History of the 52nd NY
January 1864 to December 1864
The spring of 1864 brought about not only a new campaign and a reorganized army, but a new man in charge as well. Maj. Gen. George Meade remained the commander of the Army of the Potomac, but the commander of all the Union armies, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, would accompany Meade and essentially make most, if not all, the decisions. Major changes had been made to the army as well. Units that had signed three-year enlistments in the spring of 1861 were leaving the army to muster out. The 1st and 3rd Corps were disbanded. The 2nd Corps was consolidated into two divisions, and the remaining 3rd Corps units were consolidated into two divisions and assigned to the 2nd Corps. The 11th and 12th Corps, sent to the Western Theater in the fall of 1863, would not return while the 9th Corps would rejoin the army after serving in the west. Gen. Hancock had recovered enough from his Gettysburg wound to command the 2nd Corps once again. The 1st Division was given to Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow. Col. Frank remained in command of the 3rd Brigade. Maj. Henry Karples was in charge of the 52nd, as Lt. Col. Freudenberg had resigned to accept a commission in the Veteran Reserve Corps. By this time, the brigade had become an entirely New York brigade. The 66th New York and the 148th Pennsylvania had been replaced with the 39th, 111th, 125th and 126th New York. Companies of the 7th New York Veterans, the re-raised 7th New York, were attached to the 52nd as they were recruited and mustered in. When Company D arrived, the 7th New York Veterans would become a separate unit on July 22, 1864 under the command of Lt. Col. George Von Schack. Von Schack had been offered the Lt. Col. position in the 52nd after the resignation of Freudenberg, but declined because he was involved in trying to re-raise his old regiment. In the beginning of May 1864, the 52nd would bring 364 men into the field.
The battle of the Wilderness started on May 5 when the Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Army of the Potomac as it marched south after crossing the Rapidan River. The plan had been to draw the Confederates into battle once the Union army had left the densely forested region west of the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Many recruits that were going to see their first major battle were reminded of the dangers by the debris and soldiers remains from the previous year. The heavy woods, combined with the lack of open space or roads, forced the fighting to concentrate in certain areas where it became intense. The 2nd Corps, at the head of the army, had to move back north to join the fighting. It arrived on the field in the afternoon, built breastworks and engaged the enemy. The 3rd Brigade had been guarding a crossroads earlier in the afternoon and joined the 1st Division at nightfall. The 2nd Corps held the left of the Union line, along the Brock Road, with the 1st Division holding the far left. On the morning of May 6 Hancock issued orders to Barlow about advancing. What exactly the orders were remain unknown. Hancock said he gave orders for Barlow to advance his entire division, but Barlow stated that he was told to move only one brigade. The 3rd Brigade advanced alone, moving through the lines of the 4th Division.
The brigade pushed back the Confederates it ran into, but then ran into entrenched Confederates. The Confederates were massing for their own assault on the Union line and also occupied an unfinished railroad cut that the Union did not know about. This allowed the enemy to attack the flank of the 3rd Brigade. The brigade held for a little bit, but was soon forced back. The dense brush caught fire, creating smoke that confused the men and fires that burned the wounded to death. Frank asked a nearby brigade from the 4th Division for help but was refused and eventually his brigade was forced to withdraw in a disordered fashion. The brigade was not engaged for the rest of the battle. The 52nd suffered few casualties in this battle, but other regiments were not so lucky. The 39th lost about 130 men, while the 111th lost more than 170. Altogether, the brigade lost more than 400 men.
On May 7, the two armies moved south. On May 9, the 2nd Corps crossed the Po River and spent the night on land surrounded on three sides by the river. It was hoped the corps could outflank the Confederates, but the next day it was found that the Confederate defenses had been strengthened and reinforcements brought in. It would have been a bad idea to attack and a bad idea to leave the 2nd Corps there, as there was the possibility of it being surrounded and pinned up against the river. The corps started to move back across the river while the 1st Division covered the withdrawal. The 3rd Brigade held the right flank of the line with dense woods in its rear. The only connection the division had with the rest of the army was over three pontoon bridges. The Confederates crossed over the Blockhouse Bridge and another part of the river and attacked the Union front and right flank in the afternoon on May 10. This was the first day of the bloody eight day battle at Spotsylvania. The Confederate assaults were repulsed in the beginning, but the 3rd Brigade took the brunt of them as they held the exposed position on the flank. The division also faced crossfire from enemy artillery. The fighting became hand-to-hand and the woods caught fire. During the fight, officers of the 3rd Brigade found Barlow and complained that Frank was drunk and should be relieved. Barlow said he was too busy to change commanders in the middle of a fight. Orders were given to withdraw but they were not always heard. The 148th Pennsylvania and the 64th New York were accidentally left behind and found themselves fighting alone. Some units broke and others withdrew in disorder and the Union line collapsed. One soldier of the 52nd said they unstrapped the blankets from their packs and used them to protect their heads and shoulders from the flames. The division eventually managed to cross the river.
