By : Felicia Marks
Freshman students in CWI’s all-volunteer First Year Experience Program spent the year discussing scholarly articles about the soldier experience, attending workshops with practicing public historians, participating in on-site interpretive battlefield experiences, and researching and writing about a soldier of their choice for the Compiler blog. Their pieces roughly follow an abbreviated format of the CWI’s “Killed at Gettysburg” digital history project.
Authors Note: I would like to thank Mrs. Virginia Gage for graciously providing me with family history and additional resources that allowed me to learn more about the 136th New York. Although the 136thhas long been overlooked, she, alongside numerous other descendants, continue to memorialize these men and their contributions through their Facebook page today.
Elias Gage was born on April 4, 1835, in Danbury, CT. He was one of seven children born to parents Elias P Gage and Mary Oakley. He was a tall young man with light hair and blue eyes. He and his family later moved to Burns, Allegany County, New York, and established a successful farm. Family stood at the forefront of his moral values; rather than attending college, he continued to work on his family’s farm into adulthood. On June 2, 1860, he married Lodorsca Miller, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Eunice Miller, in Almond Village, New York. With little money to his name, Elias became a paid farm laborer to a member of Lodorsca’s family in exchange for residency. On July 5, 1861, the two welcomed their first daughter, Susan Ann Gage. By spring of the following year, Lodorsca was expecting her second child.
In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more troops. Men were to enlist by August 15, and if this quota were not met, vacancies would eventually be filled through conscription. Elias now faced a moral dilemma. With a pregnant wife and infant daughter at home, he was struggling to support his family financially, and he was in no position to leave them. However, by staying home, he risked being drafted into the ranks. Volunteering would offer him greater financial support as he would receive a $100.00 bounty and a higher salary than he would as a conscript. Additionally, if he lived to see the end of the war, how would his reputation play out? Would he be remembered as a valiant patriot who volunteered to serve his country at a time of need, or would he go down as a coward who was forced into the ranks or evaded service entirely? After Lincoln’s deadline passed, Elias was consumed by a heightened sense of urgency to choose between his family and his nation. On August 25, 1862, Elias and his older brother, Joshua, enlisted at Burns, New York, to serve in Company B of the 136th New York Volunteer Infantry at the rank of Private. The Gage brothers were mustered into service on September 25, 1862, and Elias bid his final farewell to his family.
Before deployment, Elias arrived in Portage, New York, for training. Initially, life in the ranks had been a pleasant surprise. He served under Col. James Wood, who was well-respected by his troops for his willingness to cultivate camaraderie with Privates, a practice not common in other units. Military service brought many fortunes to Elias. His barracks were comfortable, and he was well fed. His need for his familial companionship was fulfilled not only by serving alongside his brother, but he additionally received a furlough for his hard work. These pleasantries, however, were not permanent. With immense pressure to deploy, Elias and his regiment had only trained for two weeks before leaving Portage on October 2, 1862.
Two days later, Elias and his regiment arrived at Arlington, VA, where they joined the 11th Corps. The harsh realities of military service quickly set in. On their first night after settling at an encampment near Fairfax Court House, all of the men slept on the ground without tents. They had gone to bed hungry because their supper that night was practically inedible as it was riddled with dirt and grease. New problems continued to emerge even after men became fully settled in camp. Each day was a battle against the elements as large periods of rain prevented them from getting adequate amounts of sleep or being able to cook their food properly. Whereas Sundays had once been a sacred day for prayer and relaxation, officers now expected men to work on Sundays as if it were any other day. Days became weeks, and Elias became accustomed to the same repetitive patterns of long marches and keeping watch, but he had yet to see any action. By the end of November, the arrival of the extreme cold weather had a detrimental impact on morale and health. Many of Elias’s comrades grew ill and were discharged for poor health. Others, now disillusioned with the war, deserted and returned home to their families. Elias and Joshua, however, found strength in each other. Their companionship acted as a constant reminder of the promises of life after the war and how they might one day be able to return home and reunite with their family. Elias, in particular, looked forward to one day meeting his second daughter, Mary, who was born on February 2, 1863.
