By Richard Palmer
The destinies of many men were forever changed by their involvement in the Civil War. One such person was Lucius Davis who was born in McLean on July 30, 1834, the son of John Lane and Mary Boynton Davis. His early life was not much different than others of his day.
Davis attended the District School in the village of McLean, Tompkins County, and later studied at Homer Academy during the winter months. About 1851 his father purchased a farm in in the Mud School District. There, "Lute," as he was called, grew to young manhood; and cast his first presidential vote for John C. Fremont in 1856.
In 1858 he went to the newly discovered oil fields in Pennsylvania where he was employed for a time, but returned home in 1860 to vote for Abraham Lincoln as president. After election he returned to his work in Pennsylvania.
The firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, caused great excitement in the north. The news was initially spread from the telegraph office in Cortland, which was picked up by the newspapers. Lincoln's call for volunteer soldiers was answered in every northern state. Companies and regiments were rapidly organized. Some of the executives of oil companies were from Ohio, and immediately planned to go home and organized regiments.
They asked Davis to join them, promising him an officer's commission. he declined, saying he knew nothing about military service. But he planned to go home and enlist with his friends. So he came back to McLean in the early summer of 1861. By this time the 76th Regiment was being formed in Cortland and a training area was set up at the old fairgrounds where tents were pitched and drills held.
Davis enlisted as a private in Company C and was mustered in on Oct. 4, 1861. In December, the regiment left for Albany. What vacant ranks existed were filled with recruits from Otsego County, in the vicinity of Cherry Valley. The 76th would see plenty of action during the war, participating in 22 major battles, all the way from Second Bull Run to Gettysburg. At the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas, Private Davis won a promotion.
As the regiment lay in a hollow, two batteries on opposite hills opened fire on each other. The shells from the Union battery fell short among the soldiers of the 76th. General Abner Doubleday called for a volunteer to go up the hill raked by fire to tell the battery commander he was firing on his own men; and to move. Davis volunteered for this hazardous duty and delivered the message. Again later that day as it was getting dark, a driver of an ammunition wagon came to the front and in the confusion got between the two hostile lines and was killed, along with the lead mule, in the cross-fire.
General Doubleday rode up to the regiment, took note of the ammunition wagon, and said, "We are going to fall back; I want a volunteer to go with one of my staff officers and bring in that ammunition wagon or destroy it, so it will not fall into the hands of the Rebels."
Private Davis stepped forward. "I will volunteer, sir," he said.
The general looked at him closely. "didn't you volunteer for dangerous service before, today?" he asked.
"I did, sir," was the answer.
"Report to my headquarters in the field tonight," the general ordered.
The two men went out to the wagon and attempted to bring it back; but with the lead mule dead, they could not get the other five mules do draw the wagon. So they unhitched the mules and set fire to the wagon and blew it up. They were under fire from the Confederates all the time they were out there, but both got back unscathed.
Later that night, Private Davis reported as ordered at General Doubleday's tent. The interview was brief.
The general said, "You are a brave man and a good soldier. I promote you now to the highest office in my power, that of First Sergeant of your company; and I shall recommend through the usual channels that the Governor of your state make you a commissioned officer."
Private Davis thanked him and retired.
The 76th saw further action at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and South Mountain. Soon after the battle of Antietam, Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant by Governor Seymour, and to first lieutenant after Chancellorsville.
When General Robert E. Lee, with his Army of Northern Virginia faded away from the front of the Army of the Potomac and started on his raid to the North, the Army of the Potomac followed to protect Washington, D.C. and force Lee into battle. It was a long hot march in June, 1863 from Chancellorsville, north across Virginia and Maryland into southern Pennsylvania. The First Corps, with the 76th Regiment leading, encamped on Marsh Creek a short distance south of a little Pennsylvania village called Gettysburg on the night of June 30.
