On the 21st of August, 1861, John R. Brooks, of Pottstown, Montgomery county, was commissioned Colonel of the Fifty-third Regiment. He had served as Captain in the Fourth(three months) Regiment. Recruiting was immediately commenced, and on the 28th of September, the first company was mustered into service of the United States. Company A was recruited in Chester county, B in Chester and Montgomery, C in Blair and Huntingdon, D in Centre and Clearfield, E in Carbon and Union, F in Luzerne, G in Potter, H in Northumberland, I in Juniata, and K in Westmoreland. During the period of organization it occupied Camp Curtin, and while here did provost guard duty in Harrisburg. The following field officers were selected: John R. Brooke, Colonel; Richard M’Michael, of Reading, Berks county, Lieutenant Colonel; and Thomas Yeager, of Allentown, Lehigh county, Major. Charles P. Hatch, of Philidelphia, was appointed Adjutant.
On the 7th of November it moved to Washington and encamped north of the Capital. On the 27th it crossed the Potomac, went into camp near Alexandria, and was assigned to a brigade commanded by General Wm H. French. It remained here during the winter of 1861-2, and was constantly drilled and disciplined in the routine of a soldier’s duty. It participated in the general advance of the Army of the Potomac in March, 1862, arriving at Manassas Junction , which had been evacuated by the rebels, on the 12th. On the 21st it was marched to Warrenton Junction to support a reconnaissance of Howard’s Brigade, which was being pushed towards the Rappahannock. The object having been accomplished, on the 23rd it returned to Manassas, and from thence to Alexandria. Upon the re-organization of the army the regiment was assigned the Third Brigade,1 First Division, Second Corps. On the 3rd of April it was transferred with M’Clellan’s Army to the Peninsula, and formed part of the reserve division during the siege of Yorktown.
The enemy having retreated on the 4th of May, the regiment marched to Yorktown, and late on the afternoon of the same day moved through a pelting storm of rain towards Williamsburg. It was ordered back on the 6th, and remained until the 12th, when it was transported to West Point, at the head of York River. Later in the month it assisted to build the grape-vine bridge across the Chickahominy. The regiment took a prominent part in the engagement at fair Oaks on the 1st of June, where, though surprised and thrown into temporary confusion, it rallied , and in a short time forced the enemy from his line. Its conduct on this occasion was such as to elicit the commendation of the Generals commanding. It suffered a severe loss in the death of Major Yeager, who was killed in the early part of the action, while gallantly leading his men. The regiment lost ninety-six men in killed, wounded, and missing.
It bivouacked upon the battle-ground and supported a battery in position on the York River Railroad. On the 27th it moved it moved to the right, where a deadly conflict was raging, and was thrown forward to the assistance of Porter's troops. It crossed the Chickahmoniny and came under fire of the enemy at Gaines' Mill. Forming in line of battle the command covered the withdrawal of the troops, and at midnight silently re-crossed the Chickahmoniny. Here began the memorable "change of base" in which it was the arduous duty of Sumner's Corps to cover the rear of the retreating army. The post of honor and of danger-- the rear of the rear-guard -- was assigned to the Third Brigade. At Peach Orchard, on the 29th, it participated in a fierce engagement, in which a number of casualties occurred, but none were killed. Immediately after the close of action, General Sumner rode up and complimented the regiment for its bravery, saying "you have done nobly, but I knew you would do so." Moving to Savage Station, Sumner made another stand to check the enemy. The regiment occupied a position in a wood parallel to the railroad, and was fortunately favored by the high ranged shot and shell of the rebel artillery. After a short but desperate encounter, the enemy withdrew, and at midnight the line of retreat was silently resumed.
The march now began to test the endurance of the troops, and the situation became one fraught with peril. One small brigade, standing fiercely alone in midnight darkness, was holding in check, almost at the point of the bayonet, one-half of the rebel army, while friends from whom no succor could be expected were swiftly moving to the rear. Silently the command plunged into the deep shadows of White Oak Swamp. At daylight the regiment reached White Oak Creek, beyond which was its corps in bivouac. Crossing the creek it immediately started destroying the bridge. The advance of the enemy soon made its appearance, and commenced skirmishing, but was prevented from crossing the stream. Several of his batteries having been placed in position, opened fire, and were very annoying. Although not actively engaged, the regiment had several killed and wounded.
