Alexander and 111th repel Confederate assaults on Culp’s Hill on one of nation’s most iconic fields
This is the third in a series of stories on the life and service of William J. Alexander, a captain int he 111th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
The largest battle ever fought in North America, the name of the sleepy, idyllic, little Adams County town is now part of our lexicon with the likes of Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill and Normandy.
While Alexander does not address his involvement at Gettysburg in any letters or diary entries that survive, the 111th was undoubtedly heavily engaged in the protection of their home state.
The 111th – part of the Union’s 12th Corps – arrived two miles outside of Gettysburg on July 1 after following Lee’s army into Pennsylvania over the previous three weeks.
“On the morning of the second, it moved a mile to the front, to a position on Culp’s Hill, where it joined in building breastworks,” according to Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Culp’s Hill is one of two hills on the northern end of the battlefield that were key in commanding and securing the Union position.
Its monument at Gettysburg provides a brief overview of their involvement: “The Regiment built these works. In the evening of July 2 it was withdrawn with the Brigade, and returning during the night found the enemy in the works. Assisted in repulsing a charge of the enemy at daylight on the 3rd and after seven hours and a half of continuous fighting in which it participated, regained the works and held them until the close of the battle. Carried into action 259 officers and men. Killed 5 men, wounded 1 officer and 7 men.”
A newspaper clipping found among the private papers of Alexander further adds detail to the 111th’s contributions in the struggle on Culp’s Hill.
“The 111th regiment was one of those regiments that was an honor to its State, not only because of its fighting qualities but as an organization, noted for its excellence in discipline and fine appearance…. At Gettysburg it held a most important position at Culp’s Hill, the left of Spangler’s Spring.”
After constructing breastworks on the hill, the regiment was moved “to our left, near Little Round Top, to help our hard pressed troops on that part of the field…. When the 111th returned, tehy found the Reb’s sleeping in their beds, as it were.
In an attempt to re-take the works, “one of the bitterest contests of the war was waged at this point and from four o’clock (on the morning of July 3)… until eleven the 111th was under fire and fighting. When the boys had fired away their ammunition they fell back and replenished and quickly went back in again but stuck to it until they had driven the stubborn foe out of the works. Gettysburg was a splendid fight for that organization.”
Cobham commented in a letter to his brother dated July 10 that his brigade – including the 111th – “held the centre of the line of the 12th Corps.” Of the morning attack, Cobham wrote that “it was the grandest sight I ever saw…. The loss on our side was small – the fighting was desperate on all sides.”
Alexander was assigned to lead a burial party in the days after the battle on Culp’s Hill in a position where a Union regiment from Maryland confronted a Confederate unit also from Maryland.
The story of Alexander’s involvement comes from the Warren Mail.
“Many of the First Maryland’s men were detailed to assist in burying a great number of the dead. They discovered many of their old friends, companions and schoolmates….
Alexander “found a soldiers of the First Union Maryland Regiment who was digging a grave alone; a dead soldier was lying alongside it covered with a blanket. He wasked the soldier if he wanted any help and who it was he was giving burial alone. His reply was: ‘That is my only brother, and I did not know where he was until I found him dead on this battle field, where he had falled while fighting in the ranks of the Confederate army.’ (Alexander) rendered him assistance in carefully burying his dead brother, whose remains were afterward removed to the family lot in Greenmount cemetery in Baltimore.”
By JOSH COTTON
After Gettysburg, the 12th Corps was transferred from the Army of the Potomac to the Army of the Cumberland and arrived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on October 6.
A week later, Alexander wrote home to his father to tell him that he had been appointed provost marshal over the city.
Provost marshals were essentially the military police of their day.
“Murfreesboro is about three times larger than Warren,” he wrote, “and before the war was a very pretty place but now it shows the effects of the war very badly. It is a place of very strong secession perchivities and I have some trouble with them.”
He said that the post was keeping him very busy.
“I have five clerks and two Assistant Prov Marshals employeed all the time and I am busy from early morn until late at night – I have this day signed my name more than six hundred times.”
The staff had hired a former slave to work in their home.
