The 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was one of over 215 volunteer regiments authorized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for service in the American Civil War. Organized at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg in October 1861, it left the state for Washington, DC on November 7, where it was assigned to what would eventually be one of the most hard fought organizations of the “Army of the Potomac”- the Second Corps.
John Rutter Brooke, of Pottstown, Montgomery County, was commissioned Colonel of the 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment on the 21st of August, 1861. The twenty three year old Brooke had previously served as a captain in the Fourth Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment (three months’ service), and he immediately commenced recruiting his own regiment. By late September, the first companies had been organized and the first company was mustered into the service of the United States on September 28 at Camp Curtin. Ten companies were eventually formed and assigned to Brooke’s command: Company “A” was recruited in Brooke’s home of Pottstown in Montgomery County, “B” in Chester and Montgomery, “C” in Blair and Huntingdon, “D” in Centre and Clearfield, “E” in Carbon and Union, “F” in Luzerne, “G” in Potter, “H” in Northumberland, “I” in Juniata and “K” in Westmoreland. The regiment organized, John R. Brooke was elected colonel with Richard McMichael of Reading in Berks County, lieutenant colonel, Thomas Yeager of Allentown in Lehigh County, to the position of major, and Charles P. Hatch of Philadelphia was appointed adjutant. Clothing and equipment was issued and the men began the oft-times monotonous duty of drill, standing guard, and other duties. While at Harrisburg, the regiment performed provost guard duty in the city.
On the 7th of November, the 53rd moved to Washington and encamped north of the Capitol before crossing the Potomac River on the 27th, and went into camp near Alexandria, VA. There, the regiment was assigned to the brigade commanded by General William. H. French, General William Sumner’s Division, of the newly organized Army of the Potomac. The 53rd remained at Alexandria during the winter of 1861-62 and soon fell into a routine of daily drill in rain or sunshine, and other soldier duties. The men also learned military discipline, a sometimes difficult course to take for young men away from home, many for the first time, with the excitement of Washington so close by. The regiment participated in the general advance of the Army of the Potomac under Irwin McDowell toward Manassas Junction, VA in March 1862, which had been evacuated by Confederate forces on the 12th. On March 21, Brooke’s command supported General O.O. Howard’s Brigade in its reconnaissance to Warrenton Junction and beyond to the Rappahannock River. The regiment remained near the junction until ordered to return to Manassas, VA on March 23 and thence back to Alexandria. Upon the re-organization of the army that spring, French’s brigade was designated as the Third Brigade in the First Division, Second Corps. General Sumner having moved up to corps command, the division was now commanded by General Israel Richardson.
The Second Corps was transferred with the army to the Peninsula to take part in General George McClellan’s drive on Richmond, up the peninsula from Fort Monroe. The first action the regiment took part in was near Yorktown during the siege of the city, the 53rd being in reserve until the city was abandoned on May 4, 1862. The Confederates having retreated from Yorktown and its outposts, the 53rd regiment moved through the city and late that afternoon, marched through a driving rain storm toward Williamsburg. It was ordered back to Yorktown on May 6th where it remained until the 12th when it was transported to West Point at the head of York River, where the Second Corps was concentrated before moving slowly toward Richmond’s outskirts. Instead of fighting, the 53rd assisted engineers in constructing the famous “grapevine bridge” across the Chickahominy River, from May 28 to the 30th. Doubtless, many of the men wondered, as they felled trees and shoveled earth, whether they would ever see any of the rebels they had enlisted to do battle with. They did not have much longer to wait.
The 53rd’s first major battle was at Fair Oaks, Virginia, on June 1, 1862. Sent into the middle of the battle, the regiment was “thrown into temporary confusion, (but) rallied and in a short time forced the enemy from his line. The 53rd’s conduct on this occasion was such as to elicit the commendation of the commanding generals.” Major Yeager was killed in the early portion of the fight, “while gallantly leading his men” and was one of the ninety-six men killed, wounded, and missing in the regiment. The 53rd bivouacked on the battlefield that night and in the following days supported a Union battery on the York River Railroad. On June 27, Confederate forces under “Stonewall” Jackson attacked the northern flank or “right” of the army near Gaines’ Mill. Richardson’s division was rushed forward to the assistance of General Fitz John Porter’s corps, crossed the Chickahominy and came under fire of Confederate artillery and infantry. Forming in line of battle, the 53rd covered the Union withdrawal and at midnight silently re-crossed the Chickahominy. As narrated by Samuel Bates in his History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861 – 1865, “Here began the memorable ‘change of base,’ in which it was the arduous duty of Sumner’s Corps to cover the rear of the retreating army. The post of honor and of danger – the rear of the read-guard – was assigned to the Third Brigade. At the battle of Peach Orchard (near Savage’s Station) on the 29th, the 53rd participated in a fierce engagement where casualties occurred, but none were killed. Immediately after the close of the action, General Sumner rode up and complimented the regiment for its bravery, saying, ‘You have done nobly, but I knew you would do so.'”
