Saturday, May 11, 2019

Faithful to Every Duty: The Life and Death of Lieutenant Henry Clay Jackson, Company G, 48th Pennsylvania

Lieutenant Henry Clay Jackson
(Courtesy of Ronn Palm; Museum of Civil War Images) 
Spring 1861. Twenty-four-year-old Henry Clay Jackson, from St. Clair, in the coal region of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was looking forward to a career in the classroom. He was enrolled at the Millersville Normal School, studying to become a school teacher. But then civil war came and Jackson--"From a sense of duty and not impulse"--decided to answer his country's call. He left his studies behind and entered the ranks of the Lafayette Rifles, a company recruited largely from St. Clair which soon became Company B, 14th Pennsylvania. Attached to General Robert Patterson's command, Jackson and the 14th saw no action during its three-month term of service. When his term of service with the 14th expired in late July, 1861, Jackson enlisted once more, this time to term a three-year term in the ranks of Company G, 48th Pennsylvania. 

It was not long before Jackson proved himself a brave soldier and a natural leader. Upon his enlistment with the 48th, he was appointed as Company G's Orderly Sergeant and in June 1862, was promoted once more, this time to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. On August 29, 1862, at Second Bull Run, Jackson was among the scores of soldiers of the 48th to fall into enemy hands, having been cut off in an unfinished railroad embankment and caught up in a devastating Confederate counterattack. As a prisoner of war, Jackson was sent south and soon found himself confined in Richmond's Libby Prison where he remained but a short time before being exchanged.  Returning to the regiment, Jackson narrowly survived the struggle at Fredericksburg when a shell burst directly in front of him, so close that it covered his face and neck with powder. He was more badly wounded in combat the following year, at Knoxville, Tennessee, in late November 1863, when a shell fragment tore into his thigh while he was in command of the regimental picket line. 

The Officers Of Company G in 1863
Captain Bobsyshell (seated),
 Lt. Curtis Pollock (standing, left),

and Jackson (Hoptak Collection) 
Having been captured and briefly confined in Libby, having survived a close call at Fredericksburg and a more serious wound at Knoxville, Jackson's luck ultimately ran out during the slaughter that was Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. While lying prone in the line of battle, Jackson was struck with a ball through the neck, just above the collar bone, with the bullet coming to a stop in his chest. A number of his fellow soldiers carried the stricken lieutenant from the field, among them Sgt. William Auman--who would one day ride with Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War." Auman remembered that Jackson was lying next to him when he was hit. "When he was struck he fell against me," related Auman, "I asked him where he was hit; he whispered 'I don't know,' and then his head fell to one side and I saw that he was dying." Indeed, Jackson took his last breath while being carried to the rear. Auman wrote that Private William Atkinson of Company G buried Jackson's remains near where he had fallen, and that he hoped that they would be able to send his remains back home to Schuylkill County for reburial, but this never came about. Instead, the remains of Lieutenant Henry Clay Jackson were reinterred after the war and laid to rest at the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The loss of Jackson was deeply felt in the regiment. In his regimental history, Joseph Gould wrote that Jackson was "a noble fellow," who was "idolized by his men."  Oliver Bosbyshell, who had commanded Company G for much of the war, related that Lieutenant Jackson was "an able and fearless officer," while after the war, Francis Wallace bestowed further praise upon on Jackson in his work, Memorial to the Patriotism of Schuylkill County:

"Thus fell Lieutenant Jackson, faithful to every duty, and though sensible to danger and peril, yet braving them with heroic disregard of self. He had determined if his life was spared to remain in the army till the last organized force of rebellion was overthrown. Gifted with a vigorous physical organization, considerable energy, a clear and active mind, ready utterance, strict integrity, and withal modest and affectionate, his friends had high hopes of his success in a civil profession, but he was reserved by Providence to be one of the numerous martyrs in behalf of the Union, and the honor and free institutions of our country."

[Notes: Auman letter printed in Miners' Journal, May 21, 1864; Francis Wallace. Memorial to the Patriotism of Schuylkill County (Pottsville, Pennsylvania: Benjamin Bannan Publisher, 1865): pg. 529; Joseph Gould. The Story of the Forty Eighth (Philadelphia: Alfred M. Slocum, Publisher, 1908), pg. 180; Oliver Bosbyshell. The 48th in the War (Philadelphia: Avil Printing Company, 1895), pgs. 97, 150.  