“Aunt Martha is a ‘contreband,’ her master was in to see me today and wanted to know if she could not go home with him but she told him she belonged to the Yankees and would not go. She is almost white and is about forty years old, and very intelligent.”
Further, he said that in the first week on the job he had “administered the Oath of Allegiance to a great many since I have been here. I make them give bonds for the faithful fulfillment of their oath. I have got most all the property throughout this county pledged to the Goverment of the United States.”
In a letter to his mother on October 13, Cobham remarked “As far as I have yet seen, I like the appearance of Tennessee much more than Va. The climate is much warmer and the lad as far as I can judge is much richer…. There are of course a number of darkies to be seen here, who are not slow to tell everyone, that slavery is now ‘Done gone. We’s all free, Massa, we’s going to lib same’s white floks.”
The regiment left Murfreesboro on October 26.
Alexander married Alice Snow Smith on January 28, 1864 in Youngsville. The Rev. Gevi W. Norton officiated.
In the weeks before the wedding, Cobham wrote home to his father introducing Alexander and telling his father that “Capt. Alexander if one of my fellow Officers – and a personal friend. Any attention you may show him, I will consider a personal favor.”
While he was married in January, the reason for his leave doesn’t appear to be entirely for the wedding.
Cobham wrote to Alexander in March and assured him that “I have a front seat for you at Head Quarters where I shall be pleased to see you as soon as you are able to stand the unavoidable exposure of hardships of Camp life…. Please give my compliments to Mrs. Alexander and with kind regards to yourself and all inquiring friends, believe me Dear Sir, Very Sincerely Yours, Geo. A. Cobham, Jr.”
Alexander’s diary picks up again in May after the 111th had been on duty guarding the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad since the previous December.
Starting on May 1, the 111th was part of General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, orders that Alexander described as “long expected.”
Alexander and the 111th found themselves in the midst of fighting around Resaca, Georgia two weeks later.
On the 14th, Alexander wrote that “we arrived just in time to prevent our left being driven back.”
The next day, General Geary “became excited and in a very unmilitary way we were hurried to the front… and soon became warmly engaged,” Alexander wrote. “The 111th Regiment carried the crest of a hill in front of the enemies work but we soon found we had no support on our left.”
Just then, General Joseph Hooker -former commander of the Army of the Potomac – approached Cobham while Alexander was near and was “unaccompanied by any of his staff to give some orders to our regiment. As he came up, Col. Cobham remarked to him that he did wrong to expose himself in such a manner. The General replied “that he was not unwilling to share the danger of his men.”
Hooker ordered Cobham – and by extension the 111th – to take a Confederate battery in front of them.
“The General pointed out a rebel battery on a high point about a thousand yards in front that at the time was sending grape and cannester into our ranks and said ‘I would like to have you take that battery but I don’t know if it can be done.’ Col Cobham’s reply was ‘I can try’ and we immediately ordered the regiment to advance , whigh we done under a galling fire.”
Alexander detailed the assault – that the battery was taken but the corresponding infantry works couldn’t be. “Laying flay on the ground, we repulsed every effort the rebels made to retake the battery.” Later in the day, the Confederates counterattacked but, he wrote, “were repulsed at every point. The coolness and daring of Colonel Cobham was remarkable throughout the whole engagement, and he was the praise of General Hooker, as well as all the officers and men under him.”
As the Rebels retreated and the Yankees pursued them, Hooker came upon Cobham, said he was glad to see him well and, according to Alexander, remarked that “If I had a few more such regiments as the 111th I could charge through the whole army.”
Two days after the battle, clogged roads slowed down the regiment so that Alexander was able to write home “and I improved the time by writing to Alice.”
After the fight at Resaca and the correspnding two days of marching, the 111th was give some rest days.
Alexander took advantage of it.
He received a letter from his wife on the 20th and remarked in his diary that it told him “of Sister Sarah’s sickness and of her doubtfull recovery. Which made me feel very sad indeed, and very anxious to hear from her again. I wrote a long letter to Alice, one to Father & Mother also.”
