James Nagle, born on this date in 1822, was the quintessential citizen-turned-soldier of America's past who responded repeatedly to his country’s call. By profession, a house and sign painter and a wallpaper hanger, Nagle was also a family man very involved in his community. He served on both the borough council and on the local school board in his hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. In times of war, though, James Nagle demonstrated fine leadership and total fidelity to his country. He never received a formal military education but, from a young age demonstrated interest in the military. Perhaps it was hearing stories of his grandfather, Philip Nagle, who served in the 1st Pennsylvania Continental Line under Washington in America's Revolutionary War that inspired him. But, whatever the cause, in 1840, at just eighteen years of age, he raised and organized a militia company dubbed the Pottsville Blues, which in 1842 became the Washington Artillery, and which, in 1846, marched off to war in Mexico, with a young twenty-four-year-old Captain James Nagle at its helm. During the four years of America’s Civil War, Nagle performed a singular feat. From 1861 to 1864, helped to raise, organize, and recruit no fewer than four regiments of Pennsylvania volunteer infantry, including the famed 48th Pennsylvania which he led from the summer of 1861 until his promotion to brigade command in the spring of 1862. Promoted in rank to Brigadier General, Nagle seemed destined for higher command but worsening health and particularly heart disease necessitated his resignation from the service in May 1863. Nevertheless, upon his return to home and family in Pottsville, Nagle raised and led a regiment of Emergency Militia during Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, and the following summer recruited yet another unit—the 100-Days’ 194th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Mustered out of service for the final time in November 1864, Nagle looked forward to happy, quiet, and peaceful days with his family, which included his wife, Elizabeth, and their six children. Another child, a daughter named Kate, would arrive in September 1865.
Sadly, however, he did not have much time remaining. His health continued to deteriorate with heart disease--specifically angina pectoris--becoming increasingly worse as the months passed by. When he at last succumbed to this disease on August 22, 1866, this man—this loving and devoted father, leading and estimable member of the community, wartime hero and dedicated soldier—was just forty-four years of age.
|General James Nagle|
Pictured Holding the Sword Presented
Upon His Return Home from the Mexican War
(Library of Congress)
Word of his death spread quickly through Pottsville and a palpable sadness—a pall—fell upon the town. Flags were lowered, businesses closed. Soon official news of the General’s death was reported in the Miners’ Journal: “Sincere sorrow pervaded this community. . .when the fact of Gen. Nagle’s death became known,” recorded the Journal, “The sad event was not unexpected, for he had suffered for years from disease of the heart and liver, and during the past few weeks it was evident to his friends that he was succumbing to the attacks of adversaries too powerful for medicine to combat successfully. He died on Wednesday morning at 4 o’clock at his residence in this Borough. A brave soldier of two wars; a good citizen; an estimable man, has passed away. While the memory of his worth will remain green in the memories of this community in which so many years of his useful life were spent, his name will be inscribed with honor on the pages of his country’s history.”
Inscribed with honor, perhaps, but with the passage time the story of James Nagle and his service has certainly faded. And though he remains immortalized in bronze atop a monument at Antietam National Battlefield, James Nagle ranks today among the relatively unknown generals of the Civil War.
So, just who was James Nagle?
Although he would make his home and find his final resting place in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, James Nagle was actually born in Reading, PA, on April 5, 1822, the first of eventually eight children born to and raised by Daniel and Mary (Rorig) Nagle. His ancestry in the United States can be traced back to the 1730s when his forebears arrived in Pennsylvania from Germany. James’s grandfather, Philip Nagle, had served in the Revolutionary War as a drummer with the 1st Pennsylvania Continental Line. The Nagle family moved around from point to point early in James’s life—to Wommelsdorf and thence to Pine Grove and finally by 1835 to Pottsville, the seat of government for Schuylkill County. As a young man, James learned the trade of his father, a cabinet maker, and also learned the trades of wallpaper hanger and house painter. Young James Nagle also attended some years in public schools, though as an early biographical portrait described, much of his education was through the “school of experience and through continued self-effort,” going to school at night and working during the day. From an early age, James showed a strong interest in the military and, in 1840 and at just eighteen years of age, he organized a company of young Pottsville boys into a militia unit initially known as the Pottsville Blues, but which, two years later became the Washington Artillery. With the outbreak of war with Mexico, Nagle, now twenty-four, tendered the services of his company and on December 5, 1846, marched off to war. The Washington Artillery became Company B, 1st Regiment of Pennsylvania Infantry and Nagle mustered into service as its captain. Nagle and his company, forming part of General Winfield Scott’s force, took part in the siege of Vera Cruz, and at the battles of Cerro Gordo, Lahoya, Huamantla, Puebla, and Atlixco. Upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Nagle returned with his company to a hero’s ovation to Pottsville in the summer of 1848. In recognition of his service, the people of Pottsville presented Nagle with a beautiful sword, which was one of his most treasured possessions. He carried it even during the Civil War and, today, a bronze copy of that Mexican War presentation sword can be seen attached to the Nagle statue at Antietam.
