The life of Charles Smedley was one of bravery and valor that, like many other lives during the Civil War, met a tragic end. Smedley, while serving in the war, left us with a wealth of material in the form of diaries. These diary entries have given us a first-hand account of the history of his life and of the Civil War.
Charles Smedley was born in Fulton Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on November 1, 1836.
Smedley lived at home with his father and mother until he was 19 years old. During this time he helped his father with farming and went to school. In 1858, Smedley made a deal with his father “to take the first and saw mills ‘on shares.’” Smedley did this work for two years.
He also began to develop an interest in morality and improving society during this time. He joined the Odd Fellows and Good Templars. By April of 1862, Smedley was done with the work of mills and with the Civil War raging for a year, decided to volunteer to fight for the Union army.
Volunteering for the Civil War
Charles Smedley set out from home on May 29, 1862, and headed to Philadelphia to enlist to serve in the Civil War (1861-1865). Here, he joined Company G of the 90th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. While Smedley volunteered to fight in the war, he actually hated war. However, he felt that the cause of saving the Union was one worth fighting for and one that made the war more just than any others. This deeply held belief led Smedley to go against his beliefs on war and serve nonetheless. Believing it his duty to help save his nation and suppress the rebellion, Smedley enlisted to fight in the war for three years.
Smedley wrote and stated, “I, by degrees, made up my mind that the larger the force that we could put in the field, the sooner would this rebellion be crushed, and it was the duty of every person, who could, to volunteer. Having no business to require my attention, that I liked, and believing that if ever I lent my aid in suppressing this rebellion, now was the time, hence my present situation.”
From Philadelphia, the 90th Pennsylvania headed for Washington D.C. From there they headed to Front Royal and camped there. The regiment, along with Smedley, was then sent to stop Confederate General Thomas Jackson who was causing havoc in the Shenandoah Valley.
Smedley continued to serve with the 90th until Second Bull Run. It was there that Smedley was captured by Confederate forces.
After being captured by Confederate soldiers, he was paroled by the Confederates and then sent back to Annapolis, Maryland. Smedley went home on October 29, 1862, and stayed there until February 18, 1863. It was at that point that Smedley was exchanged and could return to action.
Return to Action
In his second stint in 90th Pennsylvania, Smedley served for more than 13 months. He saw action at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Rappahannock Station, Chancellorsville, Thoroughfare Fap, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness.
Smedley was nearly killed while fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg when bullets grazed his neck and his hip.
Captured Once Again
Then, on May 5, 1864, at the Wilderness, Smedley was captured again. He was then sent to Gordonsville and then to Danville.
From there he was sent to Andersonville and, finally, Florence. He suffered greatly at Andersonville and Florence and eventually passed away on November 16, 1864, while being held by Confederate soldiers.
While fighting at Gettysburg, Smedley wrote about his experience during the battle. The following are his letters.
July 1, 1863 – Day One of Gettysburg
4th day, 7th mo. 1st.
Sergeant and I slept together, the other mate was on guard. Got up at five. Had fresh beef for breakfast. The bugle sounded “pack up,” and about seven o’clock we started on the road towards Gettysburg; at nine were within three miles of Gettysburg; halted to rest; heard something like cannonading ahead. About the middle of the day got to Gettysburg, and halted. There was pretty sharp fighting to the left and ahead of us. We have halted in a piece of woods; can see the firing plainly, and may soon be in it. After stopping for half an hour, we advanced by the left of the town, and halted a few minutes, then went on and formed in line of battle. I threw away everything but a few envelopes and paper, which I put in my note book. We first threw out skirmishers, and after manœuvering around for some time, got into the thickest of the fight. I could not get my musket to work right, but fired something like twenty rounds. After near an hour’s hard fighting, we were compelled to fall back; and, after manœuvering, our brigade went up to the top of a hill and supported a battery, which did good service. After near an hour, were compelled to fall back to the town. The rebels had flanked us. We lost a great many, the most when we fell back the first time. A bullet grazed the right side of my neck, and another my right hip. We retreated through the town in great confusion, and all the time the rebels were shelling it, and some shooting from the houses. We got into some kind of order after getting out of the town, and by sundown, what was left of us, are in line of battle. Sent out skirmishers. When we were first under fire, a piece of shell struck the ground between Captain and I, throwing the sand in our faces. The whole number of killed and wounded of the Ninetieth Regiment is near fifty—of our company four or five wounded.
July 2, 1863 – Day Two of Gettysburg
5th day, 7th mo. 2d.
Slept last night behind the stacks, on two rails, under my gum blanket. All was quiet. Captain gave me five crackers and some coffee for my breakfast. There is some firing out among the pickets, and skirmishing going on all the time. Several other Corps came up yesterday and last night; we are stronger now. The Eleventh, Twelfth and Third Corps are here, that I know of, besides our own. Ours and the Eleventh appear to be the only forces engaged. At twelve o’clock all was quiet. All the forenoon there was firing among the skirmishers, and some artillery firing, and a great deal of manœuvering in the different parts of the army. Large numbers of the enemy came over and gave themselves up, and we took some prisoners. The great mistake yesterday was in not having reinforcements near at hand. To-day we are very strong, but as yet nothing has been done. General Reynolds was killed yesterday. About three o’clock the cannonading opened on the left, and then all along the line. In less than an hour the musketry opened on the left, and kept up a continued fire until dark. We (the First Corps) were supporting batteries, in the centre, for the first hour or so; then we were taken more to the right, where most of the Corps seemed to be; here we were for more than an hour; we lay close to the ground to get out of the way of shells. About seven o’clock we were taken to near the extreme left, formed in line and advanced some distance, then halted and sent out skirmishers, (twenty from our Regiment.) By this time, except the artillery, all was quiet, but occasional firing among the skirmishers. While laying here, I went back with canteens to get water, and when I returned, found the Brigade moving towards the right. We held our ground all day, and on the left, where the fight was the hottest, we drove the enemy, taking a large number of prisoners. Large numbers of dead and wounded lay all over the field. One of our skirmishers came to a man with both legs shot off, who gave him his watch, and offered him five dollars to shoot him. Our Captain came across the rebel General Barksdale, who was mortally wounded. We were put into different positions during the night, and at last halted along a road running towards the south end of the town, behind a stone fence.
July 3, 1863 – Day Three of Gettysburg
6th day, 7th mo. 3d.
The battle opened with the skirmishers on the left and cannonading all along our lines, at daylight. The batteries behind us shot over our heads. The musketry was sharp on the right. We were first taken from the position we occupied last night to the rear of the battery near the Cemetery, where we remained for half an hour; then were moved to the right a little more, where we lay behind the batteries until near eleven o’clock. The firing was very hot on all sides—sharp musketry on the right. About eleven the rebels concentrated their fire on the centre, when we formed in line, and under a heavy fire of shot and shell, moved to the right, or north of the Cemetery, and lay in front of the battery. Here the fire was very hot, the rebels having batteries playing on us from all sides; many of our men were struck by the shells; we lay flat and escaped many bullets, &c., from the skirmishers and sharpshooters. The sun came out very warm and many of our men were sun-struck. We lay here some three hours. The First Division of the Eleventh Corps was in front, all along the road. About three o’clock we had to get up, under the heaviest fire I ever saw, and form in line of battle behind some batteries in the Cemetery. Just as we started, Colonel Coulter, of the Eleventh Corps, who had command of the First Brigade, was struck in the arm by a sharpshooter; Colonel Lyle took his place, and Major Sellers took command of the Ninetieth Regiment. We were taken towards the left of the centre and put in the front line of battle. Here General Hayes rode along the lines with a rebel battle flag. We advanced to within one hundred yards of the road, and formed in line, and sent out a large force of skirmishers. As we lay here, we had the fire of the rebel sharpshooters and skirmishers in our front, and a large Whitworth gun, which the rebels had planted on our flank, over two miles off, which was constantly letting the missiles fly directly over or near us. Four fell near the right of our line, but did no damage. We put up a few rails and lay as low as possible. About seven o’clock in the evening, all of the Ninetieth who were not skirmishing, had to support a company of sharpshooters; I was among them; we went to the road and lay behind the bank until dark, and then came in, carrying Miller with us in a blanket to the hospital; then went back to the line, and made a strong barricade of rails and stones, three feet high, where we lay all night. All have run out of rations. This has been a warm day all around. We still hold the field. General Longstreet was wounded and is in our hands. Just as we came here, there had been a charge made in front of us, which drove the rebels. Large numbers came into our lines, holding up their hands, hats, and white rags.