26TH REGIMENT PENNSYLVANIA VOLUNTEERS ~ ROLL CALL
JAMES GELSTON Cpl. Co. K
In 1830, 28 year-old John Gelston and Sarah, his 18 year-old bride were married in Philadelphia. Between 1833 and 1851 they would join the Baptist church, settle in Chester, Delaware County and have eight surviving children.
Annie L. - born c.1833
Harriet - born c.1836
James L. - born c.1838
Mary - born c.1840
Sarah - born c.1843
William L. - born c.1845
Alfred S. - born c.1848
Louisa - born c.1851
From census records, we learn that by 1860, the two eldest Gelston girls had married [Annie Moseley and Harriet Warren] and were living just down the road from their parents. Annie and Harriet each had a 4 year-old and 1 year-old child. John, now a 58 year-old grandfather, is listed as working as a warper. A warper could be either a person who sets the warp thread on a loom or a person who would move boats by pulling on the warp ropes attached to the boat. While both of these occupations could be found in Delaware County in the 1860’s, with John’s son William listed as a weaver and his daughter Mary listed as a semstrep (sempster /seamstress), it is probable that John worked in one of the many textile mills in Delaware County.
James was the eldest Gelston child still at home. Listed as a machinist on the 1860 census, he was 23 years old when he enlisted in Co. K of the 26th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1861. Most of the soldiers in Co. K were recruited from Delaware County. The first of the three-year regiments from Pennsylvania, the 26th was under the command of Col. William F. Small, a Philadelphia lawyer who had served in the Mexican War and had organized the Washington Brigade, a militia unit that was involved in the Baltimore riots with the 6th Massachusetts on April 18, 1861.
James was mustered as a private on June 13, 1861. There is no information in his military or pension records indicating how he found life as a soldier, but he was promoted to corporal on October 1, 1862, just after 2nd Bull Run. While his presence or absence is not stated for the 1861 muster rolls, he is listed as ‘present’ on all 1862 and January to June 1863 muster rolls.
The 26th Pa, along with the 1st, 11th and 16th Mass.; 11th NJ, 12th NH and 84th NY made up the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division of the 3rd Corp. On June 11, 1863, they left their camp near Falmouth Va. and started on the march north in response to Lee’s movements in his planned invasion of Pennsylvania. On July 1st they marched through Emmitsburg Maryland towards Gettysburg. Hearing of the fight ahead, their forced march stretched into the late hours. In their haste and with poor directions, the division narrowly missed marching into the Confederate lines near the Black Horse Tavern and had to quietly reverse their direction. Arriving in the wee hours of July 2nd, they halted on ground lying between Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, and facing the Emmitsburg Road. Exhausted from the heat and rapidity of the march and hungry due to meager rations, the troops collapsed and slept.
On the morning of July 2nd, the 26th was detailed to clear the fences in front of the 2nd Division’s position in preparation for their move forward towards the Emmitsburg Road. Lt. Henry Blake of the 11th Mass. wrote “The corps advanced in a brilliant line half a mile at three o’clock in the afternoon, and the regiment was formed upon the Emmettsburg Road, and partially sheltered by the house and barn of Peter Rogers, upon the crest of the rising ground.” The 26th PA was positioned on the right end of the Third Corp line, with the 11th Mass., on its left and the 1st Mass. deployed as skirmishers in front of them. Sgt. Gustavus Hutchinson (11th Mass.) described the Rebel attack: Our skirmishers notified us that the rebels were massing their brigades for an assault upon our position; we had no breastworks, but made ready for a determined resistance. We knew by the yells of the foe and the occasional dropping of a bullet that their line was on the advance. Our skirmishers fell back. The rebel line rapidly advanced, and our left was forced back. Heavy masses of infantry supported the attack, and our men were forced slowly backward”. The Confederates were Wilcox’s Alabamian’s who advanced north of the Rodger’s house and Lang’s Florida Brigade who attacked south of the house. Pvt. Thomas Cooper of Co. C 26th PA described the Regiment’s action in his speech at the dedication of the 26th PA Monument in 1889. “About 3 P.M., our Third Corps moved to the front, with our brigade at the celebrated Peach Orchard, and our Regiment covering the right flank of the division, separated from Hancock’s Second Corps by a gap which proved inviting to the enemy, for here immediate and repeated attempts were made to pierce our lines by bold dashes and charges. All of them were resisted, and but one came near accomplishing its destructive purpose. This was late in the evening, when a large rebel force, covered by smoke of the guns, quickly crossed the Emmitsburg road, and protected by the depression at the right of the little and now demolished stone house which flanked the Peach Orchard, with