Their badge was meant to send a warning to an approaching foe: marksmen who could bring down the fleeting whitetail could easily bring down any enemy who dared challenge them.
The proof of their skill was the deer tails they wore on their caps.
So the legend comes down to us, and like so many legends, it is entirely false.
Yes, it was a badge of identity that distinguished them from the rest of a vast blue army. But its origin is far less romantic.
The truth is at its formation in 1861 the 42nd Pa. Regiment was in the tiny village of Smethport, Pa., when a soldier spotted a deer hide hanging outside of a butcher shop. He cut off the tail and stuck it on his hat. Other soldiers liked the look, and soon deer tails appeared on hats throughout the regiment.
They came to be known as the Bucktails and served with distinction throughout Virginia in the early part of the war. What began as an improvised fashion accent became a badge of honor to those now-seasoned veterans.
So they weren’t at all pleased when in 1862 two regiments of Pennsylvanians, the 149th and 150th, were formed to become a new “Bucktail Brigade.”
Four companies of one new regiment, the 150th, were recruited in Meadville. Men were promised $25, a frockcoat and a bucktail to enlist.
The revered badge had become a mere recruiting tool, and the original Bucktails were outraged. Men of the new regiments were met with derision by the veterans who believed the badge was theirs alone. They were looked upon as replacements, untested newcomers who were not worthy and were given the name “Bogus Bucktails.”
That name would disappear after the first day at Gettysburg.
(July 1, 1863)
For much of that six-mile march they were at the “double-quick” a hurried step that is just shy of a jog. It was nearing 11 a.m., and the day was already a hot one. Many had fallen out from heat exhaustion when they reached the Emmittsburg Road.
The two new bucktail regiments and a third were part of Stone’s Brigade, named for its commander Col. Roy Stone. They had seen combat only once before, earlier that spring at Chancellorsville, Va., but were held in reserve and not actively engaged.
Now they were rushing toward an unseen battle that was brought to their native soil.
A Confederate division had advanced on Gettysburg from the west earlier that morning to probe the area for the enemy and ran into a small force of Union cavalry that had been waiting for them. Federal troopers had dismounted, blocked the Chambersburg Pike two miles outside of town and braced for a desperate fight until help arrived.
Union commanders were ordered to get there at once. It was vital to keep the Confederates from taking the town and its network of roads and, more important, the high ground that lay beyond.
The Army of the Potomac was spread out at that time with most of its soldiers still a day’s march away. The closest unit was the 1st Corp, encamped six miles to the south. It sent the first infantry forces to the field that day, men from the Midwest who made up the famed Iron Brigade.
Following them at the quick step were Stone’s Bucktails.
The booming of artillery could be heard beyond a ridge to the west when the brigade of 1,300 men approached Gettysburg. At just a about a mile from the town limit the Bucktails veered from the road at a left oblique and made for the battle, trampling fields of grain and young corn and heading for the buildings of a Lutheran seminary.
Before they reached it they met their corps commander Gen. Abner Doubleday (yes, the same man who was later credited with inventing baseball, although he didn’t). He had been directing the morning’s fighting after his superior, Gen. John Fulton Reynolds of Pennsylvania, had been killed.
Doubleday approached Stone’s men who at this time were dripping with sweat and gave them their mission.
“This day, go in for Pennsylvania!”
It was a transforming moment that restored the winded men. Amid their wild cheers an answer to Doubdleday’s charge came from some unknown soldier. It was taken up by more men and swelled into a roared chant that emboldened them and gave them purpose: “We have come to stay!”
It would become the motto of the new Bucktails.
When they halted atop Seminary Ridge they had their first view of why they came. A thin Union line had been desperately blocking the advance of a greater force of screaming Confederates. They saw the Iron Brigade tangled with rebels in a woodlot on a rise hundreds of yards away. It was where Reynolds fell. They were told to avenge his death.
The order was given to drop packs to lighten the load, the sure sign of an impending advance. In the excitement of the moment, an anxious officer of the 150th ordered his men forward. A worried private who had somehow kept his head asked, “Sir, may we load first?”
They loaded their Enfield muskets while marching down the hill from the seminary through a swale and up a gradual slope to where a handsome farm stood.
They were greeted at the McPherson farm by Confederate artillery bursts. “Come, boys, choose your partners. The ball’s about to open,” yelled an excited soldier from the 150th. “Don’t you hear the music?” The music would play on all afternoon.
Their job was not unlike that of so many other units that first day: hold the door shut for as long as possible and allow the rest of the Union army to get to Gettysburg and fortify its most critical ground, for more fighting that was sure to come. Men of the 11th Corp performed the same task north of town that day.
But the Bucktails’ mission came at great cost for they were exposed to enemy fire from the west and northwest. They stood along a clear ridge before the McPherson Farm and formed a right angle along the Chambersburg Pike. They would hold that spot for nearly four hours while Minié balls swarmed about their heads, as one veteran recalled, like angry bees.
It was a day of sacrifice, and none was greater than that of flag-bearer Sgt. Samuel Peiffer of the 150th. Late in the afternoon, as the brigade’s strength was weakening, he was ordered to advance the colors in hopes of rallying a counterattack to keep the rebels in check. He didn’t hesitate, despite the futility, raised the flag and marched forward alone. He was cut down instantly.
By 3 p.m. the Union line was crumbling. The Iron Brigade was spent and retreated from the field, exposing the left flank of the Bucktails. Finally, they could remain no longer. Their losses were too great. Of 1,300 men who came on the field that day, more than 800 were killed, wounded or missing.
They would leave the farm they held for so long to oncoming Virginians and retreat to the seminary, through town and finally to Cemetery Ridge where the Union army was concentrating. They were among the first to arrive that day, and the last to leave.
Stone’s Brigade came to the field vowing to stay, and they did for as long as they could. Because of them, more Union forces would come that night and the next morning to Gettysburg where they would also stay.
The Bucktails’ reputation stays to this day.
The Civil War monument in Meadville’s Diamond Park is topped by a figure of a Union color-bearer in honor of Sgt. Samuel Peiffer of the 150th Pa. Bucktails.
(Additional source: “Stone’s Brigade and the Fight for the McPherson Farm” by James J. Dougherty.)