For months, Elias had only engaged in minor skirmishes with the enemy, and he had yet to see action. Hardened by his experiences at camp, he was anxious to one day experience true combat. The spring of 1863 brought new hope to his regiment, self-nicknamed “the Ironclads.” On April 30, the regiment had been out on reconnaissance when the rest of the 11th Corps was attacked at Chancellorsville. They arrived the next day, and they were drawn into line in the evening. Waiting on a plank road, they were ordered to cap their guns and lie down on their stomachs. Hearing the firing of cannons, musketry, and faint screams from the battlefield, Elias had long anticipated this very moment with both excitement and anxiety. The night soon fell, and the men still waited to be called into battle. Eventually, they were ordered to move down the road and go to bed for the night. For the remainder of the battle, the regiment saw no action; they primarily waited on standby or helped other regiments to bring back men after engagements with the rebels. By the end of the battle, the regiment had only lost two men. Although disappointed with his lack of engagement, Elias was likely content that he and Joshua remained in good health and were safe after seeing the tremendously bloody carnage wreaked upon friend and foe alike by the great battle. Doubtless, the enormous Union defeat at Chancellorsville weighed heavily upon his mind; however, Elias had more on his mind beyond battles at this point as he anxiously awaited news of his second child’s birth back in New York. The men eventually returned to camp, and the weeks following Chancellorsville were uneventful. With the exception of certain tests to measure how quickly the regiment could deploy in the event of an attack, life at camp returned to its previous state of waiting.
Six weeks later, rumors began to spread about movement, but no one knew quite how far the men would travel. On June 12, they received orders to prepare to march by the afternoon. Once they began moving, it was evident that this march would prove to be the greatest challenge Elias had encountered yet. Marching an average of twenty miles per day, many men in his regiment succumbed to physical exhaustion and were left behind. Water was scarce, as many creeks had dried up, leaving men to depend on the few springs they encountered for survival. The intense summer heat, coupled with the long marches through alternately muddy and mountainous terrain fatigued Elias more and more each day. Nevertheless, he persisted as his regiment continued northward through Maryland. Beginning in the afternoon of June 28, these men would complete a whopping thirty-eight-mile march from the Boonsboro Gap to Emmitsburg in twenty-four hours with no food or rest. However, the difficulty of this stretch was no match for the Ironclads; finding strength within their martial brotherhood, they fought off physical and mental exhaustion, completing the march with no stragglers. Their arrival at Emmitsburg had been a highlight of their journey. Many men were enticed by the rolling wheat fields and beautiful countryside and were thrilled to be back near northern soil. However, their sense of relief was relatively short-lived. Less than one day after their arrival, there was a general muster of the army in preparation for a battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Early in the morning on July 1, the 11th Corps began marching toward Gettysburg with Col. Orlando Smith’s Brigade. They arrived in the midst of a raging battle. The brigade was halted by General Steinwehr, who promptly formed it into a line of battle at the rear of Cemetery Hill for support. Smith’s men advanced through the cemetery to the front of the hill. He strategically placed his four regiments to resist any attack made on the hill, which 11th Corps commander General Oliver Otis Howard had deemed the lynchpin of the entire battle. Inundated with excitement, Elias knew that Gettysburg would provide him with the long-awaited opportunity to engage in combat. After a long day of fighting on the northwestern edges of town, which had resulted in the retreat of the 1st and other portions of the 11th Corps back through town and up to Cemetery Hill, the Confederates paused as they awaited orders to renew their pursuit of the beaten Federals and attack Cemetery Hill. However, the weariness of the Confederates, combined with a lack of immediately available fresh reinforcements, and the resolute appearance of the 11th Corps atop the formidable hill, forced Confederate generals to waffle and their opportunities to launch a successful attack were soon lost. By the end of the first day of the battle, the 136th New York had once again been denied the chance to fight. The long lines of wounded and bloodied comrades from the 1st and 11th corps streaming up the hill and the tales of the brutal fighting earlier that day likely weighed heavily on Elias’s mind as he contemplated when—or if—it would finally be his turn to “see the elephant” at Gettysburg.
During the second and third days of fighting, the 11th Corps maintained the same position. The 136th New York held the leftmost position of the 11th Corps line along Taneytown Road. Elias was introduced to heightened levels of intensity beginning on the second day, and the reality of hard war utterly transformed his perceptions of battle. Black clouds of sulfurous smoke consumed the landscape. The Confederate army deployed skirmishers and sharpshooters to rain down a constant fire upon the brigade, who were deployed within easy musket range. Col. Wood deployed his own line of skirmishers and sharpshooters from the Ironclads to meet this imminent threat. Somewhere in the midst of this utter ferocity of chaotic combat, Elias was struck and killed by the bullet of a sharpshooter. Of his regiment, seventeen other men were killed, eighty-nine were wounded, and three went missing.
