Share This Article

Some Gettysburg veterans cried foul when the 72nd Pennsylvania placed its statue at the ‘Bloody Angle’.

West of Hancock Avenue, just north of the Copse of Trees that marks the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, stands the monument of the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, topped by a statue of a member of the regiment gripping a musket by the barrel, as though he’s about to club an unseen foe. That fearsome pose reflects  the struggle that took place here along a low stone wall on July 3, 1863, during the climax of the Confederate attack remembered today as Pickett’s Charge. So desperate was the fighting on that  spot that the corner where the stone wall makes a 90-degree turn became known as the “Bloody Angle.”

This iconic monument has stood on that spot since July 4, 1891, but few of its admirers are aware of the controversy it once inspired, or have ever heard of the court battle that the regiment’s survivors fought to install it there. Some veterans had argued that the 72nd Pennsylvania had not really fought at the Angle and didn’t deserve to be honored at that forward position. One embittered former soldier asked, “What is the value of a Monument on the field  anyhow, when it attempts to enforce a lie?”

The 72nd Pennsylvania belonged to the Philadelphia Brigade, officially the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac. The brigade’s four regiments—the 69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania—had been raised almost entirely in Philadelphia, yet the unit was originally known as the California Brigade because its founder, Oregon  Sen. Edward Baker, had wanted it to represent the Western states. The 72nd Pennsylvania (originally the 3rd California) was mustered in in August 1861, with Colonel De Witt  Clinton Baxter in command and Theodore Hesser serving  as lieutenant colonel, and was spared the debacle of Ball’s  Bluff in October that cost Baker his life. General Charles  Burns replaced Baker at the head of the brigade. The  regiment participated in the Siege of Yorktown during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign but received its real baptism of  fire at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). It fought at  Glendale and made the July retreat from Malvern Hill to  Harrison’s Landing, on the James River. “I am entirely  satisfied with the conduct of my brigade,” wrote Burns,  who had been shot in the face at Savage’s Station but continued fighting with a handkerchief pressed to the wound.

The brigade served as a rear guard following the Second Battle of Bull Run, but had a much hotter time at the  Battle of Antietam, fighting in the notorious West Woods.  

At Fredericksburg in December the brigade, now under  the command of Brig. Gen. Joshua T. Owen, advanced  toward Marye’s Heights and halted amid the dead and  wounded from the battle’s earlier attacks. It remained  there, under fire, until relieved that night. At Chancellorsville in May 1863 the brigade served as pickets to cover VI Corps troops as they recrossed the Rappahannock River  after being stymied during the fighting at Salem Church.

About a month after his victory at Chancellorsville,  General Robert E. Lee began moving his army north toward Pennsylvania, followed by the Army of the Potomac.  Late at night on June 14, 1863, the 72nd Pennsylvania left  with its division from Falmouth, Va., and started the long  trek north. On June 28, the day Maj. Gen. George Meade  replaced Joseph Hooker in command of the Army of the  Potomac, the brigade reached Frederick, Md.

During the march, the unit also received a new commander, 28-year-old Brig. Gen. Alexander Webb. Theodore Lyman, who would later join Meade’s staff, once described Webb as “a thorough soldier, wide-awake, quick,  and attentive to detail.” Webb was also a strict disciplinarian, however—a characteristic that did not endear him to  his men.

The II Corps reached Gettysburg near dawn on July 2  and assumed a position along Cemetery Ridge. Around  6 p.m. the Georgians of Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright’s  Brigade crossed the Emmitsburg Road, captured guns  from the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, and continued on toward Cemetery Ridge, where the Philadelphia  Brigade waited. But by this point the gray tide had just  about crested. Members of the brigade, including the  72nd Pennsylvania, counterattacked, helping to drive the  Rebels back, and recaptured the guns. Colonel Baxter fell  wounded, and Hesser assumed command.  

