For Love of the Union Amherst, NH Soldiers Memorial. New England Historical Society.
Charles H. Phelps was born on February 28, 1842 in Amherst, New Hampshire, the third child of Horace and Betsey Phelps. He grew up in that small, tight-knit community in Hillsborough County as the son of a farmer, and by the time of South Carolina’s secession in 1860, he was eighteen years old and listed as a painter’s apprentice in census records. He was also a member of the local Lancaster Engine Company of firemen. The people of Amherst rallied to the Union cause a week after the firing on Fort Sumter, as sixteen men, including young Charles Phelps, stepped forward to enlist. These volunteers received a hero’s sendoff in a gathering on the Amherst town green before heading to join the First New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, a three-month regiment. After the expiry of his initial enlistment, Phelps, along with several of his comrades, signed on for a further three years of service in September 1861 as part of Company I of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. Their company was led by Charles Hapgood, an Amherst resident, while regimental command went to Colonel Edward Ephraim Cross, a New Hampshire native and former newspaperman renowned as a tough fighter. Phelps caught the eye of both of his commanders as a young man of great discipline and strength, and was rewarded with a promotion to fourth sergeant. In the coming months, Cross would mold Phelps and the Fifth into one of the crack regiments of the Union Army.
Charles Phelps saw his first battle action on the Virginia Peninsula during George McClellan’s summer campaign of 1862. The Fifth New Hampshire was in the area during the campaign’s early clashes, but they got their first taste of combat on May 31 at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston attacked two isolated Union corps south of the Chickahominy River, and McClellan called on the Second Corps, including Phelps and the Fifth, to come to their aid. The regiment fought bravely in repulsing the Confederate attack, but at the heavy cost of 30 killed and 170 wounded. After the fighting, the horrific scene left its mark on young Charles Phelps. In a letter home to his older sister Sophia, he wrote of the dead “[S]uch a sight I never saw before and never want to again. [I] could not turn my head without seeing fifteen or twenty dead bodys [sic].” Yet he still felt confident in the success of the army, writing to Sophia early in June that “Richmond will have to fall soon.” Unfortunately, he was incorrect in his prediction, and with McClellan’s defeat on the outskirts of the Confederate capital, further campaigns awaited Phelps and the Fifth.
Phelps and his regiment continued to fight in some of the toughest and most notorious locales of the Civil War in the battles of late 1862. At Antietam, Phelps was among the Union men tasked with attacking the Confederate position at the Sunken Road. As they went in, Colonel Cross yelled to “put on the war paint!” His men followed suit by streaking cartridge power on their cheeks. Phelps and the Fifth went in ferociously, breaking the Rebel line and emerging victorious in their sector of the field. The regiment lost 7 more men killed and 120 wounded out of the 390 that went into combat on September 17, but still greater tragedies were yet to come.
At Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 13, 1862, the Fifth New Hampshire suffered catastrophic losses in the attack on Marye’s Heights. Union commander Ambrose Burnside ordered multiple frontal assaults on the strong Confederate position, and the Fifth was among those units thrown into the field of slaughter in front of the stone wall at the base of the heights. Officers and men fell dead or wounded by the dozens, including Charles Phelps, who went down with a wound just above the hip. The New Hampshire men pushed forward as far as they could, until they withered away in a hail of fire and death and had to fall back to safety. Of the 270 men of the regiment engaged that day, 200 became casualties. After the battle, other soldiers would testify that one of the three Union regiments whose bodies lay closest to the stone wall was the Fifth New Hampshire.
The wound Charles Phelps received at Fredericksburg put his time in the army’s ranks on hold. He was moved to the hospital at Fort Schuyler on Long Island Sound, New York, where he remained for nearly four months to recover from the dangerous strike. If the sight of the corpses at Seven Pines had a strong influence on the young sergeant’s thinking about the war, his own brush with death likely made the horrors of the conflict even more real and visceral in his mind. Multiple medical furloughs gave Phelps the time he needed to rebuild his strength and rejoin the ranks of the Fifth New Hampshire, which he finally did in early April of 1863. The Second Corps, including Phelps and the Fifth, was largely held in reserve during the Federal disaster at Chancellorsville in early May, offering the regiment a slight reprieve from the horrors that had ripped through its ranks the previous year. After the battle, Colonel Cross rose to command of the brigade, and the regiment marched north onto Union soil in June under the leadership of Amherst’s Lieutenant Colonel Hapgood. The early days of the Gettysburg campaign included some small skirmishes for the Fifth New Hampshire, but these paled in comparison to the cataclysm they would face around John Rose’s wheat field.
