Strong Men Fainted in the Ranks at the Sight: At Williamsburg with the 7th New Jersey

At the end of the Battle of Williamsburg, Captain J. Howard Willetts of the 7th New Jersey counted himself as lucky to be alive. The 27-year-old physician had lost 14 of the 23 men he led into battle that day and counted six bullet holes through his clothing.  

“I was struck on the hand while carrying Sergeant Clark’s musket for a moment, cutting the musket almost in two pieces; but, strange to say, it only scratched the skin on my hand,” he relayed in a letter to his mother. “I was struck once in the breast fair over my left lung. The ball struck a large brass button on my overcoat and carried it clear through two thicknesses and my dress coat, heavily padded, on through my vest and two shirts and just broke the skin on my breast. Bullet number 3 struck my hip but had passed through one of my men, killing him, and was spent before hitting me; it only bruised me. Two more were put through my coat, and one struck my foot, cutting my boot, but did not touch the flesh.”

The fighting that afternoon was close-in and deadly.  The Confederates crept in close to the New Jersey line by employing deception. “As they came up, they hallooed to us ‘not to fire as they were Massachusetts regiments.’ Suspecting something wrong, we told the men to lie down, but as they had the Union flag flying and we knew the Massachusetts coats and could not see to distinguish the others in the rear for the green brush. They all called to us to let them form in our rear and we let them come up to about 20 paces of us when they got a single word from their colonel, ‘Fire!’ In an instant, they poured their fire into us,” Willetts wrote.

“Our whole line shook; half of it fell dead or wounded. Our men wavered but immediately returned their fire and loaded and fired as fast as possible. We held our ground for five minutes but had not a man to spare to carry a wounded man off the field. Here I got my second ball, just as I stopped to pick up the body of Lieutenant Johnson. It stunned me for an instant, but I sprang up and Sergeant Clark handed me his gun and stooped to pick him up but was shot and fell on his body; he crawled off and Private Paynter sprang for the body and just as he raised it, fell with a ball through his arm. Private Elmer Ogden fell with a ball through his arm, entering between the eyes and passing out of the back of his head. Private Hackaray turned to pick him up or look at him and fell dead. He had just bitten a cartridge off and the next day he had the paper still in his mouth, and his arm stuff, just taking his hand from his mouth with the cartridge in his hand,” he concluded.

John Howard Willetts had attended West Point as part of the class of 1856 but transferred to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where he graduated in 1858, going into medical practice in his native New Jersey. He was commissioned captain of Co. H of the 7th New Jersey in 1861 and served in the war until 1864; in August 1862, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the newly raised 12th New Jersey and became colonel in February 1863. Severely wounded at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Willetts would be discharged for the lingering effects of his wounds in December 1864. Dr. Willetts would live to the age of 91, serving a few terms in the New Jersey legislature during a lengthy and successful career as a doctor.

          The 7th New Jersey was part of the Third Brigade of the Second Division (Hooker) of Heintzelman’s 3rd Army Corps at Williamsburg. Willetts’ letter was originally published in the June 7, 1862, edition of the West Jersey Pioneer from Bridgeton, New Jersey.

 

Colonel John Howard Willetts of the 12th New Jersey gained his first combat experience while serving as a captain in the 7th New Jersey. The physician-turned-soldier was struck six times at Williamsburg and went on to be wounded again on May 3, 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite his war wounds, he lived to the age of 91 and when Ida Tarbell went to meet him, she was told that Willetts was "a grand old man." And yes, that is his real hair. 


Williamsburg, Virginia

May 7, 1862

 

Dear mother,

          I will as hastily as possible give you a short description of the battle fought one-and-a-half miles of here on Monday May 5th. The enemy left Yorktown on Saturday night and on Sunday at noon our division consisting of the First Brigade (1st and 2nd Massachusetts, 2nd New Hampshire, and 26th Pennsylvania), Second Brigade (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Excelsior regiments), and our Third Brigade consisting of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th New Jersey regiments with three batteries; in all 12,000 men started in pursuit. We marched until 12 o’clock Sunday night and encamped; next morning, we were off early and by 8 o’clock we reached the suburbs of Williamsburg where we met the enemy under General Magruder in heavy force. We attacked him immediately as General Sumner’s corps of 20,000 was expected to come up by 11 o’clock. General Heintzelman commanded in person although General Hooker’s division only was engaged.

