| A DATE WITH DESTINY ... and
The death of Union General Samuel K. Zook
by A. M. Gambone
This article is taken from a biography of General Zook, a life-long bachelor
who was mortally wounded in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg on the 2d day [02 July
1863]. He led the Third Brigade belonging to Brigadier-General John C.
Caldwell's First Division, part of Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock's II
Corps. We focus upon the center of that field about 3:00 p.m. on the 2d, after
Major-General Daniel Sickles moved his III Corps forward.
With most of his III Corps in their new position, General Sickles made his way
to the rear in an attempt to meet with his commander, Major-General George
Gordon Meade. As Sickles approached Meade's headquarters, the commander had
recently learned of his unauthorized move forward, which upset him greatly. In
fact, "Old Snapping Turtle," as Meade was called behind his back, could also
see small white puffs of smoke, a prelude to the assault by the Confederate I
Corps. Without hesitation, the commander set off toward the Wheatfield and soon
met up with the enroute-Sickles. Meade reined-in his horse and spoke excitedly
to the New Yorker: "General, I am afraid you are too far out." Sickles promptly
offered to bring his troops back when another thundering crash was heard from
those barking Confederate guns. That clamor made Meade's horse difficult to
handle which only added to his anger. Turning to Sickles, Meade tersely stated:
"I wish to God you could [withdraw], but those people will not permit it." That
said, Meade could do no more, and turned away. Sadly, shortly after their
meeting, Southern infantry came across the field and struck the Yankees at
Devil's Den. The time was now about 4:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, General Hancock had observed the movement of Sickles' III Corps and
speculated they would soon return owing to strong Confederate resistance. About
4:45 p.m., Meade broke Hancock's reverie and instructed him to send
reinforcements to help Major-General George Sykes' V Corps. Those men were
already struggling as they tried to help Sickles' embattled line. With Meade's
order, Hancock told General Caldwell, "get your division ready." Promptly,
Caldwell's division responded and prepared to head for Sykes' line, with Zook's
brigade bringing up the rear. While that was happening, the forceful Southern
assault spilled into the Wheatfield.
Zook's rear position allowed him to appreciate that assistance was indeed
required by the V Corps. Consequently, he too cried out: "Double Quick," and
his blue lines were quickly formed. Shortly thereafter, Caldwell's divisional
line began its march down Cemetery Ridge. That line was soon stopped by Father
William Corby, of the Irish Brigade, who stood upon a three-foot high rock and
granted a general absolution to those Catholic men. Zook was mesmerized by
Corby's action and turned to an aide and said, "My God! [James D.] Brady, that
was the most impressive sight I have ever [witnessed?] heard of."
About the same time, General Sickles could see that Major-General Birney's
forward line was faltering under the strong Rebel pressure and sent an aide to
obtain help. That aide, Major Henry Tremain, could also see the lengthy
movement of Caldwell's division so he decided to go directly and ask Hancock
for help. On his way, Tremain thought better of that idea and decided to pursue
the tail of the line. That change of decision would prove decisive, but deadly,
for General Zook.
Somewhere around 5:00 p.m. as Tremain drew nigh to the rear line he shouted,
who is in charge? "General Zook" came the reply, causing the aide to query,
"Where is he?" Learning that Zook was at the head of the brigade, Tremain set
spurs to his horse to seek out the officer. In the process, he thought to
himself, "no colonel fit to command it [a regiment] would obey my orders while
his brigade commander was present."
Since Tremain had never met Zook, he was in a quandary about that officer's
appearance. So, when he came upon a general officer, he asked: "Is this General
Zook? 'Yes, sir' [Zook replied]." Tremain later acknowledged that "the man was
a perfect stranger to me and I realized that I might be mistaken for a
demoralized straggler. So, I adhered to all the [military] formalities and
inquired where his divisional general could be found, [but] at the same time
explaining the urgency, which indeed might have been clear to every soldier in
the column." Despite his earlier thought of formalities, Tremain blurted to
Zook that he should move his men to assist the battered ranks of the III Corps.
