Part 1 of 3: Hell Broke Loose”: Surviving 1862 and Capture at Gettysburg
By Danielle Russell ’25
After being captured on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Fairfield, Harry W. Lewis of the 6th U.S. Cavalry was sent to Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis survived the horrors of Belle Isle, but the memories of his experiences plagued his later years as he struggled to comprehend all he had endured. In part 1 of 3 in this mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 describes how, as a member of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, Harry W. Lewis survived the Peninsula Campaign and rescued his younger brother after Fredericksburg, but nothing could prepare him for the events that led to his capture at Gettysburg. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.
July 3, 1863, represented a day that twenty-two-year-old Harry Whitlock Lewis would remember for the rest of his life. Decades after the Battle of Gettysburg, he began to revisit the pivotal moment that became inextricably intertwined with his memories of his service with the 6th United States Cavalry.
Born on August 30, 1840, in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, Harry was the seventh of ten children born to Marcus Lewis and Sarah Allen. His father owned a prosperous farm and steam-powered sawmill, which provided a comfortable existence for Harry and his siblings. Having experienced the deaths of his mother, both grandfathers, an uncle, and an older brother by age fourteen, Harry was no stranger to death. Although he did not know it then, further tragedies awaited him.
Horatio Farnham Lewis, Harry’s younger brother, in early 1863 (Image from author’s collection).
Marcus Lewis Jr., Harry’s younger brother, date unknown (Image from author’s collection).
Harry’s cousin, William Harrison Lewis, in the uniform of John McLane’s three-month regiment (Image from Ancestry.com).
Many years later, Harry recalled harvesting apples in the orchard at his family’s Fairview farm. He fondly remembered the “monster apples” he sampled with one of his brothers, which required the young boys “to use both of our little hands to hold the apple,” much to the amusement of onlookers. Although he didn’t specifically mention which brother that memory related to, it is possible that it was his brother Horatio, or his brother Marcus, both of whom died fighting for the Union. Harry’s memories were all he had left of his brothers in the post-war years, so it is possible that his particularly prominent remembrance of that childhood incident in the orchard was tied to one of his younger brothers.
Raised in a staunchly Whig and later Republican home, with a younger brother having campaigned for Lincoln during the 1860 presidential election, Harry enlisted in Company K of John McLane’s three-month Erie regiment on April 26, 1861. As Harry recalled years later, the regiment wore “light orange shirts, with blue flannel pants and jackets, trimmed with orange braid” and what he described as “regular army caps.” At the expiration of three months, Harry was discharged from the regiment on July 26, 1861. Waiting a mere three days, on July 29, he enlisted in Company G of the 6th United States Cavalry. At the time of his enlistment, he was twenty-one years old, with light hair, grey eyes, and a fair complexion. He stood just five feet and one-half inches tall.
Harry suffered two injuries in his first year with the 6th, both while the regiment was stationed in the defenses around Washington D.C. According to testimony given by Joseph Kaltenbacher, another member of the 6th, in January 1862, he was riding his horse when it slipped on ice. As he fell to the ground, he was hit by another horse, and injured his right arm. Not long afterwards, he reinjured the same shoulder after trying to prevent Corporal Alanson Alden’s horse from bolting, having been struck by his own horse in the confusion. These injuries rendered him “lame for a long time,” according to Kaltenbacher, but he recovered and continued his service with the 6th. The wound continued to plague him in his later years and became a central factor in his pension application.
Although his injuries and their lasting effects marked significant events in the first year of his service, two other events stood out more prominently in his memory from that time. Between September 1861 and March 1862, Harry and the 6th were stationed outside Washington. Much to Harry’s delight President Lincoln frequently reviewed the regiment, once, as Harry noted “from the front porch of the White House.” While he also recalled seeing Lincoln in February 1863 and August 1864, Harry remembered that “Lincoln was a good horseman and usually wore a tall silk hat.” Harry’s frequent sightings of the President were certainly personally meaningful given that his younger brother, Horatio Lewis, helped campaign for Lincoln in the 1860 election.
The Battle of Fredericksburg constituted a second memory that lingered in Harry’s mind. In what must have been a horrifying experience, on December 13, Harry and the 6th were in a position that enabled them to watch an Erie regiment, the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry, participate in the assault on Marye’s Heights. As he watched the chaos unfold, Harry could not have known that his cousin, eighteen-year-old Franklin Gifford Lewis, of Company D, as killed in the assault, and his younger brother, seventeen-year-old Horatio Farnham Lewis, also of Company D, was wounded. The next day, John Irvin Gregg, also of the 6th, informed Harry that he had learned from the 145th’s injured colonel, Hiram Loomis Brown, that Horatio was lying wounded in a house on Caroline Street.
