Al Williams escapes a Gettysburg grave, part 2

Union troops defend a stone wall and a knoll against attacking Confederate troops at Gettysburg in late afternoon, July 2, 1863. Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched this drawing; the scene was set on “our left center” (probably along II Corps’ lines), according to the accompanying Harper’s Weekly caption. (Library of Congress)

As the sun swung westward over Gettysburg on Thursday, July 2, 1863, Sgt. Albert N. Williams of Augusta likely kept watch over the men of Co. G, 19th Maine Infantry Regiment. Commanded by Col. Francis E. Heath, the Maine boys could see blue-colored South Mountain on the western horizon and the Codori Farm buildings much nearer to their position on the western edge of Cemetery Ridge.

The 19th Maine belonged to the 1st Brigade ( Brig. Gen. William Harrow) of the 2nd Division (Brig. Gen. John Gibbon) of II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. The corps occupied terrain along Cemetery Ridge between I Corps to the north, holding the ground around Ziegler’s Grove, and Dan Sickles and his III Corps, occupying the ridge’s lower reaches to the south.

After delivering 8-10 volleys that shredded attacking Confederates on July 2, 1863, the men of the 19th Maine Infantry counterattacked, charging from right to left across the fields toward the Codori Farm (left, center) in the distance. Sgt. Albert Williams of Augusta was mortally wounded during the July 2 fight. (Brian F. Swartz)

Hancock had ordered his men to lay down as the morning dragged on. “The Confederates … evidently knew we were there,” thought Sgt. Silas Adams, a 21-year-old private from Bowdoinham when he mustered with Co. F.

Every now and then they would pitch a shell over among us … killing or wounding a number of men,” he explained.

In late afternoon Confederate divisions launched an en echelon attack against II Corps, pushed out by Sickles to occupy a knoll-perched peach orchard and a long stretch of Emmitsburg Road southwest of the 19th Maine’s position. Pounded by enemy artillery, the overextended II Corps defenders finally collapsed.

We watched with intense interest the progress of the battle,” Silas Adams said.

The 19th Maine’s veterans — precious few new recruits bolstered the regimental ranks this July — read the battle’s evolution in sight and sound. “Through the smoke we could see the approach of the coming storm,” he said. “It was a losing fight on the part of the Third Corps.”

The rows of ground-flush headstones stretching toward the New York Monument belong to the Maine section in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Although he died on the battlefield on July 3, 1863, Albert Williams of Augusta was not among the 104 Maine soldiers buried in this cemetery. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Union refugees ultimately fled through the II Corps’ lines. “They were all of them in a hurry,” many not noticing upon whom they stepped while “walking over us,” Adams said.

With the nearest Confederates “about thirty-five yards from our lines,” Heath shouted his 400-odd men to their feet. Mainers fired almost point blank, “the Confederates … were staggered and halted,” and Adams et al “fired about eight rounds each into their ranks.”

The 19th Maine lads then charged out to the Emmitsburg Road, recaptured lost Union artillery, and helped break the Confederate attack on that part of the Union line.

Sometime during that fight, a Confederate bullet caught Albert Williams. He died the next day, and his friends buried him “in a secluded spot upon the battle-field, in a rocky ravine, surrounded by a clump of bushes, the name being carefully inscribed in pencil upon a rough head-board placed there by his comrades,” the Maine Farmer soon reported.

Williams should have lain there until exhumed for reburial in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery later that year or in early 1864. But back in Augusta, people wanted him home now.

In civilian life, Al Williams had belonged to the Pacific Engine Company, a volunteer firefighting outfit. Firefighters remembered him as “a true and faithful fireman … ever at his post of duty when the alarm sounded.” He was “a warm-hearted and benevolent companion whose words and acts of kindness and friendship we will ever remember.”

Hushai C. Thomas of Co. D was among the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment lads buried in Gettysburg National Cemetery. From Morrill in Waldo County, he died of his wounds on July 21, 1863. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Plans quickly developed at Augusta, and businessman A.T. Beale hurried “to Gettysburg for the purpose of recovering the body,” according to the Maine Farmer. Evidently armed with the grave’s description, Beale found Williams, had him exhumed and embalmed, and shipped the body and its lead-lined coffin by rail to Augusta.

Probably escorted by Beale, Albert Williams arrived home on Tuesday, July 14.

According to George W. Dorr, the Pacific Engine Company’s clerk, the volunteer firefighters “resolved” to “attend the funeral of our late brother in a body, and that we, one and all, will assist in every way that we can” in preparing for the anticipated funeral.

The casket lay in state inside a Methodist church in Augusta on Sunday morning, July 19 as people filled the sanctuary to pay their respects to Williams, “an exemplary member” of the church.

Family and friends” were joined by “a large concourse of people” participating :in the last sad offices of respect and regard for the memory of a brave soldier of the Union and an esteemed citizen,” a Maine Farmer correspondent noted.

The Pacific Engine Company firefighters turned out “in a body” for the funeral “and followed the remains of their late associate to the grave,” the journalist wrote afterwards.

Williams had fallen “while facing the enemies of his country, with that glorious old flag—the emblem of liberty, proudly and defiantly waving above him,” George Dorr wrote.

Because of his friends at home, Al Williams escaped a grave amidst the Maine heroes buried in Section 15 of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg. He was, like them, a hero to the end.

Sources: John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, pp. 70-71; Sergeant Albert N. Williams, Maine Farmer, Thursday, July 23, 1863

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.