|Captain James Nagle|
(Schuylkill County in the Civil War)
In 1852, James Nagle was elected Sheriff of Schuylkill County. He continued to remain active in the state militia system and soon was appointed Brigade Inspector of Pennsylvania, with the rank of Colonel. By his early thirties, James Nagle had become a leading and respected member of his community. He was also a devoted husband and loving father. On December 15, 1842, James married Elizabeth Kaercher and to their union nine children would be born, seven of whom lived to maturity. While in Mexico, James had also adopted an orphaned eight-year-old boy named Emerguildo Marquis, with whom he returned and raised in his household as one of his own. During his younger days, Nagle voted Whig but then became a Republican. He supported Lincoln and was opposed to slavery and its expansion.
With his experience in the state militia and his experience leading soldiers in combat, it was only natural that Governor Andrew Curtin would call upon Nagle soon after the commencement of the Civil War. Nagle traveled to Harrisburg and helped to organize and train the many companies of volunteer soldiers pouring daily into the capital city. Curtin then commissioned Nagle colonel of the 6th Pennsylvania Infantry, a three-month unit that was raised primarily from Schuylkill and Carbon Counties. The 6th formed part of General George Thomas’s Brigade in General Robert Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah. The regiment saw only limited action and by late July, their three-month term of service having expired, its soldiers were on their way back home. Nagle made a very favorable impression upon this command and particularly its officers. Indeed, in October 1861, the members of the 6th presented their former commander with a specially inscribed field glass, which, when delivered to Nagle was accompanied by a letter that spoke volumes to Nagle’s leadership and character:
Col. James Nagle,
Dear Sir:- A number of your friends, officers, and privates of the late Sixth Regiment, P.V., commanded by you during the time it was in service, desire to present the accompanying field-glass, for your acceptance, in token of our high personal esteem, and the exalted opinion we entertain of your military knowledge and capacity.
Though your characteristic modesty may shrink from any public eulogy of your conduct and services, our gratitude and admiration will not permit us to pass them by, without this tribute of affection and respect.
For many years past the military spirit and organization of Schuylkill County have been chiefly sustained by your exertions. When the Nation’s honor was to be maintained on the plains of Mexico, you with a well disciplined corps under your command, sprang to arms and hastened to the field of conflict; in Cerro Gordo’s terrific fight you stood calm and unmoved amid the leaden storm of death which fell on every side, and by your presence of mind and courage saved many gallant men from the fearful carnage.
During the long season of peace which followed the closing of that war, in your own quiet and happy home, you faithfully discharged the duties of a husband, father, and citizen, endearing yourself both to your family and the community in which you dwelt.
But now the tocsin of war sounds through the land, and her valiant sons are called to defend her against foul rebellion’s deadly blows. Speedily a regiment of your fellow citizens take the field, and confer upon you the command. During the three months we served together, though inflexibly firm and persistently industrious in the performance and requirement of every camp and field duty, yet such was the kindness of your demeanor, and your tender regard for the health, safety, and comfort of your men, that we regarded you rather as a friend and father, than a mere military commander.
And now, that you have, at the head of a Schuylkill County Regiment—Pennsylvania’s 48th—again taken the field at your country’s call and may soon be in the thickest of the most eventful battle the world has ever witnessed, on the issue of which the destiny of human freedom and progress is suspended, we present you with the accompanying glass, as well in token of our esteem and admiration, as that your eye which never dimmed with fear as it gazed upon a foe, may more readily perceive his approach and prepare for victory.
Praying that God of Battles may preserve you in the midst of danger, and return you unharmed to your family and friends, when our glorious Union shall be firmly re-established, and covered with still more illustrious renown,
We remain, yours truly,
Capt. C. Tower,
Lt.Col. Jas. J. Seibert,
Maj. John E. Wynkoop,
Lieut. Theo. Miller,
Lieut. D.P. Brown,
And many others.