Saturday, February 2, 2019

"A Good Man Gone:" The Story of Private John C. Cole, of Pottsville: Husband, Father, Soldier, 43rd United States Colored Troops

John Cole was forty-four years old in the spring of 1864; a shoemaker from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, who was able to comfortably provide for his family. He had been married already for seventeen years--he and his wife, Caroline, having wed on March 25, 1847, in Philadelphia--and he was the father of four sons: the oldest, Charles, being then sixteen years of age, followed by John Oliver Cole (age 15), Joseph Cole (11), and Alexander Cole (5). Tragically, John and Caroline Cole had lost a child, William Douglas Cole, in the 1850s, but, in that spring of 1864, Caroline was pregnant once more, this time, as it turned out, with a baby girl who would be born in early May and who would be named Estilena. But when Estilena was born, her father was many miles away from their home in Pottsville, serving in the uniform of the United States as a soldier in the 43rd United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.).

We can only speculate as to what it was that motivated forty-four-year-old John C. Cole to volunteer as a soldier and fight for a country in which, as African-Americans, he and his family were denied full citizenship and treated as inferior; to leave behind the comforts of his home in Pottsville--his family and his pregnant wife--to don the Union blue. Perhaps it was a strong patriotic impulse; a desire to fight for all the United States stood for and all it represented--the ideals and promises, at least, of the nation's founding. Or perhaps it was a determination to fight for the literal freedom and liberation of four million persons from the brutal bonds of slavery. Or perhaps it was a combination of such aspirations that compelled him to enlist. He became a soldier on March 30, 1864--a private in Company E, 43rd United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the First Brigade, Fourth Division, of the Ninth Army Corps. Commanding that brigade was one of Cole's fellow-townsmen: Joshua K. Sigfried of Pottsville.

Three summers earlier, Sigfried had helped to raise the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a regiment recruited almost entirely from Schuylkill County and in whose ranks were a good number of coal miners. He had led the 48th from 1862 until the spring of 1864 when he was asked by General Burnside to take command of one of the two brigades of black soldiers that composed the newly-created Fourth Division of Burnside's Ninth Corps. Sigfried's elevation to brigade command allowed for Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants to assume command of the now veteran 48th Pennsylvania Infantry and in the summer of 1864 it would be Pleasants who would mastermind the engineering and tunneling of the Petersburg Mine, work carried out by his soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania.

The mine was detonated early on a scorching hot Saturday morning--July 30, 1864. Pleasants's plan had succeeded brilliantly but the follow up assault would prove one of the worst disasters of the war for the Union army. Pleasants and his soldiers, who had labored so hard, in the excavation and tunneling of the mine were exempted from participating in the attack and so, caked with mud and dirt, they watched the terrible ordeal unfold, stunned--and angered, no doubt--that their efforts were so infamously squandered. They would watch as line after line of Union blue--primarily from the 9th Corps--rushed forward, only to have their attack stalled and then stopped in the Crater or just beyond. Lines were enveloped in the smoke and in the dust; soldiers crowded, unable to move, stuck in the blasted Confederate trenches and even in the Crater itself. Efforts were made to break the stalemate at the front, including a determined attack made by the black soldiers of the Fourth Division.

Around 7:30 that hot morning, Col. Joshua Sigfried led his brigade forward. Charging forward within the ranks of the 43rd U.S.C.T. was forty-four-year-old John C. Cole, the shoemaker from Pottsville. As he formed in line prior to the attack--forlorn, as it would turn out--we can only now wonder what he was thinking as he prepared for his first fight. No doubt he thought of his family, 300 quiet miles away in Pottsville; of his wife Caroline, his four boys, and his baby girl whom, sadly, he would never get to see, never get to hold. . .

At some point during the fierce struggle, Private John Cole was wounded. He somehow made it back to Union lines, either on his own or with some assistance. After five painful days in a makeshift field hospital behind the lines at Petersburg, Cole later placed in an ambulance headed toward another hospital, this one at City Point. It was in that ambulance, on August 4, 1864, and during the painful journey to City Point, that John Cole died. His remains were laid to rest hundred of miles away from his home and family in Hopewell, Virginia, at what became City Point National Cemetery, though his stone misidentifies his remains as "B. Cole."

Meanwhile, in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, all the talk about town was on Pleasants and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania--after all, it was these men--their sons, brothers, neighbors--who, despite the failure of the follow-up assault at the Crater, had nevertheless earned great fame and great plaudits as the soldiers who tunneled under the Confederate lines, whose efforts in that endeavor, at least, proved so successful. Throughout the month of August, many columns of the Miners' Journal newspaper were devoted to Pleasants and the work of the 48th Pennsylvania but in the September 3, 1864, edition appeared this notice of the death of Private John C. Cole:

"An industrious and respected resident of Pottsville;" "an excellent workman;" "an exemplary man;" and "one who gave his life freely in defence of the great principle of human freedom and happiness;" "A good man gone."

