THE FIGHTING THAT RAGED in the vicinity to Devil's Den, Little and Big Round Tops and the "Wheatfield at Gettysburg on July 2,1863, was some of the fiercest of the Civil War. Charges and countercharges swept across those famous areas, leaving them slick with the gore of hundreds of dead and wounded from dozens of Union and Confederate regiments.
Among those embattled regiments was the Army of the Potomac's 10th.U.S. Regular Infantry, a unit in Colonel Sidney Burbank's 2nd Brigade of Brig. Gen.Romeyn B.Ayres" 2nd Division of Maj. Gen. George Sykes' V Corps, Burbank's brigade was made up of all Regular regiments, which in addition to the 10th included the 2nd, 7th, 11th and 17th infantries. Colonel Hannibal Day's 1st Brigade of Ayres' division was also composed of five Regular regiments, while Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed's four volunteer regiments making up the 3rd Brigade rounded out the division.
While volunteer regiments usually operated with their full complement of 10 companies, Regular companies were often taken from their regiment to serve at disparate location as semi-independent battalions. At Gettysburg, all of Days and Burbank's regiments had companies missing, and the 10th consisted of three companies totaling some 90 men, less than a full-strength company of 100 soldiers.
The soldiers of the 10th found Fisher brave, hard working and fair, a boy warrior who shouldered the difficult responsibilities of leadership with the aplomb that belied his tender years. Illustrating the complex nature of the conflict, Delaware had remained a border state and was considered a slave state. Fisher himself had a servant George, who accompanied the lieutenant while on campaign. Starting on June 28, Fisher's V Corp had made a series of forced marches to Gettysburg, arriving at the battlefield at midday on July l. On the afternoon of July 2, Ayres division was sent to the endangered Federal left near the Round Tops. While Weed's brigade got involved in the fight at the summit of Little Round Top, the two Regular brigades took up a position on the northern shoulder of the hill, where they faced eastward toward the Wheatfield. Burbank's men formed a battle line with Lieutenant Fisher's diminutive regiment in the center, while Day's Regulars stood to their rear in reserve.
Southern attacks hammered the Wheatfield and surrounding areas, pushing out the Union troops of Brig. Gen-John C. Caldwell's II Corps division that had tried to hold the region. Accordingly, in the late afternoon, Ayres ordered the two Regular brigades into the fight. The well-trained soldiers dutifully stepped off, scuffing over rock outcroppings as they made their way down into what would be known as the "Valley of Death," driving due east through the swampy bottom of Plum Run up a ridge to a stone wall that bordered the Wheatfield.
During their advance, Burbank's men were being peppered in the left flank by accurate fire from Big. Gens. George T. Anderson's and Henry L Benning's brigades to the southwest. After pausing behind the protective stone wall, some of Burbank's men crossed over and begtan towheel to their left to deal with their tormentors. Not long after they had done so, Brig Gent. W.T. Wofford's Confederate brigade came hurtling eastward down the Wheatfield road, a perfect position to catch the Regulars in the flank and rear.
Within moments, the Regulars' position became untenable as they absorbed a storm of shot from the front and rear. Refusing to be routed, the Regulars began an orderly retreat, stopping to deliver delaying volleys into their enemies-remarkable actions considering the tempest they were in. After they had cleared the Plum Run morass, Federal batteries open up, breaking the Southern charge. Other Federal troops, including Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford's V Corps division, pushed the Confederates back, and the Union held the Valley of Death as fighting ended on that terrible day.
Burbank's and Day's men had been engaged for only about an hour, but it had been a terrible 60 minutes. Burbank's infantry had borne the worst of the fight. His brigade suffered 447 casualties, nearly half its strength. The 10th U.S. was one of the hardest hit regiments, its meager ranks losing 551 men, among them the youthful Lieutenant Fisher.
Isaac Fisher, William's father, eventually learned of the fate of his son, and traveled to Gettysburg to reclaim his child's body and bring it back to Delaware. In an effort to learn more about what happened on July 2, Isaac wrote letters to many on William's comrades. Their answering communications document the 10th's fight and the efforts to bring the esteemed junior officer's body off the field so it would not become one of the many unknown corpses littering the landscape.
When reading about the Civil War it is easy to lose sight of the grim nature of combat and think only of the glory. Letters such as these help restore a sense of equilibrium to one's view of the conflict by conveying the chaos of battle. The writers were there, struggling through the muck of Plum Run with Fisher. They saw him receive his mortal wound and struggled to carry his body through a hail of gunfire. Those facts are communicated with an earnest, visceral and at times pathetic immediacy. In a way, the letters related to Fisher's death represent the suffering of all families, North and South, who lost loved ones in the horrible conflict.
