In the wake of any tragedy, people cannot resist asking with an honest, if gruesome, fascination, “How bad was it?” The question is unavoidable with regards to a tragedy like the Battle of Gettysburg, and the answer is evasive. As the experience of battle is so surreal that few can begin to understand it, the story of a regiment offers one of the best avenues for someone who was not there to look in on the carnage. While many regimental stories provide visitors to Gettysburg with a glimpse of the tragedy, one regiment’s tale stands out in particular.
Early on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the men of the 26th North Carolina formed the center of Brigadier General Heth’s Division’s final assault on McPherson’s Ridge, aimed at driving the left flank of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps off that high ground. They stood opposite Brigadier General Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade, known for their black Hardee hats and their discipline under fire. The 26th North Carolina formed up in a wheat field before the imposing ridgeline, which was concealed by McPherson’s Woods and screened by Willoughby Run, a natural moat sure to slow down any attackers.
When the word came, the 26th and the rest of Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade marched forward beside the rest of Heth’s Virginians, Alabamians, and Tennesseans. Moving in echelon by regiment, they crossed the open field under artillery fire, then scrambled across the run and scaled the ridge, catching hell from Meredith’s muskets. Men fell continuously as Pettigrew’s units wrapped themselves around the besieged Federals. The 26th North Carolina hit the 24th Michigan head on and coiled itself around the 19th Indiana, the Iron Brigade’s left flank. The combat was grinding. The 26th lost fifteen color-bearers in the space of a few furious minutes, including their 21 year-old “boy Colonel” Burgwyn – the youngest in the Army of Northern Virginia – who was felled by a bullet to the chest after he snatched up the regiment’s flag. The Federals suffered terribly as well, as they found themselves increasingly outflanked and “fell like grass before the scythe” in the face of overwhelming numbers.
While Heth eventually forced the 24th Michigan back, they refused to break, having retreated in good order up the slope of the ridge. Heth’s Division finally found a gap between the Iron Brigade and their nearest supporting brigade, which was deployed roughly 300 yards behind their left flank. With their flank turned and their line bisected, the Federals were forced to withdraw towards Seminary Ridge. By this point, the 26th North Carolina had lost “549 of 800 men,” and after weathering Pickett’s Charge on July 3, they would record a total of 89% casualties. On the night before they left Pennsylvania “only three officers and sixty-seven men answered roll call.” To attach a superlative to the suffering of the regiment, the 26th North Carolina numerically suffered the most casualties of any regiment at Gettysburg. However, despite all the evidence their story provides, we who were not there will forever struggle to understand just how bad those three days in July were for the men of the 26th North Carolina.
 Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The First Day, (University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 269-270.
 Herdegen, Lance J., The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name, (Indiana University Press, 1997): 244.
 Harry W. Phanz, 270
 Ibid, 269-270.
 Ibid, 276, 280
 Ibid, 281.
 Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg, (Da Cappo Press, 2002): 609.
 Harry W. Pfanz, 282.
 Ibid, 271.
 Ibid, 292.
 L. W. Smith Jr., For the Good of the Old North State: A Statistical Study of North Carolina and Army of Northern Virginia Casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, http:// http://www.26nc.org, (2005), 4.
 David H. McGee, 26th North Carolina Regimental History, http://www.26nc.org, 58.