A fitting tribute, indeed, to John Cole.

Although identified as "B. Cole" this may very well be the gravestone of John Cole in the City Point National Cemetery, Hopewell, Virginia 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"Distressing Occurrence:" The Tragic, Untimely Death of Sergeant Samuel Clemens, Co. E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

Samuel Clemens survived the very worst of the American Civil War, making it through all the trying campaigns and hellish fights in which the 48th Pennsylvania was engaged, though certainly not unscathed. Records indicate that was wounded no fewer than three times in battle: at Fredericksburg in December 1862, at the Wilderness in May 1864, and at Petersburg on August 16, 1864. 

Still, though, in late July 1865, he made it back home. 

After serving as a private in the three-month 16th Pennsylvania Infantry (April-July 1861), Clemens, along with three of his brothers, enlisted into the ranks of Company E, 48th PA, in the summer of 1861. At the time of his enlistment, he was 25 years of age, stood 5'6" in height, had a Light Complexion, Grey Eyes, and Sandy Hair. His occupation was given as Laborer, employed, no doubt, at one of Schuylkill County's many coal mines. And it was back to the mines he went following his discharge from the army. Sadly--tragically--it was there--and not on any of the Civil War's many sanguinary fields of battle on which he fought--where he lost his life; on the night of October 31, 1865, just three months after Clemens and the surviving veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania returned home from the conflict. And it was quite sudden, too. An article that appeared in the Miners' Journal a week following his death, reported that Clemens had lost his footing at work and fell down the Windy Harbor coal slope, plummeting some ninety feet to the bottom and was instantly killed. The article, entitled a "Distressing Occurrence," noted that Clemens was an "honorable, patriotic young man," who served his country "from the commencement of the Rebellion to its close," and who "was distinguished for bravery and good conduct." It further noted that Clemens had just recently been married and now left "a young wife and a large circle of friends to deplore their sad bereavement." The remains of Samuel Clemens were laid to rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. 

The Grave of Samuel Clemens
Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville, Pa

A sad story, for sure (and one cannot help but feel sorry for Clemens, who made it home from the war only to be killed three months later) though his was certainly not the only occurrence of this. George Beaumont from St. Clair, for example, who served in the 88th Pennsylvania and who lost two brothers in battle--William at Gettysburg and John at Petersburg--made it back home and after the war returned to work in the coal mines. And there he was killed, in November 1868, at age 35.

These and other such tragedies only serve to reinforce Captain John Porter's assertions that, in many ways, army life was much safer than work in the coal mines. A native of Middleport in Schuylkill County, Porter commanded Company I, 48th PA. Many of Porter's volunteers were farmers, students, clerks. . .but there was, of course, a good number of coal miners. During his time in uniform, Porter wrote often to his wife and several times expressed his opinion that soldiering in the Civil War was far easier than laboring in the coal mines. From Pleasant Valley, Maryland, on October 14, 1862, for example, Porter wrote that while he would never "persuade" anyone to enlist, still he was "satisfied that the soldier has an easier life than the man who has to work from early dawn til late at night in the Coal of Schuylkill County."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

At Long Last. . .A Regimental History of the 96th Pennsylvania!

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War
[Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Co., 2018]
The 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, although perhaps the best known, was certainly not the only unit raised primarily in Schuylkill County during the American Civil War. Companies A and C of the 50th Pennsylvania, several companies of the nine-month 129th Pennsylvania, and several companies of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, for example, were also recruited principally from the county's coal towns and agricultural districts. And then there was Schuylkill County's "other" regiment--the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a hard-fighting, tough as nails infantry regiment which was organized during the late summer of 1861 and which served for the next three years in the famed Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, participating in some of the war's most sanguinary fights and in some of its most storied campaigns. I say "other" regiment simply because, for far too long, the history and the memory of the 96th Pennsylvania remained little told and often sadly overlooked, particularly compared to other Schuylkill County units, such as the 48th. But now, at long last, we have a regimental history of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. 