Withdrawing at midnight, the Fifty-Third arrived at Marvin Hill on the morning of July 1st, and was almost constantly under fire although it did not participate in the engagement. The duty assigned to it, in the retreat from the Chickahominy to the James, was of such an important nature as to merit and receive the thanks of the Commanding General as well as of the intermediate commanders, and Colonel Brooke highly complimented for the skillful and soldierly qualities displayed in conducting his command successfully through so many perils. Arriving at Harrison's Landing, the regiment remained until the 16th of August. Here the Sixty-Fourth New York was temporally attached to the Fifty-Third for the purposes of drill, discipline, and camp duty, all under the command of Major Octavius S. Bull, who had been promoted to fill the vacancy occasioned by the death of Major Yeager, Colonel Brooke being in command of the brigade and Lieutenant Colonel M'Michael absent on account of sickness.
Moving via Yorktown to Newport News, it embarked for Alexandria, where it arrived on the 28th, and encamped on the following day at Lee's Farm, near the Aqueduct Bridge. The cannonade of the contending forces at Bull Run was distinctly heard, and the men were eager to again meet the foe. At two A.M. of the 30th, in light marching order, the command moved forward towards Centerville. But the battle had been fought, and Pope's Army was retreating to the defense of Washington. Reaching Centerville on the 31st, it was promptly deployed in the line of battle, protecting the exposed flanks of the Union army. Here again Sumner's Corps was interposed between the enemy and our retreating troops. Near Vienna, the regiment, and one section of a battery, were thrown forward on the Leesburg turnpike to guard the flank of the column against any sudden attack of the enemy. A force of rebel cavalry made a dash upon Union troops between the pike and Chain Bridge, entirely separating the regiment from the main column. Colonel Brooke, seeing the danger and the difficulty of cutting his way through, moved his command at double-quick down the pike and thereby insured its safety before the enemy discovered the maneuver. On the 3rd of September it re-joined the army at Tenallytown. On the 11th, General French, who had endeared himself to the troops of his brigade, was assigned to the command of a division, and was succeeded by Colonel Brooke.
The enemy was now marching into Maryland, and the Third Brigade moved rapidly through Washington to Frederick, and thence to South Mountain, where it held in reserve during the battle. On the 15th it moved in pursuit, skirmishing during the morning with the enemy's cavalry, drove him through Boonesboro' and Keedysville, and encountered his army in strong force on the highlands beyond Antietam Creek. The following day was occupied, chiefly in maneuvering for position, the regiment being under artillery fire and suffering some casualties. At four A.M. of the 17th, the regiment left its position on the Keedysville road, and moving a mile to the right, crossed Antietam Creek at a ford. It occupied the extreme right of the division. In front was the "sunken road"occupied by the enemy's first line. His second line was protected by a stone wall on the hill beyond. To the right and rear was an orchard, immediately in front of which was the cornfield , where subsequently, the battle raged with great fury. It was important to drive the enemy from this position, and the Fifty-Third was chosen for the charge. Changing front to the rear, and advancing double-quick, in a short but desperate contest it drove him from his well chosen ground. The regiment was subsequently engaged in the hottest of the fight and shared the varying fortunes of the day. The position gained was of great importance, and was held with tenacity until the regiment was ordered to the support of a battery. Lieutenant Weaver of company K, a brave young officer, was mortally wounded. The loss in killed and wounded was twenty-eight.
On the 22nd it forded the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, and encamped on the day on Bolivar Heights. Here the wasted energies of the troops were recruited, and full rations and clothing, which had been much needed, were furnished. On the 16th of October it participated, under command of Major Bull, in a reconnoinssance to Charlestown, skirmishing with and driving the enemy and occupying the town. Captain Mintzer, of company A, was appointed Provost Marshal of the place, who at once instituted a search, and captured a number of prisoners. The object of the reconnaissance having been accomplished, the command returned to camp. Moving from Bolivar Heights on the 30th of October, it crossed the Shenandoah River, and proceeded down the London Valley, participating in a skirmish with the enemy on the 4th, at Snicker's Gap, driving him out and occupying it until the column had passed. It arrived at Warrentown on the 9th, when General Burnside assumed command of the Army of the Potomac and projected the movement upon Fredericksburg. The regiment proceeded to Falmouth, where it arrived on the 19th, and performed provost guard duty until the 11th of December, when it left quarters and took position nearly opposite Fredericksburg in support of the batteries that were engaged in bombarding the town. Early on the 12th it crossed the river forming a skirmish line, drove the enemy's sharpshooters out of the city, with the loss of one mortally wounded, when it was relieved, and rested for the night on the river bank. Early on the morning of Saturday, the 13th, under a dense fog, the regiment marched into the city, and halted for an hour under fire of rebel artillery. The fight was opened at the front, near Marye's Heights, by French's Division, which was repulsed. Soon after, the Third Brigade, led by the Fifty-Second, moved , amidst a shower of deadly missiles, by the right flank, up St Charles street and formed in line of battle along the edge of town. The rebel infantry, but a few hundred yards in front, was protected by a stone wall along a sunken road, while immediately above, the hilltops were bristling with cannon. At the word of command, Colonel Brooke, at the head of his regiment, led the charge, under a storm of shot and shell that swept the ranks with terrible effect. But, undismayed, they closed up and pressed steadily on, till they reached a position within one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy's lines, which was held, despite every effort to dislodge them, even after their ammunition was spent. At evening, when the battle was over and the day was lost, what remained of the regiment retired silently from its position, and returned to the city. It went into battle with two hundred and eighty-three effective men. Of these one hundred and fifty-eight were either killed or wounded. Among the former, were Lieutenants Cross, M'Kiernan and Kerr, and the latter, Captains Coulter and Eicholtz, and Lieutenants Potts, Root, Hopkins and Smith.
