On July 2nd in 1863 the 44th NY regiment moved into place on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
The 44th was mustered in Albany in August 1861. By 1862 the regiment had lost about 80% of its men, down to 200 from its original complement of about 1,000. Two companies of new recruits were added from the State Normal School, and another company from Yates County.
After a march of about 20 miles (following its last battle in Aldie, Va. in late June) it reached Gettysburg. The 44th was part of 3rd brigade of 5th Corps. It had seen brutal fighting at Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. It was moved into position on the southern end of the field, south of the small town of Gettysburg.
Under the brigade commander Col. Strong Vincent, the 44th, part of the 12th NY, along with the 20th Maine, the 16th Michigan and the 83rd Pennsylvania, was moved into position on an undefended strategically important hill that would become known as Little Round Top.
The 44th was in the middle of the line. Down below were rebel troops from Alabama and Texas. Farther off were Confederate sharpshooters who had been forced into Devil’s Den by the 40th NY (another battle tested unit of veteran fighters) in Plum Run, trying to pick off Union soldiers one at a time.
The fighting began late in the afternoon of the the 2nd when the Union forces began to take fire from Confederate batteries once Union forces reached the top of the hill.
Col. Strong Vincent (83rd PA) was soon mortally wounded. Command was assumed by Col. James Clay Rice of the 44th NY, who left Col. Freeman Conner in charge of the of the 44th.
The fighting continued for hours. It was blazing hot. Water and rations were in short supply. The men of the 44th and the rest of brigade had slight cover from small rocks and scattered boulders
Initially part of the force tried advancing down the hill under the command of Capt. Lucius Larrabee (Company B, 44th). They made it about 200 yards down the slope; Larrabee was killed and the group retreated back up the hill.
The fighting would come in waves, as the Confederates launched several assaults, charging like “demons from Hell.”. Off to the side of the hill was a company of Maine Sharpshooters, whose skill tried to keep the Reb troops at bay, but they were not deterred. (Confederate casualties would be massive.)
The Union men held the line at great cost. 1/3 of the 44th was killed or wounded. Ammunition was in short supply. The contents of cartridge boxes of those no longer to able to fight provided ammunition for the living. The noise was fierce-some; the smoke haze caused by men to choke. It continued for hours. At one point Confederate soldiers came so close to the Union position there was a hand to hand skirmish near a hastily built stone wall.
As both forces grew weary the Confederate commander tried to out flank the Union line, held by the 20th Maine, commanded by Joshua Chamberlain. As the men from Albany, Michigan and Pennsylvania and the Sharpshooters provided cover with the little ammunition left, Chamberlain’s men tried a daring move that has become the stuff of legend. Short on ammunition, his men “wheeled” down the slope with bayonets fixed as the Confederates charged towards the end of the Union line held by the men from Maine.
At the same time Union reinforcements arrived, including the 140th and the 146th NY and 2 Pennsylvania regiments, on the other end of the line. The center line on the hill – still the men from Albany, Michigan and Pennsylvania – held, as the Confederate troop were descended upon from both Union flanks. The Rebels were vanquished.
On July 3rd the men defending the hill were relieved. When the fight for Little Round Top was over 106 men of the 313 from the 44th were dead or wounded.
General Lee would try one more time on July 3rd to break the Union forces when he ordered Pickett’s forces to launch an assault on Cemetery Ridge. There were 1,500 Union casualties. Rebel forces met with disaster; over 5,000 casualties and close to 4,000 men taken prisoner. The North had won; the tide of the War had begun to turn. But as Lincoln asked 5 months later, could the Nation tested as it had been, endure?
The 44th Regiment monument is one of the largest on the historic Gettysburg battlefield. There’s a plaque that details the service of the 44th in the War.
Daughter of the Regiment
It also contains the name of a woman from the Albany area, Lora Hudson Bissell, who served as the nurse with the 44th. Her acknowledgement is remarkable. We know little about her early life. She appears to have been the daughter of a Baptist clergyman, orphaned at an early age, who became a school teacher.
When the Regiment was mustered in Albany she wrote a poem in its honor. She captured the hearts of the men, and became the “Daughter of the Regiment”. She traveled with the 44th NY as a nurse, serving with a regimental surgeon, Elias Bissell, whom she married in 1864, at about the time the Regiment mustered out.
Although the 44th would go on to fight in some of the most brutal battles as the War dragged on, Little Round Top was the defining moment for the men who survived and for the families of those who died. It exemplified the tenacity, grit, courage and ingenuity of the Union soldiers and captured imagination of the North. It’s a dramatic point in time that encapsulates and symbolizes the War, and was a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg and in War. Had Little Round Top not been held by Union forces we might live in a completely different country.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor