The Indefatigable James Nagle:
Schuylkill County's Foremost Citizen-Soldier
Commanded Four
Pennsylvania Regiments
and Twice Served as Brigadier General.

Located along Branch Avenue at the Antietam National Military Park, a 7' 4" bronze statue of Brigadier General James Nagle rests silently upon the monument dedicated to the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The monument is typical of those that stand at any Civil War battlefield but what is not so typical is the inscription upon its rear panel that honors the soldier situated atop:

James Nagle
Organizer and First
Colonel Of This Regiment
__________
Received Commission As
Brigadier General Of Volunteers
On the Battlefield Of
Antietam
September 17 1862
__________
Captain
Company B 1st Penna Regiment
War With Mexico
Colonel
6th 48th 39th 194th Regiments
Penna Volunteers
War of the Rebellion[1]

James Nagle's military résumé is quite impressive but, aside from his well-deserved monument at Antietam, little is written, much less known about this citizen-soldier. It is the intent of the following to bring this man's illustrious story to the recognition of the Civil War student, and, if successful, the reader will take away from this article a sense of respect and admiration for the indefatigable James Nagle.

James was born on April 5, 1822, at Reading, Pennsylvania, and was the eldest of eight children born and raised by Daniel and Mary Nagle. His youth was marked by a number of family migrations: to Wommelsdorf in 1828, to Pine Grove in 1830, and finally to Pottsville in 1835. Because of this almost continual movement, James received only a very rudimentary education, attending public schools for three or four years. Even when attending school, it was oftentimes at night, for during the day, James learned and applied the trades of his father, that of cabinetmaker, painter, and wallpaper hanger. It may be said, then, that James Nagle received his education through the school of experience. Aside from the knowledge of his trades, Nagle also inherited from his father a strong devotion to the Whig Party and a strong conviction to the tenets of Lutheranism. [2]

From a young age, Nagle acquired a liking for military matters. Hearing the story of his paternal grandfather, Philip, who served as a drummer boy for General George Washington's Continental Army during the Revolution, may have nourished his partiality for military affairs, but, whatever the source, James acted upon his interests and quickly displayed his talent by raising and recruiting a militia company in 1842. At the age of twenty, Nagle was able to organize a force of 83 Pottsville boys (all under the age of twenty-five) into a fine militia company initially entitled the Pottsville Blues. When war erupted with Mexico in 1846, Nagle immediately offered the service of his company, now the Washington Artillerists. When his offer was received, the Washington Artillerists left their native Pottsville and were mustered in as Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Regiment. Nagle was commissioned captain of this company and served with great distinction and efficiency during his service in the war. Nagle and his company were among the first troops to land at Vera Cruz, fought gallantly at Cerro Gordo and Perote Castle, and were engaged at Lahaya, Huamantla, Pueblo, and Atlixco. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo, and the cessation of hostilities in 1848, Nagle and his Washington Artillerists were discharged from the service.[3] Upon their return, the gallant sons of Schuylkill County's Seat received a warm, welcome, and much deserved reception from their appreciative Pottsville neighbors. Banners were hung along the facades of homes and businesses alike and a grand reception was planned, which occurred on February 24, 1849. At this ceremony, James Nagle received a fine silver and gold plated sword, presented by the Whigs of Pottsville. Nagle so valued this sword that he carried it with him throughout his service in the Civil War. [4]

After the war with Mexico, Nagle returned to the life of a citizen and continued his business as paperhanger and painter. In 1852, he was elected sheriff of Schuylkill County and occupied this post until civil war erupted in 1861. In addition, in 1852, in his thirtieth year of life, Nagle married Elizabeth Kaercher who bore nine children, of which seven would live to maturity. Nagle attended church regularly and continued to adhere to the policies of the Whigs, but when that party was dissolved in the mid-1850's, he switched his allegiance to the newly formed Republican Party. [5]

With the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861, Nagle received a commission by Governor Curtin to the colonelcy of the 6th Pennsylvania, a three-month unit. Nagle accepted this commission and left for the seat of war. His former militia company, the Washington Artillerists, now under the command of James Wren, was among the first five companies of troops to offer their service to the Union and thus wore the proud honor of being "First Defenders."

