A Wolverine at Gettysburg
In 1857, Michigan student Charles Frederick Taylor ran out of money.
It was largely because his family’s farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, was failing in an economy weakened by the stirrings of war. So after only two years at the University, the 18-year-old literature enthusiast left his books and classes behind to work the land and set up care for his ailing father.
He would never return to Michigan. But Michigan would never forget the man who became a Civil War hero, who gave up everything to answer the call of duty, whose memorial statue now stands where he fell at Gettysburg.
Through his letters home, we know the story of Michigan alumnus Charles Frederick Taylor, a Union officer in the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Taylor’s quick thinking saved his life on multiple occasions; until the Battle of Gettysburg, where he led his final charge.
A House Divided
In 1861, the Confederacy declared war on the Union with its attack on Fort Sumter. The call for volunteers soon reached Taylor at Kennett Square. Taylor, age 21, rode to the neighboring villages and farms to organize a volunteer militia. He marched with 100 men 75 miles to Harrisburg to enlist in the Union army. Taylor soon found himself a Major in the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, better known as the Bucktails. The namesake deer tail sticking out of their hats was a symbol of their woodsy roots as trappers, farmers, and hunters.
The literarily inclined Taylor wrote many letters while he was at war, mostly to his sister Annie and his eldest brother Bayard. In his first letters, Taylor described the tranquil time before he saw any combat, when the war was just heating up and still far away: “We are living very comfortably. We read much, play chess, and smoke. We are not extravagant though we frequently have roast mutton and browned potatoes, rice soup, and such luxuries.”
The Bucktails were deployed to a camp across the Potomac River from the capital, where they drilled endlessly in the sticky morasses of Maryland. Taylor remained upbeat in his letters home, but occasionally he was driven to complain: “We are terribly pestered with the abominable wood ticks—scorpions and snakes also abound. We are almost swamped in mud here. The only thing in which I am really extravagant is in going to Washington at least once in two weeks for the sake of taking a good bath. It does me more than good than anything I know of.”
The Confederates Advance
In 1862, the war finally came to Taylor. The Confederate army led by Stonewall Jackson was raiding Union territory in Maryland and West Virginia from the Shenandoah Valley. The Bucktails were sent in with the Union army to chase Jackson out of Virginia.
Taylor and the Bucktails’ chase of the Confederate rear guard was constantly hampered by flooded terrain. Soon after a week of sloshing after the Confederates, the Bucktails were sent out to find a routed cavalry regiment and “recover if possible the dead bodies of the…men.”
The Bucktails were ambushed after entering the woods where the cavalry regiment was supposed to be. The situation soon became hopeless. The Bucktails’ commander, Colonel Kane, was wounded in the crossfire, and Taylor assumed command.
Taylor had to get the men to retreat in such a way that they would not be overtaken or destroyed by the pursuing rebel force. Taylor described what happened next in a letter to his brother: “I made a last effort to rally the men behind a fence that we might check the enemy somewhat with one good volley and, before [they] recovered, effect our escape. [We] gave them a volley that had the desired effect. All of our men escaped, except those who were killed and three or four who had been mortally wounded. Myself and one man of my company were however cut off before we could escape, the enemy were so close upon us.”
Behind Enemy Lines
After only hours commanding the Bucktails, Taylor was captured. He was marched six miles “through mud and darkness” to the Confederate camp where he was given a board to sleep on and a cartridge box for a pillow.
Life for an officer prisoner of war wasn’t as bad as one might expect, especially in the early stages of the Civil War. Soon after he was captured, Taylor was “paroled” to house arrest in Annapolis, Maryland, until he could be exchanged with a Confederate prisoner of similar rank.
While under house arrest, Taylor was free to correspond with his family and followed the news of his Bucktails. He related to his brother Bayard that his clothes from the battle were “torn to shreds by bullets” yet he was unhurt. Taylor yearned to be fighting with his company again: “I am such a state of restless anxiety that I am half sick with good-for-nothing. I have made every exertion to get exchanged, and cannot imagine why it has not been accomplished.”
