Title: Fifty-first New-York City Veterans
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: October 29, 1864
Publication information: New-York Times 29 October 1864: 2.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00199
Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Elizabeth Lorang
cropped image 1
Fifty-first New-York City Veterans.
OUR OLD COMPANIONS—THREE YEARS OF GENUINE SERVICE—TWELVE THOUSAND MILES TRAVELED, FIFTEEN STATES MARCHED OVER—BATTLES EVERYWHERE—ROANOKE, NEWBERN, BULL RUN, CHANTILLY, SOUTH MOUNTAIN, ANTIETAM, FREDERICKSBURGH, VICKSBURGH, JACKSON, WILDERNESS, SPOTTSYLVANIA, COLD HARBOR AND PETERSBURGH.
This war-worn old city regiment, whose first three years have expired, is now just entering a new term, under peculiar circumstances, with most of its command in captivity, and the remnant in camp south of Petersburgh,1 near Poplar Grove Church.2 Our readers will remember that the main body of the Fifty-first, officers and men, had the misfortune to be taken by the rebels, Sept. 30, on the extreme left, on or near the very ground we now hold. Casual mention has been made of them in the correspondence from the front the last few days; but their career has been too marked a one, and must be run over from the beginning.
The Fifty-first New-York Volunteers are a part of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps, were recruiting in New-York and Brooklyn cities in the Summer of 1861, were known as the "Shephard Rifles," (from ELLIOT F. SHEPARD, a valued friend of the regiment,) and started from here in October '61, under Colonel, now Gen. FERRERO,3 as a part of BURNSIDE'S North Carolina expedition.4 After a dangerous sea-voyage, they were first under fire at Roanoke, February, 1862;5 fought with spirit and coolness from the first, and the next month were in the battle of Newbern;6 in these engagements losing, in killed and wounded, some twelve officers and one hundred and fifty men. (The Fifty-first has always lost heavily in officers.)
Ordered north in July, the regiment (we skip rapidly over many of its journeys, stoppages, and even some of its fights, as space forbids describing them,) took active part in the second Bull Run.7 In the battle the second day, Aug. 30, they rendered important service in defending our artillery and trains on the retreat, and saving them. The regiment lost ninety-two men in this fight. Col. FERRERO having been promoted, Lieut.-Col. R. B. POTTER was now commissioned as Colonel.8
Pretty soon followed the battle of Chantilly, which was fought in a heavy rain.9 Soon again the night engagement at South Mountain. In these they lost 35 men. A few days subsequently found them in the thickest at Antietam, (Sept. 17, 1862,) charging the well-known and hard-contested stone bridge.10 Several efforts to get the bridge had proved futile, when about 1 o'clock, according to orders, Col. POTTER led the attack, with the cry of "Charge the bridge." It was taken after a sharp conflict. The regiment lost 100 men here. The Fifty-first Pennsylvania, same brigade, deserve equal mention in taking the bridge.
Their campaign in all the latter of this Summer, (1862,) and during the Fall and early Winter, made the regiment hardened soldiers. They were on the march, fighting, advancing or retreating, for nearly four months, with seldom any intermission. It was life on the bivouac in earnest, sleeping on the ground where night overtook them, and up and on again the next day, with battle or pursuit every week, and often men falling by the road from utter exhaustion. Thus they promenaded, by rapid marches, amid heat, dust, rain or snow, crossing mountains, fording rivers, &c., often without food to eat or water to drink, all those parts of Stafford, Culpepper, Prince William, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudon, and the other counties in Virginia; and of Frederick and Washington Counties in Northwestern Maryland, which formed the field of the eventful contest of that period.
Bringing up again on the Rappahannock, near Falmouth, next follows the sanguinary engagement of first Fredericksburgh, (Dec. 13, 1862,) where the regiment lost heavily.11 By this time, indeed, their 1,100 to 1,200 men, (counting recruits since they came out,) had been pretty well exhausted; only about 150 to 200 remaining for duty.
Breaking camp on the Rappahannock during the Winter, the latter part of February, 1863, found the regiment camped at Newport's News, and the next month moving by way of Baltimore, and thence to Pittsburgh, Penn., (where the ladies gave them a first-rate dinner,) and so through Columbus, Cincinnati, &c., down into Kentucky, which at that time, and during April and May, 1863, was threatened by rebel invasion.
June and July, 1863, found the Fifty-first in the forces under Gen. GRANT,12 operating against Vicksburgh.13 On the fall of that stronghold they were pushed off under SHERMAN14 as part of a small army toward Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. This was a tough little campaign.15 The drouth and excessive heat, the dust everywhere two or three inches thick, fine as flour, rising in heavy clouds day after day as they marched, obscuring everything and making it difficult to breathe, will long be remembered. The Fifty-first was the second regiment entering Jackson at its capture, July 17, 1863.
Following this they were in active service in Kentucky and Tennessee, (we still omit, on account of space, many movements and operations,) till the regiment, what there was left of it, quite altogether reenlisting, returned to New-York on thirty days' furlough. Rendezvousing after this (March, 1864,) at Annapolis, and now filled up with new men to about their original complement, they again saw the Southwest as far as Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville; &c., whence they were rapidly returned to join the rest of the Ninth Corps, and make junction toward Brandy Station16 and Culpepper17 with the Army of the Potomac.
