Alfred P. Carpenter's Letters, 1863
Alfred P. Carpenter was born in Connecticut in 1845. He helped his parents and brother on their farms in St. Charles Township. He had attended Brown University and taught in an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin where he lived with his brother. During the Summer months he returned home to work on the farm. He enlisted in Company K at St. Charles and was mustered into the 1st Regiment May 23, 1861. He was wounded at Antietam. He was promoted to the rank of Corporal before the Battle of Gettysburg. Known as "Carp," he was a close friend of Matthew Marvin. Carpenter's letters reveal a lively sense of humor as well as a perceptive grasp of his comrades in Company K. His long narrative letter on the Battle of Gettysburg written a few weeks after the event (November 30, 1863) is useful to compare with other accounts of the battle.
Carpenter was wounded twice at Gettysburg. After leaving the hospital and recuperating from his wounds, he accepted a commission as Lieutenant and transferred soon after to command a company of 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry, stationed at Key West, Florida. He died there of yellow fever September 18, 1864. His name is inscribed on the monument to the Colored Troops in Washington D. C.
LETTER ON THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
Warrenton Junction, Va. July 30, 1863
We arrived at Gettysburg on the eve of the 1st inst. And were placed in position to the left of Cemetery Hill, near the left center of the line, 1st, 11th and 12th Corps to our right, 3rd and 4th to our left. At about 10 oclock [July 2, 1863] the enemy commenced throwing shells at us, and owing to the peculiar shape of our line, they fell fast and close among us, masses as we were, behind a little eminence. This we stood till towards night, every now and then a man falling to rise no more, and others being carried to the rear with more or less severe wounds. About this time we began to hear musketry which soon became one continuous roar. The smoke shut the combatants from sight and we could only judge of the direction of the fight by sound, but this was sufficient to tell who were retreating and who were advancing. Before sunset we were ordered a short distance to the left and on to the high ground where we had a full view of the field and its terrible, magnificent scene. From our front the ground sloped some sixty rods to a ravine wooded with small trees and brush; beyond was a plain three fourths of a mile in width and about two miles long. Back over this plain our men were hurrying in confusion, followed by Rebs in a most disorderly manner, while a fresh body of U.S. troops were advancing and drove the Rebs before them. The stragglers came rushing through our lines, whom we in vain tried to stop and at last gave it up entirely, believing they were of more injury than help to us.
We were near our batteries and now and then shells fell uncomfortably near us. The fresh troops our General had sent in drove the foe steadily until they encountered the Rebel reserves, and then their advance was stayed; but, determined not to yield, the old first division of the 3rd corps stood there immovable, making their line one blaze of fire until their decimated ranks could stand it no longer, and they were ordered to fall back. Back over the plain they came, slowly, not faster than a walk, loading as they came and every now and then turning and pouring a deadly volley into the pursuing foe.
The Rebs came in two splendid lines, firing as they advanced, capturing one of our batteries which they turned against us, and gained the cover of the ravine. The plain was strewed with dead and dying men. The Rebs had advanced their batteries and were hurling death and destruction into the ranks of our retreating men. They were nearing the hill, which if gained, the day was lost to us.
Then came the order for the 2nd Division of the 2nd Corps to advance. The hill must be held at all hazards. We advanced down the slope till we neared the ravine, and "Charge" rung along the line, and with a rush and a yell we went. Bullets whistled past us; shells screached over us; canister and grape fell about us; comrade after comrade dropped from the ranks; but on the line went. No one took a second look at his fallen companion. "We had no time to weep." We were nearing the Rebel line, and in a moment more we would have been at it hand to hand. Two regiments on our right faltered and subjected us to a flank fire, and we were ordered back, leaving our dead within a few rods of the Rebel line. Then forward we went again and the Rebs were routed, and the bloody field was in our possession; but at what a cost! The ground was strewed with dead and dying, whose groans and prayers and cries for help and water rent the air. The sun had gone down and in the darkness we hurried, stumbled over the field in search of our fallen companions, and when the living were cared for, laid ourselves down on the ground to gain a little rest, for the morrow bid far more stern and bloody work, the living sleeping side by side with the dead. Thousands had fallen, and on the morrow they would be followed to their long home by thousands more. Canister and shrapnel had made horrid gaps, and as the ranks were closed up we counted files, scarcely a hundred men were left out of the three hundred and more who were with us in the morning. Two out of every three had fallen. Where are the other fourteen hundred whose names are borne upon our roles? Some are sleeping on nearly all the Eastern battlefields from 1st Bull Run to Gettysburg. They have gone to rest; they are sleeping in soldiers graves, among the unknown and unnumbered dead.
We roused before day, but late in the morning, July 3rd, everything was quiet as death along the whole line, but not even the private soldier was deceived, he knew it presaged a storm which at last broke upon us with all its fury. We lay behind a ridge of land about three feet in height. All at once the guns opened and from morn till middle of afternoon it raged with terrific violence. Flat upon the ground we lay, while the vertical rays of the July sun rendered the heat almost intolerable. To rise up was almost certain death, while flat upon the ground we were tolerable well protected. If the shots went high enough to go above the ridge they went over us; if they struck the ridge, they ricocheted over our prostrate bodies though uncomfortable near and occasionally falling among us.
