Much as been written about Elon Farnsworth and his ill-fated (many called it suicidal) cavalry charge on Confederate Infantry just south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Significantly less prose, however, has been devoted to those who rode with the newly minted brigadier general during that desperate rush. One participant in this charge who certainly warrants additional notoriety is the 1st Vermont Cavalry’s Major William Wells. Unlike Farnsworth, his brigade commander, Wells survived his brush with death that summer afternoon. William, in fact, would lead a charmed life (he was struck only once and that was by a spent shell at the Battle of Five Forks) throughout the remainder of Civil War.
Captain William Wells (left) and the 1st Vermont Cavalry's Assistant Surgeon
Ptolemy O. Edson (from Jackson's In Affectionate Memory of Major General
Before his death on April 29, 1892, at the age of 53, he would rise to the rank of Major General, marry the prettiest girl (at least in my humble opinion) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, sire two children (a son and a daughter), receive the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, and have two monuments erected in his honor, one near the site of his charge at Gettysburg (see image below) and the other at Battery Park in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. During the Civil War Wells was a prolific letter writer both to his family members and eventual wife, Anna Richardson. Those letters and the letters from Anna to William have been masterfully edited by Elliot Hoffman in his book, A Vermont Cavalryman in War and Love (2007, Schroeder Publications, Inc., Lynchburg, VA). The following letter was written by Major Wells to his parents four days after Farnsworth’s Charge at Gettysburg:
Hd Qtrs Vt Cav
Boonsboro Md July 7th 1863
When I wrote you last we were a few miles north of Frederick [Maryland], from that place we went to Littletown, PA (I cannot give you dates but guess Chas [this was Wells’ brother Charles] can) from thence to Hanover [Pennsylvania] whare we had a fight all our Div consisting of 1st, 5, 6, 7 Mich, 1st [West] Va, 18th Pa, 1st Vt, 5th NY Cavalry, we had another Brigade 1 Ohio, 2 NY Harris Light, 8 Ill & I think 12 Ill. From Hanover we went to Berlin to try and capture a forage train which had been picking up Horses, Cattle, & c&c.
When we struck the Pike that runs from York to Carlisle [Pennsylvania] on which the Rebs had passed the train had passed about to [two] hours. It being night we could not follow them. We then fell back to near Hanover from thence we went to Gettysburg whare the Army of the Potomac was fighting. We first went to the enemys left and engaged the enemy for several hours and repulsed them with great loss on their part, our loss small, next day we went to the enemys right whare we fought them from 8 AM to 6 PM. Skirmishing & Cannonading was kept up all through the day. In the afternoon my Battalion B, C, H & G made a charge also the 1st [West] Virginia made one on our left. Genl Farnsworth led my Battalion in the charge, we charged over rocks, stone walls & fences, drove in 200 infantry, captured 30 or 40 prisoners. Genl F was dismounted one of Co C men gave his horse to him. The Genl was wounded. I have not seen him since. It was reported that he was wounded but in our lines, he is a fine officer. We charged about one mile until we were onto a brigade of Infantry stationed behind a Stone wall in the woods. They opened on us. Killed some horses & captured some men. When we fell back we met Cos L, E and I who were sent to support us, our loss was Capt [Oliver] Cushman Co E missing, Capt [Henry] Parsons Co L wounded in side not dangerous. Lt Cheney Co C seriously wounded but not dangerously in the bowels. [William] Paul Mason in the arm slightly, all wounded are in our hands.
Ground over which Farnsworth's Brigade and Wells charged on July 3, 1863. (Image is facing
north toward Slyder's farm, which, along with its split rail fence, are barely visible in the left and
center; author's photo)
Next day after our fight on enemys right we started for this place on our way here we had a fight at the top of South Mountain, Monterey, drove them out of the pass we, our Regt, went around the flank forward about 20 miles to cut off the wagon train but arrived to late. We captured 100 Prisoners from thence our regiment went to Hagerstown from thence to this place.
Next day our Div went to near Hagerston whare we met a large force of Infantry, Artillery & Cav. We fought them some time when our Brig left us and 2 Regs 18 Pa & 1st [West]Va also left. The enemy followed us two miles. We had a desparate fight, we were oblige to fall back. The force we fought was the advance of Lees on retreat to Va, our loss was about 50 Killed, wounded & missing. Capt J.W. Woodward Co M killed shot in head. Lt [Gilbert] Stewart Co G wounded in side. Sergt D.J. Hill wounded in side. I think I was beside him when he fell. The enemy were pressing us so hard we could not bring him off. Capt Woodward & Lt Stewart were also left. I think Hill’s wound will not prove dangerous yet it may. He was seen to try to run by some of Co F who were in our ranks, think we can find out in a few days as our force will occupy Hagerstown tomorrow or next day. Lee is being pressed. Our loss yesterday was 1 Killed, 12 wounded & 19 missing.
On the third [of July] on the left our force at Gettysburg our loss was 2 Killed 18 wounded and 69 missing.
My horse was wounded in the leg slightly. I will write again as soon as I can. We are on the move so much that I cannot write. You must not feel blue.
Your afft Son
71/2 PM Dr Edson has just arrived from Gettysburg he says Masons right arm was taken off at the shoulder joint – he is doing well. Genl Farnsworth was Killed shot with four bullets & a shell. 9 killed have been found, for list see Burlington Times. Cheney is reported doing well
Genl & Mason were in fight whare my Battalion charged. Dr E says that the Rebs did not bury their dead, he also says that he never saw such a place for a cavalry charge as that went over by us. Officers & Men behaved themselves gallantly.
Monument of Major-General William Wells and the First Vermont Cavalry
showing the bas relief of the charge; it is located on the battlefield at
Gettysburg near the starting point of that charge. The statue was dedicated
on July 3, 1913