• Codie Eash

"Sons of Liberty, Go Forth": James McCarter and the 93rd Pennsylvania on the Road to Gettysburg


On the morning of July 1, 1863, atop a “dusty heated highway,” the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac “trod” through Manchester, Maryland, toward the distant sound of gunfire in south-central Pennsylvania. Earlier that morning a meeting engagement had erupted near Gettysburg, involving more than 50,000 soldiers by day’s end, 15,000 of whom had already been killed, wounded, or captured. Within the Sixth Corps ranks was the 93rd Pennsylvania Infantry, whose chaplain, Joseph S. Lame (identified in some sources as Lane), later recalled that by 8:00 p.m., the 93rd was “worn with the long and weary march,” and thus its soldiers “stretched their aching limbs in the shelter of a friendly forest.”[1]


It was at that moment when the unit’s 270 officers and men received word of the severity of the fight developing 26 miles northwest, and the casualties it had already produced. One death was particularly noteworthy, in the form of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, commander of the Federal left wing and a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania—seat of the county that neighbored Lebanon, home of the 93rd. “Scarcely had they thrown themselves upon the ground, when an aide-de-camp arrived from the blood-baptized heights of Gettysburg, announcing the death of General Reynolds, and that the stupendous conflict had commenced,” wrote Lame of the scene that evening at Manchester.


Staff officers subsequently began “requesting regimental commanders to address their troops in language becoming the grandeur of the crisis, and bearing an order for the Immortal Sixth—a corps that had never failed to achieve the possible, to hasten to the defense, to strike for their altars and their fires, God and their native State,” Lame reflected. “The drums beat—‘Fall in,’ leaped from lip to lip, and the host is all astir, swords and belts are buckled on, knapsacks slung, weapons grasped, and, forming into a solid square, they stand determined, defiant.”[2]


“But who shall address them?” Lame pondered. His question was soon answered in the form of Col. James Mayland McCarter, who, “though an invalid,” rose, as “the genius of eloquence had touched his lips and bade him speak.” McCarter, the original commander of the 93rd Pennsylvania, had been severely wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on May 31, 1862. He re-mustered into United States service on April 1, 1863, but was not in proper physical condition to lead, and thus Maj. John Nevin retained his role as commander of the regiment.[3]


On the night of July 1, McCarter’s speaking “rostrum was a war-steed, the silence was profound and painful, not a foot rose or fell, breathing seemed suspended, all nature appeared as awe-struck at the sublimity of the scene, stood silent, solemn, inspiring,” Lame testified. “He who was to interpret and give tongue to this tremendous silence, began in tones low and tremulous, his voice, acquiring force and volume as he proceeded, rang out on the evening air, solemn and sepulchral as a trumpet from the skies, as if God had recommissioned the immortal Moses to reinflame the serried hosts of the Lord God about to march to the valley of decision for the dread battle of Armageddon.”[4]


“My countrymen, comrades-in-arms, Pennsylvanians:—The destroyer has come; fell treason’s foul foot has polluted the soil dedicated forever sacred to freedom,” McCarter shouted to his men below. “Northern hearthstones are threatened; the chains of slavery are clanking, and they are forging fetters to crush your patriotic spirit—the issue is joined, the stupendous conflict has commenced. Interest vast as a world, termless as time are at a venture.” The conflict that awaited his men ahead might determine whether the American union was “a nation dying or redeemed and regenerated,” he continued; “freedom or slavery are the momentous issues of the hour.”[5]


“Sons of liberty, go forth with alacrity to the battle of the civilized world, where God himself mustered the hosts to war,” McCarter declared. In religiously motivated language, he determined that the “nation is at prayer; patriotism, clothed in sackcloth, has fled to her sanctuary and hangs on the horns of the altar, as she pours importunate prayers to the God of battle, to arm you with his own omnipotence.” He asked that the men think of “ministers under God’s inspiration” and the “multitude of mothers in Northern homes at this hour” who might soon be forced to give up a “sacrifice...to the family altar.”


McCarter imagined that “the world’s greatest and best” historical figures “are glancing with fiery eye, and again grasping the sword of war to lead you forth to smite the invader”—the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia. “Catch the spirit of [George] Washington, emulate his illustrious example,” the colonel bellowed, for the Father of America “never drew his sword but upon his country’s enemy, [and] he never sheathed it while his country contained an enemy.”


“Soldiers, we have met before in the shock of battle, where destruction reveled and death danced as at a festal scene,” McCarter concluded. “Again we go; should you fall, the spot will be forever sacred to freedom and a monument immortal as the ages shall arise to your memory. A nation will be your mourners, the liberty-loving of every tongue and tribe, class and kindred, will tender you the tribute of a tear. ‘Let us forward then.’”


The audience was dumbfounded. “Not a cheer arose, not a murmur was heard; feelings too profound for speech filled all hearts,” wrote Chaplain Lame. “Silently, solemnly and majestically as the ocean tide the men move through the aisles of the forest” to Gettysburg.[6]




[1] J.S. Lame, “Dedication of Monument. 93d Regiment Infantry,” Sept. 11, 1889, in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg: Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Mark the Positions of the Pennsylvania Commands Engaged in the Battle, edited by John P. Nicholson (Harrisburg, PA: E.K. Meyers, State Printer, 1893), vol. 1, 501; History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, edited by Samuel P. Bates (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1870), vol. 3, 294.


[2] Lame, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, vol. 1, 501.


[3] Lame, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, vol. 1, 501; History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 3, 294.


[4] Lame, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 501.


[5] Lame, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 501-502.


[6] Lame, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 502.

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