The Confederate pursuit that caught up with Sumner’s Corps near Savage’s Station on June 29th resulted in a pitched battle necessary to protect Union supplies and wounded near the railroad station. The 53rd occupied a position in a wood parallel to the railroad, unfortunately favored by the high ranged shot and shell of the rebel artillery, and traded several volleys with Confederates of Magruder’s command. After a short but desperate encounter, the enemy withdrew and at midnight the line of retreat was silently resumed, leaving behind 2,500 sick and wounded Union soldiers to the mercy of the Confederates. French’s brigade acted as rearguard for the corps as it withdrew the field that night, the route lit by burning wagons and bonfires. The brigade, “standing fearlessly alone in midnight darkness, was holding in check almost at the point of the bayonet, one-half the rebel army, while friends from whom no succor could be expected were swiftly moving to the rear” through the dismal White Oak Swamp. At daylight the regiment reached White Oak Creek, beyond the corps had concentrated. After crossing the creek , the 53rd immediately began destroying the bridge when Confederate skirmishers made an appearance and opened fire on the Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers as they set fire to the structure. A number of Confederate batteries opened fire on the Union lines, though did little damage. Although not seriously engaged, the regiment lost several men wounded. The 53rd withdrew from the battlefield with its brigade soon after midnight and marched to Malvern Hill, arriving on the morning of July 1. Though constantly under artillery fire throughout the engagement that day, no further loses were inflicted on the regiment.
The duty assigned to the 53rd Pennsylvania in the “change of base” from the Chickahominy River to the James River, “was of such an important nature as to merit and receive the thanks of the Commanding General as well as of the intermediate commanders, and Colonel Brooke was highly complimented for the skillful and soldierly qualities displayed in conducting his command successfully through so many perils.” The 53rd camped with the corps near Harrison’s Landing on the James River until the 16th of August. While here, the Sixty-fourth New York Infantry was temporarily attached to the regiment for drill, discipline, and camp duty, all under command of Major Octavius S. Bull, promoted to fill the vacancy left by the death of Major Yeager. Colonel Brooke was placed in temporary command the brigade at this time, vice General French who was ill. Lieutenant Colonel McMichael took absence of leave on account of sickness and was among over a hundred men of the regiment who suffered from illnesses such as dysentery and malaria during this campaign.
On August 16th, the 53rd marched to Yorktown and then to Newport News where it embarked for Alexandria, arriving on the 28th and camped next day at Lee’s Farm near the Aqueduct Bridge. The dull thud of cannon from the Second Battle of Bull Run was distinctly heard on this day and the men, “eager to again meet the foe”, left camp in light marching order at 2 A.M. of the 30th, headed towards Centreville, which was reached the following day. The brigade was promptly deployed in line of battle to protect the exposed flanks of the Union army in its retreat from Bull Run, and “again Sumner’s Corps was interposed between the enemy and our retreating troops.” It was near Vienna, Virginia, that the regiment and one section of a battery were placed on the Leesburg Turnpike to guard the flank of the column. Suddenly, Confederate cavalry appeared and charged upon the Union column between the pike and Chain Bridge, separating the 53rd from the main column. Recognizing the danger, Colonel Brooke immediately rushed his regiment at “double-quick” down the pike to rejoin the last of the column before the southerners could cut off their retreat.
On the 3rd of September 1862, the 53rd re-joined the army at Tenallytown, Maryland. Soon after, General French left the brigade to take command of the Third Division of the Second Corps and Colonel Brooke assumed command of the brigade, a post he would hold off and on for the remainder of his Civil War service. This change took place at the height of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, his army having crossed the Potomac River in a bold move to take the war out of Virginia and hopefully have Marylanders revolt against Federal authority. Back in command, General McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac from Washington into central and western Maryland to corral Lee’s army concentrated behind the South Mountains. Brooke’s Third Brigade moved rapidly with the rest of the Second Corps to Frederick and thence to South Mountain where it was held in reserve during the fighting there on September 14. The next day it moved in pursuit, skirmishing during the morning with enemy cavalry near Boonsboro and Keedysville. Lee’s army was found to be in a strong position beyond Antietam Creek around the village of Sharpsburg, and September 16 was spent maneuvering for position, the regiment being under some long-range artillery fire.
