Lewis Powell at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg is among the most well-known of all Civil War battles. While, today, many view it as an important turning point of the Civil War, Gettysburg’s original notoriety was derived from the sheer number of soldiers who fought and died there in July of 1863. Over one hundred thousand men from the Union and Confederate armies fought in the foothills of Pennsylvania during the three day battle. Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln would speak at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg to honor the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who were lost during the fight. His speech, known as the Gettysburg Address, is among one of the greatest speeches ever written and it also helps to propel the Battle of Gettysburg in the minds of people today. Many wonderful texts have been written about the actions of the famous Union and Confederate officers who squared off in this pivotal battle. The movements of their units are depicted and recounted on monuments and signs throughout the Gettysburg National Military Park. In the sea of ranks, infantry, and units, it is difficult to adjust one’s view to consider the stories of individual soldiers. To each soldier who fought, Gettysburg was its own unique experience with very few being exactly alike. However, as Walt Whitman so noted, “the real war will never get in the books,” and so many of the stories of the common men and women of the Civil War are unrecorded. However, thanks to the research of author Betty Ownsbey, we do know at least some of the Gettysburg experiences of a 19 year-old private with the 2nd Florida Infantry named Lewis Thornton Powell.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Lewis Powell was a teenager living in Hamilton County, Florida. The Sunshine State seceded from the Union in January of 1861, and shortly thereafter Lewis made up his mind to enlist in the Confederate army. On May 30, 1861, Lewis Powell joined up with the Hamilton Blues which later became a company of the 2nd Florida Infantry. Powell was 17 years old at the time of his enlistment, below the age requirement of 18. To get around this, the tall and muscularly built Powell claimed to be 19 years old.

In a time before widespread identification methods, Powell was apparently taken at his word. It wouldn’t be the last time Powell would lie about his identity.

Powell’s early military career was plagued by visits to base hospitals for different illnesses. Despite this, when his one year term of serviced ended in 1862, Powell chose to re-enlist for the duration of the war and claimed the $50 bounty that was offered for re-enlistment. As part of the 2nd Florida Infantry, Powell saw battle during the Peninsula Campaign and at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the summer of 1863, the 2nd Florida Infantry became a part of the Army of Northern Virginia and were, therefore, present at the Battle of Gettysburg.

At Gettysburg, Powell’s unit was part of Perry’s Brigade, which consisted of the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Florida Infantry combined. While the brigade was named for Brigadier General Edward Perry, a future governor of Florida, Perry had contracted typhoid fever during the Battle of Chancellorsville and was not present in Gettysburg. Instead, Perry’s Brigade was led by Col. David Lang.

Col. David Lang was Lewis Powell’s brigade commander during the battle of Gettysburg.

On July 1st, the first day of battle at Gettysburg, the 700 plus men of Perry’s Brigade did not see battle. They, as part of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Division, were too far to the rear to engage with the Union. By July 2nd, the Union forces had established a fishhook line around Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill just to the southeast of the city of Gettysburg. During that morning, Anderson’s Division had moved closer to the front and took refuge in a patch of woods running from Seminary Ridge southward. Perry’s Brigade was located just north of the Peach Orchard. At 6:00 pm, Perry’s Brigade advanced forward along with the rest of Anderson’s Division. They attacked Brig. General Andrew Humphreys’ Second Division, forcing the Union to abandon several artillery guns as they retreated. Despite the push and the large number of casualties the Confederate forces inflicted on Humphreys’ Division, they were not able to advance to Cemetery Ridge as planned. The Union Infantry on the slope of the ridge prevented further advancement. Union reinforcements pressed in on their right flank and made the ground Perry’s Brigade had gained untenable. Perry’s Brigade, and the rest of Anderson’s division, were pushed back into the woods that they started from.

After pushing the Confederates back, the Union advanced, “recovered the artillery that had been abandoned and captured many prisoners and held the position during the night.”

One of the prisoners that was captured by the Second Division was a wounded Lewis Powell who had suffered a gunshot wound to his right wrist. While we do not know the exact circumstances surrounding Powell’s wounding, it is safe to say that it occurred after 6:00 pm on July 2nd, as Perry’s Brigade was making either their advance or retreat. He may have fallen on the field and not been found until the next morning, as his records state he was captured on July 3rd. Regardless of the exact circumstances, Powell was now a wounded prisoner of war. After his capture, Powell was sent about 2.5 miles to the southeast to a field hospital that had been established by the Twelfth Corps on the farm of George Bushman.

