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A New York sergeant’s firsthand account of fighting on Culp’s Hill.

Lorenzo Coy was 30 years old when he enlisted in the Union Army in Granville, N.Y., on August 5, 1862. Agreeing to a three-year term of service, he joined Company K of the 123rd New York Infantry. Coy’s 19-year-old brother Chauncey followed suit a week later in Hebron, N.Y., but ended up in a different company. It would be nearly 10 months before the two finally experienced combat, fighting with Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps in the Army of the Potomac’s defeat at Chancellorsville. That battle would be the 123rd’s bloodiest of the war, but both Lorenzo, who had been named Company K’s sergeant one month after enlisting, and Chauncey somehow escaped unscathed.

Two months later, on the evening of July 1, 1863, the 123rd and the XII Corps arrived in Gettysburg and bivouacked south of Rock Creek near the Baltimore Pike. At about 11 the next morning, after some maneuvering east of the creek, the 123rd joined the rest of Colonel Archibald McDougall’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, and marched north along the Pike to Culp’s Hill, on the army’s right flank. The men took position to the right of Brig. Gen. John Geary’s 2nd Division, XII Corps, and began building breastworks. Around 3:30 p.m., the Rebels attacked the left of the Union “fishhook” line and had gained significant ground by late afternoon. Orders arrived for the XII Corps—except for George S. Greene’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division—to vacate its position on Culp’s Hill and reinforce the embattled Union left. By the time the corps reached the left, however, the situation had stabilized and it was ordered to return to Culp’s Hill. Soon after the XII Corps’ departure, Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s Division of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps had advanced against the saddle summits of Culp’s Hill. Greene’s New Yorkers, reinforced by troops from the I and XI corps, repulsed every attack against the main summit, but Brig. Gen. George Steuart’s Brigade overran the lower summit, where the 1st Division’s breastworks were located. When Lorenzo and Chauncey returned to Culp’s Hill at about 10 p.m., Steuart’s men were in possession of their works.

As Lorenzo described in the following letter to his wife, Sarah, the night of July 2 was a confusing time on Culp’s Hill. For the exhausted Federals, there was considerable uncertainty about who was where. A soldier in Lorenzo’s company was in fact killed by friendly fire, and Lorenzo himself was almost shot when he ran back to retrieve the cap and belt he had dropped when the regiment changed position.

At 4 a.m. the XII Corps’ artillery brigade under Lieutenant Edward Muhlenberg began bombarding the Confederate positions on Culp’s Hill’s eastern slope. Lorenzo described in his letter how the shells passed directly over his head. Soon Southern infantry were advancing in the first of several attacks against the main summit—and the July 3 battle for Culp’s Hill was on. Geary’s division bore the brunt of the attacks that morning, with Geary later reporting that his men had fired some 250,000 rounds of ammunition. The 123rd was not ordered forward until later that morning. By the time the regiment charged, however, the Confederates were preparing to retreat and offered the New Yorkers little resistance as they withdrew through the woods. By about 11 a.m., the battle for Culp’s Hill was over and the Union right flank was secure.

Both Lorenzo and Chauncey survived the struggle, and the 123rd escaped with only 12 casualties. The next morning Lorenzo observed scenes so “horrid” he could not reveal them to his wife. Among the dead he saw on the field was Major Benjamin W. Leigh, acting adjutant general of Johnson’s Division, who had been killed along with his horse on the morning of the 3rd while rallying soldiers trying to surrender. Both Coy brothers survived the war and mustered out of the service on June 8, 1865.

