Thursday, April 17, 2014

The 48th/150th: Colonel Sigfried's Decision . . .

Colonel Joshua Sigfried
(Courtesy of Mr. David Sigfried)
150 years ago, in late April 1864, Colonel Joshua Sigfried faced a tough decision. He had commanded the 48th Pennsylvania for the past two years, assuming regimental command in the spring of 1862 when Colonel James Nagle was elevated to brigade command. During those two years, Sigfried had led the regiment through some of the war's worst battles: 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and throughout the 1863 campaigns in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was a good, tough, and experienced officer who had, by the onset of the '64 campaign, long since earned the respect of his soldiers. In March and April 1864, Sigfried remained behind in Pottsville, tending to personal and regimental matters, even as the rest of the regiment departed for the 9th Corps rendezvous point at Annapolis, Maryland, and he would not rejoin the regiment until the waning days of April. When he did finally arrive in Annapolis, he was called upon by Major General Ambrose Burnside and presented with a difficult question.

Burnside had been busy restructuring and reorganizing his beloved 9th Army Corps in preparation for the upcoming campaigning season. He had some 42 regiments of infantry and 14 batteries divided into four divisions commanded, respectively, by Generals Thomas Stevenson, Robert Potter, Orlando Willcox, and Edward Ferrero. There was a good, solid core of veteran regiments--including the 48th--which had served under Burnside since the winter of 1861-1862 along the shores of North Carolina. But there was also a good number of brand new, inexperienced regiments just recently recruited. Among the latter were eight regiments of United States Colored Troops, which formed the two brigades of Ferrero's Fourth Division. To lead Ferrero's 2nd Brigade, Burnside tapped Colonel Henry Goddard Thomas, who had a long service record dating all the way back to 1st Bull Run and who had previous experience commanding black troops. And to lead Ferrero's 1st Brigade, Burnside turned to Sigfried, asking him if he would be willing to accept this new command.

Flag, 4th Division, 9th Army Corps
(Library of Congress)
The thirty-two-year-old colonel thought it over. According to Oliver Bosbyshell, Sigfried was loath to accept. Commanding black troops presented a number of special challenges for any white officer, and his task would be made even more difficult by the fact that these men were wholly inexperienced. Plus, he did not want to leave his men of the 48th after he had formed so close and so good a bond with them. But on the other hand, Sigfried must have felt some pride and satisfaction at having been personally selected by Burnside for this assignment and he did not want to disappoint his corps commander. Sigfriedultimately--Bosbyshell said 'reluctantly'--agreed and in late April/early May 1864, Colonel Sigfried bid farewell to the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania to take command of the 1st Brigade, 4th Division, 9th Army Corps. Assuming Sigfried's place in command of the 48th was Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants.

Sigfried did well in brigade command and would, in just a few months, lead his men of the 27th, 30th, 39th, and 43rd U.S.C.T. into the hellish fight at the Crater, a battle that resulted from the successful efforts of his former 48th PA soldiers in mining under the Confederate lines at Petersburg. For his actions and his efforts, Sigfried would, by war's end, be brevetted a brigadier general. He was mustered out of service in October 1864, upon the expiration of his three-year enlistment, and returned to his native Schuylkill County.

In the early 1880s, publisher W.W. Munsell & Company planned a lengthy History of Schuylkill County With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers and, in it, they wanted to feature a biography of Joshua Sigfried. In Washington, Ambrose Burnside, now a senator from Rhode Island, heard of the upcoming book and wrote to Sigfried, desiring a copy. In his letter to Sigfried--which was later reprinted verbatim in Munsell's county history--Burnside explained why he selected him for brigade command:

U.S. Senate
Washington, April 30, 1881

General J.K. Sigfried:
     My Dear General:
I learn that a "History of Schuylkill County" is about to be published, and I would be glad to have a copy of it, for I am sure it will contain honorable mention of its gallant soldiers who served with me during the late war for the suppression of the Rebellion. You, my dear general, will be prominently mentioned if the compilers know as much of your skill, gallantry, and unselfish co-operation as I do. I shall never forget the disinterested patriotism which actuated you when you were asked by me to take command of the 1st brigade of the 4th division of the 9th corps. It was composed of colored troops, and I naturally wanted to give it my best officers for brigade commanders. I well remember the desire you had to remain with your old command, and with what reluctance you yielded to my desire and order. I wanted you with the 4th division because you were one of my best officers, and commanded by entire confidence and esteem. Please have a copy of the work, when it comes out, sent to me at Bristol, R.I.
     With kind regards to your family, I remain, my dear general--
Faithfully your friend
A.E. Burnside
Senator Ambrose Burnside


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