Nagle was no doubt touched by this kind and generous tribute and gift, but by the time he received it, he was once more in the field and in command of a new regiment, one he had raised almost entirely from Schuylkill County: the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers. After being discharged as commander of the 6th Pennsylvania, Nagle was immediately commissioned by Governor Curtin to raise another regiment of volunteers, this one to serve for three years or the course of the war, whichever would come first. The regiment was raised during the months of August and September 1861 and after being formally mustered into service departed for the seat of war, being assigned first to Fortress Monroe and then to Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. While in North Carolina in the spring of 1862, the 48th Pennsylvania was attached to Ambrose Burnside’s Coastal Expedition, which, in time, became the 9th Army Corps. When Burnside organized his forces, he made Major General Jesse Reno a divisional commander and Nagle a brigade commander in Reno’s division. Nagle would subsequently lead this brigade with great bravery and distinction at 2nd Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, taking a prominent part in each of these engagements. At 2nd Manassas, Nagle’s Brigade pierced Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate line along an unfinished railroad cut; at South Mountain his men helped to secure Fox’s Gap; three days later his brigade took a leading part in the attacks upon the Burnside Bridge at Antietam; while at Fredericksburg, Nagle led his brigade in an oftentimes forgotten assault upon Marye’s Heights. All the while Nagle continually showed himself a gifted, capable leader and brave soldier. He had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general in September 1862 upon the recommendation of Reno who, on September 7 and just one week before his death at South Mountain, wrote to Lincoln:
|General James Nagle|
To His Excellency, the President of the United States:
Sir:-I have the honor to recommend Col. James Nagle, 48th Regt. Pa. Vols., for promotion as Brigadier General. Col. Nagle has served with me with fidelity and ability as commander of a Brigade, since the Battle of Newbern, and in recent battles conducted himself with gallantry, and led his command with judgment and discretion.
I have the honor to be
Very Respectfully, Your obd’t servant,
Throughout the fall of 1862 and during the early winter of 1863, Nagle several times assumed the temporary command of the division and it seemed as though advancement in rank and in command would have been his had it not been for his poor and failing health. During the winter of 1863, Nagle began to suffer from chest pains. He sought out doctors who informed him he was afflicted with angina pectoris and who urged him to resign and return home for better chances of recovery. Nagle remained in the army for several more months before the pain became too great and he, at last, took the doctors’ advice and reluctantly and tearfully bid farewell to his command and to the army. He resigned in May 1863. Division commander Samuel Sturgis expressed his regret at accepting the resignation of one so capable and responded by penning the following note:
Head-Quarters, 2nd Div., 9th Army Corps
I cannot better express the pain it gave me to forward your resignation, then by giving you a copy of my endorsement upon it, viz: ‘Respectfully forwarded and approved. But I must express my deep regret at the necessity for this forwarding it. By his intelligence, energy, zeal and courage, and quiet, unassuming deportment, withal, Gen. Nagle has endeared himself to this command, and will carry with him the love and respect not only of those gallant troops he had led so often to victory, but of all who have the good fortune to know him.’
Brig. Gen., com’dg
After what must have been seemed a long journey back home, Nagle was no doubt pleased to be back with his wife and family once more but, shortly after his return to Pottsville, General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. In response to Curtin’s plea for action, Nagle once more answered the call. For the third time he would take command of a regiment of Pennsylvania Infantry, this time the 39th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, being mustered into service once more as a colonel. Arriving in Harrisburg, Major General Darius Couch placed Nagle in brigade command but by then Lee had been turned back at Gettysburg and the 39th P.V.M. was mustered out and disbanded. Again, Nagle returned home and was encouraged by his doctors’ assessments that his health was improving. He felt well enough that in the summer of 1864 when the call went out seeking soldiers to serve a 100-Day term of service, he once more answered and took command of the 194th Pennsylvania Infantry. For the fourth time in three years, then, Nagle was commissioned colonel by Governor Curtin. Nagle led the 194th to Baltimore where they were assigned to the 8th Army Corps. There, Nagle was given command of the forces then occupying Mankin’s Woods, and helped to guard the approaches to the city. On November 5, 1864, the 100 days having expired, James Nagle was mustered out of service, this time for the last time.
