150 years ago starting today, three days of battle would turn the tide of war against the Confederacy. Two months earlier, General Lee’s Confederates had routed Union troops at Chancellorsville. Emboldened by such a concrete victory, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia turned north. His main objective for the Pennsylvania campaign was to lure the Army of the Potomac north of the capital, destroy it and turn south toward Washington. Lee had hoped that a decisive victory on “foreign” soil and a clear road to Washington would force President Lincoln to accept a peace settlement. From 1-3 July 1863, General Robert E. Lee discovered that Union resolve was strong and he was not a flawless commander.
Nevertheless, the first morning of battle went well for the Rebels. Although Lee had not wished to engage the enemy yet, it was clear the fighting had begun. Without his calvary commander J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s army was semi-blind, not fully aware of the Union Army’s position. It began as a skirmish between Union calvary and Confederate troops but escalated quickly. By about noon, it was clear a major battle would come to the small, central Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.
Around two in the afternoon, Confederate Gen. Ewell’s Second Corps had arrived just north of Gettysburg, after his troops raced to join Gen. A.P. Hill’s attacks. Union Gen. Howard of XI Corps tried to repel Ewell’s advances but there were too many gaps in the union lines allowing the Confederates to flank Union positions. Here’s where third great grand Uncle Ralph comes in….
Ralph Thompson Martling was born at Staten Island, New York in 1835 to Benjamin Martling and Margaret Thompson. I know very little of his childhood but he was the brother of my great-great-great grandmother Jane Harriet Martling Tagg. Named for his grandfather Ralph Thompson, a New Jersey Methodist preacher, Ralph went to Manhattan as a young teenager. He worked as a ship joiner, likely for his uncle, shipbuilder Jacob Aaron Westervelt. About a year into the fighting, Ralph joined the Army, becoming a member of the 119th New York Volunteers. That regiment was assigned to XI Corps. Ralph’s regiment would serve at the aforementioned Chancellorsville before arriving in Pennsylvania.
Fast forward back to 1 July 1863, as XI Corps was being demolished by Ewell’s corps. Enter Union Gen. Francis Barlow. Barlow was hated by his men and called a “petty tyrant” because he previously had arrested a popular colonel. His infamy among the men grew when he made a tremendous blunder at a location in Gettysburg once known as Blocher’s Knoll but now known as Barlow’s Knoll. Barlow moved his troops into position at the knoll. Unfortunately for his soldiers, their positions were too far forward, exposing them to Confederate attacks on the flanks. The 31st and 60th Georgia advanced. The 119th N.Y. was routed! The regiment took heavy losses as Gen. Early’s division ravaged Barlow’s troops. Barlow was injured and captured while Ralph Thompson Martling sustained injury. His war record states simply that Martling was wounded on 1 July 1863 at Gettysburg. But newspaper articles during the 1888 election show that Sgt. Martling sacrificed an arm at Gettysburg.
A few days prior to the 1888 election, Republican lawyers marched in a parade to support their choice for president. The general serving as the parade’s marshal chose Ralph to carry the colors for the event. We also learn that at the dedication for the 119th N.Y.’s monument at Gettysburg, Ralph Martling proudly carried our flag.
From the New York Daily Tribune, 4 November 1888 (p. 2):
“First on the ground was the standard-bearer, Color Sergeant Ralph T. Martling, of the 119th New York Volunteers, who lost an arm at Gettysburg on the first day of the great battle. He bore the colors which he carried at Gettysburg last summer when the monument in memory of the men who fell at Gettysburg was unveiled there.”
Thanks Uncle Ralph for your service, on this, the 150th anniversary of the battle that would ultimately lead to a Union victory and the preservation of the United States.