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.
Hancock had ordered his men to lay down as the hot 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.”
Union refugees ultimately fled through the II Corps’ lines, approximately around 6 p.m. or a bit later. “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 “in the abdomen.” He went down. “Although in the most terrible agony he survived long enough to communicate to a friend a message he desired to be sent to his wife” in Augusta, the Kennebec Journal reported.
Williams also wanted “to assure his comrades that he was willing to die in such a glorious cause” and that he “had no regrets that he had volunteered in the service of his country,” according to the KJ.
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,” noted the Farmer.
Plans quickly developed at Augusta, and businessman Albert 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 “bore a letter of introduction” to the Pennsylvania adjutant general, A.L. Russell, “and received from him every attention which the kindest hospitality could suggest,” the Kennebec Journal reported. Russell sent Beale to Col. Ambrose Thompson, the U.S. Army quartermaster in Harrisburg, and Thompson provided “valuable aid” in getting Beale to Gettysburg.
There he 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 the Maine Farmer. The Kennebec Journal claimed that the body reached Augusta on Saturday, July 18.
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, said the Maine Farmer.
“During the exercises, the coffin, which rested upon the stand in front of the desk, was covered with the national ensign and decked with beautiful flowers,” noted the KJ.
“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 church’s new minister. the Reverend Mr. Munger, spoke on The Martyrs of American Liberty. He evidently covered a long list of “martyrs” from the earliest New England colonists to the present; the stem-winder sermon ran on a while, and the KJ admitted “we have not the space to attempt even a synopsis of the discourse which was listened to with deep interest by the entire congregation.”
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 Maine Farmer’s journalist wrote afterwards.Williams was buried in Augusta’s Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, His epitaph read, “Devoted to his country, Faithful in life, Happy in death.”
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 for the Pacific Engine Company.
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; Domestic News, Kennebec Journal, Friday, July 24, 1863; List of Soldiers from the City of Augusta who served in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-’65, compiled by Charles E. Nash, Maine State Archives
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.