One notable loss was the loss of a gun from Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. It became wedged between two trees and had to be abandoned. It was said to be the first artillery piece lost by the 2nd Corps. A number of men from the 52nd were captured, at least half of them wounded. Capt. Charles Kronmeyer was wounded and captured, as well as Lt. Herman Von Haake. Von Haake was a Prussian Count and Army Officer on furlough and had joined the regiment during the winter. He would die of his wounds in June at Richmondís Libby Prison. Baron Otto Von Steuben, a descendent of the General Von Steuben from the American Revolution, had accompanied Von Haake and would suffer the same fate as his friend. He would be killed on May 12. Later on May 10, Frank was relieved for drunkenness by Hancock, and command of the brigade was given to Col. Hiram Brown of the 145th Pennsylvania.
On May 11, Grant decided to make an early morning attack on the Confederate entrenchments using a massed formation strategy that had been successful in a small attack on May 10. The 2nd Corps marched to the center of the Union line on the night of the 11th, and awoke at 3:30 AM on the 12th for an attack on a salient known as the Mule Shoe. The 1st Division formed the left flank of the corps and its brigades were arrayed in two lines, with the 3rd Brigade in the first line on the left. The attack started at 4:30 in silence. They moved so quickly and silently that they caught the Confederates almost completely by surprise. The Union forces spread out as they hit the Confederate line and enveloped entire units. They plowed through any obstacles in their way and overran the salient. The 3rd Brigade ran into the brigade of Brig. Gen. George Steuart. The brigade, comprised of the 1st North Carolina, 3rd North Carolina, 10th Virginia, 23rd Virginia, and 37th Virginia, lost more than 1,000 men as prisoners. The 1st and 3rd North Carolina were almost captured whole. Steuart was captured too, as well as his division commander, Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson. Sgt. William Westerhold of Company G captured the flag and color bearer of the 23rd Virginia after threatening to shoot him and take the flag anyway. He would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. Pvt. Michael Burke of the 126th New York also captured a flag. However, the attack had been too successful. The lack of resistance and the speed of the advance turned the Union soldiers into a disorganized mob that was unable to effectively continue attacking the rest of the Confederate line. A Confederate counterattack caught the Union off guard. Though only a few men from the brigade were taken prisoner, Col. Brown and a flag of the 39th New York were captured. Some men of the 3rd Brigade managed to slip around the flank of their attackers and take even more prisoners. However the attack forced them back to the original entrenchments they captured and the fighting continued there. The lines were close together and the fighting became hand-to-hand. Union reinforcements were sent in, but they only created more confusion and packed more men into a small area. The lines stabilized by 7 AM, but the fight continued all day and into the night. It also began to rain.
The Confederates pulled out of the Mule Shoe early in the morning of May 13, leaving the Union in control of the Mule Shoe, a muddy wasteland where bodies were piled seven or eight high in the trenches or mutilated by gunfire until they were unrecognizable. The 1st Division remained there until May 15, when it was moved to the rear. On the night of May 17, they were moved to the top of the Mule Shoe. The 1st Division formed the left of the corps with its four brigades arrayed in two lines once more. Like on May 12, the 3rd Brigade was in the first line, but was now under the command of Col. Clinton MacDougall of the 111th New York. Early on May 18, they attacked again, hoping to break the Confederate line again. Moving across areas they fought over before, many soldiers were sickened by the smell of the bodies. They were stopped by abatis in front of the strong Confederate line and could go no further under the heavy fire. Only a few soldiers made it close to the Confederate lines. The Union troops were allowed to withdraw after a few hours. Maj. Henry Karples was wounded and command of the 52nd passed to Capt. Henry Ritzius.
