Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? David Ireland and the 137th New York

On July 2, 1863, as he studied his lines, one regimental commander realized the dire straits in which his regiment found itself. Situated on the extreme flank of the Union Army, his unit would have to stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds and fight with their backs to the wall. This man understood that if his regiment faltered, the Union flank would crumble and Confederates could possibly dislodge the Union's precarious hold on this small Pennsylvania rise named Culp’s Hill. The commander's name was David Ireland, and his unit was the 137th New York Infantry.

Stealing a line from the hit Broadway show Hamilton, people throughout history have had no control over who lives, who dies, or who tells their story. Many would have thought that the action described above was about the stoic Union defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a man who ranks easily within the top five for number of t-shirts being sold with his face on it in the gift shops of Gettysburg). Chamberlain is the soldier whom the average Civil War buff often can’t stop reading about, and who scholars can’t stop talking about. Chamberlain did something incredible on July 2nd at Little Round Top and it merits study, but one must think that in the case of the 20th Maine their story is very uncommon, not in actions but in memory.

When studying the battle on July 2nd most people gravitate towards Longstreet’s attack on the Union left. Because of this focus on the left flank, the action on the extreme Union right flank is nothing more than an afterthought for many Civil War historians. The 137th NY and its commander’s actions deserve equal praise to that of the 20th Maine and Chamberlain, and their actions along with their commander will be examined here.

Colonel David Ireland

Colonel David Ireland

David Ireland was born in 1833 in Forfar, Scotland, and by 18 he had taken up a tailor's trade. His family immigrated to New York, where heapprenticed under his father. When the Civil War broke out, Ireland originally enlisted as a lieutenant in the 79th New York. He served with that unit throughout the fall of 1861, then was promoted to captain sent back to upstate New York for recruiting duty. Needing experienced soldiers to command new units, Ireland was promoted to colonel and placed in charge of a new regiment, the 137th New York Infantry. Attached to the Twelfth Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, the New Yorkers were stationed in reserve during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Colonel Ireland led the 137th into combat for the first time at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Ireland described his unit as “manifesting much coolness and bravery” while it was shelled during the engagement. The regiment suffered fifty-five total casualties during the bombardment, but it left Chancellorsville without engaging in any pronounced infantry combat.

When the 137th New York marched up to Gettysburg, it was positioned on the extreme right of the Union Army on July 2. Somewhat confusingly, the 137th and the rest of General Greene's brigade formed perpendicular to the main Union line on Culp’s Hill. That evening, around 7 pm, Ireland’s skirmishers were driven back into his line, and the 137th commenced its first prolonged firefight. The New Yorkers stood firm in their baptism of fire. The musketry was steady for thirty minutes, when through the terrific fire and smoke, David Ireland looked to his right and saw Confederates moving around his flank as the sun was beginning to set on the battlefield.

Culp's Hill at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863; note the position of 137th NY on the far right flank

Culp's Hill at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863; note the position of 137th NY on the far right flank

It is at this point that Colonel Ireland, during the roar of battle, ordered his rightmost company to form at a right angle to the rest of the regiment. Like Chamberlain and the 20th Maine earlier that day, Ireland was being outflanked by Confederates. But whereas the 20th Maine fought two regiments in total, the 137th had an entire brigade of Confederates sweeping around their position.

Ireland would later write that his men held firm in the face of fire from his right and front and initially checked the advance of the Confederates. Ireland and his men were able to stem the tide of Confederates rushing around their right side for long enough to get help from a regiment from the First Corps. This regiment, from Pennsylvania, arrived in time to help the beleaguered New Yorkers, and Ireland placed them to the right where his Company A was formed at a right angle of his line. The Pennsylvanians went into position and immediately came under heavy Confederate fire from their front and right through the twilight. This was the same fire which Colonel Ireland’s men had been exposed to now for almost an hour. One of these men reported that while in this position, the Pennsylvanians “experienced the heaviest and wickedest musketry firing for about half an hour that I ever lay under.”

Captain Charles Horton of General Greene’s staff described a very different scene. In the evening darkness, he wrote the Pennsylvanians were beginning to fully engage the Confederate flanking regiments when they “rose up and retreated in line, apparently without panic or disorder.” Horton was flabbergasted, he went and immediately implored their commander to hold his ground but its commanding officer replied unapologetically “he would not have his men murdered.” The Pennsylvanians fell back and left the 137th to face the Confederate gauntlet alone. The “murder” that the regiment was subject to amounted to a mere fourteen casualties that night. David Ireland and the 137th New York were left out to dry.

With help retreating about as fast as it had appeared, Ireland found himself almost surrounded. He wrote that “we were being fired on heavily from three sides, from the front of the works, from the right, and from a stone wall in our rear. Here we lost severely in killed and wounded.” In their first true fight, the men from New York fended off attacks from the front and right, and now due to the collapse of their reinforcements, their rear.  The New Yorkers needed to create another line perpendicular to the one they already created and parallel to their original position; the regiment formed three sides of a square, a sideways U with its base facingGeorge Steuart’s Confederate brigade.

Ireland was forced to order his men to fall back to an abandoned line of earthworks and reform his regiment there. As most of Ireland's men were falling back, a party of the 137th, ammunition exhausted, charged forward with bayonets in order to provide time for the rest of the regiment to retreat and reform. In the darkness, the muzzle flashes of the Confederate muskets were the only sense of direction these men had to make their charge. Ireland stated at this point “Captain (Joseph) Gregg, in command of a small squad of men, charged with the bayonet the enemy that were harassing us most.”