The Rise and Fall of a Hero The Bloody Wheatfield Aftermath. Gil Cohen, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Charles Phelps arrived at Gettysburg around 6 o’clock in the morning on July 2, 1863, exhausted from two thirty-mile-long marches in the last four days. He and his unit took up positions along Cemetery Ridge, extending the Union line further to the south. The ridge offered a promising defensive position, but the 5th New Hampshire would fight elsewhere. The forward movement of Union General Daniel Sickles and his Third Corps compromised the security of the Union left flank, and army commander George Gordon Meade sought any reinforcements he could find to reinforce the area when Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederates launched an attack on Sickles’s position. Ultimately, the 5th New Hampshire was among the Union units sent into the Wheatfield, a messy and complicated sector of the battlefield that changed hands nine times throughout the afternoon and early evening. The infamous “fog of war” hung heavy over the Wheatfield at this point in the battle, and confusion and chaos reigned as the lines surged back and forth. The 5th New Hampshire made up part of the second wave of Union reinforcements in the area, and Phelps went into action around 5:30 in the afternoon. Cross’ Brigade went in first, with three regiments advancing through the Wheatfield, while the 5th New Hampshire, furthest to the left, maneuvered through the woods just south of the field. It was here that Charles Phelps performed his best-known act of courage.
As the 5th New Hampshire moved through the woods, they collided with a mixture of Georgians, Arkansans, and Texans who had broken through the defenders of Devil’s Den. Bullets whizzed through the trees, and men fell at every step. Colonel Cross accompanied the Granite Staters, conspicuous with a black bandanna tied around his head. It was at this point that a Confederate marksman, nestled behind a large rock, spotted and took aim at the brigade commander. The Southerner fired, striking Cross in the abdomen and dealing a mortal wound; he would die early the next morning. Lieutenant Colonel Hapgood saw the scene as it unfolded in front of him, and he immediately turned to Charles Phelps. Hapgood ordered Phelps to kill the Confederate who had struck down Cross. Phelps accepted the challenge, aiming his rifle and peering through the smoke-filled trees, waiting for the offending Rebel to reveal himself. When the man appeared, Phelps wasted no time, letting loose a shot that felled the enemy soldier. The young man thus etched himself in history as the avenger of his fallen colonel. In doing so, Phelps had upheld the honor of his regiment and demonstrated his own strong degree of masculine heroism, attributes that would characterize him even after his death.
Though Phelps successfully slew the assailant of Cross, the brigade commander’s wounding stymied the progress of his unit. Division commander Major General John C. Caldwell moved his reserve brigade under Colonel John R. Brooke forward to relieve them, but the 5th remained in the line of battle. When Brooke’s Brigade charged against the Confederates, the New Hampshire men joined them. They decimated the opponent in front of them, but at the cost of leaving their own left flank exposed. Soon, Confederates who had broken through the Peach Orchard appeared on their right, and the regiment had to fall back. It was during this retreat that Charles Phelps was hit in the back by a Confederate bullet, mortally wounding him. The young sergeant would linger on the battlefield for another two days, surrounded by the moans and groans of fellow wounded soldiers. Perhaps he wondered whether his valorous deed would be remembered by his family and friends, or if the wound in his back—a wound dreaded by all soldiers–he would forever label him a coward. Whatever may have gone through his mind, Phelps finally passed away on July 4, 1863, one of about 79 casualties of the shattered 5th New Hampshire; only about 100 men remained at the end of the battle.
Re-Claiming the Good Death Monument to the 5th New Hampshire at the Wheatfield, marking the location of Col. Cross's death. Photo by the author.
