By Dave Batalo and Rusty Hicks
Rough-hewn rail fences dominate the countryside around Gettysburg, dividing it into neat plots of field and wood. One of these borders, located downslope beyond Herr Ridge, marked the final hurdle for the men of one gray regiment before they went into action on July 1, 1863.
The soldiers, members of the 26th North Carolina Infantry, marched up and over the fence on the afternoon of the first day’s fight. Once clear of the obstacle, subordinate officers formed them in line of battle.
Their 21-year-old colonel, Harry Burgwyn, led these Tar Heels, 800 strong. Conspicuous in a double-breasted frock coat, scarlet sash and sword, Burgwyn made his way on foot to the front and center of the line. He waited until the ranks were ready and then gave the order to charge: “Now, boys, give them one Confederate yell, and rush in!”
Then they advanced into a field of oats towards the enemy—and into the lore of the momentous battle.
How Burgwyn, known as the “Boy Colonel,” came to lead the charge came as the result of natural gifts as a student and leader, and a life of privilege. The eldest son of prosperous North Carolina planter Henry Burgwyn and his Massachusetts-born wife, Anna, Henry King Burgwyn, Jr., came into the world in the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain. His parents brought him to Thornbury, their plantation home in Northampton County, N.C. Little Harry spent his early years here with seven siblings along the banks of the Roanoke River, where slaves worked more than 1,600 acres of cash crops, namely wheat and corn.
During these early years, one writer pointed to a character trait that foreshadowed his future military career—filial piety. “This was the great secret of his knowing how to command men: he had learned perfectly how to obey at home. The slightest wish of his parents became to him a law; and in respect to his mother, it united to a feeling of tenderness an anxiety to please her that gave his character a beauty and chivalrous bearing that we have rarely seen before.”
Following the lead of many antebellum families of means, his parents hired tutors to educate him and bundled him off to Northern boarding schools to further his studies. In 1856, he gained admission to West Point only to learn that he was a few months shy of meeting the minimum age requirement. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis declared that the boy had to wait a year to become a cadet. His father determined that his son should have a military education, and hired one of the Academy’s instructors to tutor his son. The tutor, 1st Lt. John G. Foster, had graduated near the top of his class in 1846 and earned two brevets in the War with Mexico.
Burgwyn went on to attend the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1859. His father, convinced that war was imminent, sent his son to Virginia Military Institute in the summer of 1859 to complete his military education.
In late 1859, just months after he arrived on campus, Burgwyn joined an 85-cadet guard sent to maintain law and order at the hanging of John Brown following his conviction for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia for leading a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. The cadets bore witness as they stood behind the gallows, conspicuously dressed in red flannel shirts and gray trousers. More than 1,500 Virginia militia and regular army troops also participated in the guard.
One of Burgwyn’s instructors, Prof. Thomas J. Jackson, also witnessed the execution. On April 16, 1861, just days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter ignited civil war, Jackson provided Burgwyn with a glowing reference. “The object of this letter is to recommend Cadet H.K. Burgwyn, of North Carolina, for a commission in the artillery of the Southern Confederacy. Mr. B. is not only a high-toned Southern gentleman, but, in consequence of the highly practical as well as scientific character of his mind, he possesses qualities well calculated to make him an ornament, not only to the artillery, but to any branch of the military service.”
Burgwyn carried the letter with him to Richmond after he, and the rest of the Corps of Cadets, received orders to report to the Confederate capital on April 21, 1861. He made his way to Raleigh, the capital of his home state, where the governor placed him in charge of a camp of instruction for volunteers. According to one sketch of Burgwyn’s life, the 19-year-old “conducted a system of severe drill and military duties, which obtained the commendation of all who witnessed its effects. His military capacity, amenity of manner, and close attention to the comfort of his men, soon won their confidence and affection.”
His good works here also won him the lieutenant colonelcy of the 26th North Carolina Infantry when it formed for service that summer. He donned the uniform to befit his rank, and took his place as second-in-command to Col. Zebulon B. Vance, a well-regarded lawyer.
Vance and Burgwyn led the regiment into action along the east coast of North Carolina in early 1862 to counter an invasion of Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. At the Battle of New Bern on March 14, 1862, Burnside’s federals exploited a gap in the Confederate line and turned its right flank back—dividing the 26th in twain during the chaos and confusion of the retreat. Burgwyn reportedly led one section to safety as enemy forces surged towards his precarious position. The Union ultimately won the day.
