A few years ago, a distant cousin contacted me with the news that an ancestor was wounded at Gettysburg — that iconic three-day American battle that celebrates its 150th anniversary this week.
I was thrilled. I had sought a connection ever since dressing up as a Civil War soldier at the re-enactment of the battle 20 years ago. The foundation was laid then for a profound intersection to come: where the haunted past rises unwittingly to meet the glorious present.
First, about my great-great grandfather: Robert Cooey of Philadelphia.
On August 1, 1861, a few months after the firing on Fort Sumter begins the War, he walks to the State Armory in downtown Philadelphia. He has dark hair and dark eyes. He’s five feet, six and a half inches tall. Weighs 150. His pulse at 72 beat per minute. He’s young and illegal — a 21-year-old immigrant from a place called Newtownstewart in Northern Ireland. Presbyterian and without papers. For immigrants like him, expedited citizenship for military service seemed a fair trade. Besides, the war would last months, not years.
What is there to lose?
A lot, of course.
‘The fiends of hell’
His outfit — the 29th Pennsylvania — is composed of Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish from neighborhood fire brigades across Philadelphia. By the time of Gettysburg, July 1863, they have suffered defeats: the disastrous winter offensive known as the “Mud March,” the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.
So when my great-great-grandfather crosses into his home state just before the big battle, his fellow soldiers shout: “No licking us this time. We are going to stay” and give three cheers for Pennsylvania.
At Gettysburg, they are on the so-called barbed end of the “fish hook” — a key of the Union defense of the entire battlefield — known as Culp’s Hill. It’s actually two hills, heavily forested and rocky, which makes fighting all the more confusing and terrifyingly close-range.
His regiment digs in and builds up a breastworks, a defensive position. Then it is suddenly called away. They get lost marching to another battle. It’s confusing, after all, to move thousands of men in wool coats and trousers, with iron cannons, through thick brush, in July. Upon returning, the Confederates have overrun their old position.
“All the fiends of Hell were having a whistling and shrieking match over us,” a soldier writes in his diary entry for July 3.
After my great-great-grandfather and his fellow soldiers fire at the enemy, their commander sees leaves falling from the trees. “Shoot lower,” Colonel Rickards says. “Aim for their knees.” It works: His regiment reoccupies their position, the enemy “demoralized by the undaunted bearing of the men of the Pennsylvania Brigade.”
The fight lasts seven hours. Trees are stripped of their foliage, some sheared off completely. One brigade expends 227,000 rounds. And one of those strikes my great-great-grandfather’s right shoulder, passing through, leaving three-inch scars. He is carried off the field and spends the rest of the war in a hospital in York. Later records show his wound is a “compound fracture of the spine of the right scapula.” The doctor excises a portion of the spine, an injury my great-great-grandfather had documented by surgeons for his war pension file every decade for the remainder of his life.
Later in the war, without him, his regiment is part of General Sherman’s “march to the sea” in Georgia.
Choosing a side
One hundred and thirty years later, in 1993, I attend my first reenactment of a Civil War battle. A nine-part documentary series by the filmmaker Ken Burns for public television has reinvigorated public interest. Groups of middle-aged men with families come together to relive history by enacting the local battles in period costumes before record crowds.
In Virginia, at the First Battle of Manassas, I am ready to view the spectacle. Suddenly, a guy dressed in period soldier wear hurries up to me to ask if I want to “fight.” Young and adventurous, I say sure. He dresses me in thick wool coat and pants, places a kepi on my head, and gives me a rifle. I march around a field in sweltering heat and shoot blanks out of a gun for 40 minutes with 20 other guys. It is a blast.
Afterward, I am told I am a 2nd Marylander. “The North?” I ask, for my outfit is gray. “No,” the recruiter tells me. “Maryland, you see, went both ways—Union and Confederate.”
Unsure of even symbolically fighting for slavery, I complain.
“Look,” the recruiter pleads. “Most guys join the Union at these re-enactments, so we never have enough guys. Besides, the Civil War was as much about state’s rights as anything else.”
I open my mind and join the Confederacy.
A few weeks later, I am driving to re-enact the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I have no idea that any relative of mine ever fought there. My mother’s great grandfather came close, but his unit was called away at the last minute. My mother comes along and puts on a woman’s period hoop dress to give spectators the full effect of 1861.
I am told to re-enact what actually happened to Maryland on Culp’s Hill: lose. History says their general broke down and wept, “wringing his hands and crying, ‘My poor boys.'” In one heartbreaking moment, a dog breaks from the ranks and runs onto the field, licks the hand of a soldier, and “is perfectly riddled.”
A Union general orders him honorably buried, “as the only Christian minded being on either side.” In another moment, the Pennsylvanians watch a wounded 2nd Marylander load his rifle laboriously. He then aims, not at them, but at himself.
I am ordered to “die” during the battle by my sergeant as so many Marylanders actually did. Authenticity is our pride. I taste gunpowder, for the firing is so intense. Cannons boom in front of us. Hay bales are set on fire across the fields. The audience cheers.
It is horrifyingly spectacular.
Intersecting with history
A couple of years later, I turn in my kepi — the period hat of soldiers — after I am injured in a battle. I fall on my knee running from the enemy at a re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville. It requires surgery.
In 2010, a distant cousin contacts me about our Gettysburg ancestor. I research the well-documented actions of his regiment. Then, I look into the 2nd Maryland.
Turns out we have met — my Civil War grandfather and I. The two regiments actually fought each other at the same spot on Culp’s Hill. The color-coded battle maps show the red arrow of the 2nd Maryland intersecting with the blue arrow of the 29th Pennsylvania.
So in some peculiar post-historical gesture on that day in 1993, my great-great-grandfather “killed” me.
Only in America.
You can see the monuments to the Pennsylvania and Maryland companies at the battlefield today when you visit. They are right next to one another.
On this sesquicentennial of that terribly necessary battle, it occurs to me how history is a story, a personal one, and is as much about then as it is about now. Like my ancestor, I walked off that battlefield in 1993. Unlike him, I gained a slightly expanded understanding of what actually took place at the real Battle of Gettysburg.
The number of dead, maimed, and dismembered still unfathomable — nearly 8,000 alone in less than an hour at the famous Pickett’s Charge — just one hill over from where we fought.
In sweltering heat. Thick wool. With heavy, awkward, long rifles. The fellow-right-next-to-you’s gun exploding in your ear.
The price we paid.
With liberty and justice for all.
I’ll never really know how he felt: Private Robert Cooey left no diary. He found his liberty and justice: naturalized just 25 days after his discharge. While his war injury prevented manual labor (he was a currier before the war, one who colors and dresses leather), he rose to become a co-owner of a successful Morroco Works, makers of fine leather for shoes and purses.
Most important, he never forgot. His headstone is inscribed “Post No. 10, G.A.R.,” or Grand Army of the Republic — the veterans organization.
Family tells me that his daughter married an undertaker and ran the Rose Funeral Home, which still operates in Bridesburg (North Philadelphia) today four generations later.
I know his great-grandson, Robert Cooey Rose. I spoke with him the other day about an article I was putting together about a guy who had his name at one point in time — witness to that one still holy and unforgettable American moment, even 150 years later.
Michael Carolan teaches literature and writing at Clark University in Massachusetts. He received an Atlantic Monthly writing prize and is the editor of “The Mass Deportation of Poles to Siberia,” a collection of memoirs. He is working on a novel.