Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"They Fell While Gallantly Defending a Just and Holy Cause:" The Dead of the 48th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg

Currier and Ives' Depiction of Fredericksburg
[Library of Congress] 

The attack of Sturgis's division of the 9th Army Corps against Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, is not as well remembered and not nearly as romanticized on canvas or on film as the attacks of the 2nd and 5th Corps. . .but it did happen and it was equally as futile and equally as deadly. 

The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, which formed part of Nagle's brigade in Sturgis's division, took part in this forlorn assault. It was sometime around 1:00 p.m., reported the 48th's commanding officer, Colonel Joshua Sigfried, when Nagle's brigade moved to the attack. The 48th was initially held in reserve, on "an open field to the rear of town." Before them, the other regiments of Nagle's brigade--units from Maryland, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island--advanced directly toward the Confederate position, at the base of the heights. A heavy, incessant infantry and artillery fire tore into the surging blue lines, which were further disrupted by a creek, a rail line, and a railroad embankment. Even the 48th, although held in reserve, was not immune to the shot and shell and a number of men were wounded and one was killed. Around 2:30, the 48th received orders to move forward, to relieve the units on the front line, who had by now been pinned down by the murderous fire. "We started and went at double-quick (a distance of half a mile) under a most terrific fire of shell, grape and cannister from the enemy's batteries," reported Sigfried. Oliver Bosbyshell of Company G recorded that "The Forty-eighth marched by the flank toward the right a short distance until some obstruction had been passed when the command, 'Left face, double quick time,' came and running over the clear space down into a hollow, and up a slight rise of ground, the regiment became hotly engaged with the enemy." The soldiers of the 48th moved to front, exposed to the deadly fire, and arrived at a slight rise where they relieved the 21st Massachusetts Infantry, whose soldiers had exhausted their ammunition. And there the 48th remained until dusk when they, too, ran out of bullets. 

In a letter home, Lieutenant Curtis Pollock rather matter-of-factly summarized the regiment's actions that day: 
"After a run of about a quarter of a mile we reached the place where the infantry was firing. they were posted behind a small hill and were firing over the hill at the Rebs who were behind a stone wall at the bottom of the hill, on the top of which they had their breast works, and near the stone fence ran a small creek between them and us. We were lying down behind the hill for a few minutes waiting for a Regiment to fire all their ammunition before we relieved them. When they were through we went up to the brow and commenced well, we fired away, but could not tell whether we did any damage or not. We were relieved by other troops who had come up while we were firing, and we went back out of the road."

But perhaps it was Joseph Gould of Company F who best captured the confusion, the chaos, and the ghastly consequences of the regiment's efforts at Fredericksburg. Said Gould in his regimental history, published forty-six years after the battle: 
"It has been truly said that only those who participated in the contest know how much and how little they heard. We remember how the smoke, the woods, and the inequalities of the ground limited our vision when we had the leisure to look about us, and how every faculty was absorbed in our work; how the deafening noise made it impossible to hear orders; what ghastly sights we saw, as men fell near us, and how peacefully they sank to rest when a bullet reached a vital spot. [Sergeant August] Farrow and [Private David] Griffiths of Company F stood in the ranks to deliver their fire, though repeatedly commanded to lie down, until Griffiths was shot through the left lung and carried to the rear. Wounded men shrieked and others lay quiet; the singing and whistling of the balls from the muskets was incessant; and we knew very little of what was going on a hundred yards to the right or left. Participants in real fighting know how limited and confused are their recollections of the work, after it has become hot. All efforts to dislodge the enemy were unsuccessful, and the losses very heavy. Night put an end to the contest, and, having exhausted our ammunition, we were relieved by the 12th Rhode Island regiment and marched back to town. Cannon and musketry fire ceased their roar, and in a few moments the silence of death succeeded the stormy fury of the ten hours' battle. We were soon fast asleep in the streets of the town, tired out."

The cost was, indeed, heavy with seven men killed, forty-three wounded, and one missing. In a letter to the Miners' Journal written on December 16, Colonel Sigfried spoke to the families of those lost: "I deeply sympathize with the families and friends of those who have fallen, but," he said, "it is a source of great gratification to know that they fell while gallantly defending a just and holy cause."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On this anniversary of the battle,a little about the lives of those of the 48th Pennsylvania who died at Fredericksburg 156 years ago while "defending a just and holy cause," follows. . . 

