“He was the light and life of our company, and his death has caused a blight and sadness to prevail, that only the rude wheels of time can efface….” — Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin to the parents of drummer boy John Boulton Young, mid-October, 1861
“I passed the night in ‘watching,’ but somewhat differently from the watch meetings at home. I spent from 8 to 12 at night on the outposts, and we were in expectation of an attack all the time…. At 12, I was relieved and moved with my men back to the main reserve where we built a huge fire, and six to eight officers of us gathered around the fire and spent the time in telling yarns, cracking jokes.” — Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin to his own parents in a letter penned on New Year’s Day, 1862
“Will write again if I am spared to do so.” — G Company Sergeant John Gross Helfrich to his parents in a letter penned on January 12, 1862
As America’s Civil War dragged on, the contemplation of life’s biggest questions became an increasing preoccupation for more than a few members of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Initially elated by their August 1861 enrollment for service in the fight to preserve their nation’s Union, many were propelled heart and headlong into a valley of grief just weeks later by the untimely deaths of John Boulton Young and Alfred Eisenbraun, two of the regiment’s beloved drummer boys.
Their equilibrium was gradually restored by their work as Union Army soldiers, however, and their spirits were raised further by the approaching Christmas season—largely thanks to surprise shipments by families and friends of “care packages” stuffed with favored foods and other items of comfort. Naturally, though, many members of the regiment began ruminating again as the New Year’s Eve of 1861 gave way to the New Year’s Day of 1862—as shown by this January 1, 1862 letter written to family by C Company Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin:
“I went on picket yesterday morning, and was relieved this morning. So the entire programme [sic] of the departure of the old and advent of the New Year was open to me. I passed the night in ‘watching,’ but somewhat differently from the watch meetings at home. I spent from 8 to 12 at night on the outposts, and we were in expectation of an attack all the time. This kept me constantly in the line, among the men preparing for an attack. At 12, I was relieved and moved with my men back to the main reserve where we built a huge fire, and six to eight officers of us gathered around the fire and spent the time in telling yarns, cracking jokes. Officers from the 7th Maine, 49th & 53d New York were present. Occasionally a shot or two would bring us all to our feet, but as all would be quiet again down we would go into the fire again. About four oclock [sic] this morning, I spread my blanket on the ground, and with a stone for a pillow, slept peaceably my first sleep for 1862. I got to Camp about 9 a.m. and found your letters awaiting me.
…. I would like to have been at home on Christmas, and had set my heart upon going, but somehow or other Col Good and Gen Brannen [sic] both do not want me to leave at present. The fact is we are daily expecting an engagement and they seem to think my company will not do as well as they expect it to unless I am there. I have the crack company in the Regiment. Yesterday was muster day and Sam Miller received the premium for having the cleanest arms in the Regiment….
…. I will make a desperate effort to spend my birthday at home. Mother if I get there I want you to cook a dish of schnitz und knep [sic]. I have been wishing for them all day. Yesterday I went into a house on the line and bought a mince pie and cup of coffee of a girl there. They were first rate, but Mother could beat them.”
* Note: Schnitz und knepp, which translates from the Pennsylvania German to English as “apples and buttons,” was a traditional fall recipe for Pennsylvania Dutch families during the 1800s, and remains so today. Made in a large kettle with dried apples, ham, and dumplings, and flavored with brown sugar and other seasonings, its aroma, taste, and warmth have long come together to create the very definition of “comfort food” on the chilly fall days of the Great Keystone State.
“I had not intended mentioning the following but for fear some of the boys may and an incorrect story gets out, I will tell you the other night while on picket, Mark Shipman fired upon one man crawling up to him, or he supposed he was. Sergeant Piers [sic] and I went out to the line to see the cause of the report, and someone attempted to shoot at us, but his cap snapped. The fellow made tracks in a hurry before we could catch him, but I think he got badly frightened anyhow. You do not say anything about this and do not be alarmed as he could not hit us. It was too dark. And if he had fired, or his gun gone off, we could have shot him, by the flash. We have not lost a man on picket in our entire division.
…. The wind is blowing a perfect hurricane around the house. I have my house papered all over now, and I tell you it is the best this side of Gen Smiths head quarters [sic]. Jake Keaffer [sic] just came in. He was on picket with me last night and tried for about two hours to catch some guinea hens for a New Year dinner. They were too wild for him and so he filled his haversack with potatoes out of a hole he found. He wont [sic] starve in this country. Remember me to all friends and all write soon.
