Interestingly, the sketch quoted at the end of my previous post (http://dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/45thInf/45thInfHistSketch.htm) reads for a while as if the 1st Corps’ left flank and the 11th Corps’ right flank (basically the left and right flank of all the actively engaged units on July 1) were the ones who initiated the retreat and that the right-most 1st Corps brigade and the left-most 11th Corps brigade were still able to hold their positions after withdrawing closer to Pennsylvania College (today’s Gettysburg College). A glance at detailed maps of the center of the Federal line indicates that this arguably was the weakest part. The 45th New York (and one or two other regiments) was required to be strung out as skirmishers between the right flank of the 1st Corps (near the Mummasburg Road) and the main line of the 11th Corps further to the east.
Who started withdrawing/fleeing/running/panicking first has been a point of argument since July 1863, not just between 1st and 11th Corps veterans, but between veterans of the three divisions in the 11th Corps. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post, but it bears mentioning here that a kind of defensiveness creeps into printed memories of 11th Corps actions at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. This is, of course, part of the challenge that faces historians. Even official records may be tainted by prejudice or self-serving blame-placement by those reporting their actions.
Again, let’s see how Christian Boehm describes the retreat through the town –
But the stubborn Captain Irsch, whose sharp eye had long recognized our calamity, shouted, “Comrades, it is too late for quick retreat; the situation calls for stubborn fight, imprisonment or death!” [Blogger’s Note: This was probably said in German] And as one we replied, “We will stand here and die fighting, or perish in prison!” So we advanced, the banner lifted high, through the streets congested with carriages, ambulances and refugees, towards the cemetery heights that promised shelter. At every western street corner enemy bullets pierced our ranks; so we turned against the enemy enabling our brothers to retreat under cover; and so the bloody street battle continued. When bullets began raining from the east as well, it meant saving the regimental colors. So Colonel Doebke and the brave Captain Corn led the head of the column into a protected alley by the church, while the gallant Major Koch fell to the ground badly wounded, and the rear guard reached the alley under heavy attack from east and west alike. Then the bad news from the head of the column: We are in a blind alley – men and colors must escape over fences to the nearby cemetery. Protected by Irsch’s heroic rear guard, under the leadership of valiant officers Lindemayer, Dietz, Hanf, Nitschke and the brave Ahlert, Leydecker, Gerson, Schlumpf and others, the charging enemy was repeatedly repulsed by taking shelter in houses and yards. For hours they continued to defy the enemy, capitulating only when no hope was left. (http://www.gdg.org/Research/Authored%20Items/45thnydedication.htm)
There were numerous captured Federal soldiers. Boehm describes what happened days later after the battle was over and an offer was made to the prisoners –
On July 4 we were assured of the great victory; the enemy offered parole to the 45th prisoners, as well as to others; but this was denied since it was considered dishonorable to obtain ones freedom from the beaten enemy while still on the field of battle. It was also believed that the badly beaten enemy would be incapable of taking the prisoners across the Potomac, let alone all the way to Richmond, and that the victorious Army of the Potomac would capture the entire enemy force along with us, or at least force the enemy to release us on this side of the Potomac. But it did not happen that way; (http://www.gdg.org/Research/Authored%20Items/45thnydedication.htm)
This story is repeated with brevity and slight variation on the 45th’s monument. Francis Irsch was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership during the early action at and near the McLean Barn as well as during the afternoon and evening in the streets in Gettysburg. His story does not end at Gettysburg, however, as he was held at Libby Prison in Richmond and was part of the tunnel escape in early 1864. More on Irsch in a later post.