Written by Jim Blake, former Executive Board Chairman of the Fifth NH
“Some years ago, when I was pretty much a “fresh fish” I heard the name of Sergeant Phelps spoken around the campfire at various 5th New Hampshire events. His compelling story took on a greater significance to me while visiting the Gettysburg battlefield when I had a chance to walk the section of field where the 5th New Hampshire monument is located near the Wheatfield. It is here that Charles H. Phelps left his mark as a man, a complete soldier, and a fallen son of Amherst, New Hampshire.
Upon my return from Gettysburg, I wanted to learn as much about the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers. Some of the reenactment veterans in our unit recommended purchasing the Fifth’s Regimental History. In this book, which lists the complete roster of all whom served, I discovered information regarding Phelps’ burial site in Amherst, New Hampshire. I have visited his grave many times since that discovery, and honor his sacrifice each and every time pledging that someday an effort would be launched to restore the stone marking his grave. It is appropriate to reflect and provide more background on Charles H. Phelps.
Shortly after President Lincoln’s call for “75,000 three-months service volunteers” that the citizens of Amherst, at the Town Hall meeting held Monday, April 23, 1861, decided their course of action. Charles H. Phelps, a young man of nineteen when the war began, attended the meeting. At day’s end, he and sixteen other Amherst boys enlisted for service in the United States Army.
Following the completion of his three-month enlistment with the First New Hampshire Regiment, Charles opted to reenlist and signed on with Lt. Col. Charles Hapgood’s Company I for service with the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers. Ironically enough, Hapgood, himself a citizen of Amherst, had presided as Secretary over the very Town Meeting where Charles Phelps enlisted. Both men earned distinction and favor with the Fifth’s commander Colonel Edward E. Cross. For his military bearing and knowledge of drill, Phelps was promoted to fourth sergeant.
After fighting in the battle of Antietam and being wounded at Fredericksburg, Phelps was hospitalized and four months later rejoined his unit. On July 2, 1863 Phelps, and the rest of the Fifth, marched to Gettysburg where they spent the majority of the afternoon on picket duty near the Taneytown Road.
Late in the day the Fifth was ordered to engage the enemy in the woods and assumed the left flank position of the brigade while 148th Pennsylvania advanced on the right. Together both units entered the woods on the east side of the Wheatfield. The Fifth engaged the Fifteenth Georgia and the First Texas at a stone wall running along the edge of Wheatfield. Colonel Cross, a second corps brigade commander and formally Colonel of the Fifth, dismounted from his horse at this point, and proceeded to quickly evaluate the situation in order to determine where he would next place his troops on the field. Cross assumed a position behind the line where the Fifth monument stands today. As Cross did so, a sharpshooter’s rifle echoed from behind a boulder about forty-five yards to the Fifth NHV’s front. Suffering from a mortal wound, Cross died early the next morning. Colonel Hapgood seeing the muzzle flash and smoke ordered Sgt. Phelps to shoot the man who mortally wounded their commander. Phelps carefully studied the towering rock and when the Rebel emerged a second time, he shot and killed the sharpshooter.
By the evening of July 2nd the Fifth’s ranks were badly used up. The Third Corps having been anchored in the Peach Orchard in advance of the Second Corps gave way–the Union line collapsed. As men of the Fifth and the 148th PA, both of the Second Corps, First Division, retreated to the rear, a musket ball struck Sergeant Charles Phelps in the back mortally wounding him.
On the 23rd of July Charles H. Phelps’s remains were interred “among demonstrations of sorrow In Amherst as a generation has not witnessed.” A large crowd of mourners together with the Milford Band, the Nashua Cadets and the Lawrence Engine Company accompanied Charles to his final resting place at Meadowview Cemetery in Amherst. He was a fallen son. He carried out his duty without question and notably, he was a town hero!
His white extraordinary marble headstone records all the major battles and above a small bas-relief soldier is the inscription “A young man, but an old soldier,” the words taken from the eulogy delivered by the pastor during the funeral held at the Amherst Congregational Church.
Now almost 144 years later Sergeant Phelps is all but forgotten. But of equal importance is his headstone, which has suffered from many years of neglect and varying weather conditions. At some point in time the stone snapped and was reattached by two non-ferrous bolts and a plate. Thanks to an expert headstone conservator’s work, the headstone has been stabilized; the cracks have been sealed; the stain removed; and the stone has been cleaned. A reserve fund has been established to provide the necessary resources for the perpetual care of the headstone, which includes replacing the current plate with one of zinc or stainless steel to permanently curtail the green stains.
The fundraising goal has been met thanks to generous contributions from the Amherst New Hampshire Historical Society , Wilderness Systems Group (Jon Platt) of Connecticut, Vermont Hemlocks, Sons of Union Veterans, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS – Jerry Carroon), 5th New Hampshire members and other donors. We thank everyone for helping with this important rescue mission.”
Back to the Sgt Phelps Gravestone Restoration Project Page.