Despite the smashing Union victory at Gettysburg, Elias’s former comrades experienced a drastic shift in morale. The harsh realities of war had now crushed the once prideful Ironclads. As the surviving members of the regiment returned to the skirmish line on July 5, they were met with a sea of wounded men groaning in the field, begging for someone to simply put them out of their misery. In a journal entry written by John T. McMahon of the 136th New York, he recounted his impressions of that day, writing, “This is the first battle field [sic] I ever went over and never wanted to see another.” The fact that the unit had lost so many, such as Elias Gage, to the sinister bullet of the sharpshooter weighed particularly heavily in their mind. For a relatively green unit to have been picked apart by unseen and unexpected foe at all hours of the day and night, rather than to have been martyred in the idealized “glorious charge” for the world to behold and admire, was utterly demoralizing. The Ironclads took their seventeen losses hard. Another soldier, writing a letter to his family, noted, “It is pretty tough. When will this cruel war end? Elias Gage was killed in Gettysburg battle.” No one, however, was impacted by loss quite like Joshua. After the death of his brother, he was now alone. An unmarried man with no children of his own, he now had no motivation to live to see the end of the war. During the corps’ return from Gettysburg, Joshua became ill with typhus. Only twenty days after Elias’s death, Joshua died in Washington DC.
One can only imagine the grief that Elias’s family in New York experienced upon hearing of the deaths of both men within a month of each other. But Lodorsca had taken the death of her twenty-seven-year-old husband especially hard. She had only been twenty-one years old at the time of his death, but she never remarried. She collected a Widow’s Pension of $8 per month from July 3, 1863, with an additional $2 for each of her children, yet this money was not enough to sustain her family. Struggling for financial support, she took her daughters with her and temporarily moved in with her parents. She eventually saved enough money to establish her own household. Enticed by cheap land and the financial promises of the emerging west, she took her daughters and moved to Topeka, Kansas. Susan and Mary later married and established their own households. As she got older, Lodorsca joined Mary’s household, where she remained until her death on May 5, 1908.
Like the contributions of the 136th itself, the monument which stands today to commemorate the 136th New York’s actions is often overlooked in the greater context of Gettysburg. Situated across the street from the infinitely more iconic National Cemetery (in which lie the remains of Elias Gage himself), along Taneytown Road, the monument depicts an infantryman’s equipment hanging from a war-torn tree trunk. It is simple, serene, and lacks any of the romance and martial stoicism portrayed by so many of the other regimental monuments, particularly those featuring images or sculptures of soldiers under fire. It features a sculpted crescent moon, which was the symbol of the 11th Corps, and, in addition to a brief notation about the unit’s muster-in and muster-out dates, bears a simple inscription on the side reading, “Casualties; Killed 17, Wounded 89, Missing 3, Total 108;” a conspicuously uncarved block remains where it would otherwise indicate the number engaged. The relatively spartan, utterly unromanticized nature of the monument speaks volumes about how the regiment perceived and sought to represent its experiences at Gettysburg: The regiment dutifully performed the martial responsibilities expected of it, but was stripped away like the shredded, pock-marked bark of a firmly rooted tree under fire. For men who had waited so long to “see the elephant,” and to have sacrificed so much when they finally did, one might expect a more grandiose or elaborate monument. Yet, the almost haunting simplicity of the Ironclads’ monument speaks to the solemn, unsanitized, grim realities of the nature of Civil War combat.
It is unfortunate and ironic that the 136th New York’s monument and the men it commemorates are so frequently overlooked in favor of the cemetery atop the hill in whose shadow it lies, and for which Elias Gage and his comrades gave their lives in defense; had Cemetery Hill fallen during the fighting, the battle of Gettysburg may very well have had a vastly different outcome. Yet, even in the shadows, the story of Elias Gage and his comrades–and their collective sacrifice at Gettysburg–speaks quietly and humbly to the legacy of the battle in which they gave their lives, and help give meaning and purpose to the deaths of the thousands of fellow Union comrades lying just yards from their monument, surrounding Elias himself, atop the iconic hill.
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“136th Infantry Regiment” New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/infantry-2/136th-infantry-regiment.
Staff. “Here Men Died for their Country: In the Footsteps of the 136th New York.” From the Fields of Gettysburg – The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park. 2016.