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Fiftieth Regiment Regimental History
50th PA Regiment History
The Fiftieth Regiment was recruited in the counties of Berks, Schuylkill, Bradford, Susquehanna, Lancaster, and Luzerne, and rendezvoused at Camp Curtin. It was organized on the 25th of September 1861, by the choice of the following officers: Benjamin C. Christ, of Schuylkill county, Colonel; Thomas S. Brenholtz, of Berks county, Lieutenant Colonel; Edward Overton, Jr., of Bradford county, Major. The State colors were presented by Governor Curtin on the 1st of October. While at Camp Curtin the men were drilled by companies. From Harrisburg the regiment proceeded on the 2nd to Washington, and encamped at Kalorama Heights, where it remained until the 9th, and thence moved to Annapolis. Here it was assigned to Stevens' Brigade , of T. W. Sherman's Corps, about fitting out for an expedition to South Carolina.
On the 19th of October the regiment embarked upon transports, the right wing, companies A to E inclusive under command of Colonel Christ on the Winfield Scott, and the left wing on the Ocean Queen. On the night of the 1st of November a heavy gale was encountered of Cape Hatteras, and the Scott, which proved to be an unseaworthy craft, was in imminent peril. Her masts were cut away, the freight and camp equipage were thrown overboard, a portion of her officers and crew deserted her, and everything was given up for lost. She was finally saved through the superhuman efforts of the soldiers, who had been left to their fate without food or water.
After the capture of the forts at Hilton Head by Admiral Dupont, in the brilliant sea fight which has immortalized his name, the regiment went into camp upon the island, and was employed in building fortifications. On the 6th of December it proceeded to Beaufort, and was the first regiment to occupy that place. On the night after its arrival a skirmish occurred, in which the enemy was driven off the island not again to return. A few were wounded on both sides, and the men had their first experience in combating the foe. At midnight of the 25th Captain Parker, with company H, and a squad from company D, crossed Broad River in small boats, with the intention of capturing a picket post; but hearing the muffled dip of the oars, the enemy took the alarm and hastened away for reinforcements.
On the 1st of January 1862, General Stevens led his brigade, under cover of the gunboats, across the Coosaw, and captured a fort in process of construction at Port Royal Ferry, and two heavy guns. The enemy was driven and the fort destroyed, when the brigade returned to Port Royal Island. This was the first engagement in force, and was known as the Battle of the Coosaw.
On the 29th of May General Stevens was ordered to join General Hunter in his demonstrations against Charleston, and Colonel Christ, with his own regiment, two companies of the First Massachusetts cavalry, and a section of artillery, was ordered to move upon the main land, and burn the railroad bridge near Pocotaligo. Leaving Beaufort in the evening, the command crossed the ferry at daylight, and soon found the enemy well posted on the opposite side of the stream near Old Pocotaligo. The approach to this place was by a narrow causeway, a fourth of a mile long, flanked on either side by a marsh through which a sluggish stream winds. The enemy had removed the planks from the bridge spanning it, and a crossing could only be effected by running the gauntlet of the causeway, and walking the stringers which still remained. For some time firing was kept up from the opposite sides of the stream; but it soon became evident that the enemy could only be dislodged by crossing. At this juncture Captain Charles Parker of company H, volunteered to brave the danger of the causeway, risk the insecure footing upon the stringers of the bridge, and lead his men over. The feat was accomplished, and six companies passed successfully. Under command of Lieutenant Colonel Brenholtz they drove the enemy, and the bridge was quickly re-planked. The cavity under Major Higginson was immediately ordered in pursuit; but the enemy had taken refuge in a wood where the cavalry could not operate, and the infantry was too much fatigued to follow. The delay had given time for him to be reinforced, and the ammunition was nearly expended. It was accordingly determined to return. The loss was four killed and nine wounded. Captain Parker, who had suggested the plan which gained us our success, and who led where the danger was greatest, was killed. "His gallantry in crossing the frail bridge at Pocotaligo cost him his life. He was pierced by three rifle balls, and fell while cheering his men on the perilous passage." The command was followed in its return by a large force of the enemy. The weather was intensely hot, and for one day and two nights the men marched with scarcely a halt, except while engaged. Although the expedition failed to accomplish the object for which it was sent out, it had the effect to draw a large force from Charleston, and from General Hunter's immediate front, and brought in some prisoners, and a large number of contrabands, who took with them all the property of their masters for which they could find transportation.
The regiment remained at and near Beaufort until July 12th, when it was ordered to Fortress Monroe, and was incorporated with the Ninth Corps under General Burnside, who had just then returned from his highly successful operations in North Carolina. Soon after its arrival the corps was ordered to the support of Pope on the Rapidan. At Fredericksburg Stevens' Division, now forming part of Reno's command, was detached from the corps, and was pushed forward to confront the advance of Lee, and had several skirmishes with the head of his column at the fords of the Rapidan and the Rappahannock. The regiment was now under command of Lieutenant Colonel Brenholtz, Colonel Christ being at the head of the brigade. On the first day at Bull Run, Christ's Brigade was attached to Schurz's Division of Sigel's Corps, and was engaged during the greater part of the day, occupying a position on the right wing of the army, and driving the enemy at several points, sustaining heavy loss. At night the brigade returned to Steven's Division. "In the second day's fight,"says Captain Dimock, 'we lost less, but fought harder. Stevens' Brigade drove the whole line in front of it, and we supposed we had gained a victory, I heard Captain Lusk, aid to General Stevens, order Colonel Christ to bring his men out of the woods. He did so, faced his men towards the enemy, and ordered rest after giving three cheers for victory. We had scarcely laid down before Captain Lusk returned in great excitement, exclaiming, 'For G__'s sake, Colonel Christ, get your men away from here.' We now observed as it grew dark that the fighting to the right and left of us was terrific, that the two wings were driven far back of us, and that we were nearly inclosed as in a horse-shoe. We made a hasty retreat and were soon after joined by General Stevens, who said that the Eighth Michigan was still missing. In less than five minutes after his arrival a volley from the enemy forced us again to fall back.' The regiment did not leave the field until nine o'clock at night, and in every encounter with the enemy during the two days drove him back. The loss was five killed, six severely wounded, and a number taken prisoners. Among the killed was Lieutenant Charles H. Kellogg, of company K, and among the wounded was Lieutenant Colonel Brenholtz.
On the 31st Christ's Brigade was posted upon the heights beyond Centreville, where it was vigorously shelled. On the following day it was engaged in the battle of Chantilly, where the brigade was early in the fight, and drove the enemy, holding the advantage gained until relieved. The conduct of the Fiftieth in this battle was not excelled for gallantry. It lost seven killed, which, together with the wounded and missing, embraced one-fourth of the entire number that entered the fight. It was led by Major Overton. General Stevens was killed while carrying colors of the Seventy-ninth (Highlander) Regiment, after several of the color bearers had been shot down.
The division, under Colonel Christ, moved to South Mountain, where General O. B. Wilcox was assigned to its command. It formed part of the left wing of the army, and was engaged at Turner's Gap. The Fiftieth, still under command of Major Overton, was at first engaged in Wilcox's Division, but was subsequently ordered to the support of General Cox, who was being hard pressed on the left. Here it remained during the day of Sunday, the 14th, and with Ohio troops charged the enemy, and drove him from the field.
On the 16th the regiment arrived at Antietam, and at night Major Overton was ordered to proceed with his own, and the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts to the support of the Ira Harris Cavalry, which was to connect General Burnside's left with the troops of General Franklin. Here it remained on duty during the night. On the 17th it re-joined the brigade, and, upon the advance of Burnside's Corps, crossed the stone bridge and drove the enemy back. Christ's Brigade charged with great spirit and gallantry, and attained a position in advance of the Union lines, where it was exposed to a terrible cross-fire of artillery; but it maintained its position until the rebels were forced to retreat. In the midst of the fight Major Overton fell severely wounded, and the command develoved on Captain Diehl. The loss was seven killed and seven severely wounded. Captain James B. Ingham, of company K, was among the killed.
The regiment was present at the battle of Fredericksburg on the 13th of December, but was not actively engaged. "I had command of two companies," says Captain Dimock, "on picket duty near, and in full view of Seminary Hill, and stood in plain sight all day of the stone wall which proved so disastrous to our charging columns. I sent word to Colonel Christ that it was impossible to carry that wall by direct assault, that it must be attacked in flank, from the point where I stood, to be successful."
After General Burnside was relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac, the Ninth Corps was for a short time in camp at Newport News. Subsequently it was moved to Kentucky, where it was attached to the Army of the Ohio, and the Fiftieth Regiment was stationed at Camp Dick Robinson, Stanford, and Somerset. From the later place it moved to Vicksburg via Cincinnati and Cairo. During the progress of the siege it was posted at Haine's Bluff, and after the fall of Vicksburg it was attached to the command of General Sherman, and was with him in the campaign to Jackson. In the battle which occurred for the occupancy of this place, the regiment was engaged, and was deployed as skirmishers in a very exposed situation. Here, its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas S. Brenholtz, while gallantly leading his men before the enemy's works, was mortally wounded. His fall was greatly lamented, and his loss to the unit irreparable. Much of the credit which the organization had acquired was due to his excellent qualities as a soldier. No braver man ever led in battle, and upon his fall the service was deprived of one of its most valued leaders. The regiment remained in Mississippi until August 19th, when it returned to Kentucky, and in September moved across the mountains via Cumberland Gap to Knoxville. At this time the number present for duty in the regiment was but eighty. The rest were in hospitals suffering from wounds received in battle, or from malarious diseases contracted in Mississippi. Of the eighty who remained in the ranks, nearly all had chills and fever. It remained in camp near Knoxville for some time after its arrival, and the health of the men rapidly improved, its numbers continually increasing by the return of those who had been left in hospitals by the way.
While here a force of the enemy entered East Tennessee from Virginia. The Twenty-third Corps was sent to repel it, and drove it back as far as Blue Springs, where it made an obstinate stand. Christ's and Morrison's brigades were promptly sent to reinforce the Union columns. The regiment arrived upon the field on the 10th of October, and was immediately brought into position on the left of the front line. A charge was ordered, and the enemy was driven back in confusion, and pursued to a point near the Virginia line. It was estimated that the enemy's force in this battle was double that of our own. The loss of the regiment was inconsiderable.
Returning to Knoxville it was soon after sent out to Lenoir Station, where it was ordered to build winter-quarters, and hold the approaches from the southwest. Scarcely had it been established two weeks in camp, when Longstreet with a heavy force advanced from Chattanooga along the Tennessee Railroad, and routed a portion of the Twenty-third Corps stationed in advance. The Ninth Corps was sent to its support, and the enemy was pushed back into a bend of the river. The engagement lasted until late in the evening. During the night, while advancing the line, the Fiftieth was twice halted by the enemy, and one of his officers came into our lines supposing he was among his own men. It was supposed that only a part of Longstreet's' force had crossed the river, and that unaccompanied by artillery. The regiment accordingly received orders to charge at daylight. But during the night it was ascertained that the enemy was in full force in our front, and the regiment was ordered to retire with all possible haste. The mud was very deep and, it was with great difficulty that the trains and artillery could be moved. On the following night the men lay on their arms at Lenoir Station, the enemy being in close proximity, and several times opening fire. So close did he follow up the pursuit that it was found necessary to destroy every thing that could impede the progress of the column, that was not of the last importance to its safety, and the officers' baggage was sacrificed together with all the books and papers of the regiment. At Campbell's Station a stand was made, and the enemy was successfully held in check until the forces were all safely withdrawn to Knoxville.
The Fiftieth reached the town at daylight, November 17th, and immediately commenced fortifying. The labor was very severe, the men being constantly on duty, and obliged to subsist on quarter rations, consisting of fresh pork and corncob bread. The regiment occupied a central position on the left wing in rifle-pits, a part of the time so near to the enemy that conversation with his men was not an uncommon occurrence. On the 29th of November, at early dawn, the enemy charged Fort Sanders. The Fiftieth held a position just to the right of the fort, and two companies were sent to assist the garrison in repelling the charge. The attack was made with great impetuosity and sustained with unflinching valor, but was repelled with terrible slaughter, and on the 5th of December the siege was raised. Longstreet retreated in the direction of Virginia, and the regiment moved in pursuit, skirmishing with his rear guard until it reached Blaine's Cross Roads, where it went into camp.
Here, on the 1st of January 1864, nearly the entire regiment re-enlisted to the number of about three hundred men, and was ordered to Nicholasville, Kentucky. The men had drawn no clothing or shoes from September to January, and very few were supplied with blankets. Their suffering during December and January was intense; but they endured all without a murmur. On Christmas day they had nothing to eat until evening, and then only a part of a ration. The march to Nicholasville, a distance of two hundred miles, was performed in ten days. Many of the men were barefoot and the earth was covered with snow. Before leaving their camps they had drawn thirty raw hides from which they made moccasins; but during the middle of the day, when the roads were soft, the green hide became pliable and so stretched that they could not be kept upon the feet. As they passed over the rough roads of the mountain regions, the chilling blasts of winter swept their shivering ranks, and to add to their distresses, they were nearly perishing with hunger. On arriving at their destination, they drew rations and clothing, and soon after started for Pennsylvania, arriving at Harrisburg on the 6th of February. Here the regiment was given a veteran furlough, and the men departed for their homes.
On the 20th of March the regiment rendezvoused at Annapolis, where it was reunited to the minimum standard, and was fully re-organized and drilled. It was assigned to the Second Brigade, of the First Division, of the Ninth Corps. Passing through Washington, where the corps was re-viewed by President Lincoln, the regiment marched over the Bull Run battle ground, on the 28th of April, arriving at the Rapidan on the 5th of May. Early on the following morning it was heavily engaged in the battle of the Wilderness, which continued during the entire day, losing seventeen killed, and fifty-three wounded and missing. In moving from the field, the Fiftieth was designated for the rear guard to the corps, and was closely followed up by the enemy's cavalry. On the 9th it arrived at the Ny River near Spottsylvania Court House, and was there immediately engaged. Christ's Brigade carried the heights in its front. With fixed bayonets the Fiftieth, led by Lieutenant Colonel Overton, charged up the steep ascent, and routed a force of the enemy greatly superior in number; by the success was gained at a fearful cost, loosing in killed, wounded, and missing, one hundred and twenty men. Among the killed was Captain H. E. Cleveland, of company H. The gallant conduct of the regiment in this action was much commended, and the credit of the success attained was justly awarded to it. Again, on the 12th, the regiment had a desperate encounter with the foe, and a hand to hand struggle, in which the loss was considerable. Adjutant Henry T. Kendall, three sergeants, and twenty-five privates were taken prisoners. From the Ny River to the North Anna, and thence to Cold Harbor, it was almost daily engaged, losing a few men killed and wounded.
In the battle of the 2nd of June, at the latter place, the Fiftieth was upon the front line and suffered severely, having eight men killed. Crossing the Chickahominy on the 12th, it proceeded rapidly to the James, and was soon after in line fronting Petersburg. On the 18th Colonel Christ was wounded, and Captain Henry A. Lantz, of company E, and several men, were killed. From June 21st to the 25th of July, the regiment performed picket duty in front of Petersburg. It was then relieved by colored troops and proceeded to the extreme left of the Union lines, where it was again engaged in picket duty. On the 29th it proceeded to the rear of the mine, and upon its explosion on the following morning, was ordered in to the support of the troops led to the charge. It reached the crater; but, with other troops, was forced back, losing three killed and a number wounded. Remaining in the works in front of the ruined fort until the 19th of August, it was again put upon the march, and proceeded to the Weldon Railroad, where, at four P. M., it was attacked, but was repulsed. Marching, fortifying, and fighting continued with but little interruption until the end of the month. On the 30th, Colonel Christ and Lieutenant Colonel Overton, and about thirty men, were honorably discharged, their term of service having expired.
Remaining upon the front the regiment was actively engaged until the 12th of October, when it received one hundred and forty-seven recruits, and for two weeks remained in camp engaged in drill and discipline. On the 27th it again moved to the front, and remained on duty until the 29th of November, when it proceeded to Fort McGilvery, on the banks of the Appomattox, in the immediate front of the city of Petersburg, and remained there during the winter. Captain Samuel K. Schwenk, who was severely wounded in the engagement at Cold Harbor, was so far recovered in February 1865, as to return to the regimen, and assumed command, having been promoted to Major. Upon the occasion of the surprise and capture of Fort Steadman, on the 25th of March, Major Schwenk, leaving a thin skirmish line upon his front, hastened with his regiment to the scene of conflict. His prompt action was highly complimented by his superior officers.
On the first of April the Union lines began to close in upon the rebel works, and during the operations of the 2nd and 3rd, the Fiftieth was engaged, and was among the first regiments to reach the city of Petersburg upon its fall. On the 15th it moved to City Point, and thence by boat to Washington, where it remained until the 39th of June. Preparations had been extensively made for laying the corner stone of the National Monument at Gettysburg on the 4th of July, and by order of the Secretary of War, upon the recommendation of Lieutenant General Grant, the Fiftieth Regiment was ordered to represent the infantry of the army in the ceremonies of the occasion. Returning from Gettysburg it went into camp near Georgetown, where, on the 31st of July, it was mustered out of service.
Source: Bates, Samuel P. (Samuel Penniman), 1827-1902.: History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5; prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature, by Samuel P. Bates.
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