ON JULY 13,1863 , ISAAC FISHER WILLIAM'S FATHER, WROTE TO HIS FATHER, WROTE TO HIS WIFE, SARAH, THAT HE HAD MET WITH ONE OF HIS SON'S FELLOW OFFICERS - WHO HAD BEEN WOUNDED ON JULY 2 - AND LEARNED FOR CERTAIN THE FATE OF HIS BOY.
City of Wilmington July 13th 1863
...it is 10'oclock and I have retired to my room to grieve in private. Our worst fears are realized and I know that William is no more. I have seen Lt-Bradford who is at home slightly wounded in the foot and he told me that he saw the dead body of our dear boy. He was killed on Thursday the 2nd of July as we supposed, by a musket or rifle ball in or through the body and was buried with the other officer named in the list. Lt Bradford says he thinks they were put in coffins and that I shall obtain his sword and other personal effects which will be very valuable to us as mementos My heart sinks, as I contemplate this sad information, we have made the most costly sacrifice that we could possible offer on the altar of our country, and if it is not sufficient we must perish. How my heart bleeds as I call up past reminiscences of our poor boy. I well remember the first sound I ever heard issue from his mouth, poor little innocent babe. If I have ever done wrong by him in any thing I trust I may be forgiven I leave at 5'oclock in the morning for Baltimore and thence by the nearest route to the battlefield from whence I will write again if I can.
Isaac M- Fisher
LIETENANT GEORGE LAUMAN OF THE 10TH INFANTRY, WRITIHG FROM THE REGIMENT'S CAMP IN VIRGINIA, DETAILED HIS MEMORIES OF WILLIAM AND HIS MORTAL WOUNDING.
Camp near Warrenton Va July 30th/63
Mr. I. M. Fisher
My dear Sir,
I received you note of the 23rd inst. And I can assure you it is not the least trouble to furnish you with all the information in my power concerning the death of your Son who I always esteemed as a friend. The Brigade [of] which the 10th U.S. Infantry formed a part, was drawn up in line of Battle to the north of round top mountain. In front of our line was a deep ravine, about three or four hundred yards in width, with a swamp running through the center, and on each side the ground was covered with large stones, and rocks, which we had to cross before reaching the woods in our front. About 4 o'clock PM, we received orders to move forward on the double quick and take the wood's in our front [and] we crossed the ravine with the loss of a few men, when we recd. Orders to halt about ten yards from the woods. We remained in this position about ten or fifteen minutes, when we recd. Orders to move up to the edge of the woods and halt. Which we did when the 2nd 7th and 120th Inft. Battalions recd. Orders to wheel to the left and relieve a Brigade of the 2nd Corps which had moved up while we where [sic] in line of battle about ten paces form the woods. After our three Battalions made the left wheel our Brigade formed two sides of a square, we remained in this position about ten minutes when I discovered Rebels on our flank and moving down on our front in heavy force, and as the Colonel commanding the Brigade had not yet taken notice of the Rebels flanking his Brigade on the right, I left my company and started to the rear, after going about, twenty paces I found the Colonel and informed him that the Rebels had turned his right flank. I then returned and joined my company. When we recd.orders to fall back to the edge of the woods, but before we where [sic] out of the woods, the Rebels where [sic] some distance out. So instead of halting at the edge of the woods we recd. Orders to fall back to our first position on the hill. Your son must have recd. His death wound while I was back giving Colonel Burbank information about he rebels being in his rear. As I did not know Lt. Fisher had been struck, until after the company had moved back out of the woods some twenty or thirty yards when I met Lt.'s Wells and Hamilton 1st Sergt McCabe of Co. G and one man of H Co. carrying some officer. I stopped [sic] and asked Lt. Hamilton who it was, when he replyed poor Fisher. I then walked over to the party and looked at your son who I knew was about breathing his last. I then asked Mr. Hamilton if he had spoke or not since he had been shot, answer no, not one word. I then had to leave the party as my company had got some distance in advance of me, telling them to hurry on with your son as the rebels were close in their rear. I had no watch at the time but I would judge it to have been about 5'oclock that your son received his death wound. His sword and scabbard was left where he was shot as those around him thought of nothing but getting his body off the field of battle. And his sword belt I am sorry to say was taken from his body before we could get to it
The day of the Battle your son was Lt. Of G Co. I having recd. Order to take command of H and G companies being so very small. The man who placed the head board, and prepared the cared, that was fastened to it, was also one of the men who helped to bury your son his name is John A. Buchan, a private of company H 10th U.S. Infty.
