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Return and Retreat at Gettysburg

Few soldiers had ever heard of Gettysburg before the blue and gray armies clashed there in July 1863. For one Pennsylvanian however, the crossroads town was more than a name on a map—it was his college town.

Frederic Klinefelter, the son of a middle-class merchant from York, was descended from German immigrants who settled in America prior to the Revolution. In the mid-1850s, Klinefelter left his family for bustling Cincinnati, to try his hand at being a machinist. After two years on the job, he received “a call of the spirit,” and returned to York to become a minister. In 1858, he completed a course of instruction at the York County Academy, and set off for Gettysburg College to continue his studies.

Klinefelter, about 1861. Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.
Klinefelter, about 1861. Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.

The Civil War interrupted his plans. Klinefelter was a 24-year-old junior and active in Phi Gamma Delta fraternity when Confederate artillery bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Less than a month later, he left college, and traveled to the Keystone State capital of Harrisburg, where he enlisted in Company H of the 16th Pennsylvania Infantry. He probably sat for this portrait in York, where the men trained. The regiment, part the Department of Pennsylvania under Gen. Robert Patterson, soon moved from York to Chambersburg, and then crossed the state border for Williamsport, Md.

In July 1861, Klinefelter and his comrades maintained a position on the far left of the Union Army during the Bull Run campaign. They marched through the western Virginia villages of Martinsburg, Bunker Hill and Charles Town. But the regiment did not participate in the culminating Bull Run engagement that ended in a Union rout. The 16th returned to Williamsport and mustered out at Harrisburg on July 30, 1861. It had suffered no combat casualties.

Klinefelter in 1862. Albumen print by Tyson Brothers of Gettysburg, Pa. Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
Klinefelter in 1862. Albumen print by Tyson Brothers of Gettysburg, Pa. Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

Klinefelter returned to Gettysburg College, where he graduated in 1862, giving an oration at the commencement ceremony. Later that year, he entered the Lutheran Theological Seminar in Gettysburg to complete his preparations to enter the ministry.

Meanwhile, in early June 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and headed for Pennsylvania. Uneasiness in south central Pennsylvania quickly escalated. In Harrisburg, Gov. Andrew Curtin proclaimed an emergency and called for 100,000 men “willing to defend their homes and their firesides” to be mustered into the federal service.

On June 16, a throng of Gettysburg College students met in front of Buehler’s Book Store and Horner’s Drug Store in Gettysburg to discuss the governor’s proclamation amidst the rising tension. From that impromptu meeting emerged a military company, the College Guards. About 60 students from the college and four from the seminary, including Klinefelter, signed on. Local men filled out the balance of the company. The students offered command to a respected professor, Frederick A. Muhlenberg, who promptly declined. So they turned to Klinefelter. He accepted and was elected captain.

The next morning, Capt. Klinefelter and his fellow stalwarts gathered in the “Diamond” of Gettysburg College to hear a patriotic speech by Professor Muhlenberg. After, they boarded a train, and by that afternoon arrived at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. They had earned the distinction as the first volunteers to be mustered in that day for emergency service. The student soldiers became Company A of the 26th Emergency Regiment. Over the next few days. volunteers from around the region joined their ranks, and filled companies B through K. The colonel of the new regiment, William W. Jennings, was, at age 24, a veteran officer of two Pennsylvania infantry regiments.

Another veteran in charge of the entire department was Maj. Gen. Darius Couch, a courageous West Pointer who had temporarily commanded the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Chancellorsville after Gen. Joseph Hooker had been stunned by a close encounter with an artillery shell. Couch requested reassignment following a quarrel with Hooker, and eventually took charge of the emergency troops in the newly formed Department of the Susquehanna.

Couch contacted one of his subordinates, Maj. Granville O. Haller, conveniently stationed at Gettysburg, and asked him if he would like an extra regiment to supplement his scouting operations and otherwise harass the elusive enemy. Haller happily accepted the offer.

By this time, Klinefelter and the rest of the 26th were outfitted with fresh uniforms and equipped with Springfield muskets. But they still needed training. On June 24, just a week after they left for Harrisburg, they boarded another train bound for Gettysburg.

Problems arose almost immediately after their departure. In New Oxford, 6 miles from Gettysburg, the train hit a cow and jumped the tracks. The men cooled their heels until a new train arrived and transported them to their destination. Upon their arrival in Gettysburg on June 26, Maj. Haller ordered a reluctant Col. Jennings and his regiment up the Chambersburg Road with instructions to delay a potential Confederate advance. Jennings marched his troops three miles outside town in a drizzling rain. He halted the march at an out-of-the-way spot along Marsh Creek to set up camp and deployed a picket guard.

Suddenly, Confederates arrived on the scene—hard fighting veterans of the 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry—and removed the Pennsylvania picket. Jennings learned of the attack from Capt. Robert Bell, who commanded a battalion of citizen scouts. Bell warned Jennings that enemy cavalry was about to descend upon the 26th. Jennings apprised the situation, and immediately ordered his men to pack up and fall in. This initiated a somewhat disorganized and urgent retreat, guided by Bell’s scouts across fields, over fences in a northeasterly direction.

“Our unexpected presence awakened doubt in the mind of the Confederate leaders as to the military status, and our retreat kept busy his only available body of cavalry, upon which he was dependent for information.”

Klinefelter would later criticize Haller for ordering the 26th into an isolated position: “Here was an ‘emergency’ indeed! A regiment of raw recruits deserted by him who had forced them into the face of an enemy with whom we bore no comparison in numbers or discipline, and cut off from the railroad and all hopes of reinforcements.”