Alexander and Cobham “rode out from camp, stopping on the way to take a bath in a stream of watter than run through beautiful piece of woods. We enjoyed the few days rest very much.”
He learned of his sister’s death four days later.
“Although I was expecting to hear of her death, the news was almost more than I could bear,” he wrote. “I could hardly reconsile myself to the thought that I never to look upon my darling sister again. I felt that I would of gave any thing if I could only been at home at the time of her death.”
Continuing on the drive to Atlanta, the 111th would find itself engaged three days later at what came to be known as the Battle of Dallas.
“We steadily drove the enemy back for nearly a mile through a dense forest,” he wrote. As I rode along the line with orders from the Colonel Commanding, I thought I never before heard such a deafening roar of musketry, and the very air seemed to be filled with a shower of lead.”
As he rode up and down the line, he remarked he always looked for the 111th – and found them “steming the ride of battle, and steadily advancing.”
Casulaties in the struggle – which spanned multiple days – were 5,400 total, according to the National Park Service.
When rain and nightfall stopped the fighting, Alexander wrote that “we undertook to remove our wounded, but it being so very dark we could make but poor headway and many lay on the field until morning. It was heart rending to hear the moans of the poor wounded fellows as they lay on the cold wet ground.”
As the battle dragged on into a fifth day, Alexander noted on May 30 that “the stench from the dead bodies that lay between the opposing lines became very offensive and neather party dared to venture out to bury them.”
The next day, he noted that “for the first time in a week I found time to write a hasty letter home to Alice.”
By JOSH COTTON
The first two weeks of June resulted in little movement and less fighting. Alexander makes mention of numerous storms that slowed, or completely changed, their orders.
On June 12, Alexander had – and took – the time to write a lengthy letter home to his parents.
“You undoutedly think I have neglected you in my long delay in writing but I haven’t found the time to write to anyone save to Alice and I knew you would hear of me throug her,” he wrote. “We have had a hard campaign since we left Chattanooga and have had a number of hard fought battles and as usual we have done our share.”
He told his parents that the 111th had lost 94 men in the campaign, 13 of which came from his company.
“We have beaten the enemy at every place they undertook to make a stand and we expect to fight them again in a few days…. We are now about Twenty miles from Atlanta.”
He said that hte weather and climate have resulted in many men being sent back to the hospital sick.
“My health has been pretty good,” he reassured them, “and I think that I have been lucky. Any man was lucky that came through all the battles without being hirt.”
He told them that Cobham had been promoted to brigade command for a time and that he served on his staff but that they have since returned to the 111th.
Alexander said he met family – two cousins serving in the Kentucky cavalry – while in Georgia.
He also lamented his personal effects.
“I haven’t had but one shirt and one suit of clothes since we started on the campaign from Chattanooga (on May 1), all our baggage is back on the road and thus far not to be got at. I have had to go without shirt and undercloths at night, while my black servant washed them and dryed them by the camp fire, so you see, I am not troubled with a surplus of baggage.
“The story that goes that when Genl Grant started out to take Vicksburg, his baggage consisted only of a tooth brush. I think I can out do him, I lost my tooth brush two days ago.”
In the 111th, two men were killed and 10 wounded in fighting on June 15 and three more killed and six wounded on June 17.
On the 26th, Alexander notes that their baggage finally arrived but added that “late in the afternoon we had orders that we would attack the enemy the next morning and but few slept in camp that night. We all knew the enemys position was a strong one and many a brave fellow would fall even if we were successful in carring their works.”
The next day was the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
“Soon after day light we began to prepare to move,” Alexander wrote. While it wasn’t the 111th responsibility to take the mountain, he notes that they were able to “drive the enemy in our immediate front back to their main line of the moutain.”
I had one soldier of Co. D Peter N. Stanferd shot through the head and instantly killed – and two more wounded. Peter was a good soldier, had been before wounded. Had a wife living in Philidelpha.
I layed him with my own hands in his narrow grave raped (wrapped) in his blanked for a schroud.”
