Pvt. George Sandoe: Gettysburg’s First to Fall

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Monument to the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. Insert: Grave of George Sandoe

“Where are we headed?” Zech asked as we left the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum as he scanned the list of monuments I wanted to visit on this trip.

“The Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry,” I replied as I turned right onto Baltimore Pike. “It’s the closest one.” A short distance later, just south of Colgate Avenue, I parked at the gravel lot opposite the monument, which stands along the eastern side of the busy Baltimore Pike. Getting out, we waited for an opportunity to cross and found safety beyond the guide rail.

The monument is one of two erected in honor of the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry and the one that is most recognized by visitors due to it being located next to the Baltimore Pike. Note: The second monument to the unit sits roughly forty yards south of this marker and can be easily missed due to it sitting farther away from the road.

The monument was dedicated on October 5, 1893. It is topped with a granite sphere that has the relief of a horse’s head on the front. On the front of the memorial, near its base, is a piece of information that many have driven past without realizing its importance: “Near this spot on June 26th 1863 fell / Private George Sandoe / An advance scout of a Company of Volunteer Cavalry / Afterwards Co. B, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry / The First Union soldier killed at Gettysburg”

The Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry was formed during the summer of 1863, under the direction of Governor Curtin. The cavalry unit was created in response to President Lincoln’s call for soldiers on June 15, 1863 and those who volunteered would serve a six month term of service. One of the volunteer units, which was made up of men who hailed from Adams County, would become Unit B of the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry under the command of Captain Robert Bell.

Among the volunteers that comprised Unit B was Private George Washington Sandoe. George  lived in Mount Joy and at the age of twenty enlisted with the Union army on June 18, 1863. The reasons George made this decision have been lost to the mists of time. George had managed to avoid fighting in the war to this point, so his sudden enlistment must have come as a surprise to those who knew him. He had married Dianna Caskey in February 1863 and when he left to enlist, he left her behind, pregnant with their child.

Notes: 1) The Mount Joy that George called home is not the community of the same name which is located in Lancaster County. This Mount Joy is a collection of houses to the southeast of Gettysburg along Route 134 (also known as the Taneytown Pike) in Adams County. The community appears presently as a place name rather than an actual town and is marked by the Mount Joy Lutheran Church and Cemetery. 2) I believe that George’s wife was Dianna, but went by Anna. I’ve seen her referenced by both names in various sources.

Sadly, George’s time of service was a very short one – George failed to see his first pay. It had only been nine days since his enlistment and three days into his service.

Along with the Twenty-Sixth Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, the unit had encountered Jubal Early’s unit near Marsh Creek. Neither of the volunteer units were prepared for the encounter and fled towards Gettysburg, with the Thirty-Fifth Virginia Cavalry in pursuit. Once in Gettysburg, Captain Bell informed his unit that it was every man for himself and they should seek safety.

Privates Sandoe and Lightner were following Rock Creek when they encountered a group of Confederate cavalrymen from the Thirty-Fifth Virginia Cavalry. They were commanded to stop but shots were fired by the two Union soldiers as they turned their horses and attempted to flee the Confederate soldiers. As Private Sandoe’s horse attempted to jump a nearby fence that bordered the Baltimore Pike, Sandoe’s mount stumbled and threw the young man to the ground. George managed to remount but, in the process, was mortally wounded by a Confederate bullet striking him in the head. Sandoe’s horse was taken by the Confederate Cavalrymen, who left his body lying along the Baltimore Pike.

Private Lightner’s horse cleared the fence and he managed to safely escape.

George’s body would be claimed and taken to the Mount Joy Lutheran Cemetery for burial.

“Question for you,” Zech asked as he reread the information on the monument. “Didn’t the Battle of Gettysburg start on July First?”

“The monument doesn’t state he was the first Union soldier killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. It states he was the first one killed at Gettysburg.” The Battle of Gettysburg is listed as beginning on July 1, 1863, and ending on July 3, due to the major battle occurring over those days. However, both Union and Confederate forces were traveling through south-central Pennsylvania in the weeks leading to the battle. It was during one of those encounters that ended in the death of Private George Sandoe.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” Zech responded. “So to which monument are we headed next?”

“We’re going to stop and pay our respects to George Sandoe,” I answered. “He’s buried southeast of here.”

After a scenic detour that allowed us to take in Adams County’s countryside, we arrived at the Mount Joy Lutheran Church and Cemetery. Entering the sacred grounds, Zech found Private Sandoe’s grave within minutes and called me over to where he stood. I joined him as we stood in silence at the grave of the first Union soldier to fall at Gettysburg, reflecting on the words engraved on his stone: “A true patriot that fell / on the Memorable Field / of Gettysburg. Died for / his country’s honor / June 26, 1863.”

We silently stood there paying our respects to Private Sandoe and the sacrifice he made while serving his country. We finished honoring his sacrifice, knowing it will never be forgotten by future generations as it remains recorded on the monument to the Twenty-First Pennsylvania. We finally left when another car pulled onto the lot and the young couple headed towards where we stood. They took our place to honor the fallen soldier as Zech and I left the sacred piece of ground in search of unique pieces of Gettysburg’s history.

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