Superlative Sacrifice: The 26th North Carolina’s Losses at Gettysburg

By Matt LaRoche ’17

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.

26th North Carolina Infantry Monument, Meredith Avenue at Herbst Woods, Gettysburg Battlefield. Wikimedia Commons.
26th North Carolina Infantry Monument, Meredith Avenue at Herbst Woods, Gettysburg Battlefield. Wikimedia Commons.

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.[1] They stood opposite Brigadier General Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade, known for their black Hardee hats and their discipline under fire.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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,”[10] and after weathering Pickett’s Charge on July 3, they would record a total of 89% casualties.[11] On the night before they left Pennsylvania “only three officers and sixty-seven men answered roll call.”[12] To attach a superlative to the suffering of the regiment, the 26th North Carolina numerically suffered the most casualties of any regiment at Gettysburg.[13] 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.


[1] Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The First Day, (University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 269-270.

[2] Herdegen, Lance J., The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name, (Indiana University Press, 1997): 244.

[3] Harry W. Phanz, 270

[4] Ibid, 269-270.

[5] Ibid, 276, 280

[6] Ibid, 281.

[7] Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg, (Da Cappo Press, 2002): 609.

[8] Harry W. Pfanz, 282.

[9] Ibid, 271.

[10] Ibid, 292.

[11] 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://, (2005), 4.

[12] David H. McGee, 26th North Carolina Regimental History,, 58.

[13] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Superlative Sacrifice: The 26th North Carolina’s Losses at Gettysburg”

  1. Why call this a superlative sacrifice? Or was this a tragedy as you state at the beginning of the paragraph? I am wondering how we should interpret the loss or do you believe the casualties of the 26th NC speak for themselves?

  2. Hello,

    To answer your question, I do not see tragedy and sacrifice as mutually exclusive terms. The same event can be one person’s sacrifice and a tragedy to another. People either endorse the motives behind, say, a regiment of men joining the Confederacy, or they do not, and from that divided opinion comes a number of rationales. Some back the Confederacy for whatever reason. Some endorse Oliver Wendell Holme’s opinion on soldering, as he put it on May 30, 1895 to the graduates of Harvard: “there is one thing I do not doubt… and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” I think that mindset is stupid and dangerous, as it celebrates a willing lack of involvement in crucial matters. However, whatever their motivations, the men of the 26th NC clearly made a sacrifice. That sacrifice was for a bad cause, across the board, but it was a sacrifice nonetheless. And while I am sure that I would hate some of the men who died that July, because I do not know all their stories, I can’t say I would be unable to condemn all their motivations or hate them all. So all I am left with is a certainty that this was a waste, indeed a “superlative” waste by the numbers. To pair my feelings down, I would interpret the 26th’s story as a cautionary tale: war can be positively transformative, but once let out, it’s almost uncontrollable, so don’t let it out lightly. Be sure of your cause and never stop questioning it, lest it become something abhorrent because you let your reason sleep.

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