The regiment now returned to its old position as provost guard to Falmouth. On the following week, it formed part of a detachment, under command of Colonel Brooke, that crossed the river, under a flag of truce, for the purpose of burying the dead. During the two days occupied in this work, nine hundred and thirteen were interred, and six were dispatched to their friends. The rebel soldiers had stripped the bodies of the dead in the most heartless manner. In many cases fingers were cut off to get possession of rings. The Fifty-Third remained at Falmouth until February 1st, 1863. While here, three companies under command of Major Bull, were detailed as provost guard at division headquarters. The Major was assigned to the staff of General Couch, and remained successively with Generals Couch, Hancock, Hays, Warren, and again with Hancock in the Wilderness campaign, until the 18th of May, 1864.
On the 28th of April, the regiment moved on the Chancellorsville campaign, and crossing the Rappahannock at United States Ford, for three days was actively engaged, suffering considerable loss. Upon withdrawal of the army, it returned to its old camping-ground near Falmouth. On the 14th of June, the Fifty-Third, which was now attached to the Fourth Brigade of the First Division of the Second Corps, left camp, and marched to Bank's Ford to watch the movements of the enemy, who was about entering on his Pennsylvania campaign. Withdrawing from the ford, when it was found that the rebel columns had passed, the command moved forward with the army, and on the 20th, made a forced march to Thoroughfare Gap, where it remained in position until the 25th, when the enemy attacked, driving in the pickets, and as our columns had passed, the command was withdrawn. Marching rapidly towards Gettysburg, it arrived upon the field at eight o'clock on the morning of the 2nd of July, and took position in rear of the line of the Third Corps, then forming. Later in the day it moved to the left, near Little Round Top, and at three o'clock became hotly engaged. A rebel battery, posted upon an Eminence beyond a wheat field, had become very annoying to our troops. Colonel Brooke led a charge, in the face of its destructive fire, to capture, or drive it away. At the word of command, the men dashed forward, and with loud shouts drove the enemy, scattering his ranks and gained the position. The lines on his right and left had failed to advance as far, and discovering that the enemy was taking prompt advantage of his fearfully exposed flanks, the Colonel reluctantly ordered his men to retire ti their first position, which was executed, but not without serious loss. On the 3rd, the regiment was under a heavy artillery fire, but was not actively engaged. In this battle the command much reduced in number, three companies being still on detached duty, and the remainder having but one hundred and twenty-four men. Of this number only fourty-five escaped uninjured. Six were killed, sixty-seven wounded, and six missing. Of the latter Captains Dimm and Hatfield, and Lieutenants Pifer, Shields, Root, Smith, Whitaker and Mann, and Sergeant Major Rutter.
Remaining on the battle-field until noon of the 5th, the regiment marched in pursuit of the retreating enemy, and arrived on the 11th at Jones' Cross Roads, near which the rebel army was in position. In the evening it advanced in line driving back the enemy's skirmishers, and during the following night threw up breast-works. On the 14th it was deployed in line at right angles to the Williamsport road, and advanced cautiously only to discover that the rebels had vacated their works and fled. After remaining for a few days in Pleasant Valley, made descents upon Ashbey's and Manassas Gap, passed White Plains, New Baltimore, and Warrenton, and arrived , on the 1st of August, at Morrisville, where it went to camp. In the toilsome campaigns which followed, ending at Mine Run, the regiment participated, encountering the enemy at Rappahannock Station, and at Bristoe, and losing some men. It went into winter-quarters at Stevensburg, where the men re-enlisted, and on the 27th of December proceeded to Harrisburg, where they were dismissed for a veteran furlough. Upon their return to the army they again encamped near Stevensburg, in their old quarters, where they remained until the opening of the spring campaign.