Then fell another responsibility of an officer – Alexander sent Stanferd’s personal effects – a pocket book, $9.80, a memorandum book, a Bible and some lettters to his wife.
Skirmishing was the most significant threat to the men of the 111th during the early days of July.
After forming his line on the continued drive for Atlanta, Alexander laid down to sleep on the night of the first.
“I had but just laid down by the side of the Colonel (Cobham) when I was struck in the side with a ball fired from the enemies skirmish line, but owing to the long range, and my thick overcoat and blanket, it did not damage me much, only bruising my side and for a little time nocked the breath out of ime. But after finding I was not much hirt, and knowing it was only a chance shot, I concluded to lay still and was soon fast a sleep.”
The next day, a similar shot found Cobham.
The ball “passed through the breast of his coat,” Alexander wrote. “It was a narrow escape.”
Though he felt ill on the morning of the 4th, the day brought a muted celebration.
“We have prospects of a little rest this morning, all the brass bands in the DW are playing the national airs on our left there is cannonaiding which shows the enemy are not all over the river. Oh! how beautiful the bands played the Star Spangled Banner. I wish I was at home to day. I should love to be with my wife.”
The regiment marched out the next day and finally got their first glimpse of Atlanta, just 10 miles distant.
Alexander was appointed brigade officer on the 10th and recalled what he thought to be a “quear sight.”
“I soon made an atreement with the officer in command of the rebel pickets to seace firing, and soon after not a shot was to be heard along the line…. As I nearedthe extreme end of my line, I heard loud shouting and as I came up where I could overlook a smoothe piece of river, I saw a good number of my soldiers, and the rebels also in swimming. It was a quear sight ot see them, they, who had been firing at each other, before the day would close, now enjoying a swim together like a merry lot of school boys.
“But such is soldier’s life.”
The next day, he noted that coffee for tobacco trades were happening across the lines.
July 19-20, 1864
The Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Warren lists many of the major campaigns and battles that men from Warren County were involved in – Antietam, Gettysburg, Bull Run, Appomattox.
Included in that list is – by Civil War standards – a minor battle, Peach Tree Creek, that had an indelible mark on Alexander and the 111th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
The fight started on the 19th.
“Soon after day light we advanced on the Atlanta road, our brigade being in the advance we met the enemy on the opposite bank of Peachtree Creek strongly posted about six o’clock p.m. Our bridage was ordered to cross the creek – the 149 NY ahead and 111th PV came close after the 149 crosst before the enemy discovered them, they opened brick on our boys…. We drove the enemies line of sharpshooters out of their works capturing about 30 and held our ground after taking a good position on a high ridge. The whole division moved over and we threw up works and all became quiet.”
The fight continued on the 20th and Alexander recorded the following:
“The whole army advanced up in line with us & some gained more advanced points. Brick skirmishing until 3:30 p.m. when our brigade was moved forward about half mile and was going into position when the enemy was discovered to be advancing through the woods in our front. Our regiment was moved forward a short distance and soon became engaged. The woods was terrible thick, we steadily drove the enemy in our front, but a heavy collumn moved down our right flank and opend and merderous fire on us at a distance of thirty yds.
“No human being could stand the shower of leaden hail and our right gave way and soon the regiment fell back a short distance to a crest of a hill. I was informed that Col. Cobham was mortaly wounded and the command devolved on me.”
Alexander reformed the regiment and was ordered behind a breastwork, a position it held until dark.
“About 10:30 p.m. after the works was done and all quiet, I went back to the hospital to see Colonel Cobham and got there too late. He had been dead about half an hour. Oh, the sadness that fills my heart when I think of our loss. My best, and dearest friend the Colonel has gone. His loss can never be replaced, a more galient officer, and truer friend, never lived. I did not sleep all night but made arrangements to send his body home. Dr. Dunn imbalmed his body.”
The next day, Alexander took Cobham’s horse, had a coffin made for him and fathered his personal effects all the while burying the dead of his company. He gathered his books and paper together on July 22 and put them in his trunk for shipment back to Warren County.
He noted that he wrote to his wife the next day.
This was a month of near misses for Alexander.