Dawn of July 3 found the brigade back on Cemetery  Ridge. The 69th Pennsylvania held a position along a  stone wall that ran north and south in front of a soon-to-be famous copse of trees. A space along the wall to the  regiment’s right left room for Lieutenant Alonso Cushing’s Battery A of the 1st U.S. Artillery. At the other side  of the space, where the wall turned at a 90-degree angle to  the east, was the 71st Pennsylvania, with two companies in the rear to support Cushing’s battery. The 72nd was  farther back, just behind the crest of the ridge.

Around 1 p.m. the Confederates unleashed a ferocious  artillery barrage, with the Union guns answering in turn.  Anthony McDermott, a private with the 69th Pennsylvania, found it somewhat a relief when the guns stopped firing and the Confederate divisions across the field began  moving out of the woods and advanced in his direction.  “No holiday display seemed more imposing, nor troops  on parade more regular, than this division of Pickett’s  Rebels,” he wrote.  

Closer and closer they came, even as shell and shot began taking their toll. Bracing for the onslaught, Webb had the 72nd move up to the crest of the hill. The Southerners  continued their inexorable advance, subjecting the Pennsylvanians to severe fire as they approached the wall and  the men in the 71st Pennsylvania began to break. Webb  wrote his wife three days later, “When my men fell back  I almost wished to get killed, I was almost disgraced….”  At this point the 72nd Pennsylvania still held its position near the crest. As the Confederates approached the wall,  Webb went over to the 72nd and urged them forward. So  did Captain Charles H. Banes, the brigade’s adjutant. The  regiment reportedly did not move. Webb said he attempted to grab the fag from the color-bearer and personally  lead the regiment forward, but the man refused to let go.  Frustrated, Webb moved over to the 69th Pennsylvania.

What happened next remained in dispute for years.

In 1864 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania incorporated the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association “to hold and preserve, the battle-grounds of Gettysburg.” As postwar monuments began springing up on the battleground, the GBMA sought to ensure  that they were accurately placed. John Bachelder took on the lion’s share of that task. A painter and illustrator from New England who had reached Gettysburg shortly after  the battle, Bachelder embarked on a lifelong task of documenting what had happened there. He and the GBMA  decreed that regimental monuments would have to be  placed where each unit was in line of battle when it entered the fighting.

Storm clouds began gathering in 1887, after the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill appropriating $125,500 for Gettysburg monuments for the state’s regiments.  By this time, the 72nd had a monument on Cemetery Ridge, but regiments that had already erected a private  monument on the battlefield could receive $1,500 for a  second state-funded one, with positions to be determined by five state commissioners working in tandem with five  representatives from each regiment. In the fall of 1887,  the state commissioners selected a location for the 72nd  Pennsylvania’s monument east of Hancock Avenue, 283  feet back from the stone wall, and marked the spot with a  stake. No one could recall later whether any representatives from the 72nd were present for the site selection.

The regiment’s veterans were not happy. “We feel that  the reputation of the regiment has been assailed by this decision…..” wrote monument committee secretary Sylvester Byrne to the GBMA’s Samuel Harper on July 11,  1888. The survivors even purchased land in front of the  wall, where they could erect their monument if necessary.  

Battle lines were being drawn. One critic who sided  with the GBMA was the 69th Pennsylvania’s McDermott.  He opposed any change in the monument’s location and  arranged to meet at Gettysburg in the fall of 1888 with  regiment representatives and state monument commissioners to express his objections. When McDermott  failed to show, the veterans and the commissioners took  a train to Harrisburg and met that night at a hotel. The regiment’s representatives presented their case, then  withdrew so the commissioners could talk.

General J.P.S. Gobin, one of the commissioners,  eventually emerged from the meeting to tell the veterans he had granted their request to place a monument  “Twenty feet in the rear of the wall, midway between the  Sixty-ninth and the Seventy-first regiments.” The commissioners later said they offered this position provided that the GBMA approved. John Reed, the chairman of the regiment’s monument commission, and the others from  the 72nd did not recall any such caveat.  

