Monday, July 9, 2012

July 5, 1862: Lt. J.C. Wiggins' letter on Mechanicsville

In June 1862, the men of the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment were fighting Confederate troops at Mechanicsville, Virginia along side other regiments of the 1st NJ Brigade.  Lieutenant J. C. Wiggins, of Belvidere, serving in Company C, wrote to his father on July 5 to tell him about Mechanicsville and the following battle at Gaines' Heights (also known as Gaines' Hill and Gaines' Farm), Virginia. 

Lt. Wiggins wrote, "When firing was heard at Mechanicsville, I was immediately hurried off to the scene of the fight.  The rebels had engaged the troops of General [George] McCall, and the fighting was very sharp indeed.  Our troops held their position though attacked by overwhelming numbers, and while our loss was nothing, comparatively speaking, about 18 killed, the rebels' loss was enormous. 

"Our artillery practice was magnificent (such firing was never heard before nor since) and mowed down whole platoons of the enemy.  The battle continued until after nightfall, and the flash of the cannon pouring forth a red stream of fire at each discharge, was the grandest and most terrible sight I ever witnessed: you could trace the course of the shells through the air, a long and fiery trail streaming from them. A person, until they have seen and participated in a fight, can never have any idea of the grandly terrific sight of a battle. Though in the thickest of the fight, I escaped unharmed; that same Providence, who has protected me so far, carried me safely through that and the dangers of the succeeding battles.

"A movement was in contemplation by [General George B.] McClellan, which was gradually going on unseen by us, but succeeding events hastened proceedings a little.  It was to swing to the right wing around to the James River, and make that a basis of operations, so that we could have the cooperation of the gunboats.  Our brave troops were swiftly and surely dwindling away from the effect of the poisonous miasma arising from the swamps of the Chickahominy.  It was a foe more to be dreaded than the bullets of the enemy, and it was considered necessary to make the movement.  Accordingly, the day after the fight at Mechanicsville, we fell back to Gaines' Heights and were there attacked by the enemy again, with a force of 80,000 men, as the Richmond papers claim, while we had only 28,000 to oppose them. 

"Oh! It was a desperate battle!  Never did brave men fight more bravely.  The rebels threw their masses against us, and we used them upon our bayonets, throwing them back as the surging wave recedes from the rock bound shore; again and again they charged us, and again and again we rolled them back until night drew on, and left us masters of the field.

"The NJ Brigade was almost decimated; the 4th Regiment is all gone, only two officers and about 50 men left in the regiment.  They were outflanked and taken prisoners.  My Colonel told me the 3rd lost about 200 men.  A few Regiments, to their everlasting shame, broke and left the field in confusion.  Lieutenant Camp, of the 4th Regiment, now in the Signal Corps, and the Aide-de-Camp of General McCall, and myself rallied a regiment and led them into the fight.  They would not go until we seized their colors and charged at their head.  Out of shame, they followed and did good service.  The rebels received us with a terrific volley; bullets flew around us like hail, and while the men fell on every side of us, we three escaped unharmed.  I had the side of my coat all torn off by a fragment of a shell, but received no harm.  I was mounted on a powerful grey horse and was a conspicuous mark but escaped all danger. 

"Things looked very dark indeed 'till Thomas Meagher led his brave Irishmen, who advanced on the run, and with their wild yell charged the enemy and drove them from the field.  That was a glorious sight!  I experienced feelings the such as I have never felt before.  I saw officers - Generals, Colonels &c., on whom rested the responsibility of the battle - burst into tears.  At the time, I was exposed to such imminent danger, I had no fear.  A feeling, such as I cannot describe, possessed me, and I could have charged alone on a legion.  That night, we withdrew across the Chickahominy."

Two of the men missing from the ranks of the 3rd NJ Regiment were Sgt. Henry D. Neimeyer and Sgt. Nehemiah Tunis, both of Company E and of Belvidere.  Word was sent back to Belvidere that Neimeyer had been killed in battle.  However, it was later learned that Sgt. Neimeyer had been taken prisoner and was transported to Richmond's Libby Prison. In late September 1862, Neimeyer was paroled from prison camp because of his wounds, and he returned to Belvidere on October 7 on furlough.   He was sent to Chestnut Hill US Army General Hospital in Philadelphia for treatment until he was discharged with disability on February 23, 1863.  Sgt. Tunis survived the battle but was separated from his company and had to fight with another unit.  He was later able to return to his unit.

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards 

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