|A Statue of General James Nagle Stands Watch Over|
Antietam National Battlefield
Few other citizen-turned-soldiers did more for the United States than did James Nagle during the Civil War. Throughout his time in uniform, he had helped to raise and subsequently commander four regiments of infantry and several times held brigade command. In Mexico, he was a captain; during the Civil War, he was both a colonel and a brigadier general. And though he had no formal military training or education, James Nagle proved himself a capable leader and commander. He served his country well. . .and often. He also served his community well, not only as sheriff in the early 1850s but also as head of the Pottsville Borough Council and as a member of the local school board. Sadly, Nagle did not get to enjoy peace for long, once the Civil War was over. Indeed, it was not until August 20, 1866, that President Andrew Johnson declared that all hostilities had ceased and the conflict officially concluded. Two days later, on his bed in Pottsville, surrounded by his wife Elizabeth and seven children—the eldest, Emma, aged 23 years and the youngest Kate, aged 11 months—General James Nagle drew his last breath and passed away at the much-too-young age of 44.
It was not a long life that he thus led but it was a full one, a useful one, and important one. Three days after his death, General James Nagle was laid to rest in Pottsville’s Presbyterian Cemetery. Thousands gathered to pay their respects. His funeral, according to the Miners’ Journal: "was one of the largest and most imposing funerals ever seen here, the entire community evincing sincere sorrow at the loss of an estimable citizen, a brave soldier, a patriot, whose career will ever be referred to with pride by our citizens, and whose memory will be cherished while our hills endure."
|The Grave of General James Nagle|
Pottsville, Presbyterian Cemetery
In histories of Schuylkill County published during the late 19th Century, Nagle also received high praise. “General Nagle was pre-eminently a military man, and a patriot,” said one such account. “His life was permeated with a military spirit, and in this respect broadened him into a loyal and devoted citizen. . . .He is still remembered by a large number of his fellow-townsmen, and occupies a generous place in their hearts.” Another history declared that “General Nagle’s services in the Rebellion will ever be remembered with gratitude by not only the people of Schuylkill County, but by the nation at large, who owe the preservation of their liberties to the self-sacrificing devotion of men like him.’
Certainly those who served in the 48th never forgot the “father” of their regiment. Indeed, forty years later the regimental veteran’s association met to decide upon what kind of monument they would have placed at Antietam National Battlefield. It was decided that a slightly-larger-than-life figure of General James Nagle would stand atop its base. On September 17, 1904, thirty-six surviving veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry gathered at the Antietam Battlefield to attend the dedication and witness the unveiling of this monument. In addition to commemorating their wartime service and cherishing the memory of their fallen comrades, the aged veterans who traveled to Antietam that day were there also to honor the memory of the man who organized and first led the 48th Pennsylvania, Brigadier General James Nagle.
Oliver Bosbyshell, a veteran of the 48th, commenced the dedication ceremony at Antietam by delivering a few opening remarks. After expressing his gratitude to the state of Pennsylvania for procuring the funds necessary for the construction of the monument, Bosbyshell spoke of the late General Nagle: “The man the Forty-Eighth honors by placing his statue to mark the spot it maintained in the fight, honors the Forty-Eighth in turn. The organizer and disciplinarian who brought his command to the highest point of efficiency amongst the Ninth Corps organizations, the foremost soldier of old Schuylkill County, Brigadier General James Nagle, well deserves this meed of praise bestowed upon him.” Following Bosbyshell’s brief opening remarks, the regiment’s former surgeon, Dr. William R.D. Blackwood, delivered the dedication address. He spoke of the role the 48th played in the battle of Antietam and the appropriateness of the regimental monument on the battlefield before turning his attention to General Nagle:
At this time the merited and (for ourselves) the coveted promotion of Colonel Nagle eventuated—he won his star as a Brigadier General. Never did a soldier win the distinction through a harder road—for his whole time of service this more than brave gentleman and splendid soldier devoted his every energy to the cause for which he left his home and family, and supported by his gallant men, he won imperishable fame. . . .Today we celebrate the attainment of his glory—a glory to him and to us who can never forget his leadership—may the bronze and granite which we now dedicate to his memory remain till time shall be no more on this historical field where so many of our Pennsylvania heroes gave their all to the defenses of the land they loved, and the Flag they adored.
|The 48th Pennsylvania Monument at Antietam |
-Gould, Joseph. The Story of the Forty-Eighth. Philadelphia: Alfred M. Slocum Printer, 1908.
-Wallace, Francis. Memorial to the Patriotism of Schuylkill County. Pottsville, Pennsylvania: Benjamin Bannan Publisher, 1865.
-Wiley, Samuel T. Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Rush, West, and Company, 1893.