Mike Parker: Adult summer reading program puts human face on history
On Tuesday, July 9, my wife and I attended “North Carolina and Gettysburg,” one of the presentations during the first-ever Adult Summer Reading Program at the Kinston-Lenoir County Public Library. The focus is “Rediscovering the Civil War.”
The reading program has been a collaborative effort between the public library and the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretative Center. Andy Bennett of the Interpretative Center gave a presentation and led the discussion that centered on the 26th North Carolina Infantry, the unit that suffered the greatest causalities at Gettysburg. Andy told the story in compelling detail about some of the combatants to “put a face” on what soldiers endured during the war.
The 26th North Carolina, initially commanded by Zebulon B. Vance, had companies of men formed from the middle and western portions of North Carolina. During the war, men from the same locales formed themselves into companies ranging from 70 to 100 men. They even elected their officers. At top strength, the 26th had 1,000 men.
Those who fought together were often brothers, fathers and sons, friends and neighbors. They knew each other. The 26th chewed dirt from New Bern in eastern North Carolina through the tough fighting on the peninsula of Virginia that put them in the heart of the Battle of Seven Days. Eventually, this unit ended up at Gettysburg.
On July 1, 1863, the first day of battle, the 26th had an effective strength of 800. The 26th engaged the Federal Iron Brigade. Of the 26th’s 800 men who entered the fray, 588 men were killed, wounded, or missing when the day ended. The evening after the battle was spent in mourning, tending the wounded, and preparing for action. The second day of Gettysburg, the 26th North Carolina was allowed to rest, regroup and reorganize.
On the third day, the 26th North Carolina headed toward a clump of trees on Seminary Ridge, the target designated by Gen. Lee as the point of concentration. The 26th North Carolina, now just 212 men strong, joined what became generally known as Pickett’s Charge. On July 3, 1863, the 26th lost another 120 men. The 26th North Carolina holds the distinction of suffering the greatest causalities of any unit, Confederate or Federal, during the Battle of Gettysburg.
I have not yet visited the Gettysburg battlefield, but I have looked over the ground at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse, places where two of my great-great grandfathers fought.
As I stood behind the stone wall of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, I gazed across that field and wondered how any general, Confederate or Union, could have sent men into the destruction that awaited Burnside’s men at Fredericksburg.
I went to Spotsylvania, where my twice great grandfather John Henry Parker was wounded. I looked around for the Bloody Angle only to discover I was standing at the exact spot where Federals penetrated the Confederate lines.
My dad used to tell me that “it’s a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”
Nothing makes that lesson clearer than walking a battlefield after reading up on troop movements during a battle. Read up on the Battle of Wyse Fork and then visit the ground near the memorial marker to Kirkland’s Brigade. That memorial was dedicated on the 153rd anniversary of the battle in 2018.
Although Andy covered a number of practical matters soldiers had to confront, such as the quest for shoes and transporting sparse supplies and equipment, I left the presentation with a deep sadness for the 708 men in gray missing, wounded, and killed. I grieved for families who never had a chance to bury their dead. I cannot imagine the sorrow the surviving 92 men endured.
Mike Parker is a columnist for Neuse News. You can reach him at email@example.com.