          The First Brigade attacked the enemy’s front; the Third (ours) formed the left wing and Sickles’ Excelsior Brigade formed the support to the batteries in front and center. The force of the enemy I do not know certain, but from prisoners I learn that 9,000 troops under Magruder in person opposed our left of scarce 1,500 men. It rained hard all Sunday night and still kept on as it did all day and as we moved from Yorktown suddenly, we had no cooked rations, little sleep, ammunition part wet, and worn out in a strange country while the enemy was well-concealed on chosen ground and happily for us, ignorant of our numbers.

General Francis E. Patterson
Died of self-inflicted wound
November 22, 1862

          We formed our line in the woods and advanced, General Francis E. Patterson (our new brigadier and a braver and better man no one need ask) commanding. My company and Companies A and C were deployed as skirmishers to feel our way in front. The First Brigade by this time got into action and the firing on our right, which was the center, was quite warm. I was made aware of the enemy’s position by a sharp fire opened on my skirmishers, killing one man and wounding two more. I immediately opened fire and fell back slowly so as to give our regiments a chance to prepare for the opening of the fight. The enemy advanced in force with loud cheering. I carried back my wounded and joined my regiment. We fell flat down and let them come up quite closely when we arose and poured our fire into them- the fire increased for a time from their reserve coming up, but we broke them and they fell back in confusion, losing heavily. We lost one lieutenant colonel and several officers thus early- the same was true of the 5th and 8th regiments. Not knowing how many they had in front and fearing an ambush, we did not follow but loaded and advancing 30 or 40 paces formed in line, the 8th on our left, the 7th next, the 6th on the right, and the 5th was deployed to the right to guard our flank.

          The enemy advanced again after rallying and bringing in two fresh regiments and come up at a double quick with loud cheers. The fight by this time became general all along our front and the enemy’s shells were making sad havoc in our ranks. We allowed them to come up within 25 paces when our line (the 8th, 7th, and 6th) arose and with a cheer poured in a deadly fire. We had buck and ball cartridges and at that distance each buck shot was almost as fatal as a bullet, and as they scattered, the effect was terrible. Hundreds went down at the first fire; our men loaded with rapidity unequaled. The roar of the battle with the shrieks and cries of the wounded and flying arms and legs as their shells were at that time bursting in our midst, the men falling as fast the leaden hail was poured into us and returned was terrible; strong brave men in the ranks fainted in the ranks at the sight.

          A comrade and friend would snatch a hurried look at a fallen comrade, probably a brother (as was the case in my company twice, Lieutenant Johnson having a brother close by him) and immediately turn and fight again. Our boys behaved nobly and gloriously, not a falter, every order was obeyed; the officers acted well. The enemy stood until reinforcements came up when they attempted to charge again, but our boys delivered a well-directed fire, and they broke in confusion. By this time no reinforcements coming to us and nearly half out of our regiments killed and wounded and not daring to let the enemy see our force, we did not follow up, but formed again and awaited them. A little breathing time here took place. The men stood and glanced over their comrades; not a word was spoken scarcely but determination was written on their faces.

General Joseph Hooker
Willetts' Divisional Commander at 
Williamsburg

          General Joseph Hooker rode down the line through the woods, spoke a word or two of their bravery, and encouraged the men greatly saying he could not but praise men who had acted the hero. After five minutes or so, the enemy, being freshly reinforced by General Lee (my old commander at West Point) to the amount of 10,000, made their third charge and here it was that the hottest part of the engagement took place with our Jersey boys. Our line had up to this time, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., stood under constant fire without reinforcement owing partly to the bad state of the roads, the rain being incessant, mud knee deep, and like a duck puddle, and partly to the fact that the chief support to our division had taken the wrong road.

Just before this we got word from some of our men on our right who had crept a little way to the front that the Massachusetts regiment had been outflanked and were forming a little in front of us. It was the enemy forming there who, deceiving them by taking the coats of the Massachusetts dead and wounded and putting them on 15 or 20 of their men whom they placed in front. As they came up, they hallooed to us ‘not to fire as they were Massachusetts regiments.’ Suspecting something wrong, we told the men to lie down, but as they had the Union flag flying and we knew the Massachusetts coats and could not see to distinguish the others in the rear for the green brush. They all called to us to let them form in our rear and we let them come up to about 20 paces of us when they got a single word from their colonel, ‘Fire!’ In an instant, they poured their fire into us.