At 4 A.M. the next morning, the 53rd left its temporary bivouac on the Keedysville Road and marched a mile northwest to a ford on Antietam Creek where the rest of the Second Corps crossed. General Richardson formed his division in lines of battle on the Roulette Farm, with the 53rd placed on the extreme right of the division. To the right and rear of the regiment was an orchard, immediately in front of which was the Miller cornfield where the battle raged throughout the early morning hours. Not quite one-half mile ahead of the division was a “sunken road” occupied by a North Carolina brigade and an Alabama brigade, with a second line placed behind a stone wall on a slight ridge that covered the road and open approaches. Initial charges on the road met with disaster, including the mortal wounding of General Richardson. Finally the order came for “French’s Brigade” to move up and charge the enemy position. The 53rd “changed front to the rear and advance(ed) at double-quick,” driving back a dense skirmish line and falling upon the collapsing defense of the sunken lane. The “short but desperate contest” drove back Lee’s thin line, but further penetration beyond the road could not be accomplished. The 53rd was ordered to the support of a battery in a nearby orchard, where they remained for the rest of the day under constant artillery fire. Lieutenant Weaver of Company K, a brave young officer, was mortally wounded during this time and carried from the battlefield by the men of his company. Twenty-eight Pennsylvanians of the regiment were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.
On September 22nd, the regiment forded the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry and encamped on the following day on Bolivar Heights. Here the regiment received full rations and new shoes and clothing to replace the faded blouses, coats and trousers worn by most since the previous winter. On the 16th of October 1862, the regiment, under command of Major Bull, participated in a reconnaissance to Charlestown and skirmished with Confederate forces throughout the day until the town was occupied before evening set in. Captain Mintzer of Company A, was appointed Provost Marshal and at once instituted a search that netted a number of prisoners. The object of the reconnaissance having been accomplished, the command returned to Bolivar Heights where it remained until October 30, when the division crossed the Shenandoah River and proceeded down the Loudon Valley, skirmishing with Confederate troops at Snicker’s Gap on November 4. The 53rd occupied the gap until the column had passed and then moved on as rear guard until the men reached Warrenton on the 9th. Here, General Ambrose Burnside assumed command of the Army of the Potomac and the movement upon Fredericksburg was begun. The 53rd marched to Falmouth where it arrived on November 19th and performed provost guard duty until December 11, when it left quarters and took up a position opposite Fredericksburg in support of Union batteries engaged in the sad bombardment of the town.
Early the next morning, the regiment crossed the Rappahannock River in front of the Chatham plantation (General Sumner’s headquarters), and formed a skirmish line to drive rebel sharpshooters out of the city. One soldier was mortally wounded during the street fighting, before the was relieved and rested for the night on the river bank. Early on the morning of Saturday, December 13th, the 53rd marched through a dense, dreary fog into the streets of Fredericksburg and halted for an hour under Confederate artillery fire from Marye’s Heights, west of the city where the battle had begun with the charge of General French’s Third Division, thrown back in a bloody repulse. With the 53rd in the lead, the Third Brigade commanded by Col. (later Brigadier General) Samuel K. Zook, rushed up St. Charles Street and formed in line of battle on the edge of town. Southern infantry, but a few hundred yards away in a sunken road and protected by a stonewall with the heights above bristling with cannon, looked down on the plain over which the charge was to be made. At the head of the regiment, Colonel Brooke “led the charge under a storm of shot and shell that swept the ranks with terrible effect.”
Brooke reported that his regiment, “moved steadily forward to within 60 yards of the enemy’s rifle pits, the whole advance being made under a deadly shower of canister and musket balls. Finding it impossible to advance farther, I threw the right wing into and behind the houses, beyond the forks of the road.” Unmerciful southern fire swept the 53rd’s ranks, the dead and wounded falling in heaps. Brooke desperately sent word for support, and those troops that came up were not enough to prevent further destruction. “I did not retire,” Brooke wrote, “but, when all the ammunition of living, dead and wounded was exhausted, (I) fixed bayonets, and stood fast, determined to hold the point to the last.” Nightfall brought a grateful end to the slaughter. Survivors of the futile charge slipped away to the dark, rubble-strewn streets of Fredericksburg.
