Sergeant John Gross Helfrich — Yearning for Peace While Fighting for Country, Cause and Honor

“Will write again soon if I am spared to do so.” (Postscript of letter from John Helfrich to his parents, 12 January 1862, used with permission of Colin Cofield).

I would very much like to see my friends and relatives first before we go, but time, and circumstances, will not permit me to do so. I hope however that the time may soon be at hand, when a peace may again be restored to our former blessed land, and when those who are now separated from their Parents, and friends, fighting for their country cause and honor, may again be permitted to return home, and enter the circle of their Parents, families, and friends, left at home in peace and prosperity.

—Sergeant John Gross Helfrich, in a letter to his parents, January 12, 1862

 

Sadly, John Gross Helfrich would not live to see his desire for peace and the reunification of America realized. A sergeant with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry’s G Company, he was felled not by bullets or cannon shrapnel two-and-a-half years after penning those words above, but by his regiment’s cruelest and most implacable foe—disease.

Formative Years

Born in Orefield, North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania sometime around 1840, John Gross Helfrich was a son of Peter Helfrich (1815-1893), a farmer and native of North Whitehall Township, and Judith (Gross) Helfrich (1817-1866), a native of Northampton County, Pennsylvania who was known to family and friends as “Juda” or “Judid.”

His birth was followed in quick succession by the arrival of two younger brothers: Reuben, who was born in Neffs, Lehigh County on 28 November 1841, and then christened there on 2 January 1842, and Lewis Peter, who was born in Neffs on 12 April 1845 and then christened there on 18 May of that same year. Two more brothers, William and Joseph, was then born sometime around 1847 and 1850, respectively.

By 1850, the Helfrich household in Lehigh County’s North Whitehall Township was documented by a federal census taker as including the family’s patriarch, Peter Helfrich, a farmer with holdings valued at $4,000, but not its matriarch, Judid. The Helfrich children living with their father at this time were John Gross (1840-1864), Reuben (1841-1920), Lewis (1845-1866), William (aged 3), and Joseph Daniel (aged 3 months), as well as a servant, Sallie Ann Deibera (aged 18).

But Judid Helfrich was still obviously a part of the household because, two years later, the family grew again with the Saegersville, Lehigh County birth of daughter Sarah Elisabeth Helfrich on 20 June 1852.

By 1860, the Helfrich family’s North Whitehall Township household had become an even larger one, and included parents Peter and Judid, and the following siblings: John Gross, Reuben, Lewis, William, Joseph (1850-1866), Sarah E. (1852-1939), Oliver (aged 3), and George (aged 1), as well as a servant, Louisa Semmel (aged 16). That year, Peter Helfrich’s holdings were valued at $6,085 ($4,860 in real estate, $1,225 in personal estate), and his sons, John, Reuben and Lewis, were all employed, documented by the federal census taker as “Domestic.” In addition, all of the children, save Olive and George, were confirmed by that census taker as having attended school within the past year.

Their serene, bucolic lives were short-lived ones, however, due to America’s increasing disunion and shocking fracture caused by the secession of multiple southern states, beginning in December of 1860.

American Civil War Service

Camp Curtin (Harper’s Weekly, 1861, public domain).

In response, 21-year-old John Helfrich enrolled for Civil War military service in Allentown, Pennsylvania on 11 September 1861. A week later, on 18 September, he left his family and friends behind and officially mustered in at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as a sergeant with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry’s Company G, which was commanded by Captain Charles Mickley.

Following a brief light infantry training period at Camp Curtin, Sergeant John Helfrich and his company were sent by train with the 47th Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. where, beginning 21 September, they were stationed at “Camp Kalorama” on the Kalorama Heights near Georgetown, about two miles from the White House. Henry Wharton, a Musician with the regiment’s C Company, described their journey in a letter penned the next day to his hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American:

After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.

After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.

We were reviewed by Gen. McClellan yesterday [21 September 1861] without our knowing it. All along the march we noticed a considerable number of officers, both mounted and on foot; the horse of one of the officers was so beautiful that he was noticed by the whole regiment, in fact, so wrapt [sic] up were they in the horse, the rider wasn’t noticed, and the boys were considerably mortified this morning on dis-covering they had missed the sight of, and the neglect of not saluting the soldier next in command to Gen. Scott.

Col. Good, who has command of our regiment, is an excellent man and a splendid soldier. He is a man of very few words, and is continually attending to his duties and the wants of the Regiment.

…. Our Regiment will now be put to hard work; such as drilling and the usual business of camp life, and the boys expect and hope an occasional ‘pop’ at the enemy.

Chain Bridge across the Potomac above Georgetown looking toward Virginia, 1861 (The Illustrated London News, public domain).

As a unit of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company G became part of the federal service when the regiment officially mustered into the U.S. Army on 24 September. Three days later, the 47th was assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade, which also included the 33rd, 49th and 79th New York regiments. By that afternoon, the regiment was on the move again. Ordered onward by Brigadier-General Silas Casey, the Mississippi rifle-armed 47th Pennsylvania infantrymen marched behind their regimental band until reaching Camp Lyon, Maryland on the Potomac River’s eastern shore. At 5 p.m., they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in moving double-quick (165 steps per minute using 33-inch steps) across the “Chain Bridge” marked on federal maps, and continued on for roughly another mile before being ordered to make camp.

