Another stunning and important Rhode Island historical artifact has been loaned to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum: the bible of Private Alfred G. Gardner of Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, killed in action at Gettysburg, PA, on July 3rd, 1863 while manning his gun (now referred to as the “Gettysburg Gun”). This battle-scarred gun is on display today at the Rhode Island State House.
Private Gardner, a religious family man, witnessed some of the most epic events in American Civil War history including Antietam, Fredricksburg, and Chancellorsville. In the margins of this treasured bible, Alfred would write down what he saw as things happened around him. The imprint of a leaf can be seen between the pages.
At Gettysburg on July 2nd his battery was at the very center of the Union lines as they held off attack after attack by Lee’s Confederate army. On the third day of the battle, July 3rd, at about 1:00 PM, a massive Rebel artillery barrage was directed on the Union center exactly where Alfred and his Battery B colleagues were located. It was the largest barrage of the Civil War and considered to be “the loudest event in human history” up until that time. At one point, a Confederate shell struck the muzzle of Alfred’s gun as he was about to load it with a powder charge. The explosion killed Gunner #1, William Jones, taking the top of his head off. Alfred’s left arm was almost ripped off at the shoulder. As he lay dying, he reached into his coat with his remaining arm and handed this bible to Private Albert Straight asking for it to be given to his wife. A few moments later Alfred exclaimed, “Glory to God! I am happy! Hallelujah!” and then he died.
There is more to this story and we will post more in the future, sharing the inscriptions in the bible itself as we transcribe them. His story deserves to be told and shared as a story of sacrifice and devotion to higher causes.
Display for the Alfred G. Gardner bible:
Letter excerpts from Private Alfred G. Gardner:
I told my family when I left them, that I should not worry about them. I left them with one who would care for them. If they suffer on my account, I shall be very sorry; but, I do not think they will. My COUNTRY will not allow it. I do not think it best for a man that has to face powder and ball to have much trouble with things of this world. If I fall in battle, ‘AMEN’, if I return to my family again, ‘AMEN’. Whatever is my duty, as I know it, that I will do with all my might, and may the good Lord save us all in Heaven, where there will be NO MORE – WAR!
One thing was awful: the scent of the field; had to turn our backs to it to eat. And it was all we could do to keep food down. Hundreds of men had lost all form of men. I have had a sight of all the scenes of a battlefield that can be better imagined than described. I KNOW WHAT WAR MEANS!
All quiet now, but yesterday a terrible battle. Great loss on both sides. William and I are all right and ready for action at any moment, and expect it. Haven’t unhitched our horses for two days. Men and horses killed all around us. You would have heard something worth hearing if you had been here yesterday. The cannonading was terrific and continuous till dark. Found a good spring of water in a garden near the field. There is not a spot where you cannot see the dead, and burying going on all the time. I HAVE SEEN A BATTLEFIELD. It is what I expected. I gave four prisoners water from my cup. They were full-blooded Rebels, but thanked me kindly.
Dear Cousin, You were surprised to hear I enlisted as a soldier. I will explain it. After the Battle of Bull Run I felt it my duty to GO and HELP, but – my family – so dear to me! How could I leave them! I had no peace night or day, until I decided. Since then I have been a happy man. I have been in battle where balls and shell flew thick and fast, and no chance of dodging. I was on the field of Antietam three days, and was cool and calm. I never felt the Gospel as I did then. I did not enlist in a hurry, and when I left home I left my family in the hands of God. I gave them to Him, and I still hold the sacrifice dear to my heart. It is not for me, now, to trouble myself about my home. My object is to be prepared to meet my God, at any time, and this I try to do as I go forth and do my duty.
In my tent at 6am writing. An awful battle yesterday. Prisoners of both sides coming in, first about 600 of our paroled men, then 700 Rebel prisoners, dirty, ragged, and bare-footed. A strange Sabbath; men on horseback on the dead run with messages; wounded coming in, teams of all sorts coming and going; Cavalry, Infantry, Artillery; thousands of soldiers lying on the ground, so common its not thought of….Saw about 30 wagons loaded with wounded soldiers; they looked sad enough.
In bed but not sick. Wind so high last night no one could sleep. I never knew such a wind. Cousin Will’s tent-mate called over, ‘For God’s SAKE G—-, come and help us!’ THEIR TENT HAD SPLIT ENTIRELY OPEN. I got it fixed at last with a string. My house stood the wind finely. Many of the men make no effort to save themselves from sickness, and are still sleeping on the ground, though an hour’s hard work would have kept them dry and comfortable.
Some of the men are full of fun, and call me “awful Gardner”. I tell them if I get hold of them, they’d find me “awful”. There is no man this side of Heaven or Hell that I’m afraid of…my head is older than some, so we get along nicely, and borrow and lend as we need. All good fellows together!
After being sick for some time, Pvt Alfred Gardner received a care package from home. He writes:
Have nearly recovered, and this will make me well. Am too happy to write much. You may imagine how good it will all taste after 6 month’s of a solider’s life. Hope we shall not move til I have eaten all the good things….Pickled peaches are FINE! I have parties all to myself. Pop-corn, nuts, and dates for dessert. Wouldn’t mind seeing my children’s little fingers in my plate this minute.
This item is on loan from the South County Museum, Narragansett, Rhode Island.