Nagle served competently as colonel of the 6th PA, which was attached to Colonel George Thomas' 1st Brigade, Department of Pennsylvania under General Robert Patterson, and although he and his men did not see much action, he did receive praise from his commanding officers for great efficiency in disciplining and drilling his troops. A member of the 6th, J.K. Helms, kept a diary in which he recorded the daily actions of Nagle. In one of these diary entries, we can gain insight into Nagle's views toward slavery: "Wednesday, July 10 [1861] . . . We have a runaway slave in camp, and his master has been after him several times; but very little satisfaction has he received from our Colonel." The master became so enraged he contacted the provost marshal who "arrived on the ground and demanded the slave." Nagle, still reluctant, did not turn over the runaway, insisted the slave actually belonged to a Confederate officer, and ordered a court hearing to investigate the matter. Unfortunately, Helms does not record the outcome of the hearing but the fact that Nagle was reluctant and even refused to hand over a runaway slave, coupled with his allegiance to the Republican party, implies a personal objection to slavery. [6]

Upon the expiration of his three-month tenure, Nagle was again commissioned by Governor Curtin to raise and recruit a regiment to serve for "three years or the war." Nagle immediately set to work and within two weeks had raised a regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, 1,000 strong, which was subsequently mustered into Federal service on September 10, 1861, as the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Within the ranks of the 48th were Nagle's four brothers: Daniel (mustered in as Major and who later commanded the 173rd Pennsylvania), Philip (captain, Company G), Abraham (Company D), and Levi (regimental band). Also included among the ranks of the 48th was a majority of Nagle's former command, the Washington Artillerists. No doubt, Nagle held strong personal and affectionate bonds with this regiment.

In spite of his personal relationship with the 48th, Nagle insisted in subjecting his men to a great deal of drill and discipline. While encamped along the shore of North Carolina in January 1862, Nagle ordered the maintaining of an officer's school to instruct his subordinates on the proper way of maintaining order and discipline within the ranks on the field and in camp. Captain James Wren of Company B recorded the following in his diary: "According to the routine of duty by . . . Nagle, the Regt. has 5 hours' Drilling each day, which Causes a Considerable amount of dissatisfaction among the men as they think they are perfect in drilling." [7]

Regardless of his personal desire to properly, even incessantly drill his men, Nagle never assumed an authoritative position. No matter if he commanded a regiment or brigade, he treated his men fairly and kindly and by doing so inspired a great deal of respect and admiration. In September 1861, he received a beautifully inscribed field glass as a gift from his former command, the 6th Pennsylvania. In a letter that accompanied the gift, the officers of the 6th stated: "During the three months we served together, though inflexibly firm and persistently industrious in the performance and requirement of every camp and field duty, yet such was the kindness of your demeanor, and your tender regard for the health, safety and comfort of your men, that we regarded you rather a friend and father, than a mere military commander."[8] Captain Wren was even inspired when Nagle was reviewing his troops during their stay on North Carolina's shores: "It was a grand sight to see the Col. ride down in front of the line on his Cream Coulered Charger & then take his position by the Coulers all by himself."[9] Nagle's resolve in instructing his men was not without result for the 48th Pennsylvania became one the hardest fighting regiments of the war, seldom flinching in combat and always glorious in parade and review.

Nagle commanded the 48th Pennsylvania until April 23, 1862, when he was assigned to take command of the First Brigade of Major General Jesse Reno's Second Division, Department of North Carolina. The brigade Nagle was assigned to lead was composed of his 48th Pennsylvania, the 2nd Maryland, the 9th New Jersey, and the 103rd New York. His brigade saw very little action during Burnside's North Carolina Expedition but this inactivity would soon be a thing of the past after he and his troops were sent north to reinforce General John Pope's Army of Virginia in its campaigns against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the late summer of 1862. On July 8, 1862, Nagle's brigade landed at Fortress Monroe and proceeded north to link up with Pope. Later that month, when the IX Corps was formally organized, Nagle lost two regiments from his command, the 9th New Jersey and 103rd New York, but gained the services of the 6th New Hampshire and still held command of the First Brigade in the Second Division.

