in flank, disintegrated shortly after 4 o'clock. When the 151st reassembled on Cemetery Hill there were only 13 men still in the ranks. The 2nd of July proved to be a quiet day for the regiment, but on the 3rd this remnant would suffer 17 more casualties in the Union counter-attack at the "Clump of Trees".

 

Speaking of their performance on July 1st, Doubleday would say, "I believe they saved the First Corps and were among the chief instruments to save the Army of the Potomac". In fact they bought very little time, about a half an hour at most on one part of the field. But time was the crucial factor in the Confederate advance. Had they arrived at the foot of Cemetery Hill a little earlier, the outcome might have been very different.

 

So how did they stand the storm "with the determined courage of veterans?" There was nothing special about these men. They were mainly small farmers, farm hands and artisans from rural Pennsylvania (The epithet "School-teachers' Regiment' arises from a misleading claim by their colonel in a post-war article).

 

If they were patriotic, they were not patriotic enough to enlist for three years. Private Franklin Weber apparently joined to escape the monotony of rural life. For Private Franklin Wending, one of the nine children of a poor farmer, the 13 dollars a month loomed large. Private Haywood could not find a man in his company who would support abolition. Perhaps then, at the crucial moments, they simply saw what had to be done and did it.

 

This is an excellent, well written unit study, and a "must' for students of the Gettysburg Campaign. Recommended.