STORY OF A REGIMENT
A RECORD OF THE MILITARY SERVICE
FIFTY-SEVENTH NEW YORK STATE
WAR OF THE REBELLIN
1861 - 1865.
GILBERT FREDERICK, D. D.
LATE CAPTAIN 57TH N. Y. V. I.
DECEMBER 11TH TO DECEMBER 15TH, 1862.
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, WINFIELD S. HANCOCK. JAMES W. BRITT, A. LINCOLN.
ON the night of December 9th, 1862, the army before Fredericksburg slept peacefully under their canvas roofs as they had done many nights before, and though there was some activity yet no intimation had been given of the very near approach of the terrible struggle that was so soon to begin. The organization of the army now for the first time to be fought under another commander than General McClellan was divided into three grand divisions, General Sumner commanding the Right Grand Division, General Hooker the Centre Grand Division and General Franklin the Left Grand Division.
The Fifty-Seventh Regiment occupied the place indicated by the following table:
Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside
RIGHT GRAND DIVISION,
Major-General Edwin V. Sumner.
SECOND ARMY CORPS,
Major-General Darius N. Couch.
Brigadier-General Winfield S. Hancock.
Brigadier-General John C. Caidwell.
Brigadier-General Thos. F. Meagher
Colonel Samuel K. Zook.
27th Connecticut, Colonel R. S. Bostwick
2d Delaware, Colonel W. P. Bailey.
52d New York, Colonel Paul Frank.
57th New York, Lieut. -Colonel A. B. Chapman.
Major N. G. Throop.
Ranking Captain J. VT. Britt.
66th New York, Lieut. Colonel J. H. Ball.
53rd Pennsylvania, Colonel J. R. Brooke. Artillery, Captain R. D. Pettit.
Lieutenant E. Thomas.
We were hardly asleep on the night of the 10th before orders caine to fall-in. We marched to the Lacy House, then down to the shore of the river where the engineers were laying pontoon bridges. Here we wandered around or sat in groups discussing the coming battle or lay down on the ground to sleep. Just before the light of day men could be seen running across thc streets of Fredericksburg. This seemed to be a regimeni getting into position for attack. Soon after, out from the opposite bank, flashed a long line of light followed by the report of musketry. Nearly every man on the bridge had fallen and many of those on the shore. Immediately the fire was returned by the Fifty-Seventh and soon the artillery on the heights above began to beat down the walls and buildings in which the enemy were concealed.
At daylight a mist yet rested over tile river and hindered effective shooting though the fire of the enemy was silenced, except as sharpshooters plied their trade from hiding places. From five to eight o’clock these worked their wills with little danger to themselves but with fearful havoc to us. We were entirely unsheltered and at each report wondered whose turn had come but did not have long to wait before knowing. LieutenantColonel Chapman stood by his horse and an orderly said to him, “Colonel, please don’t expose yourself unnecessarily.” Just then a bullet struck the orderly on the right side cutting his suspender and frizzling his flesh. He turned and said, “That was a providential escape.” “Yes:” said the Colonel and the next moment he was struck, fatally it was thought from the location of the wound, but in his breast pocket were a package of letters and a blank book and through these the ball passed before reaching the body, thus breaking its force sufficiently to save his life. Captain Bell was struck in the head with a piece of shell; Captain Mott was wounded severely in the right arm; Lieutenant Brewster had his right arm fractured; Lieutenant White was badly wounded; two men were killed and twenty-three others were wounded. These severe losses were entirely independent of the battle of Fredericksburg, which occurred on the 13th and at which the regiment again lost heavily in officers and men. Our position on the bank of the river was entirely unprotected, and as we could not get near the enemy or they near us it seemed a useless sacrifice of life thus to expose men. We could have done some execution, perhaps, if stationed higher up, whence we could look down behind the stone walls that hid the sharpshooters. As it was a man did not have half a chance for his life.
