Pittsburgh to Gettysburg

The region’s mark on the continent’s biggest battle
Reenactment photo: Nagel Photography Pittsburgh to Gettysburg
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During a muggy June in 1863, Civil War-​weary Pittsburghers panicked at rumors that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was marching his Army of Northern Virginia toward Pennsylvania.

The rumors, as we now know a century and a half later, were indeed true — although Pittsburgh was about 200 miles west of the small farming town of Gettysburg where the Union and Confederate armies horrifically clashed north of the Mason-​Dixon line.

The Battle of Gettysburg — fought July 1, 2 and 3, 1863 in the Adams County town — remains the largest battle ever fought on North American soil, producing some 53,000 casualties: men killed, wounded or missing. And given our region’s reputation for a strong work ethic, historians say it should come as no surprise that Pittsburghers made a significant contribution not only in Gettysburg, but to the overall four-​year ordeal of the Civil War that began on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter.

The city, especially early in the war, responded very strongly and was known for sending a large volume of men,” says Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Senator John Heinz History Center. “When Lincoln requested troops from this area, the response was so enthusiastic that they doubled the number of men (expected) from this area… People really saw it as a civic duty and responsibility to get out there.”

In June of 1863, some emergency regiments were formed locally, with people anticipating Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, says Michael Kraus, curator at the Soldiers & Sailors Hall & Museum in Oakland. Meanwhile, male citizens of Allegheny County were required to help build trenches and fences around Pittsburgh to prevent it from attack that ultimately never came.

The regiments with Pittsburgh men that ended up fighting in Gettysburg already were out in the field, in Virginia and Maryland, and they responded by heading north. The journey back to Pennsylvania surely was emotional, Kraus says. “Any Pennsylvanian who was marching across the border from Maryland into Pennsylvania… had a well of pride. It was very meaningful for them to be in Pennsylvania.”

A Noble Calling

Although no reliable figures state how many Pittsburgh-​area men fought at Gettysburg, we know that when President Lincoln called for volunteers, government officials requested 1,609 Army enrollments from Allegheny City, which today is Pittsburgh’s North Side. Instead, 5,709 men enlisted from there, Przybylek says. The Army requested 3,227 enlistments from Pittsburgh, and got 11,187. Overall, Kraus says, Allegheny County supplied nearly 26,000 troops for the Civil War.

And in Gettysburg — where 93,700 Union troops fought 70,100 Confederates — 14 regiments contained Pittsburghers. Some were heavily local, while others just had a company or two. During the Civil War, an Army regiment typically had about 1,000 men, with each regiment typically containing 10 companies of about 100 men each. Regiments often drew from one primary geographic area in a state, though many had men from more than one city or state, and companies usually featured men from the same neighborhoods and nearby communities.

In Gettysburg, three regiments with local ties played the most significant fighting role: the 74th, 62nd and 155th Pennsylvania, says Deb Novotny, a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park.

They’re in some really hot spots,” Novotny says.

The 74th Pennsylvania: A German Regiment

America drew thousands of European immigrants in the 19th century, and many of them fought for their new country. Some 200,000 Germanic men — immigrants and first-​generation Americans from Germany, Switzerland and Austria — served in the entire Union Army during the Civil War. That is about 10 percent of Union forces, and the Germans formed the biggest ethnic group. “It… speaks volumes that people stepped up and said, ‘We’ll go; We’ll serve,’ ” Kraus says.

Several regiments with mostly German men, many of whom spoke limited English, formed. The 74th Pennsylvania, featuring mostly German guys from the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, faced a major fight on the first day, when Lee’s troops arrived just west of Gettysburg. The men of the 74th — marching in from near Emmitsburg, Md. — could hear the cannons firing when they came within six miles of the fight, Novotny says. They ran toward the action, each carrying some 50 pounds of equipment. The unit suffered heavy casualties.

The 74th Pennsylvania monument stands on West Howard Avenue. It is highly recognizable, with a statue of a man holding a flag atop a base, representing the fallen color bearer.

