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Led by Buffalo captain, battery helped turn tide of war

Series note: Western New York sent more than 4,400 soldiers to Gettysburg, Pa., to fight in the three-day Civil War battle waged from July 1 to 3, 1863. The Buffalo News retells the stories of four local men who took part in the epic confrontation 150 years ago. This is part three.

By Scott Scanlon

News Staff reporter

The second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought 150 years ago today, started with the future of the United States very much in doubt – and a key point on the battlefield in the hands of a Western New York artillery battery commanded by a former Buffalo tax collector.

If that wasn’t harrowing enough, Battery I, 1st New York Light Artillery, was among the Union Army of the Potomac units that had struggled against the Confederates in earlier battles. As night fell, it would come face-to-face with one of the most feared Rebel infantry units of them all: the Louisiana Tigers.

The Tigers had become legends long before the Confederate and Union armies would spend much of the sizzling daylight hours of July 2, 1863, digging into their positions, refortifying their lines after the heavy fighting on the first day at Gettysburg and preparing for another engagement.

This was supposed to be a “civil war,” and most soldiers preferred to use gun and cannon fire from a distance to inflict suffering on the battlefield, said Scott Good, a Civil War re-enactor and historian who grew up outside Gettysburg and graduated from Medaille College in 2010.

Not the Louisiana Tigers, who liked to get up close and personal, with bayonets.

“Other units, just by the sight of them on the battlefield, would break and run,” Good said.

Their arrival on Pennsylvania soil a couple weeks earlier hardly went unnoticed, according to the writings of Terry L. Jones, a history professor at the University of Louisiana. “Over the previous two years, the Tigers had gained as much notoriety for their thievery and drunken, violent behavior in camp as they had for their bravery in battle,” Jones wrote in a paper titled “The Tigers Invade the Union.”

Civil War-era accounts talk of the Tigers and other Rebel units helping themselves to food, livestock and anything else that might strike their fancy. They “paid” for what they took with Confederate money, which was worthless in the North.

As daylight waned on Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Louisiana Tigers stood at the foot of East Cemetery Hill on the southeastern edge of town, joined by units from North Carolina.

A battery of 141 German immigrants from Western New York, some of them part of a former state militia commanded by Capt. Michael Wiedrich, were already hard at work at the top of the hill.

Wiedrich, 42 at the time, immigrated to Lancaster in 1837 from Alsace-Lorraine and joined the New York State militia four years later. By the end of 1860, he was a major in an artillery battery, a force in the local Republican Party, co-publisher of the daily German newspaper Buffalo Freie Presse and the new tax collector of Buffalo.

He was charged with putting together a light artillery battery after the Civil War started and culled his men from the farms and trades in Buffalo and Lancaster. Like Wiedrich (pronounced WEED-rick), most of them had immigrated from German territories in the two decades before the war. Many had been on the losing side of a revolution in the German Confederacy in 1848 and tended to be “liberal,” in 19th century terms, said Richard Rosche, vice president of the Buffalo Civil War Roundtable. They had fought for civil rights, free and fair elections, and freedom of the press and religion, and in America, they tended to be anti-slavery supporters of President Abraham Lincoln.

Battery I got its first taste of defeat since the old German war days at Cross Keys in Virginia in June 1862, coming up against the Louisiana Tigers. Three of its members were killed and six wounded, according to records with the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs. They struggled in several confrontations with Rebel armies afterward, losing men, horses and equipment, including at Chancellorsville.

Four men were killed and 10 wounded in that battle, exactly two months before this fateful day at Gettysburg. They were “compelled to leave two of the guns on that field, all the horses of one gun being shot, and nearly all the men on the other wounded,” according to a state report.

At Gettysburg, on East Cemetery Hill, they were determined to bring about a different outcome.

“The Army of the Potomac at that time was at its height,” Rosche said. “Most of the units, including the units from Buffalo, were first-year and second-year volunteer units. … They were true believers in their cause, and on top of that, the Union had been trounced by Robert E. Lee on several occasions before, so the Army of the Potomac was primed to fight bitterly and to win this battle. Plus it was their home turf.”