The 53rd went into the Battle of Fredericksburg with two hundred and eighty-three officers and men. Of these, 39 were killed in the charge including Lieutenant Isaac Cross (Co. I) who fell mortally wounded “while bravely cheering on his men”, Lt. William McKiernan (Co. D) and Lt. John Kerr (Co. K), and 119 wounded, among them Captains William Coulter (Co. K) and Captain G.C.M. Eichholtz ( Co. B), and Lieutenants John T. Potts and John H. Root (Co. A), Walter Hopkins (Co. F) and Charles Smith (Co. K); a total of one hundred and fifty-eight officers and men. One last sad duty was the detail led by Brooke on December 17, of men from three regiments of the brigade to bury the dead strewn before Marye’s Heights. Brooke reported the burial of 918 officers and men, “nearly all… stripped naked by the enemy”, those closest to the Confederate line from several regiments including the 53rd.
The 53rd wintered at Falmouth and was lucky enough not to take part in the disastrous “Mud March” that January. Three companies under command of Major Bull were detailed as provost guard at division headquarters and the major assigned to the staff of General Couch. Bull remained at Second Corps headquarters successively with subsequent corps commanders until May 1864. The appointment of General “Fighting Joe” Hooker to army command brought a renewed sense of purpose to the men, along with the new “corps badges” – the red trefoil for units of the 1st Division, which were divided into four brigades, the Fourth commanded by Colonel Brooke including the 53rd , 27th Connecticut, 2nd Delaware, 145th Pennsylvania, and 64th New York.
On April 28, the 53rd broke camp to begin the Chancellorsville Campaign, crossing the Rappahannock River at United States Ford and moving into the area known as the “Wilderness” west of Fredericksburg. The regiment was actively engaged on the skirmish line during the three day battle, at one point in support of a battery near the Chancellor House with the 2nd Delaware and 145th Pennsylvania. One officer and several enlisted men were wounded by Confederate artillery fire, but the regiment stayed until ordered to withdraw. “While we were falling back, in accordance with Colonel Brooke’s orders,” Lt. Colonel McMichaels reported, “13 of my men rushed forward and took off the field two pieces of a battery on our right, which had been abandoned and would certainly have fallen into the hands of the enemy had not my men taken the pieces.” Saving the two guns was a remarkable feat and the men towed the heavy pieces three miles to the ford over the river. The 53rd remained on the battlefield until May 5 when, closed up behind the famous Irish Brigade, the regiment and other units of Brooke’s brigade acted as a rear guard while the army withdrew. Losses for the regiment during the campaign were one officer and seven men wounded, with three missing and presumed captured.
The Second Corps returned to their old winter camps near Falmouth, where they remained until June 14th when the 53rd left camp and marched to Banks’ Ford to observe Confederate movement westward- the beginning of Lee’s campaign across the Potomac River and into Pennsylvania. Having found that the Confederate columns had passed, the 53rd moved with the army northward, including a forced march to Thoroughfare Gap on June 20th. Here the regiment remained on picket until the 25th when the enemy attacked, driving in the outposts and forcing the command to withdraw. Luckily the corps had passed through the gap hours earlier and the regiment soon rejoined its division as they crossed the Potomac River and marched to the vicinity of Frederick, Maryland. General Hooker resigned command on June 28, and was replaced by Pennsylvanian General George G. Meade who sent the army northward the next day to find Lee and draw him into battle, hopefully in northern Maryland. But the fateful clash of forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863, designated that small town as the site where the two armies were to meet.
The 53rd marched from an overnight bivouac near Taneytown, Maryland on July 1st, arriving on the battlefield well after midnight. At eight o’clock on the morning of the 2nd, the division, commanded by General John C. Caldwell, moved to a position on the slight rise of ground known as Cemetery Ridge, forming the left wing of the Second Corps and connecting with the Third Corps, which also formed along the ridge line. It was later that day after the Third Corps had moved out to form a new line from Devil’s Den to the Sherfy peach orchard, when Lee’s southerners finally attacked. Troops from other commands were sent to reinforce the Union line. Around 5 PM, Caldwell’s Division was ordered to move south to support the First Division of the Thirds Corps and shore up the battered line that ran through a 19-acre wheat field, owned by George Rose. The division marched down a narrow farm lane to the north side of the field where lines of battle were formed and the brigades sent in one by one to stem the Confederate tide. At last it was up to the Fourth Brigade to fill the gap in the division center and Colonel Brooke led the charge into the center of the wheat field where the men were met with a destructive fire of musketry. ” At the word of command the men dashed forward and with loud shouts drove the enemy, scattering his ranks and gained the position”, a wooded height on the southern edge of the field. Brooke ordered his men to hold as the first and then second wave of Confederates charged across a narrow pasture and into the grove where the 53rd’s rifles blazed, cutting down young Georgians of General Paul Semmes’ brigade. With no support in sight and discovering enemy troops moving upon the rear of the brigade position, Brooke reluctantly ordered his men to retire to their first position. Re-entering the wheat field, the Union ranks were suddenly swept by Confederate fire from a fresh brigade newly arrived on the field. “In passing back over the wheat-field, I found the enemy had nearly closed in my rear,” Brooke reported. Men were hit several times and from different directions as they raced through the gray gauntlet. “My command lost heavily in the action,” Lt. Colonel McMichael added, “about 70 percent. My officers and men exhibited commendable gallantry throughout the action.” On July 3rd, the regiment was under a heavy artillery fire but not actively engaged.
