Monday, January 28, 2008
The 129th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Battle Hardened Veterans
How the 129th Charged Up Marye's Heights From Harpers Weekly
The 129th P.V.I. Battle Worn Soldiers
After the failure of General George McClellan’s Peninsular campaign from March thru early July 1862 President Lincoln was confronted with a problem. Where was he to get more troops for the renewal of the war? In 1861 the call to the colors was answered by over 630,000 men. By all rights everyone thought that this many troops could bring a rapid end to this rebellion and by April 1862 all recruiting was put to the halt. This was a terrible mistake. More men were needed to finish this conflict. Lincoln actually thought he needed an Army of one million men. On July 2, 1862 he called for an additional 300,000 men for three years, and again on August 4th for a draft of 300,000 men for nine months.
When the recruiting began in earnest, the marching off to war and joining the colors seemed to have flagged; patriotism, lust for adventure and the general excitement of battle could no longer be counted on except here in Schuylkill County.
Under this call Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin issued a proclamation on July 21, 1862: Part of which reads: To sustain the Government in times of common peril by all his energies, his means, and his life if need be, is the first duty of every loyal citizen. The President of the United States has made a requisition on Pennsylvania for twenty-one new regiments, and the regiments already in the field must be recruited. Under the words of the full proclamation Schuylkill County was required to set a quota of five full companies for the state. A war meeting was held in the Court House and on Tuesday July 29, 1862 the order was enthusiastically responded to by the people of Schuylkill County. Speeches were made and a series of 6 resolutions were passed. War meeting were held in other towns in Schuylkill also, all rallying to the flag.
After the speeches and the patriotic meetings Schuylkill County would furnish the following men and companies: The 129th regiment would supply the most men with 523, 127th, 57 men, 137th, 27 men, 151st , 61 men Captain Wellington Jones Company of Provost Guards 100 and in other nine month regiments a total of 18 men for grand total of 786 men for nine months service.
Now anyone with any kind of knowledge of military operations would know that it takes time to train and equip men for battle. The 129th Regiment the main subject of this story included men from Tamaqua, Port Carbon, Ashland, Pottsville, and Minersville. The remaining companies in the regiment coming from Northampton and Montgomery Counties. All lead by Colonel Jacob Frick.
The point I am trying to make is these short term men were brought together and formed into a cohesive fighting force and in just 277 days of active service were subjected to two of the biggest battles of the Civil War, The Battle of Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The first part of the story deals with the Fredericksburg Battle.
The men were brought to an efficient fighting force by the officers of the regiment lead by the fearless Col. Jacob Frick. At the fierce battle of Fredericksburg the regiment would suffer 15 enlisted men KIA, 90 WIA and 23 missing out of this number Schuylkill County suffered 5 men KIA, 19 men seriously wounded and 1 man missing. Co. H had 9 men captured and then paroled, Co. E, 1 man captured, Co. B one man captured and presumed dead.
An excellent letter was written to the Miners Journal by Major Joseph Anthony about the engagement at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.
FROM THE 129TH REGIMENT, P.V.
Camp Near Falmouth, Va.
December 20, 1862
Dear______; I have been so busy for the last few days making out the returns and reports for the regiment, that it has been impossible for me to sit down and write you after the terrible battle in which we were engaged on the 13th. I escaped without injury, which seems to me almost miraculous, for the bullets and shell flew about me most plentifully, making many a poor fellow bite the dust. So far as I can judge, our brigade was in the hottest fire of the battle, and the wonder is that the regiment was not entirely cut to pieces. As it is we have to report 187 of our regiment among the killed, wounded and missing out of less than 600 who went into the fight.
The newspapers will give you a pretty accurate account of the movements of our division, (Humphrey’s) Butterfields Corps, (5th) and Hookers Grand Division, on that day, and with the aid of maps you can get a very fair idea of the action.
We broke camp early on the morning of the 11th, and were to have been at the river, ready to cross by 9 A.M. The cannonading commenced long before the break of day, principally from our side, for the purpose of clearing the opposite bank of the enemy sharpshooters, so as to enable us to throw up bridges across the river. The attempt was fruitless for a long time, until several boats filled with volunteers from the different regiments pushed themselves across right in the face of the enemy, and soon and soon had the bank of the river and houses nearby cleared of rebel sharpshooters. A good deal of fighting took place in the streets, but the rebels finally took to their heels. It was nearly dark however, by the time this was effected, and in the meantime the air was filled with the roar of the artillery. We encamped about 1 ½ miles from the river, on the hard frozen ground with nothing over us but the clear blue sky, and by the time morning came we were all pretty well chilled. We started early in the morning again and moved forward nearly a mile when we halted. The large number of troops in advance of us, and the resistance met with on the other side, made our movement very slow. We bivouacked for the night in a pine woods, where we were almost suffocated and blinded by the smoke. During the whole of the day the cannonading was continuous and every now and then we could distinguish the sharp rattle of musketry. Dense clouds of smoke hung over the town, and about the batteries of the enemy and our own. The town itself had been fired in a dozen different places and was burning furiously. The sight from the hill near where we were encamped, was magnificent. We could see from right to left of the whole line of batteries, where the contest raged most furiously.
