Alternate Spellings of Surname: Rockafellow, Rockefellow
Born in Pennsylvania on 22 October 1838, per his Pennsylvania Veteran’s Burial Index Card, or on 22 October 1836, according to his Pennsylvania Death Certificate, William Rockafellow was the son of Pennsylvania natives, Peter and Susan (Dean) Rockafellow.
In 1850, William resided in Williams Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania with his parents and siblings: George (aged 15), Samuel (aged 9) and Jacob (aged 7).
In 1860, he wed Anna Fatzinger; they resided in Northampton County. On 21 January 1862, they welcomed their first child, Mary Louisa Rockafellow.
Civil War Military Service
William Rockafellow mustered into Company E of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers on 14 January 1864. From March through May of that year, he served under the command of Captain Charles H. Yard with his fellow 47th members as part of the only Pennsylvania regiment to take part in Union General Nathaniel Banks’ Red River Campaign across Louisiana.
From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. Often short on food and water, the remaining members of the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.
Here, at this time and place, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers engaged the Confederate Army in fighting as brutal as anyone can imagine. Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the back-and-forth volley of fire unleashed by both sides during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (Mansfield). The fighting waned only when darkness fell. The exhausted, but uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.
The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff. By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner who was the son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault.
A significant number of the 47th were killed in the Battles of Sabine Cross Roads and Pleasant Hill on these Spring daus, as well as during other battles and skirmishes in this campaign. Still others were claimed by typhoid, yellow fever, dysentery and other medical conditions experienced in Louisiana’s harsh climate.
Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore, where they resupplied and regrouped until 22 April. Retreating further to Alexandria, they combined with other Union soldiers again, and scored a clear victory against the Confederate forces present at Cane Hill.
On 23 April, the 47th and their fellow brigade members crossed the Cane River via Monett’s Ferry and, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, helped to build a dam from 30 April through 10 May, which enabled federal gunboats to successfully traverse the rapids of the Red River.
Beginning 16 May 1864, Private William Rockafellow and E Company moved with the majority of the 47th from Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza, and then to New Orleans on 20 June.
Still able and willing to fight after their time in Bayou country, they and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers from Companies A, C, D, F, H, and I returned to the Washington, D.C. area aboard the McClellan beginning 7 July 1864.
Following their arrival in Virginia and a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln, they joined up with General David Hunter’s forces in the fighting at Snicker’s Gap, and assisted in defending Washington, D.C. while also helping to drive Confederate troops from Maryland.
Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Attached to the Middle Military Division, Army of the Shenandoah beginning in August, early and mid-September saw the departure of several 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had served honorably, including Company D’s Captain Henry Woodruff and E Company’s Captain Charles H. Yard. Both mustered out at Berryville, Virginia on 18 September 1864 upon expiration of their respective three-year terms of service. Those members of the 47th who remained on duty were about to engage in their regiment’s greatest moments of valor.
Battles of Opequan and Fisher’s Hill, September 1864
Together with other regiments under the command of Union General Philip H. (“Little Phil”) Sheridan and Brigadier-General William H. Emory, commander of the 19th Corps, the members of Company E and their fellow 47th Pennsylvanians helped to inflict heavy casualties on Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate forces at Opequan (also spelled as “Opequon” and referred to as “Third Winchester”). The battle is still considered by many historians to be one of the most important during Sheridan’s 1864 campaign; the Union’s victory here helped to ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
The 47th Pennsylvania’s march toward destiny at Opequan began at 2 a.m. on 19 September 1864 as the regiment left camp and joined up with others in the Union’s 19th Corps. Advancing slowly from Berryville toward Winchester, the 19th Corps became bogged down for several hours by the massive movement of Union troops and supply wagons, enabling Early’s men to dig in. Finally reaching and fording the Opequan Creek, Sheridan’s men came face to face with Early’s Confederate Army. The fighting, which began in earnest at noon, was long and brutal. The Union’s left flank (6th Corps) took a beating from Confederate artillery stationed on high ground.
Meanwhile, the 47th Pennsylvania and the 19th Corps were directed by General William Emory to attack and pursue Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate forces. Some success was achieved, but casualties mounted as another Confederate artillery group opened fire on Union troops trying to cross a clearing. When a nearly fatal gap began to open between the 6th and 19th Corps, Sheridan sent in units led by Brigadier-Generals Emory Upton and David A. Russell. Russell, hit twice – once in the chest, was mortally wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania opened its lines long enough to enable the Union cavalry under William Woods Averell and the foot soldiers of General George Crook to charge the Confederates’ left flank.
The 19th Corps, with the 47th in the thick of the fighting, then began pushing the Confederates back. Early’s “grays” retreated in the face of the valor displayed by Sheridan’s “blue jackets.” Leaving 2,500 wounded behind, the Rebels retreated to Fisher’s Hill, eight miles south of Winchester (21-22 September), and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack by Sheridan’s Union men which outnumbered Early’s three to one. Afterward, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent out on skirmishing parties before making camp at Cedar Creek.
Moving forward, the surviving 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers would continue to distinguish themselves in battle, but would do so without two more of their respected commanders: Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Good’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George Alexander. Both mustered out from 23-24 September upon the expiration of their respective terms of service. Fortunately, they were replaced with leaders who were equally respected for their front line experience and temperament, including Major John Peter Shindel Gobin, formerly of the 47th’s Company C, who had been promoted up through the regimental staff to the rank of Major (and who would be promoted again on 4 November to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and regimental commanding officer).
Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864
During the Fall of 1864, General Sheridan began the first of the Union’s true “scorched earth” campaigns, starving the enemy into submission by destroying Virginia’s farming infrastructure. Viewed through today’s lens of history as inhumane, the strategy claimed many innocents – civilians whose lives were cut short by their inability to find food. This same strategy, however, almost certainly contributed to the further turning of the war’s tide in the Union’s favor during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864. Successful throughout most of their engagement with Union forces at Cedar Creek, Early’s Confederate troops began peeling off in ever growing numbers to forage for food, thus enabling the 47th Pennsylvania and others under Sheridan’s command to rally and win the day.
From a military standpoint, it was another impressive, but heartrending day. During the morning of 19 October, Early launched a surprise attack directly on Sheridan’s Cedar Creek-encamped forces. Early’s men were able to capture Union weapons while freeing a number of Confederates who had been taken prisoner during previous battles – all while pushing seven Union divisions back. According to historian Samuel P. Bates:
When the Army of West Virginia, under Crook, was surprised and driven from its works, the Second Brigade, with the Forty-seventh on the right, was thrown into the breach to arrest the retreat…. Scarcely was it in position before the enemy came suddenly upon it, under the cover of fog. The right of the regiment was thrown back until it was almost a semi-circle. The brigade, only fifteen hundred strong, was contending against Gordon’s entire division, and was forced to retire, but, in comparative good order, exposed, as it was, to raking fire. Repeatedly forming, as it was pushed back, and making a stand at every available point, it finally succeeded in checking the enemy’s onset, when General Sheridan suddenly appeared upon the field, who ‘met his crest-fallen, shattered battalions, without a word of reproach, but joyously swinging his cap, shouted to the stragglers, as he rode rapidly past them – “Face the other way, boys! We are going back to our camp! We are going to lick them out of their boots!’”
The Union’s counterattack punched Early’s forces into submission, and the men of the 47th were commended for their heroism by General Stephen Thomas who, in 1892, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own “distinguished conduct in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the advance of the enemy was checked” that day. Bates described the 47th’s actions:
When the final grand charge was made, the regiment moved at nearly right angles with the rebel front. The brigade charged gallantly, and the entire line, making a left wheel, came down on his flank, while engaging the Sixth Corps, when he went “whirling up the valley” in confusion. In the pursuit to Fisher’s Hill, the regiment led, and upon its arrival was placed on the skirmish line, where it remained until twelve o’clock noon of the following day. The army was attacked at early dawn…no respite was given to take food until the pursuit was ended.
The 47th Pennsylvania suffered significant numbers of casualties with a number of men wounded or killed in the fighting in the Shenandoah Valley. Others were captured by the Confederate Army, and held as prisoners of war. Several died in captivity as POWs. Following these major engagements, the 47th was ordered to Camp Russell near Winchester from November through most of December. Rested and somewhat healed, the 47th was then ordered to outpost and railroad guard duties at Camp Fairview in Charlestown, West Virginia. Five days before Christmas they trudged through a snowstorm in order to reach their new home.
1865 – 1866
Assigned in February to the Provisional Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah, the men of the 47th moved, via Winchester and Kernstown, back to Washington, D.C. In March 1865, Private William Rockafellow was promoted to the rank of Corporal.
On 19 April 1864, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were once again responsible for helping to defend the nation’s capital – this time following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Encamped near Fort Stevens, they received new uniforms and were resupplied.
Letters home and later newspaper interviews with survivors of the 47th Pennsylvania indicate that at least one 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer was given the high honor of guarding President Lincoln’s funeral train while others may have guarded the Lincoln assassination conspirators during their imprisonment and trial. As part of Dwight’s Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Department of Washington’s 22nd Corps, the 47th Pennsylvania also participated in the Union’s Grand Review on 23-24 May. Captain Levi Stuber of Company I also advanced to the rank of Major with the regiment’s central staff during this time.
On their final southern tour, Company E and their fellow 47th Pennsylvanians served in Savannah, Georgia from 31 May to 4 June. Again in Dwight’s Division, this time they were with the 3rd Brigade, U.S. Department of the South. Taking over for the 165th New York Volunteers in July, they quartered in Charleston, South Carolina at the former mansion of the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury.
On 2 June 1865, William Rockafellow was promoted to the rank of First Sergeant. Duties of the regiment typically involved Provost (military police) and Reconstruction-related tasks, including rebuilding railroads that had been damaged or destroyed during the long war.
Finally, beginning on Christmas day of that year, the majority of the men of Company E, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, including Sergeant William Rockafellow, began to honorably muster out at Charleston, South Carolina, a process which continued through early January. Following a stormy voyage home, the 47th Pennsylvania disembarked in New York City. The weary men were then transported to Philadelphia by train where, at Camp Cadwalader on 9 January 1866, the 47th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers were officially given their discharge papers.
After the War
Following his honorable discharge from the military in January 1866, William Rockafellow returned home to his wife and daughter, Mary, in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. By November of that same year, he and Anna had welcomed daughter Isabelle to their home. A third daughter Frances Carrell Rockafellow (also known as “Fannie”) arrived in March of 1881.
By 1900, William Rockafellow was living in Easton, Northampton County with his wife, Anna (Fatzinger) Rockafellow. Born in Pennsylvania on 12 July 1844, she had given birth to eight children, only five of whom were still alive at this time. Daughters Mary Louisa (1862-1951), Isabelle (1866-1955) and Fannie (1881-1943 were also living with them. William was employed as a produce dealer at this time while Mary, Isabelle and Fannie were working as a dressmaker, school teacher and bookkeeper, respectively. Fannie later wed; her married surname was “Coffin.”
But before the decade was out, the old soldier was gone. Sergeant William Rockafellow died from a heart condition in Easton at 10:30 p.m. on 14 January 1908. His daughter, Fannie Rockafellow, was the informant.
Funeral services were well attended – by William’s family and by representatives of the Lafayette Post, Grand Army of the Republic. They were conducted by the Rev. Plato T. Jones from the home of the deceased at 2 p.m. on 17 January 1908.
William Rockafellow was then conveyed to his resting place in plot P122 at the Easton Cemetery by pallbearers William E. Carter, J.K. and F.E. Crater, Robert A. Depue, Amos Dinkey, and William M. Semple.
Note: There is another individual with a similar name (William S. Rockfellow) with slightly different birth and death dates who is also buried in this same cemetery, according to the Pennsylvania Veterans’ Burial Index Card system.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.
2. Death Certificate (William Rockafellow). Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Vital Statistics.
3. Funeral Notice (William Rockafellow), in Easton Express. Easton: January 1908.
4. Pennsylvania Veteran’s Burial Index Card. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
5. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.
6. U.S. Census (1850, 1900).
7. U.S. Civil War Pension Index (Application No.: 1261717, Certificate No.: 1026998, filed from Pennsylvania by the veteran on 28 January 1901; Application No.: 884864, Certificate No.: 643506, filed by the veteran’s widow, Anna F. Rockafellow, on 10 February 1908.