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American Civil War Canadians wear the blue & the grey: in the hallowed grounds of the Soldiers' National Cemetery are the remains of hundreds of Canadians who fought in the three-day epic Battle of Gettysburg.

If you have ever been in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania around the anniversary of the battle, July 1-3, 1863, you are well aware of the crush of people who flock to this hallowed ground to pay homage and walk in the shoes of history. One of the most visited places is the Soldiers' National Cemetery, which has its share of Canadians, known and unknown. Canadians were well-represented among the estimated 55,000 casualties, dead, wounded and missing.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered one of the great historic battles of the Civil War, or "The War of Northern Aggression" as Southerners prefer to call it (which it was, depending on which side of the fence one sits). Of the estimated 180,000 men who took part, almost one in three were killed, wounded or captured. By any standard, this is an appalling casualty rate.


Due to the efforts of Canadian Civil War historian Thomas Brooks of Gravenhurst (author of The History of the 10th Louisiana), many Canadians who fell at Gettysburg have been identified. From the first shots fired on July 1st to the climax of the battle at Pickett's Charge on July 3rd, sons of the colony of Canada were heavily involved in the Battle of Gettysburg with both Union and Confederate armies.

On July 1st the 24th Michigan regiment of the Iron Brigade was one of the first Federal units engaged. Of the 49 known Canadians serving in the 24th at least half were killed, captured or wounded while holding off the Confederate advance. One of the first men to fall on the field of honour was Color Corporal Charles Bellore of southern Ontario. In the first hour of the battle, Bellore was hit in the chest while carrying the colors. There is no record available that his body was identified.

Also among the Canadian fatalities is 18-year-old Alex Lester of New Brunswick, who served as a private with the 20th Maine, and Toronto's 29-year-old Lt. Robert Evans, of the 108th New York, Lester died in the repulse of the Confederate assault of Little Round Top on July 2nd. The heroism of the 20th Maine is chronicled in the 1993 movie Gettysburg. The bravery of Lester and his comrades is credited with saving the left flank of the Union Army and the battle.

Around the same time Lester was mortally wounded and less than a mile away, near the right flank on Cemetery Hill, Evans laid dying in the arms of a fellow Canadian and regimental comrade, Dr. Francis Wafer of Kingston, Ontario. Evans had been struck by a shell fragment during an artillery bombardment. Wafer later wrote in his diary that Evans "rolled over in the agonies of death, shot in the brain, the bullet had struck just in front of the ear and passed out behind, tearing up one of the most vital parts of the brain. He expired twenty minutes later." Both Lester and Evans lay among the 960 unidentified Union graves at Gettysburg. No record has been found of their bodies having been returned to Canada. This would be highly unlikely as they both died early in the battle.


The weather that July was uncommonly hot. Soldiers referred to it as "a killing heat." The battle had been so fierce that most bodies of the men and animals could not be recovered until well after the last shot was fired (more than 5,000 horses and mules were killed during the battle of Gettysburg alone). By July 4th, the decomposing bodies and carcasses suffered in the first days of battle were in advanced stages of putrefaction and proved a serious health problem. This became a factor in the establishment of what is now the Soldiers' National Cemetery of Gettysburg.

After the battle, Lt. Robert Stiles (Union Army) recoiled from the rotting unburied dead strewn in every conceivable manner across the battlefield and in the town of Gettysburg itself. He wrote: "The sights and smells were simply indescribable - corpses swollen to twice their original size. Some actually burst with the pressure of foul gases. Odors so deadly that in a short time we were all sickened and lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of use vomiting profusely."

In his later years, long after the battle, another Union soldier wrote: "I found my head reeling, the tears flowing and my stomach sick at the sight. For months the spectre haunted my dreams and even after years it comes back as the most horrible vision I have every conceived."

Exactly how many Canadians fought at the Battle of Gettysburg is hard to say. Based on the historical notion that over 50,000 Canadians fought on the side of the Union, one may surmise that Canadians comprised approximately three per cent of the Union forces at any given time. This would be about 3,000 of the 105,000 men of the Army of the Potomac. (Confederate strength was estimated at approximately 75,000.) However, not all Canadians crossed the border to enlist. At the outbreak of war in 1861, some 250,000 Canadians lived and worked in the northern states. The lumber industry in Maine and other East Coast states accounted for large numbers of enlistments from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Many simply went with their American friends and family, bounty money or a sense of adventure.