The next morning, they broke camp and moved again. Marching toward Falls Church, Virginia, they arrived at Camp Advance around dusk. There, about two miles from the bridge they had crossed a day earlier, they re-pitched their tents in a deep ravine near a new federal fort under construction (Fort Ethan Allen). They had completed a roughly eight-mile trek, were situated fairly close to General W. F. Smith’s headquarters, and were now part of the massive United States Army of the Potomac. Under Smith’s leadership, their regiment and brigade would help to defend the nation’s capital from the time of their September arrival through late January when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania would be shipped to America’s Deep South.

Once again, Company C Musician Henry Wharton recapped the regiment’s activities, noting, via his 29 September letter home to the Sunbury American, that the 47th had changed camps three times in three days:

On Friday last we left Camp Kalorama, and the same night encamped about one mile from the Chain Bridge on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington. The next morning, Saturday, we were ordered to this Camp [Camp Advance near Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia], one and a half miles from the one we occupied the night previous. I should have mentioned that we halted on a high hill (on our march here) at the Chain Bridge, called Camp Lyon, but were immediately ordered on this side of the river. On the route from Kalorama we were for two hours exposed to the hardest rain I ever experienced. Whew, it was a whopper; but the fellows stood it well – not a murmur – and they waited in their wet clothes until nine o’clock at night for their supper. Our Camp adjoins that of the N.Y. 79th (Highlanders.)….

We had not been in this Camp more than six hours before our boys were supplied with twenty rounds of ball and cartridge, and ordered to march and meet the enemy; they were out all night and got back to Camp at nine o’clock this morning, without having a fight. They are now in their tents taking a snooze preparatory to another march this morning…. I don’t know how long the boys will be gone, but the orders are to cook two days’ rations and take it with them in their haversacks….

There was a nice little affair came off at Lavensville [sic], a few miles from here on Wednesday last; our troops surprised a party of rebels (much larger than our own.) killing ten, took a Major prisoner, and captured a large number of horses, sheep and cattle, besides a large quantity of corn and potatoes, and about ninety six tons of hay. A very nice day’s work. The boys are well, in fact, there is no sickness of any consequence at all in our Regiment….

Sometime during this phase of duty, as part of the 3rd Brigade, the 47th Pennsylvanians were moved to a site they initially christened “Camp Big Chestnut” for the large chestnut tree located within their lodging’s boundaries. The site would eventually become known to the Keystone Staters as “Camp Griffin,” and was located roughly 10 miles from Washington, D.C.

On 11 October 1861, Sergeant John Helfrich and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians engaged in a Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. In a letter home around this time, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin (the leader of C Company who would be promoted in 1864 to head the entire 47th Regiment) reported that companies D, A, C, F and I (the 47th Pennsylvania’s right wing) were ordered to picket duty after the left wing companies (B, G, K, E, and H) had been forced to return to camp by Confederate troops. In his letter of 13 October, Henry Wharton described their duties, as well as their new home:

The location of our camp is fine and the scenery would be splendid if the view was not obstructed by heavy thickets of pine and innumerable chesnut [sic] trees. The country around us is excellent for the Rebel scouts to display their bravery; that is, to lurk in the dense woods and pick off one of our unsuspecting pickets. Last night, however, they (the Rebels) calculated wide of their mark; some of the New York 33d boys were out on picket; some fourteen or fifteen shots were exchanged, when our side succeeded in bringing to the dust, (or rather mud,) an officer and two privates of the enemy’s mounted pickets. The officer was shot by a Lieutenant in Company H [?], of the 33d.

Our own boys have seen hard service since we have been on the ‘sacred soil.’ One day and night on picket, next day working on entrenchments at the Fort, (Ethan Allen.) another on guard, next on march and so on continually, but the hardest was on picket from last Thursday morning ‘till Saturday morning – all the time four miles from camp, and both of the nights the rain poured in torrents, so much so that their clothes were completely saturated with the rain. They stood it nobly – not one complaining; but from the size of their haversacks on their return, it is no wonder that they were satisfied and are so eager to go again tomorrow. I heard one of them say ‘there was such nice cabbage, sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, &c., out where their duty called them, and then there was a likelihood of a Rebel sheep or young porker advancing over our lines and then he could take them as ‘contraband’ and have them for his own use.’ When they were out they saw about a dozen of the Rebel cavalry and would have had a bout with them, had it not been for…unlucky circumstance – one of the men caught the hammer of his rifle in the strap of his knapsack and caused his gun to fire; the Rebels heard the report and scampered in quick time….

On Friday morning, 22 October, the 47th then engaged in a Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.” In late October, according to Schmidt, the men from Companies B, G and H woke at 3 a.m., assembled a day’s worth of rations, marched four miles from camp, and took over picket duties from the 49th New York:

Company B was stationed in the vicinity of a Mrs. Jackson’s house, with Capt. Kacy’s Company H on guard around the house. The men of Company B had erected a hut made of fence rails gathered around an oak tree, in front of which was the house and property, including a persimmon tree whose fruit supplied them with a snack. Behind the house was the woods were the Rebels had been fired on last Wednesday morning while they were chopping wood there.