The regiment was heavily reduced in numbers going into this battle with three companies being still on detached duty at division headquarters, and the remainder having but one hundred and twenty-four officers and men. Of this number only forty-five escaped uninjured; six were killed, sixty-seven wounded, one missing, and six captured. Among the seriously wounded were Captains Henry Dimm (Co. I) and Theodore Hatfield (Co. F), Lieutenants George D. Pifer (Co. I), Shields, Root, Smith, Whitaker and Mann, and Sergeant Major Samuel Rutter. Colonel Brooke was also wounded in the retreat from the Wheatfield.
On the afternoon of July 5th, the regiment marched in pursuit of the retreating Confederates, arriving at Jones’ Cross Roads near Confederate positions near Hagerstown, on July 11. The regiment advanced in line that evening after driving back enemy skirmishers to their main line, the regiment threw up breast-works. On the 14th it was deployed in line at right angles to the Williamsport Road and advanced cautiously only to discover the rebel works vacant, the southerners having crossed the Potomac River the evening before, back into Virginia.
After remaining for a few days in Pleasant Valley, the Second Corps crossed the Potomac and marched down the now familiar Loudon Valley to Ashby’s and Manassas Gaps, passed White Plains, New Baltimore, and Warrenton and arrived on August 1st at Morrisville where it went into camp. In the toilsome campaigns which followed, ending at Mine Run in November, the 53rd was engaged at Rappahannock Station and Bristoe Station. Ordered into winter quarters at Stevensburg, most of the regiment re-enlisted and on December 27th, proceeded to Harrisburg for a veteran furlough, after which the regiment returned to Virginia and again camped in their old quarters near Stevensburg for the remainder of the winter.
In April, the Second Corps was re-organized with the assimilation of the much diminished Third Corps. The First Division, now commanded General Francis Barlow, reorganized its four brigades, the Fourth (Brooke’s) joined by the 66th New York and 148th Pennsylvania. The corps’ Second Division absorbed regiments as well, so that the Third Corps regiments became the Third and Fourth Divisions, respectively commanded by Generals David Birney and Gresham Mott. General Hancock, having sufficiently recovered from his near fatal wound at Gettysburg, returned to command the corps for the upcoming campaign. Colonel Brooke also returned to the regiment and again assumed command of the brigade. With him, he brought a new state issue flag with the Pennsylvania state seal painted on the blue field and “53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry” in gold lettering on the center red stripe. The old flag was retired, its shredded folds sent to Harrisburg for safe keeping.
On May 4, 1864, the 53rd regiment broke camp, crossed the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford and camped on the old Chancellorsville battleground. The next day, the corps moved toward Orange Court House where it confronted Lee’s veteran army deep in the Wilderness. The 53rd was detached from the brigade to guard the corps’ wagon train until that afternoon when it marched to rejoin the division, in line behind earthworks constructed along the length of the Brock Road. Nightfall brought an end to the fighting and a new horror as helpless wounded smothered or burned to death in the flaming woods. On May 6, the division moved out from its works and into the woods only to encounter an impassible swamp and concentrated enemy fire than seemed to come from every dense thicket. The 53rd moved to the left approximately two miles and threw up breastworks before being recalled to the former position, where they were shifted again to the right to relieve the 19th Maine Infantry on the firing line. A massive Confederate charge by General James Longstreet’s Corps was halted at the Union works, a portion of which went up in flames, but the line held. The 53rd rejoined the brigade just before nightfall but was quickly detached to report to the 1st Brigade (Col. Nelson Miles) for duty, where the tired men remained through another horrible night. The 7th was spent in skirmishing and reinforcing the earthworks, which as it turns out, was an unnecessary task for the commander of all Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant, had no intention of waiting Lee out. The army moved southward, the 53rd marching at 6 A.M. on May 8th toward the critical crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House.