At eight o’clock, being relieved by the Seventh Michigan, the regiment marched back to camp, then, about two p. m. joined the brigade near the Phillips House and remained there over night. The 11th was a day of bombardment such as even soldiers rarely see. One hundred and forty-seven pieces of artillery, posted along Stafford Heights, belched forth fire and thunder and shot, while every discharge or bursting shell had its quadruple echo among the dwellings of the city. It was great amusement to us to watch a solid shot tear through a building, beat down a wall, topple over a chimney or root out a nest of sharpshooters. In the afternoon troops were sent over in boats to clear the city that the engineers might finish the bridges which were about two-thirds across. Why this was not done in the first place does not appear, but had it been, the Fifty-Seventh would no doubt have formed part of the crossing party.
By night the city of Fredericksburg was in our possession and four pontoon bridges spanned the Rappahannock. The troops on the morning of the 12th began to cross, Franklin on the lower bridges and Sumner opposite the city. It was about noon that the Third Brigade passed over and took position on the west bank of the river near Water Street. Here we lay all day watching the crossing of the rest of the army and dodging pieces of bursting shells. That night gave the last natural sleep of life to many and many a brave soldier.
On Saturday. the 13th day of December, 1862, the fateful battle of Fredericksburg was fought and lost. It seems to have been General Burnside’s plan to do the principal fighting on the left where, it was thought, was the weakest point in the enemy’s line, and when an advantage had been gained. there to assault Marye’s Heights in the rear of the city. General Franklin began his advance on the left at nine a. m., and gained some ground, by noon he had taken a portion of the enemy’s works and had captured three hundred prisoners. The fighting continued here until dark, but the whole attack of Franklin failed, seemingly, because he made use of but part of his force. At noon the attack on Marye’s Heights was begun by the division of General French, the old commander of the Third Brigade. Hancock’s Division followed French’s, the Third Brigade taking the lead.
We filed by the right flank along Water Street, then by the left flank out one of the streets leading west to the open ground beyond the buildings. As we turned west the fun began. The rebel artillery had exact range of every cross street and as our troops appeared they opened fire, raking the line from head to rear. A shell would strike in a body of men and fill the air with pieces of flesh, clothing and accoutrements. One shell struck a man in the back, cut him in two and sent his entrails flying in all directions. When we came within rifle range the boys involuntarily pulled their hats down over their eyes and leaned forward as if breasting a storm. This hail came not from one line of rifle-pits but from one above another and from fifty pieces of artillery. Fifteen hundred yards of open plain had to be crossed, with interfering ditches, broken bridges and rail fences. At one of these fences the Fifty-Seventh halted for a moment and hesitated, as though asking whether it were possible to go farther. It was a momentary hesitation only, and when some one cried “Forward,” the boys climbed over the fence and advanced to the knoll within thirty yards of the stone wall. This was the farthest point reached during the day. What was left of the regiment held this line and kept up the fire for more than three hours. When their ammunition gave out the boys used cartridges from the boxes of dead and wounded comrades. On this knoll occurred many instances of heroism, marking an utter disregard of danger under the very nose of long lines of rebel infantry. At times there were hardly enough bluecoats to form a respectable picket, yet the line was held and became an objective point for the new battalions constantly coming into the fight. The remark of Captain Alcoke that only one man got nearer the stone-wall than he and that man was dead, shows how bravely the regiment faced the danger, how persistently it pressed forward and how manfully it did its duty.
The part taken in this battle by the Fifty-Seventh is graphically portrayed by General Francis A. Walker in his History of the Second Army Corps.
“Hardly had French’s last brigade risen above the sheltering ridge when Hancock’s leading brigade takes its place and awaits the orders to charge. It is the brigade of Zook; and oh! no man of all the thousands who from either side watched its advance, when atlast the word came, will ever forget that peerless example of valor and discipline. Over the crest they swept; Brooke with his renowned Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, Baily with the Second Delaware, Paul Frank with the Fifty-Second New York, the Fifty-Seventh Major Throop, the SixtySixth Captain Wehie, and Bostwick with the TwentySeventh Connecticut. Forward) as steadily as when on parade in old Camp California, this magnificent brigade moved to its hopeless task. Will they succeed? Success indeed in any true sense is impossible. Against blazing musketry, tier on tier, Zook’s men bend themselves as men who breast a furious gale. The brigade has struggled forward to the last of the fences, the stone-wall now less than a hundred yards away. The killed and wounded fall like leaves in autumn, while hundreds of men, brave among the bravest, lie down beneath the storm of lead.”
