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PA Civil War > Regiments > 55th > History

PA Civil War Volunteer Soldiers

Fifty-fifth Regiment

Regimental History

55th PA Regiment History

The Fifty-fifth Regiment was recruited, under authority granted by Governor Curtin to Colonel Richard White, during the summer and autumn of 1861; companies A and C in Cambria, B in Berks, E in Schuylkill, F in Indiana, G in Dauphin, I in Blair and Bedford, and D, H, and K in Bedford. The companies rendezvoused at Camp Curtin, where a regimental organization was effected by the choice of the following field officers: Richard White, of Indiana county, Colonel; Frank T. Bennett, of Schuylkill county, Lieutenant Colonel, and John H. Filler, of Bedford County, Major. Three of the companies B, E, and G were, for a time, stationed at Camp Cameron, near Harrisburg, under the command of Colonel Thomas A. Ziegle, and were instructed by regular army officers.

On the 22nd of November, the regiment, thirty-eight officers, and seven hundred and fifty-seven men, left Camp Curtin, and proceeded to Fortress Monroe. Drill and discipline, which had been commenced at Camp Curtin, was here resumed, and the command was brought to a good degree of efficiency. On the 8th of December, in company with the Forty-fifth, Seventy-sixth, and Ninety-seventh regiments, it embarked for South Carolina, arriving at Port Royal on the 12th. The Fifty-fifth was immediately sent out to guard the small islands and approaches to the west of Hilton Head, where it remained until the 25th of February, 1862, when it was transferred to Edisto Island. While on duty here, a series of attacks were made by the enemy, in large force, upon the companies, scattered as they necessarily were, in holding the Union outstretched lines upon the coast. The most determined of these was made on the 29th of March, when companies E, F, and G, posted at the head of the island, nearly twelve miles from the headquarters of the regiment, were attacked by a force of the enemy estimated at two thousand. The action which ensued was severe, but the rebels were signally repulsed, with a loss to the three companies of about twenty killed and wounded. General Evans, who was in command of the enemy, afterwards reported to the rebel government, that he had made a reconnaissance upon Edisto Island, and had found the enemy six thousand strong.

During the summer the only troops upon the island were those of the Fifty-fifth, and the duty, performed beneath a southern sun, was very severe. On the 21st of October, the regiment accompanied General Brannan on an expedition, consisting of about four thousand troops, up Broad River. The command landed, under cover of gunboats, at Mackey's Point, and immediately advanced on Pocotaligo Bridge, the object of the movement being to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. At eight o'clock on the morning of the 22nd, the enemy was met at Caston, but were soon driven. At Frampton, he made another stand, and, after a sharp engagement, was again driven, and retreated across the Pocotaligo River, burning the bridge as he withdrew. Here he took a strong position, and being largely reinforced from Charleston, held his ground during six hours, in which the battle fiercely raged. Unable to gain an advantage, the ammunition being nearly exhausted, the Union forces withdrew under cover of night, and returned to Hilton Head. The Fifty-fifth lost in this engagement, twenty-nine killed and wounded. Near the close of the action, while bravely leading his men against a masked battery, Captain Horace C. Bennett was killed.

The regiment was now stationed at Beaufort, South Carolina, where it remained for more than a year, performing picket duty at Port Royal Ferry, ten miles from the town, and also serving in the capacity of heavy artillery upon the fortifications.

On the 1st of January 1864, the majority of the men re-enlisted for a second term of three years, and on the 22nd departed for Harrisburg, where, upon their arrival, they were dismissed for a veteran furlough. On the 23rd of March, the veterans and recruits returned to South Carolina, where the regiment, now numbering twelve hundred and fifty effective men, remained for three weeks, engaged in drill and guard duty. On the 12th of April, it embarked for Virginia, and landed at Gloucester Point, opposite Yorktown. Here the regiment was assigned to the Third Brigade, Third Division, Tenth Corps, Army of the James.

General Butler was here organizing his forces, consisting of about forty thousand men, to operate against Richmond, by the right bank of the James. Embarking upon transports, the Tenth Corps moved up the river, and landed at Bermuda Hundred, with the design of seizing and fortifying the peninsula between the Appomattox and the James, as a base of operations. Advancing ten miles west, encountering little opposition, the troops were set to work throwing up entrenchments across the head of the peninsula, and soon had the neck of the "bottle" closed.