The brick building which served as the main hospital at Bushman farm still stands today. Powell was one of about 1,200 wounded soldiers brought in for triage style treatment, with the majority of these being Union soldiers not Confederate prisoners of war like himself. Powell is recorded to have been a patient in the the 12th Army Corps Hospital on July 4th. On July 6th, Powell was transferred from the field hospital to the larger makeshift hospital that had been set up on the grounds of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College). The Confederates had seized Pennsylvania College on the first day of battle and had converted one of the buildings, Pennsylvania Hall (also known as the Edifice), into their own field hospital. When the Confederates were forced to abandon the hospital, the Union took it over.

Penn Hall circa 1878

Penn Hall, 2017

Though Powell arrived at the Penn Hall hospital for his own recovery, before too long he found his position at the hospital expanded from patient to nurse. Even with his arm in a sling, Powell started to provide assistance to the doctors and stewards in their care for other wounded Confederates. During his service at Penn Hall, Powell was described as, “good at the work, and kind to the sick and wounded.” The fact that Powell had been previously laid up in other hospitals during his early military career no doubt helped him in his assumed position.

Lewis Powell is given the title of “nurse” on this register list of Confederates in Gettysburg hospitals.

The number of casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg brought in many more volunteers hoping to provide comfort to the wounded. One of these volunteers was a woman from Baltimore named Maggie Branson. Branson was a Confederate sympathizer and she traveled to Gettysburg specifically to tend to the wounded boys in gray. Branson was 30 years-old and unmarried. Over the course of July and August, Branson and Powell worked side by side in the hospital. At the end of August, the Penn Hall Hospital was shutting down. Powell met with the Provost Marshal who decided it would be a better use of the young Confederate’s abilities to continue his work as a nurse in a hospital rather than languish away in a prisoner of war camp. Powell was transferred away from Gettysburg and arrived at West’s Buildings Hospital in Baltimore on September 2, 1863. After only a few days in Baltimore, Powell was able to facilitate his escape. Though Lewis Powell’s exploits from this date onward would eventually bring him back into the military service of the Confederacy, when he did enlist again he did so under a new, assumed name (for that story click here). For the remainder of the war the muster rolls for the 2nd Florida Infantry would record Pvt. Powell as a prisoner of war.

In time, Lewis Thornton Powell would come into contact with John Wilkes Booth. The meeting between soldier and actor would start a series of choices that would change Powell’s life forever. It led the “kind” nurse of Gettysburg to savagely and ruthlessly stab a helpless man lying in his bed. It transformed Lewis Powell from one of the countless faces in the Civil War’s bloodiest battle, into one of the most infamous criminals in our nation’s history. In his final moments, as the Confederate stared at the rope which would strangle him to death in July of 1865, one wonders if Lewis Powell wished his end had come among the foothills of Pennsylvania in July of 1863 instead.

References:
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy by Betty J. Ownsbey
Interactive Gettysburg Battle Map featured in A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg by Anne Kelly Knowles
The Battle of Gettysburg – Stone Sentinels: Perry’s BrigadeAnderson’s DivisionHumphrey’s 2nd Division, 3rd Corps

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Lewis Powell at Gettysburg

  1. Kathy Canavan

    Great post and great book and great photos. Thanks, Dave

  2. Candace Serviss

    Thank you for your continued posts it is so appreciated. To all at Boothie Barn a wonderful Holiday Season..

  3. William B Canfield

    Excellent recap of the very interesting life of Powell. Booth had an uncanny ability to sub born the free will of his associates in the murder conspiracy and Powell was a good example of Booth’s strange influence.

  4. Thank you for a very interesting, informative post, Dave. I always get the Branson sisters mixed up; hopefully your post will help me keep them straight! For some reason, I always think he met Mary Branson (his love interest) at Gettysburg, but as you correctly state, it was Maggie. Thanks for a fascinating article, Dave.