As for Canadians in Confederate ranks there are no statistics available. Records show Canadians who did wear grey were residing and working in the southern states at the outbreak of war. Unlikely among Confederate units were large numbers of Canadians in the 10th Louisiana. Also known as "Lee's Foreign Legion," 22 countries were represented on the roster. These enlistments came off ships calling at ports around New Orleans. The 10th was at Gettysburg and took heavy losses on July 2nd in the Confederate assault on Culp's Hill (Union right flank).

There was one notable Canadian at Gettysburg who fought on the side of the Confederacy. Dr. Solomon Secord of Kincardine, Ontario, and nephew of War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord, was a surgeon with the 20th Georgia. He was among the Confederate doctors who stayed behind to tend to Confederate wounded. Secord was imprisoned in Maryland and escaped back to Confederate lines, eventually returning to Canada. The memorial erected in the town square of Kincardine is the only monument to a Confederate officer in Canada.


For Gettysburg civilians the days after the battle came to be known as the "Days of Darkness." Horror worse than the battle itself descended upon the town's people. They were left to care for the dead and thousands of casualties under the glare of the July sun. The stench hung like a pall over the town, permeating homes, clothes, even food. As if their troubles were not great enough, they were treated to the heart-rending sight of thousands of relatives searching for missing sons, husbands and brothers.

Many of the lucky ones were able to bring their sons home. Coffins were shipped to Gettysburg. Some bodies were prepared with the new art of arterial embalming, others packed in ice. Union doctors practiced in the art of preservation embalmed the ones they couldn't save. At Camp Letterman, the largest of the Union field hospitals, "Embalming was as common as amputation or other medical services." It was a lucrative side business at $100. A tidy sum in 1863.

By end of July, it became clear large-scale removal of bodies could not continue. Colonel H.C. Alleman, commander of the Pennsylvania regiment stationed at Gettysburg, issued orders stopping the removal of bodies during August and September.

Incredibly, by late summer many soldiers, or what had been parts of men, in particular Confederates, still lay where they had fallen - on the ground, wedged between rocks, hanging from trees. Those whom had been buried were quickly rolled into shallow depressions by unwilling Confederate prisoners and squads of the Provost Marshall's office. However, when the first rain came it washed away the top soil, exposing legs and arms, whose shriveled hands seemed to point accusing fingers at their careless caretakers.


As this was going on, the idea of a national cemetery recognizing the fallen heroes was underway. After much bickering between officials it was decided to purchase a parcel of land next to Cemetery Hill, where much of the fighting of the first two days had occurred. Chief organizer was Gettysburg attorney David Wills. It was at Wills' home that Abraham Lincoln stayed the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address. Wills turned to William Saunders, a respected landscape gardener trained and educated at the University Of Edinburgh, Scotland. Saunders had a 15-year track record of designing cemeteries. He designed the layout so "no state or individual would be assigned a spot that might seem inferior." Graves were arranged in a semicircle, by state, with a central monument. Headstones were identical to support the notion of equality in death.


In mid-October Wills accepted a bid by one F.W. Biesecker of $1.59 per body to exhume and rebury in the new cemetery. Method of identification between Union and Confederate dead was simple: types of doming. Easiest was the dark blue wool union coat and light Kersey blue wool pants. Failing that, Confederate uniforms was mostly irregular: shirt styles, pants and underclothing were different enough in style to be identifiable. Most rebel clothing was what was known as "Jean cloth," a light cotton-based fabric worn in hot weather.

The cause of Union and Confederate misidentification is easily explained. Short supplied rebel soldiers were known to strip clothing and possessions of Union dead. In turn, Union soldiers often picked up or traded for equipment with comrades.

In death there was no equality between Union and Confederate: "In no instance was a body allowed to be removed which had any portion of rebel clothing on it." Later this was a source of great bitterness among Southerners. "The Rebel dead, almost without exception, are buried promiscuously in single graves or trenches, where they lie unwept and unhonored," wrote an unidentified visitor in July 1863. However, the Confederates did have the last laugh. Despite claims of being able to identify bodies with rebel clothing, at least eight Confederates have been confirmed as buried in the national cemetery.

