The Death of Augustus Perkins

Early in the morning of December 11, 1862, Captain Augustus S. Perkins was shot through the neck and was likely dead before his body hit the ground. Falling victim to some of the opening shots of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Perkins was the only officer in the 50th New York Engineers to be killed during the entire Civil War.[1]

For a unit raised in the fall of 1861 and one that served the entire war, the fact that Perkins was the New Yorkers’ only officer combat fatality is simultaneously surprising, and, on the other hand, not at all. As engineers, it was not the New Yorkers’ responsibility to stand on a firing line and blaze away at oncoming enemies; they worked in the rear of the Army of the Potomac. Corduroy roads, structures, and fortifications kept the engineers busy for most of the war. But perhaps most importantly on the New Yorkers’ to-do list was bridge-building. Without pontoon bridges, the army was stranded. And in the winter of 1862 that became especially clear as the Army of the Potomac sat idly by, waiting to cross the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg. To kick off the battle, first the engineers had to put up their pontoons, a task they had done countless times before. This time, however, the Confederates were dug in and waiting for the engineers. Instead of the rearguard of the Army of the Potomac, the engineers would be the vanguard.

Pontoon boats on wagons.
Pontoon boats on wagons. Augustus Perkins was working on unloading one such boat when killed.

Augustus Simeon Perkins and his older brother joined the Federal army two days shy of Christmas, 1861. Mustering into the 50th as a 1st Lieutenant, Perkins served with the regiment through its summer operations around Richmond in 1862. By July, Perkins gained captaincy of Company I. In December of 1862 he was 24 years old; his brother had moved up and served on the staff of Daniel Butterfield, commander of the Fifth Corps. Contemporaries described Augustus as, “a tall, fine looking officer.”[2]

There would be three crossings at Fredericksburg: the Upper, Middle, and Lower sites. Tasked to the Upper and Middle Crossings, the 50th New York was to build three bridges total, two at the former location and one at the latter. Building the Lower Crossing site and its two bridges was the 15th New York Engineers and the one battalion of United States Engineers. Whereas the Lower Crossing site’s location spanned a wide plateau south of Fredericksburg, easily covered by Federal artillery, the Upper and Middle Crossing sites went directly into Fredericksburg. The 50th New York Engineers would have to span the 400-foot wide Rappahannock River by floating pontoons into place, anchoring them, and then lashing planks down using thick ropes.[3] All three bridges at the Upper and Middle Crossings called for “about 120 men,” wrote Major Ira Spaulding, commanding the 50th at Fredericksburg.[4]

On December 10, the army’s engineers met at Chatham, the colonial mansion on the heights overlooking Fredericksburg. Told of their mission, the engineers set off to prepare their men. That afternoon, Perkins joined Captain Wesley Brainerd, another officer in the 50th, on a surveying of the position they would soon bridge over. Brainerd wrote that Perkins “seemed particularly infused with gloomy forebodings.” Writing almost a decade after the battle, Brainerd added, “Poor fellow, it was his last ride.”[5]

With the reconnaissance finished, Captain Perkins and the rest of the engineers could do nothing but wait for darkness. Around 11 p.m., the three engineer units, the 15th and 50th New York, and the U.S. Engineers began to shuffle towards their positions. Starting from the grounds of Chatham, about half of the 50th New York slid their pontoon trains through a ravine and towards the Upper Crossing. While Wesley Brainerd commanded the construction of one bridge, Perkins, alongside Captain George Ford, would be responsible for the other bridge. One of the engineers wrote, “At 2 A.M. Thursday [December 11] we arrived on the bank opposite Fredericksburg, and at 3 A.M. commenced unloading the boats.”[6]

The Upper Crossing at Fredericksburg
The Upper Crossing at Fredericksburg. Augustus Perkins was killed not far from where the photograph was taken.

By 5 a.m., Brainerd’s bridge was about halfway finished, and Perkins and Ford were starting construction on their own. The engineers’ work was interrupted by two cannon shots, booming across the water; Confederate gunners were signaling to the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia that the Federals were coming. A little while later, as day began to break over the Rappahannock, Brainerd commented that, “I saw, what for the moment almost chilled my blood. A long line of arms moving rapidly up and down…a moment later they were again obscured by the fogg [sic].” The experienced engineer officer knew that the arms foreboded “ramming cartridges and that the crisis was near.”[7]

Sergeant Thomas Owen was standing next to Perkins as Companies I and H began construction of the second bridge. “The material for the bridges had all been taken down… to the little flat at the margin of the river,” Owen wrote. “We were in the act of unloading a pontoon boat by sliding it off the hind end of a wagon that had been backed up close to the water. Captain Perkins was helping us, and was pulling on a small rope attached to the boat; and just as it slid off the wagon, the enemy opened a volley on us.”[8]

