Lt. Colonel George F. McFarland, my great-great-great grandfather, commanded the 151st Pennsylvania at the Battle of Gettysburg, successfully defending the vulnerable left flank against attack by numerically superior forces from North Carolina long enough to allow for an orderly withdrawal of the First Corps under General Abner Doubleday.
As General Doubleday would later attest,
“At Gettysburg, they won, under the brave McFarland, an imperishable fame. They defended the left front of the First Corps against vastly superior numbers; covered its retreat against the overwhelming masses of the enemy at the Seminary, west of the town, and enabled me, by their determined resistance, to withdraw the Corps in comparative safety. This was on the first day. In the crowning charge of the third day of the battle, the shattered remnants of the 151st Pennsylvania […] flung themselves upon the front of the rebel column […] I believe they saved the First Corps, and were among the chief instruments to save the Army of the Potomac, and the country from unimaginable disaster.”
To read more of the story, I recommend this article by Marcie Schwartz at The American Battlefield Trust titled ‘Trading Rulers for Rifles: The Schoolteachers Regiment: The Story of the 151st Pennsylvania.’
Sacrificing Life and Limb
Lt. Colonel McFarland was severely wounded in both his legs on that first day of Gettysburg. One of his legs was amputated below the knee as a result, and the other one was permanently disabled though he kept it.
The 151st Pennsylvania meanwhile suffered a 72% casualty rate, and the two regiments from North Carolina they squared off against – the 26th and 11th – suffered the first and second greatest total losses of any regiment during the Battle of Gettysburg. That is to say, “The Schoolteacher’s Regiment” gave as good or better than they got, despite holding the Union left flank.
Due to the heavy losses, the 151st Pennsylvania was mustered out and sent home after the battle. And if that had been the end of George McFarland – holding the line to save the First Corps, the Army of the Potomac, and the Union – that would have been quite enough. But that was not the end of McFarland.
After the War
After going home, James 1:27 may have been on the good professor’s mind, where we read that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Returning to the McAlisterville Academy in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, where he had been the principal prior to raising a company of schoolteachers to form Company D of the 151st, McFarland converted the school into McAlisterville Soldier’s Orphan School, and founded a printing company and a nursery.
“During this same time, the Pennsylvania Legislature, after many debates passed an act accepting from the Pennsylvania Railroad $50,000 given for the “education and maintenance of destitute orphan children of deceased soldiers and sailors”. The following November of 1864, the academy, at the request of Dr. Burrowes, newly appointed as Superintendent of Soldiers’ Orphans, became the first soldiers’ orphan school effective November 3, 1864.“
The point of telling you all of this is two-fold:
For one, I am fascinated and mesmerized by my ancestor, and I enjoy reading and talking about him.
But for another thing, I am struck by what an outsized influence one man can have when he endeavors to take a stand in mind, body, and soul. Even once his legs are shot out from under him, a man can still do great good by not giving up on the purpose of his life.
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