Tuesday, July 22, 2008

J. William Hofmann: Brevet Brigadier General and. . .Undergarment Manufacturer?

Brevet Brigadier General J. William Hofmann
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I'm continuing this week with posting yet another biographical piece of a rather overlooked Civil War personality, this time it is John William Hofmann. Hofmann served throughout most of the war, and saw action at most of the Eastern Theatre's significant battles. And although he commanded a brigade for a good portion of his time in uniform, Hofmann never advanced above the rank of colonel.
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During his four years in uniform, John William Hofmann saw action at most of the major battles of the Civil War’s Eastern Theatre, oftentimes, as at Antietam, in brigade command. Although possessing no formal military training, Hofmann’s performances in battle as well as his own personal bravery won him the accolades of his superior officers. Indeed, in a November 1863 letter to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, General Lysander Cutler, Hofmann’s immediate superior at the battle of Gettysburg, declared that the native Philadelphian “is, without qualification, one of the best officers, brave, faithful and prompt, and a most excellent disciplinarian.” And General George Meade wrote of Hofmann’s “high character for intelligence, energy, and zeal in the discharge of his duties, and for [his] conspicuous gallantry on the field of battle.”[1] Yet despite his service record and the high esteem in which he was held, Hofmann never advanced above the rank of colonel.
J. William Hofmann, a first-generation American, was born on February 18, 1824, the son of John and Anna Louisa Hofmann, who had emigrated together from Prussia five years earlier. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, the elder Hofmann went into the business of manufacturing socks, stockings, and undergarments. At the age of twenty-one, the future Civil War officer himself entered the business, selling clothing at his Philadelphia store. But Hofmann’s true interest lay in military affairs. In 1840, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the city’s Junior Artillerists, and in 1843 became a member of the famed Washington Grays militia unit. With the outbreak of civil war in April 1861, Hofmann was quick to offer his services to his country. Less than a week after the capitulation of Fort Sumter, Hofmann was mustered into service as a captain in the three-month 23rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The 23rd spent most of its time in service in the Shenandoah Valley, serving under General Robert Patterson, but seeing no substantial action.
In the summer of 1861, after having been mustered out of the 23rd Pennsylvania, Hofmann helped raise and organize the 56th Pennsylvania, a three-year unit, and in October he reentered service as the regiment’s lieutenant-colonel. Remaining at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg for the next six months, the 56th then traveled south to Virginia but did not see any major combat until the Second Battle of Bull Run, fought during the final days of August 1862. Here, in their baptism by fire, the men of the 56th sustained heavy losses, including its colonel, Sullivan Meredith, who fell gravely wounded on the first day’s battle. After Meredith’s wounding, command of the regiment devolved upon Hofmann.
With George McClellan’s reorganization of the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862, the 56th Pennsylvania formed part of General Abner Doubleday’s brigade, in John Hatch’s First Corps division. Hofmann continued at the helm of his regiment until the September 14, 1862, battle at South Mountain. As the 56th entered the battle late in the day, Hofmann saw division commander John Hatch being carried to rear, seriously wounded. Command of the division then fell upon Doubleday, who, in turn, handed command of his brigade over to its senior colonel, William Wainwright of the 76th New York. After Wainwright fell wounded just a short time later, Hofmann assumed command of the brigade, which he commanded three days later at Antietam.
Crossing the Antietam Creek on the afternoon of September 16, Hofmann’s brigade took up position on the extreme right of the First Corps line. Early the following morning, as Doubleday’s division advanced south along the Hagerstown Turnpike and engaged Stonewall Jackson’s men in the West Woods and the Cornfield, Hofmann’s men were held in reserve, with orders to support the First Corps artillery. They remained in this position for most of the day, and as a result, suffered little loss. Indeed, total casualties in Hofmann’s brigade at the battle of Antietam numbered just ten men wounded.
Two months following the battle of Antietam, on November 11, 1862, Hofmann reassumed command of the 56th Pennsylvania upon the return of Colonel Wainwright, who had recovered from his South Mountain wound. At the battle of Fredericksburg, Hofmann’s regiment was only lightly engaged, suffering few casualties. In January 1863 Hofmann was at last promoted to the rank of colonel, after having led a regiment and even a brigade at the rank of lieutenant-colonel since August 1862. Again held in reserve at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Hofmann’s shining moment of the war came two months later at Gettysburg. Leading the advance of the First Corps on July 1, Hofmann’s men were the first Union infantry on the field and the first to open fire on the advancing legions of Confederate troops under Generals Heth and Pender. In the desperate fighting near the Railroad Cut, Hofmann’s regiment lost 130 men killed, wounded, and missing, 52% of its total number.
On July 25, 1863, Colonel Hofmann was ordered to his hometown of Philadelphia with orders to help oversee the implementation of the draft in the city, but was back with his regiment in time to participate in the Mine Run Campaign that fall. During the Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, Hofmann saw action at the battle of the Wilderness, where his regiment again sustained severe loss, and at Spotsylvania. Following the latter battle, Hofmann was again elevated brigade command. Throughout the summer and fall of 1864, Hofmann led his brigade during the North Anna Campaign, and on the initial assaults at Petersburg. At the battle of Weldon Railroad on August 18, Hofmann’s brigade turned in a distinguished performance and by the end of the day had captured three Confederate battle flags. Although brevetted brigadier general of volunteers on August 1, 1864, for “brave, constant, and efficient services in the battles and marches of the campaign,” Hofmann still held the rank of colonel. After seeing further action at Hatcher’s Run and at Pegram’s Fall in the late summer of 1864, Hofmann tendered his resignation from the army on March 7, 1865, and returned to his home in Philadelphia.
Little is known of Hofmann’s post-war career. It is assumed that he returned to his business, which, during his time in the army, was managed by his wife, Margaretta. He did remain active in military affairs, serving for four years as a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Colonel Hofmann died in his seventy-eighth year, on March 5, 1902. He was buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
[1] Cutler quote printed in Samuel Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. 2 (Harrisburg: B. Singerly State Printer, 1869-1871): 220. Meade testimonial from Samuel Bates, Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: T.H. Davis & Co., 1875): 878.
The Grave of J. William Hofmann, in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery
(Courtesy of www.findagrave.com)

