One hundred and fifty years ago, during the second day of the battle history knows as Gettysburg, things were looking bleak for the Union Army. The Rebs were mounting a bold assault on Cemetery Ridge and some of the most brutal fighting in the war broke out in the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den. Private Robert H. Carter, 22nd Massachusetts recalled the scene in the orchard:
The hoarse and indistinguishable orders of commanding officers. The screaming and bursting of shells, canister and shrapnel as they tore through the struggling masses of humanity. The death screams of wounded animals, the groans of their human companions, wounded and dying and trampling underfoot by hurrying batteries. Riderless horses and the moving lines of battle; a perfect Hell on Earth, never perhaps to be equaled, certainly not to be surpassed, nor ever to be forgotten in a man’s lifetime. It has never been effaced from my memory, day or night, for 50 years.
It looked like yet another Union loss; this one dearer than those before, as it would be the first on Northern soil. It could turn public opinion against the war. That’s what Robert E. Lee, the Confederate’s heretofore invincible general, was hoping for.
But the Union line held, and men from our neck of the woods played a part in it — and suffered dearly. The 120th NY Infantry Regiment, consisting of many Ulster County residents and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius D.Westbrook, bravely stood their ground under constant fire. They were never completely driven from the field.
On the third day, the 80th NY Infantry Regiment, also made up of many soldiers from Ulster County, and commanded by Colonel Theodore B. Gates, put up a heroic defense against Pickett’s Charge, suffering a great number of casualties. The Union claimed victory that day, and the battle — still the largest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere — is now considered the turning point of the Civil War.
Saugerties native and military historian Collin Carr estimated that the 80th NY was comprised of at least 250 men; the 120th NY, of at least 300 men. During the battle, the regiments were devastated: the 80th lost at least 170, and the 120th NY had 207 casualties, said Carr, who gave a riveting two-hour presentation last week at the library.