sudden rush and yell, plunged itself upon our already depleted ranks. Then the Twenty-sixth and the First Massachusetts, our gallant Yankee companions upon many battlefields, obeyed the order of Colonel Blaisdell[11th Mass.] and Major Bodine [26th PA], and changed direction by the right flank, in the very face of overpowering numbers. In this way the charge was checked, and the enemy were kept closely engaged until a division from the Second Corps came to our relief and saved the line. This struggle was the most deadly of the day and of the entire battle, and well of any battle known to the war. Its terrific force is seen in the unprecedented numbers of killed and wounded, and the high courage of the Twenty-sixth is shown by the fact that no man ran, and but seven were captured and missing out of 213 lost in a total number of 365 engaged. In the repeated charges of the second day nearly two out of every three of our regiment engaged, fell with a greatly superior number of the enemy close about them - and what few remained held their ground. These frightful losses were largely due to the heroic change of direction made by the two regiments named, while under fire and at close quarters - the most difficult movement known to military tactics, and the one above all others calling for quick intelligence and high courage.” James Gelston was one of two corporals from Co. K that were killed in the fighting. Co. K’s 1st Sgt. George Rosevelt, who was wounded with loss of his leg, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions here and at 2nd Bull Run.
Back in Chester, the news of James’ death must have been devastating to his large family. From later pension records we have some information of how the family fared in the proceeding years. By 1863, two more of his sisters, Mary (Pike) and Sarah (Heacock) had married. James’ brother, William, now eighteen, was reportedly learning a trade and made about $2/week.. Fifteen-year-old Alfred was selling newspapers and earned $1.25/week. The youngest, Louise, was 12 years old. In 1864 William joined the Navy and received a bounty of $100, sending $86 home to his family. Reportedly not a well man, John served as school tax collector from 1866 till 1872, and was also paid $50/year as a tyler of Masonic Lodges. A tyler acts as an outer door guard while the Lodge is in session, preventing non-Mason’s.
Although eligible earlier, James’ mother Sarah didn’t apply for a pension till 1889 when she was 78 years old. John, her husband of 56 years had died three years earlier in 1886 at 87 years of age. As part of the eligibility requirements, parents had to prove dependency on their deceased son, as well as show he had no wife or dependent children. As witnesses, Sarah brought daughters Annie & Harriet, son-in-law Robert M.Green (presumably Louisa’s husband) and grandson John G. Moseley to give affidavits in her pension application. In addition, two of James’ comrades from Co. K came to testify. Francis Scott was 22 years old and Henry Abbot was 19 years old when they enlisted in 1861. Both were wounded at Second Bull Run in August 1862 and discharged on account of their wounds. Henry, in November 1862 and Francis in October 1863. They testified to the fact that James was never married and had no children. Sarah testified that about one year after James’ death, they received $100 in bounty and eight or ten years after that, an additional $100. They also owned four small houses - two renting for $9/mo., one for $8/mo. and the other, at 108 E. Third Street in Chester, they lived in. In addition, they received benefits of $4/week from the Odd Fellows Lodge. After her husband died, Sarah reported she lived part of the time with two of her daughters. When she became ill, and for a time in 1890 was confined to her bed for several months, she hired a nurse. She reported her doctor’s bills for 1890 were $52 and her medicine had cost $1/week for the past few years. In spite of the bills she reported, Sarah’s request for a pension was denied on the grounds she had a sufficient income and was never truly dependent on James. In later years, there would be many changes to the laws governing pensions, making it easier for parents to apply for and receive a pension.
Each November thousands of reenactors gather in Gettysburg for Remembrance Day ceremonies, the commemoration of President Lincoln’s dedication of the National Cemetery in 1863. Every year, the men commemorating the Regiment march to the monument of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on the Emmitsburg Road. There the Regiment’s actions of that fateful day in July are recounted and a wreath is placed at the monument. In final tribute, the soldiers stand at attention while Corporal James L. Gelston’s name is read aloud along with the names of 56 of his comrades who paid the ultimate sacrifice at Gettysburg.
This articles was written by Eileen Campos from information contained in the National Archives. Please visit the home page of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteers, members of the Mifflin Guard, helping preserve the memory of the sacrifices that James and all of the brave soldiers made for us and this nation!