And as for your son being hone and brave I will answer in this way, your son joined the regiment about the 16th of March /62 from which time to his death, we had always been together, I have been in every Battle with your son and I do not think their [sic] is a braver or more honest officer in the U.S.A.
Captain E.G. Bush, 10th Infy had charge of your son's watch and clothing and desired me to ask you what you wished him to do whether he shall keep your son's effects till called for or send them to you by express.
Your son was struck in the left side just below the heart.
Most respectfully your friend
Geog. Lauman 10th U.S. Infy
LIEUTENANT GEORGE HAMILTON WAS AT FISHER'S SIDE WHEN HE WAS HIT, AND HELPED CARRY HIM TO THE REAR UNTIL THE SOUTHERN GUNFIRE BECAME TOO HEAVY. HAMILTON AND HIS ASSISTANTS CAREFULLY PLACED FISHER IN A SPOT THEY COULD EASILY IDENTIFY IN ORDER TO RECOVER THE BODY AFTER THE FIGHT.
August 16th 1863
To Mr. Isaac M. Fisher Esq
I received your note of the 23rd of July and I am very sorry that it was not in my power to answer it before this time for at the rime that I received you note I was sick in Camp and about the first of August I was sent to hospital where I have been very sick but thank God I am getting over my sickness, and I take the first opportunity of addressing to you a few lines in answer to your note, for I can insure you that it is with pleasure that I give to the Father of Lt. W.J. Fisher all the information in my power concerning his last moments.I was within two feet of him and he make to turn round to the left and raised his left arm and placed it around my neck, and he would have fallen to the ground had I not supported him by pressing my right arm around his body, at the same time asking him was he wounded but he did not answer me nor he did not speak one word from the time that he was struck and him being helpless in my arms I called for assistance to take Lt. Fisherso Lt. Welles of the 10th Infty. and 1st Sergt. McCabe of Co G 10th Infy and one private cam to my assistance when we lifted him [off] his feet and carried him out of the woods into the open lot and as we crossed this open lot and had for about 15 or 20 paces from the woods the enemy being in our rear and on both right and left of us.
Sgt. McCabe got wounded in the side and fell but still we carried your son in until Lt. Welles got wounded in the leg and than [sic] we had to lay him down for the Brigade was leaving us far behind so we laid his body down. The place is marked by two very large stones near a lone tree and it was along side of one of those stones that Lt. Welles and me laid down the body of your son and after I had left him a few paces I returned and took possession of his watch which was turned over to Capt. Bush of the 10th Infty along with all his effects.
You wish to know if he lingered after he was struck of if he seemed to suffer with pain. Now to the best of my opinion he did not live five minutes after he received the wound nor did he seem to be in the least pain for when I stooped over him to take his watch their was seemingly no life and their was a smile on his countenance.
Now I have been in the army nearly six years and I have been under a good many officers in that time for it was only in July '62 that I received my commission but I left Washington on the 10th of March '62 with the army of the Potomac and since that time I have been personally acquainted with your son W. J. Fisher and have been under his command for part of the time and a more braver young man I do not know and as to being honest and upright his superior does not live, and he had the respect of all that knew him from the highest to the lowest in the army.
You also asked to know when he was buried and who placed the card on his headboard. He was buried about nine of clock in the morning and the name of the man that placed the cared on his headboard Privat Wm Buchan of Co. H 10th Infty.
George Hamilton 2nd Lt. 10th Infantry
LIEUTENANT ROBERT G. WELLES ALSO HELPED CARRY OFF FISHER'S BODY. SUFFERING A WOUND IN THE PROCESS THAT KEPT HIM OUT OF ACTION FOR MONTHS.
August 23, 1863
Isaac M. Fisher Esq-
.I.will endeavor to give you so far as I am able a small account of the death of your son Lt. Fisher.
The encampment during the morning of the 1st of July near the town of Hanover, Pa. About 2 P.M. we stated and marched until 11 P.M. when we halted in the road about three miles from Gettysburg--- resting there until 3 Am, July 2-when we moved forward , and halted in front of a heavy piece of oak trunk about half a mile north of Gettysburg.
Then Capt. Bush and myself with some men went forward, and commenced skirmishing with the Rebel Pickets. I was absent from the Regt. Until 12 M when I joined them-they had moved to the left and [illegible] of the line of battle and were resting in the shade of a large [illegible]. In front was a cornfield and a larger barn at the left used as a Hospital. On the right of the field a road or lane led directly to the front - another road running at right angle in front of us.