Thence through the past Summer, all through the sanguinary, resolute and most glorious campaign of GRANT from the Rapidan to the James, and so to the Weldon Railroad region, the Fifty-first have been active participants. In the mortal contests of the Wilderness18 and at Spottsylvania,19 in May, they lost heavily. In one of the former, Col. LE GENDRE20 was wounded, the bones of the face broken and an eye destroyed. (R. B. POTTER, former Colonel, was now division General.) At Cold Harbor they came near being flanked and taken, but got off by bold movements and fighting, with the loss of sixteen men. In brief, almost every week this pending campaign has seen a funeral in New-York or Brooklyn of some officer or man of the Fifty-first, their bodies being forwarded to friends. Not an original officer remains. Most of the officers have been promoted from the ranks. The regiment has, indeed, had some three or four crops of officers.
In the advance at the mine explosion before Petersburgh, July 30,21 the Fifty-first lost, among others, Capt. SAMUEL H. SIMS, Acting Lieutenant-Colonel, a much-beloved officer, killed instantly. A day or two afterward, Lieut. CHARLES BUNKER was killed. The fight of July 30 was a hard one, the enemy enfilading our men and placing the Fifty-first in great danger. Maj. J. G. WRIGHT, commanding, was injured by a solid shot and taken to the rear. During the rest of the engagement the command devolved upon Capt. GEORGE W. WHITMAN, who was subsequently specially mentioned in the official report of the affair for this and a long previous career of skill and courage as a soldier.22
Finally in an engagement (the papers have called it battle of Poplar Grove,) on the extreme left, toward the evening of the 30th of September, the Fifty-first had the bad luck to be captured almost entire.23 Our men, in considerable strength, (two divisions Ninth Corps, and two Fifth Corps, with some cavalry,) stretched out in the forenoon from the left, intending an endeavor toward the southerly of the two railroads running from the enemy's region directly west to Burkesville. We met with some success at first at PEEBLE'S farm,24 but about five o'clock in the afternoon the Second Division Ninth Corps in advance, encountered strong rebel works on an acclivity, up which they attempted to press, but were repulsed. The secesh troops being reinforced and sallying down in turn attacked us. Their charge was vehement, and caused that part of our force on the right of the Fifty-first to give way, whereupon the enemy rapidly throwing a powerful flanking column through the gap thus made, completed the disaster by cutting off the Fifty-first and some other troops, who formed the extreme left, and after a sharp tussel capturing them, under circumstances honorable to the regiment. There were ten companies captured, of from 30 to 40 men each, and the following officers: Maj. John G. Wright, Acting Colonel; Capt. George W. Whitman, Acting Lieutenant-Colonel; Lieut. Frank Butler, wounded; Lieuts. S. M. Pooley, W. T. Ackerson, J. Carberry, H. Groenomeyer, F. E. Waldron, W. Caldwell, J. Loghran, Martin Witbeck, C. W. Hoyme, P. H. Sims, and Acting Adjutant S. J. Murden. Thomas Farmer, Acting Lieutenant, wounded, was taken, but was exchanged. About half the Lieutenants named above were acting officers, not commissioned. There is a remnant of the Fifty-first still in the field, in camp near Poplar Grove Church, though but a small number, and what officers are left we do not know, except Lieut. WM. E. BABCOCK and also Lieut. F. B. MCREADY, wounded badly at Wilderness, partially recovered, but preferring to return to service. Capt. C. W. WALTON, we hear, escaped capture. DANIEL DELAMY, Acting Sergeant-Major, was captured.
We have, of course, only given a broken outline of the regiment, its history, officers and men, with many omissions. Col. LE GENDRE (disabled May 5, and lingering long with his wounds,) has lately resigned. Capt. WRIGHT, served three years, has just been mustered out of service. As we compile this account, it is just three years since the regiment originally left New-York. We should mention that the Forty-fifth Pennsylvania suffered badly at the fight of Sept. 30; also the Twenty-first Massachusetts (an old and brave comrade regiment with the Fifty-first, and to whom most all the foregoing account of marches will apply,) also the Seventh Rhode Island. Capt. WHITMAN has been heard from since by his relatives in Brooklyn, by letter written in a rebel prison at Petersburgh by him a few days after the capture; he was well and Lieut. POOLEY was with him.25
Thus the first three years of the Fifty-first are up. During that time they have sailed the Atlantic through the heaviest storms, (lost several of their men at sea) trod the sands of the Southern Coast and fought upon them, repeatedly marched and fought over the entire seat of war in Northwestern Maryland and Eastern Virginia, campaigned in most parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, been up and down fifteen States, active participants in more than twenty general engagements and sieges of strongholds, and twice that number of fights, skirmishes, and expeditions of the second or third class, traveled over twelve thousand miles, been under BURNSIDE, POPE, MCCLELLAN, MCDOWELL, MEADE, SHERMAN and GRANT, and made a good honest expenditure in the war of some two thousand men, counting the men and officers now in captivity.