As night began to fall, Wiedrich’s Battery – as it was called – was ready for a fight, with a full complement of equipment, fellow light artillery units beside them, and the weapon of choice for artillery batteries on both sides of this bloody war: canister.

The Western New York battery had double canister rounds at the ready. About the size of two coffee cans laid end to end, each canister round contained iron or lead balls, as well as any nuts, bolts or other metal scrap that industrial plants could scrape up to cram with sawdust into a shell casing. When fired, its force was that of a super shotgun blast.

“If you were shot by canister at close range, you were pretty much obliterated,” said Rosche.

At about 9 p.m., as the Louisiana Tigers and North Carolina infantry regiments charged up the hill, Wiedrich’s Battery was among those to rain canister fire upon them. What happened during the next half-hour or so has been subject to debate by historians for a century and a half, but some things are agreed upon:

• The rebel soldiers made a furious march up the hill as Union musket and cannon fire thinned their ranks. These soldiers got within Wiedrich’s Battery, and one of them – from the 6th North Carolina – planted the unit’s battle flag among the caissons.

• Wiedrich’s men fought hand-to-hand. “The enemy stood with tenacity never before displayed by them,” a Southern commander wrote after the battle, “but with bayonet, clubbed musket, sword, pistol and rocks from the wall, we cleared the heights and silenced the guns.” Wiedrich, his men and other Union artillery men fought back, according to New York State archives, with “sponge-staffs, handspikes and stones,” as well as fence rails and pistols.

• When the smoke cleared, Wiedrich’s Battery, with help from reinforcements, had captured the North Carolina flag, reclaimed its battery and pushed the Tigers and North Carolinians off Cemetery Hill.

Three men from the battery were killed at Gettysburg, including two officers, and 10 were wounded.

“Stopping the Tigers might have been the turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg,” Rosche said, and many other Civil War experts agree. Keeping the high ground – at Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill – in Union hands helped the army protect its supply routes, as well as the headquarters less than a half-mile east of Gen. George G. Meade, whom Lincoln named commander of the Army of the Potomac just three days before the battle began.

Wiedrich and his battery would go on to fight in several more battles, and they distinguished themselves a year later at Peachtree Creek in Georgia while serving with Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

After the battery returned to Buffalo, Wiedrich again served as tax collector of Buffalo, and he worked as an insurance agent in a building along Broadway, overlooking Lafayette Square. He was a member of Bidwell Post No. 9, Grand Army of the Republic, and, along with many of his former soldiers, became active in veterans affairs in the region. In the 1880s, they were part of the effort to build a new Sailors and Soldiers Monument in Lafayette Square, in honor off all of those in the region who fought in the Civil War.

Likenesses of a cavalryman, infantryman, sailor and artilleryman stand on four sides of that monument. Wiedrich saw to it that the artilleryman faced the window of his office, according to members of the Buffalo Civil War Roundtable. He died in 1899 and was buried in Forest Lawn, the Buffalo cemetery that is home to more than 2,000 Civil War veterans, including 536 in a Civil War section.

Part of the “Neighbors” exhibit of the Buffalo History Museum features memorabilia that help tell the tale of the contributions various ethnicities have made to this region’s cultural and social identity. The exhibit includes butter lamb products, the story of Kwanzaa, and Romanian and Croatian clothing.

It also includes a plaster mold of Wiedrich’s Battery.

The bronze relief made by the mold sits in one of several monuments on Cemetery Hill, across Baltimore Street from Gettysburg National Cemetery, which President Lincoln helped christen in November 1863 with “The Gettysburg Address.”

The monument overlooks the sprawling field where the fate of a nation would hang in the balance on Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg, a day when arguably the greatest Western New York hero of the battle would give his life to help preserve the union.

WEDNESDAY: A hero so popular two towns would fight over his lineage, but whom Congress continues to snub.