On the 4th of May, 1864 the regiment broke camp, and crossing the Rapidan at Ely's Ford, marched to Chancellorsville. On the following day it moved forward and confronted the enemy in his earthworks, and again on the 6th was engaged , but without serious loss. At the evening of the 9th it moved forward to the River Po, which it crossed, and at once met the enemy, the contest being continued with spirit for several hours, resulting in considerable loss to the command, but owing to the woods and undergrowth taking fire from the explosion of the shells, without any decided advantage. Late on the evening of the 11th, withdrawing from its position on the Po, it proceeded about six miles towards Spottsylvania. There on the following morning, it stood, in column, in readiness to join the grand charge of the veteran Second Corps, upon the strongly fortified position of the enemy. Advancing silently until within a short distance from his works, the well formed lines rushed forward with wild hurrabs, and in the face of a desperate defense offered, carried the position capturing an entire division. No more brilliant or decisive charge was made during the campaign than this. Captain Whitney and Lieutenant Foster were among the killed. Colonel Brooke was promoted to Brigadier General soon after this engagement, Major Bull to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Dimm to Major; subsequently, upon the muster out of service of the latter, Captain William M. Mintzer was made Major.
The regiment remained in the vicinity of Spottsylvania, throwing up earthworks at different points, and almost constantly under fire, until the 25th of May, when it crossed the Pamunkey, thence to Tolopotomy Creek, and on the 2nd of June arrived at Cold Harbor. It was pushed close up to the enemy's entrenched line, and immediately threw up breast-works. At five o'clock on the morning of the 3rd, a furious but futile effort was made to drive the enemy from his position. Two other gallant charges were made, wherein men never marched to death with stouter hearts; but all in vain. In these charges the Fifty-Third suffered severely. General Brooke, commanding the brigade, was severely wounded by grape-shot, in the hand and thigh. Captain Diam, and Lieutenant Pifer were also severely wounded.
On the night of 12th the regiment marched ,and crossing the Chickahominy and James Rivers, arrived on the evening of the 16th in front of Petersburg. In the afternoon a charge was ordered upon the enemy's strong works, which was gallantly executed , but was repulsed, the Fifty-Third losing in this desperate struggle, nearly seventy men. On the 22nd, an attempt was made to establish a new line, which proved unsuccessful. For several weeks digging and the construction of defensive works, constituted the principal occupation of the troops.
On the 26th of June, the regiment moved with the brigade to the right of the line, beyond the James River, and for two weeks was engaged in promiscuous skirmishing along the rebel works, after which it returned to the neighborhood of Petersburg. On the 12th of August, the command again returned to the left bank of the James, where it skirmished heavily with the enemy, until the 21st when it re-crossed the James and the Appamattox, and passing in rear of the army to the extreme left of the line, commenced demolishing the Weldon Railroad, near Ream's Station. Five miles had already been destroyed, when, the enemy appeared in force, and a line of battle was hastily formed to repel his advance, and protect the working parties. His first charge was gallantly repulsed. But, re-forming, and massing his troops in heavy columns, he again struck with overpowering force upon the Union lines, and was partially successful in breaking them. But his advantage was gained at a fearful cost, and he was finally forced to abandon the contest, and the Union forces retired to their lines in front of Petersburg. During the autumn and winter months the regiment was engaged in severe duty in the front lines before the besieged city. On the 18th of September, Colonel M'Michael having been discharged, upon the expiration of his terms of service, Lieutenant Colonel Bull was promoted Colonel, Major Mintzer, Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Phillip H. Shreyer, Major. In November, upon the muster out of service of the Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel Mintzer was made Colonel, Captain George C Anderson, Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain George D Pifer, Major.
On the 28th of Mach,1865, the regiment moved on its last campaign, proceeding directly to the Boydton Plank Road, where on the 31st it was briskly engaged. The Fifth Corps was now actively employed in pushing the enemy from his foot-hold about Petersburg, and in this the Second Corps was called to its aid. In the operations at Five Forks, the regiment joined, charging the enemy's lines, driving him in confusion, and taking possession of a portion of the South Side Railroad. In this engagement, Major Pier led the Fifty-Third, Colonel Mintzer having been placed temporarily in command of a detachment skillfully deployed to deceive a division of the enemy, and prevent him from changing his position. For the success attained in this service, Colonel Mintzer was promoted Brevet Brigadier General. Following up the retreating enemy, the regiment participated in the capture of his wagon trains at Deep Creek, on the 6th of April, and was in front on the day of surrender of the rebel army. Encamping for a short time near Burkesville, it proceeded from thence, through Richmond and Fredericksburg, to Alexandria, participated in the grand review of the armies at Washington, on the 23rd of May, and was finally mustered out of service on the 30th of June, 1865.
Contributed by William Beers II for use by the Clearfield County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/~clearfield/)
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