Lieut. Fisher seemed cheerful-we talked and laughed, wondering when we should go into the fight.
About 3 PM we moved forward by flank and double quick-then forward into lines which brought us to crest of the hill, the meadow in front, Round Top Mt. Being some distance at our left. We crossed the meadow up the opposite side of ground, and the fight commenced. There we came to the only fence we had in our way-back of this fence was oak timber-It was about six rods further on that Lt. Fisher was shot. We had been engaged probably ten minutes when I saw Lt. Fisher suddenly clasp his hands upon his breast and fall. I cannot tell the precise spot where he was hit, but know it was on his right side near his breast. Jus as he fell, the order was given to fall back, the Rebels attempting to flank us. I passed where Lt. Fisher was lying, he looked up-in that look was everything! I had known him long, he was about my own age, and our time in camp had been spent mostly with each other.
I thought he might be only seriously wounded, little dreaming he was to die so soon. Lieut. Hamilton assisted us and he was carried some distance where we laid him down for a moment. When Sergt. McCabe came and we put his Rifle under him but barely raised from the ground, when the Sergt. Was shot. I then raised him in my own arms and carried him down the hill near to the stream in the meadow; but before we reached there he died. During all that time he said not a word, and I don't think he suffered much pain, if any. I felt him straighten and go rigid as I carried him and he died like one going to sleep. What he was conscious I am quite certain for when I first saw him after he fell, the look he gave me was more appealing than any words he could have uttered-afterwards, when the Sergt. came he looked first at one , and the then the other, as if he knew who we were.
To you, who knew him so well it is not necessary for me to speak words in his praise. He commanded the respect and esteem of all - he died nobly in a glorious fight.
Just as I reached the stream with him I was wounded and could do no more - his watch and what was in his pockets were taken by some one of the officers of the 10th and will be forwarded to you if you have not already received them. Lieut. Lauman had Lt. Fishers pistol - his sword I think Lt. Hamilton brought off the filed, but I am not certain. At the time of Lieut. Fishers death he was acting as Lieut. Of Co. G. of our Regt.
Capt. Bush of the 10th was probably the one who placed the board at the head of his grave. With much sympathy for you all, in whom I shall ere fell a great interest from my acquaintance with your son, William.
Robert G. Welles
PRIVATE JOHN BUCHAN, WHO BURIED FISHER AND MARKED HIS TEMPORARY GRAVE, MADE IT PLAIN IN HIS MISSIVE THAT FISHER WAS LIKED AND RESPECTED BY THE ENLISTED MEN OF THE REGIMENT.
Camp [Illegible] NY NY City
September 8th 1863
I received your kind and welcome letter [of] August 26th. I shall relate the circumstances as correct as I can in regard of you sour son that was killed at the battle of Gettysburg. I was not with him when he was killed . But was there soon after the battle and saw his body. Careered back behind the hill and laid down there until the battle was over then hew was removed to the house near where he was buried He lay from about five in the evening until eight in the morning. I was one of the men sent to bury him. He as near as I could tell was shot just below his heart on the left side the ball passed out at his rite side
below his belt he aperantly had dyed very early for he was as natural as when he was alive and pale all that see him said he was the pretyest corpse the ever saw he was rapped up in a clean blanket and laid carefully in his grave such as it was. The paper that was on his headboard I got Captain Bush to write it so there would be no mistake. I then put it on with some pins. I then thought the rain might wash it off. I then marked the bord below the paper and that did not suite me for I thought as much of him as if he had been my own brother. I then went where there had been some wagons camped and found a peace of sugar box.. I.. Cut out the [illegible] With my posket knife and then marked them with my pencil so they might be seen plain. He was greatly missed in the Company, in fact in the whole regiment. The first battle I was with him was at Fredericksburg the 13th of December last he was as cool in the battle as he was out of it and as brave a man as there is in the regiment. There was not one man in the regiment but what thought a great deal of him and when on duty with him he wasn't cross like some of them he was kind and genteel to all of us
No more at present. But remains you obedient friend,
Forth Avenue between 13 and 14 St. New York
FIRST SERGEANT TERANCE McCABE WAS ALSO SHOT WHILE HELPING TO CARRY OFF THE STICKEN FISHER.
Fort Lafayette, NY St., 25th September 1863
...It gives me infinite pleasure, Sir, to give you all the information I can, relative toy your son, the late Lieut. Wm J. fisher, 20th Infy, an officer who was regarded with the utmost esteem, affection, and respect by his inferiors as well as by his superiors for his fine soldierly qualities, his gentlemanly deportment and his extreme kindness and unassuming manners towards those under him. - I have had the honor to serve under the immediate command of his really excellent officer ever since he entered the service and have been in his company in the 7 day fight, the battle of Gaines Hill [Mill], Mahon [Malvern] Hill, the battle of Antietam, the 1st Fredericksburg fight, the battle of Chancellorsville, the battle of Gettysburg, and several minor skirmishes. In all these general engagements he behaved with a coolness, intrepidity---and personal bravery almost unequalled during my long time of service. While in the Army, hw was always of a sedate, contemplative character and never did I hear a profane word come from his lips. When he was struck at the battle of Gettysburg (at which battle we lost near 2/3 of our regt,) he grasped a tree while falling and was carried to the rear by Lts. Hamilton, Weller, and myself. He rolled his eyes full of gratitude towards us but already he was speechless - he never uttered a word after being wounded. It moves me to tears now to recall this gloomy scene to my memory. He died brave as a lion to the last - and never even groaned when he received his mortal wound. == As I said before he was greatly beloved by every man in the brigade and died deeply regretted by everybody that knew him.
Your Obdt. Servt
1st Sergt Co G 10 U.S. Infy
AFTER THE TURN OF THE YEAR, LIEUTENANT HAMILTON WROTE AGAIN TO ISSAC FISHER ABOUT HIS SON.
Fort Columbus NYH.
Mr. Fisher Sir,
I will with the greatest of pleasure give you all the information in my power in answer to your letter I will let you know all the particulars of the engagements that your son took part in. We left Washington on the 10th day of March 1862 and crossed the Potomac into VA where we remained a few days and then we shipped for the Peninsula where we had no trouble until we got to York town where we had to work some time in the trenches. Your son had command of a company of the second U.S. Infty in the same Brigade with us. Which company he had command of all the Peninsula campaign that through the siege of York town and battle of Gains Mill and all the seven days fight and he was spoken of by both officers and men as a brave officer and soldier and the second bull runn and the battle of Antietam he still had command of the same company. I don not exactly remember the exact time that he came to his own regt. But all the fall and winter of sixty two and up to last July (we, that is your son and I) was always together. We was engaged in the battle of Frederickbrg. Va. And had to lay under the enemy's works for 24 hours so close that the enemy could be heard quite plain speak to one another. Y0u son Wm J. Fisher was out in front of the line of battle in command of a party of skirmishers for the above mentioned time. Next we was engaged in the battle of Chancellorsville Va. Where I believe that your son Wm J. Fisher was spoken of in the Commanding Officers report very highly. After that we had a long rest and nothing was done by the army worth of notice until the march to Gettysburg. Pa.. which was a very hard march for many very strong men was left behind on the way not able to keep up with their command. But as to your son he was still with this company through all difficulties for a few days before the battle (on the fatal day that deprived you of a son, me of a comrade and last but not least, his country of a valuable officer) your son complained to me that he did not feel very well and that the command would be engaged with the enemy and him not their for that he would rather suffer a good deal than not to be with this company if they should be engaged and on the fatal day he was in his place in rear of his company.
.. I called for help to carry Mr. Fisher off and all being falling back. Lt. Welles 10th Infty and Srgt McCabe came to my assistance. We had got him about 200 yards from the place where he was struck when Sergt McCabe was wounded in the back so Lt. Welles and I carried him some distance further when Lt. Welles was wounded in the leg, so I had to lay his body down as I mentioned in my previous letter.
So I think that is about all the particulars that I am able to remember at this time but if there is any information that you think I have omitted in this I will be most happy [to] answer you letters.
Yours with respect.
Geo Hamilton . Lt. 10 U.S. Infty
Article written by Dana B. Shoaf.
Mr. Shoaf is the editor of America's Civil War. The remarkable collection of William J. Fisher memorabilia, of which the above items are only a part, was purchased by the friends of the National Parks at Gettsyburg (FNPG) in 2001 an donated to the Gettysburg National Military Park. The Friend's mission is to "support, protect and enhance the resources associated with the National Parks at Gettysburg" They may be contacted at 717-334-0772 or www.friendsofgettysburg.org
Sykes Regulars would like to thank Dana Shoaf for giving us permission to have this article on our web site. Information on Regulars is often scarce and we are very pleased to have such a detailed account of the sacrifice of a Regular officer. Anyone wishing to visit the artifacts first should contact Gettysburg Military Park. I will try to get more details on how to do this.