The Boy Becomes a Colonel
In September 1862, Col. Vance left the regiment after his election as the governor of North Carolina, and Burgwyn replaced him. Reaction to the promotion of such a young man—he was a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday—was mixed among his direct superiors. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, supported the promotion. The general in command of the brigade, Robert Ransom, opposed it. According to one account, Ransom “wanted no boy colonel in his brigade.” He arranged for the 26th to be transferred to the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew.
The brigade change had little immediate impact on the regiment, which remained in eastern North Carolina and participated in numerous operations to slow the incursion of federals in the region. On Nov. 2, 1862, in one seldom-remembered action along Little Creek outside Washington, Burgwyn and a portion of his regiment held their ground for nearly an hour against a much larger force. When it became apparent to Burgwyn that the federals were about to overrun his position, he pulled his men back to a new spot at Rawle’s Mill and held off the enemy for another half-hour. These delays bought precious time for Confederate troops at nearby Plymouth to pull back and avoid capture.
The overall commander of the Union expedition happened to be Burgwyn’s old tutor, John G. Foster, now a brigadier general. Foster had earned high marks for his performance at the recent Battle of New Bern and remained in command of the occupied city and, for a time, the military Department of North Carolina.
On to Gettysburg
In the spring of 1863, Confederate high command ordered the 26th and the rest of Pettigrew’s Brigade to Northern Virginia, and attached it to the division of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth. One can imagine a far different fate for the 26th had they remained with Ransom’s Brigade. The regiment would have spent the remainder of the war in Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley, and participated in Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s advance on Washington, D.C., in 1864.
Instead, the Tar Heels had a date with destiny at Gettysburg.
In the early afternoon of the first day’s fight, the 26th occupied a position west of town along the slope of Herr Ridge. There they rested until about 2:30 p.m., when the order of “Attention!” was given. The men rose up, gathered their belongings and with the assistance of company officers formed for battle. Burgwyn rode among them, cheering them on from the saddle as he navigated to the center of the line. The order “Forward, March!” soon came, and the regiment marched down the slope of Herr Ridge and encountered the rail fence. Burgwyn dismounted and reformed with his men on the other side.
Here, overlooking an oat field, Burgwyn gave the order to charge. They quickly encountered a volley of enemy musket fire from the 24th Michigan Infantry, in position along McPherson’s Ridge in and about a patch of trees known as Herbst Woods. The Michiganders belonged to the Iron Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith. Known as “Long Sol” for his 6-foot-7-inch frame, he was born in North Carolina to a Quaker family, and moved to the Midwest prior to the war.
Burgwyn ordered a return volley, and then the 26th headed toward Willoughby Run. The volleys continued and increased with deadly accuracy. Men dropped all along the line. One of the early casualties, a color bearer, fell on the approach to the narrow creek. Three more members of the color guard went down as they plowed through thick underbrush along the edge of the creek and crossed the water. Another deadly volley hit them as they reformed the line across the creek, and continued the advance. Men fell so fast it became difficult to close ranks.
Despite the heavy beating, Burgwyn and his boys gave as good as they got. They poured a withering fire into the ranks of the black-hatted Michigan men, and Hoosiers of the 19th Indiana Infantry to their left. The Indianans finally fell back, followed by the Michiganders. They reformed their lines higher up the ridge. The Michigan colonel, Henry A. Morrow, reported about this time that the 26th advanced unchecked and screaming like demons.
Still, Burgwyn’s troops continued to suffer as the full frontal assault continued unabated. Two more color bearers fell, and yet another suffered a fatal wound within 20 yards of the Union line. The Tar Heel juggernaut kept on coming, forcing the federals back again. They formed a third line battle, leaving a dreadful number of casualties in their wake.
Passing the Colors to Victory
Burgwyn remained in the center of the line, when one of Brig. Gen. Pettigrew’s staffers, Capt. William McCreery, arrived with a message of encouragement from his superior—the regiment had covered itself with glory. No sooner had the message been delivered than another color bearer dropped. McCreery then picked up the banner and waved it. A bullet found him too, tearing through his heart and spattering the banner in blood. A lieutenant in Company H, George Wilcox, picked up the colors and held them until a bullet took him out of action.
Burgwyn spied the fallen flag, picked it up and the forward momentum continued. At least two versions survive of what transpired next. One account reports that Burgwyn handed it off to a private in Company B, Franklin L. Honeycutt, and then turned to his right flank to check in with his lieutenant colonel, John R. Lane. Immediately thereafter, Honeycutt was killed when a bullet struck him in the head. Burgwyn suffered a gunshot through the side, the ball passing through the lungs.
Another account states that Burgwyn, with banner in hand, cried out, “Dress on the colors!” At this moment the bullet struck him in the lungs, “and in falling he was caught in the folds of the flag and turned around so he was wrapped in it.”