  5. Tim Kelly

    Thanks for the post on Powell at Gettysburg. I spend a lot of time researching the Civil War at Hettysburg and while there I look for anything related to Lincoln. Roger that’s where I found that treasure trove of information regarding Lincoln Train. Everytime I look for anything about Powell he just turns up as a footnote related to the Lincoln assassination. And from what I came up with is Powell was captured on the 3rd not from action on the second but action on the 3rd. Half the 2nd Florida and colors were captured on the 3rd in support of Pickett’s Charge (part of Longstreets Corp right flank) near the Peach Orchard when they were outflanked by Union forces. What has always interested me is Powell’s second career in the confederacy as part of Mosby’s Rangers but leaves Mosby’s group cause thinks they are too horrible (and they were outlaws). Then later is willing to attack a injured man while sleeping in his bed. Also there is new book out: Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century. It would make a great stocking stuffer! Have a great holidays and look forward to the post in 2018!

    • Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. You bring up an interesting point in terms of when exactly Lewis Powell was wounded and captured. At the close of the trial of the conspirators, Powell’s attorney, William Doster, would include in his closing summations that Powell did take part in Pickett’s Charge as you state: “Finally, on the 3rd of July 1863, in the charge upon the Federal Center, at Gettysburg, he was wounded, taken prisoner, and detailed as a nurse in Pennsylvania College hospital.” However, Betty Ownsbey states in her book that she believes this claim to be merely “braggadocio”. While the Union records are clear that Powell was captured on the 3rd of July, the same day as Pickett’s charge, we are not given the time of his capture. That is why I give the possibility that Powell was wounded on the night of the second and officially captured during the morning (perhaps early morning hours) of the 3rd. The reason for this assumption is the Confederate records from Powell’s unit. Even after Powell was captured his name appeared on muster rolls for the 2nd Florida Infantry. On all of those muster rolls starting from August of 1863, he is marked as absent with the remarks that he was, “Wounded at Gettysburg Pen 2 July 1863 Sent hospt” Later muster rolls give the same information with much later ones merely stating “Prisoner of War” in their remarks.

      So, it’s clear that there is some ambiguity as to when and how Powell suffered his wounding. I grant you that it is possible he might have taken part in Pickett’s Charge, but I tend to come down on the side of the Confederate records and Betty Ownsbey in my belief that Powell was wounded on the 2nd and was not involved in the Confederates failed, and costly, push at Gettysburg.

      Dave

      • Tim Kelly

        Dave,
        I finally found the documents that can clear most of this. Lewis T. Powell was a member of the 2nd FL Inf Co I ,Jasper Blues. On July 2nd Powell suffered from a gunshot wound to the right wrist. Whether it was from troopers of the 19th ME or First Corp troops advancing from Cemetery Ridge is unknown. What is know he was captured on the 2nd by troops of the Twelve Corp that were sweeping up the area looking for wounded Union troops and to capturing Confederates soldiers. He was brought back to the Twelve Corp hospital like you said and then July 6th transferred to the main hospital and shows up on the prisoner of war rolls dated August 10,1863. Then was transferred September 2 to Baltimore and escapes September 7. I have questions what Powell learned from Confederate Secret Services about Booth while he was a member of Mosby’s Command. My understanding is there was no records regarding this. Late fall of 1863 Powell was arrested for beating a black servant and when authorities checked his background they found he had deserted Confederate service, then he was required to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, which he did under the alias “Lewis Paine”. I understand the idea Powell had the braggadocio but I think it was more his attorney tactic to gain sympathy with the military members of the commission or Powell had sympathy with his comrades that were flanked on July 3rd in Pickett’s Charge by Union troops of 16th Vermont and 4 Co’s of the 14th Vermont. In this action on the 3rd two of the three colors along with half of 2nd FL were captured. Either way he did end up on the hangman’s noose.

        • William B Canfield III

          I believe that Powell took the alias “Lewis Paine” from the Paine family where he boarded while he was a “member” of the 43rd Battalion of Partisan Rangers (Mosby’s Command). His actual membership in and length of service to the Mosby is a matter of some speculation.

  6. Laura Verge

    After sixty years of being addicted to the Lincoln assassination story, I would just like to send a special shout-out to Betty Ownsbey, whose many years of research and excellent writing skills brought us so much information on Lewis Thornton Powell: The Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy. Others now use Betty’s hard work in telling the story, so her efforts have done much to further our knowledge and our appreciation of history. Great work, Betty, and may you continue to teach others.

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