The attempt to take St. Marye’s Heights in front, with all the conditions so overwhelmingly adverse, was a gigantic folly and only a miracle as great as the folly could have made this battle any other than it was; the most disastrous and unnecessary disgrace of the war. If the Fifty Seventh must sacrifice itself in such an illplanned and ill-starred battle, surely it could ask no higher words of praise than those given above, especially as they are from the pen of one who, as a historian, knew the regiment only by its deeds.
Three hours after the first charge there were yet six men of the Fifty-Seventh on the advanced line and the regimental colors were with them. Corporal George Taylor, Private William Hughes and Sergeant G. Frederick are the only three whose names are now remembered. The problem was to get the colors off the field and thus avoid the disgrace of their loss. It was planned that the men go off in twos, the first couple to take the colors and if they fell, the couple following perhaps would be spared to carry them further, but if not they, then the third couple. Though the fire was yet fierce, it mercifully happened that the time of starting was opportune, and only one of the number, Corpotal Taylor, was seriously wounded, and he was carried off by those who followed.. The rest were formed in line and marched down Water Street, the saved flag laughing in the breeze. We do not chide these soldiers for the feeling of pride that swelled their hearts, or for the flush that crimsoned their cheeks, as cheer after cheer greeted them along the way and the remark “Is that all that’s left of you” told too nearly the truth of the bloody sacrifice of the faithful Fifty-Seventh on that 11th and 13th of December. The climax of cheers, however, was reached when the remains of the regiment, scarce forty men, who had gath ered on the shore of the river and were bemoaning the loss of the colors, beheld the dear old flag floating aloft yet in the hands of its defenders. It is not strange that cheers and congratulations and tears were mingled with earnest thanksgiving at so providential a deliverance from a calamity that no true soldier ever forgets. Special mention of this incident was made by Lieutenant Hall in his report of the battle and soon after there was a new pair of shoulder straps in camp.
Night was a welcome visitor to the broken hosts that lay along the Rappahannock on this evening of the 13th of December. The wounded who were able crawled off the field, and many who were not able were carried off on stretchers. We lay on the shore during the early evening, watching the Confederate shells with burning fuse sail through the air above like lighted balloons, until we saw the flash and heard the report that marked their explosion. Sometimes bursting directly over us, the pieces would thug into the ground uncomfortably near, or splash into the river, or bury themselves in human flesh.
All of the 14th and 15th we lay on our arms expecting a new attack and when on the latter night, about ten o’clock, we were ordered to the front, supposed it was for a night surprise but found it was to cover the return of the army across the river. Here we stumbled in the darkness over muskets and haversacks, striking now and again a tin cup, whose hollow noise would bring a chance shot from the enemy. Finally we lay down among the dead, and remained until about two o’clock, when ordered again to the rear. Then came the shocking experience of trying to wake up the man close to whom we had been snuggling only to find that he was a dead man. Silently we stole away to the city and river, crossed the bridge and soon after day light on the 16th entered again the camp we had left on the night of the 10th.
After a night of solid rest came the usual muster, and accounting for absentees. In addition to those mentioned as wounded on the 11th,. Lieutenant Paul M. Pou was killed, Major Throop, who led the regiment into action, was mortally wounded and died January 12th following. Captain Alcoke lost his left arm. Our total loss on both the 11th and 13th, as corrected by latest returns was one officer and seven men, killed, eight officers and seventy men wounded and one man missing, making a total of eighty-seven. Of the wounded,’ one officer and nine men afterwards died of their wounds. Under a flag of truce, Colonel Brooke with a detail of men crossed the river on the morning of the 17th for the burial of the dead. He found and buried 913 dead soldiers and brought across the river the bodies of five officers. Nearly all these had been stripped by the enemy of clothes and valuables, and left entirely naked. The bodies found nearest the rebel works belonged to the divisions of French and Hancock. A search was made by a detail under Captain Jones for the body of Lieutenant Pou, but without success.