He visited a skirmish line on the 3rd and noted that he “run some narrow chances for my life, the firing was brisk all night. I received one ball through my coat just grazing my side.”
A similar incident occurred on the 8th.
“I had a very narrow escape or my life. A ball struck my elbow going through my coat sleeve but done but little damage to my arm. I feel very thankful for my escape.
He reported poor health on August 10, 11 and 12. “The Dr. thinks I had better go back to Hospital but I refuse,” he wrote on the 12th.
While he was laying in his tent on the 17th – incapacitated from what he described as “bowels (that) are badly ulcerated” – “(a) ball took the toe of my boot but didn’t harm my foot, very lucky.”
As the month dragged on, his health did not improve as he spent some time in a hospital.
That naturally led to thoughts of home.
On August 20, he ate well but said that “I have thought of home much today. Have written to Allie.”
The following days he reported steady improvement, his spirits further bolstered by receiving a letter from his wife on the 23rd.
After a quiet August 28 when he said he “thought so much of home, I feel I would give a World to be there again & peace restored one move to our now distracted country,” he rejoined the regiment on the 29th. “I as glad to be back and I was aso heartily welcomed by all that I feel more at home than I have since I left the regiment.”
It took four months to get there, but the 111th finally reached Atlanta on the 4th.
“The prisoners have arrived in large squads all day,” Alexander wrote on the 6th. “There is now some 5,000 in the city. We have taken all of Genl Hoods heavy artillery. The victory is the most complete of the war.”
He became ill again in the middle of the month wrote on the 14th that he would “try and quit the service,” asking for a leave of absence on September 28. The surgeon described his condition as “chronic Dysentery of three months standing.”
That request for leave was denied.
Alexander learned on the 9th of the fall of Richmond “and that Genl Grant occupies the city. Bands playing & troops cheering over the news. It was very late before I could go to bed. I felt quite happy over the news.”
The 111th took part in Sherman’s March to the Sea starting on the 15th, after the men had learned that Lincoln was likely to win presidential re-election.
“We lived mostly off the country,” Alexander wrote. “We had plenty of sweet potatoes for dinner. Sweet potatoes are raised in great abundance through the country ad there is plenty of forage.”
The march continued throughout the rest of the month largely uneventfully.
“All live well,” Alexander noted in a diary entry on the 2nd.
By the 7th, the 111th was 30 miles from Savannah, covering an additional 25 miles by December 10.
As part of the seige of Savannah, the 111th was tasked with charging an enemy fort in the early morning hours of December 11.
“I must say I never was more loth to make an attack,” Alexander wrote. “I felt that with the sweep the enemy would have with their artillery that many of our brave boys would be sacrificed. I resigned my fate to Him who is the ruler of all things for I felt if I survived the struggle it was solely through God’s mercy.”
Fortunately, that attack was called off though they could see Savannah now just three miles distant. They occupied the city starting on the 20th.
“New Years. The officers of the 3rd brig(ade) went to call on the General and I accompanied them. General Sherman was in good humor.”
Alexander’s diary details days of marching in January and February and March, where he only reported skirmishing.
Alexander’s troops arrived at the Battle of Bentonville on the 20th but did so too late to be involved in the fight and was then placed in reserve.
“We marched by day light and made Goldsboro before noon,” Alexander recorded on the 24th. “All the army having concentrated… the campaign now at an end.”
Alexander was promoted to Major of the 111th on the 31st.
Alexander was again promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on April 7.
That term of service would be short lived as the 111th was mustered out of the service on April 8, 1865.
“Left for home on the 9th of April on the 6 a.m. train, road in an open flat car,” Alexander noted. “I put up at the poorest Hotill I ever stopped at. Did not get off on the first boat. It was too muserable for a white man to ride on. Arrived at Baltimore, Md. on the morning of the 14th.”
After the war, Alexander and his wife moved to Kentucky where they had other family, according to a biography included with his diaries.
The couple had two children while in Kentucky – William Archibald in 1866 and Edwin Chauncey in 1868.
He father died the following year.
A third son was born in 1877.
