Saturday, February 1, 2014

Four Casualties at Pitzer’s Woods, Part 4: Lewis Girichton

As I have explained in previous posts, the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters lost five men killed or mortally wounded at Pitzer’s Woods. For the longest time, I always thought they had lost six men killed. Only recently, I discovered I was in error in my counting. One of those six, Lewis Girichton, was never killed. This mistake was not entirely my fault. Even thirty years after the battle, the Sharpshooters themselves thought that Girichton had died at Gettysburg.

Here’s what happened:

On February 11, 1863, in its effort to meet the August 4, 1862, call for 300,000 drafted men, the State of Michigan drafted Darius Ambrose Babcock, one of sixteen men called up in St. Joseph County. Unwilling to serve in the Union army, Babcock tried to acquire an exemption, claiming that an old head injury disqualified him from service. Unfortunately for him, the examining surgeon found him fit as a fiddle.  Desperate to stay home, Babcock paid for a substitute to go in his place, and thus, a fifteen-year-old immigrant from Bavaria, Lewis Girichton, went into the army instead. Girichton claimed to be eighteen-years-old, passed his examination, and in April, he mustered into Company I, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters. Three months later, on July 2, Girichton found himself involved in the gunfight at Pitzer’s Woods.

Another soldier remembered how Girichton received his wound. This man was Private Jonathan Newcomb, Jr. of Company A, 3rd Maine Volunteer Infantry. You see, when the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters retreated from the initial point of contact with Wilcox’s Brigade, they passed through the skirmish line of the 3rd Maine, a unit sent to support them. In fact, Newcomb remembered seeing Colonel Berdan pass to the rear, as he wrote, “between the skirmishers in front of our regiment, on a white horse, as fast as the horse could go, while the bullets were flying lively.” (When battle approached, Berdan had a reputation for getting to the rear very fast!)

Newcomb remembered Girichton specifically. In fact, they hid behind a tree together. He explained, “There was a sharpshooter right in front of me behind a big tree, and as I was the only one I could see who had no shelter I got behind the same tree with him.” Later on, Newcomb explained where he found this tree. He wrote, “It seems there is to be a monument erected on the most advanced spot held by our troops that day. That spot will be the tree behind which the sharpshooter and I were. It is on the highest part of the ridge that I occupied with the sharpshooter.”

Presumably, this tree no longer exists, but the 3rd Maine’s monument sits in its place.

As the other Union soldiers gave way around them, Newcomb and Girichton had to choose between running and surrendering to the oncoming Confederates. As Newcomb continued, “They were quite near me when I saw them from behind the tree, and I made up my mind it would be death to me to try and run away, so I threw up my hands. Immediately there were a dozen rifles in that line aimed at me, I saw the flash and as quickly went to the ground, and did not receive a scratch. The sharpshooter who had remained behind the tree was wounded in the knee severely.”

Newcomb’s and Girichton’s captors transported them to the rear, and the last that Newcomb ever saw of his green-coated companion was at the field hospital. Presumably, they went to the Samuel Pitzer Farm, the same place where Captain Charles McLean (of the previous post) died. In 1892, Charles Stevens published his unit history of the Sharpshooters—an excellent one I might add—and in it, he claimed that Girichton had been killed at Pitzer’s Woods. Stevens got it wrong. Girichton lived for another thirty-four years. Apparently, the young substitute never returned to his regiment. Instead, he reported for duty with the Invalid Corps, received a discharge and invalid pension, and then moved to San Francisco, where he married and found work as a gymnastics teacher.

It is a mystery to me that the Sharpshooters believed him to be dead. If Girichton joined the Invalid Corps, the regiment would surely have received record of his being alive. The fact that his companions did not know of his survival suggests that the young substitute tried to keep his identity off the grid. Even after Stevens published his book, Girichton did nothing to report the fact that he had survived the Battle of Gettysburg. In so doing, Girichton remained the one body that the Sharpshooters never recovered from their bloody reconnaissance. As we have seen in previous posts, the Sharpshooters did everything humanly possible to recover the bodies of Smith Haight, George Sheldon, and Charles McLean. In their minds, Girichton was the one man they left behind.

(This monument marks the spot where the 3rd Maine fought on the morning of July 2. Private Jonathan Newcomb claimed that a large three stood on this spot, and there, he and Lewis Girichton found shelter from the enemy bullets.)
(This map shows the overlapping skirmish lines of the 1st USSS and the 3rd Maine. I've marked the spot where Girichton received his wound.)