The 120th New York’s Facing at Gettysburg

While entering my weekly set of Gettysburg entries, I found some contradictions with my site notes, secondary sources, and photos taken on site.  The subject involved was the 120th New York’s fine monument, located just east of the Klingle Farm.

120th New York Monument
120th New York Monument

The 120th was a late attachment to the famous Excelsior Brigade, joining in  September 1862.  As such, the 120th is not mentioned on the elaborate Brigade Monument further south.  Commanded by Col. William Brewster at Gettysburg, in the afternoon of July 2, 1863 the Excelsior Brigade – known also by the less romantic title of Second Brigade, Second Division, Third Corps – was posted just north of the Peach Orchard.  While the 72nd and 71st New York of the Brigade were posted on the Emmitsburg Road, just south of the Klingle farm, the 120th joined the 70th and 73rd New York in reserve behind the main lines.

As Barksdale’s Confederate Brigade collapsed Graham’s defense in the Peach Orchard, the 120th faced southwest.  The 120th was sent in to bolster the faltering line confronting the Mississippians threatening to roll-up the remainder of the Federal line.  Like other regiments fighting in the Peach Orchard sector, the New Yorkers fought just enough to say a stand was made, but could not hold for long with the line collapsing around them.

Federal Line Resisting Barksdale - Behind the 120th Monument is the Kingle farm
Federal Line Resisting Barksdale - Behind the 120th Monument is the Kingle farm

From the official report the regiment  “…advanced across an open field, exposed to a terrific and murderous artillery fire from the enemy, which was kept up without cessation during the rest of the day….  The enemy at last broke the first line, and we advanced to meet him. The regiment soon became hotly engaged, and held its position without flinching until it was flanked. We retired slowly, fighting, across the field, when the brigade again rallied, and drove the enemy from the field at the point of the bayonet.”  (Official Records, Series I, Volume XXVII/ 1 (S#43), Report No. 173, page 568.)   Sounds impressive, but I’ve read enough of the returns from III Corps regiments at Gettysburg to place them in context.

The 120th was commanded by Lieut. Col. Cornelius D. Westbrook going into the battle.  Westbrook was wounded in the fight, and succeeded by Maj. John R. Tappen.  However the official return for the regiment, in August 1863, was written by Captain Abram L. Lockwood (who later advanced to the rank of Colonel, commanding the regiment).  Of 427 men present on the morning of July 2, 204 were killed, wounded, or missing by the evening of July 3.

Clearly there was a lot of confusion as to particulars at the battle, due to battle circumstances and casualties.

But here’s my confusion.  One of the flank markers for the regiment stands just south of the monument along Sickles Avenue.   The other in the field to the east of the monument.  Here’s the flank marker next to Sickles Avenue:

First Flank Marker
First Flank Marker

This marker is labeled “120th N.Y.I.  L.F.”  The other flank marker is barely visible in the field to the right.  Here’s a closer view:

Right Flank
Right Flank

It clearly states “120th N.Y.I. R.F.”  And looking back from this marker to the left flank stone and the monument:

Looking to the West from the Left Flank
Looking to the West from the Right Flank

The monument stands proud.  The left flank marker stone is at the end of the snake rail fence, just left of center.

Problem here, if I have my ‘lefts’ and ‘right’ down, is orientation.  Looking from the right flank marker stone, this is the direction from which Barksdale’s men attacked:

Looking toward the Peach Orchard
Looking toward the Peach Orchard

Note the Excelsior Brigade monument in profile just off the center horizon.

However, standing near the monument with one’s right and left placed in accordance with the flank markers, here’s what must have been in front of the regiment:

Looking North at the Pennsylvania Memorial on Cemetery Ridge
Looking North at the Pennsylvania Memorial on Cemetery Ridge

So if one rigidly orients off the flank markers, the New Yorkers were facing the wrong way!

I know.  Anyone who has studied the ground at Gettysburg knows to take the flank markers with a pinch (if not a pound) of salt.  Furthermore I’m aware of arguments that stop just short of fisticuffs regarding such stones.  So to avoid some “test of honor” I’ll simply say this looks like a case of mis-orientation when the stones were placed.   But who knows, there may well be a valid historical reason for the placement.  If so I’d love to hear the story.

At any rate, since the Park’s stance is flank markers should not be moved or relocated, the 120th New York will likely continue to face towards Cemetery Hill.  If that is historically correct or not, I’ll leave to others to debate.  It just looks confusing to me!


3 thoughts on “The 120th New York’s Facing at Gettysburg

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