The 26th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry: A Baptism of Fire and Brimstone at Fredericksburg Part I

ECW welcomes guest author David Steinert

This picture is attributed as Dr. William Bowlby in the cavalry uniform he donned after his service in the 26th NJ. Image from FindaGrave.

As the sun set over the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia on the evening of 13 December 1862, the Chaplain of the 26th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, Reverend David Tilton Morrill wrote to the Newark Daily Advertiser… “I would not if I could, and I could not if I would describe the scene of horror which the hospitals have witnessed this day”. Serving in one of these hospitals, Dr. William W. Bowlby, the assistant surgeon for the 26th NJV concurred with the good chaplain in the butchery that now surrounded him.

Bowlby was born in New Jersey on 7 March 1836.He has spent most of his adolescent years growing up in western New Jersey, where his favorite pastime was fly-fishing in the waterways in Hunterdon and Warren Counties. In 1855, William married Elizabeth Stark. In a long and estranged relationship, he alone in 1860, moved with his parents from Port Colden, in Warren Township, east to Newark. Here it would be more convenient for William to continue his studies at the Medical School in New York City. He was now 26 years old and he had recently graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Medical Department at Columbia College. Fredericksburg was his first major battle as assistant surgeon.

In May of 1862, with the country embroiled in a Civil War, The Newark Daily Advertiser reported that Dr. Bowlby was to accompany a group of other physicians from northern New Jersey to Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Their expertise was needed for the evaluation and medical treatment of Union Soldiers with the possibility of a future hospital in Trenton for wounded New Jersey Volunteers.[1]

Upon returning from his trip to Fortress Monroe, the State of New Jersey temporarily employed Bowlby at a draft rendezvous location in Newark as a medical examiner to determine disabilities in new draftees. He worked at the facility from September 1 to September 26 and was paid $88 for his time.[2] Following this experience, he enlisted as an Assistant Surgeon with the newly-formed 26th New Jersey Volunteers.

The 26th NJV was one of the nine-month regiments that the State of New Jersey assembled at Camp Frelinghuysen in Newark in late summer of 1862 to answer the Federal Government’s call for a draft of militiamen. On the same day William enlisted, the regiment left by train for Washington, DC and encamped on Capitol Hill.

On the first day of October, the regiment was loaded on open railroad cars for the uncomfortable journey to Frederick City, MD, where they remained for several days.

Meanwhile, the Newark Daily Advertiser reported that the Reverend David T. Morrill had become Chaplain of the 26th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry. Morrill, who was born in Vermont on 25 October 1825, migrated to New Jersey, and became Pastor of the 5th Baptist Church in Newark. It was his first pastorate. After his appointment to the regiment, he also became a correspondent with the 26th NJV for the Newark Daily Advertiser. He frequently reported on the progress of the regiment as they marched south into Virginia.

The 26th NJV proceeded to Hagerstown, MD on October 10, where the regiment became part of the Second Brigade, Second Division, VI Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. The regiment encamped in a large cornfield near Hagerstown, where they remained for the rest of the month.

Later in the month, Chaplain D.T. Morrill arrived at the camp with letters for the soldiers from home. On October 30, the Chaplain submitted his first report to the Newark Daily Advertiser and it appeared in the 3 November 1862 edition of the newspaper: “The standing order, “Prepare to march,” was yesterday morning followed by an order to “March in an hour.” Then there was “hurrying to and fro,” and mounting knapsacks in “hot haste”.  As we neared the Potomac two or three miles below Williamsport we met “Couch’s Division” (2nd Army Corps) moving toward the seat or centre of war”.

As they moved south, the 26th NJV joined forces with other divisions of the Union Army. Many of these soldiers were veterans of the battle of Antietam, fought on 17 September 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. At this point in the war, it was the bloodiest and most costly in casualties and deaths than any previous battle. After the battle, General Robert E. Lee withdrew the Army of Virginia from its temporary invasion of the north, back across the Potomac River to the friendly confines of Virginia.

On November 2, Chaplain Morrill reported that the regiment had arrived in Berlin (modern day Brunswick), Maryland, a small town on the Potomac River about eight miles east of Harpers Ferry, Virginia.[3] There, a pontoon bridge was built for the Union army to cross into Virginia.

General George B. McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, often criticized for his lack of aggressiveness in engaging the enemy, continued his move into Virginia. Chaplain. Morrill reported from Uniontown, VA in the Newark Daily Advertiser, on November 5:[4] “We have now made two days’ forced march into Virginia, being some ten miles north-west from Thoroughfare Gap; within three miles in the rear of Gen. McClellan’s Headquarters, and about the same distance in advance of Generals Franklin and Smith’s Headquarters.”

In the same issue of the Newark Daily Advertiser, Morrill submitted a report from White Plains, Virginia dated November 7. Prewar maps used by both armies had mistakenly named the village of “The Plains” as “White Plains”. The 26th NJV camped for two days at The Plains, where the day after their arrival they experienced an unexpected snowstorm.

While the men of the regiment awakened from their snow-covered camp in Virginia, President Lincoln, frustrated with the progress and the lack of aggressiveness by the Army of the Potomac, relieved General George McClellan of his command on November 5, replacing him with General Ambrose Burnside.

On November 10, now camped in New Baltimore, Virginia, the soldiers of the 26th witnessed the recent change of command of the Army of the Potomac. “About 10 o’clock the order came to “Fall in, fall in!” The object was to salute Gen. McClellan, who was to pass this way…There is no disputing the fact, whatever may be the cause, he is the idol of the army, and that officers and men love him like a brother and confide in him like a father. Though Generals Burnside and Sigel were with him, he was the hero of the hour,” as described by Morrill.[5]

The Federal supply base at Aquia Landing.

The regiment spent a week idling in their tents in New Baltimore, while the new commander of the Army of the Potomac cobbled strategy for his anticipated move on Fredericksburg. On November 17, the 26th broke camp and marched south, arriving at Aquia Creek, Virginia, where they remained for the next two weeks.

While at Aquia Creek, the regiment celebrated Thanksgiving. “By order of Col. Morrison, all drills were dispensed with for the day, and many improved their leisure by writing to friends at home, quite a number paid a visit to the Second N.J. brigade who were encamped only about a mile from us,”[6] as reported in the Newark Daily Advertiser. The reporter was probably referring to the First New Jersey Brigade, which was part of the First Division of the VI Corps, Army of the Potomac. At the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the division included five regiments from New Jersey (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 15th and 23rd).  Dr. Bowlby had an older brother, Dr. Luther C. Bowlby, who was assistant surgeon for the 4th NJV.

The regiment spent two weeks of inactivity at Aquia Creek. Heavy rains turned their camp into a quagmire, such that they were eventually ordered to move to a less swampy area. On December 5, the regiment arrived near Brooks Station, located just north of Fredericksburg. It was the last railroad station between Fredericksburg and Aquia Creek Station on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. The regiment awakened on December 6 to find it snowing with orders to march.

On Sunday, December 7, after enduring the previous days march through endless deep mud and chilly temperatures, Chaplain Morrill reports, “…We are about two miles from the Rappahannock and six from Falmouth, pausing on the banks of “the Rubicon” until it shall be possible to move over and onward.”


[1] Unknown, (1862, May 1) .Washington Letter, Newark Daily Advertiser. URL:

[2] NJ Civil War Voucher 1864 M#1624

[3] Morrill, D.T. (1862, November 7), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser.

[4] Morrill, D.T. (1862, November 13), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser.

[5] Morrill, D.T. (1862, November 17), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser.

[6] Unknown, (1862 December 8), From the 26th Regiment, Newark Daily Advertiser.


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