Both armies suffered at Spotsylvania. The 52nd lost more than 160 men during the battle, including 13 officers. This was more than half the commissioned officers in the regiment. Capt. Charles Kronmeyer had been wounded and captured with Von Haake on May 10. Lt. Robert Karples, the commanderís brother, had been killed on May 12. Capt. William Scherrer, who had been left in command of the 52nd at Gettysburg, was mortally wounded. The situation was so desperate that four men were promoted to Lieutenant between May 12 and 15, including William Westerhold.
On May 19, the two armies began to move south once more. The Confederates tried to stop the Army of the Potomac at several places, but it outmaneuvered them and forced them to fall back on Richmond. The 52nd suffered 7 more casualties on the march south. The two armies then met at Cold Harbor, which had seen fighting during the Seven Days Battles in 1862. On June 3, Grant believed the Confederates were worn down. He made a massive frontal assault on their positions and suffered 7,000 casualties in 30 minutes. The 2nd Corps took heavy losses, but the 3rd Brigade was in the second line of attack and was spared. The 52nd suffered only 8 casualties. For a week afterwards, the armies remained in their trenches. On June 11, the 52nd began to head south once more.
On June 15, the 2nd Corps crossed the James River, arrived outside Petersburg, Virginia and relieved a smaller Union force. The city was a major rail center south of Richmond that provided the main link between the capital, the Army of Northern Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy. On June 16, the corps attacked the Confederate lines on the eastern side of the city, near where Fort Stedman would be built later. The 52nd captured and held part of the Confederate works. The rest of the Army of the Potomac converged on the city with elements of the new Army of the James. They advanced further on June 17, but the attacks on June 18 failed. The Confederates were weak and the city open to capture on June 15, but fatigue, poor communications, poor decisions and a lack of aggression from some commanders caused the Union to not press hard enough when they had the numbers and opportunities. By June 18, the Confederates had built a new defensive line and the Army of Northern Virginia reinforced the cityís small garrison. Hancock also had to give up command of the 2nd Corps for a few days. Maj. Gen. David Birney commanded the 2nd Corps in his absence. The corps was shifted on June 20 to the left flank of the Union line with the idea of cutting the city off from some of their rail and road links. The 2nd and 6th Corps attacked near the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22. However, the rough, forested terrain and lack of east-west roads forced the attack to move slowly. A gap opened in between the two corps, which the Confederates took advantage of. They attacked the flank of the 2nd Corps, which happened to be the 1st Division. The division fell back and the 126th New York lost one of their flags. The Confederates withdrew and the Union forces advanced again, but were unable to move as far as they originally wanted to. The failure to capture the city brought about the start of siege operations. The 52nd suffered about 80 casualties during its first week at Petersburg.
The 1st Division had lost so many men since May that the 3rd Brigade was merged with the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York from the 2nd Brigade to form the Consolidated Brigade. The Consolidated Brigade would exist until the beginning of November. The 2nd Corps remained near the Jerusalem Plank Road until July 12. Then it was pulled off the line to rest behind the 5th Corps, near the Deserted House. They also spent some time on fatigue work, building and improving roads and fortifications.
On July 26, the corps was sent north across the James River to Deep Bottom to threaten Richmond while two divisions of cavalry raided in the area. It was hoped that the Confederates would weaken the Petersburg defenses to protect Richmond so that a Union attack on Petersburg would be successful. Hancock, back in command, attacked on July 27 at Deep Bottom and was successful, but he did not press the enemy too hard. The main purpose of Deep Bottom was achieved and the Confederates sent large numbers of men to the area. The Union soldiers in front of Petersburg attacked the Confederates after exploding a mine under their works. The Battle of the Crater was a debacle for the Union, and the 2nd Corps was moved back to the Deserted House. The 52nd suffered no losses at Deep Bottom. At the end of July, an extremely sick and exhausted Gen. Barlow, who had also recently lost his wife to an illness she caught while nursing hospitalized Union soldiers, gave command of his division to Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles.