On the 9th of May, Ames' Division moved out of the works, and destroyed the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad for a distance of two miles. General Ames then marched upon the turnpike towards Petersburg, as far as Swift Creek, where he met the enemy well posted, and immediately attacked, the contest continuing until evening. Early on the following morning, Ames learned that Terry's Division, in his rear, had been attacked. Facing his columns about, and advancing, he soon encountered the rebel forces, and drove them as far as Drury's Bluff, near Richmond. On the 13th, the Union forces were again pushed forward towards Richmond, but found the enemy strongly entrenched in a double line of works behind Proctor's Creek. The outer line was carried, and Gillmore's troops continued the contest during the 14th and 15th, flanking the rebel position. But he had now been re-inforced by troops from Charleston, and General Beauregard was in command. Seeing that the Union lines were greatly extended, and, in many parts, thereby greatly weakened, the rebel leader moved out of his entrenchments at night, and early on the morning of the 16th, under cover of dense fog, fell upon the left flank with sudden and overpowering force. The Fifty-fifth occupied a position near the extreme left, and felt the full force of the enemy's blows. Again and again he advanced to the charge. Portions of the line gave way. The Fifty-fifth stood side by side with the Fourth New Hampshire, and gallantly held its ground, until out-flanked and nearly surrounded, it was in danger of being captured. Colonel White, as a last resort, selected three companies, C, D, and E, of his own regiment, and charged full upon the head of the advancing column. But it could not be broken, and the line was forced to yield. The loss in this engagement was very severe, being in killed, wounded, and prisoners, including those from May 9th, when the fighting commenced, fifteen commissioned officers, and three hundred enlisted men. The Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, and Adjutant were among the prisoners, and Lieutenant John H. Barnhart, was among the killed. The command of the regiment devolved upon Captain John C. Shearer.

The army now fell back to its entrenched line at Bermuda Hundred and the regiment was subsequently engaged in several minor skirmishes. On the morning of the 20th of May the enemy attacked the picket line on Foster's Plantation at daylight. One-half of the Fifty-fifth was in position, and made a stern resistance, holding its ground until the yielding of the forces, on right and left, made it necessary for it to fall back to save itself from capture.

Butler having completed his preparations, was upon the point of moving upon the enemy's lines about Petersburg, when he received orders from Grant to detach a heavy force under General Baldy Smith, and send it to the support of the Army of the Potomac. The Fifty-fifth was one of the regiments selected for this purpose, and was assigned to the First Brigade, General Stannard, Second Division, General Martindale, Eighteenth Corps. Moving in transports down the James, and up the York rivers, the corps debarked at West Point, and marched via White House to Cold Harbor, where, on the 1st of June, it met the enemy, who was engaging the Sixth Corps. The line of battle was immediately formed, and charged the enemy's works, capturing a line of rifle-pits, and taking a large number of prisoners. The contest was continued during the 1st and 2nd, but the principal charge was made on the morning of the 3rd. Stannard's Brigade was selected for the attack, and was formed in columns of regiments, in which the Fifty-fifth was the third. As it swept forward to the desperate work, the intense fire of the enemy caused the front lines to waver, and, finally, to fall back in confusion upon the third, which was also momentarily deranged. Captain Shearer, in command, was wounded, and scarcely had the next in rank, Captain Nesbitt, assumed it, when he also was stricken down, and it developed upon Captain Hill, who soon restored order, and held his position now in the front line. During the night, breastworks were thrown up, which were occupied until the night of the 12th, when the entire army withdrew. The loss, in killed and wounded, was four commissioned officer, and one hundred and thirty-four enlisted men. In conducting this withdrawal from the enemy's front, the Fifty-fifth was deployed in the front line of works, while the regiments successively fell back in the stillness of the night, until all had retired, without casualties or disturbance.

Marching back to White House, the corps again embarked on transports, and moved, via the Pamunkey, York, and James rivers, to the Point of Rocks on the Appomattox, where it debarked, and early on the morning of the 15th, advanced on the enemy's works in front of Petersburg, capturing eighteen guns, and four hundred prisoners. On the following morning, General Stannard ordered Captain Hill to go forward with his regiment as skirmishers. He promptly advanced in the face of a hot fire, and gained a position close up to the enemy's lines, but not without serious loss. On the 18th, Stannard's Brigade, occupying the extreme right of the line, resting on the Appomattox, was again deployed for a charge. In front was an open field, commanded by the enemy's infantry and artillery, across which it must pass. Never faltering, the Fifty-fifth, which faced the ground most exposed, pushed forward obedient to command, and, in less than ten minutes, while crossing this open field, it lost three commissioned officers and eighty enlisted men, more than half of its effective strength, a large portion killed.

On the evening of the 29th, the corps moved to the rear of the position held by the Ninth Corps, and, upon the explosion of the mine, on the morning of the 30th, it was held in readiness to support the assaulting column; but the attack failed, and, without being called into action, it returned to its old position on the Appomattox. For two months the regiment was engaged in duties incident to the siege, being constantly exposed to the fire of artillery, and the musketry of the pickets and sharpshooters, scarcely a day passing without some loss.

During the night of September 28th, the regiment crossed the James, and marched to participate in the attack about to be made, by the Army of the James, upon Chapin's Bluff. The capture of Fort Harrison was effected on the morning of the following day, but the Fifty-fifth being held in support of the attacking troops, did not become engaged. In the afternoon it was determined to carry the works beyond, and at four o'clock, Colonel Jourdan, in command of the brigade, ordered the Fifty-fifth to charge, and take a redoubt in the enemy's second line. The One Hundred and Fifty-eighth New York was deployed to support it, by advancing through the woods on the left, and the One Hundred and Forty-eighth New York, to act as skirmishers on the right. The Fifty-fifth advanced over the open ground in front, a quarter of a mile, under a concentrated fire from three redoubts, supported by a heavy body of infantry. Bravely stemming a torrent of shot, and deadly minnie balls, it moved steadily on, and reached a point within twenty yards of the work, when, its ranks almost annihilated, and supports failing to come up, it was forced to fall back, leaving the dead and most of the wounded upon the field, to fall into the hands of the enemy. Of five commissioned officers and one hundred and fifty enlisted men who marched at the word of command, three officers and seventy-eight men, were either killed, wounded, or missing. Lieutenant Blaney Adair was among the killed, and Captain John O'Neil mortally wounded. On the following day, the rebels made three attacks on Fort Harrison, but in each they were repulsed with terrible slaughter.

In November, the colors which had been originally presented to the regiment, by the Governor, before leaving the State, carried in all its campaignings, and latterly, almost constantly enshrouded in the smoke and fire of battle, having become badly tattered, application was made for a new stand, which was promptly forwarded. The staff and the few remaining shreds of the old one were deposited in the Capitol.

In December, the white troops of the Tenth and Eighteenth Corps were consolidated, and formed the Twenty-fourth Corps. The Fifty-fifth was assigned to the Fourth Brigade of the First Division, and was henceforward engaged in performing picket and guard duty on the left bank of the James. On the 10th of December, while stationed at the redoubt on Signal Hill, near the extreme right of our lines, it was attacked by a portion of Longstreet's Corps. The demonstrations were feebly made, and were easily repulsed. On the 21st of December, upon the muster out of service of Lieutenant Colonel Bennett, at the expiration of his term, Major Filler was promoted to succeed him, and Captain James Metzger was promoted to Major.

On the 27th of March, 1865, the First and Second Divisions of the Twenty-fourth Corps, and one division of the Twenty-fifth Corps, under command of General Ord, broke camp, and crossing the James and the Appomattox, proceeded, by the rear of the army, to Hatcher's Run, and on the morning of the 29th relieved the Second Corps, which moved out still further to the left. During the 30th and 31st, a part of the regiment was on the picket line near the run, and in the general advance which was made, skirmished with the enemy, losing two men killed, and one commissioned officer and seventeen enlisted men wounded.

On the morning of April 2nd, in breaking through the enemy's lines, the Fourth Brigade, to which the regiment belonged, commanded by General Fairchild, with the balance of the disision, charged Forts Gregg and Baldwin, which after a strong resistance, were carried, the Fifty-fifth being the first to occupy the latter. The loss here was one commissioned officer killed, and one commissioned offier and four enlisted men wounded. On the morning of April 3rd, having ascertained that the rebels had evacuated Petersburg during the previous night, General Ord's column was pushed forward to cut off their line of retreat at Burkesville Junction. By a forced march, along the South Side Railroad, Ord reached the Junction on the evening of the 5th, a distance of about sixty miles. Resuming the march on the following morning, it hastened forward, seven miles further, to Rice's Station, the Fifty-fifth leading the column as skirmishers, and losing nine men wounded. At the Station, Ord held his position, cutting off the direct way of retreat to Danville, and forcing the rebel column towards Lynchburg. At daylight on the 7th, Ord resumed the march, with the design of again cutting the rebel line of retreat. He reached Appomattox Court House, a distance of forty-two miles, early on the morning of the 9th, in advance of Lee's columns, and with Sheridan's Cavalry, held firmly the only avenue of escape. "Sheridan," says Greeley, "was with his cavalry near the Court House, when the Army of Virginia made its last charge. By his order, his troops, who were in line of battle, dismounted, gave ground gradually, while showing a steady front, so as to allow our weary infantry time to form, and take position. This effected, the horsemen moved swiftly to the right and dismounted, revealing lines of solid infantry in battle array, before whose wall of gleaming bayonets, the astonished enemy recoiled in blank despair, as Sheridan and his Companyers, passing briskly around the rebel left, prepared to charge the confused, reeling masses. A white flag was now waved by the enemy, before General Custer, who held our cavalry advance, with the information that they had concluded to surrender."

The First and Second Divisions of the Twenty-fourth Corps remained at Appomattox Court House until the 17th, when they proceeded to Richmond via Farmville, Burkesville, and Amelia Court House, arriving on the 25th. The regiment encamped on the outskirts of the city, and performed fatigue and guard duty until the latter part of July, when it was ordered to report to Major General Hartsuff, at Petersburg. It was stationed at different points, in detachments in Chesterfield, Buckingham, Cumberland, Powhatten, and Amelia counties, acting under orders from the Freedman's Bureau. On the 30th of August, the regiment was mustered out of service at Petersburg, whence it proceeded to Harrisburg, where it was paid and finally disbanded.

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. Civil War Databases

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