At the time the unit had suffered heavy casualties as well as a thinning of ranks from disease and desertion. It had no colonel or lieutenant colonel at the time, and was commanded by Major Andrew J. Grover, a native of West Dryden, who had been a Methodist minister in Cortland when the war began. Of the 1,000 original members of the regiment, only 341 enlisted men and 21 officers capable of duty remained on that fateful day of July 1, 1863. Lt. Davis commanded Company C.
That morning they heard the boom of distant cannon, but that was nothing unusual. Soon, however, a military aide rode of looking for General John Reynolds, who commanded the First Corps. He told the men that General John Buford's Cavalry had engaged part of lee's forces in the hills to the west, and wanted reinforcements.
Davis immediately mustered his company with their guns and ammunition, so when Major Grover rode up to march his regiment over to Seminary Ridge, he found Company C all ready. He directed them, to go ahead and take a position on the right of the proposed battle line. Company C of the 76th Regiment took the lead over Seminary Ridge on that fateful day of July 1, 1863, the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg.
They marched cross-country beyond the railroad cut where no rails had yet been laid, and out into the open fields There, to their surprise, they saw emerging from a small ravine in a wheat field to their front, the banner and bayonets of an enemy force.
Lt. Lucius Davis of McLean, commanding, knew his duty - brush aside the enemy if strong enough or if not, hold the position until reinforcements arrive. Immediately Davis ordered his men forward, firing into the enemy - a part of A.P. Hill's Corps, who were surprised to find opposition as they had planned to go quietly into Gettysburg to procure badly needed shoes for the troops.
Thus, the historic Battle of Gettysburg began with this first clash of hostile troops near the railroad cut. The rest of the regiment came up and joined in the fight , followed by the 56th Pennsylvania and the other regiments in the First Corps. General John Reynolds in command, was killed early in the fight and General Abner Doubleday succeeded in command of the First Corps.
The Union forcers were outnumbered. In the first half hour, 160 of the total of 369 officers and men of the 76th were casualties, and Major Andrew J. Grover (a native of West Dryden) was killed. Then the command of the regiment devolved to the senior captain.
Early in the fight, Lt. Davis was shot through the palm of his right hand. He wrapped it in a tourniquet on his arm, using a ramrod for a stick, which he held in his hand. He carried his sword in his left hand, and continued in the fight. The first Corps held its ground and was later reinforced by the 11th Corps, which formed facing north on its right. Other Confederate forces coming from York to the east and from other places on the north and west, drove back the 11th Corps and exposed the flank of the First Corps so both were compelled to retreat into Gettysburg. As the men were retreating on the road, they were closely followed by Rebel forces who kept up a steady fire on them, with bullets zipping into a board fence along the road.
A Massachusetts colonel, who had been separated from his men, was riding along with them and exclaimed, "My God! Not one of us will get out of this alive!" So Lt. Davis turned around and walked backwards, so as not to be shot in the back. A bullet grazed the bone of his left leg below the knee, but he received no further wounds.
When he reached Gettysburg, he found a church with its doors open, and he had his men take the wounded on stretchers inside and put them in the pews. Some women who were watching volunteered to assist, and soon were making the men comfortable. In some cases they bathed them and dressed their wounds. Looking out, Lt. Davis saw the brigade colors going by and knew that was the last of the retreating forces.
So with his unwounded men, and the walking wounded, he led the retreat through the town and out to Cemetery Ridge. Here the reserves and a battery of artillery were holding the hill as a rallying point for the retreating First and 11th Corps. The Confederates were close behind and occupied the town. They captured many Union soldiers who were unable to get out in time. The Union forces on Cemetery Ridge beat off an attack, and night brought an end to the first day's fighting.
Lt. Davis found a field hospital where a surgeon cut off the glove on his right hand and announced that the arm would have to be amputated.
"What? My right arm! Not unless my regimental surgeon says so," was Davis' reply.
So they dressed the wound hastily and the lieutenant hunted up Dr. Judson Nelson (of Truxton), the regimental surgeon. (See "Truxton Doctor treated Mary Todd Lincoln")
"You've got a chance to save it," Nelson said. "go wash the wound out thoroughly and keep your hand and forearm in cold water to prevent fever."
