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How Southern Tier Farmers Fought To Hold The Union Line

A sign in the Southside park in Binghamton honoring Col. David Ireland and the 137th New York

Many books and movies have been written about Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his valiant success at Little Roundtop, but very little has been said about the right end the line where Colonel Ireland was with his regiment. Today, they’re getting a little time in the sun.

The 137th New York and their leader Colonel David Ireland held down the right side of the line on Culp’s Hill. Culp’s Hill is actually two hills sloping down into a ditch or a swale.

On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Lee and the Confederate army attempted to get around the Union line. If an army can attack from the side, the whole line might break and run in a sort of domino effect.

In the early evening, Ireland and his regiment were in the middle of the line with 9000 Union soldiers. Because of the massive attack on Little Roundtop, men and resources were ordered to head west to help. Nothing was really happening up at Culp’s Hill anyway. But one general--General George Sears Green--ordered Ireland’s men to stay and spread out to fill the space that a was once held by an entire brigade.

There they were when the Confederate army began their attack. They started up the upper slope of Culp’s Hill which wasn’t the most effective invasion.

“Culp’s Hill is very steep on the East side which is the way they were coming up,” says historian David Clutz.

Green’s men were able to keep behind their temporary defenses while shooting down at them. Ireland and his regiment had a much harder time of it “because down in the swale, it’s relatively level facing them so the Confederates there didn’t have to contend with attacking up the slope," according to Clutz.

Confederate regiments came up through the swale. More fired down at them from the hill. Others attacked from the South.

“So here’s Colonel Ireland, his men are taking fire from the front, from their right flank, and from their rear,” says Clutz. “He needs help.”

A staffer for Green had spotted a regiment coming up the Baltimore Pike, so Green sent the 71st Pennsylvania. They turned right back around almost immediately after finding the 137th completely surrounded.

“It’s as if he said, ‘New Yorkers, you’re on your own,’” Clutz says.

There was just over a thousand Union troops to the Confederates 4 or 5,000 soldiers. They’re still being shot at. The 137th pivoted on their left flank and fall back to the south. The Union regiments near them feared they were breaking and running.

“But the 137th didn’t break and run, Colonel Ireland was a regular army officer. He trained his men to regular army standards. They would not break and run. They got back and they held.” Clutz continues, “When the commander of the 149th knew they were, he told his men, ‘Don’t you move, they’re not going to break.’ They did, and the hill held.

Smoke from gunfire obscured the battlefield. The only light was coming from the full moon and the sporadic flashes of muskets. Ammo was running out. A captain of the 137th regiment lead a bayonet charge that ultimately pushed the Confederate soldiers back. The Union was able to fortify their line with more soldiers and ammunition for the fight the next day.

The hill held not only because of Colonel Ireland’s leadership, but from the initiative of his men. These were men of the Southern Tier.

“These were ordinary men,” Clutz says. “They were farmers largely from the farms of Tompkins, Tioga and Broome county.”

Some were shopkeepers, one man was a tavern owner, and they got their army training from Colonel Ireland at Camp Susquehanna on Binghamton’s southside. It would have been right around the corner from where the Park Diner is today.

A sign marking the site of the camp and honoring Colonel Ireland and the 137th New York went up Thursday in the Southside Park.