John Irvin Gregg, who informed Harry of Horatio’s injury at Fredericksburg (Image from FindAGrave.com).
After he rushed to his younger brother’s aid, Harry carried him across the street to a more spacious house and dressed his brother’s wounds before returning to his regiment. Although he could not have known at the time, that day, December 14, 1862, marked the last time the brothers saw each other. Seven months later, Lieutenant Horatio Lewis died of wounds received at the Battle of Gettysburg, while Harry’s Confederate captors forced him to march south towards Richmond. Harry likely did not learn his beloved brother’s fate until his parole in early 1864. Nonetheless, he never forgot his brother and, in his later years, made frequent visits to the 145th’s monument at Gettysburg, near the site of his brother’s mortal wounding, to contemplate his brother’s legacy.
The Goolrick-Caldwell House in Fredericksburg, where Harry treated his younger brother Horatio’s injuries (Image by author).
Although Fredericksburg loomed in his later memory, the early actions of the Gettysburg Campaign also impressed themselves upon Harry’s mind. Across several articles, Harry relayed his memories of the June 9, 1863, Battle of Brandy Station. In a September 30, 1907, article he insisted that, even forty-four years later, he could still “see in my mind’s eye those glistening bayonets as we repeatedly charged.” After his squadron commander, Lieutenant Ward, was killed, Harry gained command, and struggled to lead his men off the field, while “one by one the men and horses were picked off.” The nightmarish scene’s impression on Harry’s mind makes sense, especially considering that out of forty-eight men who crossed the river, only nineteen recrossed that evening. Of the twenty-nine casualties, only two men “were ever heard of or reported for duty again.” Given the 6th’s horrific casualties at Gettysburg, Harry’s remembrance of Brandy Station is curious. Perhaps it stemmed from the near sixty-percent casualties, or perhaps it was due to the fact that he was responsible for leading his men back across the river. Even in his position as commander, Harry was unable to save most of his men from the harsh fates that awaited them.
Despite his exciting personal encounters with Lincoln and his extensive campaigning through the war, the dozens of articles about his military service focused primarily on the Gettysburg Campaign and the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaigns. Of the Peninsula Campaign, Harry simply wrote “Sherman said, ‘War is hell.’ This was hell broke loose.”
Harry W. Lewis, Feb. 1863 (Image from Hagen History Center, Erie, PA).
Gettysburg and Fairfield
Leading up to Gettysburg, Harry and the 6th “could see the dust clouds hovering over Lee’s army” near the Blue Ridge mountains. On June 21, the 6th passed through Aldie Gap, where their brigade was ambushed in an attack that saw the brigade (what Harry termed) “cut all to pieces” and resulted in more than 125 casualties. Luckily, Harry and the 6th were able to “save the balance of the rifles from being captured.” After the Confederates managed to turn the Army of the Potomac’s left flank near Upperville, Harry, as Sergeant, was instructed to lead a squadron between two regiments that were under the command of the soon-to-be Major General George Armstrong Custer. After General Gregg asked General Pleasanton to “bring up the Sixth cavalry band,” Harry and his squadron “rushed those Johnny Rebs back into and through the woods” to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman.” The jig’s lively tune certainly seems an odd choice, although the selection of the traditionally Irish song is likely what imprinted the moment in Harry’s memory. The nearly overwhelming chaos of battle clearly left a variety of curious, if not conflicting impressions upon front-line soldiers such as Harry. After encountering some Union troops fleeing for the rear, Harry and the rest of the 6th urged the men to drive back the enemy, which they did. This time, Harry noticed the band played “Bonaparte’s Farewell.”
In the following days, Harry led another squadron of twenty men into Hagerstown, roughly twenty miles from their camp. After discovering the trail left by the Confederates, Harry and his squadron rode into Hagerstown around dusk. Although they had initially discovered numerous “stragglers,” as Harry termed them, once the Confederates noticed Harry and his men, “they vamoused the town in a hurry.”
In his articles, Harry reported little else about the 6th’s actions for July 1st or 2nd, but chose to resume his narrative with July 3rd, when General Merritt tasked the regiment with traveling to nearby Fairfield, where the “reb wagon train” was “loading up grain and flour at a grist mill.” After leaving two companies with General Pleasonton’s headquarters, Harry and the remainder of the 6th marched for three hours, until they had traveled sixteen miles to Fairfield. Noticing that the men were “tired, dusty, and thirsty” in the humid July heat, Harry recalled that the female inhabitants of Fairfield offered them “cups and buckets of water,” which they eagerly accepted while hurrying through town to the grist mill.