Little or nothing was known about infection in those days. Davis found a house on Rock Creek behind the lines, which the family had hastily abandoned when the fight began. here he was joined by two other wounded men of lesser rank from an Indiana regiment. They found food in the house and a stove and fuel with which to cook. There was also a good well of cold water. So Davis got a pail and followed Dr. Nelson's directions by keeping his hand in cold water. This relieved the pain somewhat.
Lt. Davis and two of his men of Company C, 76th Regiment, had retreated from the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, to a hastily-abandoned home near the village where they found food and shelter. There they remained for the duration of the battle,which was to last two more days.
It was silent on the fourth day and they figured the battle was over; and the Army of the Potomac had not been defeated. The owner of the house came back with his family and told them the Rebels had retreated and the Union Army was holding the field. The three soldiers then hired the man to drive them to York, Pa., where the railroad was and the wounded were being gathered. There was great confusion, but trains were being organized and the wounded treated. Those who could travel were loaded on the train to be taken to hospitals in Philadelphia. The bridge over the Susquehanna River had been destroyed to prevent the Confederates from crossing and marching on Philadelphia, so the men were loaded into boxcars and sent south to Baltimore, there to be shifted into trains for Philadelphia.
By this time some passenger coaches were available. The men were fed and furnished water along the route by citizens loyal to the north and some treatment was given to their wounds by surgeons on the train and by doctors in the villages enroute.
The journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia was much more comfortable and speedy, Davis recalled. The citizens of the latter city knew what winning the fight at Gettysburg meant to them - the salvation of their city. They turned out en masse to meet the trains of wounded.
Major Davis said: "When the train got into the station, men came into the cars. One of the largest men came to him and started to lift me. 'I can walk,' I said, You don't have to." But the man took him in his arms as if he was a small child, carried him out of the car, through the station, and put him in a carriage and drove him to the hospital. There he carried Davis in and arranged for his car. Then he wrote his name and address on a piece of paper and gave it to Davis, saying, "If you want for anything, money or anything else, send for me."
In the hospital, Davis' wounded hand was dressed, but the slight wound in his leg went unnoticed. He remained in the hospital for more than a week, but had been unable to communicate with his family back home in McLean, who were anxious for his safety. The hospitals were crowded and Davis thought he was able to leave. So he got a qualified discharge and started for home.
He had little money, but one of the officers at the hospital told him, "Take any train going your way. If you haven't the price of a ticket just say 'Gettysburg,' and you'll get through. Davis soon found that "Gettysburg" was the magic word.
At last he got back to Cortland and readily found a man to drive him to his father's farm free of charge. When he got home he found out that he had been reported killed, but Dr. Robinson, searching the list of casualties and men in hospitals, told his parents this wasn't true. The family did not know where he was until he walked through the door, which was a delightful surprise. No one could adequately describe the homecoming he received.
To the community he became a hero, and he also spent much time visiting his comrades who had also returned home due to wounds. Dr. Robinson treated his leg wound, which by this time had become infected and it would be some time before he would recover enough to return to duty.
On Sept. 23, 1861 he married Harriet Francis, a neighbor girl he had corresponded with while he was at the front. Eventually, the governor commissioned him a major and he became the highest ranking officer in McLean.
When he thought his wounds were sufficiently healed, he reported back for duty in Washington. But there, the medical officers refused to certify him fit for field service, and he was honorably discharged. The wounded leg continued to give him trouble and after several unsuccessful operations he left leg was finally amputated in the late 1890s.
Upon some urging, Major Davis would tell a war story. For instance the time at the Battle of South Mountain in 1862: It was getting dark and the Union men were behind him and a fence, shooting at the Rebels who were in a cornfield, shooting back. When he and Captain Jim Goddard of Truxton were standing side by side, wearing straw hats. A bullet came flying along and cut off the brim of Davis' hat close to the side of his head, as clean as though cut with a knife. As Goddard told the story, Davis rolled an eye at him and said, "Jim, that was a damn close call," and dropped the subject.
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