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

John,
Your articles on these lesser known officers who nevertheless made important contributions, are really great and fill a void in our knowledge. Thanks again for your efforts.

Jim Rosebrock

Carolynn said...

wonderful article. how i wish i could pop back in time to meet these people of great courage and patriotism. your articles are the next best thing! thanks. Lindy

Anonymous said...

I have seen the name spelled in several ways. Although your article spells the name Hofmann, I noted the grave marker has Hoffman..which I assume is correct?

Tom Shay

Anonymous said...

THANKS for bio Col Hofmann, an unsung leader of men. My 3X grt-grdfather, John H.Farber,Co H,56PA was 3yrs under him, reenlisted, & was killed Dabney's Saw Mill(Hatcher's Run) 6Feb1865. Aged 40+, he left 5 children. I studied the regt 2 yrs in search of their last footsteps, trying to fill in missing pieces of my family. In the course of my search, I was so humbled by the experiences/actions of an "ordinary" regt filled w/ "ordinary" UNfamous men & their leader...arriving at a true "ah-hah" moment: there were NO "ordinary" men or leaders in the CW--The 56th's monument at Gettysburg (paid for by survivors) is the best--no Titanic stone horse or armed soldier---but rather, a life-sized replica of silent arms at rest, over a silent drum...It says it all. At war's end most of the 56th were dead, w/new enlistees ending up instead at Appomattox. Hofmann & his extraordinary men melted into history. The last I could really find abt him were his remarks at the dedication of the 56th monument at Gettysburg, detailing their actions at the RR cut.

Tattedwith3Pitbulls said...

I have LT.Col. J.W Hoffman footlocker. I can send picture to anyone that wants them. It says
"REG COL. J.W HOFFMAN 114 INFANTRY U.S ARMY"

Tattedwith3Pitbulls said...

I have LT. COL HOFFMAN'S Footlocker I can send pictures to anyone that wants them. The box says "REG. COL. J.W HOFFMAN 114 INFANTRY FORT DIX. N.J U.S ARMY"

Anonymous said...

I have photo of John William Hofmann's 1863 signature on a regimental document "J.Wm Hofmann" and will send via iPad to those who want it. See Aug. 6 2009 above.