On July 13, 1863, the news reached Horace and Betsey Phelps in Amherst that their son numbered among the dead of Gettysburg. Horace commissioned a man to go to the blighted landscape with a wagon and bring home Charles’ remains for an appropriate burial. In the Victorian era, mourning ceremonies and final goodbyes were considered key components of the “good death,” which may explain the Phelpses’ decision to undertake the expense. The young soldier’s remains returned to the town of his birth on July 22, giving the family an opportunity to grieve as they needed. They also likely needed to grapple with the fact that his mortal wound came in the back as he was retreating. Though the “good death” commonly involved the idea that a soldier had died “with his face to the enemy,” the circumstances of his death likely absolved Phelps from blame or scrutiny in the eyes of his family and the public.
Charles Phelps’s public funeral was held in Amherst on July 23, 1863, with the service taking place at the Amherst Congregational Church. Afterwards, a large crowd, including the Nashua Cadets, Milford Band, and Lawrence Engine Company, accompanied the body to its final resting place at the town’s Meadow View Cemetery. The local newspaper, the Farmer’s Cabinet, commented on the scene:
[T]he exercises throughout were of the most impressive character and [Phelps’s] remains were followed to the grave by a larger number of true mourners then we have ever witnessed at a burial here–an honor that all felt was due to the deceased for his devoted patriotism, and as a representative of those devoted and worthy young men who have fallen in their country’s service.
The people of Amherst hailed their fallen son as a hero, as they knew of what he had done to avenge the well-liked Colonel Cross. Phelps’s gravestone includes a listing of the battles in which he took part, with Gettysburg singled out at the bottom, as well as a small carving of a uniformed soldier. The top is inscribed with his epitaph, a quote from the pastor’s eulogy that summed up his Civil War experience: “A young man, but an old soldier.”
Even after Charles Phelps had fought his last battle, a significant one still faced his surviving family. Since Charles was unmarried at the time of his death, his parents made efforts to claim his pension from the Federal government. Doing so subjected them to a long and exhaustive process of inspections inquiries to prove both their relationship to the fallen soldier and their worthiness of receiving money. Their relationships were proven by physicians’ examinations, while inquests as to their character also checked out successfully. Ultimately, the pension was granted into the charge of Betsey Phelps, based on “the celibacy of the soldier, and of the relationship of the claimants.” Though money could not replace the loss of their son, Charles Phelps’s parents could at least claim some compensation to help sustain them through the post-war period.
Phelps achieved further measures of immortality even after his death. 1879 saw the founding of the Charles H. Phelps No. 43 Grand Army of the Republic post in Amherst, as the town’s surviving veterans chose to honor the gallant sergeant through the name of their organization. His gravestone in the town has been restored as recently as 2008, with contributions from a variety of benefactors, providing testament to his enduring legacy. The dedication of the Fifth New Hampshire monument at Gettysburg in 1886 further preserved Charles Phelps’s legacy for posterity. The memorial, erected on approximately the spot where Colonel Cross fell wounded, is made up of four large boulders from the battlefield, supported by an octagonal slab of New Hampshire granite. Carvings in the granite displayed the names of the regiment’s men who fell killed or wounded, including Sergeant Charles Phelps on its southwest face. The fading carvings were replaced in 1901 with metal tablets, which remain as features of the monument to the present day. Phelps’s name is now a permanent part of the battlefield landscape, forever standing near the spot of his most famous act.
1860 U.S. Census, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, population schedule, Amherst, p. 428, dwelling 1378, family 1499, Horace Phelps; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com: accessed October 2017); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 673.
“An Intimate Portrait Of Amherst Civil War Soldier, Charles H. Phelps.” Amherst Citizen, December 17, 2013.
Blake, James. “Charles H. Phelps.” Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers. March 2, 2008.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
Hawks, Steve A. “Monument to the 5th New Hampshire at Gettysburg.” Stone Sentinels – Gettysburg. 2017.
Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Peck, Rand. “A little about Sergeant Charles Phelps from Amherst, NH. 5th NH volunteers, India Company.” Amherst Historical Society. December 12, 2013.
Pride, Mike, and Mark Travis. My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003.
Sexton, Steve. “Charles Phelps.” GNMP Archives.
Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College.