We append here a part of General Hancock’s report of the battle in which he speaks highly of the Fifty-Seventh.
HEADQUARTERS HANCOCK’S DIVISION.
Falmouth, Va., December 25th, 1862.
Major: During the evening of the 10th instant I was instructed to send two regiments of infantry, the Fifty-Seventh New York Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Chapman commanding, and the Sixty-Sixth New York Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Ball commanding, to the Lacy House, immediately opposite Fredericksburg, in order that they might serve as a protecting party to the engineers engaged in the construction of the pontoon bridges, which were to be erected there in the course of the ensuing morning, and to march with the remainder of my division at 6 a. m. to a point on the railroad near the bridge over which the division was to cross the Rappahannock. These orders were complied with, the troops being massed by 8 a. in. on the 11th at the place designated and the two regiments detached arriving at the Lacy House shortly after midnight. During the operations of the 11th instant, Lieutenant-Colonel Chapman of the Fifty-Seventh New York Volunteers was severely wounded. Many valuable officers and men, in the aggregate 150, were killed and wounded. The next morning, the 12th instant, at daylight orders were received to march the entire division into Fredericksburg across the second bridge. At 8 a m. the division had arrived at that, bridge and commenced the passage, the troops of General French’s division crossing the upper bridge at the same time, my division was then formed in line of battle on the street nearest the river, with the left resting on the third bridge over which the Ninth Corps then commenced marching. French’s division then formed the second line in my front and Howard’s the first line in the street nearer the enemy. The troops then advanced, each brigade in succession, under a most murderous fire of artillery and musketry, the artillery fire reaching the troops in a destructive manner in the town even before they had commenced the movement. The distance to overcome by the way the troops were obliged to march before reaching the enemy’s works was probably 1,700 yards. It took an unusually long time to advance that distance as the planking of one of the bridges was found to be partly taken up, requiring the men to cross on the stringers.
Colonel Zook’s brigade was the first in order. As soon as it had formed line, it advanced to the attack with spirit, passing the point at which the preceding troops had arrived, and being joined as it passed by the brave regiments of Kimball’s brigade and some other regiments of French’s division. It failed, however, to take the stone wall behind which the enemy was portioned, although our dead were left within twenty-five paces of it. These troops still held their line of battle in front of the enemy and within close musketry range. The Irish brigade next advanced to the assault. The same gallantry was displayed with the same results. Caidwell’s brigade was next ordered into action and although it behaved with the utmost valor, failed to carry the enemy’s posi
tion. The bravery and devotion of the troops could not have been surpassed, as an evidence of which it is but necessary to mention the losses incurred. Out of 5,006 men, the maximum taken into action by me, the loss was 2,013 men, of whom 156 were commissioned officers. It will be observed that the losses in some of the regiments were of unusual severity, such as is seldom seen in any battle, no matter how prolonged,, these were veteran regiments, led by able and tried commanders, and I regret to say that their places cannot soon be filled.
Colonel S. K. Zook, commanding Third Brigade, led his brigade with spirit, remaining on the field until the close of the fight. He had a horse shot under him during the contest. At the commencement of the engagernent this brigade numbered ninety-two commissioned officers and 1,400 enlisted men. Its loss was thirty-eight commissioned officers and 491 enlisted men killed and wounded. Major N. G. Throop, commanding the Fifty-Seventh New York Volunteers, was very severely wounded in the performance of his duty. LieutenantColonel Chapman having been seriously wounded the day previous. The. Fifty-Seventh numbered 11 commissioned officers and 181 enlisted men. Its loss was nine commissioned officers and seventy-eight enlisted men killed and wounded. This regiment had three commanders during the action, the first two having been disabled.
