The first man to die in the Gettysburg Campaign
The cold, gray mist hangs heavy as a Southern visitor walks slowly among yet-grayer and damp tombstones fenced within an upstate New York cemetery while searching for a special grave. But the task frustrates as the burial site cannot be found and there is no one about in the lonely graveyard to assist in the hunt. One last scan, the stranger concludes. He then looks up high upon a badly eroded hillside and spots a small tombstone that due to its lopsided, broken, fallen configuration is deemed by the visitor shockingly disrespectful to the dead soul, whoever it may be. The hill is climbed, and indecorous treatment or not, there he is, all alone:
Lt. Henry C. Cutler
8th New York Cavalry
Killed in action, June 9, 1863
Beverly’s Ford, Virginia
In any battle or military campaign, some soldier must to be the first to die, and at Brandy Station, the inaugural action of the momentous Gettysburg Campaign, that man was 26 year-old Henry C. Cutler of Avon, New York.
At 4:30 A.M., June 9, 1863, the 8th New York Cavalry moved carefully down in the pre-dawn darkness toward Beverly’s Ford, the sounds of their approach muffled by water pouring furiously over a nearby rock dam. The largest cavalry regiment in the army at over 600 strong, the “Empire State Regiment” was known as the “lucky regiment” because the 8th New York had lost so few men in prior battles. Their “luck” was soon to run out.
Just after 4:30 a.m., the 8th New York Cavalry charged over the river, “the plunging horses throwing spray high in the air.” The huge conflict was now on and here at Brandy Station “fairly begun the heaviest and most hotly contested cavalry battle ever fought on the American soil.”
As soon as the remaining elements of the 8th New York crossed and reformed on the flats fronting the river, their division leader ordered his men to assault the enemy located in the woods ahead. Recently detailed from Co. “B” to assume the command of Co. “A,” Lt. Henry Cutler, tall, blond and of serious and resolute demeanor, immediately brought forward his wide-awake troopers. Co. “A” was ordered to “Draw sabers!”
Courageously charging up the ford road across an open plain at the head of his men, Lt. Cutler was met violently in front of a knoll by a focused blast of pistol and carbine fire. Shot in the neck, mortally wounded, twenty-six year old Lt. Henry C. Cutler fell sideways over the neck of his horse. One of Lt. Cutler’s stunned men observed his officer’s horse “running wild with loose rein,” with “blood on Lt. Cutler’s mouth and clinging to the pommel of his horse.” This mad dash proved to be literally a ride to the death for Henry Cutler, as the brave officer soon fell stone dead from his steed.
And it is a fact that Lt. Henry C. Cutler is distinguished as the first of about 55,000 soldiers tallied as casualties in the entire Gettysburg Campaign.
After his death, Lt. Cutler’s body was placed on a train and escorted home to his mother, the widow of the late John Cutler. Solemn preparations completed, the funeral proceeded at the Methodist Church in Avon to lament the passing of “this young man of great promise.” A newspaper scribe was present: “From adjoining towns, large deputations were sent to pay the last tribute…to honor the obsequies of the brave.” As the funeral march got underway, “Banners draped in mourning, the long funeral train timing their steps to a dead march, the deep solemnity…stamped on every brow.” Three volleys were then fired.
The last part of this newspaper description greatly troubles this writer: As the reporter turned his back from the gravesite, he noted that Lt. Cutler “was left to the starless custody of an honored tomb.” No, not exactly. Not today. In fact there is no honor to be found in his badly eroded gravesite and severely neglected tombstone. But wait, something is being done to reverse this sad condition. Just wait and see...
Lt. Henry C. Cutler died in Culpeper County, Virginia, on June 9, 1863, the first man to die in the Gettysburg Campaign. In his day, a poem was offered in Lt. Cutler’s memory (excerpt):
“Earth is hallowed where he fell—
Comrade! Warrior! Fare thee well”
Clark B. Hall