Joseph Wicklein (“Wickline”) was a recruit who mustered into service on February 6, 1864, and joined Company B, 53rd Pennsylvania as the regiment was returning to the army’s winter camps along the Rapidan River. Pvt. Wicklein served with the regiment through the Overland Campaign, siege of Petersburg, and the spring campaign that ended with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. He was mustered out of service with the regiment on June 30, 1865, and we are indebted to Paul Whitehouse for his couesy in allowing us to reprint Wicklein’s memoirs, from our July 1999 newsletter.
The Army of the Potomac marched from the camp of Shepherds Grove on the 4th of May 1864, in direction of the River Rapidan where it arrived next morning. My History which I am about to record is concerning the 53rd regt. Penn. Verteran Volunteers; which had been organized by Col. John R. Brook after wards promoted to Major General of volunteers for bravery and heroic exploits which he performed with that gallant body of troops. After arriving at that noisy and restless stream, the pontoon bridges had already been expanding from shore to shore. We soon vended our way across the River, and climbing up the heights to the pinnacle where we rested our weary limbs and refreshed our appetites with hot coffee and hard tacks. Again we took up the line of march, moving steadily toward the famous battle field of Chancellorsvile where we arrived about at noon tramping over brush. Climbing over breast works and ditches we expected the enemy in ambush, but our expectations being in vain once more we enjoyed hot coffee and tack. Although many a patriotic soldier lay sleeping under the clods of this slaughter-pen whom had fallen in 1863 could not enjoy our participation. In a short time we were again on a forward movement. We had not marched far we espied General Grant riding along the lines he appeared more like an old farmer than a commander, chief of an army, his body guard consisted of an orderly who performed all the duty that was requested at this time.
The next place we rested was at an old furnace named Spottsylvania furnace, if I am not mistaken. At this place we were commanded to load our rifles which was a token that the enemy were at not great distance. Before we moved from the old furnace we heard the canonading; we soon learned that there was a battle in progress, this denoted that we soon, must enter the conflict. Now we were ordered to sling knappsack, shoulder arm, forward march. On our journey we were misguided which caused some time to find the right course, now being in the right direction we traveled with the greatest rapidity we could endure reaching the outskirts of the wilderness just as the sun disappeared, Here we heard the thundering of artillery and the rattling of musketry; then the intense excitement among the troops which at once designated that the men in front were routed which was the unhappy lot of the sixth army corps, Now the first division of the second corps and the first brigade composed of the 53rd Pa., 148th Pa., 145th Pa., 66 N.Y. and the second Delaware commanded by Col. Brook were taken in on a double quick through a swamp where it was almost impassable; but with much difficulty and perseverence this faithful brigade reached the opposite of the swamp in time to compel the enemy to retreat and saved an army from utter destruction. Now the wilderness being on fire and the conflagration was spreading over the ground where the conflict had been raging; the lamentations of hundreds were heard who were suffering from the intense agonies of their wounds, were soon to be swept into eternity by the distressing flames, the pains and embarrassments which they endured are indescribable. Thus ended another day of tribulation and sorrow.
Every thing was quiet during the night, but next morning at the dawn of day the conflict was renewed. Companies B and G of the 53 Pa. were thrown in as skirmishers on the left wing of the army, many times during the day they were attacked by sharp shooters; but every attempt of their design was bravely resisted by the former, compelling their foe to retreat. Company G had one man killed; while many had narrow escapes. A member of company B was sitting behind a large tree with a frying pan tied to his haversack which was struck by a ball; this is one instance that a pan saved a man’s liver. Another soldier’s rifle was struck between his hand and shoulder cutting the stalk half off. Many other incidents occurred on this occasion which require too much space to describe. Now the contest on the right between the encountering armies waxed intense, neither party gaining an inch of ground; Night was approaching, the union army finding the enemy’s lines impenetrable, the commanding officers ordered a flank movement in the direction of Richmond, The enemy not knowing the maneuvres and considering the union army demoralized, they with great exultation and vociferous cheering made the wilderness ring, as if their foe had been driven to utter despair, Col. McMichael commanding the 53rd had been on a high horse, just as we were approaching Po River. The enemy was planting his shells in our midst, but without doing any execution. Our batteries being arranged soon knocked the pins from under the confederate guns, now came the critical occasion we crossed the river Col McMichael skinning his nose at a snag of a tree, exclaimed in violence that he was the only man wounded in crossing. Our adversaries fled before us like the hare before the beagle. Now our Col’s eyes becoming dim of jersey lighting at once put the spurs to his horse and rode fully three hundred yards in front of his regt. The regiment being led by adjutant Hatch was very successful in marching in line of battle. Col. McMichael rode up to Col. Brook saying did you see how I brought the 53rd across the field, (at the same time not knowing where it was). Then accosting him where he should take his regt, the Col replied do you see that fence yonder. The regt was marched to where it was ordered and rested for a short time.
Now the days work being ended and the troops encamped for the night. But behold where was the 53rd in a dark and dismal road, which was overshadowed with pine and forest. Col. Mc. at the head not knowing where to go, his horse happened to smell at some of the drafted men, he dealt him a severe blow warning him not to scent conscripts, he made some ridiclous expressions which are not essential to describe. Such was the drama of our officers who too freely indulged in that dark beverage of hell, This was a dreadful moment a single regt exposed to eighty thousand confederates. But soon we were relieved from the perilous situation by the brave, and meritorious Lieutenant Col. Striker of the second Delaware and were once more united to the grand and august Army of the Potomac.