Next morning we moved on again, with our whole division towards the middle pontoon bridge. The cannonading had become more furious than ever, and continued volleys of musketry told that the infantry were at last engaged in close combat. We crossed the river about noon, and the rebels commenced to pepper us with ball and shell from batteries beyond the town. Though without doing us any damage, than giving us lesson in the art of dodging. We had become so well accustomed to the sound and to the shells flying about our heads that no confusion was created in the ranks. As we got into the streets of the town, where we marched and counter marched for an hour and more, the shell fell fast and furiously about us, shattering the buildings and creating havoc all around. Here I saw the first man killed. He belonged to the 13th P.V. and was not more than thirty feet from me when he was struck. He was almost cut in two. He threw up his hands, exclaiming, “Oh, my God! Take me”, and expired almost immediately. I have no doubt the site of this made some of the boys feel quite queer. -a little squeamish, as though playing with such balls was not exactly such harmless sport as many of them had imagined. We deposited our knapsacks and blankets in one of the buildings of the town and then moved toward the outskirts of the town, by a road leading directly from the river to the bluff or high eminence on which most of the enemies batteries were posted. This hill extends in the rear of the town from the river along the whole length of the town and still further both on the right and left, and is perhaps three fourths of a mile from the town. After getting beyond the outskirts of the town, we arrived at a marshy place, near an old tan yard, protected from the principal battery in front by a rise in the ground behind which we lay, but in full view from the batteries on the right. We were not here more than a minute, when from the position where I stood(on my horse) I could see smoke belching out from the battery on the right, and I could see the shell come whizzing right down into our ranks, where it exploded, killing several and wounding others. I could see them drawing the cannon back and reloading it, and firing again. The shots were well directed each time, and two of them came uncomfortably close. They had full chance for sweeping and raking us were we lay, and we thought it about time to look for better quarters.
It looked fearful to see them loading the guns, running them out, firing them, and then see the balls come plunging along almost in a direct line for one’s self-and it required more cool courage to witness this without flinching, than afterward top go into the charge, where everything was excitement and uproar. Lieut. Parvin, Company B was mortally wounded here. He has since died-his father I think lives in Reading. We moved out from this position, and took our position in line of battle on the left of the road, behind a battery which was playing most vigorously on the enemy front. The position was nevertheless a dangerous one, for the shot and shell fell around us and burst over our heads, every now and then stretching some soldier lifeless on the ground. Here we lay until it began to grow dusk, when a charge was ordered for the purpose of capturing a stone wall about 200 yards ahead of us, and behind which the rebels lay, pouring in a destructive fire, and the cannoniers working the batteries were fearfully exposed to shots from the enemies batteries posted behind the stone wall, about half way up the hill, and from all accounts since received , their forces lay thick behind the wall and in a piece of woods running towards the top of the hill. The famous stone wall itself ran along the foot of the hill and afforded safe protection to a large body of the enemy. In addition to this were the rifle pits constructed in front, and the numerous batteries which covered the hill, and you have an idea of the terrible difficulties to be surmounted, and the fearfulness and rashness of the charge to be made in order to capture these works. Several attempts had been made during the day to capture them but without success, and the ground over which we charged, besides being very muddy, was strewn with the dead and dying who had fallen in the previous attempts.