The original “Bucktails,” Taylor’s regiment, were known for their superior marksmanship, as evidenced by the deer tails that hung from their hats. Capitalizing on this fame, a recruitment wagon was pulled through the streets of Philadelphia in July 1862. On the top of the flag poles were bucktails that recruiters bestowed on the new volunteers. The “New Bucktails” eventually filled three more regiments.
Image by CORBIS
During the months of his confinement, Taylor fell in love and married his host’s daughter, Alice Green. Little is known about their romance, even with the abundance of Taylor’s correspondence available today. Some historians believe that the Taylor family burned all of Alice’s letters to Taylor because the Green family owned slaves.
Reporting for Duty
Taylor returned to the Bucktails in November 1862, where he was greeted with “a hearty cheer.” As the new commander of the Bucktails, Taylor didn’t have long to wait for his first action. Less than a month after his return, he led the Bucktails to Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The battle was a disaster for the Union army and one of the most lopsided losses of the war. The Bucktails were crushed in two days of heavy fighting. Of the 300 men, 190 were killed or wounded. Taylor himself was wounded twice in the arm and had his horse shot out from under him.
After the battle, Taylor wrote to his mother assuring her of his improving condition: “My arm is better and is not going to give me much trouble…. I will write you often until I am quite well. Have no concern however. I have told you exactly how bad I was hurt.”
The Bucktails, now a third of their original number, were assigned to guard duty in Fairfax, Virginia. The light duty allowed Taylor to fully recover from his wounds, although he wrote to his sister that he felt “restive” and he “longed to be with one of the great armies East or West.”
He soon got his chance.
The Battle of Gettysburg
The Bucktails were ordered to Gettysburg in late June, 1863. As they approached, Taylor received word that the fighting had already begun. Eager to support his comrades, Taylor ordered a march through the sweltering July night. The Bucktails covered the last twenty miles in less than a day and took their place on Little Round Top, the far left flank of the Union line.
Shots rang out all around Gettysburg at 4 P.M., July 2. The Confederate strategy was to flank the left side of the Union line, with much of their attention being focused on the hills Round Top and Little Round Top. Taylor saw a contingent of Confederates on open ground creeping toward the twin hills. He ordered a volley, then led his men in a downhill charge.
Private Richard Beeby, who was in Taylor’s company, said that although he considered himself a great sprinter, he “could not that day keep up with Colonel Taylor.”
The Bucktails drove the Confederates back, sending them scampering back into the woods at the foot of the hill, but their charge left them in an exposed position. While Taylor was considering the Bucktail’s next move, he was shot in the heart by a Confederate sharpshooter. As he lay dying, he pulled a soldier close to him as if he had something to say. But all the soldier could make out was “Mum…Mum….”
Colonel Charles Taylor's downhill charge during the Battle of Gettysburg drove back the Confederates and helped the Union hold their line. Yet it took Taylor's life. He was one of 7,863 Americans who died during the three days of flighting.
Image by CORBIS
The Union ended up winning at Gettysburg. The left flank held, thanks in no small part to the Bucktail’s charge. The next day, July 3, the center of the Union line held off a charge by General Pickett’s regiment. Many consider this battle to be the decisive fight in the war.
Seven thousand, eight hundred sixty-three Americans died in the three days of fighting at Gettysburg, more than have died in the past 12 years in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a memorial to Charles Frederick Taylor where he fell in Gettysburg, one of the few monuments there dedicated to an individual soldier and the only one given to a University of Michigan alumnus.
Back in Ann Arbor, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Taylor’s fraternity in his days at Michigan, passed a resolution on December 10,1863, praising his sacrifice. In part, the resolution reads: “Resolved, That as one of our country’s defenders who obeyed the call of duty rather than the promptings of his own heart, and finally fell at his post in the hour of victory, he has gained a fame more enduring than marble.”