enlisted on 8 Oct 1861 at age 21 as a Private in Company K, 5th Infantry. Gay was promoted to Full Sergeant 15 Apr 1862; again promoted to full Sergeant Major on 14 Aug 1862. He was wounded at the Battle of White Oak Swamp, promoted to Full 2nd Lieutenant (as of Company D) on 11 Sep 1862. Killed In Action on 17 Sep 1862 at Antietam, MD. The Newmarket Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) named their Civil War Memorial in Honor of Lt. George A. Gay, as he was credited for saving his company from ambush and slaughter.
In 1860, the “three Georges”, George Gay (age 20), George Lord (age 18), and George Tebbetts (age 19) shared more than first names. Friends, they lived together as lodgers on Main Street at the Bennett home. George Lord, was an astute clerk and tin plate apprentice with the business. George Gay was an affable laborer, sought after, well-liked by both colleagues and customers. George Tebbetts was another talented clerk who had amassed a personal worth valued at $1,000 which was a considerable amount for a 19 year old in 1860.
John S. Bennett, his wife Sarah and their teenage daughters May & Lizzie lived at the corner of Main Street and Bennett Avenue (now Exeter Street). John Bennett was a wealthy merchant in Town, he and his brother Edwin formed a partnership in 1850. The business increased the first six years, from less than $1,000 to $7,000 and subsequently to over $50,000 per annum. They sold hardware, tin ware, groceries, corn, meal, lumber, coal, cements, paints and oil, ice, etc. They employed forty-four men, and by 1872, the business had an annual capital of over $100,000. At different times before and after the Civil War J.S. Bennett served as selectman, health officer, and overseer of the poor farm.
George Gay was a laborer, described as tall, good looking, gregarious and a hard worker. Originally born in Boston, his father (Ebenezer Flagg Gay) was a merchant in the shoe industry, and later became a tax collector for the City of Boston. It is unknown how George came to Newmarket to live and work for Mr. Bennett.
After Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, Northern patriotic and abolition feelings ran high. With the nation’s call to arms, George Lord entered the service in 5 Aug 1861 as a Private in the 3rd NH Infantry. His clerical ability was detected early, and he was scoffed up by the New Hampshire Adjutant General’s Office, where he remained until Oct 1864 never seeing battle, but balancing books in the State’s war effort.
George Gay and George Tibbetts both enlisted two months later as Privates in Company K, 5th Infantry. Gay and Tebbetts mustered in on Oct. 12th1861.
( photo: Federal Soldiers at Battle of Yorktown, VA)
They soon saw battle together in Virginia at:
Rappahannock River 28 Mar 1862
Battle at Yorktown 25 Apr to 4 May 1862.
After Yorktown, Gay promoted to Sgt.
They participated in 4 more battles together:
Fair Oaks 1 Jun 1862
Peach Orchard & Savage’s Station 29 Jun 1862
Battle of White Oak Swamp 30 Jun 1862
But it was during this, their fourth, the Battle of White Oak Swamp, VA on June 30th, 1862 that Sergeant George Gay was wounded, and his good friend, Private George Tebbetts, was Killed and buried on the field. The Battle estimates are as many as 100 Union casualties, with the highest losses in the 5th New Hampshire, which had 5 men killed and 9 wounded. (1)
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, about 55,000 men, entered the state of Maryland on September 3, 1862, following their victory at Second Bull Run on August 30. Emboldened by success, the Confederate leadership intended to take the war into enemy territory. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was intended to run simultaneously with an invasion of Kentucky by the armies of Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith. It was also necessary for logistical reasons, as northern Virginia’s farms had been stripped bare of food. Based on events such as the Baltimore riots in the spring of 1861 and the fact that President Lincoln had to pass through the city in disguise en route to his inauguration, Confederate leaders assumed that Maryland would welcome the Confederate forces warmly. They sang the tune “Maryland, My Maryland!” as they marched, but by the fall of 1862 pro-Union sentiment was winning out, especially in the western parts of the state. Civilians generally hid inside their houses as Lee’s army passed through their towns, while the Army of the Potomac was cheered. Some Confederate politicians, including President Jefferson Davis, believed the prospect of foreign recognition would increase if they won a military victory on Northern soil; such a victory might gain recognition and financial support from Great Britain and France.
(photo: Antietam’s Battlefield today, by Maryland Public Television)
While McClellan’s 75,500-man Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee, two Union soldiers from Indiana discovered a mislaid copy of Lee’s detailed battle plans—Special Order 191—wrapped around three cigars. The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions geographically (to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland), thus making each subject to isolation and defeat if McClellan could move quickly enough. McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and reposition his forces, thus squandering an opportunity to defeat Lee decisively.
There were two significant engagements in the Maryland campaign prior to the major battle of Antietam: Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry and McClellan’s assault through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Battle of South Mountain. The former was significant because a large portion of Lee’s army was absent from the start of the battle of Antietam, attending to the surrender of the Union garrison; the latter because stout Confederate defenses at two passes through the mountains delayed McClellan’s advance enough for Lee to concentrate the remainder of his army at Antietam.
On the morning of September 18, Lee’s army prepared to defend against a Federal assault that never came. After an improvised truce for both sides to recover and exchange their wounded, Lee’s forces began withdrawing across the Potomac that evening to return to Virginia.
President Lincoln was disappointed in McClellan’s performance. He believed that McClellan’s cautious and poorly coordinated actions in the field had forced the battle to a draw rather than a crippling Confederate defeat. Historian Stephen Sears agrees.
