Thursday, January 30, 2014

Four Casualties at Pitzer’s Woods, Part 3: Charles McLean

The reconnaissance action at Pitzer’s Woods caused the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters to lose five killed and mortally wounded: Sergeant Abraham Cooper (Co. F), Lieutenant George W. Sheldon (Co. I), Private Smith Haight (Co. D), Private Charles Thatcher (Co. E), and Captain Charles D. McLean (Co. D).

Of these five, the Sharpshooters appeared to feel the loss of Captain McLean most acutely. Near the end of the action, McLean received a wound to his leg, shattering his bone. One of his men, Private Peter Kipp, turned around just in time to see him fall. Calling aloud, Kipp rallied four men—Kipp, Private Edwin Nelson, Lieutenant John Hetherington, and a sergeant named Marks—who grabbed a blanket and improvised a makeshift litter. They placed McLean on it and started to carry him off the field. Soon, Nelson fell wounded, and two other soldiers had to improvise a litter to carry him as well. Without a delay, a fifth man, Private Alexander Ferguson, took Nelson’s place carrying the captain. As Kipp remembered, “[We] had gone but a few steps when the captain told us to leave him and look out for ourselves or all would be shot.” The four Sharpshooters did as McLean bid them, lowering him to the ground, but after retreating a few paces more, Hetherington told Kipp to go back and stay with McLean, even if it meant surrendering to the Confederates.

Kipp turned around and did as ordered. When he reached McLean’s position, he discovered that the Confederate skirmish line had just passed his fallen commander. Dutifully, Kipp surrendered to three Alabamians—three men who had then stopped to see if McLean was alive or dead. At first, the three Confederates wanted to lead Kipp to the rear as their prisoner, but a helpful lieutenant soon arrived, telling Kipp that he could accompany McLean to the rear in an ambulance. Kipp hopped into a wagon loaded with wounded men, and at the field hospital, Kipp and McLean reunited with Private James H. Reed, another Sharpshooter from their company who had been wounded and captured.

Although McLean reached a field hospital (probably the Samuel Pitzer Farm) safely, he did not live much longer. A brigade surgeon amputated McLean’s leg, and according to Kipp—who continued to nurse him at the hospital—the operation went splendidly, for it resulted in little blood loss. However, for all the Confederate surgeons did to save him, McLean died on the operating table. He expired shortly before noon, July 4. The next day, when the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters returned to the scene of the action, they made an especial effort to find McLean. Lieutenant Hetherington, the officer who had ordered Peter Kipp to remain with the captain, found the field hospital. He wrote, “I entered the rebel hospitals as we came to them to look for our Captain, as it was near where he was wounded. Those were anxious moments for me. Just as we halted who should come forward but Kipp—and from him I learned the sad news (must I write it?) that he had his leg amputated and died on the morning of the 4th of July. . . . Kipp was with him part of the time. Reed did not leave him only to get water . . . ; he suffered very little pain.”

In later years, the veterans spoke highly of Captain McLean. When one reads their kind words, it is no wonder that they spent such a herculean effort to try to remove him from the field. Five men risked their lives to carry him to safety. In the process, two of those men became casualties themselves. Edwin Nelson fell wounded and Peter Kipp became a prisoner, albeit briefly. The value of a man might indeed be estimated by the risk of his friends to rescue him in his hour of need.

(This is a painting by the late Tom Lovell, entitled, "Berdan's Sharpshooters -- The Second Day at Gettysburg" (1990). It is meant to depict the reconnaissance action at Pitzer's Woods. It shows the Sharpshooters and the 3rd Maine fighting in overlapping skirmish lines, which is accurate. However, it depicts Wilcox's Alabamians crossing a stream with their wagons in tow. This is inaccurate.  In reality, the 1st USSS made first contact with the Alabamians at a cornfield west of Seminary Ridge. No supply wagons were present. This is the only known artistic depiction of the Pitzer's Woods engagement.)

(Lieutenant John Hetherington wore this cap the day he fought at Pitzer's Woods. You can see it has changed since July 2, 1863, in that the cap has lost its insignia. Hetherington took command of Company D after McLean fell wounded and on July 5, and he sought the remains of his former commander by returning to the scene of the action.)
(McLean fell wounded near the middle of the fight at Pitzer's Woods. No one identified the spot where he fell, but veterans later said it occurred near the present-day monument along Berdan Avenue.)

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