Arriving at a crossroads near the grist mill, Harry and the 6th discovered the Sixth and Eleventh Virginia Infantry regiments. With a stone wall on one end of the soon-to-be battlefield and a newly installed rail fence on the other, the 6th Cavalry dismounted and began firing. Once the Eleventh Virginia tore down the fence “and swarmed on our flank,” Harry realized that their “fate was sealed.” After a short battle of roughly half an hour, Harry and over 150 men of the 6th were captured. Along with a group of other men from the 6th, Harry was forced to give up his revolver to his captors. Much to his horror, as he did so, “three men at my right were shot with their own revolvers.” Instead of being afforded the fair treatment that surrendering soldiers on both sides expected from their foe, the Confederates’ cold-blooded murder of Harry’s comrades stood in stark contrast with the dignified surrender they anticipated. Having just relinquished his own weapon, Harry was even more horrified when the Confederate pointed the revolver back at him. Before his captor had a chance to pull the trigger, a Confederate officer rode up and, after recognizing Harry, “sprang from his horse,” asking, “Hello, Lewis, how are you?” The man was Sergeant Wesley Atwood Hoffman, of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, who had previously been captured by Harry just a few months prior, in October 1862, near Harper’s Ferry. Relieved, Harry remembered him, replying “All right old, boy.” After exchanging pleasantries and discussing the status of two other men Hoffman knew from his time a prisoner-of-war when captured by the 6th, Harry and the roughly 150 other prisoners were led to the Gettysburg-Hagerstown pike, where they were “corralled in a field” with other prisoners. One of the prisoners yelled to Harry’s group, inquiring “What troops are those?” Harry responded, to which the man replied “Is Sergeant Harry Lewis there?” Harry walked over to the man, John Starr, of Company B, of the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry. Starr informed Harry that his younger brother, Horatio, a Lieutenant in Company D, 145th Pennsylvania, “had been badly wounded, his left leg broken (bone shattered) near the body.” Although Starr and other comrades attempted to rescue Horatio, they were overwhelmed by the advancing Confederates, and captured before the young lieutenant could be taken to the rear. In his newspaper article that recounted the event, Harry described the way that Starr plainly told him his eighteen-year-old brother “would probably bleed to death.” Harry was no stranger to death, of both family members and comrades, but he was almost certainly stricken by this news. Remembering Horatio’s recovery after a wound received at the Battle of Fredericksburg just a few months prior, it is possible Harry may have held out hope that his brother was capable of recovery; however, the tone of Starr’s announcement would likely haunt him for weeks. Although Harry likely never knew it until his release months later, Lieutenant Horatio Lewis died at the Second Corps hospital on the Jacob Schwarz Farm on July 20, 1863, at the age of eighteen. The uncertainty surrounding his beloved younger brother surely plagued Harry during the duration of his captivity. Tragically, none of Harry’s wartime letters survive, so it is not known for sure whether he attempted to write home and inquire as to Horatio’s predicament, but he likely did.
Later that evening, Sergeant Hoffman once again approached Harry, this time bringing “a piece of hoecake and a chunk of bacon.” In parting, Harry remembered Hoffman said, “Good-bye, Sergeant Lewis, we have to move on up the road.” Harry lamented their parting, noting in his October 5, 1907, article that he “never met the fine fellow” again. Although their loyalties differed, Harry and Sergeant Hoffman shared the bond of all soldiers as well as a mutual code of honor that often imbued the martial interactions of men in the 19th-century. Additionally, the two were connected through their alternating experiences of captor and prisoner of war. The respect they accorded each other sprang from the just treatment they received while serving time as each other’s prisoner.
The Confederate captors provided the Federal prisoners with flour and kettles from a nearby farmhouse, but Harry felt unwilling to eat what he termed “paste,” at least, not “without any salt or milk.” However, some of his fellow prisoners were hungry enough to attempt to make a meal from the scant rations. Shortly afterward, it began to rain, until it seemed to Harry that “the whole country was afloat.”
Positioned between two brigades of General Longstreet’s First Corps, the prisoners began their southward march on July 5, two days after their capture. Much to Harry’s great interest, his position afforded him numerous opportunities to see the famous General Longstreet that day – an experience he likely never expected to have during the war.
General James Longstreet (Image from Library of Congress).
Harry noted that multiple prisoners attempted to escape, but each attempt failed, and the men “were driven back at the point of a bayonet.” The repeated escapes convinced the Confederates it was necessary to surround the prisoners with two columns of guards, one on either side. While Harry does not explicitly state whether he joined his comrades in attempting to escape, when referring to the escape attempts, he uses the term “us,” suggesting it was possible. His mind likely still on his severely wounded brother and comrades from whom each step southward he was becoming more distanced, Harry looked to his fellow prisoners-in-arms for comfort and strength to complete the long march to Richmond.