In his letter of 17 November, Henry Wharton revealed still more details about life at Camp Griffin:

This morning our brigade was out for inspection; arms, acoutrements [sic], clothing, knapsacks, etc, all were out through a thorough examination, and if I must say it myself, our company stood best, A No. 1, for cleanliness. We have a new commander to our Brigade, Brigadier General Brannen [sic], of the U.S. Army, and if looks are any criterion, I think he is a strict disciplinarian and one who will be as able to get his men out of danger as he is willing to lead them to battle….

The boys have plenty of work to do, such as piquet [sic] duty, standing guard, wood-chopping, police duty and day drill; but then they have the most substantial food; our rations consist of fresh beef (three times a week) pickled pork, pickled beef, smoked pork, fresh bread, daily, which is baked by our own bakers, the Quartermaster having procured portable ovens for that purpose, potatoes, split peas, beans, occasionally molasses and plenty of good coffee, so you see Uncle Sam supplies us plentifully….

A few nights ago our Company was out on piquet [sic]; it was a terrible night, raining very hard the whole night, and what made it worse, the boys had to stand well to their work and dare not leave to look for shelter. Some of them consider they are well paid for their exposure, as they captured two ancient muskets belonging to Secessia. One of them is of English manufacture, and the other has the Virginia militia mark on it. They are both in a dilapidated condition, but the boys hold them in high estimation as they are trophies from the enemy, and besides they were taken from the house of Mrs. Stewart, sister to the rebel Jackson who assassinated the lamented Ellsworth at Alexandria. The honorable lady, Mrs. Stewart, is now a prisoner at Washington and her house is the headquarters of the command of the piquets [sic]….

Since the success of the secret expedition, we have all kinds of rumors in camp. One is that our Brigade will be sent to the relief of Gen. Sherman, in South Carolina. The boys all desire it and the news in the ‘Press’ is correct, that a large force is to be sent there, I think their wish will be gratified….

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

On 21 November, the 47th participated in a morning divisional headquarters review by Colonel Tilghman H. Good, followed by brigade and division drills all afternoon. According to Schmidt, “each man was supplied with ten blank cartridges.” Afterward, “Gen. Smith requested Gen. Brannan to inform Col. Good that the 47th was the best regiment in the whole division.”

As a reward—and in preparation for bigger things to come, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan obtained brand new Springfield rifles for every member of the 47th Pennsylvania.

1862

Excerpt of letter from Sergeant John Helfrich, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, January 12, 1861 (used with permission from Colin Cofield).

In a letter penned to his parents on 12 January 1862, Sergeant John Helfrich informed his parents what those bigger things would likely be, and also provided important details about the regiment’s activities as the old year passed into the new:

I will again address you, in order to inform you of my getting along, and at the same time I will remark that this will to all probability be the last letter that I may be able to write, while at this place, as we have orders to leave at almost any moment.

The place of our destination I can not [sic] name for certain, however, it is rumored that we would go to Florida.

While I am writing, I am informed that we will first go either to Baltimore, or Anapolis [sic], and there join the fleet just about being fitted out for some southern seaport. Our going is a certainty, as Gen. Brannan, has gone to either of the above named places to make the necessary arrangements, preparatory to our going.

Yesterday, (Saturday) our regiment was paid for the preceeding [sic] two month service. The monthly wages of a sergeant is [sic] seventeen, and those of a private thirteen, dollars.

Our company has just passed through the usual Sunday morning inspection, when each man is [to] have a suit of clean clothes, in his Knapsack, and must also have his arms, and acoutrements [sic] in perfect order. This inspection greatly promotes the healthy, as well as the good appearance of the soldier, and in fact is indispensable.

Our company is in exalent [sic] health, not a man, is at present in the hospital. The health of the regt. has always been pretty good during the past four month [sic] we are now in service, which is verified by the fact that there occurred but seven cases that proved fatal out of over nine hundred men, and we can not [sic] find language to express our thanks to the Great giver of this our greatest and best blessing, that a mortal being can enjoy, and it is our prayer, that He may continue to bless us in the future.

I would very much like to see my friends and relatives first before we go, but time, and circumstances, will not permit me to do so. I hope however that the time may soon be at hand, when a peace may again be restored to our former blessed land, and when those who are now separated from their Parents, and friends, fighting for their country cause and honor, may again be permitted to return home, and enter the circle of their Parents, families, and friends, left at home in peace and prosperity.

Enclosed find ten dollars of my wages. I would have sent you more, but perhaps I may need it my-self, from this until next payday. I must now close by saying that I am well, hoping that you and all the rest of the family are enjoying the same.

* Note: For more of John Helfrich’s letters, see his entries in the Letters Home section of this website.

Sergeant John Helfrich and the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were, in actuality, ordered to leave their Virginia encampment and return to Maryland. Leaving Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862, they marched through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church. Transported by rail to Alexandria, they disembarked and marched to the docks, where they boarded the steamship City of Richmond. Steaming to the docks in Washington, D.C., they disembarked and marched to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped with weapons and ammunition one company at a time before marching off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C.

The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.

As the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers commenced boarding the S.S. Oriental during the afternoon of 7 January, they were ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers with the officers boarding last. Per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, they then steamed away for the Deep South at 4 p.m.—headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to its status as a key supplier of food for the Confederacy as well as the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida (Harper’s Weekly, 1864, public domain).

