Among the troops that waited in reserve at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, was a future Iowan, Charles Arad Gates, a member of the 1st New York Light Artillery Battery B. He was about to take part in one of the deadliest battles in American history that will see its 150th anniversary this July.
Charles Gates was an eighth generation American, a farmer who lived with his family near West Monroe, N.Y. His ancestors were among the 25,000 who migrated to New England between 1620 and 1638, bringing with them their Puritan values.
After the war, Gates moved to Iowa, joining his father, Arad, and brother, Alonzo (who served with the 10th Wisconsin). They purchased three farms in Honey Creek Township, Iowa County, near the small village of Koszta.
In 1867, Charles married Hannah Marcellus and by 1883 they had five children, all boys.
Many of Charles and Hannah Gates’ descendants still live in Iowa.
Charles Gates’ record of service lives on in the Gates family, with help from nearly 40 letters he wrote during his military service and a photograph taken during the war and stories retold by family through the generations.
As part of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the authors of this article — Charles great-grandson Steven Gates and his daughter, Megan — plan to visit the battlefield and take part in memorial events.
Despite his home never being directly threatened by the war, Gates chose to volunteer and was part of the 86,000 men that made up the Union Army’s Eastern Army under the command of Gen. George Meade.
By July 1863, Gates’ battery had earned a stellar reputation for its performance in the field. Gates had been wounded at Savage’s Station in June 1862 when a Confederate shell exploded near him, injuring his right hand and arm, and blinding him for several days. While he recovered he sometimes questioned his enlistment and explained his reasoning for fighting in letters home.
“This war must not end or the name of the United States will cease,” Gates wrote in November 1862, words that suggested his fear of losing a form of government committed to preserving his individual freedoms. Gates soon recovered and was sent back into battle with Battery B.
On July 1, 1863, after marching north at a rate of 30 miles per day in extreme heat, Gates’ battery reached Taneytown, Md. (12 miles south of Gettysburg). On July 2, 1863, they stopped at 4 a.m. to rest just a few miles south of the line on Cemetery Ridge that they would soon defend, exhausted from the long hot march.
At about 2 p.m. July 2, 1863, Union Gen. Daniel Sickles, commanding the Army’s 3rd Corps, began an ill-advised and unconventional advance about one-half mile west of Cemetery Ridge to Emmetsburg Road.
From his position on Cemetery Ridge, Gates was able to see much of the Battle of Gettysburg unfold along Union lines extending northward about 1.25 miles to Culp’s Hill and just southward to Little Round Top.
Battery B was soon ordered forward (west) from its south-central position of the Union Line at Cemetery Ridge to an exposed position to draw Confederate fire away from the engagements near Wheat Field.
During the next few hours, Battery B and others exchanged fire with Confederate batteries in one of the most evenly matched and vicious artillery duels since the war’s beginning. The range was close, with as little as 500 to 800 yards between enemies on open ground.
At about 4 p.m., the Wheat Field battles had reached a critical point and the battery was ordered to assist. Running low on ammunition, the battery rushed three-quarters of a mile south and took up a position near the Trostle house, on the east side of a creek called Plum Run.
“The rebels attacked along the whole line. Their main attack was made on the left flank. The rebs crossed the infantry and made a great charge against our left flank with about 4 thousand men,” Gates wrote on July 4, 1863. “It was the grandest sight I ever saw to see them advance on to our battery. They got right to our battery and shot the horses down so we couldn’t move the guns. Then our infantry met them. Then our corps was ordered up and we drove the rebs back across the open lane in front of us into the woods again where night put an end to one of the most terrible conflicts of the war.
“It was awful to lay and hear the cry of the wounded … just imagine an open plain about 2 miles long strewn with dead wounded and dying and gun carriages disabled. It is enough to make the heart of men sick of war.”
For participating Union batteries, at least 230 officers and men were casualties, and about 340 horses were killed during the second day of battle, according to historian L. Van Loan Naisawald.
But the third day was worse.
At 2 p.m. July 3, 1863, an estimated 142 Confederate guns positioned on Seminary Ridge began firing at Gates’ battery and four others that remained at Cemetery Ridge, according to historian George R. Stewart. Gates’ battery was the southernmost on the Union line, 175 yards south of the place where Lee had selected for Gen. Pickett to lead his troops in a grand assault meant to shatter the Union line.
Two of the battery’s guns had been disabled during the second day of battle, placing them at an extreme disadvantage when the enemy engaged, wrote Stephen Dreher about the battle in his “Baldwinsville Journal.”
“The morning of the 3rd opened with fickle firing and some cannonading,” Gates wrote July 4, 1863. “About 2 in the afternoon, the rebels opened with more than 70 pieces of cannon on our left flank in front of our corp and Sickle’s and such a terrible shower of shot and shell we never were in before.”
Five horses and nearly all of the drivers at the limber to the No. 1 gun were killed in minutes and then the gun itself was hit. Within moments, the No. 3 gun was torn from its carriage, and its caisson exploded. Then the No. 4 gun on the left received a direct hit, rendering it useless.
In less than half an hour, according to Stewart, Cpt. James Rority’s Battery B cannoneers had been reduced to only four men manning the No. 2 gun.
“It lasted about 2 hours when we were all most out of ammunition and almost fired out,” Gates wrote. “When the rebels appeared on the open plain in mass they came across the field in front in 4 lines of battle. There we were with our ammunition all gone, but 40 rounds of canister and all of our horses shot or disabled and my detachment too hot to man to the guns, but we stood to our post till the rebs drove us away from our guns with their bayonets.”
Infantrymen from the 19th Massachusetts and the few remaining cannoneers continued firing the last two guns at the enemy, and some of the Confederates began to retreat. However, a few of Kemper’s troops remained hidden in the rough ground in front of Battery B and attempted to charge its two remaining guns.
“We made awful havoc among their rank. We fired 5 rounds of canister at one time the last time when the rebels were in 8 feet of the muzzle of the guns,” Gates wrote. “Then we fell back and our infantry charged up through the battery and drove the rebels back across the field again with terrible slaughter.”
As Independence Day dawned, the Union collected its dead and mourned its losses, an estimated 23,051 killed, wounded, or missing.
“Father, it is the 4th of July today, a day we most always enjoy ourselves when we are at home, but it is a day of sorrow and mourning for we have to mourn the loss of 10 of our comrades who have fell in the last two days of fight and 21 that are wounded and suffering,” Gates wrote. “The life of a soldier. Our whole loss is 31 men killed and wounded and 51 horses killed. Captain Rority commanding our battery was shot dead with a ball through his head and one through his neck. Lt. Sheldon was wounded through both thighs.
“We are camped in rear of the battle ground. We are cut up so we shall not be able to go to the front very soon. We have been out and buried all of our boys that were killed today and have put head boards up so if any of their friends want to find them they can. It is getting dark out. I shall have to stop writing. The report is that the rebs are leaving.”
While Meade had the troop strength to quickly organize a counterassault, and perhaps break Lee’s retreating army, he chose to pause, giving Lee precious time to safely retreat, his Army reduced to nearly half its former strength.
Gates served the remainder of the war and was mustered out in June 1865. In 1883 while living in South Dakota, he contracted pneumonia at age 44 and died. He is buried near Kozta.
Steven M. Gates earned a doctorate from the University of Iowa and used Charles Arad’s letters for his dissertation. He is working with University of Iowa Press on a book, “Words that Preserved Union,” for publication in 2014.