Sadly, Confederates were buried where they fell. Years later their bodies were removed en masse and reburied in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. To this very day, bodies are still being discovered in the Gettysburg area.

Eventually a total of 3,512 bodies were moved to the new cemetery. At least 1,664 bodies were partially identified by initials or complete names on clothing or accoutrements. In spite of these efforts over 960 had to be buried "unidentified."


Perhaps the most interesting connection of Canadians to the Battle of Gettysburg is the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery and the Gettysburg Address itself.

In November 1863 future Father of Confederation William McDougall was in Washington, D.C. to meet with Abraham Lincoln to renegotiate the Reciprocity Treaty. One reason why McDougall had been chosen as Canada's representative was because he was a friend of Lincoln's. On the 18th McDougall called on the president. Pressed for time, Lincoln invited McDougall to accompany him on his trip to Gettysburg as he was to "say a few words" at the dedication of the new Soldiers' National Cemetery. Known for his long-winded orations, Lincoln was asked to "keep it brief."

On the 19th the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated before a crowd estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000; among them William McDougall. The day was bright, weather crisp. Edward Everett, a renowned orator of the time, spoke for over two hours. When he finished Lincoln got up to make his "few appropriate remarks." Speaking for less than two minutes, the tall gaunt figure in the stovepipe hat began with the immortal words, "Four score and seven years ago ..." The fact the speech was so short accounts for the lack of photographs of Lincoln's address as the president had finished speaking before any photographer could set up. The only plate in existence is a blurred picture of Lincoln shaking hands afterward.

Ironically, the Gettysburg address was not initially a success with the American people. It was described in American papers as "boring" and "trite." Only after it was printed and acclaimed in British papers did the American public come to realize that one of the great speeches of history had been made.


Among the known Canadians in the Soldiers' National Cemetery are:

* Corporal Richard Scully of New Brunswick, 7th infantree, Maine plot

* Private Charles Fulmer, Hamilton, Ontario, wounded in action on July 3, died July 25th (F-2 Michigan plot)

* Private William Hammonds, East Hamburg, shot left side, July 2, died July 15th (A-28 United States Plot)

Recently I read on a military website an account of Canadian soldiers, in CADPAT, on tour at Gettysburg. They took a moment to visit the Canadian soldiers' graves and placed a maple leaf in respect. A moving and sincere gesture of brotherhood among soldiers. Only understood by soldiers, no matter the colour of the cloth of their uniform or era of service.

People are often amazed to find Canadians in the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Any and all who visit can thank Thomas Brooks, a Canadian Civil War historian and the first to identify the Canadian graves in the early 1990s. Brooks also placed the first Canadian flags at their graves to let the world know our boys were there. I know, because I was standing there beside him when he did it.


Besides Gettysburg, Canadian involvement in the Civil War is rather impressive. Twenty-nine won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and four rose to the rank of general. Up to 1865, enlistment in the Civil War was the greatest concentration of Canadians for a war effort. This number was unmatched until exceeded by enlistment in World War I and World War II. In contrast to the American states, Canadian enlistment provided the 13th largest number of troops for the Union cause, surpassing that of several states. The total of Canadians wearing blue exceeded the size of Robert E. Lee's army (approximately 45,000) when it surrendered at Appomatox Court House on April 12, 1865. Albeit a distant thought, one cannot but help wonder what kind of difference it might have made had those boys worn grey instead of blue.

And so, when July 1st rolls around, cast your eyes south and think of our lads from places like Kingston, Windsor, St. John's, and Montreal. Boys who lie forever young, beneath the soil of a small town in Pennsylvania. No memorial in the land of their birth honors them. No bell tolls for them in Canadian towns. No Canadian history books celebrate their sacrifice. But they were there. And as Abraham Lincoln said, "They gave the last full measure of devotion."

If you do happen by the Soldiers' National Cemetery, seek our lads out and say a prayer. Stay a moment and think on them. Who they were. What they gave. What their lives might have been. Let them know they are not forgotten. We owe them that.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Culliton, Paul
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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