In early February 1862, Sergeant John Helfrich and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers arrived in Key West, where they were assigned to garrison Fort Taylor. During the weekend of Friday, 14 February, they introduced their presence to Key West residents by parading through the streets of the city. That Sunday, men from the regiment saw to their spiritual needs by participating in church services in town, and then later mingled with the locals.

Drilling daily in heavy artillery tactics and other military strategies, they felled trees, built new roads and helped to strengthen the facility’s fortifications.

From mid-June through July, the 47th was ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina where the men made camp before being housed in the Department of the South’s Beaufort District. Picket duties north of the 3rd Brigade’s camp were commonly rotated among the regiments present there at the time, putting soldiers at increased risk from sniper fire. According to historian Samuel P. Bates, the men of the 47th “received the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan” for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing.”

Sergeant John Helfrich provided the following details of regimental life during this phase of duty in a letter to his parents, which he penned while at the Officers’ Hospital at Fort Taylor, Florida on 19 June 1862:

We are under marching orders, some of the companies of our regiment have already gone. The reason for our not going together, is owing to not having vessels enough. Those who have left had to embark on small “briggs” & skooners [sic], taking from two to three companies aboard. The place of our destination is “Beaufort S. Carolina.” The two companies of regulars, stationed here, have also left a few days ago; for the same place.

The health of our men is exceedingly good a present, out of our whole regiment there are but nineteen, who are unable on account of sickness to accompany us, which is comparatively, but a very small number, and these as far as my knowledge is concerned, are not dangerously ill; and it is hoped that they may soon be able to follow us….

He then provided the following additional details in a subsequent letter, penned on 25 June:

We left Key West, on the 19th inst., about mid-night in the brigg [sic] “Ellen Bernard,” and arrived at this place yesterday (the 24th) at one o’clock p.m. having had a very pleasant voyage, not the slightest accident having occurred, and the men seem to get accustomed to riding at sea, as but a few had what is generally called “seasickness”. Our regt. was put on four small vessels, the “Sea Lark”, “Emaline”, “Tangire” [handwriting difficult to read] & “Ellen Bernard”, the second last named, has up to this time, not yet arrived, having started about 4 hours ahead of us. She had three companies aboard & the hospital baggage.

The weather is not quite so hot here as where we come from, but I think it will perhaps make a material change in a few days, as the ground is at present cooled off by the rain.

The health of our men is admirable, but a few comparatively are confined by sickness; out of the entire regt. we had to leave but nineteen (19) in the hospital at Key West.

Since our arrival on this island we learned that a pretty severe fight came off about eighteen miles from here, at a place called “James island” at which our boys seem to have got the worst of it as the hospital at this place contains a great many of the wounded.

Our boys are all eager for a fight, and no doubt they will get a chance to show their fighting abilities ere long, as it is rumored that an assault is to be made on “Charleston” at an early date. Troops are coming and going every day, I am told, and I should not be surprised if we had to go away from here in a day or so….

I will enclose forty dolls. which I will send to you for safe keeping, until I return home, which will be ere long I reckon….

* Note: For more of John Helfrich’s letters, see his entries in the “Letters Home” section of our website.

Union Navy base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

Sent on a return expedition to Florida, Company G saw its first truly intense moments when it participated with the 47th Pennsylvania and other Union regiments in the capture of Saint John’s Bluff from 1 to 3 October. Led by Brigadier-General Brannan, a 1,500-plus Union force disembarked at Mayport Mills and Mount Pleasant Creek from troop carriers guarded by Union gunboats. Taking point, the 47th led the 3rd Brigade through 25 miles of dense, pine forested swamps populated with deadly snakes and alligators. By the time the expedition ended, the brigade had forced the Confederate Army to abandon its artillery battery atop Saint John’s Bluff, and had paved the way for the Union to occupy the town of Jacksonville, Florida.

It was also during this phase of duty that several formerly enslaved African American men who had been freed from plantations near Beaufort, enlisted with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteersmaking the regiment an integrated one prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s official publication of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The challenging environment of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad was illustrated by Harper’s Weekly in 1865.

From 21-23 October, under the brigade and regimental commands of Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Alexander, the 47th engaged Confederate forces in and around Pocotaligo, South Carolina. Landing at Mackay’s Point, the men of the 47th were placed on point once again, but they and the 3rd Brigade were less fortunate this time.

Harried by snipers en route to the Pocotaligo Bridge, they met resistance from an entrenched, heavily fortified Confederate battery which opened fire on the Union troops as they entered an open cotton field. Those headed toward higher ground at the Frampton Plantation fared no better as they encountered artillery and infantry fire from the surrounding forests.

The Union soldiers grappled with the Confederates where they found them, pursuing the Rebels for four miles as they retreated to the bridge. There, the 47th relieved the 7th Connecticut. But the enemy was just too well armed. After two hours of intense fighting in an attempt to take the ravine and bridge, depleted ammunition forced the 47th to withdraw to Mackay’s Point.

Losses for the 47th were significant—particularly with respect to Company G. Two officers and 18 enlisted men died, and an additional two officers and 114 enlisted were wounded in action. Jacob Henry Scheetz, M.D., Assistant Regimental Surgeon, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, who subsequently cared for the fallen at the U.S. Army’s General Hospital at Hilton Head, documented that one of those cut down that day was G Company’s Captain Charles Mickley. A 1987 article by Frank Whelan for Allentown’s Morning Call newspaper provides more detail what happened that day:

It was a venture designed to cut a railroad linking Charleston and Savannah, Ga. But poor planning … seemed to doom it to failure from the start. The officers in charge of the brigades expected to meet 10,000 armed Southern troops when they landed.

Yet the men of the 47th knew none of this. Like any men before a battle, they got ready for it in various ways. Young Capt. Charles Mickley of G Company picked up a pen to write a Lehigh Valley friend the night before the assault.

He enclosed a check for $600, the pay he had received that day. He asked his friend to set it aside in a savings bank for his wife.

…. ‘Today at one o’clock our Reg. will embark on the Steamer Ben Deford to go on an Expedition which our Reg [sic] is to take part in. But where we are agoing [sic] to, we are as yet kept in the dark about . . . I must beg pardon by putting you to so much trouble to attend to my affairs but as you are well aware when one is absent from home he leaves his matters to men as one has confidence in. If you were a young man I would say go and fight for your country. But as you are past the Meridian of life to do soldiering; there must be Patriots at home as well as in the field. If such were not the case how should we get along in the field. CM.’

…. As shell and canister and grapeshot raked the line [on 22 October], the bold Mickley charged forward….

Pocotaligo-Coosawhatchie Expedition, 21-23 October 1862 (Union Army Map, public domain).

Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, an Allentown newspaper published in German, reported that Captain Charles Mickley subsequently sustained a fatal head wound during the Battle of Pocotaligo on 22 October 1862 on “the railway between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.” In his report on the engagement, made from headquarters at Beaufort, South Carolina on 24 October 1862, Colonel Tilghman H. Good recounted these details of the 10th Army’s ill-fated engagement:

SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by the Forty-seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the action of October 22:

Eight companies, comprising 480 men, embarked on the steamship Ben De Ford, and two companies, of 120 men, on the Marblehead, at 2 p.m. October 21. With this force I arrived at Mackays Landing before daylight the following morning. At daylight I was ordered to disembark my regiment and move forward across the first causeway and take a position, and there await the arrival of the other forces. The two companies of my regiment on board of the Marblehead had not yet arrived, consequently I had but eight companies of my regiment with me at this juncture.

At 12 m. I was ordered to take the advance with four companies, one of the Forty-seventh and one of the Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and two of the Sixth Connecticut, and to deploy two of them as skirmishers and move forward. After moving forward about 2 miles I discerned some 30 or 40 of the enemys [sic] cavalry ahead, but they fled as we advanced. About 2 miles farther on I discovered two pieces of artillery and some cavalry, occupying a position about three-quarters of a mile ahead in the road. I immediately called for a regiment, but seeing that the position was not a strong one I made a charge with the skirmishing line. The enemy, after firing a few rounds of shell, fled. I followed up as rapidly as possible to within about 1 mile of Frampton Creek. In front of this stream is a strip of woods about 500 yards wide, and in front of the woods a marsh of about 200 yards, with a small stream running through it parallel with the woods. A causeway also extends across the swamp, to the right of which the swamp is impassable. Here the enemy opened a terrible fire of shell from the rear, of the woods. I again called for a regiment, and my regiment came forward very promptly. I immediately deployed in line of battle and charged forward to the woods, three companies on the right and the other five on the left of the road. I moved forward in quick-time, and when within about 500 yards of the woods the enemy opened a galling fire of infantry from it. I ordered double-quick and raised a cheer, and with a grand yell the officers and men moved forward in splendid order and glorious determination, driving the enemy from this position.

On reaching the woods I halted and reorganized my line. The three companies on the right of the road (in consequence of not being able to get through the marsh) did not reach the woods, and were moved by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander by the flank on the causeway. During this time a terrible fire of grape and canister was opened by the enemy through the woods, hence I did not wait for the three companies, but immediately charged with the five at hand directly through the woods; but in consequence of the denseness of the woods, which was a perfect matting of vines and brush, it was almost impossible to get through, but by dint of untiring assiduity the men worked their way through nobly. At this point I was called out of the woods by Lieutenant Bacon, aide-de-camp, who gave the order, ‘The general wants you to charge through the woods.’ I replied that I was then charging, and that the men were working their way through as fast as possible. Just then I saw the two companies of my regiment which embarked on the Marblehead coming up to one of the companies that was unable to get through the swamp on the right. I went out to meet them, hastening them forward, with a view of re-enforcing the five already engaged on the left of the road in the woods; but the latter having worked their way successfully through and driven the enemy from his position, I moved the two companies up the road through the woods until I came up with the advance. The two companies on the right side of the road, under Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander had also worked their way up through the woods and opened fire on the retreating enemy. At this point I halted and reorganized my regiment, by forming close column by companies. I then detailed Lieutenant Minnich, of Company B, and Lieutenant Breneman, of Company H, with a squad of men, to collect the killed and wounded. They promptly and faithfully attended to this important duty, deserving much praise for the efficiency and coolness they displayed during the fight and in the discharge of this humane and worthy trust.

The casualties in this engagement were 96. Captain Junker of Company K; Captain Mickley, of Company [sic] I, and Lieutenant Geety, of Company H, fell mortally wounded while gallantly leading their respective companies on.