The Rebels could not injure us much except by bursting shells in the air in front of us, and as their object was to silence our batteries they did us little damage, though shot and shell flew over us in such rapid succession that it was impossible to count them, and very near to our bodies at times, one shell actually tearing the knap sack from a mans back as he lay face downward. There were over two hundred guns at work in this part of the line, firing as fast as men could load them. The noise it produced, the whistling of solid shot; the screeching of shells; the bursting of spherical case; the explosion of cassions, the roar of the pieces is indescribable. I can think of no adjective or collection of adjectives that will describe it. It must be seen, heard, felt, to be understood. How a wounded man attempts to go back to a hospital and perhaps is cut down before he can go in the rear of the ridge fifteen rods behind us. A case of sun-stroke and his comrades start to carry him off; perhaps one of their number is looped off; perhaps all pass uninjured. By turning on our backs we can see our artillery. It is getting roughly handled. A dozen of our cassions have already exploded. Gun after gun is dismounted by the solid shots of the enemy.
Here is a battery abandoned because there are not enough men left to work it or horses to take it off. There is a battery of Napoleons in the same situation, because the guns have become so heated that cartridges explode before they can be rammed home. There goes a battery to the rear because they have no more ammunition. Our fire begins to slacken. "Have they silenced our Artillery?" is the anxious question that flashes through our minds. An aid rides down the line; "men of the Second Corps, the General relies on you to hold this line; by the right flank march." We sprang to our feet and could then see what was up. On the opposite slope a long line of Rebel infantry was advancing, while a short distance behind them was a second line as support. Almost instantly our whole line bristled with fresh artillery which opened upon the enemy making a terrible havoc in their ranks. Wide gaps were opened but were immediately closed and line came on in splendid order, down the slope, across the plain, over the ravine and are now half way up the hill towards us. We had watched them all this while with the utmost impatience, scarcely able to restrain our fire, though knowing that at such a distance it would be comparatively harmless. They are now within musket range and our infantry open; men stagger from their ranks by scores, hundred, thousands, but on they come like an inrolling wave of the sea. They have gained a part of our line; the rest of their line is within a few rods of us; but torn, bleeding, decimated, they can come no farther. They are determined not to yield, for they halt, plant their colors, and wait for their reserve to come up. Time after time these colors fall, but are quickly caught up until scarcely a man is left around them. Their support advances, but our artillery pour into them such a fire that they reel, turn and fly. Then came a charge in which the character of the man and material of regiments are shown up.
On our immediate right a three years Philadelphia regiment, the 72nd Pennsylvania, was ordered to charge. They advanced a short distance wavered, fell back, and could not be got forward. On our immediate left a regiment of nine months men from Vermont Green Mountain boys, numbering between three and four hundred men more than our whole brigade, when ordered to charge, advanced across the field into that fire with as much apparent coolness, as much steadiness and with as perfect a line as I ever saw a regiment of veterans pass in review on a gala day. Vermont stock suddenly rose, while Pennsylvania went down below zero.
But the Rebs were driven and the field won, the old 2nd Corps reduced to 7,000, taking 22 stands of color, and our division some 2,000 prisoners. 1st Minnesotas color staff was shot away, but capturing a Rebel color, we spliced the Rebel staff to the Union colors, and thus we carry what is left of our flag.
For two hours we had fought desperately. The men seemed inspired and fought with a determination unconquerable. I believe they would have died or taken on the spot before yielding. Men fell about us unheeded, unnoticed; we scarcely knew they were falling, so great was the intensity of attention to approaching foe. Our muskets became so heated we could no longer handle them. We dropped them and picked up those of the wounded. Our cartridges gave out. We rifled the boxes of the dead. Artillerymen from the disabled pieces in our rear sprang forward, and seizing guns and cartridges from the wounded, fought by our side as infantrymen. Many of the men became deaf, and did not recover their hearing for a day or two. It was a grand and terrible scene. I wish I could paint it to you as I was and felt it.
The field is ours. Can we not go and care for the wounded? No, another attack is suspected, and every well man must be in his place. Hospital attendant must take care of the wounded till darkness closes down about us. Then we go supperless to sleep, our bed, Mother Earth; our covering, the broad canopy of the starry decked Heavens; the unburied dead sleeping around us. Then comes the 4th of July, the day Independence, which we celebrate in a manner different from ever before. We did not cram the good things of life for we were out of rations. A piece of bread which a Rebel prisoner gave me was very acceptable. Part of the day we spent in burying the dead, and on the morn of the 5th we buried more, and collected the scattered arms and debris off the field.
In the night of the 4th, our teams came up; we drew rations and had plenty to eat for we drew for three hundred and had only one hundred to eat them.
Lieutenant Carpenter enlisted at St. Charles, Minnesota in the 1st Minnesota Regiment. The original of this letter is in the family of A.P. Carpenter, Dover, Minnesota.
November 23, 1863
Arlington Heights Va
Nov 23rd 1863
Dear Old Companion in Arms
If I ever I was tickled it
Am glad you had a chance to get home on a furlough
Direct A. P. Carpenter