When the order to charge was given, we moved forward with a loud hurrah, and charged at a run, with bayonets fixed, over the gently rising plain towards the enemy. Our line was well preserved, even though we were obliged to pass over two other regiments lying down, and cross a fence that stood in our way. Immediately the batteries began to play upon us from every side and there was a continues line of fire from the top of the stone wall right into our ranks. How the bullets whistled and hissed about our heads, and the shell exploded right in our midst. Nothing could withstand that withering line of fire. Men fell around me on all sides, and it seemed and it seemed almost a miracle that I was untouched. The line was kept in as good order as possible under the circumstances. We advanced to within a short distance of the wall-perhaps 50 or 75 yards-and then flesh and blood could stand it no longer. The line began to waver and part-our advance was checked. We could not keep the gapes in the ranks filled up. The officers did their best to urge the men forward, but it was worse than useless as nothing but death started them in the face. We began to retire, and the enemy seeing this poured in a more destructive fire than ever. Still there was no panic among the men, and although some confusion occurred in the ranks, and retired slowly and deliberately to our first position, where we formed once more, ready to meet an attack from the enemy, which we fully expected after our repulse. Had they attempted it, they would have found us prepared to receive them with unbroken ranks. By this time it had grown quite dark; still the rattle of musketry and the thundering of the cannon continued until long after. The charge our brigade made was the most spirited of the whole day, and we advanced nearer the enemy position than any other troops. From the time we first started on the charge to the time we returned, was scarcely more than fifteen or twenty minutes; yet in that short time one hundred and thirty seven of our men had fallen either killed wounded, or afterwards discovered to be among the missing. Nine officers of the regiment were either killed or wounded, and so far as I know there was not one who faltered or hung back.
Our Colonel exposed himself fearlessly, keeping the line in good order, and cheering the men forward in that fearful advance; and afterwards when we were compelled to retire, restored the lines once more, so as to be prepared for any movement of the enemy. We remained in this position until long after dark, and the firing had almost entirely ceased-a few stray shots from the pickets were all that could be heard.
Late at night we moved back to town and rested for a time on the sidewalk of one of the streets, tired, weary and dirty. We were called into line again after midnight and once more moved out to the field. It presented a terrible sight. The dead lay all around us, in every conceivable position, the groans of the wounded and dying filled the air-one poor fellow who had a terrible wound in the side, begged to be shot so as to put him out of his misery. You could also hear the groans of the rebel wounded, as they lay behind the stone wall. Broken muskets were strewn over the ground-some of the dead held their guns firmly in their hands, as though unwilling to give them up, though the power to use them had long since departed, and they had been summoned to another land, far away. It was a sight never to be forgotten. We lay in our old position until morning, wet, cold and hungry, and then moved back again to the town, having been relived by other troops.
We found shelter in some of the deserted houses. The Field and Staff of the regiment procured ample accommodations in the “Planters Hotel”- a fine three story brick- we occupied the “ladice parlor” had fine mattresses to sleep on, an old fashioned piano to discourse sweet music, plenty of flour in the larder, out of which we baked “flap jacks, an abundance of kitchen utensils enough to supply several regiment.
The accommodations were extensive and the food very good for the soldier accustomed to nothing but hard bread and salt pork. The place had evidently been left very hastily, just before breakfast time, for the table was set, the spoons in the sugar bowls, the cups and saucers ready to be filled with rye coffee. I presume, and the table cloth spread. I did not get there in time to see what kind of meats and preserves the proprietor had intended to regal his guests with that morning, probably however the usual beef steak was on the table, with corn cakes, “hog and hominy”.
Here we remained until Monday night when we were ordered out on picket duty, and set to work digging trenches, rifle pits, breastworks etc. We expected hot work the next morning, and worked like beavers to put ourselves into the proper condition to receive rebs. At about one o’clock we were relived and marched down to the lower part of the town, where we remained for several hours. We wondered what it all meant, though we had a suspicion that an evacuation was planned. About 4 o’clock we received orders to move and were marched directly across the river to this side, without giving us any opportunity of getting the knapsacks and blankets or tents of the men. We trudged along through the rain and mud, and at last reached an old camp. It has been intensely cold ever since, and the men have suffered terribly without shelter and without blankets.
Colonel Jacob Frick had nothing but praise for the men of the 129th, he raised the regiment and trained the men at every opportunity. They were lead by a true hero, who very shortly would earn the Medal of Honor for actions at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg.
Colonel Frick stated in his official after action report about the fight at Fredericksburg :
I have but little to add to the above record. It speaks volumes for the men of my regiment, and I cannot speak too highly of their conduct. In the terrible conflict of Saturday, December 13, I believe every officer and every soldier was in his proper place and did his whole duty. Their blood has been shed freely for the preservation of the Government and the maintenance of free institutions, and they will be remembered by a grateful people.
To Lieut. Col Armstrong, who had his horse shot under him I am much indebted for valuable assistance on the field. He was cool and courageous; everywhere where duty called him encouraging the men and urging them forward. To Major Anthony I am also indebted for valuable service in this action. He again displayed that courage and ability that characterized his conduct on other fields since the commencement of the war. Adjutant Green discharged his whole duty regardless of personal peril, and exhibited a cool courage that cannot be too highly commended.
The gallantry on that fatal field by our brave volunteers, under circumstances which did not admit of hope of success, is but another proof of their unconquerable determination to suppress the rebellion and maintain the integrity of our Union at every sacrifice.