I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of both officers and men. They all performed deeds of valor, and rushed forward to duty and danger with a spirit and energy worthy of veterans.

As Good continued, he made clear that despite men falling all around them, the 47th continued to fight on:

The rear forces coming up passed my regiment and pursued the enemy. When I had my regiment again placed in order, and hearing the boom of cannon, I immediately followed up, and, upon reaching the scene of action, I was ordered to deploy my regiment on the right side of the wood, move forward along the edge of it, and relieve the Seventh Connecticut Regiment. This I promptly obeyed. The position here occupied by the enemy was on the opposite side of the Pocotaligo Creek, with a marsh on either side of it, and about 800 yards distant from the opposite wood, where the enemy had thrown up rifle pits all along its edge.

On my arrival the enemy had ceased firing; but after the lapse of a few minutes they commenced to cheer and hurrah for the Twenty-sixth South Carolina. We distinctly saw this regiment come up in double-quick and the men rapidly jumping into the pits. We immediately opened fire upon them with terrible effect, and saw their men thinning by scores. In return they opened a galling fire upon us. I ordered the men under cover and to keep up the fire. During this time our forces commenced to retire. I kept my position until all our forces were on the march, and then gave one volley and retired by flank in the road at double-quick about 1,000 yards in the rear of the Seventh Connecticut. This regiment was formed about 1,000 yards in the rear of my former position. We jointly formed the rear guard of our forces and alternately retired in the above manner.

My casualties here amounted to 15 men.

We arrived at Frampton (our first battle ground) at 8 p.m. Here my regiment was relieved from further rear-guard duty by the Fourth New Hampshire Regiment. This gave me the desired opportunity to carry my dead and wounded from the field and convey them back to the landing. I arrived at the above place at 3 o’clock the following morning.

While Good was working on his reports to his superiors, his subordinates in the 47th Pennsylvania were settling back in at Hilton Head, where they had returned on 23 October. There, men from the 47th were given the honor of serving as the funeral guard for, and firing the salute over the grave of, General Ormsby Mitchel, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South who had succumbed to yellow fever on 30 October. (The Mountains of Mitchel, a part of Mars’ South Pole discovered by Mitchel in 1846 while working as a University of Cincinnati astronomer, and Mitchelville, the first Freedmen’s town created after the Civil War, were both later named for him.)

Following the death of Captain Mickley, 1st Lieutenant John Goebel stepped in to fill G Company’s leadership void. The 47th Pennsylvania also received orders on 15 November 1862, to return to Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida.

* Note: While all of this was going on in South Carolina, more change was heading in the direction of the Helfrich family back in Pennsylvania as Reuben Helfrich was reading and responding to a draft notice. On 8 November, he enrolled for military service as a sergeant with Company D of the 176th Pennsylvania Drafted Militia.

USS Seminole and USS Ellen accompanied by transports (left to right: Belvidere, McClellan, Boston, Delaware, and Cosmpolitan) at Wassau Sound, Georgia (circa January 1862, Harper’s Weekly, public domain).

As the holidays approached for Pennsylvanians still stationed in America’s Deep South, Sergeant John Helfrich, also began preparing for more transition. Having been assigned to duties as a regimental hospital steward at various points throughout what had been a year of major upheaval for the regiment, he provided key details regarding the 47th Pennsylvania’s movements during this phase of duty via a letter penned to his parents on 29 December 1862:

We left Beaufort, S.C. on the 14th day of Dec. and arrived at Key West, Fla. on the 18th, only one day less than six month [sic] since we first left it viz. (June 19th 1862). While at sea we experienced pretty rough weather that together with the crowded condition of the vessel made it very uncomfortable for us, as well as dangerous for our ship (the steam transport “Cosmopolitan”), was none of the strongest and safest vessels. The captain of the boat himself had fears of our safety, but owing to the watchfulness & protection of God Who heareth the prayers and cries of the shipwrecking mariner and traveler, we at last arrived safe and without the slightest accident at our place of destination. But while unloading our baggage, to our surprise, we found about four feet of water, in the hoald [sic] and the vessel still leaking. Here for the first time I was convinced of the danger we were in for not a great deal more was wanted to place us all in a watery grave, below the wild and mighty billows of the briny deep. We can not help but feel thankful to Almighty God for thus delivering us from a watery grave and untimely death. I am sorry however that the past good & Protection we have pertaken [sic] is not more properly realized or acknowledged by some of our boys.

We as a regiment have great reason to be thankful for the many gifts & protections that we have received since our organization comparatively but few of us have fallen by the enemy’s bullets or disease whole other regiments were almost entirely anihilated [sic] by disease and bullets. Such was our lot in the past, what the future may bring on no human being can yet tell, but let us hope for the better, and keep our powder dry, hoping that the day may not be far distant when we shall be permitted to see peace and harmony again established in our once prosperous land, and those who may then be spared by permitted to rejoin the circles of their friends & families at home.

Col. Good is at present in command of the Island and its fortifications. Lieut. Col. Alexander with Companies “D”, “F”, “H”, & “K” were ordered to Fort Jefferson at Tortugas about sixty miles from here, the remaining six comp. are here, and all comfortably quartered 2 in the fort and the rest in barracks. I also stay in the fort. I am again acting Hospital Steward, having a nice room, and a good bed, and in fact everything to make oneself comfortable.