Later, Tremain called that brief talk with Zook "a critical review."
To Tremain's pleadings, Zook replied "politely but with a soldierly mien, that
his orders were to 'follow the column.'" That response caused Sickles' aide
momentary grief, but recovering quickly he told the general that he would
protect Zook [his military reputation] by obtaining the proper approval. That
said, Zook viewed Tremain "with a calm, firm look, inspiring to me with its
significance" and he then said to the aide: "Sir, if you will give me the
orders of General Sickles I will obey it." Those words were almost too good to
hear, and Tremain promptly responded: "General Sickles' order, general, is that
you file your brigade to the right and move into action here."
With that, Zook immediately went in search of General Sickles, and found him
near the Trostle House, where he instructed Zook how to place his men. Zook
made a quick visual reconnaissance of the field, agreed, and hurried back to
his line. Then he fatefully led his men through the Weikert Woods and onto the
Millerstown Road; modern Wheatfield Road.
We need to stop here and consider some charges hurled at General Zook that
claim he should not have pulled out of Caldwell's line without some
authorization. Those charges assume he failed to give notice or request
permission from his commander to do so. When the details of those moments are
studied closely, it certainly appears that Zook made every attempt to inform
Caldwell, and contrary to popular opinion, there is not the slightest evidence
that he failed in his attempts. We simply do not know for certain, nor will we
ever know, all the details! To this issue, Tremain later wrote that: "Few men
would have acted as Zook did. Yet had he acted otherwise it might have changed
the fate of the day. Who knows? It was such acts of sagacity and nobleness that
won Gettysburg." Tremain also adds this critical observation: "Zook had
promptly sent officers to advise his divisional commander of the order he had
received [from General Sickles] and of the action[s] he was taking." While we
might imagine that Zook's messengers never reached Caldwell [and there is no
record to that effect], we do know that any failure to communicate with
superiors on such an important matter was definitely outside of his character.
Military annals are filled with decisive men who find it necessary to go
against the established order and deal with any unforeseen crisis. Frequently,
such decisions are rendered as brave, brilliant or stupid, depending upon the
outcome. Years later, when Tremain was writing his memoirs, he noted that: "But
his [Zook's] act saved many other lives, and averted an unspeakable
Meanwhile, after crossing the Millerstown Road, Zook's command "moved through
the northwest corner of the [Wheatfield]" and headed in the direction of Rose's
Woods. As they arrived they could see a protrusion of large boulders that
included a rocky knoll known as "Stony Hill." At that time, the men belonging
to CSA Brigadier-General Joseph B. Kershaw's brigade were letting loose with a
withering barrage against the Yankees, led by Brigadier-General James Barnes,
the precise area where Zook was headed.
Tradition tells us that as Zook led his men into the Wheatfield, they found the
ranks of General Barnes strewn on the ground. That condition caused Zook to
holler: "Get out of the way [or] lie down and I'll come over you directly."
Barnes' men then reportedly did lie down and Zook's men "did march over them
and right into the breach." This entire scenario can only be viewed as typical
Civil War hyperbole. Imagine for a moment that you are one of Barnes' men. You
are in a thick, blue woolen uniform, men are shooting at you - trying to kill
you, you are hot, frightened [or at least worried], you have a loaded rifle and
someone is telling you they intend to send men and heavy horses to walk over
you. I don't think so! ... [This leads me to my favorite saying ... be careful
of that which you read, hear or see about the American Civil War]
Someone in Zook's brigade recorded the following as they actually entered the
Wheatfield. This plus all the facts surrounding Zook's access, demonstrate that
the earlier entry-story is a figment of Sickles' invention.
|... we marched forward to the attack ... alongside the
mountain, the tumult was deafening ... We were enveloped in smoke and fire, not
only in front, but on our left, and even at times on the right.