At 5 P.M. on May 9th, Barlow’s Division moved westward to the Po River and crossed where the advance was then blocked by a large Confederate force. Barlow attempted to shift his troops around the Confederates, “the contest being continued with spirit for several hours.” Lt. Colonel McMichael was relieved of command due to illness and Lt. Col. D. L. Stricker of the 2nd Delaware Volunteers, took command of both his and the 53rd regiment that evening. The men slept on their arms until early the next morning, when skirmishing broke out again. The 53rd was ordered to the right of the line, back to its first position, back again to the right where the men threw up breastworks, before returning to their first position. After 1 P.M., the regiment was ordered forward in line of battle, through a ravine and up to the crest of a hill. “The enemy opened on us a severe musketry fire,” reported Captain James Patton, “The fight continued for nearly an hour, when the thick undergrowth and fallen timber took fire and burned furiously. The fire compelled the regiment to fall back (across) the ravine, which was done in good order.” Unable to turn the Confederate position, Barlow withdrew across the Po River that afternoon, the regiment going into camp one-half mile from the river where the tired men camped until 9 P.M. on the evening of the 11th, when the regiment marched four to five miles to the army’s left flank and formed a battleline with the massed division. “There, on the following morning it stood in column, in readiness to join in the grand charge of the veteran 2nd Corps upon the strongly fortified position of the enemy. Advancing silently until within a short distance of his works, the well formed lines rushed forward with wild hurrahs and in face of the desperate defense offered carried the position capturing an entire division. No more brilliant or decisive charge was made during the campaign than this.” The fighting at the “Mule Shoe” on May 12th was some of the most intense of the war, the 53rd taking part behind the captured works until all of its ammunition was used up and it was ordered to the rear after noon. Captain Whitney and Lieutenant Foster were among the killed and a number of men wounded or missing in the 18 hour long melee.
The regiment remained in the vicinity of Spotsylvania Court House, constructing earthworks, skirmishing and constantly exposed to fire. During this time, Colonel Brooke was promoted to Brigadier General and Major Bull promoted to Lieutenant Colonel to replace Lt. Col. McMichael, who was discharged on a surgeon’s certificate on May 19th. Captain Henry S. Dimm was commissioned Major on the 17th, but never formally mustered into the rank. (Dimm mustered out of service due to wounds received in action in September 1864 and was replaced by Captain William M. Mintzer, promoted to Major.)
On May 20th, the 2nd Corps marched southward from Spotsylvania, eventually reaching the North Anna River. The division crossed the North Anna on the 24th and seized a ridge overlooking the river and southern lines, which was held until five o’clock when the 53rd moved forward three-quarters of a mile and built breastworks. Confederate artillery shelled the position, but the regiment suffered no casualties. The position was abandoned at 11 A.M. on May 27, when the regiment recrossed the North Anna and took up a line of march across the Pamunkey River and on to Totopotomy Creek. By June 2nd, the corps had reached Cold Harbor where it moved close up to the enemy’s entrenched line and constructed breastworks that night. The regiment formed in front of the works at 3 AM the next morning and moved forward before 5 AM in an concerted effort to sweep over the southern line. As Captain Patton remembered, “the enemy held occupied a fortified position on the crest of a hill in our front. While advancing the regiment was exposed to a disastrous fire of artillery and musketry, and the command suffered severely in killed and wounded. The enemy’s works were not taken (and) the line fell back a short distance and intrenched.” The 53rd suffered severely in the charge. Barlow’s Division remained in their hard won position, exchanging skirmish fire with their Confederates until the night of June 12th when they gratefully marched away from the scene of carnage, the likes of which had not been witnessed since the futile charge at Fredericksburg.