The 52nd continued to rest around the Deserted House until August 12, when it moved north again to Deep Bottom. The 2nd Corps moved towards Richmond with the 10th Corps and some cavalry on August 14, but was stopped two days later after only making small gains. The intense heat had slowed down the Union attack and the 52nd suffered only 2 casualties. The 2nd Corps moved back to Petersburg on August 20. During this time, the 5th Corps had been raiding the Confederate supply line south of Petersburg, the Weldon Railroad. More track needed to be destroyed, and part of the 2nd Corps, the 1st Division included, was sent down to help. By August 24, the 1st and 2nd Divisions had destroyed several miles of track and was camped at Reams Station with a division of cavalry. They were isolated from the rest of the army. In response to the raiding, a larger Confederate force was sent to attack the men at Reams Station. The Confederates probed the Union defenses on the morning of August 25 and attacked in the afternoon. The Union defenses were poorly constructed field works built in June that had gaps in the walls for roads and railroad tracks. The Confederates attacked only one side of the works, where the 52nd was located. The enemy fire on the side being attacked also hit the rear of the unengaged Union soldiers on the opposite side of the works, who took cover by moving outside the works. Though the enemy was held back at first, they eventually broke through the line held by the Consolidated Brigade. Sources say either the 7th New York Veterans, the 39th New York and the 52nd New York gave way, or that the 125th New York and 126th New York did. It may have been all five units, or only several of them. In either case, the Union line began to fall apart. Units called in to face the Confederates at the breach refused to go forward or quickly broke and ran. Several artillery batteries were overrun. Those units taking cover on the outside of the works were attacked in their exposed position, leading to further confusion. Individual units made several brave attacks, but they could do little. The two divisions were forced to retreat and reinforcements arrived too late to do any good. The 2nd Corps was withdrawn to Petersburg.
The 52nd suffered more than 60 casualties. Many of them were wounded and were left behind to be captured. The 111th New York lost one of their flags. Overall, the two divisions suffered over 2,700 casualties and lost nine artillery pieces and twelve flags. However, there were a few reasons to explain the poor showing of what had been the armyís top corps. The 2nd Corps had been used to spearhead many of the armyís attacks and had lost many men, especially experienced men and officers. Some of the regiments, such as the 52nd, were comprised of large numbers of newly drafted men and recruits and were no longer the experienced fighting units they once were. The 2nd Corps no longer resembled the formation that had fought so well earlier in the war. The 52nd was in such dire straits that it ended the month with Lt. John Bambach in charge. Because there were so few men in the regiment, the 52nd was consolidated into six companies early in the fall. A seventh company was later added that was going to be made up of new recruits. The 52nd also lost a number of veteran soldiers that summer and fall because those men who had not re-enlisted were mustered out.
After Reams Station, the 1st and 2nd Divisions were moved back to Petersburg, near the Jones House. They supported fatigue details, supplied men for the line and helped build defensive works in the rear line running from the Norfolk Railroad to the Jerusalem Plank Road. At the end of September, the 1st Division moved to the front line on the far right of the Union line and remained there for most of October. On October 27, the rest of the 2nd Corps was involved in operations near the Boydton Plank Road. The 1st Division remained on the line, making small attacks on the Confederates in the area of the Crater. They took some prisoners and occupied portions of the Confederate line but fell back afterwards. The 52nd lost about 10 men during these attacks.
The 1st Division was off the front line in November and was under the command of Capt. George Degener. Henry Karples had been promoted to Lt. Col. after Spotsylvania, but he still had not returned to the regiment. He was commissioned Colonel in November, but would never serve as such because the 52nd only had seven companies and not the ten required for a regiment. Capt. Ritzius would not be promoted to Major until December. However, the Consolidated Brigade was broken up and the 3rd Brigade was re-formed under the command of Col. Clinton MacDougall. The 3rd Brigade was split up to garrison forts in the rear. On November 2, the 52nd supplied 86 men to garrison Fort Blaisdell, near the Jerusalem Plank Road, along with 70 men from the 7th New York, all under the command of Capt. Degener. At the end of the month, the 52nd was moved near the left flank of the Union army. On December 6, the 52nd was sent to garrison Fort Emery and was placed under the command of Lt. Col. Dennis Burke of the 88th New York. After a week, the 52nd rejoined the brigade and spent the rest of the winter near the left flank of the line. During the fall, Hancock gave up command of the 2nd Corps for the last time, and command would pass to Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys.