On “hallowed ground”

William L. Perry
William Lewis Perry, ca. 1862 (MHS collection)

In June of 2015, in the course of examining several of the Milton Historical Society’s 19th century photo albums, I found one that contained nearly 75 tintypes, cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite (“calling cards” or CdVs), with a large percentage of those made during the Civil War era. No photograph had any identification information associated with it, or so I thought, but the cabinet cards and CdVs were all apparently taken by Philadelphia photography studios; hence the name assigned to the album. A little more than a year later, we are in the process of conserving these and many other photographs from the 19th century by removing them from their crumbling album pages, placing them in archival sleeves, and cataloguing them individually. Removal from the albums gives us a look at the back of each photograph, where we often find the name of the photography studio and occasionally something more.

In one instance, that of a miniature tintype of a young man, we actually found a handwritten name on the back: “Wm. L. Perry 150 PV.” This turns out to be Private William Lewis Perry of H Company, 150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers (“Bucktails”). The 150th together with the 143rd and 149th made up Stone’s Brigade, named for Colonel Roy Stone, who was instrumental in recruiting the troops of these three regiments. Several sources, including the muster roll with his name on it and other military records, confirm that he enlisted on August 20, 1862 in Meadville, PA, and was mustered in at Harrisburg, PA eight days later.

150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers Encampment 1862
150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers maneuvering approximately 3 weeks before the Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863 (Public Domain image from Wikipedia)

 

The 150th Regiment participated in quite a few campaigns, but one in particular stands out: the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest three days in American military history. Private Perry was wounded there, on July 1st, with a gunshot wound in the left thigh, and did not rejoin his unit until over a year later. Ultimately he survived the war and was mustered out with the rest of Company H on June 23, 1865.

Original miniature tintype of William L. Perry, front and back shown
Original miniature tintype of William L. Perry, front and back (MHS collection)

Census records tell us that prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, William was a single and living with his Canadian-born father Matthew and mother Elizabeth. After the Civil War, he was married to Rachel Maria Humes (exact date of marriage not known) and worked as a sewing machine “agent” (salesman). When he died in 1897 of pneumonia and tuberculosis, he was living in a Los Angeles sanatorium for veterans.

What makes this Union soldier particularly interesting to us today, regardless of his unknown relationship with any Milton family (more on that later), is that several of his letters and his personal diary survive. The Gettysburg National Military Park was kind enough provide me with transcriptions of two of William’s letters and several pages of diary entries, all centered around his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg.

These experiences were harrowing, to say the least.

The following is an excerpt from a letter William L. Perry wrote on July 2, 1863, the day after the 150th sustained heavy casualties against a much larger Confederate force. The letter was written while he was a prisoner of war of the Confederates, and had been moved to a barn away from the worst of the fighting. The spelling is rendered exactly as it is on the original letter.

Our regiment was badly cut up and we have hardly an officer left; and I don’t know that we have any at this time. We were first attacted on our right and we drove the enemy back with a glalling fire. Here our Major was wounded; and just before our Brigadier General (General Stone)  was wounded an Our Colonel called to take his place. We were then attacted in front, and the enemy fared the same fate as before. But the work was not ended yet; a strong force attacted us on our left, and with a murderous fire drove us back. We had not retreated a 1/4 of a mile when we saw that a force on our left were trying to flanking us and and were fireing upon us quite lively. Here I received a severe flesh wound in my left leg, about six inches above The Knee and just back of the bone…..I contrived to crawl on my hands and knees to a fence about 15 feet distant from where I fell, where I found aplenty of blankets on which I spent the remainder of the day and the following night.

Further into the letter he provide more details of the fighting, the dead and the wounded:

In less than 3 hours I fired away near 40 cartrages besides a great deal of falling back and advancing that we had to do. I am very, very thankful to gett off as well as I have. It is God that has delvered me thus. Alonzo Platt was one of the first that was wounded. Before we were engaged a shell fell in our midst killing one and wounding two. Alonzo was one of the number. Our Flag bearer was shot in the head as we were falling back and fell dead. I was Right at his side as he fell; for that was near mu place. There was six or eight fell at my side during the engagement.

What the letters and diary entries reveal is that William L. Perry, like so many common soldiers in so many wars, did not know the full scope of what was occurring in the fighting, nor its effect on the outcome of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. During the fighting, he was aware of what was happening maybe fifteen feet around him. Perry does not mention in his letter that the fight in which he was wounded was the defense of McPherson’s Ridge; the 150th took 288 casualties out of the 397 officers and enlisted men in that engagement. However, they delayed the Confederate advance for several hours, giving the main force of the Union army enough time to get to Gettysburg and deploy. The engagement was a significant factor in the ultimate Union victory there.

One mystery remains: since his photograph appears in an album that belonged to a Miltonian, what is Private Perry’s connection to Milton? Was he a friend or relative of someone in town, a Philadelphia relative of someone in Milton, or was the connection more tenuous? At first I was tempted to say that his connection to the owner of the photo album may have been casual; soldiers often posed for cartes-de-visite and gave them to friends, family, and fellow soldiers. This is not a CdV, however; it is a miniature matted tintype, and a little more formal than a CdV.

I invite anyone reading this post to shed light on Perry’s connection to anyone in Milton.

2 thoughts on “On “hallowed ground”

  • Fascinating Phil, hope you are able to establish a connection with Milton for this courageous soldier.

    • Phil Martin

      I hope so too. This is where someone has to come forward, because I’ve exhausted the easy investigative paths for now.

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