The 18th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched past the market shed in Hanover’s town square, seen here in this vintage postcard depicting the square not long after the Gettysburg Campaign.
With the outbreak of Fort Sumter and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, hundreds of thousands of men enlisted in the fledgling volunteer armies over the next few months. Among them was William W. Hemenway a 24-year-old native of historic Lexington, Massachusetts, and the father of two. He enrolled in Company I of the 18th Massachusetts as a sergeant. He and his comrades participated in many of the Eastern Theater’s more recognizable campaigns, including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. He suffered a painful leg wound at Fredericksburg that would plague him the rest of his life. While recuperating, he finally was able to see his new daughter, Mary Grace, who was born shortly after the Battle of Antietam.
During the Gettysburg Campaign, Hemenway was now a first lieutenant. The vast majority of the nearly 100 men he had originally mustered in with in Company I were long since gone, most through illness or battles. Now, in June 1863, there were only 139 men left in the entire regiment, which had once boasted a thousand eager volunteers. The war had changed since then, and so had the handful of survivors still in the ranks. Soldiering was a hard life, and yet there were moments of pleasure, although they were few and far between. One of those rare moments came in Hanover, Pennsylvania, in southwestern York County on July 1, 1863…
“In the advance towards Pennsylvania, the 5th Corps was in the center column of the army. The night of June 30th found our regiment at Liberty, Md., on picket duty. From the continuous march since leaving Virginia the men had become so tired out and footsore that it was no uncommon thing to find a man with blisters on both feet as large as a silver dollar, and not a few were marching in their stocking feet. This with the chafing of the equipment and luggage upon the body required no small amount of physical endurance to enable the men to get over the rough roads, even when urged on by the stern commands of their officers.
At Hanover, Pa., we made a short halt. The streets of this good old town were packed with troops, all moving toward the battlefield. We received there an enthusiastic ovation from the loyal-hearted citizens. On the balcony of a residence several young ladies were assembled dressed in red, white, and blue, who entertained the passing troops with patriotic songs, prominently the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
In a moment of poignancy, Lieutenant Hemenway added, “Many of our brave boys there heard it for the last time.” More than a thousand men in Sykes’ 5th Corps that passed through Hanover that Wednesday would fall at Gettysburg.
As the men marched along today’s Route 116 west from Hanover toward their unknown personal (and perhaps national) destinies, their officers tried to keep the morale up, as well as to force march the men as fast as possible, for reinforcements were badly needed as the 1st and 11th Corps were hotly engaged. Hemenway continued, “General Barnes, commanding our division, suggested that the men close up ranks and join in singing the old army songs. To the strains of ‘John Brown’s Body,’ etc., the men for a time forgot their exhausted condition…”
For 167 of Barnes’ men, including one man in Lieutenant Hemenway’s 18th Massachusetts, this marked their last full day on earth, and for hundreds more who were badly wounded, this was their last march as active soldiers. For a brief moment, the smiling, singing, gaily dressed girls of Hanover had provided welcome relief from the grim reality of war.
By the way, Hemenway survived the Battle of Gettysburg and later became a captain. In 1875, he and his son Rodney became managers and proprietors of a newspaper in Milton, New Hampshire, naming it the Milford Advance and Wilton Journal. Hemenway retired in July 1891 and sold the paper.