(photo by Alexander Gardner - Abraham Lincoln and John McLellan at Antietam)
The men of the 5th climbed over the rail fencing that the Rebels had piled in front of the sunken road, then scrambled down the road itself. It was still filled with men – dead, disfigured, alive but too broken to move. The regiment hurried across the road and climbed up, out, and into the cornfield on its far side. Hundreds of Rebels stood befpore the Federals, but without time to re-organize, reload and recover, they were done for. As many as 20 cannons opened on the advancing Federals, shredding the corn with canister and case shot gouging the soil at their feet. As the men pushed into the corn, undulations in the ground in turn sheltered them from cannon fire and exposed them to it. The Fifth had drawn apart from the advancing Yankee line, so Colonel Cross ordered the Regiment to the right and rear to close the gap. He was dstanding in the middle of the Fifth’s line, his focus on the enemy in his front, when Lieutant George Gay appeared breathless at his side. Gay, promoted from the ranks by Cross just days before, grabbed the Colonel’s arm.
“Colonel” he said, “The enemy are outflanking us.”
“Impossible” said Cross.
“They are – come and see, quick!”
(photo: by Alexander Gardner - Death on the Fields of Antietam)
Cross ran to the left of the Fifth’s line and looked to the rear. On the far side of the rise, about 200 yards away, he could see several officers on horseback and five rebel battle flags bobbing over the corn. The flags suggested a large force; in fact, it was about 200 men…With a cry, Cross set the Fifth in motion, moving it to the left and rear without breaking from its battle line. The rise between the two forces was valuable ground. The first to reach it would have the advantage, and both raced upwards through the corn.
The Fifth won the contest for the high ground and, at a distance of about thirty paces, the men leveled their rifles and fired. The Rebels staggered and fell back. But it wasn’t over yet; the Confederates gathered themselves, shifted farther to the Fifth’s left, and tried again.
Cross moved the regiment to the edge of the cornfield to face the threat, placing his line in the sunken road itself. “In this road there lay so many dead rebels that they formed a line which one might have walked upon as far as I could see.” Livermore wrote. “it was on this ghastly flooring that we kneeled for the last struggle.”
The Fith was ready when the Rebels struck, but this time the attackers were not easily thrown back. Lieutenant George Gay was hit; hand to head, he turned and walked towards the rear, where he would remain lost to his comrades until nightfall.
(photo by Alexander Gardner - Antietam’s Sunken Road)
With the dark the guns fell silent, but reast did not come easily. “In place of the din of arms,” Cross wrote, “ was now heard a perfect chorus of groans and cries of pain and distress from the thousands of wounded that covered the ground in front of our lines.” (4)
“Staggering as the numbers were, the Officers of the Fifth found themselves focused on a single casualty. After nightfall, word had reached Livermore that “Corporal Gay” of the Fifth lay wounded near another regiment’s line. The Lieutenant sent several men to fetch him; they returned bearing a heavy load. A shell had blown off the top of Lieutenant’s Gay’s skull. Somehow he had walked some distance to the rear; somehow, he was still alive. Union troops had stolen the helpless officer’s watch and sword. “the poor boy,” Livermore wrote, “insensible to the world and wounded beyond all hope, was laid down besides us, his comrades, to die, and all that night, admist the alarms of the battle-field, we watched him as he chafed the earth with his foot.” Colonel Cross knelt at his side and held his hand; hours before it had been Gay who alertered him to the flanking attack repulsed by the Fifth. “Poor Gay,” Cross wrote, “only four days a lieutenant, a young gentleman of extraordinary talent, cheerful, diligent, beloved by his entire circle of acquaintances. Gay never regained consciousness, and died the next day.
(photo by Alexander Gardner - Tents for the Wounded at Antietam)
“The next day, near the day’s end, Cross decided that Gay should be buried with full honors in a more peaceful setting. He sent Livermore after General Caldwell for permission to take a burial party across Antietam Creek. The general said no; orders to move were imminent. So the officers of the Fifth gathered outside the field hospital wher Gay’s body had been taken. It was Doctor Child who captured the scene:
“The young man – a mere lad,” he wrote, “his soldier’s garb, powder begrimed officers and soldiers, the muffled drums and wailing fife, the slow, solemn march and the unusual sorrow on every face; the firing on the front lines; the groans of the wounded and the white, ashen faces of the dying; the slow careful moving of the stretchers and the ambulances; the hushed, earnest, busy labors of the surgeons at the operating tables; the loving tenderness of the clergy, and the solemn ministrations of the priests, and the occasional rush and roar of a shot or shell was the last filing in and completion of this awful picture of war.”
“Gay’s friends lowered his body into a shallow grave and mounded it with soil. They returned to camp in time for the march, which carried them to the woods at the northern end of the battlefield, where they bivouacked for the night.” (4)
In November 1862, Colonel Cross writes that George Gay’s body was exhumed and carried to Boston. (5).
George A. Gay was buried October 8th in Mt. Auburn Cemetery (Bellwort Path, lot 2664) Cambridge, Mass. where his parents Eben Flagg Gay (d. April 1875), mother Sarah Cain Adams Gay (d.May 1857) , are both buried.
(1) History of the Fifth NH Volunteer Infantry, In the American Civil War 1861 – 1865, in two parts, by William Child, MD, Major and Surgeon, Veteran Historian, RW. Musgrove ,printer, Bristol, NH 1893.
(2). Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, by James M. McPherson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
(3) Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Sears, Stephen W. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983
(4) My Brave Boys, to War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth, by Mike Pride and Mark Travis, Unoversity Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 2001. (pg 135-142)
(5) Stand Firm and Fire Low, The Civil War Writings of Colonel Edward E. Cross, edited by Walter Holden, William E. Ross, & Elizabeth Slomba. Univerity of New Hampshire, published by University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH, 2003.