This is the second in a 10-part series that began on July 2 and takes a closer look at Richland County’s eight Medal of Honor winners. Coming Tuesday: John Henry Ricksecker, who helped to foil “Pickett’s Charge of the West” in Franklin, Tenn.
This series is supported by Mansfield Cemetery Association.
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The 48th Georgia Infantry Regiment marched into the Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., with 395 men on July 1, 1863.
It was part of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s northward march of 75,000 soldiers with his Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee’s goal was to draw the Union army into the open and attack it, perhaps convincing northern leaders to stop prosecuting the war and to also take advantage of the resources outside the confederate states.
The Georgia unit — and what was left of the Confederate army — limped away badly beaten three days later — with a Union sergeant from Bellville clutching its treasured battle flag.
1st Sgt. James Wiley, a member of Company B of the 59th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, earned the Medal of Honor 160 years ago for his capture of the enemy colors as the Union Army under General George Meade repulsed Lee’s forces during the three-day battle.
Meade took over the Army of the Potomac on June 28, just days before the historic battle in Pennsylvania in the community with a population of about 2,400.
His appointment by President Lincoln came after a succession of failed federal military leaders, including generals George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker.
But it was the efforts of the Union soldiers, including the 28-year-old Wiley, born in Bellville in 1835, and the 85,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac that carried the day at Gettysburg and changed the future of the country.
Differing dates were found when researching the date 1st Sgt. James Wiley earned his Medal of Honor at Gettysburg.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, the Bellville native earned it July 3 for capturing the battle flag of a Georgia regiment.
But his unit battled Virginia-based units on July 3, the final day of the three-day battle at Gettysburg.
According to other historical websites, Wiley earned his award on July 2, when the 59th New York repulsed a Confederate attack that included the 48th Georgia Regiment.
It was likely then Wiley captured the Confederate unit’s colors.
Regardless of the date, Wiley earned the nation’s highest honor for military valor at the battle that changed the course of a nation.
Wiley was the first Richland County resident to earn what is now known as the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for military action in valor that the United States can bestow.
The 48th Georgia Infantry came to the field in Pennsylvania sublimely confident.
The Army of Northern Virginia was largely undefeated in the initial years of the Civil War, including a shattering defensive victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and a strategic rout of the northern forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The Georgia soldiers, in a unit that formed in Macon in 1862, participated in most of those victories and their confidence in Lee and his leaders was supreme.
All that changed in 72 hours in the Pennsylvania heat as the Union forces, under the new leadership of Meade, took and held the high ground and repulsed every Confederate advance.
The 59th New York Infantry Regiment mustered in 1861, primarily with recruits from the streets of New York City and upstate New York. But it also included a group of soldiers from north central Ohio, featuring Wiley, who enlisted as a private on Sept. 20, 1861.
(Click above to hear Part 2 of the Richland County Heroes podcast and learn more about 1Sgt. James Wiley and his heroics at Gettysburg.)
The unit was first assigned to the defense of Washington, D.C. In July 1862. It was placed in the Second Corps in the Army of the Potomac and saw its first action at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17.
Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in American military history, showed the Union could stand against the Confederate army in the Eastern theater. The two armies combined for more than 22,000 casualties, either killed or wounded.
The 59th New York lost 224 men that day — killed, wounded or missing.
Nicknamed the “Union Guards,” the 59th also saw action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, before joining the march to Gettysburg.
Once there, the 59th occupied a position on the right of the line at Cemetery Ridge, fighting against the assault of Confederate Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright.
The southern forces charged across Emmitsburg Road in late afternoon and advanced to Cemetery Ridge on July 2, the second day of the battle. The 48th Georgia was on the brigade’s left flank and captured four cannon during the charge.
But the brigade was not supported, leaving both flanks open. It was forced to fall back or be surrounded. The Georgia unit was on the exposed flank and suffered heavy casualties.
Confederate soldiers carrying the 48th Georgia’s colors were shot down seven times.
Wiley, a member of the 59th’s Company B, fought throughout the battle and was eventually credited with capturing those colors.
The citation with Wiley’s medal doesn’t offer a great deal of detail, saying only, “Capture of a flag of a Georgia regiment.”
But with more than 50,000 casualties (killed, wounded or missing) between the two armies during the battle at Gettysburg, it’s clear soldiers like Wiley survived a terrifying ordeal.
The first two days of the battle in eastern Pennsylvania were hot and soldiers were dressed in heavy, wool uniforms and carried muskets that weighed between six and 10 pounds, perhaps more with a bayonet attached to the end of the barrel.
It was precise, grueling work done under the constant fear of enemy fire. Soldiers had to follow nine careful steps to load and fire a single bullet from a muzzle-loading gun. It took five to fire a breech-loading weapon.
The soldiers were likely subjected to heatstroke and heat exhaustion, in addition to all the man-made horrors from musket and cannon fire.
The 59th New York was not done at Gettysburg at the end of July 2.
The unit was also in the midst of the Union defense at Cemetery Ridge near “The Angle” on July 3 when Gen. George Pickett’s division of Virginians led an ill-fated final assault against the middle of the federal lines.
A Confederate force of 12,500 marched across open terrain toward the Union lines, which had reinforcements at the ready. Some Confederates did briefly broach the small stone wall, but were quickly repulsed, captured or killed.
There were more than 6,500 Confederate soldiers either killed or wounded in about an hour of fierce fighting.
Sadly, Wiley’s story ends tragically after the success at Gettysburg.
He was captured June 22, 1864, during the fighting at Jerusalem Plank Road during the Siege of Petersburg that began in June 1864 and continued until March of 1865.
Wiley was taken as a prisoner of war to the infamous Andersonville, Ga., camp, where he reportedly died in captivity on Feb. 7, 1865 — just two months before war came to an end.
Wiley died having never known he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. The medal was awarded on Dec. 1, 1864, while Wiley was being held prisoner.
Of the 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville, nearly 13,000 died. The prison camp was overcrowded to four times its capacity. It had an inadequate water supply, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions.
Chief causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery.
Wiley was buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery.
(Coming Tuesday: John Henry Ricksecker from Mansfield fought with the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., in 1864.)
Previously in this series: