Tuesday, February 7, 2012

February 8, 1862: Roanoke & the Death of Captain Joseph Henry

On February 7 and 8, 1862, the men of the 9th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment got their first taste of battle as they attacked Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  The regiment had been trained in conventional land warfare, but the men soon learned they were in an amphibious war for which they were not trained.  The "Jersey 9th"  would earn a new nickname, "The Muskrats." 

Roanoke Island stands in the middle of a narrow strait which separates  the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds.  On this 12-mile stretch of land, the Confederates constructed a series of artillery earthworks.  The battle began with Federal gunboats firing on the island defenses at 9:00 a.m. on February 7.  At 3:00 p.m., the First and Second Brigades  were ordered to land on the island in small boats.  The 9th NJ Regiment was attached to Brigadier General Jesse Reno's Second Brigade. 

The troops landed without opposition but had to fight nature as they moved through a heavy swamp as they tried to reach solid ground.  After reaching solid ground, a small skirmish with Confederate pickets took place.  The Confederates retreated to a large earthwork known as "Center Battery," which was surrounded by swamp and brush.  As the Union forces bivouacked for the night in a corn field, another storm rained down on the unprotected soldiers.  

At 6:00 a.m. on February 8, the Union troops advanced on the Confederate earthwork.  The troops had to advance over a narrow road through the swamp.  First Brigade's advance was stopped at the earthworks by heavy musket and artillery fire.  Second Brigade waited for orders approximately one half mile away.  Finally at 8:00 a.m., Colonel Charles Heckman, of Phillipsburg, received orders to advance the 9th Regiment and join the First Brigade.  The "Jersey 9th" was to flank the earthwork fort  by moving through hip-deep swamp to a timber line approximately 100 yards from the fort.  Heckman ordered his sharpshooters to aim for the Confederate cannoneers.

The Warren County soldiers of Company H were advancing under the command of Captain Joseph Henry, of Oxford Furnace.  At his side was Corporal John E. Matthews, of Belvidere,  known as "Father Mathews"  by the younger soldiers.  Matthews wrote an account of the battle to Franklin Pierce Sellers, editor/publisher of The Belvidere Intelligencer, "We defiled into a thick woods, on a tolerably good road, for three quarters of a mile, only   we waded a deep pond about 100 yards wide.  Here a sharp turn in the road brought us to a masked battery of four 24-pounders, which were throwing grape and canister at a considerable rate.  The rattle of musketry was deafening, until about five minutes before we got into action, and we were afraid that our men had either given way, or hoped that the enemy had retreated.  On our way up, a procession of dead, wounded and dying met us, and I must confess that I felt a little squeamish, but never thought of turning back.  At last a Colonel, who was mortally wounded, met us and asked what regiment we were.  We told him we were the Jersey Ninth, and his reply was 'hurry up, for God's sake, the day depends on you.'

"We hurried up and were soon at work.  The rebels, I guess, thought we had retreated when our fire slackened and so renewed their fire.  We defiled to the right of the battery into a very heavy swamp and stood to our middle in the water for nearly three hours.  During the night, our men managed to land  two small field pieces, but they did not do much, as their ammunition ran out, and we were left alone with our rifles to contend   with their heavy guns.  At last, our pluck and perseverance was too much for the rascals, and they had to leave, but before leaving, their fire slackened for we found where they were and as soon as one of them showed his head to load or fire his piece, one of our 'humming birds' whistled in his ear and down he tumbled into the ditch.  They fought well, however, and it took a good many     of our 'messages' to convince them that the Jersey Ninth meant to have their four guns.

"Finally, we rose, as they were about retreating, to charge upon the battery and take it  at the point of the bayonet, when the 9th New York Hawkins Zouaves came up and fired right square into us, mistaking us for the enemy.  They fired two or three volleys, compelling us to lie flat to prevent being shot, before they discovered their mistake, by which time, the enemy had spiked their guns and fled.  The Zouaves charged  on an empty battery, but did not deserve, nor I do not believe, will get the honor of the victory - which I think, and all here allow, belongs to the Jersey Ninth."  Matthews noted the swamp in front of the battery had been man made to help camouflage the guns.

Private Daniel W. Shoemaker, of Pahaquarry Township, a member of Company H, recalled in a February 15th letter to Sellers, "Get Frank Leslie's illustrated paper, and there you will see true sketches of our battlefield and the fight; it will give you a very good idea of it; the sketches are nearly true; the artist was with us all the time.  You will see Ninth New Jersey midway between the right and left flank...I have not ascertained how many were killed or wounded of our regiment, but there were some killed and many wounded by the New York Hawkins Zouaves; they fired three volleys   into us, and had we not sat down almost under water, they would have cut us all down.  It appears that we were favored by a Power that was more than earthly.  We received volley after volley from the rebel infantry - the balls and grape came over us in showers, but ours came too low for them. Captain Wise, son of Governor Wise [of Virginia], was killed when he was about to discharge a cannon; he could not rally his men.  His father sent for his body under a flag of truce. We gave him up, together with two others - one colonel and one lieutenant  [Selden], who were killed at the same time."

The battle had lasted from daylight to a little after Noon.  It was a victory for the Jersey Ninth, but the price was high.  Warren County had lost its young captain, Joseph Henry, early in the fight.   Matthews wrote, "I must now record what I wish I had to need to do.  Our beloved Captain fell dead in my arms 15 minutes after we went into battle.  He was gallantly leading his men on, directly in front and center of his company, and immediately in front of me, when a grape shot - some think, and other seem to think a piece of shell which had previously taken the legs off another - struck him   a glancing blow on the sword belt, knocked him down, and paid me a small compliment by merely striking on the left shoulder and tossing me backwards without any inconvenience save a slight bruise.  Captain Henry did not speak but groaned three times, 'ah, ah, ah,' and then was silent.  Jacob Meyer and myself, who were standing, or rather kneeling (for whenever the rebels fired, we were ordered to kneel, and thus the ball passed over our heads at first) near me, carried him to the rear where the surgeon was in attendance, and seeing no wound, hoped that he would soon be better, but hurried back to our places in ranks, and told the boys that we thought that he would soon come round again; that we thought the ball only knocked the wind out of him, as a severe blow in the short ribs will, and in fact he opened his eyes and looked round but did nor speak before we left him.  

"In the excitement of battle, he was almost forgotten, as no one thought he was seriously injured.  When I fell, a comrade exclaimed to those near him, 'My God! Father Matthews (my cognomen in the company) is gone,' and did not know until the fight was nearly over that I was alive, and then he saw me just as I pulled my feet out of the swamp to the road.  He had heard, however, that the Captain was carried from the swamp - I cannot call it 'field'."

According the unit history, a Confederate artillery officer, Lieutenant Selden, was under sniper fire from three men of Company D, 9th NJ Regiment, as he fired his guns within the earthwork fort.  As he seized the match to fire one of his field guns, the three sharpshooters fired, shooting Selden in the head.  However, just before he died, Lt. Selden fired one gun - the gun that killed Captain Henry.   The shell fragments or grape shot ripped into the Jersey Ninth severing both legs of Corporal John Lorence, of Carpenter's Landing, of Company K; severing one leg of Private Jonathan Bural, of Company K; passing on to kill Private Blackwell, of Company F; and then striking Captain Henry and Corporal Matthews.

Private Blackwell reportedly shouted, "Remember thy God" as he fell back into the arms of his brother.  As Lorence was being carried back to the aid station, he reportedly told other soldiers, "Go in, Boys. Go in. Give it to them!  I can't do any more." 

General Ambrose Burnside later visited Lorence several times in hospital.  According to Captain Jonathan Townley, Jr., of Company K, "Once when I was with him, as he lay suffering, he said that is his limbs would only heal, he would procure a pair of wooden legs and fight on them.  Of this I told General Burnside, who came in just at that moment, and who replied, 'Coporal Lorence has done enough for his country; it is time now for the country to do something for him.'"

Matthews reported, "None of the Belvidere boys are hurt, except [Corporal Edward] Clayton, who got a buckshot through the cheek and saved him the trouble of having toothache in one of his upper teeth.  He is doing well and is running around the camp lively as a cricket.  Corporal [Lycidias] Hamilton was too sick to land and so missed the fight.  Several others of our regiment were taken sick on the trip and could not come with us,  the measles were pretty bad on our ship, and there were several cases, but a good many of them did not break out, and I believe most of them are well now.  Sergeant [Austin] Armstrong, of Hope, I forgot to say, was killed in the fight.  There were three wounded in our company, but the wounds were slight and none of them are in the hospital at present."

Captain Henry had the feeling he was not going to survive the battle.  In a letter to his sister, Mrs, Charles Scranton, written on board the ship, he wrote, "The sun is coming out beautifully; we shall weigh anchor immediately and join the rest of the fleet, and then, I suppose, we'll soon land and attack the rebels.  Do not cease to pray for me , for mercy - forgiveness - and should it be ordained that I shall perish on the field, that through the merits of the blessed Saviour, I may obtain an entrance  to the abode of the Redeemer on High.  I can write no farther; with my best love to my brothers and sisters, father and all the family, I am your affectionate brother, Joseph."  Captain Henry was the first New Jersey officer to die in battle during the war.

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards     

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