In the Civil War, as in any war, reputations were made and destroyed. Not only did certain individuals rise to prominence or fall to ruin, but so did entire groups of people–sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly.
The Eleventh Corps was one of those groups. After falling apart under the crushing flanking attack of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, the Eleventh were forever tagged as those “Damn Dutch” (referring to the fact that many of the men in the unit were first generation German immigrants). They were also called “Howard’s cowards” and “the flying Dutchmen.” They became the scapegoat for the Union loss at Chancellorsville, even though many said that the men in the ranks had performed admirably. One author claimed that “in reconnaissance they had been vigilant; in combat, brave; and in defeat, persistent.”
Thomas and Wilson Pottenger were privates in the Eleventh. They served in the 75th Ohio Infantry and came from Preble County, Ohio, an area that had its share of Germans. But the Pottengers were from some of the oldest of colonial families. A great-great grandfather of theirs had died in the Revolutionary War. Other ancestors had even served as soldiers in the King’s service prior to the Revolution.
On May 3rd at Chancellorsville, the day after Stonewall Jackson’s stunning flanking movement and subsequent wounding by his own troops, Wilson Pottenger was taken prisoner. He was sent from Chancellorsville to Richmond, Virginia to Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. He stayed there with many of his fellow Union soldiers until he was exchanged on October 3rd and sent back to fight.
Meanwhile, after the battle of Chancellorsville, Wilson’s brother Thomas marched to Gettysburg with those of the Eleventh Corps who hadn’t been killed or captured in the battle. The derision with which the soldiers of the Eleventh were treated did nothing for morale. The mocking left the men downcast and defeated as they headed toward Gettysburg.
One officer remembered “I recrossed [The Rappahannock River] with a heavy heart…and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I was ashamed of this battle, and deplored the sad experience of the Eleventh Corps.” Officers talked of resigning, and “a spirit of depression and lack of confidence” permeated the Eleventh as they left Chancellorsville.
On the first day of Gettysburg, the Eleventh again found itself right in the middle of a huge fight. When battle broke out between the Confederates and the Federal First Corps, the Eleventh was ordered to march the last 5 miles to Gettysburg on the double-quick. As they arrived, they hurried through town and were quickly put into formation northwest of Gettysburg facing a large force of Confederates.
The second and third divisions of the Eleventh arrived on the field before the first. The first division–led by General Francis Barlow–had been caught behind the wagon train of the First Corps and then had to slog through mud that was four inches deep to get to the front lines. By the time they arrived they were exhausted from double-quicking it through some nasty conditions. But as they came through town, they found some relief as the women of Gettysburg emerged from their homes and “stood along the sidewalks with buckets of water…doing all they could for the men.”
General Barlow pushed his division forward past where the third division was fighting. He went farther than his superiors had hoped or planned and tried to take Blocher’s knoll, which he perceived to be the “high ground.” Unfortunately, by pushing so far, he put his troops in an indefensible position.
As elements of the division came under fierce attack, one of Barlow’s brigade commanders, Adelbert Ames, ordered the 75th Ohio forward to hold the position. Colonel Andrew Harris, commanding officer of the 75th, was told to fix bayonets and advance. Later Harris would describe that moment as “perilous in the extreme” as they made “a fearful advance…at a dreadful cost of life.”
Four of the 75th’s twelve officers and one-fourth of the men who made the advance lay dead or dying. A full fifty-percent of the remaining officers and men were wounded, with many laying on the ground bleeding.
I don’t know for sure if this is the moment that Thomas Pottenger died, but it’s quite likely that it is. The records merely indicate he died on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg, killed in action.
Several months after the battle–just over 150 years ago–President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to give a speech at the dedication of the new National Cemetery there. When he spoke of “the brave men” who “struggled here” and “the dead” who “shall not have died in vain,” he referred to men like Thomas.
Over 1,000 of the more than 6,000 who were killed outright during the battle were interred at Gettysburg. Thomas was not one of them. His body was taken back to Preble County, Ohio where it was laid to rest next to his little brother who had died as a young child several years before.
For a nation that had to wait two more years and witness the expending of many thousands more lives to experience its “new birth of freedom,” the death of Thomas was merely a statistic. But for a mother and a father who had already buried one son, the loss of yet another was probably heart-wrenching.
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Thomas and Wilson Pottenger were my first cousins, five times removed. They were my fifth great-grandparents’ grandsons, my fourth great-grandmother’s nephews, my third great-grandmother’s cousins. As far as I know Thomas was my closest relative to fight at Gettysburg; and as of now, he is the only relative I have found who was killed in action in the Civil War.