I have met with a little difficulty, in consequence of which I am out of money, if you be kind enough as to send me five dollars in your next, I should be very happy to receive it for I do not know when we will be paid again. I have all my extra pay due me yet, besides my regular pay for the last four month [sic], which amounts altogether a little over one hundred Dolls. I will send part of it to you again after I get paid, if I am spared that long yet. Tell me in your next whether you did [get] the Christmas present I have sent you from Beaufort, S.C. Also how you liked the oranges. I do only wish I could send you some from here, they are very cheap and plenty, selling at 1 and 2 cents a piece. The market is also supplied with fresh fish & [illegible word regarding a type of food], cabage [sic], Beets, Sweet potatoes, turnips, &c….

* Note: For more of John Helfrich’s letters, see his entries in the “Letters Home” section of this website.

1863

Fort Jefferson, Dry Torguas, Florida (interior, circa 1934, C.E. Peterson, photographer, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

On 2 January 1863, John Goebel was commissioned as a captain and officially placed in charge of his unit—Company G, which was still on duty at Fort Taylor. At some point during this assignment, Sergeant John Helfrich and other members of his company were reassigned to detached duty to Fort Jefferson.

The time spent at Forts Taylor and Jefferson by the men of Company G was notable for the men’s commitment to preserving the Union. Many who could have returned home chose instead to re-enlist in order to finish the fight. Unfortunately, as with prior duty assignments, disease quickly became a constant companion and foe—even for Sergeant John Helfrich—despite the medical training he had received prior to enlisting with the 47th Pennsylvania. Helfrich fell so seriously ill on so many occasions that regimental physicians repeatedly confined him to the post hospital at Fort Jefferson.

1864

U.S. Military and New Orleans, Opelousas & Great Western trains (Algiers railroad shop, Louisiana, circa 1865, public domain).

But by 25 February 1864, Sergeant John Helfrich was well enough to travel with his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers as they began a phase of service during which their regiment would make history. Boarding another steamer, the Charles Thomas, G Company and the 47th traveled from New Orleans to Algiers, Louisiana. Arriving on 28 February, they then moved by train to Brashear City before heading to Franklin by steamer through the Bayou Teche. There, the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps, and became the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the Red River Campaign of Union General Nathaniel P. Banks.

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 regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.

19th U.S. Army Map, Phase 3, Battle of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield (8 April 1864, public domain).

Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. The fighting waned only when darkness fell. Exhausted, those who were 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 and son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting of the Battle of Pleasant Hill 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.

Casualties were once again severe. The regiment’s second-in-command, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander, was nearly killed, and the regiment’s two color-bearers, both from Company C, were also wounded while preventing the American flag from falling into enemy hands.

Still others from the 47th were captured, marched 125 miles to Camp Ford, Texas, the largest Confederate prison camp west of the Mississippi River. While the majority of 47th Pennsylvanians held there as prisoners of war were eventually released during prisoner exchanges beginning 22 July, several never made it out alive.

Christened “Bailey’s Dam” after the Union officer overseeing its construction, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Bailey, this timber dam built across the Red River near Alexandria, Louisiana in May 1864 facilitated Union gunboat passage (U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

On 23 April, the 47th Pennsylvanians engaged in further combat as the regiment joined its brigade in repelling Confederate troops in the Battle of Cane River near Monett’s Ferry. Then, from 30 April to 10 May, they helped to build a timber dam across the Red River to enable Union gunboats to navigate the river’s fluctuating water levels. Following completion of Bailey’s Dam, they headed back toward the southern part of the state, marching toward Morganza, Louisiana beginning 13 May.

In a new letter penned roughly two weeks later (which ran in the 18 June 1864 edition of the Sunbury American), Henry Wharton reported that:

Company C, on last Saturday [21 May 1864] was detailed by the General in command of the Division to take one hundred and eighty-seven prisoners (rebs) to New Orleans. This they done [sic] satisfactorily and returned yesterday [28 May 1864] to their regiment, ready for duty. While in the City some of the boys made Captain Gobin quite a handsome present, to show their appreciation of him as an officer gentleman. The boys are well.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1860s (public domain).

The 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers then continued on with their march, finally reaching New Orleans on 20 June. It was here on the 4th of July that members of the regiment learned that their fight was still far from over. Receiving orders that day to return to the East Coast, they did so in two stages: Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I steamed for the Washington, D.C. area beginning 7 July while Companies B, G and K remained behind on detached duty, awaiting transportation. Led by F Company Captain Henry S. Harte, those units finally departed at the end of the month, and arrived in Virginia on 28 July.

But not every member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry would sail away from Louisiana. Among those left behind was Sergeant John Helfrich, who had been felled by disease yet again. Suffering from chronic diarrhea on and off since his duty assignments in Florida, he was confined to Charity Hospital in New Orleans sometime before his company sailed for the East Coast. On 5 August 1864, he died at that hospital in New Orleans from complications related to his long battle with dysentery, according to A. W. Smyth, M.D., an associate surgeon with the U.S. Army who certified his death.

Death ledger entry for Sergeant John Gross Helfrich, Company G, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, U.S. National Archives, public domain; click to enlarge).