Somewhere between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m., as a mounted Zook led his lines, he felt
a severe burning in/near his chest. His head was thrown back by some unforeseen
force and he promptly grew faint. He could feel his strength ebb from his body,
and his vision must have grown bleary. "A minie ball [had] entered the left
side of the stomach, perforating his sword belt, and lodging in the spine."
Seeing their commander hit, Lieutenants Josiah Favill and Charles Broom,
immediately went to his aide. Favill recorded that Zook looked at him "with an
expression I shall never forget." Zook also doomfully told that aide, "It is
all up with me, Favill."
Initially, the general was in great pain and was quickly moved to a field
hospital. There, surgeon Charles S. Wood concluded that Zook's wound was too
grave and "nothing could be done." With that sad commentary, the two aides
moved Zook to the G. F. Hoke Tollhouse on the Baltimore Pike [that home still
stands]. Hoke noticed that despite his wounds, Zook had not lost his sense of
propriety because he ordered his aides to "put a blanket under him so that he
would not bloody the bed." Soon, a friend, Dr. William Potter, who learned of
Zook's injury, went to his side. Later, Potter recorded that Zook was "fatally
shot, a shell having torn open his left shoulder and chest, exposing the
heart-beats to observation."
When the fighting of the second day finally quieted, General Meade sent a wire
to Washington telling them that Generals [Gabriel] Paul and Zook were killed
and mortally wounded. Zook spent the night at the Hoke House but on the morning
of the 3d, for his added protection, he was moved about a mile to the rear, to
an unidentified home. While very few specifics are known about that move, the
lady of the house made Zook some soup and gave him some whiskey to ease his
pain. There were even times when he appeared to rally, but Zook knew that he
was destined to die. His determination was correct, for about 5:00 p.m. on 3
July 1863, Brigadier-General Samuel K. Zook drew his last breath; he was 41
Because he had been living in New York City when the war broke out, Zook raised
the 57th New York Volunteers. As a result, his body was first taken back to his
family home at Valley Forge and then onto New York City, where the remains
would lie in state in the Governor's Room at City Hall. On 13 July 1863, as
Zook's funeral cortege made its way to Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, the
"Draft Riots" were already starting in upper Manhattan. For reasons unknown,
Zook's remains were never buried at Greenwood and the pleas of his father were
heeded. Consequently, his body was shipped back to Norristown, Pennsylvania,
and interred at Montgomery Cemetery on 5 February 1864, where they remain to
this day. Then, on 9 October 1867, the War Department announced Zook's
posthumous promotion to brevet major-general for "gallant and meritorious
services at the battle of Gettysburg ..." While later, there were a number of
monuments to his memory, one of the warmest was a poem, Gettysburg, written by
Miss Mary E. Weber, which she dedicated to the members of Zook Post No. 11.
|... Almost equal in disaster burst the storms that
swept each rank, Shells were screaming; shots were telling; thinning out each
line and flank. In the final deadly struggle, rose a voice above the storm,
Cheering men to brave the conflict. Every soldier knew the form. Bending with
sublime devotion, never flinching by a look, From the imperiled line of battle;
'twas the martyred General Zook.'
A. M. Gambone
To facilitate reading, this data is presented without the benefit of any
footnotes. Those interested can find same in the first chapter of the
biographical volume by A. M. Gambone: ... if tomorrow night finds me dead ...
The Life of General Samuel K. Zook, Another Forgotten Union Hero (Baltimore,
Maryland: Butternut and Blue, 1996).
Copyright © 2005 A. M. Gambone
Written by A. M. Gambone. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact:
A. M. Gambone at:
About the Author:
Al Gambone is a native of Norristown, Pennsylvania, and now lives with his
wife, Nancy, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He studied chemistry and math at
Lowell Technological Institute and later, religion and philosophy at Mattatuck
Community College. He has written five biographies and/or monographs about
Civil War generals and is in the process of completing his sixth. He lectures
and teaches extensively and draws a lot of his background from his own 3,000
volume library. Al prides himself on his sense of humor and his emphasis of
human character in the war.
Published online: 02/19/2005.