The volley, coming from William Barksdale’s Mississippians, struck the engineers at their most exposed positions, “causing the enemy to throw down their implements and quit their work in great confusion,” one Confederate wrote.[9]

Augustus Perkins, though, probably never knew what hit him. A bullet tore into his neck and then continued its downward trajectory into the young man’s shoulder. Wesley Brainerd retreated from his bridge and found protection behind a tree next to the river. The captain wrote, “There on the ground near us lay Captain Perkins, the cape of his blue overcoat up over his head. We called but he did not answer. We went to him, pulled down the cape from his face and there he lay, dead. We thought he had been shot in the mouth as the blood was coming from there, but it appeared afterwards that the ball had passed through his neck.”[10] Thomas Owen wrote, “He had been killed instantly.”[11]

Thomas Owen was standing next to Perkins when the Captain was killed. Owen then accompanied the body home to Athens, Pennsylvania.
Thomas Owen was standing next to Perkins when the Captain was killed. Owen then accompanied the body home to Athens, Pennsylvania.

With his death early in the fighting, Perkins missed the general bombardment of Fredericksburg as Federal gunners struggled to dispel the Confederate sharpshooters. He also missed Federal infantry jumping into boats, rowing across, and fighting house by house. On December 12, the body was prepared for shipment north for burial. Thomas Owen, standing next to the Captain when Perkins was killed, was detailed to accompany the corpse back home to Athens, Pennsylvania, along the New York border. “The body was in a rough box,” Owen noted later. From Fredericksburg to Aquia Creek, then to Washington, D.C., where Perkins’ body was embalmed, Owen faithfully went with his deceased commander. Staying through Perkins’ funeral, Owen was thrown off-guard by the sadness of the affair, writing, “Up to this time I had not fully realized what war was. This was the first time I witnessed the great sorrow of friends at home over the loss of their sons and brothers killed in war, and it left an impression on my mind that I shall never forget; and I returned to the front realizing more fully the great sacrifice of the noble lives that was being made for this country of ours, and with a determination to continue to do my duty to the best of my ability, that their lives might not be lost in vain.”[12]

Brig. Gen. Daniel Woodbury, commanding the Army of the Potomac’s volunteer engineer brigade, noted that Perkins was a “fine officer,” and Maj. Ira Spaulding, reflecting on losing the young captain, wrote that he was “a brave and an efficient officer, and the service suffers a great loss in his death.”[13] Perkins was widely respected by his men, and in 1870 the local Grand Army of the Republic post in Athens, Pennsylvania was named in his honor. It was to that post that Thomas Owen wrote eloquently, eulogizing his deceased officer some 35 years later, “we never had an officer whom we loved and respected as we did Captain Perkins. He was the nearest to my ideal of a perfect Captain of any man I ever saw.”[14]

Such was the reputation and memory of the only officer killed in action from the 50th New York Engineers.



[1] Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines: The Dyer Publishing Company, 1908), 1405.

[2] R.M. Welles, “The Old Athens Academy,” in Annual Bradford County Historical Society (Towanda: Bradford Star Print, 1906), 27.

[3] Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 61-62.

[4] Ira Spaulding Letter, Dec. 16, 1862, Bound Volume 394, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Archives.

[5] Wesley Brainerd, Bridge Building in Wartime: Colonel Wesley Brainerd’s Memoir of the 50th New York Engineers, ed. Ed Malles (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 108.

[6] Arthur T. Williams, “Honor to the Brave and Gallant Fiftieth,” Bound Volume 317, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Archives.

[7] Brainerd, 111.

[8] Thomas Owen, “Back in War Times,” Bound Volume 71, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Archives.

[9] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901) Series 1, Vol. 21, 602. (Hereafter Cited as OR. All Series are 1, and Volume is 21.)

[10] Brainerd, 112.

[11] Owen, “Back in War Times.”

[12] Ibid; O’Reilly, 66.

[13] OR, 170, 177.

[14] Owen, “Back in War Times.”

4 Responses to The Death of Augustus Perkins

  1. RYAN,

    Outstanding !! Very informative about Augustus Perkins and his role in the Civil War.
    Interesting tidbit for you… Grandfather ( Mother’s Father ) from Washington,Pa. was George Ford. No relation since I know my younger brother has done tons of research on Ford genealogy.
    Your Dad tells me you are going to publish a book in 2016…….that is fantastic. Best of luck with it.

    RICK TOMAZIN ( Seadog neighbor of Bruce & Denise)

    1. Thank you for your comments! Funny how multiple people had the exact same name– small world with limited possibilities I suppose.

      Thank you again for your compliments, and pass along my hellos.

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