Near Littletown, Pa.,

July 6th

Dear Sarah:

My last to you mailed from the battlefield of Gettysburg gave you a short course of events to 5:30 P.M. July 2nd. I will resume from that time. Our position, that of the 1st Division of the 12th Corps, was on the extreme right of the line of battle. Our line about 17 miles in extent. The 1st Division lay in a rocky piece of woods with a breast work in front about 10 rods. In their rear was a heavy stone wall and then an open field and then the woods again. Next to us on our left lay the 2nd Div. commanded by the grave General Geary. About 5 Friday P.M. the left of our line was hard pressed and word came to us to reinforce them. The 1st Div. of the 12th and 2nd and 3rd Corps were ordered across to their help. We started on the double quick and were soon on the run and passed across the extreme right on the left a distance of 4½ miles.

We expected warm work here but just as we came in sight the enemy gave way and we were ordered back to the right. It was near 10 o’clock when we got back and just as we were about to enter the woods word came to us that the rebels were in our works. We halted and sent out skirmishers to feel the way. Our position taken like this, the 123rd in advance of the division lay on a flat close to the edge of the woods back of us the ground rose gently for 40 rods—then level again on the bow of this hill lay in line the 3rd Md—the 145 N.Y. the 20 Conn. the 5th C and the 45th Pa. Tired and sleepy most of us laid down to sleep. About midnight came the order “fall in”. Before we were all on our feet the rebel skirmishers opened fire on us from the edge of the woods. The report of the firing awoke the troops on the hill back of us and in the confusion of the moment the 3rd Md. and 5th Conn. also opened on us thinking we were rebels. We lost one man, however. N.A. Tahyer of Co. K was shot in the temple and fell dead without a word.

We fell back to the top of the hill and then I found that my belt and cap were gone. I went back to get them and just as I picked them up and turned back a shot was fired at me from the woods, the ball striking in the ground at my side. We laid down in a cornfield until the next noon. At early dawn the cannon opened on the woods where our breastworks were and for three hours the shells from 24 pieces of cannon flew over our heads while Geary men in their works just left of ours kept up an incessant fire of musketry. Geary’s men did nobly—they not only defended their own works in front but they withstood seven charges from the rebels in our works—upon their flank. Saturday noon the 123rd was ordered forward and told to recapture their works. We marched up in line of battle to the stone wall and found the 46 Pa. lying there—they opened a way for us and with a shout we charged over the wall only to see the rebels spring over the breastworks and by the time we reached them they were on a wild run through the woods beyond.

At 2 P.M. we were ordered across to support the center but found we were not needed. I here visited a hospital and such sights as I saw, I do not wish to see again. General Longstreet was here a prisoner and wounded but I did not see him. We then went back and lay in our works that night. The next morning the 4th I heard a rebel wounded call for help and in company with Don Humphrey I went down and brought him in— he could walk by leaning on my shoulder. At 6 the 1st Division with a heavy force made a recognoisance around the battlefield. —through Gettysburg and back, but could find no rebels except dead and wounded ones—Lee having retreated during the night leaving his dead for us to bury and thousands of wounded for us to care for.

After we got back I went over the field in front of Geary’s position— hundreds of rebels lay there as they fell. Among them I saw the body of Ass’t Adjt Genl. Leigh of Jackson’s old Corps. In one spot not 12 feet square I saw 8 dead but I cannot describe what I saw it was too horrid—truly thought as I passed over the field none but Demons can delight in war.

“I would not wear the Warriors Wreath
Tis wet—but not with heavenly dew
Tis red—but not with rosegate hue
Tis crimsoned all with human gall
Tis drenched with tears by widows-orphans shed.”

We are now on the way to intercept Lee’s retreat whether we succeed or not remains to be seen. I send you in this a few envelopes I took from a rebels portfolio.

But it is beginning to rain and I must close as I have no shelter to write under. Love to all. Pray for me. I do for you and the dear children. Our Co. had but one killed and two wounded. Jake Bell of Co. E was also killed and Capt. Weer wounded. Capt. Wiley was taken sick about the time we were ordered forward and only joined us yesterday. Tell mother that Chauncey and I are both well and thankful for our preservation thus far. [Lt.] Seth [Carey] is also well.

 Yours in love

L.R. Coy


D. Scott Hartwig is a supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.