During three hot summer days in 1863, tens of thousands met to do battle on the verdant farm fields of Adams County, Pennsylvania.
One of those soliders, a major in the Army of the Potomac, has a permanent resting place in our neck of the woods — Plymouth’s Greenlawn Cemetery. Although only one of the players in what unfolded, his role was nevertheless a singular one, and the story of his place in the history of the Battle of Gettysburg continues to unfold.
His name was Jay Kling.
Jay Kling’s story begins hundreds of miles from Gettysburg and Plymouth. He was the son of Luther and Jane Pettingill Kling, a farming family which three generations before had left the Palatinate in Germany to carve out new lives in America.
After a short time in Stone Arabia, the Klings headed west to Sharon, in Schoharie County, New York. John Luther Kling built his future on 300 acres on what is now Slate Hill Road north of Sharon Springs, which his father purchased in 1769.
Jay Kling was born on Nov. 14, 1828, the sixth of eight children, and the fourth son. Not much is known about his childhood. The next record of Kling is his place among 25 graduates from the venerable Albany Medical College in 1850. While at the college, Kling published a work on the rather distasteful but undoubtedly important subject of hemoptysis, the coughing up of blood from the larynx or lungs, often as a result of infection. In October of the same year, he married Maria T. Beekman.
In 1858, Kling moved his practice and family to Plymouth, on the county line of Richland and Huron counties.
When the Civil War began, Kling passed the exam for a major surgeon given in Columbus in September of 1861. He was subsequently appointed as surgeon of the Fifty-Fifth Infantry Regiment by Gov. David Tod on Oct. 3, 1861.
In 1862, Kling became an operating surgeon for his unit. It was in the summer of 1863, however, that the story took a remarkable turn. Kling received two important but, as it turns out, rather ill-timed promotions that year. That summer he became brigade surgeon of the Third Brigade of the Third Division of the Eleventh Army Corps, and quickly thereafter received the temporary promotion to acting division surgeon of the entire Third Division of the Eleventh Army Corps.
Unfortunately, these promotions coincided with the Battle of Gettysburg, which involved the greatest number of casualties of any American Civil War engagement.
Contrary to popular opinion, Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead, who led Pickett’s Charge, did not die on the battlefield, but rather in a field hospital some time later. That hospital was the one run by the Eleventh Army Corps. The hospital was housed in a farmhouse — known as the George Spangler Farm — that opened to the public recently for the first time after transfer from private hands to the Gettysburg Foundation. It has undergone extensive restoration but, amazingly, the farmhouse and most of the outbuildings survive to this day.
On July 4, the day after the battle ended, the hospital was visited by Division Commander Gen. Carl Schurz, who wrote that he “saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the buildings, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams. Most of the operating tables were placed in the open … partially protected by the rain. … There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up … their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood … around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in heaps … a surgeon, having been long at work … put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance, hysterical tears running down his face.”
As one of many brigade surgeons it made sense that Major Kling likely would be there at the Spangler Farm field hospital, but if he was in the midst of his stint as acting division surgeon, he would not only be there but be one of those in charge of the operation.
In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article published Oct. 13, 1896, Kling penned a letter that corrects a story previously run in the same newspaper, one that stated Gen. Armistead died during Pickett’s Charge. Kling detailed not only the treatment Armistead received, but shared the general’s description of how and when he was wounded, some that contrast with other accounts of Armistead’s death.
These are the contents of the newspaper post:
“An interesting account of the killing of General Armistead, in Pickett’s Charge is told in a letter from Dr. Jay Kling, to Professor J. T. Derry, of this city. He writes:
“In a perusal of your interesting book, ‘Story of the Confederate States,’ I observed in a foot note on page 254 you state General Armistead was killed in General Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. I infer from this and other statements, that his friends may not know what happened to him after receiving his mortal wound in this charge. Immediately after the repulse of that charge General Armistead with two of his staff was removed to the Eleventh army corps hospital, Army of the Potomac, a few yards in rear of the charge. He was suffering intense pain, induced by the wound. Stimulants and anodines were immediately given him. He was placed on a bed in the farm cottage, and made as comfortable as possible. The following is a synopsis of his statement as to the manner in which he received his wound:
“I came up dismounted with my men. We succeeded in breaking into your lines. I placed my hand upon one of your cannon, but no live man could remain there. In falling back I received my wound when about two rods distant from the cannon on which I had placed my hand. It was murder to send men to such a place.”
On examination, it was found that a rifle ball had entered his body in the right lumbar region, passing through the kidney and bowels, making its exit in front. He died the next morning, July 4th, about 1:20 o’clock. His body was buried in the rear of the garden connected with the cottage.”
With this article in hand, it became obvious that Major Kling was, indeed, there.
In the April 11, 1909, Macon Telegraph, this was shared by a man wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg: “There was a quite a good friend of mine died here last year. Dr. Jay Kling of the federal army. He had charge of the yankee (sic) field hospital in rear of the position we assaulted at Gettysburg …”
Unfortunately for Major Kling, bad luck found him soon after his mustering out on Oct. 11, 1864, at the conclusion of his term of service. Just as he set out to return home to Ohio after volunteering for a few days at the Division Hospital, he was captured by Confederate cavalry about 15 miles from Atlanta, and then held as a prisoner of war at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond until Jan. 16, 1865.
At that time he finally returned home, albeit too ill from his imprisonment to re-launch his practice until some time later.
In the early 1870s, Kling petitioned the United States Congress, with the support of his congressman, for recognition of his time spent at Libby Prison on his service record. The request was refused because of the technicality that he was actually mustered out before his capture.
Jay Kling has no living descendants; his only child to live to adulthood, a daughter, had one child who died at a relatively young age. This account was written by the Great Great Grandson of his younger brother, Charles.
Major Kling’s grave in Plymouth’s bucolic and beautiful Greenlawn Cemetery. Made of zinc, it is in remarkable condition.