FRANCIS A. WALKER Assistant Adjutant-General.
The following are extracts taken from the report of Colonel Zook, commanding the Third Brigade:
“Under orders received from General Couch, at General Sumner’s heactquarters, on the’ night of December 10th, I detailed the Fifty-Seventh and Sixty-Sixth New York Volunteers to report to Major Spaulding, of the engineers at the Lacy House to assist in building bridges, and protect the work. The enemy opened fire upon them about 6 a. m. of the 11th. The Fifty-Seventh New York was relieved about 8 a. m. by the Seventh Michigan. Its loss was Lieutenant-Colonel A. B. Chapman,
Captains Mott and Bell, and Lieutenants Brewster and White, wounded, besides two men killed and twentythree wounded. About 8 a. m. on the 12th, the brigade resumed its march at the head of the division, and having crossed the Rappahannock at the Lacy House bridge, took position near the lower bridge, in Fredericksburg. At 12 m. (December 13th) seeing General French’s last regiment filing out past the railroad depot, I directed the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania and Twenty-Seventh Connecticut to pass out by the same route, The Sixty-Sixth and Fifty-Seventh New York, conducted by Lieutenant Charles H. H. Broome, aide-de-camp, moved out through the next street to the eastward, and the Second Delaware and Fifty-Second New York, conducted by Lieutenant J. M. F’avill, aide-de-camp, marched by the street next that taken by Lieutenant Broome. All these commands filed to the right at the outskirts of the town, and formed line of battle, with the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania resting on Hanover street, and the Fifty-Second New York on the railroad. The brigade then advanced rapidly over the crest of the hill nearest the enemy’s line, under a very heavy fire of artillery from the heights, and musketry from a stone wall, sunken road and numerous rifle-pits, charging over the division of its former commander, (General French) and taking a position which was not passed by any other line during the day, though some of Kimball’s men reached it. The regiments of the brigade fought in line, and were commanded as follows: The Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, Colonel John R. Brooke; Twenty-Seventh Connecticut, Colonel Richard S. Bostwick; Sixty-Sixth New York, Captain Julius Wehie, killed; Fifty-Seventh New York, Major N. G. Throop, wounded; Second Delaware, Colonel William P. Baily, slightly wounded, and Fifty-Second New York, Colonel Paul Frank. To my staff I am under great obligations for valuable assistance; especially tb Lieutenants Favill and Broome, for the handsome manner in which they aided in taking the brigade into action. The loss of the brigade in the action of the 13th was, seven commissioned officers killed and thirty-one wounded; fifty-two enlisted men killed, 395 wounded, and forty-two missing. Total 527.”
The report of Captain James W. Britt, commanding the Fifty-Seventh is inserted in full.
Falmouth, Va., Dec. 19th, 1862.
Sir: I have the honor to report that this regiment, in pursuance to orders, moved at 1 a. m. on the 11th, instant, to support the engineers in laying the bridge near the Lacy House, and opposite the city of Fredericksburg. About 4 a. m. the enemy’s sharpshooters opened fire upon us from their concealment in the houses and behind the walls in the city. Being in an exposed place, and the mist adding to the security of the enemy’s position, our situation was a very disagreeable one, and our loss considerable. Lieutenant-Colonel Chapman, commanding the regiment, was wounded soon after the fire of the enemy opened, and taken from the field. About 8 o’clock, the enemy’s fire having been silenced, and having nearly exhausted our ammunition, we were relieved by the Seventh Regiment Michigan Volunteers, when we returned to our former camp. About 2 o’clock we were ordered to join the brigade then lying in the vicinity of the Phillips House, we bivouaced. for the night. After crossing the pontoon bridge at an early hour the next morning, we remained under arms on the river bank until sunset and bivouaced in the same place. Forming with the remainder of the brigade on the morning of the 13th, we remained under arms from half an hour before daybreak until 12, when the regiment moved to the front, crossing the railroad by the right flank, under a heavy fire from infantry and artillery, until our right rested upon the left of the Sixty-Sixth New York Volunteers, when we moved by left flank in line of battle toward the enemy’s works until we reached the crest of a small hill, and within sixty yards of the enemy who were protected by a stone wall running parallel to our lines. The men were ordered to lie down and return the enemy’s fire. After lying in this position for three hours and a half, under a most terrific fire of artillery and musketry, the regiment, being relieved, was withdrawn to the shelter of the town, reoccupying the original position on the bank of the river. Major Throop being severely wounded, the command of the regiment, reduced to eighty-four men present, devolved upon me. In this position we remained, constantly under arms, until the evening of the 15th, when, at 10 p.m. we relieved the pickets of the first line, and were in turn relieved by the Twelfth Regiment of New York Volunteers at about 2 a. m. of the 16th, after which we crossed the pontoon bridge and returned to camp near Falmouth, vacated on the 11th instant. Our loss in the two engagements was nine out of seventeen officers and more than one third of the men present for duty. During both engagements, I am happy to say, the command fully sustained its previous reputation.