Nagle's Brigade, with the rest of the IX Corps (under the command of Reno), continued its march north from Newport News and through Fredericksburg, until arriving at Bull Run on 28 August, 1862, where they were finally linked with the main Federal force under Pope. The next day, as Pope was attacking the entrenched positions of Confederate Generals A.P. Hill and "Stonewall" Jackson in one series of fruitless assaults after another, Reno's men waited impatiently for their chance to enter the fray. Nagle's Brigade was stationed atop Dogan Ridge, watching helplessly as Union forces were repulsed with bloody vigor from one side of the field to the other. Finally, around 4 p.m., Pope directed Reno to clear and secure "a large wood from whence our artillery was annoyed by the enemy's sharpshooters." Reno chose the brigade of James Nagle to execute this vague directive, and the First Brigade was drawn up in two lines of battle with the 6th New Hampshire occupying the left of the first line, while the 2nd Maryland constituted its right. Behind these two regiments at fifty paces was Nagle's former command, the 48th Pennsylvania. Shortly after receiving orders, Nagle proceeded with his afternoon assault. [10]

Directly in front of Nagle's advancing column, a division of Confederate troops under General A.R. Lawton and a brigade of 'graybacks' under Charles Field held a formidable position in an unfinished railroad cut in the midst of a thick Virginia wood. All day these Confederate troops were skirmishing with the Union brigade under Joseph Carr of the III Army Corps. Nagle's men swept handsomely down Dogan Ridge and over undulating ground while approaching the Confederate position. As Nagle arrived at a fence that skirted the forest, he dismounted, tied his "Cream Coloured Charger" to a post (the wood being too thick to ride through), and ordered his men to fix bayonets and drop their knapsacks. Confederate fire increased as Nagle's Union troops cleared the fence and advanced ever closer to the rebel lines. Upon entering the woods, the 6th New Hampshire obliqued to their left while the 2nd Maryland moved to the right, the result of this movement left a gap in the center of Nagle's line which was promptly filled by the 48th Pennsylvania. Nagle's Brigade was now three regiments wide as they rushed headlong into Lawton's division. [11]

Nagle's attack forced the Confederate brigades of Trimble and Douglass (constituting Lawton's division) and a segment of Field's to withdraw from their entrenched positions and seek the shelter of the thick Virginia forest. The three regiments under Nagle soon became disorganized and unattached from one another but they still had created a substantial breach in the confederate lines. Like other Union assaults that day, however, Nagle's was unsupported on either flank. Lawton quickly realized the precarious position of the tenacious Yankees and ordered his remaining brigade under Forno to support that of Field while Brigadier General Taliaferro, positioned on Lawton's right, advanced his brigades against the exposed left flank of Nagle's 6th New Hampshire. The flanking movement of Taliaferro caught Nagle and his men unprepared and quickly the assault fizzled as the 6th began to retreat to the right, soon followed by the 48th Pennsylvania and finally the 2nd Maryland. Soon, Nagle's men escaped from what seemed complete disaster and took up position once again along Dogan Ridge. The Confederates, in turn, reoccupied their original line of fortification. [12]

Nagle's attack carried away a portion of the Confederate line and created a gap that was not taken advantage of because of Pope's failure to provide adequate support. In the end, Nagle would report 531 men killed, wounded, or missing; a tragic one-third of the number he led into battle. [13] To add insult to injury, the Confederates, in their flanking maneuver captured Nagle's horse as well as his men's knapsacks. Despite their ultimate withdrawal and enormous casualties, however, Nagle's men had performed most admirably in their first engagement. Nagle was every moment in the thickest of the fray. Oliver Bosbyshell of the 48th would later write, "Colonel Nagle was everywhere cheering on the men and barely escaped capture. He was ordered to halt by the rebels several times, pursued and fired at, but escaped unharmed." [14] Nagle's superior officer, Jesse Reno, was so impressed by the gallant conduct and fierce determination of his First Brigade commander that he penned a letter to President Lincoln recommending Nagle be promoted to Brigadier General. [15]

