Sunday, April 01, 2007
Civil War the Final Year
While guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Patterson's Creek on February 2, 1864, a Confederate Cavalry force of 28 men commanded by Major Harry Gilmore swept in on Company F of the 54th at noon just as they were sitting down to dinner. One Federal soldier was killed, eight wounded and eight escaped by running off and hiding. The rest were marched off to captivity.
The prisoners were herded over the mountains to the Shenandoah Valley pike, reaching Harrisonburg in three days, and then moving on the next day to Staunton. From there they were taken to Richmond by rail and introduced to Belle Isle prison. Near the end of March they were again placed in cars and this time they were sent to Andersonville Prison, newly opened in March of 1864 and receiving its first 500 prisoners in late February. These men from Lehigh County would remain in this terrible hell until released in April 1865, 13 months of dreadful suffering. Not all returned. At least seven died in prison within the first six months of captivity.
It was in March of 1864 that General U. S. Grant became the General Chief of all Union forces and from that point forward the Union Army would be a unified force with a renewed effort to bring the terrible war to a close.
In early May, the Army of the Potomac marched into the Virginia Wilderness, scene of some of the previous years humiliation at Chancellorsville. The Battle of the Wilderness, which lasted two days was inconclusive, but proved costly for both sides.
A few days later, May 8, 1864, the Union Army was en route to Richmond, believing that they had flanked the Army of Northern Virginia, but were astonished to find a line of Confederates waiting for them at Spotsylvania. The Union troops were so tired from having marched double-time to that point that they could do little more than stagger toward the Confederate line. A stray bullet dropped General John Sedgewick in his tracks. His last words were; "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."
Four days of intense fighting ensued. Finally, on May 12, a day that was drizzly and blanketed with fog, a wave of 20,000 Yankees rolled out of the fog and over the Confederate breastworks. Lee ordered a counterattack and the Union troops were driven back over the breastworks. Near the 'angle', savage hand-to-hand combat was the order of the day. Bayonets, swords, muzzle against muzzle, muskets used as clubs, the fighting was fierce and deadly. Wild cheers, savage yells, shouts and frantic shrieks rose above the sighing of the wind and the pattering of the rain. Even the darkness of night and the rain could not stop the contest. The battle did not end until after midnight. At three o' clock in the morning, the Confederates pulled back to a new line.
Skirmishing and maneuvering continued at Spotsylvania for another seven days. Then, on May 19, Grant tried again to slip around Lee's flank toward Richmond. And again, Lee raced to stop the Army of the Potomac.
Next came the Battle of Cold Harbor on the 3rd of June and which proved to be a Union failure. The bluecoats fell in waves. Union casualties totaled 7,000. Confederate losses were only around 1,500. Grant would later state: "I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered." He added, "No advantage whatever was gained from the heavy loss we sustained."
th Pennsylvania Volunteers
By mid-May the Army of West Virginia, under command of General Franz Sigel, had moved south to New Market where it met a mixed Confederate force under General Breckinridge. Among the Confederates were 258 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. The battle was distinguished by the brave, charging cadets against an artillery battery and the subsequent retirement of the Union force north to Cedar Creek. This was the first engagement of the 54th Pennsylvania as a regiment since its formation almost three years before in 1861. It had suffered losses in earlier actions but only at company level for it was always assigned guard duty along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in detached company units.
General David Hunter replaced Sigel and in early June, started south, up the Shenandoah Valley. His mission was to fulfill Grant's thrust against Lynchburg and Hunter moved south into Lexington burning and despoiling the countryside. While occupying Lexington with a force of about 18,000, he ordered the burning of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). From Lexington, Maj. Gen. David Hunter advanced against the Confederate rail and canal depots and the hospital complex at Lynchburg. Reaching the outskirts of town on June 17, his first tentative attacks were thwarted by the timely arrival by rail of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s II Corps vanguard from Charlottesville. Hunter withdrew the next day after sporadic fighting because of a critical shortage of supplies. His line of retreat through West Virginia took his army out of the war for nearly a month and opened the Shenandoah Valley for a Confederate advance into Maryland. It was during the action at Lynchburg that the 54th Pennsylvania sustained the highest loss of any unit in General Hunter's Army.
After chasing Hunter off into West Virginia, Early received orders to continue north down the valley, cross the Potomac and menace Washington D.C. At dawn, October 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early surprised the Federal army at Cedar Creek and routed the VIII and XIX Army Corps. Commander Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan arrived from Winchester to rally his troops, and, in the afternoon, launched a crushing counterattack, which recovered the battlefield. This action brought the 47th Pennsylvania back North into the Shenandoah Valley where, in battle at Cedar Creek in October, it would sustain the highest battle loss of all Union infantry regiments engaged which would, in turn, contribute the greatest loss of men from the Lehigh County in the entire war.
In In September 1864 men from Lehigh County were coming forth to collect a bounty of $400 t0 $600 dollars to enlist in the newly formed 202nd PVI with a commitment of one year of service. Another one-year regiment, the 209th PVI, along with the 202nd were filled with men from Allentown and Slatington.
As 1865 arrived it was not until March 1865 that military units containing Lehigh County men went into action when on the 25th, the Confederates attacked Fort Stedman at Petersburg, Virginia. In the counterattack the 209th lost five killed and 50 wounded, Company H suffering six wounded of which two were mortal.
Now it was just a matter of days. Lee was in retreat, but the unlucky 54th Pennsylvania still had more casualties to endure. On the 5th of April the 54th along with another regiment, was assigned the destruction of High Bridge to cut Lee's line of retreat. At Rice's Station within sight of the bridge, the whole command was surrounded and captured by a Rebel force. Although this was not the end of the war, it was the end of combat for these soldiers of Lehigh County.
The Civil War ended on 9 April, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General U. S, Grant.
When the last of the veterans of the Civil War passed into eternity in the 1930's, not one of their grave markers would bear the name of their political party. "Civil War Veteran" was the highest honor. Even those that deserted in dishonor are buried with the same distinction, a testament to the deep national pride in the cause. To be even tangentially associated with the War of the Rebellion was enough to be noted as "Veteran" in death.
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