Then, barely a week into the New Year, the regiment’s most persistent and dangerous foe to date resumed its assault, claiming H Company Private Jacob S. R. Gardner as one of the first of what would be a stunning number of casualties for the 47th Pennsylvania in 1862. Unable to withstand the “one-two punch” he absorbed from contracting measles after having just survived a battle with Variola (smallpox), the former Perry County laborer died on January 8. His brothers, Sergeant Reuben Shatto Gardner and Corporal John A. Gardner, who had both been serving side-by-side with him in H Company, saw to the shipping arrangements which sent Jacob’s body back home for interment at the Newport Cemetery in Newport, Pennsylvania, but they did not accompany the transport. Instead, they tamped down their grief and returned to duty—a difficult act that would continue to be repeated by numerous other heartbroken brothers for years to come across a bitterly divided United States.
Meanwhile, at dawn on the same day of Private Gardner’s passing, the bulk of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry had just begun to carry out the latest directive from superior officers. Marching from Camp Griffin toward the Army of the Potomac’s central command—the headquarters of Brigadier-General William F. (“Baldy”) Smith, the 47th Pennsylvanians met up with six additional Union infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, and a ten-piece artillery unit. Moving on as part of this larger force, they continued on to Lewinsville, where they picked up the support of an additional 233 Union wagons.
Heading out again, they trekked on for eight miles until reaching Peacock Hill, where they chased off a significantly smaller group of Confederate States Army troops from picket duty, and then proceeded to remove 200 bushels of corn and 30 loads of hay.
In his subsequent recap of the event, Sergeant-Major William M. Hendricks noted, “We just marched up to a corn crib, and off went the roof, and the wagons were backed up and filled.” The 47th Pennsylvanians were back in camp that same day by 4 p.m.
According to Gobin in his own letter home, which was penned on the same day of the expedition:
“Yesterday our division of about ten thousand men went out to Hunters Mill, and got 252 wagon loads of forage. We drove in the Rebel pickets and waited a long time for them to come at us, but they did not show themselves. The march was a hard one. I was very tired, but one nights [sic] sleep, and all as sound as ever.”
On Friday, January 10, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were informed that they had performed their duties so admirably up to this point that they had been chosen by Union Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan to join a new expedition under his leadership. Shortly thereafter, the members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry began packing up their regiment’s tents, Springfield rifles, ammunition, cooking utensils, and other equipment critical to any Union Army unit on the move.
In the midst of all of this, G Company Sergeant John Helfrich carved time out to pen the following letter:
Jan. 12th 1862
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 seventeen and those of a private thirteen, dollars.
Our company has first 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 accoutrements, in perfect good condition. This inspection, greatly promotes the healthy, as well as the good appearances of the soldier, and in fact is indispensable.
Our company is in excellent health not a man is at present in the hospital. The health of the regt. has always been pretty good during the first 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 our nine hundred men, and we can not [sic] find language to express our thanks to the Great giver of this our greatest and 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 relations 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 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 and home in peace and prosperity.
Enclosed find ten dollars of my wages. I would send you more, but perhaps I may need it myself, 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. Remember me kindly to all my friends at home and abroad.
A friendly goodby [sic] to you all.
John G. Helfrich
Will write again soon if I am spared to do so.
J. G. Helfrich”
Lined up and ready to move out early on the morning of Wednesday, January 22, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers “gave three cheers for Camp Griffin” after listening to the 47th Pennsylvania’s Regimental Band play “Auld Lang Syne,” according to regimental historian Lewis Schmidt. Marching forth at 8:30 a.m., the men of B Company brought up the rear as the regiment slogged through snow and deep mud for three miles in order to reach the Vienna railroad depot in Falls Church, Virginia. Arriving at 9:30 a.m., they boarded a train and departed at 11 for Alexandria, Virginia where, a half hour later, they marched behind their band to the strains of “Yankee Doodle.”
Arriving at the docks nearby, they quickly began loading their equipment on the City of Richmond, a steamship which ultimately transported them along the Potomac River to the Washington Arsenal, where they disembarked sometime around 4 p.m. Marched from the arsenal area’s docks to the munitions storage area, regimental leaders replenished the ammunition supplies of the regiment, one company at a time—a process which took roughly two hours. They were then marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C.
The next day (January 23), the 47th Pennsylvanians reloaded their equipment onto and then boarded a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train. Departing for Annapolis, Maryland at 2 p.m., they arrived around 10 p.m., were assigned quarters in barracks at the U.S. Naval Academy, and turned in for the night. They then spent that Friday through Monday (January 24-27) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the 210-foot steamship S.S. Oriental. Those preparations ceased on Monday, January 27, at 10 a.m., however, in order to make time for a very public dismissal of one member of the regiment—Private James C. Robinson—who was dishonorably discharged from the 47th Pennsylvania (effective on that same date). According to regimental historian Schmidt and letters home from members of the regiment:
“The regiment was formed and instructed by Lt. Col. Alexander ‘that we were about drumming out a member who had behaved himself unlike a soldier.’ …. The prisoner, Pvt. James C. Robinson of Company I, was a 36 year old miner from Allentown who had been ‘disgracefully discharged’ by order of the War Department. Pvt. Robinson was marched out with martial music playing and a guard of nine men, two men on each side and five behind him at charge bayonets. The music then struck up with ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as the procession was marched up and down in front of the regiment, and Pvt. Robinson was marched out of the yard.”