The 62nd Pennsylvania: Defending the Wheatfield

Some of the fiercest fighting over the three-​day battle happened July 2 in the Wheatfield, which switched between Union and Confederate control at least six times that afternoon and produced more than 6,000 casualties. The 62nd Pennsylvania suffered high casualties. This regiment was organized in Pittsburgh as the 33rd Pennsylvania on Aug. 31, 1861; after the members left for Washington, D.C., the regiment’s name changed to the 62nd that November. The 62nd contained men from Allegheny, Clarion, Jefferson and Blair counties. Pittsburgh attorney Col. Jacob B. Sweitzer led the Second Brigade of the Fifth Army Corps’ First Division, which included the 62nd Pennsylvania. The regiment’s monument towers over the Wheatfield, just south of town.

The 155th Pennsylvania: Pearson’s Zouaves

Zouave units in the Civil War — inspired by French Zouave army units from the 1830s —were known for their eye-​catching uniforms, with an Arab-​inspired short jackets, baggy trousers and colorful fez caps. The 155th Pennsylvania was not clad in these uniforms during the Gettysburg battle, but all Zouave units were considered elite and had a reputation of being recklessly brave, according to the Civil War Trust.

The men of the 155th had their glory day on July 2, when they helped defend Little Round Top — a hill both armies recognized as critical to hold. The tall, grand monument to the 155th stands near the summit of Little Round Top. The Zouave-​clad soldier topping the monument gazes toward where the enemy gathered at the foot of the hill.

Two prominent Pittsburgh officers led the 155th: Lt. Col. John H. Cain, who resigned after Gettysburg. Alfred L. Pearson, who began as a captain, then became the regiment’s colonel in August of 1863. Pearson, a lawyer, later won a Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Lewis’ Farm in March of 1865.

Noteworthy Pittsburghers

Franklin native Alexander Hays served as colonel of the 63rd Pennsylvania, which recruited men exclusively from Allegheny County in August of 1861. Later promoted to brigadier general, Hays led the Third Division of the Second Corps at Gettysburg, which played a major role defending Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge on July 3. Men in Hays’ division captured numerous Confederate flags, prisoners and weapons during the battle. The Hays monument stands south of town at the north end of Hancock Avenue. Hays, who is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, was killed in the Wilderness fighting on May 5, 1864. He was named major general posthumously for his brave service.

One quirky regiment — the 149th Pennsylvania, known as the Bucktails for the regimental custom of men wearing on their hats the tails of deer they shot — had one company from Allegheny County, though the regiment was formed in 1862 in Harrisburg. This regiment played a role in defending the McPherson’s Ridge, which allowed time for more Union troops to arrive on the first day of battle and defend against the Confederate invasion.

The 102nd Pennsylvania may not have played a major fighting role at Gettysburg, as its Sixth Corps didn’t arrive until later in the battle. But this regiment is known for its mascot, “Dog Jack,” who started as the mascot for the Niagara Volunteer Fire Company in the Strip District. Dog Jack, a brown and white mixed breed, loyally and bravely accompanied his soldiers on their journey. The animal was the subject of both a book and a movie.

You can read all about the Civil War and the dramatic Battle of Gettysburg, but nothing makes it real like visiting the Adams County town where the war’s biggest battle happened on July 13, 1863. The Borough of Gettysburg offers much to do condensed into a small area: museums, shopping, and of course, Gettysburg National Military Park. You can contact the National Park Service and arrange a private tour of the battlefield with a licensed battlefield guide, and ask the guide to point out the spots where Pittsburgh-​bred regiments fought.

The website pacivil​war​.com provides many details about each state regiment. To learn more about a regiment’s memorial monument, visit get​tys​burg​.stone​sen​tinels​.com. For more information on planning a Gettysburg vacation and battlefield tour, visit:


Kellie B. Gormly

Kellie B. Gormly is a journalist and author who lives on Neville Island.

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