The Hays Guards: The Story of Company K of the Sixty Third Pennsylvania Volunteers (Part Two)
The Pennsylvania Sixty Third did not see combat again until December at the Battle of Fredericksburg. On 13 December 1862, the regiment moved down the Rappahannock River, where they were concealed from enemy troops by a strip of woods. The Union troops numbered nearly 67,000, which was almost half the strength of the North’s entire army.
The debacle at Fredericksburg saw Union forces under the command of Ambrose E. Burnside make a series of suicidal attacks on entrenched Confederates. Critical to the Union failure was the delay caused in obtaining pontoon boats for crossing the Rappahanock River which allowed the Confederate Army of North Virginia to build seven miles of entrenchments over-looking the Rappahanock River. The Sixty-Third Pennsylvania was in Birney's Division which clashed with Evans' Georgians in what became known as "The Slaughter Pen." The Sixty-Third ended the day in a ditch that traversed the fieldand were ordered to retreat across the Rappahanock River. Losses for the Union Army were estimated at 13, 500, with a loss to the Confederate Army of approximately 3,500.
One tale of heroism that came from this day of battle was told about Major James F. Ryan, who was once the captain of Company I. The tale goes that he rode into the ditch and captured twenty enemy troops without firing any shots. He then hauled them back across the line, despite bullets flying by him. He was unscathed.
After dark, some men were sent to round up men that were still in the ditch. Many wounded from both sides littered the field, filling the night’s air with their cries of agony and death. Privates Alfred Mitchell and John McKaye of Company K were killed in the fighting.
Despite the fact that the Union Army had held the field, they were defeated in the battle. They had to re-cross the Rappahannock River and dismantle their pontoon bridges. From here, the Sixty Third expected to return to their winter camp, as the season was cold and rainy, but temporary quarters were made instead. On 20 January 1863, the men were ordered to get ready to march. The intent was a surprise attack on Confederate troops.
However, nature had other plans for them. A sudden sleet storm during the march caused many men to get sick and die and caused a mire of mud that made any movement difficult, as both artillery and men became stuck in it. After spending three days wading through the mud, the campaign was abandoned and the division returned to the winter camp it had made the previous year. This march would infamously be known as the Great Mud March of 1863. The regiment would remain in this camp until April of 1863.
It was in the winter camp that corp badges became popular. The officers under Phillip Kearney’s command, the First Division of the Third Corps, had taken to wearing a diamond patch of red on their hats. After Kearney’s death at the Battle of Chantilly, the entire regiment wore the red patch in honor of their fallen commander. The entire Army of the Potomac adopted patches that winter as a way to help identify soldiers from different units.
On 13 February 1863, Private David W. Beatty died while in camp, though it is not certain as to what he succumbed to. He was buried later in the Soldier's Home Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In early April of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln came to visit the camp with a number of distinguished statesmen and ladies and his family. He came to survey the damage done to the army and to the surrounding area. By now, General Joseph Hooker was in charge of the army, having replaced Burnside after the Mud March, and the President was impressed by the drilling Hooker had made the men do.
The men remained at camp until 28 April 1863, when they received their orders to march to Chancellorsville. The Sixty Third occupied a commanding presence of extreme right and front during this march.
About a half mile from Chancellorsville, the army was engaged by confederate troops. On 2 May, the Twenty-Third Georgia Regiment of 500 men was entirely captured by troops under General Birney’s command and the advance on the rest of the enemy army steadily continued. The Sixty Third had pushed the enemy army back five miles when the orders came to halt and fall back to the field from whence they had started, as they were cut off from the rest of the army. The mood of the men was gloomy, as they were in peril of being captured.
That night, under the bright light of a full moon, the men waited. Officers had sent their horses to the rear and went on foot with their men to their assigned positions. Bayonets were ordered fixed and men were instructed to reserve bullets and prepare for hand to hand combat. In the ensuing battle, men fell back. Dead and wounded lay where they fell and could not be recovered. Several men in the division were captured in the fighting. The only condolence the Sixty Third had was that immediately in front of them the famous Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men and died eight days later.
The fighting was continued the next day, with the enemy army using a battle cry of “Remember Jackson!” Colonel William S. Kirkwood was injured in the battle, which left Major Ryan in charge. The regiment’s color sergeant, George Fitzgerald was severely wounded, so Corporal George House took charge of the colors. On 5 May, after three days of fighting, the men retreated and returned to their camp. Colonel Kirkwood succumbed to his injuries almost a month later, as did Sergeant Major William McGranahan of Company K. Several other captains and lieutenants of the regiment were killed. Of 300 men in the Sixty-Third who were present at the Battle of Chancellorsville, about 120 were killed, wounded, or missing. Private Jeremiah S. Bunce of Company K was killed and Private John P. Linn was injured so badly he was later discharged from the regiment.
The regiment rested for the remainder of May, but by the end of June the regiment was expectantly sent north. By this time, the regiment had met back up with Brigadier General Alexander Hays, who treated a number of the men to a round of ale. On 24 June the regiment was seized with terror as they learned that that Lee had moved his army north towards the regiment’s home state of Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Campaign was about to begin.
(Author’s note: One of the men of the PA 63rd, John D. Wood was my great-great grandfather. I do not know what happened to most of the other men of the regiment nor do I have biographical information past what I have listed for some of the other men in this series of articles. If you have information you would like to share on any of the men listed in any part of “The Hays Guards: The Story of Company K of the Sixty Third Pennsylvania Volunteers” please do not hesitate to leave a comment or contact me via my family tree website. I do edit this series with genealogical information from others as I get it. I would also like to offer my most profound appreciation to my distant cousin and collaborator, William Bozic for his insights and edits to this series. I thank him immensely for the time and effort he has put in to making this work what it is.)
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Hays, Gilbert A. Under the Red Patch: The Story of the Sixty-Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-1865. Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association: Pittsburgh. 1908.
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