‘Capt. Will’ as he was affectionarely called was elected Register & Recorder and Clerk of the Orphans Court of Warren County in 1875. He lost re-election but was re-elected to the office againin 1885.
He was named secertary of the Gasden Mining Company in 1879 and paid an annual salary of $100 per month. The job required significant western travel but the sickness than challenged him in the war followed him out west.
He was employed by the Warren Mining Company in 1882.
He and his family were members of Trinity Memorial Church and had a home built at 100 Fourth Avenue in 1887 that remains in the family.
Like many veterans, the war never completely left Alexander’s thoughts.
He was mustered into the Grand Army of the Republic – one of the leading Union veterans organization – in 1883.
At Chancellorsville, A Confederate Captain – Elijah B. Moseley of the Fifth Alabama Infantry – surrendered his sword to Alexander.
In the late 1870s, he sought out Moseley and returned the sword.
Alexander’s letter to Moseley may not have survived but Alexander kept Moseley’s response.
“Your letter of inquiry concerning myself… met my eye. I am happy to inform you that I am a survivor of the war, though I carry on my person several souvenors of those days in the shape of some ugly wounds,” Moseley wrote. “We have received so much hukiliation since our surrender that your kindness now, Captain, in seeking my address to return to me private property loads me with gratitude, and places you, in my estimation, far above the common man as one who at the same time can be both generous and just to the vanquished.
“Had all our victors been inbred with the same generous spirit, reconstruction would have been a myth and the war long since practically forgetten.”
He appears to have corresponded with a J.W.A. Wright from Hale Co., Alabama regarding specific troop placements at Lookout Mountain in 1885.
In 1888, Alexander likely attended the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and struck up a correspondence with J.B. Gardner of Moneta, Va.
Gardner wrote to Alexander the following November that “I have often thought of my trip to Gettysburg as one of the most pleasant trip of my life. My second trip was like the first only the first you tried to kill me with bullets and the second you tried to do the same with kindness. If there is any thing on earth that ought to bind us together it is the Blood of our Fallen Braves – we had a bloody introduction the first time we met but thanks God we found out each other and neather of us was half as bad as we were represented to be.”
Alexander responded on December 10, 1888.
“Your kind letter just received, makes me feel that I have found a comrade,” Alexander wrote. “Our meeting at Gettysburg in July last was to be very pleasant and I trust we will have more of them and learn and know each other better. There is no reason why the south should not keep pace with the development of the west. She has the better climate, good soil, Timber, coal and Iron and what is more needed to make a live country?”
“I think you will agree with me when I say that the south need have no fear from those who wore the blue,” he added. “General Grant was a fair man, and as president would have done more for the osuth than he did, if a proper feeling had been manifested. I think the incoming president, General Harrison, will look to the interest and Welfare of the whole country and have no sectional feeling.”
In the letter, Alexander is candid about how he views the War Between The States, now over 20 years in the past.
“The war was a great mistake,” he wrote. “Who, or what caused it, I think it best to quit talking about; it is over, and the ‘Stars and Stripes’ floats over the whole entire country, and I want to meet all such fellows as you as comrades, break up this menacing solid south and you will see Old Virginia, and the south generally, full of men and capital to develop the country.”
Alexander died on October 27, 1904 at the age of 68. His body laid in state in the front room of his home before he was buried at Oakland Cemetery in the Alexander family plot.
Though he would live an additional 18 years, an article in the Warren Mail published in 1886 would appear to be an appropriate eulogy.
“At every battlefield the boys heard the sound of Capt. Alexander’s voice, clear, calm and collected. When the regiment formed ‘front to rear’ on Co. D at Gettysburg on that hot July morning, and left them on the corner wth both angles of the line of rebels pouring the storm of lead in their faces; and again at Wauhatchie, then the same maneuver occurred, what a cheerful sound it was to hear his voice, with not a trace of fear in it, sound out on the clear October night air ‘Steady Co. D.’ There’s not a man in the command but what can touch his hat to Capt. Alexander as being a firm friend, an honest man and a brave soldier.”