111th’s Only Monument
Dedication address to 111th Pa. at Gettysburg sheds light on what they did, how they should be remembered
This is the conclusion of a series on the life and Civil War service of Warren native Captain William Alexander.
What follows is the rest of an abridged version of a speech made in 1889 at the dedication of a monument at Gettysburg to the 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers, in which Alexander served.
The speech was written by a former officer in the regiment turned priest, J. Richards Boyle.
“The forces participating in that battle were very evenly matched. They were men of one blood, and on each side were moved by a similar intensity of moive.”
After a lengthy narrative on the three days of fighting, Boyle claimed that “Nothing more thrilling or dramatic in battle can be conceived than was the spectacular climax of the series of engagements which took places on the field of Gettysburg. The day was cloudless, the summer was at its full, and the ripening harvests gleamed in the valley between the invested heights.”
He noted that Colonel George A. Cobham, Jr., led the brigade of which the 111th Pa. was a part during the battle.
“It is but simple justice to the memory of a modest brave and meritorious officer whom we all honored, and who, fifteen months later at Peach Tree Creek, Georgia, fell gloriously while leading his regiment that record should here be made of Colonel Cobham’s services at Gettysburg and I do it gladly. His efficiency at the head of the brigade was officially noticed in the report of his superior officer, General Kane, who also recommended him for a promotion – that came, alas too late to reward him on earth.”
In detailing the 111th’s fight on Culp’s Hill, Boyle noted that “Twice the One hundred and eleventh Pennsylvania Regiment expended all its cartridges and at the close of the conflict it was found that it has used one hundred and sixty rounds of ammunition per man!”
Post-war reports indicate that as many as 1,000,000 rounds were fired by Union soldiers in the area of Culp’s Hill over two days of fighting.
“Some of the rebel dead lay on line with our own, showing how close and desperate had been the in-fighting and at the close of the war, one military writer had declared ‘that the scene of this conflict was covered by a forest of dead trees; leaden bullets proving as fatal to them as to the soldiers whose bodies were thickly strewn beneath them.”
Commanding the regiment, Lt. Col. Walker said that “In this fight about half of my regiment was in open line, fighting a desperate foe behind the very rifle-pits we had built for our own protection. I am proud to say my men fought feeling that they were Pennsylvanians in Pennsylvania.”
Boyle then started reflecting on the meaning of the 111th’s sacrifice.
“And now, at an interval of nearly a quarter century after the war for the Union closed in complete triumph, we, representing the survivors of our gallant and beloved battalion, meet here to-day for the performance of a tender and patriotic duty. Upon the exact spot where our command expended one hundred and sixty rounds of ammunition per man on July 1-3, 1863, we propose to unveil this beautiful monument to the service of the regiment and to the memory of other comrades who then and here yielded up their lived to their country.
“Our thoughts in this hour are, therefore, of necessity, in the first place personal. We have recalled before us those young men of whom the fortune of war demanded the highest sacrifice and to-day we write the story of their heroism upon the shaft for the perusal of coming generations… It is little, indeed, that we can do to requite their sacrifices, but by this act to-day we affirm they shall never be forgotten! Henceforth forever here stands a visible altar from which the incense of that sacrifice shall perpetually ascent to mingle with that of other similar altars and make this field, from Culp’s Hill to Round Top, a fragrant temple of the nation’s dead.”
Throughout the war, 211 men who served in the regiment died, either killed by bullets or disease.
Boyle continues: “Is there not a sense, then, in which this, our only battle monument, is for them all? The meaning of this shaft intensifies before this thought; our obligation heightens in its presence and I am sure I do not transcend your purpose when I say that we dedicate this memorial column, not alone to our comrades who died at Gettysburg, but to the whole body of our regimental dead! To us it shall stand a monument to their several and united virtues and sacrifices and while it endures the least and humblest of them all shall not lack a tombstone or an epitaph!”
He argued that the memorial also commemorates the lives of the men who survived the war.
“A heroism whose privilege is endurance, and whose test is active faithfulness, Gettysburg, therefore, has heroes other than those whose graves crowd her national cemetery, and the One hundred and eleventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers had, in that battle, many a Spartan-hearted soldier whose life was not then required of him. In addition to its men who died, it had there living men who closed their ranks with sterner resolution as their comrades fell; men who peered vigilantly into the darkness the night through, with their dead at their feet and the breath of the foe upon their cheeks; men who delivered their fire for six hours into the series ranks opposing them; men whose hearts the rebel yell could not dismay, nor the bayonet charge appal; men who, in one word, had the opportunity and the nerve to stand out the battle… I submit that their service is interwoven with that of their fallen comrades, and that this monument stands here from this day to attest alike the sacrifice of the dead and prowess of the living upon the field.”
Boyle then addresses how he believes the men of the regiment should be remembered.
“The issue at stake (in the war) more than paralleled the cost of, and explains and recompenses the sacrifice; and this is the significant and ultimate proclamation of these battle-monuments. Distance has already mantled the rugged outlines of the war period with a softening indistinctness, and time is obliterating the sharpness of their impress from the public mind. The agonizing days when the fate of earth’s newest and best civilization trembled in the balance over the abyss of destruction; when, from the great genius whom God had placed over the chair of state to the humblest child in all the land, every loyal heart throbbed and prayed and struggled for the nation’s life.
“But never while time endures and the emblem of the American Republic floats can the nation permit the issues of that contest to be forgotten, not their ethics to be misunderstood…. The principles upon which that rebellion was incited are fundamental to our civilization and government and can never be abdicated nor compromised. The results of that contest are supreme and final and must be acknowledged and accepted throughout the land forever! A thousand centuries of time can neither vary nor explain them away, and men must not and by the sacred memory of the Nation’s dead, they shall not – multiply or overturn them!”
“There is at least one body of men among us whom neither the lapse of time nor the sophistries of follish or selfish sentimentalities can cheat in this matter – the veteran soldiers of the Republic. To them the war for the preservation of the Union can never become ancient history or a questionable expedient. It was, and is, to them the holiest incident of their civil life.
Citing President James Garfield who said that “The war for the union was right – everlastingly right! The war against the Union was wrong – eternally wrong,” Boyle argued that “Every Union soldier’s oath of enlistment, every dead soldier’s grave, every living soldier’s scars, every man that wore the blue in all the land is a proclamation of this inevitable fact and when the last living witness thereto shall have passed away, then will those battle tombs and the glory of the saved Nation declare it to all the world forever.”
“Beneath these memorial monuments are sunk the graves not indeed of our fallen comrades but, let us fondly hope, of disunion and sectional alienation,” Boyle argued. “And above their resting-place let North and South clasp hands in indissoluble brotherhood.”
“The work was not done in vain. It had fruited in universal benediction, and to this achievement, as well as to the heroism of the struggle itself, do we dedicate this impressive memorial. While it abides let it attest a Nation’s salvation, a peace bravely won, a lesson manfully heeded and a civilization united, enlarged and perfected.”
His conclusion pushes for a vision that was applicable at the time but also has clear meaning for America in the 21st century:
“And now, having rendered this office of love to those of whom and that of which I have spoken, let us turn hence with our faces toward the future. Our earthly sun seeks the western sky but our day is not yet done, nor is our discharge from duty gained. As our martyr President said on this field while the thunder of conflict was still upon it, the brave men who died here dedicated it more sacredly than can any poor words of ours; and it remains for us only to dedicate ourselves, by the inspiration of their example, to the work that still lies before us. So let us to-day, and carry from this place of tender and thrilling memories, a new devotement to all that pertains to an enlightened patriotism and an intelligent faith.”