The Battle of Gettysburg is among the most well-known of all Civil War battles. While, today, many view it as an important turning point of the Civil War, Gettysburg’s original notoriety was derived from the sheer number of soldiers who fought and died there in July of 1863. Over one hundred thousand men from the Union and Confederate armies fought in the foothills of Pennsylvania during the three day battle. Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln would speak at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg to honor the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who were lost during the fight. His speech, known as the Gettysburg Address, is among one of the greatest speeches ever written and it also helps to propel the Battle of Gettysburg in the minds of people today. Many wonderful texts have been written about the actions of the famous Union and Confederate officers who squared off in this pivotal battle. The movements of their units are depicted and recounted on monuments and signs throughout the Gettysburg National Military Park. In the sea of ranks, infantry, and units, it is difficult to adjust one’s view to consider the stories of individual soldiers. To each soldier who fought, Gettysburg was its own unique experience with very few being exactly alike. However, as Walt Whitman so noted, “the real war will never get in the books,” and so many of the stories of the common men and women of the Civil War are unrecorded. However, thanks to the research of author Betty Ownsbey, we do know at least some of the Gettysburg experiences of a 19 year-old private with the 2nd Florida Infantry named Lewis Thornton Powell.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Lewis Powell was a teenager living in Hamilton County, Florida. The Sunshine State seceded from the Union in January of 1861, and shortly thereafter Lewis made up his mind to enlist in the Confederate army. On May 30, 1861, Lewis Powell joined up with the Hamilton Blues which later became a company of the 2nd Florida Infantry. Powell was 17 years old at the time of his enlistment, below the age requirement of 18. To get around this, the tall and muscularly built Powell claimed to be 19 years old.
In a time before widespread identification methods, Powell was apparently taken at his word. It wouldn’t be the last time Powell would lie about his identity.
Powell’s early military career was plagued by visits to base hospitals for different illnesses. Despite this, when his one year term of serviced ended in 1862, Powell chose to re-enlist for the duration of the war and claimed the $50 bounty that was offered for re-enlistment. As part of the 2nd Florida Infantry, Powell saw battle during the Peninsula Campaign and at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the summer of 1863, the 2nd Florida Infantry became a part of the Army of Northern Virginia and were, therefore, present at the Battle of Gettysburg.
At Gettysburg, Powell’s unit was part of Perry’s Brigade, which consisted of the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Florida Infantry combined. While the brigade was named for Brigadier General Edward Perry, a future governor of Florida, Perry had contracted typhoid fever during the Battle of Chancellorsville and was not present in Gettysburg. Instead, Perry’s Brigade was led by Col. David Lang.
Col. David Lang was Lewis Powell’s brigade commander during the battle of Gettysburg.
On July 1st, the first day of battle at Gettysburg, the 700 plus men of Perry’s Brigade did not see battle. They, as part of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Division, were too far to the rear to engage with the Union. By July 2nd, the Union forces had established a fishhook line around Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill just to the southeast of the city of Gettysburg. During that morning, Anderson’s Division had moved closer to the front and took refuge in a patch of woods running from Seminary Ridge southward. Perry’s Brigade was located just north of the Peach Orchard. At 6:00 pm, Perry’s Brigade advanced forward along with the rest of Anderson’s Division. They attacked Brig. General Andrew Humphreys’ Second Division, forcing the Union to abandon several artillery guns as they retreated. Despite the push and the large number of casualties the Confederate forces inflicted on Humphreys’ Division, they were not able to advance to Cemetery Ridge as planned. The Union Infantry on the slope of the ridge prevented further advancement. Union reinforcements pressed in on their right flank and made the ground Perry’s Brigade had gained untenable. Perry’s Brigade, and the rest of Anderson’s division, were pushed back into the woods that they started from.
After pushing the Confederates back, the Union advanced, “recovered the artillery that had been abandoned and captured many prisoners and held the position during the night.”
One of the prisoners that was captured by the Second Division was a wounded Lewis Powell who had suffered a gunshot wound to his right wrist. While we do not know the exact circumstances surrounding Powell’s wounding, it is safe to say that it occurred after 6:00 pm on July 2nd, as Perry’s Brigade was making either their advance or retreat. He may have fallen on the field and not been found until the next morning, as his records state he was captured on July 3rd. Regardless of the exact circumstances, Powell was now a wounded prisoner of war. After his capture, Powell was sent about 2.5 miles to the southeast to a field hospital that had been established by the Twelfth Corps on the farm of George Bushman.
The brick building which served as the main hospital at Bushman farm still stands today. Powell was one of about 1,200 wounded soldiers brought in for triage style treatment, with the majority of these being Union soldiers not Confederate prisoners of war like himself. Powell is recorded to have been a patient in the the 12th Army Corps Hospital on July 4th. On July 6th, Powell was transferred from the field hospital to the larger makeshift hospital that had been set up on the grounds of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College). The Confederates had seized Pennsylvania College on the first day of battle and had converted one of the buildings, Pennsylvania Hall (also known as the Edifice), into their own field hospital. When the Confederates were forced to abandon the hospital, the Union took it over.
Penn Hall circa 1878
Penn Hall, 2017
Though Powell arrived at the Penn Hall hospital for his own recovery, before too long he found his position at the hospital expanded from patient to nurse. Even with his arm in a sling, Powell started to provide assistance to the doctors and stewards in their care for other wounded Confederates. During his service at Penn Hall, Powell was described as, “good at the work, and kind to the sick and wounded.” The fact that Powell had been previously laid up in other hospitals during his early military career no doubt helped him in his assumed position.
Lewis Powell is given the title of “nurse” on this register list of Confederates in Gettysburg hospitals.
The number of casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg brought in many more volunteers hoping to provide comfort to the wounded. One of these volunteers was a woman from Baltimore named Maggie Branson. Branson was a Confederate sympathizer and she traveled to Gettysburg specifically to tend to the wounded boys in gray. Branson was 30 years-old and unmarried. Over the course of July and August, Branson and Powell worked side by side in the hospital. At the end of August, the Penn Hall Hospital was shutting down. Powell met with the Provost Marshal who decided it would be a better use of the young Confederate’s abilities to continue his work as a nurse in a hospital rather than languish away in a prisoner of war camp. Powell was transferred away from Gettysburg and arrived at West’s Buildings Hospital in Baltimore on September 2, 1863. After only a few days in Baltimore, Powell was able to facilitate his escape. Though Lewis Powell’s exploits from this date onward would eventually bring him back into the military service of the Confederacy, when he did enlist again he did so under a new, assumed name (for that story click here). For the remainder of the war the muster rolls for the 2nd Florida Infantry would record Pvt. Powell as a prisoner of war.
In time, Lewis Thornton Powell would come into contact with John Wilkes Booth. The meeting between soldier and actor would start a series of choices that would change Powell’s life forever. It led the “kind” nurse of Gettysburg to savagely and ruthlessly stab a helpless man lying in his bed. It transformed Lewis Powell from one of the countless faces in the Civil War’s bloodiest battle, into one of the most infamous criminals in our nation’s history. In his final moments, as the Confederate stared at the rope which would strangle him to death in July of 1865, one wonders if Lewis Powell wished his end had come among the foothills of Pennsylvania in July of 1863 instead.
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy by Betty J. Ownsbey
Interactive Gettysburg Battle Map featured in A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg by Anne Kelly Knowles
The Battle of Gettysburg – Stone Sentinels: Perry’s Brigade, Anderson’s Division, Humphrey’s 2nd Division, 3rd Corps