Late in the afternoon on 16 June 1864, Union troops launched what was to prove an unsuccessful assault on what had been thinly held Confederate defensive works outside the important town of Petersburg, Virginia. The Union assault was preceded by an artillery bombardment. One of the Union shells, which hit the Confederate trenches, killed, or mortally wounded, four officers of the 27th South Carolina Infantry. Suffering severe injuries to his right side and hip, one of those officers, 2nd Lieutenant George Gelling was taken to the South Carolina Hospital in Petersburg where he died later that same day. In due course, Gelling’s body and the remains of at least two of the other officers killed by that Union shell were transported south to Charleston, South Carolina, and buried in the First Scottish Presbyterian Church of that city. So ended the military career of a young man born thousands of miles away on the Isle of Man.
George Brown Gelling was born in 1841, the second son of Edward Gelling, a Douglas, Isle of Man, merchant. At the age of 16, George Gelling travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to work in an uncle’s counting house. Four years later, in the months prior to the start of the American Civil War, Gelling was living in the South Carolina city of Charleston. Gelling had joined the Charleston Zouave Cadets, a local militia unit, and was a 2nd Corporal when the state seceded from the Union. In the months after Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, several Federal forts were occupied by the armed forces of the fledgling Confederacy. When the opening shots of the Civil War were fired from Confederate guns at the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, in April 1861, Gelling and his comrades were manning one of the forts held by the Confederates along the South Carolina shoreline. However, tired of manning these coastal forts, Gelling and some of his Zouave comrades enlisted, on 7 September 1861, in the Infantry regiment of the Hampton Legion of South Carolina Volunteers, of which they formed Company “H”. Gelling was mustered-in as a Sergeant on 26 October 1861. The Hampton Legion, which also had cavalry and artillery units, served with the Army of Northern Virginia. The months after the first major battle of the conflict, at (First) Bull Run (or First Manassas), in which Gelling had not participated, were relatively quiet. In large part this was due to the painstaking preparations of the new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George McClellan, prior to commencing the next major attempt to capture the Confederate capital, at Richmond, Virginia. Finally, in the spring of 1862, McClellan commenced his so-called Peninsula Campaign.
Before he saw any action in that campaign, George Gelling suffered the ignominy of being reduced in the ranks to a Private. Gelling’s Compiled Military Service Records (“CMSR”s) suggest he went before a Court Martial on 29 April 1862. The CMSRs give no indication as to the charge or charges against Gelling. However, thereafter, Company Muster Rolls record Gelling as a Private. Gelling is mentioned in the 1901 version of the book Manx Worthies as having taken part in a dozen battles. These would have included the battle of Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines) which took place as McClellan’s troops approached Richmond. At Fair Oaks, Gelling and the Hampton Legion formed up on the left of the Confederate lines. Among the Union ranks, on the left of the Union line, but held in reserve, was the Union Army’s VI Corps including the 102nd Pennsylvania and Manxman Joseph Lindsey. The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, in a series of encounters known as the Seven Days Battles, pushed McClellan’s forces away from Richmond. While McClellan and his men idled on the banks of the James River before eventually returning to Washington, Lee turned his attention to another threatening Union army, commanded by John Pope. Lee hastened north and defeated Pope’s troops at the battle of Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run) fought on 29 – 30 August 1862. Gelling’s exploits in that battle appeared in a Southern newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, which printed a letter written by one of Gelling’s comrades. Gelling, who had assisted in the capture of some Federal soldiers, had suffered a minor wound in the thigh from a spent musket ball.
Emboldened by his troops’ recent successes, Lee decided to take the war to the North and embarked upon his Maryland Campaign. After crossing into Maryland, Lee took the risk of splitting his forces. Units under General “Stonewall” Jackson successfully captured the town of Harpers Ferry, taking many Union prisoners in the process. Unfortunately for the Confederates, a copy of Lee’s orders splitting his forces had been found by Union troops and had been passed up the chain of command to McClellan. Union forces advanced against the Confederates. Lee, in the meantime, gave orders for his forces to re-unite west of the South Mountain range. Desperate holding actions by numerically inferior Confederate forces at various passes held up the Federal forces long enough, on 14 September 1862, to enable most of Lee’s units to combine near the town of Sharpsburg on the banks of the Antietam river.
Gelling and the Hampton Legion found themselves in action on 14 September at Fox’s Gap, South Mountain. Shortly after the mortal wounding (by friendly fire) of Union IX Corps commander, Major General Jesse Reno, Brigadier General John B. Hood’s Division became involved in a fierce fire-fight with the brigade of Colonel Edward Ferraro. With George T. Anderson and his Georgian troops on his left, Hood led Law’s Brigade and Woffard’s so-called Texas Brigade (the 1st, 4th and 5th Texas, 18th Georgia and the Hampton Legion) along the Old Sharpsburg Road to the north west of Wise’s Field. In his book, Before Antietam, John Michael Priest writes:
As Hampton’s Legion neared the one-acre field north of Wise’s cabin, a call went out for three volunteer skirmishers. Privates Henry Brandes, Elliott Welch and George B. Gelling (all Company H) ventured forth with a Lieutenant. Coming to the edge of the woods, they saw a line of Yankees (Companies A, D, F, and I, 51st Pennsylvania) moving in the open across their front. The four Rebels opened fire, then retreated into the woods. They took cover while the rest of the division, which had advanced into position just west of the wood road, fired a “murderous volley” into the forming Yankee line.
The four Pennsylvania skirmish companies north of the Old Sharpsburg Road saw the muzzle flashes and went to the ground without any time to spare. Before the Confederates could reload, the Pennsylvanians returned the volley. Most of their shots went too high and they inflicted nominal casualties.
Priest’s sources were a letter of 22 September 1862 written by Elliott Stephen Welch to his parents and Ezra Carmen’s The Maryland Campaign. According to Priest, 864 men of Wofford’s Brigade were present at Fox’s Gap on 14 September. Wofford’s Brigade got off very lightly indeed. It suffered none killed or mortally wounded at Fox’s Gap and just 3 wounded in action and 2 missing. Was Gelling one of the “nominal casualties”, wounded and captured?
The bloodiest single day of battle during the Civil War took place on 17 September 1862 at the battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam). McClellan’s forces, superior in numbers, launched many but unco-ordinated attacks and Lee’s men managed to force a stalemate thanks largely to the timely arrival of one of Jackson’s Divisions from Harpers Ferry. George Gelling’s Company Muster Rolls indicate that he was badly wounded (in both thighs) and missing or captured on 17 September. Union hospital records, on the other hand, indicate that the wounded Gelling was captured on 14 September at South Mountain. Irrespective of where and when precisely he was captured, Gelling was admitted to No. 4 U. S. Army General Hospital at Frederick, Maryland, on 29 September 1862. He was later transferred and admitted on 2 October 1862 to the U. S. Army General Hospital at Chester, Pennsylvania. Gelling recouperated, albeit as a prisoner-of-war, over several months.
Eventually, Gelling was transferred to Fort McHenry in Maryland on 5 May 1863 before being exchanged, with other captured Confederates, for Union prisoners on 10 May 1863 (the day on which Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson died following his wounding by “friendly fire” at the battle of Chancellorsville). At the end of May 1863, Gelling was back in Charleston, South Carolina, where, his CMSRs show, he received 10 months back pay amounting to $110. The Hampton Legion had taken a severe battering in the Maryland Campaign. It was sent to the rear, performing garrison duties, while it refitted and recruited. As a result, it did not participate in the battles of Fredericksburg (13 December 1862) or Chancellorsville (3-5 May 1863). Nor did it participate in the Gettysburg Campaign other than in a rearguard action at Boonsboro, Maryland, during Lee’s retreat back into Virginia. The Legion was part of Longstreet’s Corps which was transferred west to Georgia and Tennessee and participated in the Chattanooga Campaign although it missed the battle of Chickamauga. Gelling is recorded in a Company Muster Roll as having been slightly wounded in Lookout Valley during this campaign. The Legion participated in Longstreet’s Corps’ unsuccessful siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, and then moved further east towards Virginia, going into winter quarters before being re-organised in March 1864.
In February 1864, Gelling stood successfully for election to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the recently re-organised 27th South Carolina Volunteers. The spring saw the appointment, by President Lincoln, of a new Union commander, General U. S. Grant, now in charge of all Union armies, after being successful in the Western Theatre of operations. Grant came east and set up his headquarters not in Washington but with the Army of the Potomac. As part of a co-ordinated series of advances by several Union armies against ever dwindling Confederate forces, Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to advance south in what became known as the Overland Campaign. Grant’s main objective was not the capture of the Confederate capital, Richmond, but the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. In this campaign, and the Army of the James’ campaign in the Bermuda Hundred, the 27th South Carolina – and, presumably, George Gelling – saw action at Drewry’s Bluff, Swift Creek and Cold Harbor. After the last battle, Grant temporarily confused Lee as to his intentions. Grant’s forces crossed the James River but instead of advancing on Richmond, Grant decided to attack the railroad hub town just south of Richmond – Petersburg. Petersburg was, initially, lightly defended and aggressive action by Union commanders might have resulted in its capture and so hasten the end of the war. Union Generals, however, dithered and allowed Lee to supply additional troops to reinforce the defenders of Petersburg, commanded by General Beauregard. The troops transferred by Lee included the 27th South Carolina. So it was on 16 June 1864 that Union forces, after an initial artillery barrage, were launched against the Confederate lines. It was during that initial barrage that George Gelling was mortally wounded.
Gelling was not forgotten in his native Isle of Man. In the family plot in the Braddan New Cemetery, just outside Douglas, there is a brief memorial recording that George Gelling of Charleston, South Carolina, in the Confederate States Army, died on 16 June 1864 at Petersburgh (sic) Virginia. Somewhat ironically, just a few yards away from the Gelling memorial is the unmarked grave of James Pendlebury, late of the 69th New York. Pendlebury’s name crops up several times in Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire. Pendlebury, described by Foreman as an unemployed Lancashire man with a gammy leg and a drink problem, had an eventful period of service with his New York regiment, including time spent as a POW. Pendlebury eventually returned to England where he overcame his drink problems, became a successful businessman and moved to live on the Isle of Man.
(1) Compiled Military Service Records of Private George Brown Gelling, Company H, Hampton Legion (Infantry), South Carolina and of 2nd Lieutenant George Brown Gelling of Company C, 27th South Carolina Infantry, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
(2) Manx Worthies (1901).
(3) John Michael Priest, Before Antietam : the battle for South Mountain, White Mane Publishing Company Inc., P.O. Box 152, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania 17257 (1992).
(4) Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire, Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R OR1 (2011).