I walked around the Gettysburg battlefield and museum wearing a sign that read, “If your ancestor fought at Gettysburg, I want to hear about it.” I had proposed to Dana Shoaf, the editor of Civil War Times, that I might collect stories for his magazine about the ancestors of visitors on the 150th anniversary of the battle, and he agreed.
The sign worked. I gathered nine tales about privates, corporals, colonels, and generals, hailing from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine, men who survived, died, or got shot in the toe.
Among the people I interviewed was James Mitchell, an Ohio resident who had hiked the battlefield with his three boys to see where their Virginian ancestors, the Wilsons, had fought. The middle son, Sean, who is 13, likes to write stories about historical subjects and hopes to write about the three Wilson brothers who faced Union forces on Culp’s Hill.
Kim Alloway, a Pennsylvanian, is related to Confederate General Richard Ewell, known for having delayed his assault on strategically important high ground until after the Union army’s reinforcements arrived. “He decided to rest and take it in the morning,” said Kim. This disastrous error is often seen as leading to the Confederate defeat.
I had come across my own Gettysburg relative in the Dickerman genealogy just a few months earlier. Joel C. Dickerman, born in 1840, was a second cousin of my third-great-grandfather. After a day of interviews, I googled Dickerman’s regiment, the 20th Connecticut, and discovered that they had fought against General Ewell’s troops for possession of Culp’s Hill. I was intrigued by this connection to two of my interviewees.
The next day, I hiked up Culp’s Hill in 93-degree heat. At the top, I found an observation tower and several monuments, but not the one referring to the 20th Connecticut. A young man with a map of the battle site showed me the location of the monument, actually situated on Lower Culp’s Hill. I didn’t make it to Lower Culp’s Hill.
In a video on http://www.gettysburgdaily.com, licensed guide Charlie Fennell explains the role of the 20th Connecticut on July 3, when their goal was to take back a trench that the Confederates had occupied. With Union artillery at their backs, shooting over their heads, the Connecticut troops advanced to the point where they were in range of the artillery fire. Private George Warner was struck by an exploding Union canister, which blew his arms off.
He not only lived but returned to Culp’s Hill in 1885 for the dedication of the monument to his regiment. Warner raised an American flag over the monument by walking forward with a rope tied to his waist through the flagpole pulley.
George Warner survived, but Joel C. Dickerman did not. I wonder if he was also wounded by friendly fire. He died in a field hospital on July 4. I found his grave at the Gettysburg National Cemetery. I sat quietly on the ground, shed a tear, and planted a 2012 penny next to the flat gravestone. I don’t know much about the 23-year-old soldier, but I honor his memory.