The regiment crossed the Chickahominy River at Long Bridge, the James River on transports, and arrived on the morning of June 16th in front of Petersburg. The regiment formed line of battle on the left of the brigade, now commanded by Colonel Beaver of the 148th Pennsylvania, and moved forward with bayonets fixed. Rushing through a cornfield, the line was hit by Confederate artillery that staggered the formations. The line was ordered to halt and the men immediately began to dig earthworks using cups, plates, bayonets and their bare hands. At 6 PM, the order came for another attempt on the enemy’s strong works. “The troops advanced gallantly, breasting a murderous fire from the fort of the enemy. The line advanced nearly up to the fort, when it was found that the line was not strong enough to carry the enemy’s position. The troops were pressed so hard on the lines of the enemy that many… were taken prisoners. Those that were able to fall back formed promptly behind the earth-works that had been constructed in the morning.” (Captain James Patton)
The 53rd lost approximately seventy men in the desperate charge on the southern fort, which was abandoned by the Confederates two days later as they fell back to a secondary but much stronger line of fortifications. Moving to the southeast in an attempt to flank the Confederate line, on the 22nd, an attempt was made to establish a new line which proved alike unsuccessful. The 53rd had advanced through a dense wood and formed a battleline when Rebel troops were discovered on the flank and rear. Fortunately, the regiment was able to return to the former line of works but several men became separated from the command and were scooped up as prisoners. The regiment’s losses from June 15 to the 30th totaled 99 officers and men of which ten were killed, thirty three wounded, and fifty six captured or missing.
Apart from a foray to Reams Station in mid-July, digging and the construction of defensive works constituted the principal occupation of the regiment until July 26, when the 53rd moved with the brigade to the right and north of the James River, to take part in skirmishing along the rebel works. It returned to the Petersburg siege lines until August 12, when the command again returned to the left bank of the James where it was engaged with Confederate outposts near Deep Bottom, Virginia. On the 21st, the regiment re-crossed the James and the Appomattox Rivers and passing in rear of the army to the extreme left of the line, commenced demolishing the Weldon Railroad near Ream’s Station. Five miles had already been destroyed when the enemy appeared in force and a line of battle was hastily formed to repel his advance and protect the working parties. The first charge was gallantly repulsed, but the next charge struck with overpowering force and the line wavered. Exhaustion, illness and low morale all contributed to the near disaster for the Second Corps, forced to abandon the field and retire to the lines in front of Petersburg.
During the autumn and winter months, the regiment was engaged in severe duty in the front lines before the besieged city. On September 18, Lieutenant Colonel Bull was promoted to Colonel to replace Colonel McMichael having been discharged. Major William Mintzer was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became Colonel in November when Colonel Bull, exhausted and in poor health, mustered out of service. Captain Philip H. Shreyer was promoted to Major, which he held when he, too, mustered out and was replaced by Captain George D. Pifer. Captain George C. Anderson was made Lieutenant Colonel. .
On March 29, 1865, the 53rd began its final campaign of the war without General Brooke who had not recovered sufficiently from his injury at Cold Harbor to return to field command. Colonel John Ramsey of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, took command of the Fourth Brigade. The Fifth Corps had been ordered to move westward around the strained southern lines toward Five Forks, a major crossroads that protected the vital South Side Railroad into Petersburg. The Second Corps, now commanded by Major General A. A. Humphreys, was ordered to support and connect with the Fifth Corps in its operations. The First Division, now commanded by General Nelson A. Miles, left their camps at 6 A.M., crossed Hatcher’s Run, and marched to Gravelly Run and the Vaughn Road. Heavy rains had soaked the area for days, turning the poor roads into a muddy shambles. The soldiers plodded along in a dreary and heavy mist, past poor farms carved out of surrounding woods thick with underbrush. Reaching the Vaughn Road, the brigade formed in the first line of battle designated by General Miles, and soon after advanced “through swamps and dense woods, about two miles, when communication having been established with the Fifth Corps,” the troops halted and attempted to boil coffee and rest. The advance continued the next morning, driving in Confederate skirmishers until 9 A.M. when the line was reformed along Dabney’s Mill Road, which led west to the intersection at Five Forks. The division continued the advance that afternoon, reaching the Boydton Plank Road before dark, where the men threw up breastworks and tried to find some dry patch of earth to lay down and sleep. At 5 A.M. on March 31st, the troops relieved the Fifth Corps in their line of earthworks and watched them advance into the dense woods ahead at 10:30. The sound of fighting grew to a crescendo and “large groups” of solders from the Fifth Corps were soon observed coming back toward the division’s lines. General Miles ordered the Fourth (Ramsey’s) Brigade to form a line in the rear to stop these refugees from the battle and turn them around, which the men did as directed. At 12:30, Miles received orders to go to the relief of the Fifth Corps, and “the Third and Fourth (Ramsey’s) Brigades were immediately advanced in line of battle across the creek (Licking Run)… and attacked the enemy directly in flank and rear,” General Miles reported. The charge routed the Confederate battlelines of which three were observed, the southerners fleeing to the protection of their strong earthworks above White Oak Road. Ramsey’s Brigade and the Third brigade swept the entire front of the Fifth Corps, allowing its commanders precious time to reform their ranks and begin the advance again. Passing over the White Oak Road, Miles’ troops encountered the Confederate works and halted, they being too heavily “impassable” and apparently heavily manned. The line was shifted to make connection with the rest of the corps that evening and the men slept on their arms, soaked by a light rain throughout the night. The 53rd lost fifteen men killed, one man mortally wounded, two officers and 47 men wounded in the fight on the Boydton Plank Road. Major Pifer led the 53rd in this action, Colonel Mintzer having been placed temporarily in command of a detachment skillfully deployed to deceive a portion of the enemy line to prevent him from changing his position.