James Williams was twenty years of age when, in September 1861, he was mustered into service as a private in Company A, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. He stood 5'6" in height, had dark eyes, dark hair, but a light complexion. By trade, he was a boatman who called Berks County, Pennsylvania, home. In his regimental history, Oliver Bosbyshell noted that it was a "man in Company A" who had been killed while the regiment was lying in reserve on the afternoon of December 13, waiting to go in. That man was Williams whose remains now lie at rest in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The Grave of James Williams, 48th PA
Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Like Williams, thirty-three-year-old Corporal Reuben Robinson of Company B, was a boatman who also called Berks County home, his residence in Reading. Unlike Williams, though, he was married, having wed Anna Weidner in June 1856 at the First German Reformed Church in Reading. He was also a father. It appears that, upon their marriage, Anna had a child--a son named James Franklin--though it is not quite clear (and probably unlikely) if Reuben was the child's father or if young James was the biological son of another man. Anna's application for a pension included testimonials from neighbors, however, that acknowledged that as long as they knew Reuben, that he always referred to James Franklin as his own and treated him as such. "He frequently declared in the presence of each of us," testified a few of Robinson's neighbors in Reading, "that it was his child." Sadly, on the 13th of December 1862, for James Franklin, the man who raised him as his father, Reuben Robinson, was killed in action before Marye's Heights. He and his mother would receive $8.00 a month from the government for their loss. Robinson, too, is interred in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. 

The Grave of Reuben RobinsonFredericksburg National Cemetery

Michael Divine (Devine) also served in Company B. He hailed from Branchdale, in the heart of Schuylkill County's anthracite coal lands, and he was, like many others in the regiment, a miner. His father, William Devine, who was born in Scotland, was also a coal miner and, like so many miners, gave his life to coal, dying of asthma and dropsy in Branchdale on January 7, 1857, when his son, Michael, was only fourteen years old. William Devine's death forced Michael into the coal mines at an early age and the young man worked to support his now widowed mother, Catherine. Michael gave the entirety of his seven-dollar-a-week pay to his mother and, when in the army, sent home $10.00 a month to support her. Catherine Divine, who lost a husband in 1857, lost her son Michael five years later, on December 13, 1862, when he was killed at age nineteen by a shell while attacking Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg. 

Sergeant Henry Williamson's death was sudden and it was shocking; his head was blown off by a shell as he and his comrades in Company D, 48th Pennsylvania, charged toward that stone wall at Fredericksburg 156 years ago. He was dead in an instant and, just like that, his three children lost their father and his wife a husband. He was wed at age 19, marrying Elizabeth DeCoursey, on November 2, 1856. Over the next five years, Elizabeth gave birth to three children: a son, Charles Edward Williamson, on April 10, 1857 (and only six months after his parents were married); a daughter Arabella, in February 1859, and another son, William Henry, on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary: November 2, 1861. But Henry was not home to celebrate his anniversary nor to witness the birth of his second son; he was, instead, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, with the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, having volunteered in early September to fight for his country. 

James, Margaret, and Thomas Kinney, Jr., also lost their father to Fredericksburg's slaughter on December 13, 1862. Their dad, Thomas Kinney, was among the older soldiers in the regiment, enlisting in September 1861, into Company D at age 40. He was a laborer who stood 5'10" in height, had a dark complexion, dark hair, and blue eyes. He was born in Ireland but had immigrated to the United States sometime before 1844, for it was in that year that he married his wife, Charity Kinney, in Eaton, New Hampshire. Sometime before 1860, however, the Kinney's settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Like so many others in Union blue, Thomas Kinney fought for and died for his adopted country when he fell at Fredericksburg, 156 years ago. 

These were the men who lost their lives on December 13, 1862, while assaulting the Confederate position along the foot of Marye's Heights. Yet there were two other members of the 48th who died at Fredericksburg: Privates John Williams and William Hill, both of Company B, who both died very late on the night preceding the battle--December 12--while in town; killed, of all things, by the collapse of a chimney. The town of Fredericksburg had been bombarded, looted, sacked and in some places burned; it was a dangerous place to be, especially where the 48th was stationed. As Lieutenant Pollock of Company G related in a letter home: "About four o’clock [on December 12] we were marched down the street nearest the river to about the middle of the town and halted just in front of where a whole block of houses had been burned to the ground, nothing was left of them but the tall chimneys and the smouldering embers. Here we had orders to bivouac for the night and as we could not light any fires the men made their coffee and cooked their evening meal on the burning ruins. Soon after dark one of the chimneys fell down with a loud crash and as the men were lying all around under them at every little there was we all supposed two or three must be badly injured, if not killed, but by good fortune all the men got out but one, who was not seriously injured, he being near the bottom." Yet Pollock's information was incorrect; tragically, two men were, indeed, killed. William Hill was a coal miner from Pottsville, who was thirty-three years of age when he enlisted into the ranks of Company B, 48th, in September 1861.  John Williams was also a coal miner, though he was from Ashland, and but twenty-one years of age.