Captain Commanding Fifty-Seventy N. V. Vol.
CHAS. P. HATCH,
Acting Assistant Adjutant General
The regiment on dress parade listened to the following fatherly words from President Lincoln:
Washington, Dec. 22d, 1862.
To the Army of the Potomac:
I have just read your commanding General’s report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and recrossed the river, in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government: Condoling with the mourners for the dead and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively so small.
I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the Nation.
It seems strange, though perhaps it is natural, that when events of a very trying nature and of very serious moment are occuring, if anything ridiculous happens, it is likely to bear the same extreme and be supremely ridi culous. No doubt human nature has provided these vents of mirthfulness to relieve the excessive pressure of serious action, just as volcanoes give outlet to the burning masses at the centre of the earth. So in a battle, little things take on the grotesque and many a funny incident is told after the battle, which but for the intensity of the hour would hardly have been noticed. . Amid the death hail of Hazel Dell a soldier trips and creates a laugh; as a ball removes anothers hat, the boys remark about, his politeness; the utter abandon of the situation even makes fun out of the most serious casualties.
On the morning of the 11th while supporting the bridge layers some one was shot and immediately began to yell as though he was being murdered. Above the roar of the firing his voice could be heard crying “I’m shot! I’m shot! take me off! take me off! I shall die! O I shall die!” Sympathetic comrades rushed to his assistance, lifted him up and asked where he was hit. “In the arm,” he shouted, “take me off! take me off! I shall die.” It would hardly be possible for the most skilled artist to reproduce the look of disgust that came over the faces of these would-be helpers; it certainly would not be in place to reproduce their language here, yet leaving out expletives and softening the expressions it might be summarized somewhat as follows: “You crazy fool! if you are only shot in the arm get up and walk; anybody would think your head was shot off.” At a dock near where the regiment lay while in Fredericksburg, cases of tobacco had been sunk by the inhabitants to save them from falling into our hands. Their presence, however, was sornehow discovered, many cases fished up, and the tobacco users each got five or six plugs of good navy tobacco. While moving out of the city to charge the heights, after the railroad had been crossed and the lime kiln passed, a shell struck Albert Taylor, of Company I and scattered his body so that a piece of his skull struck Corporal Lawrence Floyd and knocked him senseless for several minutes. While on the knoll near the stone wall a little fellow was seen crawling along on his hands and knees and dragging behind him by a thread of flesh his broken leg. He seemed unconcerned until spoken to, then yielding somewhat to the pain, asked the way off the field. “Cheer up my brave boy” said the stranger comrade, “follow along that fence and you will get off all right.” On the boy crawled, leaving a trail of ‘wasting blood behind, but whether his strength gave out or a new shot took his life is not known. ‘Such instances are a neccessary part of war, and are too frequent to stir the emotions, yet their impress on one’s memory never fades away.
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
WINFIELD S. HANCOCK.
JAMES W. BRITT,
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