Burial Far from Home

Since that time, Sergeant John Helfrich has remained at rest in Louisiana. Present day visitors may pay their respects at his grave, which is located in the Chalmette National Cemetery in St. Bernard Parish.

Or, they may visit a cenotaph that was erected in Pennsylvania in his memory by his family. That memorial is located at the Jordan Lutheran Cemetery in Orefield, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania—the same cemetery where his parents and several of his siblings were later interred.

What Happened to the Family of John Helfrich?

Like her son, Sergeant John Helfrich, Judith (Gross) Helfrich (1817-1866) suffered an untimely death. Just months after the American Civil War’s end, the 49-year-old who had been married to her husband, Peter, for roughly 27 years, passed away in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania on 13 November 1866. Following her funeral, she was laid to rest at the Jordan Lutheran Cemetery in Orefield.

Sadly, that death of the Helfrich family’s matriarch was the culmination of a series of tragedies during that fall of 1866. Prior to her passing, two of her other sons, Joseph Daniel Helfrich (1850-1866) and Lewis Peter Helfrich (1845-1866), both died in North Whitehall Township. Joseph had been just 16 years, five months and eight days old at the time of his passing on 22 September 1866 while Lewis had been just 21 years, five months and 19 days old at the time of his death on 3 October. Like their mother, both were interred at the Jordan Lutheran Cemetery in Orefield.

The Helfrich’s patriarch Peter, however, went on to survive those dearly departed members of his family by nearly thirty years, remarrying sometime before 1870. A federal census taker that year recorded that his household included wife, Mary (a 50-year-old Pennsylvania native), and children: Sarah (aged 18), Oliver J. (aged 14), and George F. (aged 12), the latter two of whom were still in school. Two decades later, at the age of 77, Peter Helfrich passed away in Lehigh County on 31 July 1893. He was subsequently interred next to his wife at the Jordan Lutheran Cemetery.

Reuben Helfrich (1841-1920), one of the younger brothers of Sergeant John Helfrich, continued to serve with the 176th Pennsylvania Drafted Militia until his unit was disbanded on 18 August 1863. After mustering out honorably, he returned home to Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where he married and raised a family with his wife, Amanda, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A successful, green grocer with real and personal estate holdings valued at $3,550 by 1870, his household included daughters Hattie (aged 7, in school) and Catharine (aged 8 months), and 26-year-old boarder and seamstress, Mary Klotz. His household makeup remained the same in 1880, but by the turn of the century had shrunk to include just his wife and 31-year-old daughter, Katie. That year, he was also described by the federal census taker as a landlord. Once again, the roster of household occupants was the same by the time of the 1910 census, but by 1920, had changed to include just Katie and her dad, who had been widowed. Before that year was out, Reuben Helfrich was also gone, having passed away on 4 September 1920. Following his funeral, his remains were interred at the Fairview Cemetery in Allentown.

Sergeant John Helfrich’s younger sister, Sarah Elisabeth Helfrich (1852-1939), also went on to live a long full life. After marrying Richard Arthur Unger (1853-1937), she welcomed the Allentown births of three sons and a daughter. Another son was then born in 1883 following the family’s relocation to Naperville, Illinois. Widowed more than half a century later when her husband passed away in that community, she traveled to Los Angeles, California sometime afterward. On 22 January 1939, she died there at the age of 86. Her remains were subsequently returned to Illinois for burial at the Naperville Cemetery in DuPage County.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, state printer, 1869.

2. “Died” (death notices of Joseph Daniel Helfrich and Lewis Peter Helfrich, which mention their parents Peter and Judith Helfrich). Allentown, Pennsylvania: The Lehigh Register, 20 November 1866.

3. Gobin, John Peter Shindel. Personal Letters, 1861-1865. Northumberland, Pennsylvania: Personal Collection of John Deppen.

4. Helfric/Helfrich, John C., in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

5. Helfrich, John G. Personal Letters, 1862. Mesa, Arizona: Personal Collection of Colin Cofield (used with permission).

6. Helfrich, John G., in Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1864. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

7. Helfrich, John G., in Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Company G, 47th Regiment), in Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs (RG-19). Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

8. Helfrich, Peter, John, Ruben, Lewis, William, and Joseph, et. al., in U.S. Census (North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 1850). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

9. Helfrich, Peter, Judid, John, Reuben, Lewis, William, Joseph, Oliver, Sarah E., and George, et. al., in U.S. Census (North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 1860). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

10. Helfrich, Peter, Mary, Sarah, Oliver J., and George F., et. al., in U.S. Census (North Whitehall Township: Slatington Post Office, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 1870). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

11. Helfrich, Reuben, in Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1920. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Veterans Administration and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

12. Helfrich, Reuben, in Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Company D, 176th Drafted Militia), in Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs (RG-19). Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

13. Helfrich, Reuben, Amanda, Hattie, Catharine/Kate/Katie, et. al., in U.S. Census (Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

14. “Lewis Peter Helfrich,” in Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1709-1950 (Neffs, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 18 May 1845). Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch.

15. “Rueben [sic] Helfrich,” in Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1709-1950 (Neffs, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 2 January 1842). Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch.

16. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

17. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1861-1868.

18. Whelan, Frank. ‘Monument Rededication Recalls Sacrifice of Civil War Soldiers,” in The Morning Call. Allentown: 15 November 1987.