In any event, on December 12, 1888, when Reed and  some of his fellow veterans went to the spot near the Angle and began to dig a foundation for their new monument, the GBMA had Reed arrested for trespassing  on its land. Faced with the GBMA’s intransigence, the  72nd Pennsylvania decided to take its case to court. On  January 7, 1889, it fled suit in Adams County. The GBMA,  represented by lawyer David Wills—the man who had  hosted Abraham Lincoln at his house the night before the  president delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address— challenged the suit and had it dismissed. The veterans  responded by taking their case to the state Supreme  Court, which sided with them and returned the case to  Adams County. The two sides began gathering testimony  they would present to William A. McClean, who had been  appointed as the suit’s master. They argued their cases  before him on October 3-4, 1890.

James Wilson of Company F was one soldier who  testified that the 72nd had fought at the Angle. “We had  quite a little dispute before we came to the stone wall,” he  recalled, “we fought hand to hand and clubbed guns, any  way at all; each man picked out his man, that lasted a very  short time and they fell back, what was left of them.” After the battle Wilson recalled seeing the regiment’s dead  “strewed all the way from the crest to the stone wall.”

William H. Good, formerly a private in Company K,  remembered Webb gesturing with his sword during the  fighting but couldn’t hear him above the tumult. Then, he  said, the 72nd headed down to the wall and over it. “It got  so warm on that side of the stone fence that some were  shooting this way and some were shooting the other and it got to be a regular jumble. It was a rough and tumble  fight after the firing chiefly ceased, in line—after we  charged over the stone wall.” At that point, Good said, a soldier named Murphy had the colors and he carried them  over the wall.

But other witnesses disputed that the 72nd had moved forward as a body to the stone wall. One of them was  Alexander Webb, who earned the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. “That advanced position on the crest was, in my  opinion, the right place for their monument, and always  has been in my opinion,” he said. Webb recalled how he tried to take the fag from the 72nd’s fag-bearer, a soldier  named Finnessey: “The color bearer and myself stood  together, I holding on to the staff and he did not move forward with me. I ordered him forward, he moved in his  place but did not carry the colors out of the regimental line.” And brigade adjutant Banes testified, “The fight  was all over when they went down to the front.”

McClean reviewed the testimony and ruled the GBMA  did not have the authority to approve or disapprove the monument’s position once the state-appointed commissioners who met in Harrisburg agreed to move it forward.  Furthermore, in his opinion, the regiment’s soldiers “beyond all doubt” had done “a portion of their best fighting  in and about the location asked for by the plaintiffs for their monument, twenty feet in rear of the stone fence.”

The Adams County court affirmed the decision, but the  GBMA tried one more time, fling an appeal with the state  Supreme Court, which dismissed it. On July 4, 1891, members of the 72nd Pennsylvania reunited on the Gettysburg battlefield to dedicate their  new monument at its prominent spot near the Angle. Engraved on one side of the monument were these words:  

During Cannonading Which Preceded the Charge the Regiment was in Line 60 Yards to the Left and Rear of This Monument When the Rebels Forced the Troops from the First Line the 72nd Fought its Way to the Front and Occupied the Wall

“Comrades,” Reed told the dedication attendees, “in  your struggle in this angle on July 3d, 1863, the God of  battles was with you, in your legal contest the Goddess of  justice smiled upon you.”

In writing to Bachelder that November, Colonel Arthur  Devereux of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, who had  testified against the 72nd’s claims, said he was willing to concede the legal victory—which he called “a travesty  of truth”— but noted he was still bitter. “I am getting  reconciled to the 72’s monument,” he wrote. “It blazons  their shame and the story will be told to all comers and  they might have seen the waters of oblivion roll over it but for their own action.”

The survivors of the 72nd saw it differently. As far as  the Pennsylvanians were concerned, they had won their  second battle of Gettysburg.


Pennsylvania resident Tom Huntington is the author of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor  of Gettysburg and Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments: Find Every Monument and Tablet in the Park.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.