Reloading then resumed and, that same afternoon (January 27), the enlisted members of the 47th Regiment, Volunteer Infantry began to board the Oriental, followed by their superior officers. Ferried to that Philadelphia-built steamship by smaller steamers, they sailed away for America’s Deep South at 4 p.m., per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan. They were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Their ship, which was captained by Benjamin F. Tuzo, was rocked by rough seas for much of their trip; consequently, many members of the regiment suffered from intense seasickness—particularly as the Oriental made its way down the stormy coast of the Carolinas and passed the Bahamas and Great Abaco Island.
On February 2, Regimental Chaplain William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock gathered his flock together for Sunday services, which began with the tolling of the ship’s bell at 11 a.m., a selection of hymns performed by the Regimental Band, and an opening prayer and scripture reading by Rodrock. Following the regiment’s singing of “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” (accompanied by the band to the music of “Old Hundred”), Rodrock presented that week’s sermon, which was based on the Bible’s “Acts of the Apostles,” chapter 17, verse 23. The service then closed with the singing of “Lord Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing” and the Doxology, followed by Rodrock’s benediction.
That day and the next, the men’s spirits were boosted further by the sight of dolphins swimming alongside the Oriental.
Arriving in the waters off Key West, Florida at 8 p.m. on Monday, February 3, the 47th Pennsylvanians were forced to endure a waiting game aboard ship until a pilot could be brought aboard to bring the ship into a safe place in the harbor—a process the pilot began at 7 a.m. the next morning.
According to Schmidt, “The deck was crowded with the regiment’s men, with the band playing as they passed some of the men-at-war…. Arriving in the harbor at 8 AM, the bands playing ‘national songs’ and numerous onlookers, including many ‘colored women,’ along the shore watching the ship sail into port.”
“After disembarking at 9 AM on the dock about one mile west of Fort Taylor, the regiment marched down the main street of the city in their regular order of column of divisions, and stacked their weapons, waiting until the unit would be notified where to make camp…. At 12 in the afternoon, the men were ordered to fall in and stand to attention, and with their 23 member band playing and the ladies of Key West waving their handkerchiefs, and with quite a crowd of followers, the 1000 men marched to their new camp ‘one fourth mile out of the city, near the beach,’ across from the barracks of the 90th New York Regiment.”
Led to the area of Key West that is now known as Palm and White streets, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were, in fact, initially housed just 350 feet from the ocean—a locale which may sound breathtakingly luxurious to the modern day reader until one realizes that the 47th Pennsylvanians’ first nights were “spent in blankets on the beach, with knapsacks for pillows”—a vexing, sandy state of affairs which persisted until their tents were unloaded and assembled on Thursday, February 6.
Even so, the members of the regiment still managed to make an early, favorable impression on Key West residents, including a New York Herald reporter who “commented on the fact that the 47th was equipped with the best weapons available, and was the best looking Volunteer Regiment he had ever seen.’’
This was in very large part due to the leadership of Colonel Tilghman H. Good, the founder and commanding officer of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, who had been placed in charge not just of the 47th Pennsylvania, but of all of the men who had been assigned to serve under Brannan in Key West, including two volunteer regiments from New York and U.S. Army artillery units. Good would continue to perform this role until Brannan was able to reach Florida and assume command of his brigade. The 47th Pennsylvania’s Regimental Adjutant Washington H. R. Hangen was then also appointed as Adjutant General for Brannan’s brigade.
And those tents which took so long to be delivered and assembled? They were officially designated as “Camp Brannan” in honor of the brigadier-general who had requested that the 47th Pennsylvania be assigned to his command.
* NOTE: Three months after dropping the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers off in Key West, the steamship Oriental ran aground and sank north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Its boiler may still be seen from shore while walking along the beach at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Vol 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.
2. Faust, Drew G. “The Civil War soldier and the art of dying,” in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 3-38. Houston, Texas: Southern Historical Association (Rice University), 2001.
3. Gobin, John Peter Shindel. Personal Letters, 1861-1865. Northumberland, Pennsylvania: Personal Collection of John Deppen.
4. Helfrich, John G. Personal Letters, 1862. Mesa, Arizona: Personal Collection of Colin Cofield.
5. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.
6. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1861-1868.