Our whole line shook: half of it fell dead or wounded. Here my Lieutenant Johnson fell, Colonel Johnson of the 8th, Colonel Vanlear of the 6th, Major Ryerson of the 6th, and ten or 15 other officers. Our men wavered but immediately returned their fire and loaded and fired as fast as possible. We held our ground for five minutes but had not a man to spare to carry a wounded man off the field. Here I got my second ball, just as I stopped to pick up the body of Lieutenant Johnson. It stunned me for an instant, but I sprang up and Sergeant Clark handed me his gun and stooped to pick him up but was shot and fell on his body; he crawled off and Private Paynter sprang for the body and just as he raised it, fell with a ball through his arm. Private Elmer Ogden fell with a ball through his arm, entering between the eyes and passing out of the back of his head. Private Hackaray turned to pick him up or look at him and fell dead. He had just bitten a cartridge off and the next day he had the paper still in his mouth, and his arm stuff, just taking his hand from his mouth with the cartridge in his hand. Everyone that fell dead lay the next day just as they were when the ball struck them; some of them with the arms out at length with the gun cocked and grasped tight to the shoulder.

After firing five minutes or so, the enemy prepared for a charge and we fell back slowly, firing face to them for 100-150 yards when our long looked for reinforcements came in, just in the inch of time, as the enemy was forcing our right and center at the same time. What a shout went up from our reinforcements and us. The enemy halted. Our troops that had been so long engaged fell to the rear and the Michigan, New York, and other troops forming the reinforcements went into it at the double quick and with a shout that sent terror to the enemy, just as they thought they had the battle won. Their officers tried hard to hold them but couldn’t do it but for a short time. Our fresh troops pushed on to them with the bayonet and they fled. This was near 4 o’clock and the battle turned immediately, but their guns and reserves fought till dark when they gave way. We were tired out and what we called our fresh troops had marched from 3 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon at double quick, and then fought until dark. Thinking, too, that the enemy had only fallen back to Williamsburg, where they had very strong fortifications, we concluded to wait until daylight. Troops continued to arrive all night and next morning pushed on after them, but it was soon found that they had gone.

Captain Alpheus Witherell, Co. F, 7th New Jersey

After they had driven us back in the last charge, they rifled the pockets of all our dead and wounded, pulled the rings off of fingers that had them on, and even took some of our wounded and dragged them back a mile from the field, but were forced to leave them and we got them the next morning. Some of our wounded say they saw them rifle the pockets of their own men also, and next morning when I went over the field to get the bodies of my lieutenant and men, every pocket was empty and turned. They took the stripes off their officers so that we might not recognize them as officers.

With a word concerning personal escapes, I must close. I was struck on the hand while carrying Sergeant Clark’s musket for a moment, cutting the musket almost in two pieces; but, strange to say, it only scratched the skin on my hand. I was struck once in the breast fair over my left lung. The ball struck a large brass button on my overcoat and carried it clear through two thicknesses and my dress coat, heavily padded, on through my vest and two shirts and just broke the skin on my breast. Bullet number 3 struck my hip but had passed through one of my men, killing him, and was spent before hitting me; it only bruised me. Two more were put through my coat, and one struck my foot, cutting my boot, but did not touch the flesh.

Nearly every one of my men were struck. Out of the 23 who went into the fight, only nine came out unhurt. The rest of my men were behind the regiment when we went into action which accounts for the fewness of my numbers; some came up and joining in the fight with other regiments. We have broken up the Rebel army and will soon close up the war in Virginia. Our division is now in the rear and if we are not wanted very badly, will probably be kept out of action till our men get recruited up.

 

In haste, your son,

J. Howard Willetts

 

Source:

Letter from Captain John Howard Willetts, Co. H, 7th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, West Jersey Pioneer (New Jersey), June 7, 1862, pg. 1


Comments

  1. My G G Grandpa was the surgeon in Wren Chapel here and may have seen these wounded! Dr Daniel Ayres Brooklyn City NY- NY Corps of Surgeons.

    ReplyDelete

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