In their first fight, the 137th had seen it all. The New Yorkers stood up against Confederates in their front; they had been flanked not once but twice by a Confederate brigade, and now some charged headlong into the darkness to buy the regiment a vital few minutes. The men going forward were risking their lives for time in order for the regiment to form up behind the reserve line of earthworks. Ireland lamented that Captain Gregg “fell, mortally wounded, leading and cheering on his men.” Many of the men who went forward suffered the same fate. After the charge of Captain Gregg's men, the 137th fought on for awhile longer, checking Confederate advances until they were relieved by Union reinforcements.

Just as the 20th Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain held the Union left flank at Gettysburg on July 2, David Ireland and the 137th New York held the Union right. Yet unlike the 20th Maine, the 137th saw significant action on the final day of battle. When July 3rd dawned, the Confederates attacked heavily up the slopes of Culp’s Hill, continuing their assaults from the day previous. The Confederates charged straight ahead at the Union entrenchments. The 137th, after reforming, was sent to the right of Greene’s line on top of the hill; this time they had support on their flanks. As the grey wave rushed up the hill, Ireland’s men found themselves facing their antagonists from the previous day, only this time Steuart’s Confederates were reinforced by the famed Stonewall Brigade. Ireland wrote, “At 4 am the enemy advanced with a yell and opened on us.” Undeterred and perhaps wanting some revenge, the 137th held the line for two hours under steady Confederate pressure. When ammunition wavered, the 137th was relieved in dramatic fashion by the 29th Ohio, thus ending its involvement in the fight on July 3rd.

After the fighting concluded, the gaps in the lines of the New Yorkers were noticeable, not just for them, but within other units in Greene’s brigade as well. Lieutenant Collins of the 149th New York wrote that the survivors of the 137th looked “sad and mournful as they marched away; many had eyes filled with tears.” Those sad and mournful looks were the result of the terrific causalities that the regiment suffered. Of the entire brigade, the 137th suffered the most of any regiment. The New Yorkers lost 40 men killed, 87 wounded and 10 men missing for a total of 137.

The 137th New York's 137 causalities at the battle of Gettysburg comprised 30% of the regiment. The men from Maine on the southern part of the field suffered the same 30% causalities on Little Round Top. Both units ordered a bayonet charge to drive the enemy back. The 20th Maine faced off against the 15th Alabama while the 137th New York squared off against a brigade of Southerners. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine monument is the one of the most visited Civil War monuments in the country. David Ireland and the 137th memorial is lost among the maze of monuments on Culp’s Hill. Both men deserve praise; Chamberlain and Ireland were both pivotal in holding the flanks of the Union Army on July 2nd.

Veterans of the 137th New York Infantry after the war

Veterans of the 137th New York Infantry after the war

Both events are just a few of the hundreds upon hundreds of remarkable deeds performed by men both blue and grey on those July days in 1863. But in memory, even prior to the novel Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg, the actions of Chamberlain and the Maine men were lauded. After the battle, Chamberlain went on to lead gallant charges during other battles in the war; he rose to become a brigadier general, and eventually received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. After the war, Chamberlain spoke extensively about the 20th Maine and their plight on July 2nd. He argued with his own men as well as the Alabamians about the fighting at Little Round Top that day and carried that fight through the rest of his life, usually to the frustration of the others involved there that day.

Due in part to these post-war debates, Chamberlain often rests at heart of discussions of the Battle of Gettysburg, while David Ireland, the 137th New York, and Culp’s Hill are often overlooked. Ireland’s actions weren't made into a Hollywood movie. He isn’t featured on t-shirts or coffee mugs; his portrait isn’t available for purchase in the souvenir shops of Gettysburg. This is in part because Ireland didn’t survive the war; he died in 1864 of dysentery outside Atlanta. This immigrant from Scotland, who came from humble beginnings and fought from the outset of the war, didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He didn't get to see the war to its conclusion, and he was unable to advance his laurels or his regiment's actions like Chamberlain. Today he rests buried in Binghamton, New York in a modest plot. Until recently there were no monuments to his actions other than the singular, overlooked monument to the 137th at Gettysburg. But recently Ireland has finally got his due. New York State has named a highway after David Ireland in Binghamton. The highway is near the historical marker for Camp Susquehanna, the location where Ireland trained his men from the 137th, turning them from ordinary men into extraordinary soldiers. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in an statement that “Colonel David Ireland exemplified the best of New York, defending our Union at a time when division threatened to tear it apart.”

One hundred and fifty years later, David Ireland has finally started to get recognition for his actions in defense of his adopted country. Yet outside of a small stretch of road in New York, the monuments and memorials to men like David Ireland and the 137th are those battlefields with which they gave the last full measure. Multitudes of soldiers, both North and South, will forever have those fields as their only monuments. It’s left to us to tell those stories.

Justin Voithofer is a graduate of West Virginia University. He currently spends his summers at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park as a seasonal park ranger. Justin's Civil War interests focus on the military campaigns of the Civil War and the creation of (arguably) the greatest state in the Union, West Virginia. Besides volunteering for Younglife, Justin's life outside of the Civil War revolves around both WVU and professional Pittsburgh sports. Both of which have caused numerous heartaches that could only be compared to the 11th Corps after Chancellorsville, a feeling of despair and constantly asking the question "What the heck just happened..."

Further Reading and Sources:

Cleutz, David. Fields of Fame and Glory. Bloomington, IN: 2010.

Pfanz, Harry. Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine: A Classic Story of Joshua Chamberlain and His Regiment. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1957.

Sears, Stephen. Gettysburg. Boston: Mariner Books, 2004.

United States. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol. XXV, Part 1. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.