Returning to the Boydton Plank Road on the morning of April 1, the 53rd Pennsylvania stood picket duty until that afternoon when the division marched to the left to Five Forks, arriving after the battle there had ended with the rout of the Confederate forces. The collapse of the southern position at Five Forks was the key to Petersburg’s demise and a general withdrawal from the Richmond-Petersburg lines was ordered that evening by General Lee. On April 2, the 53rd occupied abandoned Confederate works on the White Oak Road, and then marched in pursuit of the retreating force, confronting a dense line near Sutherland’s Station. Miles sent forward two of his brigades, which could not break the southern line. Ramsey’s Brigade was then sent on a flanking maneuver through a ravine and dense woods where it was massed and ordered forward at 2:45, advancing “at double quick, with a hearty cheer and in magnificent order, striking the enemy in flank and sweeping rapidly down inside the breastworks, capturing a large number of prisoners and putting to flight the remainder.” Six hundred prisoners, one battleflag, and two artillery pieces were captured by the division in the affair at Sutherland’s Station, at a cost of eight men wounded in the ranks of the 53rd.
The regiment participated in the pursuit of Lee’s army toward Danville. On April 6th, the division marched from Jetersville following a column led by General John B. Gordon, which became trapped at Sailor’s Creek (also known as Double Bridges or Lockett’s Farm). The bulk of the Confederate wagon train was taken along with several hundred prisoners, the 53rd arriving on the field at the close of the battle. Colonel Mintzer was ordered to detail his regiment to guard prisoners and captured stores that night.
The regiment moved out the following morning at 6 A.M., crossed the South Side Railroad near High Bridge and over the Appomattox River where they immediately formed line of battle to confront a Confederate rear guard. One man was killed and another wounded in the ensuing fight, which netted over one hundred prisoners, supplies and equipment scattered on the Buckingham Road toward Farmville where the 53rd bivouacked for the night. For the next two days, the regiment marched unopposed until 4 P.M. on the 9th, when about four miles from Appomattox Court House, it was announced that General Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. The column halted and camped on the Buckingham Road, the exhausted men knowing that peace was at hand.
The 53rd Pennsylvania encamped for a short time near Burkeville, when the Second Corps was ordered to Washington. On a forced march, the troops proceeded through Richmond, Fredericksburg, and to camps at Alexandria. On May 23, the banners were unfurled and clean muskets shouldered for the largest parade the 53rd had ever participated in – The Grand Review of the Armies by President Johnson in Washington City. Throughout the day, the corps marched in column of company fronts, past the reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue and then back across the Potomac River to Alexandria.
In June, the regiment marched for one last time to take a train home to Harrisburg, where they bivouacked at Camp Curtin. For the success attained in this service, Colonel Mintzer was promoted Brevet Brigadier General and several other officers received brevet-promotions. With final inventories made and pay drawn, the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was formally mustered out of service on June 30, 1865.
author: John Heiser, Company C, 53rd PVI, February 2005
- Samuel Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861 – 1865 (B. Singerly, Harrisburg, 1870)
- Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, (Century Publishing Company, New York, 1903)
- Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1953)
- Edwin Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command (Morningside Bookshop, Dayton, OH, 1980)
- Col. William Fox, Regimental Losses in the Civil War (reprint by Morningside Bookshop, Dayton, 1974)
- Irvin Myers, We Might as Well Die Here, The 53d Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, (White Mane, Shippensburg, PA, 2004)
- Richard Sauers, “The 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the Gettysburg Campaign”, Gettysburg Magazine, Issue 10, January 1994 (Morningside Bookshop, Dayton)
- Richard Sauers, Advance the Colors, Pennsylvania’s Civil War Battle Flags, Vol. 1. (Sowers Printing Company, Lebanon, 1987)
- Col. Francis Walker, History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1891)
- War of the Rebellion, The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1892-96)