Brave Federal leads charge that saves 97 Confederates

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An act of great courage during the Battle of Gettysburg has been all but forgotten. However, Sgt. C.H. Willett’s daring

maneuver, saving the lives of 97 enemy soldiers on a bloody afternoon on Little Round Top, has been recorded in the regimental history of the 44th New York Volunteers. This writer hopes the following story will bring long-overdue recognition to the heroic deed of this Civil War veteran buried in Chicago’s beautiful Oak Woods Cemetery.

The day after Thanksgiving 1986, Nov. 28, dawned cold and cloudy as my brother Don and I continued our search with metal detectors in a large Civil War campsite near Lappan’s Crossroads in Washington County, Md. Two Federal corps — the 3rd and the 5th — camped on this ground in 1863 during the retreat from Gettysburg.

At the time of the Civil War, this intersection was known as Jones Crossroads. By noon, the fur lining of my Army parka and hood was more than welcome, as a cold northern wind increased. Perhaps it was the dampness of the soil, but the detectors seemed to be working better than normal, and we filled our pockets with buttons, bullets, knapsack hooks and other Civil War artifacts.

Bent metal

Late in the afternoon on the edge of the campsite, my trusty machine picked up a good “positive sound.” From past experience, I knew the sharp, clear sound indicated the object was close to the surface. To get a more accurate reading, I leveled off the ground with my insulated boot, and a small piece of shining metal appeared.

Picking up the thin piece of metal about the size of a postage stamp, I noticed it was bent in the shape of a triangle. At first, because of its brightness, it resembled a piece of folded aluminum — perhaps part of a soft-drink can. Fortunately, as I was about to discard the piece of “mere junk” — so I thought — the sun broke through the heavy cloud cover, and I noticed something engraved on the inside of the folded metal: “Co. E.” Then it hit me: Could this be a Civil War identification badge?

It started to make sense why the small artifact buried underground more than a century was still so bright. It was not aluminum, as I originally thought, but solid silver. During the Civil War, there were no official army “dog tags.” These small keepsakes, purchased from soldiers’ pocket money, were more symbols of patriotism.

Immediately, I headed toward Don, who was hunting just up the ridge. Unfolding the piece of metal and taking full advantage of the evening sun coming over our shoulders, we could read the clear-cut inscription: “Sergt. C.H. Willett, Co. E, 44th Regt., N.Y.S. Vol.”

How did the ID tag get bent? Maybe the attachment hook on the back broke and Willett simply bent it and tossed it away. Or perhaps it was damaged during the fighting at Gettysburg. I’m grateful that the delicate silver didn’t snap or break when flattened out.

Unlikely name

Who was Sgt. Willett? What was his full name? Did he survive the war? Where was he buried? Finding answers to these questions became an obsession resulting in hours — years — of research.

First, a trip to the library at the Gettysburg Visitors Center led to a regimental history of the 44th New York Volunteers. Of course, I had some idea what the “C” in Willett’s first name might stand for — names such as Charles, Calvin, Carl or even Clayton came to mind. What a surprise when I read one name I had never considered … “Consider.” Like it or not, there it was — Sgt. Consider Heath Willett. The origin of that name is still a mystery.

Consider Heath Willett, born Dec. 12, 1840, at Onondaga, N.Y., was the only son of William and Tryphosa Jackson Willett. Onondaga County, named for an Indian tribe, is located in central New York. On Aug. 14, 1862, after graduating from Albany Normal School, Willett enlisted in Company E, 44th Regiment, New York State Volunteers.

The 44th New York was a unique outfit. Unlike most Civil War regiments recruited from local communities and surrounding areas, the unit consisted of members handpicked by the state. These soldiers were required to meet certain standards: “Good moral character, 5 feet 8 inches in height and not exceeding 30-years-of-age.” The state also armed this elite group with the finest military equipment available.

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