By Richard Young
Herald Page Designer
Judging from his letters, Robert Porter was much older than his 23 years.
He was the eldest son in his family and a new teacher when he enlisted in 1862.
Above all he was a very devout young man, and his strong faith appears in just about every letter he wrote from the field. He describes with disapproval the coarse behavior of soldiers and reminds his younger brothers William and Sam to behave and attend to their devotions. Often he would close by assuring his parents he would be kept safe by “he who doeth all things well.”
Yet two years of war and its brutality would take a toll and lead him to question what it all meant.
His letters offer an invaluable look into a soldier’s life with the 140th Pa. Regiment: crudely-made living quarters, the monotony of camp and landscapes far different from his home in Jamestown.
And from time to time they would record history.
One particular letter, written after the Battle of Gettysburg, details the action of his regiment on July 2, the second day of fighting. They moved quickly into line that afternoon to strengthen a staggering Union defense.
That movement, however, was only the end of a much longer march, that account only a passage in a much larger story, for his letter relates not only that day but the entire Gettysburg campaign as he lived it.
It was written during a halt, two days after the guns went silent and danger had passed. When he took up his pen he was tired and worn, angry and no doubt older for what he had experienced. He wrote it to let his parents understand what had happened to him in several harrowing days. It’s likely he was writing for his own understanding as well.
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Encamped six miles east of Gettysburg on the Baltimore Pike
Monday, July 6, 1863
I am through the kind Providence of God once more permitted to address you. I have passed through an engagement of four days unhurt whilst many a brave and true heart bit the dust. I wrote Sam a few lines yesterday, but for fear they might not reach you I will write today. …
I believe when I last wrote you we were near Frederick City, Md. We left there one week ago today and marched a mile on this side of Uniontown, Md., a distance of 30 miles. … It was necessary to reach this point, as the enemy was moving on the town with a large cavalry force, stealing horses, cattle and provisions of every kind. … We left Uniontown the next day at 4 p.m. and reached Gettysburg in the morning, marching 20 miles and traveling all night except for two hours. You can form a slight idea of the trials, privations and hardships soldiers have to endure when you think of us making marches under the scorching rays of a July sun, or it maybe heavy rain.
The battle, as you are aware, was commenced on Wednesday the 1st. We got on the field on the morning of the 2nd. The battle raged fearfully all afternoon, being most severe on the wings as the enemy’s design was to turn our flanks, but no turn. Our troops fought with a vengeance and were not to be driven. All their prisoners say their officers told them they had nothing but militia to fight and they would run, so they charged up close to our batteries and entrenchments and were slaughtered fearfully.
Our brigade was taken in on the left under a heavy fire of musketry. Just in the first of the action our brigadier general was shot and mortally wounded, and a few moments afterwards Col. Roberts was shot and instantly killed. I saw him just before he was shot. He was waving his sword and cheering his men on. At this time we were driving the rebs. Braver men than these never lived.
The 140th fought bravely. I did not see or hear of one man in the regiment showing anything other than a disposition and anxiety to fight. And they did fight, but on account of our officers being killed our position was not properly watched and the rebs flanked us. We were ordered to fall back and did so reluctantly, and at this time we sustained our heaviest loss. …
On Friday the 3rd the battle raged most desperately all day, the enemy making a desperate effort to break our lines at all points and escape, but all in vain. He was repulsed and driven at every point with heavy loss.
It evidently is the design of every officer and private to make this a sorrowful trip for old Lee and his army, and I trust we will. … I hope he may never reach Virginia again. We have to fight and whip the rebs sometime, and I’d rather do it here than any other place. Our fellows were engaged Sabbath and yesterday in hauling off the wounded and burying the dead. The larger portion of these were rebs. In some places they lay think on the ground. It is an awful sight to behold. …
But as I am very tired I will close. … I am anxious for the results of this campaign and hope and pray Providence grant us a complete victory. Hoping to be able to write to you soon again and also hear from you all, I am very sincerely yours,
Robert B. Porter
Robert would not know the results of the Gettysburg campaign or a complete victory, at least not in this life. Nine months later, at Spottsylvania, Va., he was gut shot and died two days later en route to a Washington hospital. He was buried along a road.
(Special thanks to the late Mary Kay Smith of Jamestown for sharing the collected letters of her great-uncle, Robert. B. Porter.)