Pvt. Samuel W. Pennypacker of Company F, a future governor of Pennsylvania, defended Haller. “To this regiment of seven hundred and thirty-two men who had left their homes only a few days before, unacquainted with their officers and comrades, and unfamiliar with the ways of warfare, was assigned the task of stopping the progress of the army of Lee. The order has often been criticised, but it was absolutely correct.”

The men of the 26th moved along the Hunterstown Road as fast as their legs could carry them. They stopped at the farm of Henry Witmer, exhausted after a trek of 3-and-a-half miles. Some of the first combat of the Gettysburg Campaign happened here. Klinefelter later described the action. “Suddenly the rebel cavalry appeared on the hill about a hundred yards in our rear. As it was impossible to form in line of battle, the command was given to fall in as best we could along fences at right angles to the road. We obeyed amid a good deal of shouting and yelling, each fighting according to his own discretion. Many of the guns being wet, were useless, but enough were effective to cause the rebels to retire.”  The fight lasted about 30 minutes. A number of the 26th militiamen were separated from the main body of the regiment and captured. One man was seriously wounded. Jennings held his position, bracing for another attack. But the assault never transpired, and he ordered the men to resume the retreat.

A grueling and intense march followed through the day and night. The 26th was on the move for an estimated 46 of the next 50 hours, first to Petersburg, Pa., where they received some semblance of a meal courtesy of a sympathetic farmer, and then to Dillsburg, where the regiment fed again. Confederate cavalry remained close by, and at one point the 26th formed in a hollow square to receive an attack that never materialized. “Dirty, stiff, footsore and hungry,” stated Klinefelter of the regiment’s arrival on the outer suburbs of Harrisburg about 3 p.m. on June 28. The Pennsylvanians finished the brutal march at Harrisburg, where an emergency militia from New York attired in spotless uniforms greeted them. Unpleasant words exchanged between the two regiments almost came to fisticuffs.

The regiment remained in the vicinity of Harrisburg, and garrisoned Fort Washington where they drilled. In late July, the men joined an expedition to Greencastle, one of many small-scale defensive actions in the wake of the Confederate invasion. They returned to Harrisburg without incident, and mustered out on Aug. 1, 1863. Each man received about $20 for his service.

The ordeal of the 26th had ended. But the performance of the regiment at Marsh Creek would be long mired in controversy. Some observers dismissed the action as a hasty and panicky retreat in the face of the enemy. Others argued that the officers and men stood, fought and retreated with dignity.

Klinefelter put a positive spin on the regiment’s service. “Our unexpected presence awakened doubt in the mind of the Confederate leaders as to the military status, and our retreat kept busy his only available body of cavalry, upon which he was dependent for information.” He added, “There is merit in soldiers knowing when and how to retreat, as well and when and how to fight. We understood it, and retreated; and Company A led in the retreat.”

Klinefelter never returned to the military. He graduated from seminary in 1864, and began his first ministry in Philadelphia, where he organized St. Peters Evangelical Lutheran Church. During an active spiritual career, he served flocks of the faithful of four churches in the region. His connection to the famous Lutheran Theological Seminary would continue, with Klinefelter later serving on the Board of Directors from 1883 to 1886.

He also remained involved in veterans’ affairs. Two battlefield monuments are dedicated to the 26th at Gettysburg. The first marker sits at the regiment’s initial location on Marsh Creek. The second, a bronze statue at the intersection of Chambersburg Road, West Street and Spring Avenue, depicts a militiaman marching to the scene of action. His uniform and accouterments are carefully rendered to reflect a newly minted citizen soldier, a figure modeled on a photograph of the soon to be Gov. Samuel Pennypacker. The application for the memorial was initially dismissed by the Monuments Commission in 1883, with the explanation that only regiments active during the July 1-3 timeframe were eligible. But the influential Pennypacker successfully lobbied for it, and, in 1891, the Pennsylvania legislature made a special appropriation for the monument. Pennypacker, Col. Jennings and Capt. Klinefelter participated at the 1892 dedication ceremony.

Veterans of the 26th participate in the Gettysburg monument dedication ceremony on Sept. 1, 1892. Col. Jennings stands in front of the chair, and behind it is Pvt. Pennypacker. Capt. Klinefelter stands fourth to the right of Jennings. Albumen print by an anonymous photographer. Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
Veterans of the 26th participate in the Gettysburg monument dedication ceremony on Sept. 1, 1892. Col. Jennings stands in front of the chair, and behind it is Pvt. Pennypacker. Capt. Klinefelter stands fourth to the right of Jennings. Albumen print by an anonymous photographer. Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

Klinefelter lived until age 66, dying in 1903. His remains lie beneath a substantial monument in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, alongside his two wives. His first wife, Anna, whom he wed in 1866, died in 1884. His second wife, Clara, outlived him by a year. A daughter from Klinefelter’s first marriage, Emma, also survived him.

In a heartfelt obituary in the Lutheran Observer, a friend and fellow minister wrote of Klinefelter: “He was a born gentleman. His unselfish disposition was rare and beautiful. He was one of those fortunate men who seem to have been good from birth.”

References: Samuel P. Bates, History of Franklin County Pennsylvania; E.S. Briedenbaugh (Editor); Pennsylvania College Book: 1832-1882; E. W. Meissenhelder, M.D., Sketch of Co “A” (College Co.), 26th Regt. Penna. Militia; Frederick Klinefelter, An Historical Sketch of Company A, 26th Regiment Penna Volunteer Militia; Cooper H. Wingert, Emergency Men!; The Lutheran Observer, August 14, 1903; Frederick Klinefelter pension record, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Samuel W. Pennypacker, Autobiography of a Pennsylvanian.

Paul Russinoff of Baltimore, Md., has been a passionate collector and researcher of photographs from the Civil War since elementary school. A subscriber to MI since its inception, representative images from his collection appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue.

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