Philadelphia newspapers erroneously reported captain as dying in the Wrightsville skirmish

Colonel March

As newspapers in the early summer of 1863 mentioned the skirmishing at Wrightsville, Pa., during the Gettysburg Campaign, reports surfaced that Robert G. March, a much beloved civic leader and the first colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Reserves, had perished from wounds suffered in defending the Columbia Bridge from the Confederates. At the time he was serving as the captain of Company B, 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia (one of the so-called “emergency regiments” raised by Pennsylvania for temporary service during the Rebel invasion).

Among the regional newspapers initially reporting March’s death was the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 30, 1863 (shown above courtesy of www.newsinhistory.com).

March, however, was not dead.

He was very much alive at the time of the report, and in fact had a dozen more years to live after a Confederate Minie ball struck him during the defense of Wrightsville on Sunday evening, June 28.

Despite rumors and newspaper reports to the contrary, he survived a serious gunshot wound to his left leg and another one to his arm, but his military service was over. He was honorably mustered out in mid-August. After the war he became an agent for the Internal Revenue Service, dying Feb. 1, 1875. He is buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Only one man actually died in the firefight at Wrightsville, a black volunteer who was part of a hastily assembled company of local workers from the river towns region. Dressed in civilian clothing and carrying a motley collection of “old flintlocks altered to the percussion cap,” the volunteer company manned the trenches south of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. One man was decapitated and killed by an artillery shell; Rebels from Georgia later found his body near the entrenchments. His identity remains a mystery.

Captain March, however, did not share the unfortunate black man’s fate. He returned home, recuperated, and lived another 12 years.

Here is a photo of March’s gravestone and some more on his life.

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Photo by Russ Dodge for Find-a-Grave (Section O, Lot 213)

According to an old history of the Pennsylvania Reserves, “Robert G. March was born in the city of Philadelphia, October 5th, 1819. At the age of ten years he was left an orphan and was indentured as an apprentice to the morocco manufacturing business. After reaching the age of majority, he went to Virginia, where he commenced his military training in a volunteer company organized in Alexandria, and received a commission dated May 2d, 1842, signed by President Tyler.

After his return to Philadelphia, he several times held the position of captain in the military organizations in the city. At the commencement of the rebellion he volunteered his services to the Governor of Pennsylvania, and was com­missioned by Governor Curtin, on the 23d of April, 1861, to recruit a regiment, which he accomplished at his own expense, and was ordered to proceed with six companies to Camp Washington, at Easton. On the 21st of June, when the Fourth regiment was organized, he was elected to the colonelcy.

Colonel March served with his regiment until October, 1861, when, on account of physical disability, engendered by over-exertion in camp, he tendered his resignation.

As Colonel March was about leaving his command, at Tenallytown, he received a memorial, signed by all of the commissioned officers in the companies of his command, expressing their esteem for him as an officer, and their regret that the state of his health made it necessary for him to resign his commission as commander of the regi­ment.”

Adapted from Josiah R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr and Co., 1865).

Perhaps one reason for the colonel’s popularity was an account of the 4th of July, 1861, when he took his men to the United States Hotel in Philadelphia and treated them to liquid refreshments. One of the participants, Sergeant M. H. VanScoten, later wrote that “a few were disabled by a too close application of ‘Beer-ology’…”

Back home after his resignation because of “gastric rheumatic fever,” within a year March found himself in trouble with the military authorities, who turned him over to a group investigating alleged “subversion.” He was accused of colluding with a claim agent to “cheerfully” pay whatever the agent wanted to charge him for the collection of his account against the government. Specifically, he stated he had paid his men $820.80 out of his own pocket for sustenance after they were mustered in as recruits, but records indicated the Pennsylvania state government had actually paid them until they were mustered into Federal service. His claim was denied, and authorities issued a written recommendation to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on October 11, 1862, to arrest Colonel March and hold him in confinement because “a fraud was contemplated against the government.” Apparently he was never formally brought up on the charges.

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A portion of the multi-page Army complaint against Colonel March (courtesy of the website Fold 3).

After being wounded at Wrightsville on June 28, 1863, in early August, militia Captain March had recovered sufficiently to receive and then distribute a bounty of $1,050 to be split among his men of Company B (Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 3, 1863). He received an honorable discharge on August 10, 1863.

Here is Col. Robert G. March’s mortuary notice from the Philadelphia Inquirer of  Feb. 3, 1875.

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Here is March’s index card from his widow’s pension claim.

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This entry was posted in Gettysburg Campaign, Wrightsville, Yankees and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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