Fredericksburg, Virginia
[Library of Congress]

In addition to those who were killed, the 48th Pennsylvania also sustained 43 additional casualties in the number of men who were wounded, and we know that for some, their wounds proved mortal. Such was the case for Corporal Joseph Carter of Company A, Corporal John H. Derr of Company D, and Corporal Edward F. Shappell of Company I.  Carter was an overseer from Tamaqua, likely a supervisor at a mine, though only twenty-two years of age when he enlisted in September 1861 into the ranks of Company A, 48th PA. He stood 5'10" in height, had a light complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair. Carter succumbed to his wounds soon after sustaining them in combat at Fredericksburg. John H. Derr lived for three weeks following his Fredericksburg wound, spending Christmas and New Year's Day in the hospital, and passing away on January 2, 1863. He was a blacksmith by profession and twenty-one years of age when he traded in his blacksmith's tools for the musket of a soldier in September 1861. His remains were laid to rest at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Edward Shappell hailed from Orwigsburg in the rich farmlands of southern Schuylkill County and was a teamster by trade. He enlisted late in August 1861 at age twenty-seven. He stood 5'10", had sandy colored hair, grey eyes, and a light complexion. The date of his death remains unknown though it followed his wounding at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. 

The Grave of John H. DerrU.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's National Cemetery
Washington, D.C.

That is just part of the stories of these ten men of the 48th Pennsylvania who were killed or mortally injured by bullets, by shells, by chimneys at Fredericksburg in December 1862. 

More than just numbers and more than just soldiers, they were devoted husbands, loving fathers, devoted sons who all "fell while gallantly defending a just and holy cause." 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Soldier Story: Private William Straw, Musician/Fifer, Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

I always enjoy seeing a 'new' face of the 48th Pennsylvania, an image, that is, one of its soldiers I had never before seen, and thanks to Norman Gasbarro at Civil War Blog and to the descendants of a 48th soldier who posted photographs of him on a public ancestry.com family tree, I recently got to see a several images of  Private William Straw of Company K, and discover much more about him. 

Private William Straw
Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

According to the information posted by his descendants, William Straw was born on October 12, 1841, in Packington, Leicestershire, England, the son of John and Frances Straw. Sometime either in 1847 or 1849, when William was either six or eight years of age, he and his mother immigrated to the United States, though there is some thought that she died on board the ship on their way to America. If this was the case, then it is likely young William Straw was met by and raised in the home of a relative who had already been residing in the United States. By 1860, he was residing in Llewellyn, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and his occupation was that of a blacksmith. On April 22, 1861, ten days following the outbreak of civil war, nineteen-year-old William Straw was mustered into service as a private in Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a three-month regiment that was mustered out of service on July 27, 1861. After his ninety-day enlistment in the 6th PA, Straw volunteered once more and on October 1, 1861, was once more mustered into service, this time as a private in Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered in and would serve as a company musician, playing the fife. He was almost twenty years old, stood 5'3 1/4" in height, and was described as having a Light Complexion, Dark Eyes, and Light Hair. Straw served in the regiment for the duration of the conflict, having reenlisted for another "three-year or the course of the war" term in the winter of '64-'64. Mustered out when the regiment was disbanded on July 27, 1865, Straw returned to Schuylkill County and just a few month later, on October 1, married Mary Elizabeth Reed in Pottsville. Together, the couple had ten children over the next nineteen years though, sadly, two--a daughter, Minnie, and a daughter Dollie--would die in early childhood. The Straw family moved first to Tremont, then to Williamstown, and finally, to Philadelphia by 1894. 

William Straw died at age 64 from the effects of a stroke on April 5, 1906, and was buried at the Hillside Cemetery, Montgomery, PA. 

Straw and his Wife, Mary, touring Devil's Den at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Post-War Image of Private William Straw

The Grave of William Straw
Hillside Cemetery, Montgomery, Pennsylvania

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

My thanks again go to Norman Gasbarro for locating this image of Private/Musician William Straw and posting about it on his website as well as to Straw's descendants who made these photographs and the information about Straw's life public on ancestry.com.