Written by David Ward, a native of Schuylkill County and a long-time student of the 96th who wrote about the regiment for his master's thesis, The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War provides an excellent history of this long overlooked regiment. Lively and well-paced, Ward's examination of the 96th takes us from the regiment's origins in Schuylkill County and then follows the actions of the regiment during its three-years of service as part of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, documenting well its transition from a green, untested unit to a hard-fighting, seasoned regiment that came to be relied upon for its steadfastness and its intrepidity upon the field of battle; a regiment that departed Schuylkill County late in 1861 with 1,200 men and which returned, three years later, with only 120 left. Ward tells of the marches and the battlefield maneuverings, chronicles the successes as well as the failures of the regiment on their many fields of battle, and provides a dramatic look at the regiment's most famous battlefield actions--at Gaines Mill, Crampton's Gap, Salem Church, and at Spotsylvania, each where the 96th suffered fearful losses. Along the way, Ward offers keen analysis of the leadership demonstrated by the regiment's high ranking officers upon these fields of battle, with a focus on the 96th's two commanding officers, Col. Henry Cake and Lt. Col. William Lessig. But perhaps even more interesting, or at least more fascinating, is the examination Ward provides on all the political in-fighting and controversies that seemingly plagued the high levels of command in the 96th; of Cake's and then Lessig's maneuverings to bypass the seniority system when it came to promotion and, instead, to nominate and commission their friends to fill vacancies. We also learn of how these two men, although brave and competent battlefield leaders, actively worked to ruin the military careers of those they either did not personally like or who stood in the way of their cronies' promotions. This was something not unique to the 96th; indeed, it occurred far too often in volunteer Civil War regiments. Yet, in the case of the 96th, it seemed a pronounced and persistent reality. 

While Ward does a fine job in telling the regiment's military history--its actions on their fields of battle--one of the strengths of this book is that he also nicely weaves into the narrative a social history of the regiment as well. For example, Ward examines the social and ethnic backgrounds of the 96th's soldiers, which essentially mirrored the social structure of Schuylkill County at this time. We discover, also, the motivations of these men--why they enlisted and how the endured both the monotony of camp life and the sheer horror and hell of the battle--as well as their thoughts on the war itself as well as the war's leaders. Ward also does an excellent job in documenting how the soldiers in the regiment felt about race, slavery, and emancipation, and how these thoughts changed over time. 

To tell the story of the 96th Pennsylvania--of the regiment's many trials and triumphs--Ward relies most heavily on the soldiers themselves, utilizing their letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and memoirs and in so doing presents an authentic history using the soldiers own words. The firsthand accounts of those who fought either alongside or against the 96th on the battlefield are also plentifully used throughout. Ward also presents the history of the regiment objectively, telling the good as well as the bad, where the regiment succeeded and where it fell short or failed. 

I know David Ward personally and knew for some time he was writing a history of the 96th. I am so very pleased to see his dedicated efforts come to fruition. At long last, we have a regimental history of this long overlooked regiment. This is an excellent book and for anyone with an interest in the Civil War soldier; for anyone who has an interest in the Civil War's Eastern Theater and in the famed Sixth Corps; and especially for anyone who is interested in Pennsylvania's and particularly Schuylkill County's Civil War history, it is highly recommended. 

For more and to order your copy, click here.

The 96th PA at Camp Northumberland, 1862 
[Library of Congress]

Officers of the 96th PA, 1862
[Library of Congress] 

Here is what some others have said about The 96th Pennsylvania in the Civil War

“David Ward’s The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War is a fine history of the Infantry. A regiment in the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps, the 96th Pennsylvania served with distinction in the campaigns in the East. Ward’s book has all the elements of a model regimental history from its moving narrative to its research in many unpublished manuscripts and newspapers. The book is filled with accounts by its members and all the intrigues that plagued volunteer units. It is a most welcome work.”— Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac

“A History of the Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers is one of the best Civil War regimental histories to be published in years. In a style reminiscent of Bruce Catton, author David Ward utilizes hundreds of first hand soldiers accounts to weave a narrative that puts the reader in the picture from the units genesis in the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania through its baptism of fire at Gaines Mill and the bloodbaths of Crampton’s Gap and the Overland Campaign. Ward utilizes the ‘new history,’ blending both military and social history to tell the complete story the men of the 96th”—Ted Alexander, Historian (retired), Antietam National Battlefield, author of The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day

“The 96th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was one of the great combat units of the Civil War. Yet, amazingly, this hard-hitting outfit has enjoyed no regimental history—until now. This book fills that gap. It covers the 96th Pennsylvania in the chaos of battle, on the march and in camp. Generous quotations from officers’ and soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, which were uncovered through prodigious research in dozens of manuscript repositories, give the narrative a human touch. The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War belongs in every Civil War library.”—Richard J. Sommers, author of Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg