History of the 52nd NY
From its beginnings to December 1862
After the Union forces were defeated at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, the Federal government issued a call for 500,000 soldiers to serve for three years. On July 27, 1861, Colonel Emil Von Schoening was given authority from the War Department to recruit a regiment of infantry. His unit, the German Rangers, was recruited in New York City from the large German population in the area. Later, the Honved Regiment, under Colonel Edward Count Wratislaw, was broken up and divided between the German Rangers and another German unit, the 45th New York. In October, Colonel Paul Frank also began to recruit Germans in New York City for an infantry regiment. His previous request to recruit a cavalry regiment had been declined. His unit was called the Sigel Rifles, after the prominent German Forty-Eighter and Union general, Franz Sigel. Frank may have known Sigel since both had been members of the 5th New York State Militia, a German militia unit in New York City. Sigel allowed Frank to use his name for recruitment purposes. On October 29, the German Rangers was merged with the Sigel Rifles to form the 52nd New York. Companies A, B, C, D, E, F, and G were formed from the German Rangers and Companies H, I, and K from the Sigel Rifles. On October 30, the regiment was presented with a flag made by a group of patriotic Brooklyn women under Mrs. Otto Schloemer, along with several guidons. A Judge Reynolds of Brooklyn gave the main address, which was followed by a speech given by Frank in German to his men. After the regiment performed some maneuvers for the crowd, a banquet was held.
On November 1, 1861, the 52nd New York was officially mustered into Federal service at the Quarantine Grounds on the northeast tip of Staten Island, where the men had been gathering since August. Paul Frank was appointed the regiment’s colonel. Both names, the German Rangers and the Sigel Rifles, were carried on as nicknames. The 52nd left New York on November 11 with a little over 700 men and headed south. Sigel believed that the regiment and the 74th Pennsylvania, another German regiment he had a hand in recruiting, would join him in Missouri in the fall of 1861. Neither unit was sent west and they both spent the war in the Eastern Theater. The 52nd camped near Bladensburg, Maryland until November 28. On that day, it marched to the Long Bridge, where it joined the 4th Rhode Island, the 57th New York and the 66th New York. The units marched over the Potomac River into Virginia singing, “I wish I was in Dixie.” Col. Samuel Zook of the 57th commanded this group as it marched to Camp California, located about two or three miles south of Alexandria near the Fairfax Turnpike, under the guns of Fort Worth. Here, the 52nd was assigned to French’s Brigade, Sumner’s Division, Army of the Potomac. The other regiments assigned to the brigade were the 57th New York, the 66th New York, and the 53rd Pennsylvania.
As of February 6, 1862, the 52nd had 712 men on its rolls, with 41 sick in the hospital. For several months after its muster in, the 52nd was able to recruit several dozen more men. In early March, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized. Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner was given command of the newly formed 2nd Corps and Brig. Gen. Israel Richardson took command of Sumner’s old division, now designated the 1st Division. Brig. Gen. William French’s brigade was designated the 3rd Brigade. This would be the 52nd’s assignment until the middle of 1864. During the winter, the men of the 52nd spent their time on guard duty or drilling and marching. There would be occasional periods of picket duty away from the camp.
On March 10, 1862, the 52nd would move out on campaign for the first time. The Army of the Potomac advanced farther in Virginia, with the 3rd Brigade near the front and reinforced with a regiment of cavalry and two batteries of artillery. The 52nd marched into Manassas on March 13 and found it abandoned by the Confederates, much like the surrounding area. It was muddy, rained a lot, and the burned and abandoned buildings and camps added to the generally dreary atmosphere. However the soldiers found some solace in being able to supplement their rations with abandoned supplies.
After a few days the army was slowly pulled back and loaded onto transports at Alexandria so it could sail down the Chesapeake Bay and land at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The 52nd landed there on April 3. This was the start of Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s plan to outflank the Confederates and land Union troops on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers and capture Richmond. The army moved slowly because of inaccurate information, McClellan’s cautious nature and Confederate ruses at Yorktown. The 52nd did not fight in the siege of Yorktown, but built roads and defensive works in the rear of the line. The hot weather and swampy conditions began to take a toll on the 52nd. Many of its men became ill while serving on the Peninsula. After Yorktown, the Army of the Potomac continued to move slowly north towards Richmond.
On May 31, the 52nd was camped near the Tyler House when the 2nd Corps was called on to help an isolated part of the army under attack near Fair Oaks. Gen. Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, attacked the Union Army in hopes of defeating it while it was spread out. The corps spent most of the afternoon crossing the rain-swollen Chickahominy River, which had only two bridges in the area. The 3rd Brigade tried to cross at the lower bridge, but it was partially swept away and too dangerous to use. The men waded through the waist deep water instead, holding their rifles and ammunition boxes above their heads. Arriving on the field, the 52nd was detached from the rest of the brigade to cover a gap between the 1st Division and a brigade from the 3rd Corps. In the morning, the 52nd lined up for battle on the far left of the brigade, between the 53rd Pennsylvania and the 81st Pennsylvania of Brig. Gen. David Birney’s brigade from the 3rd Corps. The battle line ran along the Richmond & York River RR, in terrain with thick woods and limited visibility. When the Confederates attacked, the 52nd soon became involved in heavy fighting and fought off several attacks. The 81st Pennsylvania was forced to fall back, exposing the 52nd to enemy fire on its left flank and rear. Major Charles Freudenberg turned three companies around to meet the enemy. After four hours of fighting, and with its ammunition almost exhausted, the 52nd was relieved and allowed to take its wounded to the rear. The 52nd fought extremely well in its first battle, but their victory came at a high price. Of the 320 men that went into the battle, 122 became casualties, including Emil Frank and Eugene Von Schoening, the brothers of Paul and Emil. Col. Frank had two horses shot out from under him, while Lt. Col. Philip Lichtenstein and Maj. Freudenberg each lost one.
Afterwards, there was no major fighting until the start of the Seven Days Battles on June 25. The 2nd Corps remained in the area of Fair Oaks until then. The Seven Days started when Gen. Robert E. Lee made a concentrated effort to push the Union forces away from Richmond. The fighting culminated with a bloody battle at Malvern Hill on July 1. The 52nd participated in very little of the fighting during this period. The 3rd Brigade was moved to support part of the army at Gaines Mill on June 27 but was not engaged. The 52nd was also present at the Peach Orchard and Savages Station on June 29, White Oak Swamp Bridge and Glendale on June 30, and Malvern Hill on July 1. After each battle, the army retreated farther away from Richmond. The 52nd suffered 17 casualties during the fighting. During this time, the 2nd Delaware and 64th New York were added to the brigade. After Malvern Hill, the 2nd Corps remained at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia until August 16, when the 52nd moved back to Fort Monroe, and then to Alexandria. During this period of inactivity the climate of the Peninsula continued to take a toll on the health of the men of the 52nd. The 2nd Corps was moved back to Northern Virginia to support Maj. Gen. John Pope’s campaign, but they only arrived in time to cover his retreat after the Second Battle of Bull Run. When Lee moved north into Maryland, the Army of the Potomac followed.
On September 16, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia skirmished in several places on the west bank of Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The 2nd Corps was not engaged and camped for the night on the east bank, near the Middle Bridge. On September 17, the battle of Antietam started early in the morning in the northern part of the present battlefield, and raged around the Miller Cornfield, the Dunker Church and the East and West Woods all morning. That morning, the 2nd Corps crossed the creek. The 2nd Division would head for the fighting in the north, while the 1st and 3rd Divisions headed for the center of the Confederate line, positioned in a sunken farm road. Several Confederate brigades had taken position in the road, which had been worn below ground level in some places to form a natural trench. Fences along the road provided more cover. The 3rd Division, under the 52nds former brigade commander, attacked first in a piecemeal manner and soon became pinned down under heavy fire in front of the left half of the Confederate line. The 1st Division then attacked the right half of the Confederate line, also in a piecemeal manner. The 2nd Brigade attacked first and suffered heavy casualties. When they ran out of ammunition, they pulled back and allowed the 1st Brigade to come forward and take their place. Though the attackers suffered heavy casualties, the Confederates did as well. Eventually, men of the 3rd Division and the 1st Brigade were able to breach the Confederate line and fire into the flanks of the Confederates. The Confederates retreated in disorder out of the road and headed south through the cornfields of the Piper farm.
Through all of this, the 52nd and the 3rd Brigade, under Col. John Brooke of the 53rd Pennsylvania, had remained in reserve near the Roulette farm, taking cover behind a hill. As the Confederate line began to collapse in the road, a mixed force of Confederates consisting of Cobb’s Brigade, under Lt. Col. William McRae, and the 27th North Carolina and the 3rd Arkansas, attacked the rear of the 3rd Division and headed towards the Roulette farm and the rear of the 1st Division. Col. Frank, taking notice of this threat, turned the 52nd and the 2nd Delaware to meet this threat. Col. Brooke also turned the 53rd Pennsylvania towards the Confederates. The 52nd fought until their ammunition was gone and the Confederates had been forced to retreat. In the meantime, the 57th and the 66th New York were sent to pursue the Confederates through the cornfields behind the sunken road. The pursuit was disorganized and the men were exhausted and low on ammunition. Once they ran into the re-forming Confederates, they fell back to the road and remained under artillery fire for the rest of the day. The 52nd replenished its ammunition and joined the rest of the brigade at the sunken road, which has become better known as Bloody Lane. The 52nd had gone into battle with 119 men and suffered 18 casualties. Several enemy colors had been captured by the brigade. Gen. Richardson was mortally wounded and command of the division was given to Brig. Gen. Winfield Hancock.
After spending the next few days in the vicinity of the Bloody Lane, the 3rd Brigade and the rest of the 2nd Corps was sent to Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah Valley on September 22. There, it participated in a minor skirmish at Charlestown, Virginia on October 16. At the end of October, the 52nd left the Shenandoah and marched towards Fredericksburg, Virginia. Camping across the Rappahannock River at Falmouth, the 52nd waited from November 17 to December 11 for something to happen.
Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan as the commander of the Army of the Potomac in November. Burnside reorganized the army, making Sumner commander of the Right Grand Division, and Maj. Gen. Darius Couch commander of the 2nd Corps. Burnside planned to cross the army near Fredericksburg and march on Richmond. He initially caught the Confederates off guard, but was unable to cross the river because the pontoon bridges he ordered had not arrived. They did not arrive for several weeks, giving the Confederates ample time to entrench on the heights behind Fredericksburg. Burnside decided to continue with his general plan, though the present situation was very different from the one that existed a month before. On the morning of December 11, engineers began to build six bridges across the river, with two directly across from the city, one just south of the city and three farther south. Once it became light out, the engineers took heavy fire from the city and could not continue work. The 57th and 66th New York were detailed to provide covering fire, and did so until they ran out of ammunition and were relieved. Both regiments suffered heavy casualties and the loss of their commanding officers. The bridges were eventually completed and the city cleared of Confederates after an amphibious assault with pontoon boats and street fighting. The next day the 1st Division crossed the river and spent the rest of the day in the city, which had been somewhat abandoned by its inhabitants and heavily damaged by the artillery fire and street fighting. In their free time, the soldiers ransacked and looted the city, causing even more destruction.
On December 13, the 52nd and the 2nd Delaware spent several hours on picket duty, but rejoined the division later in the morning. That morning, Union forces had attacked the right side of the Confederate line, southeast of the city. After heavy fighting, the Union soldiers were forced back. The 2nd Corps was ordered to attack the Confederate line west of the city, dug in on Maryes Heights. All the officers had their misgivings about the attack, but carried on anyway. This was a tough position to attack. Confederate artillery and infantry were dug in on the crest, and more infantry were sheltered behind a stonewall that ran along the hill part of the way up. A mostly open slope ran up towards the stonewall from the edge of the city. A deep millrace crossed it, and a fairground surrounded by a tall fence lay on the slope. Several buildings lay near a road that ran from the city to the top of the hill. The 3rd Division was the first to attack. Attacking by brigades, they were subjected to heavy artillery and rifle fire as soon as they left the safety of the city. Slowed down by the millrace and the fences, the attackers took heavy casualties and were soon disorganized and pinned down, unable to move forward or retreat. The 1st Division was ordered to attack next, with the 3rd Brigade, now under Col. Samuel Zook, in the lead. The brigade was broken up and left the city in three groups by different roads so it could form up quicker. The 52nd was paired with the 2nd Delaware. Once outside the city the brigade formed with the 52nd on the left, followed by the 2nd Delaware, the 57th New York, the 66th New York, the 27th Connecticut and the 53rd Pennsylvania holding the right. The living and the dead littering the slope slowed the brigade, but they were able to advance farther than the previous attackers. Some managed to get within 50 yards of the stonewall. However, the fairground and the buildings broke the advance of the brigade into smaller groups, weakening their attack. The 52nd, separated by the fence from the rest of the brigade, moved the quickest and became pinned down and isolated. Everyone took cover as best they could in a slight swale and returned fire. The color bearer of the 52nd was seriously wounded and Lieutenants Emil Frank and Herman Ehrichs rushed out to save the colors. A shell also killed the regiment’s adjutant, Lt. Charles Laty, as he climbed a fence. When the 52nd ran out of ammunition, they moved off to the left and took cover in a railroad cut that ran down towards the city. They held their position with fixed bayonets until they moved back towards the city to find ammunition. They were told to pick some up by the river. In the meantime, the rest of the division had attacked up the hill, and the same fate awaited them. Four more divisions would do the same until darkness fell. The rest of the brigade managed to move off the hill and reform in the city, where they were joined by the 52nd. They spent another night in the ruins.December 14 was a quiet day, while most of the brigade spent some time on the picket line on December 15. Darkness fell and the 52nd was the last unit in the brigade to be on the picket line. Finding them and bringing them back was a tough job. Zook’s adjutant, Lt. Josiah Favill, managed to find the 52nd on the dark battlefield, mixed in with the corpses on the field. Frank had the men cushion their equipment so they could not be heard moving around, and keep up a sporadic fire so the Confederates believed they were still there. They snuck away unnoticed to the railroad cut and then back to the mostly evacuated city. Then they crossed back over the river and returned to their old campground. The 52nd had gone into battle with 160 men and suffered 43 casualties. After this disastrous defeat, the 52nd spent the winter camped near Falmouth.