All honor and reverence to these, and to all our old campaigners! They are not forgotten, whether in captivity or in camp, or whatever has befallen them. Thousands, aye millions, of hearts, are turning to them night and day wherever they are.
1. The first two major battles of the Siege of Petersburg (Virginia, June 9, and June 15–18, 1864) were Confederate victories. [back]
2. There had been a Battle of Poplar Grove earlier that month, alternately known as the Battle of Poplar Spring Church or the Battle of Peebles' Farm (Virginia, September 30–October 2, 1864). Union General George Meade defeated Confederate General A. P. Hill. [back]
3. Edward Ferrero, a dance instructor at West Point before the war, was a famous Italian-American leader during the Civil War. After the war he continued teaching dance lessons at the ballroom of Tammany Hall in New York City. [back]
4. General Ambrose Burnside replaced General George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862. He was replaced by General Joseph Hooker in January 1863. [back]
5. The Battle of Roanoke Island (North Carolina, February 7–8, 1862) was the first battle of the Burnside Expedition in North Carolina. Union General Burnside defeated Confederate General Henry Wise in this amphibious operation. [back]
6. The Battle of New Bern (North Carolina, March 14, 1862) followed the Union victory at Roanoke, and was another victory for Burnside, who this time defeated Confederate General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch. [back]
7. In the Second Battle of Bull Run (Virginia, August 29–30, 1862), Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated Union General John Pope. With casualties totaling around 20,000, this battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. [back]
8. Robert B. Potter enlisted in the 51st New York Infantry in October 1861 and was promoted to colonel in September 1862. With the 51st, he participated in Burnside's North Carolina Expedition, and, like George Whitman, he was wounded at Fredericksburg. In 1863, Potter was promoted to brigadier general, and he commanded troops at Vicksburg and Knoxville. As major-general, he commanded troops in the battles at the Wilderness and Petersburg in 1864. [back]
9. The Battle of Chantilly (also the Battle of Ox Hill; Virginia, September 1, 1862), fought between Union General Pope and Confederate General Lee, yielded inconclusive results, though the Union claimed it a victory. [back]
10. The Battle of Antietam (Maryland, September 17, 1862) was the bloodiest single-day battle in U. S. history, with casualties totaling between 23,000 and 26,000 men. Though the battle was a tactical stalemate, Union General McClellan gained the strategic advantage over Confederate General Lee by depleting Lee's recently replenished troops. [back]
11. In the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia, December 13, 1862), General Lee defeated General Burnside. Whitman's brother, George Washington Whitman, was wounded in this battle. [back]
12. Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Union armies in March 1864 and remained General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army until 1869, when he began his first term as President of the United States. During the Siege of Vicksburg (May 1863), he was commander of the Army of the Tennessee. [back]
13. In the Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi, May 18–July 4, 1863), Union General Ulysses S. Grant defeated Confederate General John Pemberton. [back]
14. Union Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman would become most famous for his "March to the Sea" in November–December 1864; his use of total war tactics left Georgia in ruins. [back]
15. In the Battle of Jackson (Mississippi, May 14, 1863), Union Major-General Grant defeated Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and Brigadier General John Gregg during his Vicksburg campaign. [back]
16. Brandy Station was the location of the largest cavalry battle of the war (Pennsylvania, June 9, 1863) and marked the opening of the Gettysburg Campaign. [back]
17. There was a skirmish at Culpeper Court House (Virginia, September 13, 1863) that fell between the Gettysburg and Bristoe Campaigns in Pennsylvania and Virginia, respectively. Union Major-General Alfred Pleasonton defeated Confederate Major-General J. E. B. Stuart. [back]
18. The Battle of the Wilderness (Virginia, May 5–,6 1864) was the first battle of General Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought between Union General Grant and Confederate General Lee; the results of the battle were inconclusive. [back]
19. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (Virginia, May 8–21, 1864) was also part of General Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought between Union Generals Grant and Meade and Confederate General Lee. [back]
20. Charles Le Gendre was a French-born Union officer of the New York 51st Regiment. After the war he became a diplomat to China, Japan, and Korea. Whitman wrote a brief letter to Le Gendre on February 27, 1863, prior to the publication of this article. [back]
21. On July 30, 1864 in Petersburg, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate line, which proved a tactical mistake for the Union. The crater created by the explosion became a trap for soldiers, and the resulting Battle of the Crater saw many Union casualties. Ultimately, Confederates under General Lee defeated General Burnside's Union troops, and Burnside was fired for these tactical errors. [back]
22. George Washington Whitman, Walt Whitman's younger brother by ten years, served in the New York 51st during the Civil War and was wounded at the First Battle of Fredericksburg. [back]
23. In the Battle of Poplar Grove, alternately the Battle of Poplar Spring Church or the Battle of Peebles' Farm (Virginia, September 30–October 2, 1864), Union General George Meade defeated Confederate General A. P. Hill. [back]
24. Peebles' Farm was located near Poplar Spring Church and was the site of the Battle of Peebles' Farm (see above note). [back]