Following Pope's humiliating defeat at the battle of 2nd Bull Run, he retreated with his disorganized command toward Washington, D.C, being closely pursued by General Lee's buoyant army. At Chantilly, Nagle's brigade was once again engaged in stemming the Confederate advance but would not see any more substantial fighting for another two weeks when they participated in attacking Confederate divisions of Jackson's and Longstreet's corps at Fox's Gap during the battle of South Mountain, September 14, 1862. On this Sunday, Nagle's Brigade (now increased with the addition of the 9th New Hampshire) was held in reserve until 3:30 in the afternoon when they were ordered to support the brigades of Ferrero and Willcox, who were then hotly engaged in a bitter struggle with the Confederates. With the addition of Nagle's Brigade, Reno's entire division was thus engaged and the Union forces were able to drive their enemy from the field. Because of their relatively late entry into the fray, Nagle's brigade suffered little this day, counting only 41 casualties. A major personal loss was felt, however, with the death of Major General Jesse Reno, a man much esteemed and admired by Nagle and his men. [16] Upon the death of Reno, Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis assumed command of the Second Division, IX Army Corps.

Following the battle at South Mountain, Lee established a line of defense along the small Maryland creek called Antietam, outside the small town of Sharpsburg. McClellan, now in command of the Union forces, slowly pursued and finally attacked on Wednesday, 17 September 1862.

===============================

Notes

[1] The inscription upon the 48th Pennsylvania monument at Antietam has been corrected in this article. The inscription as it actually appears on the stone erroneously states that Nagle commanded the 149th PA instead of correctly stating that he led the 194th.

[2] Samuel T. Wiley, Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Rush, West and Company, 1893), 298-99.

[3] Francis B. Wallace, Memorial to the Patriotism of Schuylkill County, in the American Slaveholder's Rebellion (Pottsville, Pennsylvania: Benjamin Bannan, 1865), 501; and Wiley, 299.

[4] Stephan J. Pytak, "150-year old sword returns to area: Nagle descendant donates weapon to the Schuylkill County Historical Society," Pottsville Republican (Pennsylvania), 18 June, 1999.

[5] Wiley, 299-300.

[6] Helms, James Kellerson, The Civil War Diaries of Lieutenant James K. Helms, 48th PA Regiment (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: The Patriotic Sons of America), 26.

[7] John Michael Priest, ed. Captain James Wren's Civil War Diary: From New Bern to Fredericksburg ( New York: Berkley Books, 1990), 37.

[8] The letter written by the officers of the 6th PA was reproduced in Joseph Gould, The Story of the Forty-Eighth: Forty-Eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (Philadelphia: Alfred M. Slocum, Co., 1908), 35-7.

[9] Priest, ed., 4.

[10] John J. Hennesey, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 258-69.

[11] Ibid.; and Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, The 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers in the War (Philadelphia: Avil Printing Co., 1895), 65-7.

[12] Hennesey, 263-4.

[13] War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), s.1, vol. 16, no.125. (Hereafter referred to as OR).

[14] Bosbyshell, The 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, 67.

[15] This letter of recommendation penned by General Reno was reproduced in Wallace, 502.; and follows here in its entirety:

Headquarters, 9th Army Corps

Near Washington, Sept. 7, 1862.

To His Excellency, the President of the United States,

Sir:-I have the honor to recommend Col. James Nagle, 48th Reg. Pa. Vols., for promotion as Brigadier-General. Col. Nagle has served with me with fidelity and ability as commander of a Brigade, since the battle of Newbern, and in the recent battles conducted himself with gallantry, and led his command with judgment and discretion.           

I have the honor to be

Very Respectfully, Your obd't servant,

J.L. Reno [signed]

Major-general com'dg.

[16] OR, s.1, vol. XIX/1 no. 147 September 3-20, 1862-The Maryland Campaign: Report of Brig. Gen. James Nagle, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade, of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam; and OR, s.1., vol. XIX/1 no. 146: Report of brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. U.S. Army, commanding Second Division, of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam; and John Michael Priest, Before Antietam: the Battle for South Mountain (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: White-Mane Publishing, 1992), 197-205.

 

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