Both versions agree that the next man to seize the colors, Lt. Col. Lane, shouted, “Twenty-sixth, follow me.” The regiment closed ranks and fought on, breaking the Iron Brigade line. The Michiganders withdrew, leaving the Tar Heels in possession of the field, but not before Lane fell with a severe wound. The colors passed into the hands of Capt. Stephen Brewer of Company E, the last man to carry them during the assault.
The fighting was over. It had lasted no more than a half hour.
Capt. Brewer made his way to Burgwyn, who lay where he fell, surrounded by a group of men. One of them, Pvt. William M. Cheek, left behind an account of the event. He recalled how an aide on Pettigrew’s staff, Capt. Louis G. Young, arrived on the scene and expressed his sympathy to the still conscious Boy Colonel. Burgwyn thanked the officer, and added, “The Lord’s will be done. We have gained the greatest victory in the war. I have no regret at my approaching death. I fell in the defense of my country.”
“I have lost one of my best friends. I can truly say, the death of Gen. Lee himself I would have preferred … his example ought ever to be a shining light to his relatives & friends left behind.”
The explosion of a shell shattered the moment as fragments of iron whizzed by, tearing off the top of Capt. Brewer’s cap. Cheek noted that he left the party at this point in search of a stretcher to make Burgwyn more comfortable. When he returned with a litter and its bearers, Cheek found Burgwyn dying. “I sat down and took his hand in my lap. He had very little to say, but I remember that his last words were that he was entirely satisfied with everything, and ‘The Lord’s will be done.’ Thus he died, very quietly and resigned.”
Burgwyn lived for about two hours after his wounding.
Another reference to Burgwyn’s last words appears in a history of North Carolina regiments. According to this source, he bade farewell to parents and family, then said, “Tell the General my men never failed me at a single point.” The comment was likely intended for Pettigrew.
Burgwyn’s men carefully wrapped his body in a red woolen blanket and placed it in a large wooden gun crate. They buried his remains under a walnut tree north of the Chambersburg Pike to the rear of Herr Ridge.
The regiment’s quartermaster, Capt. Joseph J. Young, took possession of Burgwyn’s personal effects. Young entrusted several items, including a sword, gauntlets, a wad of cash and two horses to Kincian, a family slave who served Burgwyn, to take back to the family.
In death, Harry joined a long list of casualties. 588 of the 800 North Carolinians suffered death and wounds, almost three-quarters of those engaged. Another North Carolinian suffered a wound during the action—Long Sol Meredith, who fell after a shell fragment struck him in the head, ending his career as a field commander.
Two days later at Pickett’s Charge, the 26th lost another 120 men—and its colors.
Brig. Gen. Pettigrew made it through the battle, only to suffer a mortal wound during the retreat.
The survivors continued on through the war’s end, with 130 of them surrendering at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Also present was Burgwyn’s younger brother, Capt. William Hyslop Sumner Burgwyn of the 35th North Carolina Infantry. He had inherited his late brother’s sword, gauntlets and a horse, courtesy of Kincian.
The Burgwyn family recovered their son’s remains in 1867 and reburied them at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. In 1985, the state of North Carolina erected two monuments to the 26th, one near the battleground of the July 1 assault and another on the site of Pickett’s Charge.
Tributes to Burgwyn included a set of resolutions passed by the Philanthropic Society at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in late 1863: “In Col. Burgwyn his family has lost an affectionate son and a kind brother, the University one of its most gifted and promising Alumni, the army one of its most gallant spirits, and the country one who bade fair ere long to shine an honor and an ornament to his native land.”
Perhaps the most poignant tribute appeared in a letter written after the battle by Capt. Young, the regiment’s quartermaster. “I have lost one of my best friends. I can truly say, the death of Gen. Lee himself I would have preferred. But all mortal that is lovely has to fade away, but his example ought ever to be a shining light to his relatives & friends left behind.”
Dave Batalo is president of the Central Virginia Civil War Collectors’ Association, and proprietor of Richmond Civil War Antiques, LLC. A retired nuclear engineer who has collected Civil War artifacts since the mid-1970’s, he specializes in cased images of identified Virginia soldiers. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife Cecilia.
Rusty Hicks has collected Virginia and Southern historical objects for 40 years, with an emphasis on history and genealogy. Numerous items from his collection are now part of public collections, including the Library of Congress and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. A certified public accountant who graduated in 1982 from the College of William and Mary, Rusty and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Otterburn, a circa 1828 home listed on the register of local and state historical sites in Bedford County, Va.
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